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The Greatest Open-Australian-of all Time?

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. So said Margaret Thatcher, quoting St. Francis of Assisi, upon entering No. 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister in May 1979.

This year’s Australian Open, which began with enormous levels of discord surrounding the deportation of Novak Djokovic, concluded in a harmonious and historic manner that few could have predicted.

But it was a close-run thing! Fresh from dealing with the global controversy about the barring of the world’s No.1 tennis player, Tennis Australia had to engage in public relations gymnastics when performing a volte face about the rights of spectators to protest about the Chinese Communist Party’s perceived treatment of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Having banned the wearing of tee-shirts enquiring as to her whereabouts, tournament officials quickly realised that they had misread the feng-shui of broad public opinion on the issue. Appropriately enough in this lunar year, there was a tigerish response of fury and opposition to the courtside censorship. The decision was reversed and wearing of the shirts was allowed, with Tennis Australia recognising that attempts to suppress free expression create far greater discord than allowing them.

Add explosive behaviour and code violations for coaching by and against leading players and it was a tournament whose temperature was permanently set between a simmer and a boil.

When Djokovic was deported, there was concern expressed by some that the incident would jeopardise Australia’s hosting of a Grand Slam tennis event and that the Open could be relocated to an Asian city. Australia’s former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, fresh from his latest criticism of the British government and nation, must have fumed at such comments. Typically, his recent tirade focussed on Australian governments not recognising that Australia is an Asian nation and Melbourne a city within Asia.

Maybe more people will agree with the former Prime Minister after this year’s Open, even if their opinion is based on nothing else than Melbourne’s weather during the tournament. It was a fortnight of sultry, humid and hot days, some with dramatic afternoon thunderstorms when Melbourne was Macau, Singapore and Shanghai rolled into one. Some of the lightning displays lasted longer than sets won by Ashleigh Barty.

Yet for all the tournament’s drama, it will be remembered with great affection for all the right reasons. Tennis, truly, was the winner, especially for Australia with Australian players arguably having their most successful hometown results in decades. It was a national boost for our psyche that did not require an injection.

Remarkably, pandemic restrictions seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of most. Stadiums had a reduced capacity-50% for most of the tournament increased to 80% for the finals-and spectators had to wear masks unless eating or drinking; however, neither restriction diminished the tournament’s atmosphere.

It was also the first year of ‘automatic’ line calls with computer generated voices-including those of firefighters and Rod Laver-replacing officials. This year’s tournament was the 30th anniversary of another famous ejection, that of John McEnroe who was defaulted in his match against Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors.

Covid restrictions prevented McEnroe from attending this year’s Open; however, he must take some satisfaction that his utopia of complete electronic calling of the lines has arrived. It is heard to yell “You cannot be serious” at a submerged sensor.

The last person to curse and rage on a tennis court is likely to be Australia’s Ashleigh Barty. In the 100th edition of the Women’s Singles at the Open, ‘Ash’ swept to her first Australian Open title without dropping a set. Playing with a disarming ‘Zen’ like calm, Barty controlled and mesmerised her opponents with a mixture of strong serving and sinister backhand slices. What is remarkable about Ash is that in so many ways she is unremarkable. You sense her love for her family and dogs is as strong as her desire for tennis domination.

When one thinks of former World No.1 female ranked players, one recollects their singular strengths: Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova’s strong serve and volleys, Billie-Jean King’s hustle, Evonne Goolagong’s fluency, Chris Evert’s unrelenting baseline accuracy, Steffi Graf’s punishing forehand, Monica Seles’ ability to generate pace from the back of the court etc. With Barty, there is no cardinal weapon, but a complete and utterly effective array of shots and tactics. Her humility on court does not preclude a tenacity to triumph, as seen when she rallied from 1-5 in the second set of the final against America’s Danielle Collins to claim the title 6-3 7-6 (2), becoming the first Australian to win a singles title at their national championships since 1978.

Barty is now in rare air. She has won her first three Grand Slam finals, each on a different surface. If she can win a US Open, the only title to elude her idol Evonne Goolagong, she will complete a personal Grand Slam. The last Australian to win a singles title at the US Open, Sam Stosur, who upset Serena Williams in 2011, announced her retirement as a singles player at this year’s Open.

Whilst it was wonderful that Evonne was able to present Barty with her trophy, it was equally disappointing that Margaret Court who has won over 10% of all Australian Open titles was not present. In the year that the tournament had its first Pride Day, Tennis Australia can take no pride in its shunning of Australia’s greatest champion. One tires of campaigns for inclusivity all too often promoting the exclusivity of those with contrary opinions.

Barty’s charm has endeared her to millions. Remarkably, the boorish and boyish antics of Australia’s Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis attracted the support of many. Playing as a wildcard pairing, they won the Men’s Doubles title defeating fellow Australians Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell in the first all Australian Men’s Doubles final since 1980. Both teams were unseeded, but between them had defeated the 1-4 seeds en-route to the final. Another unseeded-and wildcard Australian pairing of Jason Kubler and Jaimee Fourlis reached the Mixed Doubles final where they lost to the fifth seeds, Ivan Dodig and Kristina Mladenovic from Croatia and France.

Sport’s role as a fundamental barometer of Australian society was reinforced by the announcement of wheelchair player Dylan Alcott as Australian of the Year for 2022. Perhaps a little jaded from accepting the award on Australia Day eve in Canberra, Alcott returned to Melbourne to play his Quad Wheelchair Singles two days later but was defeated in his final match. Victory was truly his, however, as the match was played on Rod Laver Arena in an affirmation of Alcott’s campaign for full recognition of those with disabilities.

Australia’s run of success made Australia Day seem like ‘Australia Week’. In particular, the triumph of Barty and recognition of Alcott were unequivocal national celebrations, generating none of the ambivalence and anxiety now associated with Australia Day. Their successes were large and welcome diversions as the pandemic continued to weave its mischievous and disruptive spells: supply chains are still under strain, staff shortages are rife, and students returned to school this week, along with their staff, having to wear masks and undertake a regimen of Rapid Antigen Testing that Soviet commissars would be proud of. Western Australia remains obstinately isolated from the Commonwealth, with its Premier announcing that the anticipated re-opening of its border on 5th February has been indefinitely deferred.

Speaking of Soviet commissars, the world awaits the outcome of the skirmishes between Putin’s Russia and Ukraine. President Biden remains beleaguered by domestic problems. He has announced that he will be appointing the first black woman to the Supreme Court of the United States. Biden’s nominee is likely to have liberal leanings, but they will not be enough to prevail against the Court’s conservative majority that recently struck down the President’s mandate that workers in companies with over one hundred employees be vaccinated as being an unconstitutional extension of government powers in the area of occupational health and safety.

For most Australians the irony of this decision seems breathtaking. If one has no health, then one is unlikely to have either health or safety. A freedom to die and/or infect others is not of the cherished sort that America’s founding fathers would have sought.

Indonesia’s President has announced that the country will have a new capital, Nusantara, which is currently being built in Borneo. Given Indonesia’s struggles with the pandemic, it may be wise for new capital to be designated a ‘No Smoking’ district to curb Indonesia’s runaway rates of nicotine use.

In England, it is not a good time for party boys. Boris Johnson’s credibility is crumbling as revelations about parties at Downing Street and other venues that took place in clear contravention of lockdown guidelines besiege him. Prince Andrew, nicknamed ‘Randy Andy’ by the tabloid press in the early 1980s, has been stripped of his military and civil titles. It hardly amounts to a show of support from his family as he prepares to face a civil suit later this year over allegations of sexual abuse. The former Duke of York has been publicly defenestrated.

By way of contrast, one expects a statue to be built for Ashleigh Barty. Yet, remarkably, Barty’s cathartic victory may well be remembered as a mere entrée to the tournament’s historic Men’s final.

Let’s simply state the facts about the Men’s final!

Rafael Nadal rallied from two sets to love down to defeat the tournament’s highest ranked player Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in a match that lasted 5 hours 24 minutes, making it the second longest Grand Slam final. In a reminder of the quirky nature of scoring in tennis, Medvedev won more points in the match; his 189 to Nadal’s 182.

Ten years older and thirteen centimetres shorter than Medvedev, Nadal won his second Australian Open title in his sixth final, having previously won in 2009. The thirteen years between titles is an Open era record, with Ken Rosewall having won titles in 1955 and 1971.

Nadal now joins Australia’s Rod Laver and Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic as the only men to have won at least two of each of the Grand Slam championships.

His epic five set triumph avenged his agonising five-set losses to Djokovic in 2012 and Federer in 2017 but reprised his five-set triumph over Federer in 2009.

A month and a half ago Nadal was battling a chronic foot injury, later contracting Covid. Prior to arriving in Melbourne he had not played a tournament since August 20.

His victory was only his fourth win from two sets to love down in his career, the last coming in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2007 against another Russian, Mikhail Youzhny.

Nadal’s victory ensured Djokovic remains as the No.1 ranked player in the world; however, Nadal’s 21st Grand Slam victory broke the 20 Grand Slam titles deadlock between he, Djokovic and Federer. For the time being, Nadal is statistically the greatest Grand Slam champion of all time. Whilst there may be valid discussions about the criteria used to declare the ‘GOAT’ no-one can argue with Lleyton Hewitt’s assessment that Nadal is the greatest competitor the game has ever seen. When he retires, we will dream of Nadal’s raking forehand down the line hit from out of court that leaves opponents mesmerised at the net. And let's not forget the wiles of his left-handed serve!

For Medvedev, it was a painful loss. For the first two sets he drained the energy from Nadal and overpowered him with guile and force. However, Medvedev is clearly the pre-eminent player of the ‘Next Generation’. No-one else in Grand Slam history is likely to play successive finals against players seeking to win a record 21st title.

Maybe we just have to say that, as with Barty’s triumph, there was a sense of destiny about Nadal’s victory. Having denied a Grand Slam and history to Djokovic in New York, Medvedev was not to be allowed to rain on the Spaniard’s parade, although he was clearly incensed about what he considers ungenerous behaviour by the crowd in the final. I am not sure how Medvedev expected anything else other than overwhelming support for Nadal. When a luminary of the game is playing for legendary status, his opponent will always be the villain!

After a memorable Open which fused tennis and politics like no other, here’s another remarkable prospect. It may well be that this year’s Federal election will be held on Saturday 21st May, the day before the French Open commences.

Here is my campaign preview:

Scott Morrison has electoral arithmetic and history against his government as they seek a fourth term. Morrison has the advantage of incumbency, but it is often noted that there comes a time “when the public stops listening.” The government will argue that only they can be trusted to manage the post-pandemic economic recovery and maintain a strongly defended nation. Will Novak feature in campaign material?

His opponent’s Labor Party will argue that a tired, incompetent and divided government has lost touch and its authority to govern. Close to 50 years after the election of the Whitlam government, the ALP will argue again that it is time for a change to a “greener and kinder government.”

The politics of the pandemic have worked to the overwhelming advantage of State governments and their Premiers; however, the Federal government has suffered politically from perceptions of ineffective management of the pandemic, notwithstanding that the Federal government is constitutionally prevented from acting in many areas.

Prediction: The tea leaves and the latest opinion polls suggest a clear Labor victory. However, if the pandemic has a salient legacy, it is that predictions are often foolish and fallible. Who would have predicted that Nadal would rally from two sets down to claim the most precious of all his Grand Slams?

From now until Paris, Australians will witness a clamorous and discordant political campaign.

So, let us celebrate a remarkable fortnight. What began with a deportation, rancour and regret gave way by tournament’s end to rapturous celebration of the game and historic moments that will be forever cherished. Maybe we could call this year’s Open the Greatest Australian Open of all?

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