Keeping Tabs, Melbourne: Jan. 13

Sunday, January 13, 2013 /by
MELBOURNE—Each of the Grand Slams has its own style, and so do the different English-language media that cover them. The British, as we know, rev up the hype, the hope, and the headlines during Wimbledon, only to confirm, with bitter satisfaction, that a dark cloud still hangs over the U.K. at the end of the fortnight. In New York, it’s feast or famine for the U.S. Open. The local tabloids mostly don’t bother, considering the Hamptons-meets-Manhattan tennis set outside of their blue collar bailiwick. The respectable New York Times, on the other hand, treats the tournament with the seriousness of a political convention. The Gray Lady goes all in on reporting, but stays light on opinion and outrage.
 
The Aussies do an excellent job of splitting the difference. The daily papers here greet the traveling tennis circus with a mix of enthusiasm, thoroughness, and snark. There are front-page features, full-length profiles, historical pieces, fashion round-ups, and party gossip, but what the Aussies excel at is the column. Unlike in the U.S., tennis players remain a symbol of the culture in Oz, a part of how Australians see themselves. That’s a perfect subject for the thoughtful blowhards of the world.
 
As we close in on opening day, there’s no shortage of hope and fear for the local heroes. As usual, Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic, each of whom won warm-up events on Saturday, represent the hope; while Sam Stosur, who has had another dismal start to her season, is causing concern. Or, as The Australian ominously put it in their lead weekend headline about her:
 
UNKNOWN LOOMS AS THREAT TO SAM
 
The "unknown" is a threat? That sounds scary.
 
I'll start with a look at a few pieces that I enjoyed reading this weekend from the Melbourne Age
 
*****
 
The Real Reason for the Tournament Revealed: "Premium Chinese Tourists"
On Saturday, the Age led with a front-page feature on...ball kids? These aren’t just any ball kids, however. The Aussie Open, which partly renamed itself The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific a decade ago, has long courted the emerging Chinese tennis market. This year the tournament has extended that outreach by bringing in, for the first time, six kids from China to pick up balls and take a sweaty towel in the face. 
 
The ultimate goal? As one Tennis Australia spokeswoman told the Age, “[The Aussie Open] is a significant event to promote Australia as a tourist destination around the world. It links directly with Tourism Victoria and Tourism Australia’s objective of attracting premium Chinese tourists.”
 
The article does a good job of exposing the snail’s-pace progress that the Open has made in this regard. Yes, it has attracted Asian sponsors—Kia, Fuji Xerox, and Toshiba—and visitors from China are up 400 percent since 2006. But how many people is that, exactly? Just 2592 out of nearly 700,000 total spectators in 2012. 
 
Spreading the tennis gospel across China is obviously a very long term project. One problem is space, or at least space in crowded cities. Tennis courts may be small in size, but they don’t hold nearly as many people per square foot as, say, a soccer field. 
 
Still, the upside of China is real, and you can understand why the Aussie Open and the tours continue their pursuit of the country. When Li Na reached the final two years ago, 18 million people there tuned in. No recent tennis match in any single market can compare.
 
***** 
 
Putting Them on the Couch
Columnist Tim Lane analyzes the opposing personalities of Rusty/Bernie on one hand, and Stosur on the other, and how their make-ups affect their success on home soil.
 
“How is it that Tomic transforms from a volatile, immature athlete who has fallen out with Pat Rafter, Tony Roche, Hewitt, his father, the traffic police, and various others, into the focused, steady player we’ve seen the past few Australian Opens?
 
And why does Stosur—a Top 10 player and Grand Slam champion—turn from cool traveling professional to stumbling local amateur? Is it simply that for Tomic it’s an opportunity to strut his stuff and achieve quick absolution for his sins the previous 12 months, while the more introverted Stosur seeks desperately not to let people down? That about how it looks.”
 
Lane, with help from a sports psychologist, concludes that Tomic and Hewitt, each of whom have a habit of opening the year big at home and then fading quickly when the tour departs, thrive on the “extrinsic.” According to Lane, Tomic in particular needs external reinforcement, which he gets plenty of at home. In the “lonely, dog-eat-dog environment” that comes the rest of the year, he “struggles and sometimes implodes.”
 
Stosur, on the other hand, approaches her matches at home by trying to “avoid failure" rather than "achieve success." As any athlete knows, that's a recipe for disaster.
 
*****
 
(Good) Works in Progress
The Age's Linda Pearce is perhaps Australia’s best-known tennis journalist, and over the weekend she got time with Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Roger Federer. 
 
Pearce is a resourceful reporter with a sly style. Azarenka begins their interview by sitting her down in her hotel room and trying to convince her of how loose and fun she is. 
 
“On the court, I’m just trying to be so focused,” Vika says, “but look at me now. Am I intense?”
 
“No,” we venture, on cue.
 
Smile. “There you go,” Azarenka says.
 
Well, perhaps just a little, but it seems almost impolite to say so."
 
Each of Pearce’s mini-profiles is well done. We hear Serena hint at "big decisions" in her romantic/personal life that she’s had to make. Federer talks about how he wanted to use this off-season to try to improve his game and get physically stronger. Vika, meanwhile, protests against the idea that changing her temperament has been the key to her success. She’s still, as Pearce finds out, pretty intense. 
 
All three players come across as works in progress who have reached various stages of maturity, but realize they have farther to go. I guess that's one reason why they're champs.
 

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