Tennis’s seasonal place in the sporting consciousness makes the Australian Open even more special
“Oh, the tennis is on…”
It says something of tennis’s now almost exclusively seasonal place in the sporting consciousness that the arrival of the Australian Open this year seems somewhat abrupt.
There was a time when the tennis was, in a sense, always on. Whether that meant Australians were watching or playing.
That was before even once-high profile international sports were pushed to the media margins by the exhaustive — and often exhausting — coverage of the predominant football codes; many suburban courts were sold to property developers and in an era when general interest extended beyond the four majors and the odd Australian triumph.
This summer the tumult in the Australian cricket team — and the enthralling series against India — has sucked what media oxygen remains for non-pigskin matters.
Then there has been the change in tennis broadcasters with Nine replacing the longtime home of tennis, Seven.
This has thrown those of us in the ageing tennis-viewing demographic who still turn on half expecting to hear Garry Wilkinson or Peter Landy calling a match between Johan Kriek and Dale “The Animal” Collins.
Nine has also pushed much of the lead-up tournaments onto so-called “secondary channels” where, bizarrely, they are considered inaccessible by those who apparently still don’t realise GEM and GO are as easy to find as the so-called primary channel.
Perhaps this is why the marsupial hugging period — photo opportunities featuring statuesque Belarussian stars clutching koalas are as much a part of the tennis season as heat exhaustion and tanking — has seemed unusually low key.
Or maybe we have come to take the biggest annual international event on the Australian sports calendar somewhat for granted until the first line-call of the main event is disputed.
If so, this is in no way reflective of what the Australian Open, and this edition in particular, will — pardon the pun — serve up.
Roger Federer will play his 20th Australian Open and attempt to win his seventh title and 21st major; Serena Williams turns up for an 18th time hoping to add an eighth Australian Open trophy to her collection of 23 major titles and equal Margaret Court’s record.
As we have stated in this place previously, the term #GOAT — Greatest of All Time — is unfortunate because it prompts so many with no real feel for history to anoint the latest as the greatest.
Yet even allowing for the parallel careers of Rod Laver and Court, surely there has never been a time when two players with more compelling cases to be considered the respective GOAT in their sport were so evidently on show.
The contrast between the beloved lilywhite Federer and the far edgier and more controversial Williams only enhances the rare treat those clutching the golden ticket to greatness that Rod Laver Arena seat holders have experienced for several years now.
As ever we will swoon at Federer’s every stroke and utterance, while the reaction to Williams after her US Open tantrum will give some idea if the goodwill engendered by her cumulative deeds outweigh the occasional unfortunate outburst with tennis tragics.
What the two greats share is remarkable longevity.
In Williams’ case this has been despite the early-career belief she would be distracted by outside interests and the later-life return from a difficult birth; for Federer a relatively ornate game has endured both the emergence of worthy rivals Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and also the physical transformation of a game now largely populated by muscular giants.
If the now routine appearance of tennis royalty is not enough to get you excited about this Australian Open, the parochial interest is both strong and, thankfully, not confined to obsessive psychological analysis of two meteoric males.
Yes, yes. Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic will create the headlines in the early days of the tournament and, should they win their daunting respective first round matches against Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic, for some time beyond.
But if you are one of those sports fans who rates athletes on their relative physical, mental and emotional investment, then Ash Barty is your woman.
Not least because the Queenslander had to conquer her fears and frailties before emerging as a world class player.
Or get to know Australia’s rising star Alex de Minaur, whose rather refreshing challenge is that he might have expended too much energy before the tournament by putting his heart into winning the Sydney International, while Kyrgios and Tomic played a tepid warm-up match at Kooyong.
Despite the dominance of the top men — Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won 13 of the past 15 titles — perhaps the greatest aspect of the full fortnight of the Australian Open is that, at least until the final, you can still expect the unexpected.
The fans who turn up to the Australian Open for a ceremonial early round victory by Federer and Williams will, you hope, be even more engaged in the opening rounds by the emergence of the next Marcus Baghdatis, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or some other surprise packet who goes deep into the second week.
Regrettably, given tennis doesn’t grip the consciousness of the ecumenical sports fan throughout the years as much as it once did, these breakout performers tend to be shooting stars.
The virtual death of the Davis Cup will remove another non-seasonal link to the game.
But, in a way, this only makes the two weeks of the Australian Open, when we all become fans and experts again, special.