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  • Julian Dowse

US Open 2018

One of my readers commented after my last article that he was a little concerned that there was too much discussion of tennis creeping into my commentaries. Well, Cameron P, you will not have to worry about that ‘problem’ in this edition.

Having sought to establish a connection between the game and patterns of social and political conduct in the wider arenas of life outside Grand Slam tennis courts, I can safely say that the links I have noticed have been securely established courtesy of the behaviour of Serena Williams.

One of the few advantages of ageing is that it is possible to say, “I remember when…”. Well, I was there at Centre Court in 1990 when John McEnroe was defaulted from his Australian Open match for verbal abuse of the referee in his match against Mikhail Pernfors. McEnroe called the chair umpire much more than a thief and deserved his disqualification. For all of McEnroe’s sound and fury that Sunday afternoon, it signified nothing more than an ill-tempered tirade by a cantankerous tennis player about tennis.

Fast forward, oh God, a mere 28 years and tennis was the last thing that Serena had on her mind when she exploded in rage in her Women’s Final. Suddenly, the Centre Court was the crucible for every contemporary Western litmus test: identity politics, sexism, racism, the virtues of motherhood, the demand for apology and the taking of offence. When Roger Federer lost his fourth round match to Australia’s journeyman, John Millman, in oppressively hot and humid conditions, predictable angst about climate change poured out at the post-match press conference. More than ever, and, certainly more than art, sport seems to imitate life. Maybe, more than it ever should to the point that life is imitating sport?

What is remarkable is that the US OPEN shows no sign of being CLOSED as its repercussions continue, more so in Australia than many other countries when the following cartoon by Mark Knight was published in Melbourne’s Herald Sun:

Let’s face it, the world has been shaken up since Wimbledon and not just by another spin of Australia’s revolving door of Prime Ministers. Everything continues to not be as it seems or as it should. When test-driving a car recently, a Russian salesman was trying to sell me a ‘French’ car made in South Korea. Naturally, the US Open had a woman umpiring the Men’s Final and a man umpiring the Men’s Final. There have been bushfires in Sweden, both political and real, but the south of France was flooded after a steamy summer and much of India’s south-western State of Kerala had to be evacuated as it was ravaged by the worst deluges in eight decades. New South Wales remains 100% in drought. Not even the most ardent monarchists would believe that the forthcoming visit of Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex to Dubbo will ameliorate the long-running dry.

Italy produced its first winner of the British Open golf title in 147 years, with the victory of Francesco Molinari on a parched links course in Carnoustie, Scotland. A Welshman, Geraint Thomas, became the first from his country to win the Tour de France. Cuba experienced a form of atavism by allowing mention of the word , “capitalism” in its reworded post-Castro Constitution. Speaking of communism, North Korea turned 70 and remarkably believed they had something to celebrate. 65 years after Australia invented the term England had its own ‘Petrov affair’, with a Alexander Petrov -any relation to Vladimir?-being identified as one of the Salisbury poisoners. Pakistan, tired of electing failed Generals and family members to be their nation’s Presidents turned to a former international cricketer, Imran Khan, to usher in a corruption free future for the nation. Cambodia conducted a sham election and allegations were made that Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s narrow victory in his first election since assuming office from Robert Mugabe was equally dubious.

Brexit negotiations claimed, for the present, the political career of England’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson; however, the departure of the rival apparent did not seem to make Theresa May’s crown sit any easier as she continued to try and convince both Britain and Brussels that an English exit from the European Union could be achieved. At least Boris and his former Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, will have more time to jog together free from the constraints of police protection. Maybe as a reflection of her own predicament, or is it another sign of the contemporary zeitgeist, Theresa May has appointed an under-Secretary, read Junior Minister, for Loneliness, the first ever such appointment as Westminster. There are times when she no doubt believes that the role was made for her.

The Nine Network announced its intention to purchase Fairfax Media to take advantage of recent amendments to media ownership laws. Naturally, Paul Keating who had introduced media laws forcing media companies to decide whether they wished to be “prince of print or queen of screen”, was dismayed by the prospect.

Speaking of communications, a new I-Phone has been released, weeks after the Apple company became the first in history to achieve a capital value of one trillion dollars.

The Davis Cup used to be the tennis trophy that had a sporting and emotional value in the world of tennis that was beyond a crass capital measure.

Yet, crass capitalism has ended the extraordinary tale of the world’s premier teams event in tennis and, arguably, any sport.

From 2019 the Davis Cup will be an end of year shoot out, stunt if you will, to be permanently played in France. Epic matches played over five sets (think Hoad v Trabert, Kooyong Final 1953, McEnroe v Clerc Final 1981, Cincinnati, McEnroe v Wilander 1982 Quarter-Final, Cash v Pernfors 1986 Final at Kooyong) will no longer be possible. Nations will compete over a week, playing best of three set matches in two Groups to determine a finalist.

Another brick is removed from the wall as the International Tennis Federation takes the cheque and casts a cast a slur over the event that has its finest pedigree.

Well, they can join the queue. Slurring the reputation of others in a world where digital media eliminates the presumption of innocence and reasonableness is rampant. Geoffrey Rush and Craig McLachlan await their defamation hearings without work and the ability to say anything. Ben Roberts-Smith VC has been forced to the courts to defend accusations about his military and personal history.

Federal MP, Emma Husar, will not recontest the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay at the next Federal election, even after the worst of the salacious and personal allegations about her management of her electorate office were proved to be groundless.

With all this going on, one would hope that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation could provide us with necessary perspective on the state of the world. After all the ABC, as a series of self-serving advertisements currently remind us, is “yours”.

Alas, no.

On August 14, after finishing playing a piece of music entitled Evolution, a morning announcer on ABC Classic FM asked listeners to consider what the “greatest disgrace” of human evolution to be. You would have thought there would have been, sadly, many predictable nominations to choose from the wars, genocides, persecutions and discrimination that have blighted our humanity.

What a relief to know that such episodes should be considered bagatelles, when compared to what the announcer informed his audience was the greatest travesty of human development: “plastic straws”. Of course, that’s right, it is the plastic straw whose deleterious role in history deserves to be duly acknowledged.

But before the apocalyptic end of the world is caused by a drinking implement, let us ponder the evolution of our great tennis heroes.

They are clearly entitled to claim some of the highest, if not the most exalted, positions in the tennis pantheon, but age is beginning to weary them.

The Tennis Grand Slam year ends with Federer holding 20 titles and Nadal 17 which equals Serena’s age of 37.

Although many a pundit has prematurely predicted the demise of the era of the great male quartet, the signs may now unarguably be there. Is it too early to say that 2020 may be the end of the vision splendid? Let’s look at the evidence from this year for three of the four.

  • First, Federer: Australian Open- Champion, French Open-Did Not Play; Wimbledon-Lost Quarter-Final, US Open- Lost fourth round;

  • Second, Nadal-Australian Open-retired injured in quarter-final, French Open-Champion, Wimbledon- Lost semi-final; US Open- Retired in Semi-Final; and

  • Third, Murray- Australian Open -Did Not Play, French Open- Did Not Play, Wimbledon-Did Not Play, US Open- Lost in second round.

Yet, the remarkable thing about the quartet is that whilst more than one may be fading, one always seems to remain supreme. Another year ends with all Grand Slam titles having been won by three of the four.

More particularly, the year ends with Djokovic ascendant having won the last two Grand Slam titles of the year, taking his tally to 14. He and Pete Sampras are now equal third on the all-time Grand Slam Honour Board behind Federer and Nadal. Between them, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won a mere 51 Grand Slam titles. Not bad given the Open Era is 50 years old.

What is even more remarkable is that this tally has been achieved without Federer, Djokovic and Nadal managing to win two Grand Slam titles at each of the four tournaments: Federer and Djokovic have only won one title each at Roland Garros and Nadal has only won one Australian Open.

Yet, the more dominant the great three become, the more capricious the Women’s Tour becomes. Last year Ostapenko won her first WTA title at the French Open. This year Naomi Osaka won her second WTA title at the US Open, after never previously progressing beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament which she reached at this year’s Australian Open.

The last year that a female player won two or more Grand Slam titles was Angelique Kerber in 2016 and the last year that a female player won consecutive Grand Slam titles was Serena Williams in 2015.

By way of contrast, 2003 was the last year when Djokovic, Federer and/or Nadal failed to win at least two of the Grand Slam titles.

The preliminary tournaments to the US Open suggested that the supreme control that these three titans have over the Men’s modern game was not to be challenged. They also confirmed there was no self-evident favourite for the Women’s title.

Nadal won his 80th title and his 30th Masters title with victory at Toronto over rising Greek star, Stefano Tsitsipas. Ashleigh Barty reached the semi-final of the Women’s tournament, before losing to Halep who beat Sloane Stephens in a three set final. Kyrgios lost early in the tournament to Stan Wawrinka, who, for obvious reasons, seems to find hidden reserves of commitment in matches against Australia’s charmless mercurial talent.

Nadal withdrew from the Cincinnati Masters, where Kyrgios lost to Del Potro and Halep was upset in the final by Kiki Bertens. Djokovic finally won his first Cincinnati title and became the first player in the Open Era to win all nine Masters titles. He claimed this piece of tennis history by beating Federer 6-4 6-4 in the final. Djokovic’s victory saw his extend his winning edge against Federer to 24-22.

Recently, I became aware of the witty observation that “the problem with living in New York is that you have nowhere to escape to.” How true! So much of this year’s US Open was inescapable in a dramatic, personal and meteorological sense. The weather provided much of the drama of the first week with oppressively hot and humid conditions straining the patience and stamina of many of the world’s best players.

In the steamy furnaces of Flushing Meadows, Halep earned an unfortunate asterisk in the annals of tennis history by becoming the first player seeded No.1 in the history of the tournament to lose in the first round when she was outplayed by Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi.

Grigor Dimitrov, who like Kyrgios, has promised so much, also lost in the first round to the ever-dangerous Wawrinka. And the US Open, as the bookend for the 2018 Grand Slam year, provides me with a cheesy riddle for the tennis tragics: Why are Caroline Wozniacki and Alex Zverev the second and fourth seeds in Grand Slam tournaments? Because they never get past the second and fourth rounds. Well, I like it!

Kyrgios, who had been booed off a court in Atlanta and whose injured hip had forced him to miss the tournament in Washington, comfortably won his first two rounds to enter a much anticipated third round match against Roger Federer. Not for the first time in his career, Kyrgios failed to perform at his best and was comprehensively outplayed by the Swiss master. In their tournament preview The New York Times noted that whilst there was “much electricity about him (Kyrgios), there is, unfortunately a lot of static.”

For other Australians, the US Open was far more productive. Ashleigh Barty progressed to the fourth round, before losing to the former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova. However, she finally won her first Grand Slam Doubles title. After a frustrating run of losses in Grand Slam finals with former partner, Casey Dellacqua, Barty teamed with America’s Coco Vandeweghe to record a popular and deserved win.

All the Doubles champions had popular sentiment on their side. Mike Bryan, playing without his injured brother Bob, for only the second time in 78 Grand Slam tournaments, proved that his Wimbledon victory with Jack Sock was no fluke as they reunited to give America its only exclusive victory in their hometown Grand Slam event.

The fact that America’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands had to share her Mixed Doubles title with England’s Jamie Murray mattered not. Mattek-Sands’ recovery from a knee injury that she suffered at Wimbledon in 2017 and threatened to end her career has been remarkable. For Murray, it was his second successive Mixed Doubles title, having partnered Martina Hingis to win the 2017 championship and for Mattek-Sands her first US Open Mixed Doubles title and third overall. Victories in both the Wimbledon Ladies’ Doubles and Mixed Doubles title would give her a complete set of grand slam titles in each of the combined disciplines. Something to aim for!

John Millman and Alex de Minaur certainly have much more to aim for after their respective performances in New York. De Minaur extended former champion, Marin Cilic, to five sets in a gripping third round match. Millman captivated the world with his four set victory over Roger Federer. Although his victory denied the tennis world a much awaited quarter-final between Federer and Djokovic, it was a remarkable victory even if the enervating conditions affected the Swiss born Federer more than a younger Queenslander with a greater familiarity of hot, humid nights. It was the first victory by an Australian against Federer in a Grand Slam tournament since another Queenslander, Pat Rafter, beat Federer at the 1999 French Open. That’s right folks, a match from last century!

It was the greatest upset victory for an Australian since Peter Doohan defeated Boris Becker in the second round of Wimbledon in 1987, a victory that many say greatly assisted Pat Cash’s road to victory at the tournament. How sad it is that Doohan was not alive to toast the victory of Millman, having lost his battle against motor neurone disease in 2017. Millman could not repeat his heroic efforts against Djokovic in their quarter-final, but he had “certainly made it in New York.”

Djokovic proceeded to his eighth US Open final by beating Nishikori in their semi-final. Nishikori is the Michael Chang of our era: courteous, wily, determined, but ultimately unable to combat the power of the elite level of players. Djokovic’s opponent was 2009 champion , Del Potro, who won his semi-final against Nadal who had to retire after the second set of the match. It appears that Nadal needs to take a leaf from the Federer playbook and be more selective about when he plays.

After farewelling compatriot David Ferrer from Grand Slam tennis in their first round match, the fearless and tireless Nadal won a gruelling third round match against Russia’s Karen Khachanov 5-7, 7-5, 7-6, 7-6, before prevailing in a marathon quarter-final against Dominic Thiem, recovering from losing the first set to love to win 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6. Too much tennis, too much strain, even for one of the greatest.

Notwithstanding the support of the New York crowd for Del-Potro in the final, Djokovic was too strong and too accomplished. Del Potro rallied in the second set from a break down to force a tie-break; however, after that set was lost so was the chance of a second title for the Argentinian. For Djokovic it was a third title and he now has the following collection of Grand Slam titles: 6 Australian, 1 French, 4 Wimbledon and 3 US Opens.

Of course, Djokovic’s achievement was entirely overshadowed by the Women’s Final and its aftermath. Too much has probably been written and said about Serena’s tirade already. Every written and spoken syllable further deflects attention from the nerveless performance of Naomi Osaka to claim the title. At the risk of compounding the felony of focussing on the vanquished rather than the victor, a few comments: first, on the tennis and then the sociology of it all.

It is interesting that Serena complained that men “do and say” far worse. I am not so sure. Her outburst had overtones of McEnroe at his worst. It came after a critical point in the match when Serena had failed to consolidate a break of serve mid-way through the second set. She smashed her racquet. She knew the rules. She was deducted a point. As with many of McEnroe’s outbursts, Serena sought to derail the momentum of her opponent.

Only the keenest of my fellow tennis watchers noticed that after being deducted a game for “verbal abuse” of the umpire and having to serve at 3-5, Serena was gifted the game by Osaka who did not seek to be competitive in the game’s rallies. On her own terms Osaka served and took the title in the next game.

The Irish have often observed that “if you have to choose between a stuff-up and a conspiracy, choose the stuff-up 95% of the time.” The greatest disappointment of Serena’s churlishness was that she chose the conspiracy option to explain her predicament. Even if she was being illegally coached, this illicit assistance was clearly futile! Serena was simply outplayed, and she could not find an answer to Osaka’s power and fearlessness.

The only conspiracy that she was entitled to rage against is the one which affects us all, namely the inexorable effects of time.

Desperate to win one more Grand Slam title, especially her first as a mother, to equal Margaret Court’s record, Serena was confronted by the reality that the next generation is coming and there is nothing she can do to stop them. Naomi Osaka dreamed of playing Serena in a US Open final. Serena took that extraordinary compliment of her place in tennis history and selfishly turned it into a nightmare for the new champion who became the first Japanese born player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament.

The attempt by Serena to compare her treatment with a broader sociological malaise of sexism, racism and patriarchy is as fatuous as it is forlorn. The Women’s final saw an African-American compete against an Haitian-Japanese player for equal prizemoney as the Men’s tournament on a court named in honour of an African-American tennis player, Arthur Ashe.

Serena won over $2,000,000 for being the runner-up. Carlos Ramos was paid $1450.00 to umpire the match.

The trophies were presented by a African-American female President of the United States Tennis Association , Katrina Adams, who used to partner Zina Garrison in Doubles. As Chip Le Grand has noted in The Australian, “if only all workplaces were full of so much racism and sexism.”

If Serena wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the manner that the recently departed Aretha Franklin sang about, then she must behave respectfully and respect the game that has given her the opportunities it has.

Now to the cartoon. Oh, how everything is connected! In 1979, John McEnroe was the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon. He defeated Tom Gullikson in the third round. McEnroe then surprisingly lost in straight sets to Tom’s identical twin, Tim, in the fourth round.

Tim was later Pete Sampras’ coach and his premature death from brain cancer was the reason for Sampras’ emotional cri de coeur when playing Jim Courier in their epic struggle at the 1995 Australian Open.

Following McEnroe’s surprise defeat in 1979, the following cartoon was published in London’s Daily Mail:

Notice anything similar to Mark Knight’s caricature of Serena?

Back then, we seemed to know that the great gift of the cartoonist was to exaggerate and make us LAUGH, because their ability to parody the absurd was FUNNY! And why was it funny? Because the cartoonist identified and depicted in ink the absurdity of a moment and made it humorous.

Nearly four decades apart, two clever cartoonists depict McEnroe and Serena for what they were and are- two dummy spitting adults who should have known how to behave better. End of story.

We now live in a world where Germaine Greer is asked not to attend a Book Writers’ Festival because she may be “too controversial”. Never mind that her controversial writings are the very thing that remind us of the power of the written word. No one is to suffer offence, so it seems not much is to be said. What a shame it would be that the unique ability of a cartoonist to skewer and satirise the follies of human behaviour could be lost on the basis that someone may be offended.

Germaine was criticised recently for her comments about transgender women not being fully women, especially her observation that “ just because I can put ears on my head, does not make me a f****** rabbit” When asked whether she had realised she had made people feel uncomfortable and challenged by her viewpoint she replied: “Oh, for God’s sake, F*** off, it is just an opinion.” Amen to that.

There was another cartoon at the time of McEnroe’s surprise loss, a copy of which I cannot locate, which depicted McEnroe speaking to journalists at his front door. They asked him “are you ok?” and McEnroe replies “ Of course”. Behind him, but out of sight of the journalists, are dozens of knives lodged in walls and broken furniture in a scene of domestic carnage! McEnroe’s furies were a vein of gold for cartoonists and countless caricatures like the following appeared.

I do not remember any far-fetched criticism of such caricatures as being a cliched and vicious attack that reinforced stereotypes about splenetic Irishmen.

Ah, but we live in fractious times! Senator John McCain, the Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2008, passed away during the US Open after a distinguished career of service to his nation in its Army, being a POW during the Korean War, and a long-serving Senator from Arizona. He left express instructions that the current Republican President was not to attend his Memorial Service.

And nowhere is the mood more prickly and personal than in Australian politics. Not long after the tennis, Cyclone Florence threatened the east coast of America, but Malcolm Turnbull was also busy generating storm clouds of his own from New York. He confirmed by “open tweet” that he is still lobbying for Peter Dutton to be referred to the High Court.

It did not ever seem possible that both Abbott and Turnbull could compete to be our modern day King Lears, jointly suffering the wounds “of the thankless child that are sharper than a serpent’s tooth”- the thankless child being a combination of the Australian electorate and their own party- but it appears they can.

The supreme irony of our times is that the more we speak about inclusion and diversity, the more narrow and superficial our public discourse becomes.

Instead of worrying about Peter Dutton’s personal life and Ministerial discretions so much, why has not anyone asked important questions about why so many Australian families have the need to recruit au pairs? Why has parenting become such an incredible strain on our middle class, with two parents needing to work to pay for increasingly unaffordable housing?

Why have the working hours of many parents and the practical and financial costs of childcare combined to make the au pair a better option? It’s not enough apparently that great amounts of our real estate are being sold to foreigners, but now it seems our next generation may be raised by them as well.

Malcolm Turnbull’s dummy spit in fleeing the Parliament, quitting his electorate and leaving the country has foisted a by-election on the voters of Wentworth on October 20, the Saturday before Winx will try to become the first horse to win four Cox Plates. Serena would be proud of the battle of identity politics that is to take place in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.

The Liberals have pre-selected a Jewish male, Dave Sharma, formerly Australia’s ambassador to Israel and father of three daughters. His strongest opponent will be Independent candidate , Dr. Kerryn Phelps. It would be lovely to think that Dr. Phelps’s work as an advocate for community health and service as the President of the AMA would count as much in the minds of voters as the fact that she is a married lesbian, but I doubt it.

Amidst all this tumult, or possibly because of it, it is good to see that Australians are still finding time to relax. Recently released statistics tell us that 65 litres of wine are consumed every year by Australian adults. A mere 1.25 litres per week. Proud advertisements at football finals tell us that every 46 seconds a fresh keg of Carlton Draught beer is connected to a beer tap at a hotel near you.

How lucky can a country be or is the better question how long before the luck runs out?

Julian Dowse

16th September, 2018

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