Melbourne's Grand Slam closes , but controversies remain open
Perhaps more than ever this year’s Australian Open confirmed how Grand Slam tennis is often an unwitting barometer of the political and social pulse of the wider world.
First, let us deal with the tennis.
It appears clear that, as records are sought to be made with vaccination rates around the world, some tennis records are not meant to be broken, well at least for the time being. At tournament’s end, Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles remains unequalled. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer still remain jointly atop the apex of Grand Slam success with 20 titles each. Australia remains without a champion in either singles event of its home Grand Slam tournament since 1978.
Some of the game’s greatest players could not add to their collection of titles as Prince Harry was being stripped of all his. You must admire the tenacity of our Head of State. Not even a worrying kidney infection that has hospitalised her soon to be 100-year-old husband distracts her from making clear what duty means in the House of Windsor. To whom much is given, much is expected. For Royals who renounce what they have been given, all is taken away. The legacy of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson lingers.
Yet the greatest ever tennis record continues to develop. It is a measure of dominance that we may never see again. Djokovic’s 18th Grand Slam triumph, which to his eternal displeasure, seemed to please very few other than his anti-vaccination Serbian cheer squad, has further cemented the presence of the titanic trio- Djokovic, Nadal and Federer- in the game’s record books.
Since Federer and Nadal first shared a year’s Grand Slam titles in 2005 the trio have won 84% of the Grand Slam singles’ titles played: 54/64. In only two of the subsequent years, 2014 and 2016, has the trinity shared less than three of the four titles in a year.
Tennis immortals they may be, but they are not Gods. They each have their relative weaknesses. Neither of them has won two of every Grand Slam tournament. Federer and Djokovic have only won French title each and Nadal has only had singular success in Australia.
In early March, Djokovic will break Federer’s record for longest number of weeks ranked as the world’s No.1 tennis player, when he enters his 311th week as numero uno. Djokovic’s ninth Australian Open victory from nine finals takes him past Federer’s haul of eight Wimbledon titles from a mere dozen finals, but still leaves him short of Nadal’s impeccable and surreal haul of thirteen French championships from thirteen finals.
For all this success, Djokovic remains unloved by most. He just never seems capable of capturing the public’s affection. Begrudging respect for his tennis may exist, but it is more often eclipsed by adverse reaction to his own ill-judged comments and actions. Demonstrating great energy when smashing a tennis racquet when playing Alexander Zverev did not sit well with either the expected demeanour of the world’s No.1 player or the diagnosis of a player suffering a serious abdominal strain. Djokovic, whose physiotherapist, is clearly a miracle worker, was at his strongest for his final against Daniil Medvedev.
Medvedev, whose guile and deceptive strength had impressed many en-route to the final had no answer to the relentless accuracy and power of Djokovic’s game. It was a straight sets victory that was all over in just under two hours. It was a disappointing match considering how impressive the Russian had been in defeating Nadal’s conqueror, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in their semi-final.
Both Tsitsipas’ semi-final defeat and Medvedev’s loss reinforced how difficult it is for any of the ‘Next Gen Top 10’ players to consecutively beat one of their peers and one of the seemingly unassailable trinity.
Naomi Osaka won her fourth Grand Slam final, and second Australian Open title, beating surprise finalist, Jennifer Brady, also in straight sets. Federer won his first seven Grand Slam finals, Monica Seles her first six and now Osaka has won her first four. She is knocking on Ash Barty’s door to be considered the world’s No.1 player. Whether the computer says so or not, Osaka is clearly the dominant player of the moment. Her delicate personal demeanour belies a tough match temperament. Osaka survived match points against Garbine Muguruza in their fourth-round match and comfortably beat Serena Williams in their semi-final. Osaka’s prowess on Parisian clay and Wimbledon grass remains to be seen.
For the second year in a row, Barty could not capitalise on a favourable draw. After playing effortlessly in early rounds, she played a listless match in her quarter-final against Czech, Karolina Muchova, who had beaten Karolina Pliskova in the fourth round. One wonders whether Barty may suffer from the Amelie Mauresmo syndrome. Mauresmo, a Wimbledon and Australian champion from France, never played her best at her national Grand Slam, often stating that she could not manage the expectations of a hometown crowd desperate for local success. Barty’s post- Open defeat by Danielle Collins in the second round of the WTA tournament in Adelaide, a title she was defending, also suggests all is not entirely comfortable for Barty on her local courts.
However, the drama and intrigue of the personal triumphs and disappointment of players failed to rise above the Open’s controversies.
When the President of Tennis Australia, Jayne Hrdlicka, moved to the microphone after the Men’s Final she no doubt expected her remarks would be well received. After all, is not the sport loving public of Melbourne renowned for their adoration of Melbourne’s premier sporting events, no matter what? Would the public not want to congratulate the efforts of those who had successfully staged the tournament, when at times the odds seemed against them?
When Hrdlicla publicly thanked the State government of Victoria for their support, the crowd booed and whistled in a manner never seen at Melbourne Park. Even though the crowd was limited in number, the volume was unmistakable. The President had to stop her speech. She was stunned and not amused. Like a School Principal chastising an unruly School Assembly, she had to ask the crowd to desist: “When are you ready…”
Well, they did let her continue, but for a short time only. She noted that the world was looking forward to better post-Covid days ahead with the “rollout of vaccines”. No sooner had she mentioned the ‘V Word’ when another derisive chorus erupted.
The Open will be remembered for being a fourteen-day skirmish and struggle, rather than a celebration. Away from the courts, the public debated the enormous, and apparently never to be revealed, costs that were borne by the public to stage the event. On the courts, lockdown restrictions allowed crowds and then banished them, including the forced evacuation of a Centre Court crowd at 11.30 p.m. who were engrossed in Djokovic’s struggle to prevail against Taylor Fritz. Even Dylan Alcott who won his seventh consecutive Wheelchair singles title felt compelled to protest about his final being played on a deserted court. There is much to reflect on, but the Rod Laver Arena offered its own reflections to those that could only walk past during the tournament's lockdown:
Also, away from the courts public debate about Australia’s recently launched vaccination programme escalated. Do not laugh, but celebrity chef, Peter Evans, who has been ostracised by nearly every social media provider for his Covid-19 commentary, has indicated his desire to stand for the Senate. Evans, a highly public figure of the anti-vaccination movement, may well be joined on his political fringe by Craig Kelly, the former Liberal MP for Hughes, who quit his party this week to sit on the backbench. Under the proportional voting system used for the Senate, a successful Senate candidate requires 1/6th of the vote of a State to obtain the “quota” of votes needed to gain one of the six Senate seats available at a typical half-Senate election and 1/12th of the vote of a State to gain one of the twelve Senate seats available at a less typical double dissolution election.
Given opinion polls show a rump of 10-12 % of citizens are opposed to vaccination, the prospect of an erratic anti-intellectual group having power on the Senate crossbench is not implausible. Some would say that the strange and bizarre have been controlling the Senate for years- think Ricky Muir, Pauline Hanson, Corey Bernardi, Rex Patrick, David Leyonhjelm, Jacqui Lambie, and Malcolm Roberts. Evans has the potential to make that collection appear like oracles!
I look for the silver lining: if a Senator Evans comes to pass- a person who could not be more different than Senator Gareth Evans*, who was Bob Hawke’s first Attorney-General and then Foreign Minister- it may just be what is needed to have Australians seriously consider the need to reform the voting mechanics of our Federal Upper House.
Many believe the next Federal election may be held later this year. In less than a fortnight a State election is to be held in Western Australia. All suggestions are that the Labor Government, led by Premier, Mark McGowan, will have a thumping victory. The Liberal Party may, on most recent predictions, be left with less than four of the 59 seats in Western Australia’s Legislative Assembly. Such a result may chasten any rush to the polls by Mr. Morrison whose Liberal Party currently holds eleven of the State’s sixteen House of Representatives seats. The Prime Minister may well want time for pro-Labor sentiment in the West to dilute. Mr. Morrison may have a commanding lead as preferred Prime Minister over Mr. Albanese; however, he now has to the rely on the Speaker’s vote to control the Parliament. As in tennis, so it is in politics: the margins between triumph and defeat are minute.
Weeks are a long time in politics and, it seems, in the world of social media. Over a week ago the Federal government and Facebook were locked in a war of outrage over Facebook’s decision to remove news service pages and Community news information from its ubiquitous platform. Facebook’s decision was based on its opposition to Federal legislation that would require the company to pay the government a fee for the posting of such information.
Frankly, I could not understand the fuss. Any decision that reduces reliance of the population on Facebook is beneficial. However, in a world where everybody’s emotional stability seems to rest on being connected with everyone else, even when most are unknown to them, the Federal Treasurer and Facebook’s CEO have “refriended” each other. Peace in our time and I have a tweet to prove it!
Events quickly transform us and our world. Tiger Woods’ car crash may end the revival of his golfing career. The accident has refocussed attention on his mercurial life on and off the fairway. As is the way of a celebrity obsessed world, his near-death overshadowed the grim news of America recording its 500,000th death from the pandemic. Infection rates are thankfully slowing in England, with Boris Johnson, whose coiffure has now moved beyond parody, announcing another of his famous road maps out of national lockdown. He hopes that all will be as it used to by the northern summer solstice of 21st June. Just in time for Wimbledon!
Covid-19 has made Hartley’s observation of the past being a different country even more powerful. The pre-Covid world may soon be regarded not so much as a different country, but a different eon. A time when cricket Test matches were expected to last five days, unlike the recent Test between England and India that was decided in under two! A time when a city winning a bid for the summer Olympics sent a nation giddy with excitement. Brisbane’s nomination as the preferred city for the 2032 Games has been met with enthusiasm, but it could not be described as unbridled.
Maybe Grand Slam tournaments will have to become slightly less grand? They have always been welcome punctuation marks on the calendar. They have served, no pun intended, as diversions from quotidian tasks that dominate most of us. However, Covid-19 has altered too many of our predictable patterns for old perceptions and practices to remain. The tepid atmosphere that existed for those attending this year’s Australian Open was matched by lukewarm public support for the event in the wider community.
Post-Covid 19 very few of us have the luxury to wholeheartedly seek diversions when seeking to comprehend and establish a new sense of the ordinary. And Australians are far luckier than most in having half a chance of doing so. Even New Zealand, a country often lauded as the paragon of pandemic control, has had to announce another snap lockdown. Vaccination may well not prevent social interruptions.
This year’s French Open will start 98 days after the commencement of this year’s delayed Australian Open. Barring extraordinary events, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the death of North Korea’s leader and/or the Victorian Premier talking about something other than the pandemic-one fears it is has become his viral political life force-there will no more posts from me until tennis balls gather dust at Roland Garros.
Maybe, it is God’s plan that Paris in the springtime will provide the joie de vivre on and off the tennis court that is, sadly, eluding far too many!
Ninety-eight is close enough to ninety-five. Why do I mention this?
I am a proponent of the 95% rule. Which is what? It is a belief that 95% or more of people do or try to do the right thing 95% or more of the time. Thus, 95% of athletes do not take drugs, 95% of public companies are not running money laundering schemes, 95% of people drive safely 95% of the time and 99.9.% of the time air traffic controllers and surgeons are impeccable in their work. However, there are the occasional rotten apples, and accidents and mistakes happen. Thankfully, we live in a society when we find out about the rotten apples and can take action to prevent furthers accidents and mistakes 95% or more of the time. Think Watergate, think Lance Armstrong.
However, there are signs that the pandemic far from making us more reflective and accepting of the quirks of human existence has made us more censorious and unreasonable. Are we searching for unattainable perfections in human behaviour? Are our disappointments at inevitable human imperfections leading to bizarre over-reactions?
Witness Australia’s vaccination programme- many more than 95% of people will be vaccinated appropriately and safely in Australia. Recently, two people received an excessive dose of the vaccine and we have a viral meltdown about the efficacy of the whole programme. This is a manifestly hysterical response. Then there was criticism that some vials were rendered ineffective because they were not stored in cold enough conditions. So, some mistakes happen, but far less than 5%. Think about Texas, where the whole State’s vaccination programme was postponed because of their winter storms. That’s a problem, but again it is not a conspiracy.
Similarly, I believe that more than 95% of Australia’s workplaces are safe environments. I also believe that more than 95% of men working in the Federal Parliament are not sexual predators. Observing recent media coverage about alleged incidents of sexual assault in the nation’s parliament, one would not be so sure about either proposition. There is a disconcerting trend for public commentary about alleged crimes to run alongside the due process of independent investigations. Much of this public commentary extrapolates wildly about what conclusions can be made about personal and institutional behaviour. The presumption of innocence remains, but sometimes one wonders. Have we learnt nothing from the trials of Lindy Chamberlain and George Pell?
It is entirely legitimate to talk about the dominant cultures of workplaces. The working culture of the Federal Parliament should be the embodiment of our highest aspirations of public representation and representation. Sadly, there is evidence that the expediency and pressures of political life skews judgement. What should be told to others is sometimes not. What might be considered appropriately supportive behaviour is sometimes not provided. Most concerning of all is evidence that women who allegedly suffer sexual crimes still believe that they will not be believed and/or must give greater priority to maintaining their employment.
These are devilishly difficult matters and are not becoming easier to either judge or manage. The borders between an employer’s obligations to provide a safe working environment and personal responsibility have become blurred. Laws have been introduced to protect ‘whistle-blowers’ to encourage people to come forward to expose corrupt corporate cultures. However, in trying harder to improve workplace cultures, it is important not to start from the premise that all is rotten. Sadly, this is foundation premise of the anti- Covid-19 vaccination movement: the vaccine is poison and governments are seeking to sinisterly control all citizens.
Mark Twain famously observed that common sense is not that common. Right now, on too many fronts, it seems uncommonly uncommon!
So, Paris awaits. Until then a very Happy Easter! More than ever the words of the Repton hymn seem apposite:
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
*We rightly celebrate Rafael Nadal’s achievement of being a Grand Slam champion in three different decades: 2000-2010, 2010-2020, 2020-2030, so we should note the recent passing of Michael Somare. Why? Michael Somare did not play tennis, but he would have been well known to Gareth Evans. Somare was the first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea when it gained its independence from Australian in 1975. Somare, remarkably, was Prime Minister of PNG in three different decades: 1975-1980, 1982-1985 and 2002-2011. He served in his nation’s Parliament for 49 years, just shy of Billy Hughes’ Australian record of 51 years and 213 days. Dying aged 84, Somare’s country still struggles to demonstrate the domestic and economic security that he craved.