The Empire strikes back, destiny is denied, but there are still golden slams!
What a 24 hours it has been in sport! Australia’s Rugby team after been humiliated by the All Blacks in recent weeks beat World Cup Champions, South Africa, with a kick after the siren; Australia’s Daniel Riccardo managed to win a Formula One Grand Prix and Daniil Medvedev won his first Grand Slam tennis title by denying Novak Djokovic his twenty-first and the destiny defining achievement of a calendar Grand Slam!
But before yesterday there were Saturday’s events at the US Open to contend with!
It is easy to forget that a mere 250 years ago England held majesty over the North American colonies, including New York. These colonies were part of the Empire over which the sun was never to set, including Canada and Australia. England’s loss of the American colonies led to the decision to send the First Fleet to the great southern land of Terra Australis, the east coast of which had been sighted by Captain Cook in 1770.
This year’s US Open saw the British Empire, now Commonwealth, strike back in ways that no-one could have imagined. A British qualifier, Emma Raducanu, defeated Canadian teenager, Leylah Fernandez, in the Women’s final. Australia’s Samantha Stosur won the Women’s Doubles final, playing with China’s Zhang Shuai, proving that ill will over the Opium Wars is long gone. British player Joe Salisbury was part of the champion teams in both the Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles. England and her colonies have never had so many victories in New York since it lost the War of Independence! The Queen was moved to send Britain’s newest sporting hero a message of congratulations on news of her American conquests, that her 3rd great grandfather George III was never able to.
Before the Women’s final Americans had paused to commemorate those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. How remarkable that the final was contested by two teenagers, neither of whom were alive on that fateful day. How galling to think that the Taliban’s reclaiming of power in Afghanistan has stopped the sporting dreams of their females, teenage and older for probably decades to come.
Raducanu’s victory rewrote many of the sport’s history pages. The final was the first Men’s or Women’s Grand Slam final in the Open Era played between unseeded players. Playing in only her second Grand Slam tournament, Emma became the first qualifier to reach either a Men’s or Women’s Grand Slam Final (John McEnroe reached the 1977 Wimbledon semi-finals as a qualifier) and then triumphed in her tenth match at Flushing Meadow. She did not lose a set throughout the tournament.
England’s last female Grand Slam Singles’ is Virginia Wade who won Wimbledon in 1977. In 1968 she won the first US Open that was open to professional players, defeating Billie-Jean King in the final. Both Wade and King were present to witness Raducanu’s triumph.
Britain’s last male Singles’ champion was ‘secessionist Scot’, Andy Murray in 2012 and before that Fred Perry in 1936! Wade was part of a successful group of female English players in the 1960s that included Angela Mortimer, Christine Truman, and Ann Jones. All these players were quintessentially English in appearance and demeanour. None would be ill-cast as an extra at a Downton Abbey afternoon tea party.
How greatly the appearance and notion of nationhood has changed in the globalised world! Raducanu was born in Toronto, Canada to a Chinese mother and Romanian father before moving to England at the age of two. Fernandez was also born in Canada, being born in Montreal to a Filipino-Canadian mother and an Ecuadoran father.
Equally radical have been the changes in status of the Women’s Game since Wade’s triumph. Raducanu won in one afternoon greater prizemoney than either Billie-Jean King or Wade won in their entire career, pocketing $US 2,500,000. Mind you these days that amount of money does not buy a family home in a moderately affluent Melbourne, Paris, London, or New York suburb.
The US Open confirmed that in the Women’s Game, “variety is thy name.” From the start of 2016, Raducanu becomes the 14th different champion in the last 23 Grand Slam titles. This compares with the Great Three winning 19 of the last 23 Men’s titles. Only Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win in 2016 and those of Wawrinka (2016), Thiem (2020) and now Medvedev have intruded on their dominance.
As with the pandemic, no-one saw this coming. At this year’s Wimbledon, Raducanu had to withdraw from her watch against Australia’s Ana Tomljanovic citing anxiety.
A keen tennis historian (thank you, Cameron) has reminded me that a mere two years ago, both Raducanu and Fernandez played the Loy Yang Traralgon Junior International in 2019 prior to the Australian Open. * (*For overseas readers, Traralgon is a country town two hours east of Melbourne, famous for being the birthplace of one of Australia’s Science Nobel laureates, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, who, ironically enough researched viruses!) Raducanu made the semi-finals and Fernandez the final. Both were beaten by the number 1 seed Clara Tauson. Ash Barty beat Tauson in the second round of the US Open, before her inexplicable loss to Shelby Rogers in the third round after leading 5-2 in the third set. So, Australia can lay claim to some contribution to the genesis of the Raducanu/Fernandez Commonwealth triumph!
Away from the tennis courts at Flushing Meadow, events in the world continue to be as baffling and as confronting as ever.
School students in Victoria, Australia, some the same age of Raducanu, end Term Three this Friday. Sadly, they are trapped in a hell not of their own making. Come Friday they will have had 32 weeks of on-line teaching since the onset of the pandemic. A standard school year has 38 teaching weeks. Their forthcoming holiday is likely to see them remain in lockdown. There are university students studying deep into the second year of their degrees, many of whom are yet to set foot on a campus.
When they have, experiences have been no less challenging. A student recently told me that he had a tutorial which began with students having to indicate the pronouns by which they should be addressed and those ‘trigger’ words that should not be uttered in their presence. All in the name of inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. This week an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oregon’s Portland State university resigned saying that the university had, in the pursuit of inclusion, tolerance and diversity had become exactly the opposite. He said the campus had become a “social justice factory” where students are not encouraged to think, but accept prescribed ideologies.
This week it was revealed that in 2019 a Canadian Catholic School in Ontario had conducted a “flame purification” ceremony in which Tintin and Asterix books were burned to highlight the removal of thousands of books containing ‘offensive’ images and characterisations from library shelves, including allegedly oversexualised images of women that fell in love with Obelix. Knowing three generations of devoted readers of the Asterix collection, I can report that not one of them has expressed concern that their young minds were forever corrupted. Where do we stop? Surely, the next James Bond movie must be vapourised?
Recently, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from downtown Richmond, Virginia. What becomes of it? If it is never to be seen again as part of a desire to expunge the stain of slavery from American history, then we risk diluting knowledge of the very attitudes and values that traumatised generations of African Americans. It is one thing to recognise that certain monuments are no longer worthy of public adulation. It is quite another to erase immutable history. Without recognition of the amoral antithesis, how do we craft a moral thesis of reaction?
Having abandoned its commitment to the emancipation and protection of women in Afghanistan, the American government now must turn its attention to protecting the constitutional rights of women to have an abortion in the state of Texas. The Federal government has filed court documents to challenge the legality of recent anti-abortion legislation in Texas.
The legislation is a wholesale repudiation of the broad liberal Western consensus that women should have access to safe and affordable abortions, especially when pregnancies occur because of rape and/or incest. Abortions are now illegal in Texas, if performed after the sixth week of a pregnancy. Doctors can be sued if they perform by members of the public for performing an abortion, as can people who facilitate the process. Citizens can be rewarded with a $10,000.00 payment for initiating a successful prosecution. There are no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. One can smell the odious whiff of illiberal vigilante vengeance. The Texan Governor and legislature have forgotten one of the lessons of history: the unintended costs of enforcing draconian policies are usually far more costly than the perceived wrong. By contrast, last week Mexico’s Supreme Court declared that penalising abortion is unconstitutional in Texas’ neighbour.
Irony continues endlessly. Most countries are encouraging the use of safe and necessary vaccinations to repel the pandemic and its effects. Last year for the first time in its 160-year history, Australia’s most famous horse race, the Melbourne Cup, was, because of Covid run in front of empty stands. There is a fair chance that this will happen again this year. The early favourite for this year’s Melbourne Cup is a horse called Incentivize. As much as I loathe the word, it is clear that “incentivizing” the population to vaccinate has become Australia’s national political motif.
As much as it might ‘trigger’ some citizens, if a person refuses or does not care to be vaccinated in Australia, then their participation in post-covid society will be prescribed to a great degree. More than enough incentive to be vaccinated one would have thought!
The availability of extraordinarily effective vaccines to fight the pandemic within such a short period since its outbreak is a tribute to the intelligence, tenacity and resolve of the human mind and spirit: AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna are all true blessings.
As great a struggle as it was to develop the vaccines, it may be even a greater struggle to have societies accept that utilising these miracles of medicine is the singular route to a post-Covid world. Regrettably, it seems that the more we can act to protect and save ourselves, the more people there are willing to endorse conspiracy theories, especially about the evils of vaccination.
John Donne reminded us that “no man is an island”, yet some Premiers are prepared to believe that isolation is literally a State of mind and can continue forever. Even Premiers who recognise that blind adherence to the sanctity of colonial borders is flawed, cannot resist engaging in ‘beggar thy neighbour’ debates about which States have received fair allocation of vaccines. It is the worst kind of politics. Cynical. Counter-productive. Myopic. Disillusioning.
Memo to Premiers and the Prime Minister: if you had not allowed wild claims about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine to take hold, we would have used abundant supplies of the AZ vaccine produced in our backyard, without having to resort to finding supplies from Poland and Singapore.
It is likely that a statue of Novak Djokovic will, upon his retirement, be erected in Belgrade. He probably deserves one, even if he has publicly stated his opposition to vaccinations. Andy Roddick, the US Open champion of 2003 commented this week that Djokovic first defeats his “opponent’s legs and then takes their soul.” It was a tribute to Novak’s relentless resolve. To beat him in a Grand Slam this year was truly a labour of Sisyphus that, until Medvedev’s triumph, could not be accomplished.
Sisyphus’ mythological fate was to push a rock to the top of a mountain only to be overwhelmed just before the summit and sent to the bottom of the mountain to start again. Alex Zverev was Sisyphus personified in their semi-final. Having taken Djokovic to a fifth set, Zverev had nothing left to reach the summit of victory.
Serving for the title at 5-2 in the third set Medvedev executed two double faults to lose his serve, and suddenly all were wondering whether he could ascend to the stratosphere of Grand Slam success. Playing the tennis that had seen him only lose one set in the tournament Medvedev held his nerve to win his first Grand Slam title in his third final.
The US Open is not Djokovic’s happiest hunting ground, having now lost six of nine finals in New York. One wonders whether having defeated his opponents’ ‘legs and souls’ for so long, the mental and physical resolve and reserves needed to claim the Grand Slam were missing. Djokovic’s destruction of his racquet following a loss of serve in the second set and his tears of frustration before the final game showed that even Serbian steel can buckle under sufficient pressure.
Will another player ever claim a Grand Slam? Given the caprice of the Women’s game it appears unlikely that there will a female Grand Slam champion soon. Steffi Graf (1988) is the only Grand Slam winner that won her four titles in one year on more than two different playing surfaces. Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Rod Laver (1962 & 1969) all won their Grand Slams when grass was the playing surface everywhere but Paris. Securing a Grand Slam just seems harder and harder to accomplish. If Djokovic could not do it in the absence of Nadal and Federer, then who will?
Djokovic’s disappointment could not erase the shine of the achievements of Australia’s Dylan Alcott and the Netherland’s Diede De Groot who each completed respective Golden Slams. Fresh from the Paralympics in Tokyo, Alcott completed a Golden Slam in the Wheelchair Quad Singles and De Groot in the Women’s Wheelchair Singles.
As the sun sets over Flushing Meadow, we remember that the sun set on the British Empire many decades ago. India’s transition from the “jewel in the Crown” colony to independent nation in 1947 is regarded by most as the end of Britain’s imperial majesty.
However, when Queen Elizabeth II mad her first visit to Australia in 1954, Australian athletes still participated in the Empire Games and Harold McMillan’s “winds of change” had not entirely swept through colonial Africa. The Queen was a female figurehead when very few existed in the worlds of business, politics, arts and sport. Margaret Thatcher was not elected to House of Commons until 1959.
In 1954 Australia’s football Grand Final was contested between Melbourne and Footscray. A mere 67 years later, the same teams will contest this year’s Grand Final, with both clubs being led by female Presidents in the first year of their reigns. How the world has changed!
However, what has come before us will forever be part of our narrative, just as future generations will pass judgement on our morals and manners and, of course, who is the Greatest Tennis Player of All Time. Djokovic, whilst unable to gain a statistically crucial 21st Grand Slam title, still lays claim to the title. Medvedev acknowledged Djokovic as the supreme player of the game in his gracious post-match speech.
That’s the point about history- it must always be an objective recognition of all that has been- “warts, statues, books and all”. And, guess what? Retaining such objectivity will remind us that, with apologies to Tennyson, whilst much may have disappointed, much has and will continue to delight, inspire, and hearten. Raducanu’s unalloyed joy and Medvedev’s unexpected, but entirely deserved victory, are vivid proof of that.