Isn’t it remarkable that, notwithstanding all that has come before, the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve generates a collective expectation that all can be better in the months ahead ? Forgive me for using some Latin; however, a Christmas tour to Rome has reacquainted me with the language. New Year is seen by many as an individual and collective tabula rasa- a blank canvas on which new and better days, events and legacies can be forged and inscribed.
Being in Rome saw me undertake a walking expedition from Via Del Corso to find the Foro Italico, the home of the Italian Open and close to the Olympic stadium of 1960. Knowing that 2024 would be most likely Rafael Nadal’s last year on the professional circuit, I wished to pay homage to the court where the Spaniard has won a mere ten titles. Breaching etiquette on a Saturday when the area was deserted, I clambered over security railings and was able to walk unimpeded into Centre Court. And there it was, a tennis tabula rasa of the reddest ochre.
Did I suspect something about Nadal’s final year being even shorter than we all hoped? With this week’s announcement of Nadal’s withdrawal from the Australian Open following a muscle tear in his comeback tournament, it seems probable that Nadal’s career will, if possible, end appropriately in Paris.
The Foro Italico surface was unblemished and pure awaiting its fresh 2024 markings.
The world, unfortunately, does not have the luxury of being an unblemished surface. The concerns of 2023 weigh ominously and heavily on us all, especially that paths to their resolution seem as difficult and fraught as ever.
As the United Nations approaches its 80th anniversary in 2025 it must be dispirited that so many member States still refuse to beat their swords into plough shears. Even those not at war seem unwilling to bend their borders to manage the world’s refugee crisis. Immigration is the dominant domestic political issue in Europe. Governments in England, France, Holland, Italy, Hungary have recently either passed contentious laws or announced severe policies to restrict immigrant access to their countries. The refugee crisis on America’s Mexican border will be a dominant issue in this year’s Presidential election. Few nations seem willing to play the Good Samaritan, notwithstanding that the world has more refugees than at any time since the end of the Second World War.
It is not unreasonable to have forgotten that on the eve of the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7th the world was awaiting formal recognition of improved diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That narrow opening for peace has now been emphatically closed. The ensuing Gaza conflict has set back the hope of an enduring Middle-East peace for perhaps a generation or more. Internal conflict has now erupted in Iran, the United States has conducted air strikes in Iraq and there are fears that Lebanon may seek to attack Israel from its north. Houthi rebels have attacked the world’s commercial sea fleet emerging from the Suez Canal into the Red Sea. Sudan and South Sudan are on the precipice of recurring conflict. The Gaza War will only worsen the world’s refugee crisis.
In a grim reminder of the prevailing pessimism about world affairs it seems that as the northern winter takes hold, the Ukraine conflict is increasingly frozen in our memory. Vladimir Putin seems entirely disdainful of world opinion as he banishes his chief political opponent, Alexei Navalny, to a Siberian gulag.
As world conflicts worsen and multiply, confidence in the world’s democratic structures seems to be at best stalling and, at worst, evaporating.
Forty-four million people recently voted in elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but only a handful would believe that the elections were anything but undemocratic. Ditto recent Serbian elections.
This year’s Presidential election in America may well rank as its least edifying and most distressing. The partisan politics of recent years have tarnished America’s political institutions. Two States, Colorado and Maine, have ruled that Donald Trump is ineligible to stand for office on the basis that he aided and abetted in unconstitutional insurrection in supporting the riots at the Capitol on 6th January 2021. Trump’s supporters see these rulings as politically motivated. The validity of these rulings will now be determined by America’s Supreme Court, which Trump’s opponents see as an institution that, far from being separate and independent, has been hopelessly politicised through Trump’s partisan political appointments whilst President.
Throw in the fact that its incumbent President does not have the cognitive ability to articulate the American ambition and we have a nation in decline. Did I forget to mention that Donald Trump will be in court as much as he is campaigning? Randy Van Warmer might lament that America has left us “just when we needed it most.”
America’s cultural confidence is also under siege. Certainty in the values that have defined American society seems increasingly fractured. The Presidents of two of America’s leading universities- Pennsylvania and Harvard- have recently been forced to resign because there refused to state unequivocally before the Senate that calls for the extermination of Jews by student protesters on their campuses would constitute bullying or harassment, because it was a “context based decision.” It is hardly surprising that a nation that always considered itself capable of upholding the “better angels” and being the “last best hope of mankind” has lost its authority when it has become racked by such moral pusillanimity.
One can hear the chortling from Moscow’s Kremlin and Beijing’s Great Hall of the People from here.
England’s citizens are likely to visit the polls later this year, possibly looking to see their sixth Prime Minister in a decade if Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is victorious. Starmer would be England’s first Labour Prime Minister since Gordon Brown in 2010.
Politics claims regular casualties around the world. With the resignation of Anastasia Palaszczuk as Premier of Queensland in Australia just before Christmas, all the Premiers that ruled Australia’s States at the height of the pandemic had departed. Once seemingly impregnable they are all now memories.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, would do well to remember Paul Keating’s observation that “you are never as popular as the day you are elected.” One suspects that he hardly needs reminding given that his personal approval and that of his party have declined significantly in the wake of the defeat of the Voice referendum in October. The Prime Minister’s recent statement that , as a non-indigenous person, the failure of the referendum was not a political loss for him took the meaning of disingenuous to a new level.
He would also do well to remember the folly of his mentor, Kevin Rudd.
Rudd declared at the height of his popularity that there was no “greater moral challenge than tackling climate change.” When the numbers for his climate change plan went against him, Rudd walked away from his cause celebre and his credibility soon followed.
Albanese’s blithe dismissal of a cause that was patently so dear to him-“I never felt more an Australian than when sitting in the Uluru dust”- is telling. Does the West have another politician rather than a leader?
Remember Albanese is the man that forged a new defence agreement with our “greatest ally “ in America through the AUKUS agreement yet was recently unwilling to commit a single Australian warship to assist Western efforts to curtail the terrorism of the Houthis in the Red Sea. One eye on foreign policy, but a greater one on the political leanings of the demographic of his inner Sydney electorate methinks.
Mr. Albanese has declared that there will be no early election in 2024. This will give him time to ponder the following questions that the Australian electorate are asking with increasing frequency and intensity:
-If Australia is a net exporter of Liquid Petroleum gas, uranium, and coal, why are its own citizens being spurned from using its natural resources and moving to unreliable and expensive renewable energy sources? Here’s an exquisite irony. China, the biggest polluter on the earth, has a company, BYD, that now produces more electric cars than crazy X man Musk’s Tesla. Go figure!
-If Australia has become the ‘food bowl of Asia’, why has food become so expensive for Australians? Since when have households needed collateral to buy a pack of dishwasher tablets?
-Even with increased wages, why are the real incomes of Australians falling whilst government expenditure as a percentage of GDP continues to rise? Why are home ownership and affordable rents mirages in the economic landscape for too many? Why have the costs of three of the most important considerations for people- child care, housing and aged care-become so burdensome that they are affecting the demographics and living patterns of society?
As with politics, so it is with tennis. The tennis legacies of 2023 are central to the outcome of the Australian Open. The recent playing history of the major contenders cannot be ignored.
Djokovic must start the overwhelming favourite for an eleventh Australian title. All seems predictably on track. He is talking of a wrist injury that I suspect will have miraculously recovered when the tournament starts. He is talking of his desperate wish to be admired in the same gaze as Nadal and Federer, knowing he will never be. Indeed, the absence on Melbourne of both Nadal and Federer, for what seems the first time in living memory, may make many hearts less fond of the Serbian.
Who are his main rivals? Is it Alcaraz and no-one else? I am not convinced Carlos is the only credible challenger. Sinner, Medvedev, Zverev fresh from his United Cup heroics, Rune, Rublev, Tsitsipas and a revitalised Dimitrov all have claims. However, to beat Djokovic they must beat a man who has never lost an Australian Open final and is hellbent on winning a record 25th Grand Slam title.
Australia’s hopes are non-existent in the Women’s Draw. In the Men’s Draw they are focussed, in the absence of Nick Kyrgios, on Alex De Minaur. De Minaur ,who has only made one quarter-final in twenty five Grand Slam appearances, broke into the Top 10 of the ATP rankings for the first time this week, following consecutive victories in preliminary tournaments against the top ten trio of Fritz, Zverev and no less than Djokovic. Novak's United Cup defeat to De Minaur in Perth ended a run of 43 victories for Djokovic in Australia. It remains to be seen whether these victories convince De Minaur that he can match and best his new Top 10 peers in the second week of a Grand Slam tournament. De Minaur is the first Australian male player to be ranked in the Top 10 since Lleyton Hewitt in 2006.
In the Women’s Draw, it is unlikely that the winner will be other than one of three of last year’s Grand Slam champions- Sabalenka, Swiatek or Gauff- or the 2022 Wimbledon champion, Rybakina. The success of the returning mothers’ club of former champions Kerber, Osaka and Wozniacki will be of interest.
A final indulgence. When flying from Dubai to Athens we flew across Saudi Arabia and the Suez Canal. I was startled and surprised by how narrow the canal is.
Yet its narrow opening is central to much that is important in the world. Tennis is a game where players seek narrow openings to gain victories: the gaps that enable a player to be passed, the corners of the court that are narrowly within the lines; the unreachable spaces in the service box and the narrow openings for advantage that are presented on a break point.
Sadly, if not lamentably, the world does not presently seem to have many openings, even narrow ones, for greater peace and prosperity. Understandable nervousness abounds. Flying home to Australia, I felt an involuntary tremor when the pilot announced that we were flying over Iranian air space. However, like the players at the Australian Open, we must continue to strive to create such openings and opportunities. For without the striving there can be no victories either on or off the court.