Giants, fallen and falling...
We are told there are very few certainties except the oft quipped duo of death and taxes.
For what seems the living memory of most the extraordinary deeds of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal on the tennis courts of the world have provided many certainties. They are rightly acclaimed as the three greatest male players of all time. In addition, there is near unanimity that they are three equally impressive people away from tournaments. Critics of Djokovic do snipe about his comments about occasional injuries that are derided as disingenuous. Let’s face it, Novak will forever be the ‘third party’ who intruded on the intoxicating rivalry of Rafa and Roger. Nevertheless, every sport in the world would crave to have such spectacular ambassadors.
As the French Open nears, this epoch of certainty is ending. At the recent Monte Carlo tournament, neither of the ‘Big 3’ were in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2004. Chasing a 94th title in the unlikely venue of Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Djokovic has lost to a fellow Serb, Dusan Lajovic, for the first time since 2012. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal will be playing in the forthcoming Madrid tournament. With news like this, many are right to ask what is certain anymore!
Paris, for so long seen as the charming and romantic springtime destination of the Grand Slam circuit seems less like that than ever. Political turmoil and protest continue as opposition continues to grow, along with the rubbish in the streets, of President Macron’s decision to lift the nation’s mandatory retiring age.
How ironic that whilst the French people are being told at what age they must retire, Rafael Nadal may also have no say in this decision. Injuries have stopped Nadal playing from any of the European clay court tournaments that have been his entrée to his unprecedented success at Roland Garros.
Across the English Channel, other certainties are disappearing.
For many generations, it seemed that there would be no other monarch than Queen Elizabeth II. The forthcoming coronation of King Charles III will be confirmation of change in more ways than who occupies the throne. Who would have thought in the time of King Charles’ great-uncle, Edward VIII, that the trumpets would sound to bless a divorced monarch whose Queen, also divorced, was the King’s paramour during his marriage?
In 1953 the culinary celebration of the nation was ‘Coronation Chicken’, rich in calcium, calories and meat. Fast forward to these more organic and ‘food-ethical’ times and England’s citizens are to celebrate with a vegetarian quiche, replete not with the best English beef, but broad beans!
England’s vegetarian Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, continues to have indigestible political troubles. His Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, has resigned following an investigation into Raab’s alleged bullying of some of his staff.
His mortal sin? He is alleged to have told a senior public servant that his work was “useless.”
For my sins, I once worked in large law firms where partners would regularly desecrate what I thought were my carefully and competently drafted letters. The more intemperate of them would often throw phones, rip out office pot plants -thank goodness they were artificial-in fits of anger and frustration.
Margaret Thatcher’s hectoring of her Cabinet is legendary. In Melbourne, I met an economist who was commissioned by the Iron Lady to prepare a report within three months. When he pleaded for extra resources, he was told by Downing Street to “just get on with it.” Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is reported to have described one of his fellow Cabinet Ministers as a “fat Indian” when they disagreed about policy options. What was decisive, albeit didactic and often irascible, leadership of decades ago is now seen as something entirely different.
The contemporary question of who can say what and when continues to bedevil.
A soon to be released critique of one of the twentieth century’s most famous novels and films, gone with the Wind, has described its lead characters of Rhett and Scarlett as “homicidal white supremacists.” Gone With the Wind may be soon Gone with the Woke!
Forget the public cultural wars shattering old certainties. Things are falling apart within our suburban homes. Generations around the world have “clicked” and “burped” their Tupperware containers with confidence. All could be discordant in the body politic, but the leftover tuna casserole was safely protected behind its translucent plastic shield. Now, the Tupperware company is on the brink of collapse.
Another often quoted certainty is that “things happen in threes.”
Recently, Australia has lost three of its most significant artists.
John Olsen, artist, and Bruce Petty, political cartoonist, gave Australians brilliant and witty insights into their natural and political environments. They both exemplified the observation of Paul Klee that art is the process of “taking a line for a walk.”
Olsen made a tree frog an irrepressible, elemental thing of beauty.
In the staid 1960s Bruce Petty, evoked powerful emotions with his commentary on the Vietnam War.
Away from his political commentary , Petty was also a keen observer of the suburban mores of Australia.
Like all great artists, Olsen and Petty have left a legacy of brilliance and originality. They made us look at the world differently. They were social influencers whose influence was permanent and not of the thirty second Tik-Tok variety.
Was there ever a keener observer of our social mores than Barry Humphries? Raised in the post-war ‘Tupperware’ suburbs of Melbourne, Humphries defied the social conventions of his day. The son of a man who built stately suburban homes, Humphries had a conservative upbringing. Attending Camberwell and Melbourne Grammar* schools , Humphries turned his back on predictability. Battling self-destructive alcoholism- he became sober in 1971 at the age of 37-he created a suite of comic characters – Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone-that became reference points for the Australian psyche. Savage, original, acutely observant Humphries was a comic genius, using humour to puncture pettiness and pretension. We will not look on his like again.
Even for Humphries, the certainties of this world shifted towards his end. He was criticised for his comments on the incendiary topic of the trans-gender community. More worryingly, he attracted further criticism for decrying the practice of modern comics overly using profanity in their routines. As always, Humphries had the cleverest and final word when responding to such criticisms. He noted that comics that had to shock and startle audiences with such language just proved that they had no real sense of humour.
Humphries was also renowned for his loathing of sport. At Melbourne Grammar, he famously turned his back to the oval and knitted when he was required, along with his fellow students, to watch the school’s Firsts Football team play his matches. For this reason, he may not have noticed the recent death of Dick Fosbury, the man who reinvented the sport of high jumping in 1968.
After decades of athletes clearing the high jump bar with a scissor kick or a “Western Roll”, Fosbury invented the eponymous flop, where an athlete sailed over the bar headfirst.
A sporting revolution was appropriate in 1968. After all this was the year when so much of the world seemed in turmoil. De Gaulle resigned as French President after violent student protests- plus ca change for Macron?-, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months in the United States, the Vietnam War dragged on ending Lydon Johnson’s Presidential popularity and Prague erupted in anti-Soviet rebellion. And let’s not forget that in 1968 the tennis world opened its doors to professional players, many of whom, including Rod Laver, had spent years in exile playing professional tournaments.
So, maybe the world has never been as certain as we would like to believe. The last 55 years have taught us that; however, the prospect of Nadal not being able to participate in Paris is a change unlike anything else!
*One cannot help but wonder if Barry Humphries noted that in the last week of his life the Head Boy of Melbourne Grammar School, Danny Cash, won wide acclaim for writing an article refuting the claim of some Presbyterian Church elders that gay students and those who engaged in pre-marital sex should not be considered for positions of student leadership. The Head Boy, himself gay, certainly reflected a changed school environment from that experienced by Humphries, where his Headmaster asked him “whether he was turning pansy” because of his lack of interest in Mathematics.
** Of course, nothing is as certain as the evolution of the English language. The bizarre Elon Musk has provided us with a new euphemism following the explosion of his latest spacecraft. The enigmatic entrepreneur commented that the rocket had experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. Let’s call it a RUD. After all, Australia’s newly appointed Ambassador to Washington Kevin Rudd, could say the same thing happened to him when he was spectacularly blasted out of the Prime Minister’s office in 2010.