Some may accuse me of searching too hard for metaphorical meanings within the game of tennis that explain and/or illustrate the real world. However, they keep appearing and perhaps no more poignantly than at this year’s US Open.
The tournament began with an unprecedented five of the world’s top male players having withdrawn- Djokovic, Murray, Nishikori, Raonic and Wawrinka. Their collective absence-remember that Djokovic and Wawrinka were last year’s Men’s finalists- splintered the seeds at the Open, at a time when American society was fracturing on many fronts. Not quite the north/south divide of the Civil War, but something equally tangible. It is not a war of armies, but a conflict of the values and perceptions of the population. It is a battle between the beliefs of the nation’s urban coastal intelligentsia and those of its heartland, those whom Hilary sees as the ‘Deplorables’ and Trump sees as the ‘Dependables’.
A fortnight before the Open, political riots and protests of a racial nature led to fatalities in Charlottesville, Virginia and agonised the nation. The rambling and unsettlingly equivocal comments of the President in response to the riots exacerbated a sense of national division and confusion. The United States seemed anything but as the President accused the media of ignoring his condemnation of the extremism of those involved. President Trump’s administration seems to have mastered the ability of being unable to take advantage of a crisis and demonstrate leadership. But, why are we surprised? Rather than being united, his White House is positively untied. Every week there is another sacking of either a senior adviser, a press spokesperson- although this did provide for the alliterative switch from Sean Spicer to Sarah Sanders- and/or a Chief of Staff.
Even the weather Gods reinforced the travails that America seems to experiencing. Cyclone Harvey brought Houston to a standstill and wildfires threatened Los Angeles. By the end of the Open, an earthquake had devastated part of neighbouring Mexico. Cyclone Irma, a storm front the size of Tasmania, had destroyed Caribbean islands (thank goodness, that Richard Branson had an underground wine cellar to shelter him) and by the last day of the Open had left three million homes in Florida without running water and electricity.
On the eve of the Open, Australia was having its own nationalist convulsions, especially concerning which of our parliamentarians are truly national citizens. Suddenly, everyone remembered that the Constitution is vaguely important! The stipulation of s.44 (i) that bans citizens with dual nationality from being members of the Parliament sees seven members having to fight in the High Court in October to retain their seats: Ludlam, Waters, Roberts, Nash, Canavan and Xenophon from the Senate and no less than the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, in the House of Representatives. Malcolm Turnbull, who has just passed his second anniversary as Prime Minister, must long for at least one uncomplicated week or month. As these members sought to prove they were citizens of one nation only, the leader of the One Nation party sought to ignite a populist religious crusade, by brazenly wearing a burqa into the Parliament. Does anybody still have a sense of shame?
In the national race to cause schism and shocks, the Western Australian Liberal Party endorsed the notion of the State’s financial secession from the Commonwealth and a group of Tasmanians avidly affirmed that they had seen a Tasmanian tiger, the famed thylacine, long believed to be extinct.
If our parliamentarians can only uphold one national alliance, the divided nationalism of Korea continued to plague world affairs. North Korea continued to posture with its missile launches and atomic tests fraying the nerves and resolve of its nearest neighbours and allies. Twas ever thus, or at least since 1953.
With China voting to approve further sanctions against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council, one is hopeful that the collapse of the eerie totalitarianism of Pyongyang is not far away. The candle always flares most brightly before it burns out.
The interlude between Wimbledon and New York has been a pastiche of all things.
The ABC celebrated the 25th anniversary of its highly successful children’s television series, Bananas in Pyjamas. Another famous figure in striped clothing from the last twenty-five years is America’s most discussed inmate, OJ Simpson. Later this year he is to be released on parole at the age of 70, having served only nine years of a thirty-three year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping.
The relatively new French President promised his people what he described as unavoidable and necessary economic and labour reforms, but managed to find time to spend $ AU 30,000.00 on his make-up. The French will never forsake style for austerity. Across the Channel, London’s Big Ben stopped its usual chiming, with required repairs anticipated to curtail its tolling for four years. Maybe when it resumes its operation, the British will have successfully negotiated a Brexit exit. Maybe not.
In Australia, Coles and Woolworths announced that they intended to divest themselves of the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag within twelve months. Also bowing out of daily use and circulation was Laurie Oakes who announced his retirement from Canberra’s press gallery. My earliest memory of Oakes’ prowess was when he revealed the machinations of the “Gair Affair” in 1974, when Gough Whitlam sought to appoint the DLP Leader, Vince Gair, to an ambassadorial position in Ireland to circumvent an obstructionist Senate.
Fortunately, Gough Whitlam never had the powers of some of the world’s current autocrats. Putin expelled 755 US Diplomats in response to US sanctions. Turkey’s despot, Erdogan, ordered a celebration of his crushing of the supposed ‘coup’ in 2016 and removed even more civil servants and officials from office. Germany declared its animus towards Ankara by stating that the country was a dangerous destination. Closer to home the President of the Philippines, Duterte, continued to appal human rights lawyers with his unrestrained campaigns to eliminate drug traffickers. The Venezuelan President showed signs of entering the pantheon of the dishonourable with his suppression of a nation whose economy is imploding, forcing citizens to travel to Colombia for food.
In Myanmar, now led by the former political prisoner and Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, a humanitarian crisis erupted as the Burmese government set about to banish the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority from the country, leading to a desperate diaspora of citizens to Bangladesh.
Maybe Gillian Triggs, fresh from her retirement at the Australian Human Rights Commission, can tear herself away from hosting book launches for discredited Labor Senators and comment on the loss of human rights in these countries. Sadly and strangely, she always seemed to reserve her strongest criticisms on these matters for her own country.
However, Gough Whitlam did organise the last non-compulsory postal plebiscite/opinion poll / survey in the mid-1970s when he sought the voice of the nation about which song should be our national anthem. Now that the High Court has endorsed the legality of the exercise, the people will record their opinion on whether the nation should permit same-sex marriage.
The former CEO of Australia Post, Ahmed Famour, will not have to be responsible for either the distribution or collection of the letters, allowing him time to count his close to eleven million dollar payout.
Nevertheless, it does seem our Generation Y citizens object to recording their opinion in a postal survey. For you see, they “do not do letters”. Well, chums it is time to release that the democratic tradition of this world is not dependent on accommodating your every precious “need”. Frankly, if the easily offended youth of today spent as much energy campaigning as they did feeling slighted, the ‘Yes’ case would win in a landslide.
The tennis world said farewell to Mervyn Rose, the Australian Singles Champion of 1954 and Peter Doohan who lived barely long enough to note the 30th anniversary of his upset victory over Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1987. Australia said goodbye to our ‘Golden Girl’ of athletics, Betty Cuthbert, who remains the only athlete to have won gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400 metres events at the Olympic Games. Glen Campbell, the velvety balladeer, lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and Robert Hardy, the actor who delighted many as Siegfried in All Creatures Great and Small died at the age of 91. My father was a great fan of Hardy, especially for his portrayal of the Earl of Leicester in the BBC television series, Elizabeth R, being the peer who sought to woo the heart of the virgin Queen, played by Glenda Jackson.
In the world of sport, Jordan Spieth won his third golfing major at the tender age of 23 with his victory at the British Open. Chris Frome won his fourth Tour de France. By the end of the tennis in New York, he had added the Tour of Spain to his victories. However, Usain Bolt was unable to add to his unprecedented run of success in his final performances at London’s World Athletics Championships. The greatest sprinter of all time was third in the 100 metres final, with the bete noire of the athletics world, Justin Gatlin, winning the title at the age of 35. In the 4 x 100 metres relay, Bolt ran the anchor leg for Jamaica; however, he was unable to finish the race when a thigh injury forced him to stop running. However, Australia’s wonder mare, Winx, returned from her spell and continued her winning ways, recording her eighteenth and nineteenth successive victories.
Australia’s Sally Pearson was able to reprise her London Olympics triumph of 2012 to claim a second World Championship title. Her success was a rare moment of Australian sporting success in recent times. New Zealand won the Bledisloe Cup for a fifteenth straight year and our Test cricket team, fresh from their pay dispute, lost their first ever Test match to Bangladesh, before squaring the series. Our netballers lost to New Zealand and our road to the World Cup of Soccer looks doomed after a loss to Japan, who could not repeat their winning ways against Saudi Arabia, thus sending Australia to the hostile world of the second qualification round.
In the world of tennis, its established foundations became more secure. Federer and Nadal reclaimed two of the world’s top three rankings prior to the Open, albeit in unspectacular fashion. Federer had one of his rare losses for the year, when he lost the final in Montreal to Alex Zverev. Nadal had lost earlier in the tournament to Canadian wildcard, Denis Shapovalov, who has to endure the curse of being the “next great thing” of the game. Federer withdrew from the following week’s Cincinnati Masters, where Nadal lost to Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinal.
Nadal may have had a valid excuse for not playing with his usual focus in the American mid-west. During the tournament, he learnt of terrorist attacks in Barcelona that claimed over a dozen lives, including that of an Australian child. In a tragic parody of previous attacks in Nice and London, pedestrians walking down Barcelona’s major tourist artery, Las Ramblas, died when a car maliciously drove into them.
Dimitrov beat Kyrgios in the Cincinnati final, but Nadal emerged as the No. 1 ranked player, with Federer ranked No.3. Andy Murray’s hip injury led to his late withdrawal from the US Open. This meant that the year’s final Grand Slam proceeded without a No.2 seed. The television executives and tournament organisers were powerless to prevent Nadal and Federer from meeting in a scheduled semi-final, rather than have an encore of their Australian Open final.
Garbine Muguruza prevailed in the Women’s draw in Cincinnati, thrashing Simone Halep in the final. The following week Australia’s Daria Gavrilova won her first WTA Title in Connecticut. She beat Radwanska in the semi-final and then former Australian Open finalist, Cibulkova, in a three-set final, creating reasonably high expectations for success at Flushing Meadow. However, it was not to be. In New York Australia’s Ashleigh Barty progressed to the third round, where she lost in straight sets, without any patriotic female company. Gavrilova could lay some claim to a famous defeat, as her second round match against Shelby Rogers was the longest women’s match played at the US Open.
Similarly, the campaigns of the Australian men did not last long. Tomic, Kyrgios, de Minaur, Smith and Kokkinakis lost in the first round and Thompson lost in the second. John Millman, who had defeated Kyrgios in the first round, was defeated in the third round.
The early rounds saw the Men’s seeds scattered like confetti. Fourth seed, Alex Zverev, who had beaten Federer in Montreal, lost in the second round as did eighth seed Tsonga and the Cincinnati champion and seventh seed, Dimitrov. David Ferrer, who had won his first title since 2015 at this year’s Swedish Open, lost in the first. Sock (13), Kyrgios (14) and Berdych (15) along with seeds 19-22 were all gone by the end of the second round and former champion and this year’s Wimbledon finalist, Cilic (5) lost in Round 3. Thiem (6) and Goffin (9) were despatched by the end of the fourth round.
Federer had laboured five set first and second round victories before striding imperiously into the quarterfinals. Juan Del-Potro, the 2009 champion, wound back the clock and a two set deficit against Dominic Thiem to claim his place in the quarterfinal. His reward was a match against Federer whom he beat in the 2009 final. Nadal’s path to the quarterfinals was less burdensome. Indeed, he won the tournament without facing a player ranked higher than 25.
The women’s seeds also fell away early in the tournament. Konta (7), Halep (2), and defending champion, Kerber (6) all lost in the first round with Wozniacki (5) and Cibulkova (11) following in Round 2, along with seeds 19 and 21-26 and Radwanska (10) and Ostapenko (12) in Round 3. Ostapenko created a new meaning of perfunctory and insincere with her ‘handshake’ at the net following her loss to Russia’s Kasatkina. The fourth round saw Wimbledon champion, Muguruza (3), lose to Petra Kvitova and Svitolina (4) lose to America’s Madison Keys.
Halep could lay claim to the unluckiest first round draw in recent memory as the No.2 seed had to face the resurgent Maria Sharapova, who was a wildcard entry into the tournament. Sharapova’s run ended in the fourth round, where she lost to 16th seed, Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova. The USTA obviously took note of the inscription on the French statue gifted to America in New York’s harbour: “Give me your tired; give me your drug cheats yearning to be allowed to play…”
Speaking of statues and inscriptions Australians indulged themselves in another simplistic debate about our national values when journalist Stan Grant argued that many claims about James Cook on monuments around the nation were either incorrect and/or insulting to our indigenous population. The catalyst for this fresh eruption of the ‘history wars’ were the fatal riots in Charlottesville, Virginia which centred on a debate about whether to remove a statue of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, from a community park.
As in America, the Australian debate took on a parody of Orwellian proportions. Statues were either good or bad. Writings on plaques were either correct or inappropriate. Historical context and personal nuance became irrelevant as noisy and shrill arguments took place. Indignant graffiti appeared on some of our public monuments.
Where will it all end? Perhaps we should demand the closure and destruction of Anglican churches on the basis that a monarch, whose human rights record could bring him before the World Court in The Hague for a posthumous trial, created them.
Henry VIII arguably has a case to answer for his treatment of the Irish, his destruction of the monasteries and the execution of two of his wives. However, in contemporary times a mere difference of opinion seems enough to earn denigration and public rejection by many. Margaret Court’s publicly declared opposition to same-sex marriage has led to demands from many in the rainbow coalition that the arena named in her honour at Melbourne Park be boycotted and/or renamed. Funny how their demands for inclusivity do not extend to including respect for the views of others.
The same polarising simplicity affects the discussion concerning the nation’s energy policy. The use of coal is either a policy of enlightened good or barbaric bad. Renewable sources of energy are depicted either as the heart of a brave new world of power generation or a monstrous and costly ruse.
A contrary year has seen the Brexit poll, Trump’s election to the White House and Australia possibly facing a fresh election depending on the High Court’s deliberations in October. Therefore, it was no surprise that the US Open produced an atypical assortment of quarter-finalists. However, I suspect no-one could have predicted how hollow the pedigrees of most of the quarter-finalists would be.
Venus Williams, now an auntie to Serena’s daughter, reached the quarterfinals as the winner of 49 titles. Between them, the other seven Women’s quarter-finalists had won 44! Nadal (73) and Federer (93) have won 166 titles between them and the other six Men’s quarter-finalists had won 37.
However, on both sides of the draw there were some endearing and encouraging achievements.
Sloane Stephens, who had major surgery on her foot in January, which resulted in her ranking sliding down to the mid-900s in July, reached her second Grand Slam semi-final. Her opponent, Venus Williams was playing in her first semi-final at the US Open since 2010, having last won the tournament in 2001 when Sloane was eight years old. Venus’ three set quarterfinal victory against Kvitova was a splendid match, with the crowd divided in their admiration for the personal triumphs of both players.
However, the Stephens/Williams semi-final was shaping as one of the worst semi-finals ever played after the first two lopsided sets. A stirring 7-5 final set victory to Stephen restored credibility to the contest. Venus deserves recognition for her efforts this year in reaching the Australian and Wimbledon finals and the semi-finals in New York. In the other semi-final 15th seed Madison Keys overpowered Coco Vandeweghe, who had easily beaten top seed and world No.1, Carolina Pliskova, in a quarterfinal.
For the first time since 1981, there was an all-American quartet of women semi-finalists, Evert, Navratilova, Austin and Barbara Potter.
However, unlike 1981 when Tracy Austin prevailed over Martina in a gripping 1-6. 7-6, 7-6 victory, this year’s final was an anti-climax. For the second time this year, there was a Women’s Grand Slam final in which neither finalist had previously won a Grand Slam title and where a seed played an unseeded rival. As with the Ostapenko/Halep final in Paris, it was the unseeded player, Stephens, who prevailed. However, unlike the tension of the final in Paris, this final was over in just over an hour. The match had about as much competitive spirit as a sorority sleepover as Stephens romped home 6-3 6-0. The highlights package consisted mainly of reminders about how friendly the finalists are.
In the Doubles competitions, the old was new again. Martina Hingis claimed the Women’s Doubles title with Taiwan’s Chan Yung-Jan and the Mixed Doubles title with Andy’s brother, Jamie. Hingis, who won her only singles title in New York twenty years ago, has accumulated 25 Grand Slam titles at the age of 36, which places her tenth on the Women’s list of grand slam champions in both singles and doubles. Remarkably, Hingis did not win a doubles title between success at Wimbledon in 2002 and the Australian Open of 2015.
In the Men’s Doubles, the unrelated Spanish pairing of Lopez and Lopez beat the perennial Bryan brothers, now aged 39, in a semi-final. However, there was to be no further Spanish success as the Dutch/Romanian pairing of Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau won the title.
Kevin Anderson, who is ranked 32 but was seeded 28, reached his first Grand Slam semi-final and became the first South African to make the last four at the US Open since the beginning of tennis’ Open Era. Anderson, who was born eleven days before Nadal, won his semi-final against twelfth seeded Spaniard Carreno-Busta, who was also playing in his first Grand Slam semi-final.
Del Potro could not repeat his 2009 semi-final victory against Nadal, although he had a fine four-set victory against Roger Federer in their quarterfinal. However, the iron law of Grand Slam tournaments once again held firm. Lower-ranked players struggle to defeat three higher ranked opponents in a row. Nadal was playing in his 26th Grand Slam semi-final, with his victory placing him in a 23rd Grand Slam Final. Remarkably, Nadal has only lost three Grand Slam semi-finals. Only three players- Wawrinka (1), Djokovic (3) and Federer (3) have beaten him in Grand Slam finals.
Nadal’s 16th Grand Slam title was an emphatic one. He won 16/16 points at the net and did not face a break point as he comfortably won 6-3 6-3 6-4. His Grand Slam Final winning percentage (16/23) is now 69.6%. Federer’s comparable percentage (19/29) is 65.5%.
Despite all indications to the contrary at the end of last year, the domination of the tennis world by Nadal and Federer is a much a feature of the present as it has been of the past. For the fourth time and the first since 2010, they have divided the Grand Slams between them. If you divide their ages- 31 and 36, you have 33.5, which is close to the 35 Grand Slam titles they have won.
No doubt, Nadal takes pride that he has reclaimed the Men’s No. 1 ranking at the same time that Garbine Muguruza has become the world’s No.1 ranked female player. Nadal has reclaimed the top ranking nine years after first reaching the pinnacle in 2008.
For the first time, Spanish players simultaneously hold the pre-eminent rankings. Muguruza is only the second Spanish woman to reach the zenith of the rankings after Arantxa Sánchez Vicario’s eight-week reign in the mid-1990s. Nadal is also only the second Spanish male player to be No.1, with Carlos Moya being No.1 for a fortnight in 1999. Moya is now part of ‘Team Nadal’ and is set to play a more significant role following the retirement of Nadal’s Uncle Tony.
However, there is neither rest nor retirement for the tennis pundits. The Davis Cup semi-finals are this weekend, with Australia vying for a place in the final against Belgium. The ATP and WTA circuits continue as players seek to qualify for the year-end tournaments.
Important political contests also loom. Germany and New Zealand shortly go to the polls. Angela Merkel seeks a fourth term as Chancellor. Bill English’s National Party government in Wellington is also aiming for a fourth consecutive electoral victory. Merkel appears assured of success, but New Zealand’s Prime Minister, seemingly unbeatable only weeks ago, faces a stern challenge from a Labour Party who replaced their leader only a month ago with the telegenic Jacinda Ardern.
Political commentators are talking of New Zealanders falling under the spell of a female version of Justin Trudeau and Macron, who literally offers a fresh face and direction after the economically restorative policies of John Key and English. For mine, there are better parallels for Ardern when one remembers Bob Hawke becoming leader of Australia’s Labor Party in 1983 on the day Malcolm Fraser called an election. Hawke rapidly cultivated his ockerish love affair with the Australian people to campaign against a conservative government that had also been in office for close to eight years, although the economic credentials of Key and English easily surpass that of Malcolm Fraser. The brash appeal of the new is often irresistible when placed against more of the same.
Thankfully, there appears no diminishing of the public’s admiration and respect for Nadal and Federer, although they have nothing left to prove. However, there are valid questions as to whether Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka and/or Raonic are able to regain their pre-eminence in the tennis world. The public no doubt also craves the return of Serena Williams to see whether she can equal Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles record of 24 titles. This year’s Australian Open seemed to provide more than any tournament could wish for with its epic Men’s final and Serena creating an Open Era record of Grand Slam success. Who would bet against another improbable chapter of tennis history being written this coming January?