The Australian Open has six days to run and the openings for Australian success have closed in the Men’s and Women’s draws. Yesterday’s defeat of Alex de Minaur by Andrey Rublev in the fourth round ended Australia’s representation in the singles’ draws, with Storm Hunter having been defeated a day earlier in the third round of the Women’s competition.
Watching de Minaur’s match was his passionate Davis Cup Captain, Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt was Australia’s last male finalist, losing to another Russian, Marat Safin in 2005. Like de Minaur, Hewitt’s courage and tenacity could not overcome the greater force and power of his opponent.
This year Hewitt’s son, Cruz, made his debut in the Boys’ singles. And so, the generations repeat, often seeming recycled.
This year’s Australian Open has confirmed some clear patterns of the tennis world. In the Men’s competition the seedings have proved as accurate as they are irrelevant in the Women’s draw. The Men’s quarter-finalists will see seeds 1,2,3,4,5,6,9 and 12 compete for further glory. The pedigrees have held up almost perfectly.
In the Women’s Draw, nine of the sixteen players in the fourth round were unseeded. The only seeds in the quarter-finals will be 2,4,9, and 12 following the fourth round defeats of the last two mothers in the draw: Svitolina (19) and Azarenka (18). There is only one seeded player, Qinwen Zheng (12), in the top half of the draw. One semi-final is likely to be a replay of the US Open final between Coco Gauff (4) and Aryna Sabalenka (2). Back the winner of that match to win the title.
However, some patterns do change. Saudi Arabia’s desire to be the world’s greatest host of major sporting events is seen as a threat to Australia’s series of tournaments prior to the Open, and possibly the Grand Slam event itself. In response the Australian Open has sought to demonstrate to the world that it is the ‘Happy Slam’ where there are no concerns about restrictions of human rights. Quite the opposite.
The Australian Open now allows its spectators to enter the stands at the end of every game, rather than politely and traditionally wait until players are taking a break before changing ends. Only two games are scheduled for a session on the major arenas so the Open makes more money and there is a greater amount of time for the purist spectator to be swamped by the partying set. The Open now has a dedicated ‘Happy Court’ where spectators can clink their glasses of Aperol Spritz, chat volubly and occasionally take interest in the tennis. Throw in the ubiquitous and cloying singing of Sweet Caroline in main arenas and Melbourne has a ‘tennis spectatorcracy’, far far removed from Riyadh’s possible ‘tennis theocracy’.
Not even Nadal’s appointment as the ambassador for Saudi tennis , which has shades of David Beckham’s role in sanitising, or should that be ‘sportswashing’, Qatar’s World Cup, can remove the glaring moral questions that surround the Saudi sortie into the tennis world.
The major talking point during the second week of the Open will be whether Djokovic can be denied his record-breaking 25th Grand Slam title. In the absence of Federer and Nadal, the analysis of Djokovic has assumed a psychological flavour. Every sneeze and muscle twinge are analysed. Novak’s commune with a fig tree in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens is seen as an existential ritual whilst Djokovic himself continues to provide the world with snippets of self-analysis centred around why he deserves to be loved by everyone.
If he wins his eleventh Australian Open- and who would confidently bet against it?-the GOAT debate will be reignited, if not settled.
The timing of the Australian Open ensures it takes place alongside another recurring debate, namely the appropriateness of our current Australia Day. As each year passes, ambivalence about the suitability of 26th January seems to grow. The Woolworths and ALDI supermarket companies announced this year that they would not be selling Australia Day merchandise. Cricket Australia has confirmed that it will not refer to ‘Australia Day’ in this week’s Test Match. If the governing body of one of our seminal national sports believes it is unwise to refer to Australia Day, then clearly it believes the day has lost whatever unifying appeal it once had.
The debate about a purposeful Australian national day reflects broader fault lines in Australian politics. There is a clear lack of unity about the worth of 26th January as our national day; however, there is a corresponding unwillingness by our government, if not a paralysis, to suggest alternatives and make courageous policy decisions. Having lost the Voice referendum, our present government seems to have lost its voice on nearly everything.
For too long too many governments of both political persuasions have been content to let the luck of Australia's many natural bounties underwrite an enviable standard of living and provide suitable platitudes : “where else would you rather live?”, “if you are born in Australia, you have won the lottery of life”. Yet, luck alone does not create a nation’s destiny.
Australia’s political history has been punctuated by decisions that have changed and affected future generations: the miracle of Federation; the abandoning of the imperial alliance to England and the adoption of an American as our great protector; the immigration policies of the 1950s that brought multiculturalism to our shores, the abolition of the White Australia immigration policy; attempts to create greater justice and equality for our indigenous communities and the economic restructuring of the nation in the early 1980s. Without these decisions, much of what has made us lucky may not have remained.
As players battle this week to earn places in next weekend’s tennis finals our Prime Minister will be convening a meeting of his caucus to consider what policies our required to try and recreate Australia’s luck.
Clearly, in many ways it has run or is running out:
-never have we spent more on education, but never have we been more disappointed with its outcomes and never should we be more worried about the present and growing shortage of teachers;
-the ‘gap is not closing’ sufficiently between our indigenous and non-indigenous communities;
-costs of living have become challenging, if not overwhelming, for most;
-our taxation system is fundamentally flawed with a disproportionate amount of income taxation revenue being raised from an increasingly smaller proportion of taxpayers;
-the quintessential Australian aspiration of home ownership looms as a mirage for many of Generation Y and Z- end of the alphabet, end of the dream;
-despite our first, if not our second domestic Budget surplus in many years, the nation has a mountain of accumulated debt and many IOUs on the horizon, especially spending of welfare, disability services and defence; and
-never have we exported more natural resources, but never have we had to pay more for our domestically generated energy.
Luck and time also has expired for a cluster of players whose appearances in Australia have probably qualified them for permanent residency, if not citizenship. Nadal never made it to Rod Laver Arena to say goodbye, but this year’s Open may be the last time to have seen Andy Murray, Ricard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, and Stan Wawrinka.
We also know former finalist Danielle Collins will not be returning, and I do no expect to see Karolina Pliskova, Alice Cornet or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at another Australian Open.
No doubt Melbourne fans will be hoping to see again the new breed of female stars led by teenager Mirra Andreeva and the plucky Anna Blinkova who won the game’s longest ever Women’s tie-break 22-20 to oust No.3 seed Elena Rybakina, winning the match on her tenth match point after Rybakina had six opportunities to claim victory. One certainly did not blink and the match was ‘ova’! Utterly fatigued, Blinkova lost her next match, but not before writing her own footnote in tennis history.
So, what happens now?
In the Men’s Draw, the match of the tournament could be the semi-final between Sinner and Djokovic. Rublev, having reached the quarter-finals of all Grand Slam tournaments, is desperate to win through to his first Grand Slam semi-final. For mine, Sinner has too much poise and power for the rambunctious Russian. If Taylor Fritz was to upset Djokovic later today, it would be an extreme example of youth overcoming experience. For mine, Djokovic to win through to play Alcaraz in the final. The forecast is for a hot evening for Sunday’s final which may suit the Spaniard. He will have the crowd on his side, but not logic and history.
In the Women’s Draw, it is hard to see anyone either than Gauff or Sabalenka winning. Gauff proved at Flushing Meadow that she is a stronger and more steely competitor than a year ago. Sabalenka is a powerful player; however, is still prone to brittle passages of play at critical moments.
So, Djokovic and Gauff to repeat their US Open triumphs for mine. If they did, they would become the third pair of players in the Open era to win the singles title at the US Open and then reprise their triumphs at the start of the following year in Melbourne, joining Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf in 1993-1994 and Djokovic himself and Naomi Osaka in 2018-2019.
If Djokovic does win, then he will be able to truly thank ‘his tree’ for creating another branch of his and the game's history.