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  • Julian Dowse

US Open 2019 - The numbers and the year fit

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

As the Grand Slam season of 2019 ends there is a wonderful symmetry in the Men’s game between the numerals of the year and the statistical achievement of two of its greatest ever players: the year ends with Roger Federer holding 20 Grand Slam singles titles and Rafael Nadal 19. 2019. Indeed!

On the distaff flank of the game there is less predictability, as yet another female Grand Slam singles champion is crowned.

2019- the ‘Fedal’ formula! If only everything made such sense and had such completeness as the achievements of the game’s pre-eminent two players. Their supremacy coalesces as much around the world splinters and fractures: Brexit, continuing China/USA trade wars, growing tension in the Straits of Hormuz, re-emerging tensions in Kashmir and protests about democratic rights in Hong Kong, just to name a few of the headline international acts.

In Australia, debates continue about the valid extent of indigenous constitutional rights. The decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales has ignited long standing moral and social divisions that swirl around as Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric runs out of opportunities to overturn his conviction for child sex offences, having lost his appeal in Victoria’s Supreme Court of Appeal. Cardinal Pell’s last chance at exoneration will be through an application to have the High Court grant him leave to appeal.

In the sporting world old and new fault lines keep fracturing and appearing. Cricket, for so long the barometer of what is good and decent about sport, has become a literal battlefield of booing and acrimonious allegations about boorish behaviour. The emergence of trans-gender rights has created controversy about the efficacy of men identifying as women being able to compete in women’s sport. Strange to think that drug tests were once used in sport to identify cheats, but now may be regularly used to determine gender, although the swimming world still seems to require them for legitimate purposes.

The debate and confusion about gender identity has been reinforced by the Victorian government’s decision to enact legislation which allows parents to avoid nominating a gender on a child’s birth certificate. Adults, and children with the support of psychologists and/or doctors, can now nominate a ‘non-binary gender descriptor’ on their birth certificate. In other words, Victorians can now self-nominate their gender without the need of biological proof of their claimed identity. Reassignment of sexual identity can now legally take place without proof of physiological ‘reassignment’. I think, therefore I feel, therefore I am. Nothing, nowadays, is literally as it seems.

Thankfully, nothing more is needed to reinforce and prove the greatness of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. Remember the US Open of 2016 when Wawrinka upset Djokovic? In that year there were three separate Men’s singles Grand Slam champions-Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka- and many thought the decade long grip on Grand Slam success exercised by the European trinity was weakening. Not so. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have now won the last 12 Grand Slam titles between them.

Conversely, since the 2016 US Open Women’s final , which saw Angelique Kerber win her second Grand Slam title of the year, there have been 10 different Women’s singles champions, with Halep and Osaka winning two titles, but no player has won two titles in the one year.

In 2019 Djokovic and Nadal have shared all the Grand Slam spoils, repeating their efforts of 2011. Nadal has had a particularly remarkable year. After Djokovic comprehensively beat him in the Australian final, Nadal has won in Paris, lost to Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final, eked ahead of Djokovic as the winner of the most Masters 1000 titles and heads to the end of year ATP finals in London leading the race to be crowned as the ATP’s No.1 ranked player of the year. Only Sampras with six end-of-year crowns has done better.

Since Federer won his first Wimbledon title in 2003 the trinity have won 55 titles. This has occurred whilst playing during the last 32% of the Open Era, which commenced in 1969. Such is their dominance that they have now won 25% of all Grand Slam titles played over the Open era’s 50 years.

How long can it continue? For as we all know, nothing lasts for ever.

Since Wimbledon, many of the great and not so good have passed on.

Margaret Fulton, a pint-sized Scottish émigré, who taught a generation of Australian women, and maybe a few men, to cook boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, leaves a significant legacy.

The first person died under Victoria’s recently proclaimed euthanasia laws.

Graham Freudenberg, the devoted speechwriter for a series of Labor Party leaders, most notably Gough Whitlam, died - leaving others to write touching tributes for him.

Another Graham - Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer-a man credited with revolutionising the art of rucking in Australian Rules Football in the 1960s passed away with his State funeral held at Perth’s new football stadium, to which you travel along the ‘Polly Farmer’ freeway. Just before his funeral a statue, depicting Nicky Winmar’s defiant 1993 gesture of pointing to his indigenous skin, was unveiled outside of the stadium. One wonders how many slings and arrows Polly bore as an indigenous player in the 1960s.

Tim Fischer, the man that John Button credited with developing a unique form of “Riverina grammar”, passed away - earning praise for his graciousness and genuine nationalism. A Vietnam veteran who became a Deputy Prime Minister, he is best remembered for his support of John Howard’s introduction of State-based uniform gun laws following the Port Arthur shootings of 1996, notwithstanding the strident opposition of many of his National Party supporters.

Peter McNamara, one-half of the two-time Wimbledon ‘Super Macs’ team of the early 1980s, passed away in Germany after succumbing to prostate cancer.

Robert Mugabe died aged 95 whilst receiving medical comfort and treatment in Singapore, the likes of which he could never dream of receiving in Zimbabwe. Mugabe was the man that took the former Rhodesia to independence in 1980 and proceeded to make it a hell on earth. Needless to say, his corrupt successors lionised the “father of the nation.” Even Khrushchev had the courage to speak the truth about Stalin following his death. The failure of Zimbabwe’s leaders to acknowledge the vile misdeeds of Mugabe and his family does not bode well for the country’s future.

In the week of ‘R U Ok’ day the death of well-known and respected AFL player Danny Frawley was a reminder that for man- especially, it seems, middle-aged men- life can become unmanageable and overwhelming.

Too many continued to die in a series of shootings in America.

Indonesia’s former President, BJ Habibie, who briefly ruled Indonesia in the tumultuous days after the end of the Suharto regime, passed away. He is well remembered in Australia as the President who granted the East Timorese a referendum on their wish to become an independent nation. The former President lived just long enough to see Timor-Leste celebrate its twentieth anniversary as a nation, a milestone that Scott Morrison acknowledged with a visit to its capital Dili, where he announced that often rancorous negotiations over maritime borders between the two nations had been resolved.

But many a notable Australian endures: John Howard turned 80 in late July, as did Germaine Greer in late January. You could not find two Australians more different in temperament and outlook, but it is a credit to Australia that both have been able to influence our nation for the better. Barry Humphries, who is about to commence his final theatrical tour, is a spritely 85!

Many a politician can also have a second temporal life. Canadians go to the polls on 21st October to determine whether Justin Trudeau will be granted a second term in office. With apologies to Sinatra, Sarah Henderson, the former member of the House of Representatives for the Federal seat of Corangamite, was knocked down in May but is back on her feet in September through filling a casual vacancy in the Senate left by Mitch Fifield, who now begins his ambassadorial career at the United Nations. Henderson’s appointment means that, for the first time in the Commonwealth’s history, the Senate has equal numbers of male and female members. My apologies to any who take offence at my use of such binary descriptors.

Some choose to just create offence and unedifying mischief. Alan Jones clearly believes that his remarks at a Young Liberal dinner in 2013 that Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame” whilst she was Prime Minster and that she should “be put in a sack and towed out to sea” were either justified or misunderstood. Why else would he have recently suggested that New Zealand’s Prime Minister should have “a sock shoved in throat” after he accused her of lecturing our Prime Minister on the issue of climate control? A grudging apology from the broadcaster followed, but his motif of aggression towards disliked female political opponents is indelible, so much so that many an advertiser broke their contracts with his programme.

Public comment and controversy after death breaks the Latin convention of "De mortuis nil nisi bonum"; however, some people’s legacies continue to stir the emotions.

One of Bob Hawke’s daughters felt compelled to go to court to argue for a fairer division of his estate, which was all left to his biographer, who later became his second wife. Maybe the need to cover legal costs is why his sole beneficiary and widow felt compelled to tawdrily auction many of the former Prime Minister’s personal mementos. In reverential America, such items would probably have resided in a Presidential library, but in the working-class democracy of Australia everyone can “own a slice” of a former leader.

Revered Australian artist John Olsen is also in court fighting over family fortunes. He is arguing that his step-daughter, whose mother was his third wife, pressured her during her terminal illness to siphon three million dollars from the estate to herself.

Where there is a will, there are clearly emotions. Pop star Michael George’s de-facto boyfriend of many years was excluded from George’s $AUS 172,000,000 will and was required to leave their London house. Before he left, Fadi Fawaz, is alleged to have embarked on a spree of destruction to the property which has seen him be charged with aggravated criminal damage. Wham, indeed!

Closer to home, the State Member for Burwood in the Legislative Assembly, Will Fowles, took leave from the Parliament to address mental health issues after he destroyed a hotel room door in Canberra. Maybe he was upset that the manufacturer of Victoria Bitter is now owned by Japanese brewer, Asahi. A cup of tea and a biscuit may be a better alternative, but now Arnott’s is owned by an American private equity firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, who recently purchased the iconic biscuit maker from Campbells Soup company.

Before and after the US Open, ashes of the cricketing and meteorological variety were literally in the air. Fires raged in the Sunshine Coast of Queensland and northern New South Wales during and after the tournament, Hurricane Dorian bore down on the Bahamas and fires ravaged the Amazon Basin in South America’s Brazil. South America is home to many cities that geographers classify as primate cities, which are “cities that are at least twice as large as the next largest city and more than twice as significant” e.g. Brazil’s Sao Paulo.

Using this definition, it is probably fair to describe Australia’s 2019 Ashes cricket team as a primate one, with all its players of secondary importance to Steve Smith. The return from suspension of Australia’s former captain, was the elemental factor in Australia retaining the Ashes on English soil. A century in each innings in the first test at Edgbaston enabled Australia to recover from 8-122 to win the match by 251 runs, in a contest which saw spin bowler Gary Lyon claim his 350th Test wicket.

Smith was unable to play in either Australia’s second innings of the second Test or the third Test due to a concussion suffered because of a Jofra Archer delivery felling him after striking him underneath Smith’s helmet. His absence from the third Test saw the primary force of Ben Stokes take England to a thrilling one wicket win. England was set an improbable 362 to win and were floundering at 9/286. However, Stokes scored an extraordinary 135 not out, including eleven fours and eight sixes, to steer England to the most improbable victory. Returning to the side for the fourth Test, Smith scored 211 and 82 to ensure a comfortable Australian win.

As the fifth Test commenced Smith had scored 671 runs at a better than ‘Bradmanesque’ average of 134.2, more than twice the next best batting average of Marcus Labuschagne and more than five times a better average than the third ranked Australian batsman, Travis Head. Primacy confirmed. Smith’s co-conspirators in the ‘South African Sandpaper Scandal’, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, did not fare as well upon their return with respective averages in the first four Tests of 9.87 and 11.

At the same time as Smith was performing his heroics, another of Australia’s prominent sportsmen, who has been regularly fined and suspended, Nick Kyrgios, was, for a brief shining moment, displaying genuine resolve and effort on the tennis court. He won the Washington Series 500 tournament in early August to record his second ATP victory. To do so he had to beat two ‘Next-Gen’ players: Tsitsipas in the semi-final and Russia’s Danill Medvedev in the final. His victory followed Alex De Minaur winning the title in Atlanta a week earlier.

However, it did not take long for Kyrgios to confirm that he is occasionally erratic and typically egregious. At the Canadian Open he lost in the first round and hurled abuse at all and sundry for the absence of courtside white towels. Next, it was Cincinnati. After losing to Khachanov in the second round, a vile tantrum that started on court and ended with him smashing racquets in the hallway to the locker room, saw him fined $167,000.00. At the US Open he accused the ATP tour and its officials of being corrupt, before withdrawing the remark. During his straight sets third-round loss to Andrey Rublev, the player who beat Federer in Cincinnati, Kyrgios was exclaiming on court that his eyesight and performance were inferior because he had been playing the computer game ‘Call of Duty’ too much. If only it were that simple.

By contrast, Ash Barty continued to display her impeccable manners over the American summer, but her French Open form eluded her. She lost in the second round of the Canadian Open, the semi-finals at Cincinnati and the fourth round of the US Open to China’s Wang Qiang. Although Barty made the final of the US Open Doubles, she was unable to defend her title , as she and Azarenka were beaten in straight sets by Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka from Belgium and Belarus.

Remarkably, given the caprice of the top-ranked female players’ performances, Barty managed to lose and then regain her World No.1 ranking by the end of the American summer, without having won a tournament.

Away from Australian disappointments, the tournaments before the US Open confirmed the pedigree of known champions and the precociousness of those who may be the champions of the future. Nadal won his fifth Canadian Open, beating Daniil Medvedev in straight sets, having won his first in 2005. Victory in Montreal was Nadal’s 35th Masters 1000 title extending his lead on that honour board to two over Djokovic. For the first time since 1969, Canada had one of its own claim the Women’s Title. Bianca Andreescu won the title after Serena Williams, who en route to the final beat Naomi Osaka in their first match since their contentious 2018 US Open Final, could not compete in the final because of injury. The tantalising prospect of 19-year-old Andreescu playing the soon-to-be 38-year-old Williams could not be witnessed. Little did anyone think that this clash of the generations would be postponed until the US Open final.

At the Cincinnati Masters two of the promised next generation of champions made an impression. Russia’s Andrey Rublev upset Roger Federer and Danill Medvedev beat Djokovic in the semi-final. After losing two successive finals, Medvedev claimed his first Masters title by beating Goffin in the final. Prior to New York, Medvedev had strung together the best form of any male player. Madison Keys, who has not lived up to her promise after being runner up in the 2017 US Open, claimed the Women’s title.

The inexorable effects of passing years upon tennis careers were apparent in the first week of the US Open. Serena thrashed Maria Sharapova, who must now be considering retirement along with Kei Nishikori. A finalist at New York in 2014, Nishikori lost in the third round to Australia’s Alex De Minaur. The once indomitable Bryan brothers lost in the third round of the Men’s Doubles, a title that was won by the recently crowned Wimbledon champions from Colombia, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah. The baton has passed from the Bryans to Bogota! Some champions held firm, with Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray successfully defending their Mixed Doubles’ title.

If certain careers are waning, there are also queries as to why some are not waxing to fulfil their Grand Slam promise, none more so than Alex Zverev and Karina Pliskova who had unexpected losses in the Round of 16 which was not sweet for many highly ranked seeds. Djokovic retired with a shoulder injury in his match against Wawrinka. Miss Mercurial, Simona Halep, had already lost in the second round; however, when Naomi Osaka lost her fourth-round match to Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic it meant that neither the Men’s nor Women’s draw had their top seeds in the quarter-finals for the first time in the tournament’s Open Era.

The Women’s quarter-finalists reinforced the generation gap. One player, Serena had 23 Grand Slam titles, the remaining seven had none!

Speaking of seven and nil, this was the summary of Roger Federer’s match record against Grigor Dimitrov prior to their quarter-final. In 2017, Dimitrov took Nadal to the brink of defeat before losing a memorable five set semi-final at the Australian Open. If he had won that match, he would have played Federer.

Close to three years later, Dimitrov harnessed his talent and defeated Federer in five sets, thus ending the chance of Federer playing Nadal in the final. Federer had to take an injury break late in the match and conceded his back was restricting his movement, which was apparent to all as the fifth set careered away from him 2-6. As a courtside journalist presciently observed after the match, “Father Time remains undefeated.” Federer is now winless in New York since 2008.

His frustration with the march of the inevitable was reflected in an atypical post-match press conference earlier in the tournament when he said he was “sick of listening to the s*** about how I tell the tournament what Roger wants and when Roger plays.”

Dimitrov confirmed his mercurial talent with a straight sets loss to Medvedev in their semi-final. Nadal defeated the plucky pint-sized Argentinian Diego Schwartzman in their quarter-final and won his semi-final against Italian Matteo Berrettini, who was playing his maiden Grand Slam semi-final.

Serena Williams, still searching for a 24th Grand Slam singles title to equal the record of Margaret Court, was in ominous form as she reached the final. She won her quarter-final against Ashleigh Barty’s conqueror, Wang Qiang, 6-1 6-0 and won her semi-final against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, also now recognised as Gail Monfils’ girlfriend, almost as easily. Svitolina was playing in her second, and second successive, Grand Slam semi-final, but had no answer to Serena’s power. Serena’s victory was her 101st singles win at the US Open, drawing her level with the record of Chris Evert, also a six-time champion. To eclipse Chris’ record, Serena would have to defeat Andreescu, the Montreal champion who had stirring quarter and semi-final victories against Elise Mertens and Belinda Bencic.

The singles’ finals presented two comparable scenarios. Two legends of the game were to play opponents competing in their first ever Grand Slam final.

It seemed that after losing the 2018 Wimbledon and US Open finals and this year’s Wimbledon final, the planets were aligning for Serena. Much was on her side. A hometown court. A hometown crowd. She even had the secular Goddess of modern women’s tennis, Billie-Jean King, tweeting her prayerful hope that Serena would win and then take title 25 in Australia in January to eclipse Margaret Court. What could go wrong?

Well, nothing except everything that was apparent in Serena’s last three Grand Slam defeats. Forty years ago, it was the precocious 16 year old Tracy Austin that outplayed Chris Evert to win her first Grand Slam title. This year it was 19-year-old Andreescu, playing in only her fourth Grand Slam tournament, and her first US Open, who upset a formidable champion. Andreescu hit the ball harder, was more athletic, displayed a bolder shot selection and displayed the fearlessness of audacious youth. She broke Serena in the first game of the first set and raced to a 6-3 5-1 lead before Serena hit some sort of rhythm. Under the pressure from the power and variety of Andreescu’s shots, the potency of Serena’s serve deserted her. To Serena’s credit, did not implode as last year. She rallied to 5-5 in the second set, but in doing so exhausted her reserves. Billie Jean’s rather vengeful prayer remains unanswered. Andreescu became Canada’s first ever Grand Slam singles champion. It is worth remembering that Andreescu was born three months before Serena won her first Grand Slam title, also at the US Open! Age and experience do not seem to always overcome youth and enthusiasm on a tennis court.

The Men’s final was a classic encounter. After winning the first two sets Nadal appeared headed for a comfortable victory. However, Medvedev rallied to take the third and fourth sets. Nadal had to save break points at 0-1 in the final set and was broken when serving for the match at 5-2, but prevailed 6-4 in the final set after nearly five hours on court.

It was a heroic win by one of the game’s greatest ever competitors. Rod Laver, the Grand Slam winner of 1969, presented the trophy to Nadal whose relief and joy was apparent to all.

Do we all remember how for many years Roy Emerson’s haul of 12 Grand Slam titles was the Mt. Everest of tennis that no one could scale? It is hard to comprehend that Nadal has won 19 titles at a time when his greatest rival has won 20! In my last article I suggested that Nadal, Federer and Djokovic would be the visages on tennis’ Mt. Rushmore. Maybe there is now a case that Nadal and Federer be the K1 and K2 of tennis’ Himalayas.

How long can this remarkable domination continue? There can be no doubting that the intense emotion of Nadal’s victory came from his recognition that he will not play for ever. Eras do end. A ‘Winxless’ Cox Plate looms for the first time in five years. Sally Pearson has announced her retirement with insuperable injuries preventing her from adding to her two World Championships, two Commonwealth Games victories and her memorable Olympic victory in London on a drizzly night in 2012. Nadal, Pearson and Winx are all champions whose efforts have gained them distinction and our admiration.

Grand Slam titles, Olympic Gold Medals and Cox Plates are symbols of an extraordinary level of success. They define and distinguish. However, if you do not recognise feats of distinction and those that achieve them, your society will be less distinguished. I sometimes wonder whether, in our contemporary rush to prove that we are an “inclusive society” in which everyone is “valued”, we have lost sight of the importance of distinction and distinguished behaviour.

When I visited my dearly departed friend Mark Williams in palliative care in the Royal Melbourne Hospital, I was struck by how common everything appeared. Nurses wore the same anodyne jumpsuits as the cleaners. The specialists, surgeons, Registrars and orderlies were indistinguishable. It was as if recognition of ability, experience and seniority had been deliberately obliterated.

If we have no standards and points of distinction how are they set or lived up to?

The same problem exists in education. The annual wailing about our nation’s NAPLAN results took place recently. So, here is the formula that is currently employed: spend more money on school facilities, boast about retention rates, create bureaucracies that place increasing workloads for schools and teachers to satisfy registration requirements, burden the curriculum with social agendas, demand inclusivity and empathy as educational goals when they are unquantifiable emotions, ensure the best and brightest have few incentives to teach, have teachers teach to COMMON outcomes , complete COMMON testing and, shock, horror, we have COMMON, undistinguished results.

Another formula seems far simpler to me: Quality in the classroom, quality outside of it.

Why have we flocked to watch the great three play for so many years? Why do we still reverentially talk about their equally distinguished predecessors? The answer is that they play, and have played, with a distinction that elevated the quality of the sport - for the benefit of everyone. Nadal, who is rumoured to be married in the next few weeks, has again brought distinction to himself and his sport and reminded us of how uncommon and distinguished greatness is.

Spinoza observed that, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” At the end of the ‘Fedal’ year of 2019 , Stephen Spender could only agree that Nadal is indisputably amongst those he would classify as the “truly great” . To paraphrase Spender, Nadal’s fourth US Open victory saw his rare excellence “sign the Big Apple’s humid and vivid air with his honour.”

Maybe next year the Grand Slam scoreboard will have a 20/20 ‘Fedal’ scoreline? If it did, it would be a vision splendid. Perfect hindsight will not be needed to appreciate its greatness and that of those who created it. For now, 20/19 is remarkable, excellent and rarefied enough.

Julian Dowse,

15th September, 2019

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