The Rally: Down Under Wonderings

Thursday, January 09, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In this week's Rally, Richard Pagliaro and I talk about what makes the Australian Open unique, and look ahead to the 2014 version, which begins Monday.

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Richard,

This seems like the perfect moment for the Australian Open to begin. It's about 10 degrees in New York; we could use some of that Southern Hemisphere sun and heat about now, even if we can only feel it through the TV screen. I'm heading to Melbourne this week, which will be great, but I almost miss the nights spent watching the Aussie Open at home, late at night. I always looked forward to the mornings when I'd wake up to see that the evening match was still going on ESPN from Down Under. It made those epics matches feel even longer, as if the players had been battling through the entire night. Djokovic-Wawrinka last year must have gone on until late morning here.

While there may only be a month between seasons, it really does feel like a fresh start Down Under each January. The players respond with high-quality tennis, and the neutral-bounce hard courts have a history of producing great matches. Do you have a highlight watching, Richard? One of mine was staying up until about 3:00 A.M. in 2003 to see Younes El-Aynoui beat Lleyton Hewitt, the round before he played Andy Roddick in their 21-19 fifth-set classic. For a few hours, there was nothing else in the world but the television set, and the tennis.

I have to say, though, I don't necessarily agree with Roger Federer that the Aussie Open is the "Happy Slam," at least not when it comes to the employees at the tournament. One year in the cafeteria there, I absent-mindedly walked out with a bottle of water in my hand, and was confronted by a distinctly unhappy worker, who informed me, "You know that's not free, right?" So much for those laid-back Aussies.

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Steve,

Spending the morning mauled by the polar vortex made the thought of Oz's infamously blistering heat index almost soothing in comparison.

Sampras called Wimbledon a “tennis cathedral”; I sometimes think of Melbourne as a tennis carnival. It’s staged in a park, matches can be thrill rides, celebratory fireworks erupt, there’s some alluring late-night activity, and you run into revelers with painted faces singing encouragement in various languages, which provides a bit of a street party vibe.

It may be the most interactive major. Remember when Baghdatis, sporting the scraggly surfer-dude beard, made his inspired run to the 2006 final riding a wave of roaring energy from the chanting Cypriot fans (or, more recently, when the fans exhorted him to smash every stick in his bag and he did his best to comply?).

I like the fact the barriers between athlete and audience are blurred a bit in Australia. Like when Serena beat Justine  Henin in the 2010 final, then said afterward the turning point came early in the third set when, “This one guy was like, 'You can beat her, Justine; she's not that good.' I looked at that guy and I was like, 'You don't know me.' " 

The Roddick presser after he was annihilated by Federer in 2007 always brought a smile:

Maybe it’s because players aren’t always cloaked in the antiseptic rituals that come later in the season, but freaky things happen Down Under, like Safin edging Federer, 9-7 in the fifth, on his birthday in the 2005 semis; or Andrew Ilie’s Incredible Hulk shirt-shredding move; or Hewitt and Nalbandian bumping each other in that four-hour quarterfinal; or the time Nicolas Kiefer threw his racquet across the court, distracting Sebastien Grosjean and getting away with it.

One of my favorite matches was the Agassi-Rafter 2001 semi (until Rafter cramped up). There was a time when seeing Rainer Schuettler and Arnaud Clement reach finals made me think anything was possible, but given Serena’s dominance and Novak and Rafa’s success, I’m not sure I feel that way this year.

Steve, any players you think can pull off a Mark Edmondson or Thomas Johansson-type of run?

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Richard,

You're right that there's an informality to the Aussie Open. Sizewise and atmosphere-wise, it's somewhere between the corporate U.S. Open and the casual Indian Wells. What I like best is that Australians are good sport fans, and they treat tennis like a significant one. Their dominance of this international game in the 1950s and 60s is a huge point of pride for a deceptively small country—there are only 22 million Aussies, believe it or not. Once, in Sydney, I was stunned to hear a flight attendant on Qantas ask me, after I told him what I did for a living, "So when is Wozniacki going to win a major?" (Obviously, this was a few years ago.) Not going to happen in the States.

The Australian Open did once spring surprise winners on us—Johannson and Amelie Mauresmo were the most recent. But more often it has been the site of a breakout performance, like Baghdatis in 2006, Ivanovic/Tsonga/Djokovic in 2008, Li Na in 2011, and Wawrinka last year. I wonder if Stan can take another step or two this time—his game does seem suited to these courts. On the women's side, I could see Wozniacki doing something, if her shoulder holds up. But maybe it's too early in her new coaching relationship with Thomas Hogstedt to expect much. 

Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz, in their own ways, have made noises in Melbourne in the past. No time like the present for Milos, right? I would also mention Bernie Tomic, but I'm not looking forward to another year when he plays well in Oz, everyone touts his chances again, and he pretty much throws in the towel for the rest of the season.

Bernie, Milos, or Jerzy: Which of them, if any, will win a major?

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Steve,

Agreed, I admire the fact Aussie fans value effort and attitude, though Lleyton Hewitt has always been a hard-core competitor and was never revered to the extent of the more affable Pat Rafter. Maybe some of that is generational or a matter of style and personality preference—the way some American fans who were rabid supporters of a combative Connors didn’t embrace a cooler competitor like Sampras with the same fervor.

The Milos, Jerzy, and Bernie question intrigues me because I actually believe Grigor Dimitrov has more ability, athleticism, and a deeper all-around game than all of them, but his Grand Slam track record—he's failed to survive the second round in 12 of 13 major appearances—is as enticing as guzzling water bottled from the Yarra River. Perhaps Roger Rasheed can help Dimitrov play with more discipline, or maybe we'll see more of the same: Flashes of brilliance and mind-numbing shot selection.

If Janowicz was a little less flaky and combustible (though I was certainly entertained by the “How many times?!” rant) I might pick him, not only for his blistering serve, but because he moves better than Milos and Bernie, and of course he has already reached the Wimbledon semifinals. 

Tomic’s flat shots, telescopic reach, and feel for changing directions make him such an awkward opponent. But I’m concerned about the potential collateral damage from his domineering father (imagine a Damir Dokic-John Tomic MMA-style tussle), and it seems that if Bernie isn’t playing in Australia, for Australia, or on grass, he just doesn’t seem all that interested, which is a shame.

At this moment, I'd say Milos is most likely to master a major because he has the biggest weapon in his serve, he can back it up with the forehand, he has the best record of the three against Top 10 opponents, and he appears to be the most clear-headed and driven. The question is, can he upgrade a weak return game and will his body hold out? He’s already had a hip issue, and I think of other big guys like Mark Philippoussis, Joachim Johansson, and Robin Soderling who were vulnerable to injury and illness—and wonder if Milos, who like John Isner sometimes gets dragged into too many draining rallies, can endure.

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Richard,

From what I've seen, observed, read, and heard Down Under, Lleyton Hewitt has never been totally embraced by the sporting public there because he didn't exhibit the traditional work hard, play hard, be-a-good-mate ethos that the great Aussies did in their heydays. Hewitt didn't have enough of a sense of humor about himself, which seems like the ultimate Australian sin. As I said, I've gotten a little weary of the annual Lleyton & Bernie show each January in Oz, which promises much but in the end delivers little. After watching Hewitt beat Federer in Brisbane, though, I may be ready for another round of Rusty-mania. Like Hewitt said, he could "do some damage" in Melbourne.

Thanks for reminding me of Dimitrov, perhaps the most talented of the younger male contenders. But the stat you cite doesn't inspire much confidence. There's always a natural progression, as there is in any field or sport, of young players eventually overtaking the old. But I wonder if this era of tennis could be an exception. There has never been a men's generation like the one currently at the top of the sport—four guys have won almost every title of significance for close to a decade. Among them, you have the two players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are almost surely going to go down as the two all-time Grand Slam title leaders among the men. And right behind them you have two others, in Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who are very nearly as good. The fact that this group has been so unprecedented in its dominance makes me think they could be equally unprecedented in their longevity at the top. 

I keep saying, "Someone will have to win majors in the future," and that someone would logically be 22-year-olds like Raonic, Janowicz, and Dimitrov. But maybe, for the next five years, the champions will continue to be the guys who are 25-27 now, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and possibly Del Potro. By that point, there will be a whole new group of hot shots on the scene—who knows, maybe 15-year-old American Francis Tiafoe will be ready by then.

I'm not sick of the Big 4 yet. Do you think you could be at some point, Richard?

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Steve,

It would be fun to see a non-Big 4 player break through to add another element to the mix (I could see del Potro, in the right circumstances, doing it again) and you can make the case this is the time. Murray is coming off back surgery at a tournament that places a premium on physicality, Federer is chasing form and confidence, Darcis showed how abruptly Rafa’s roll can be detoured on the right day, and Djokovic ran a few marathons to get to recent major finals, only to looked a little drained at the finish line in the last two.

You can view Oz as an opportunity Slam, but I’m still buzzed by the prospect of another Rafa-Novak meeting because of where the rivalry can take their games and the game itself. Ivan Lendl once told us he felt the game changed every five to seven years but that most players were only capable of a couple of evolutions within the career cycle. I like seeing how rivalries can shape a player’s game and choices, and the frequency of Rafa-Novak meetings forces variation because they're at the point where predictability is punished.

That’s why watching Hewitt will be fun, because in a changing game, there's still strength in stubbornness. Living in the mega-spin age, he’s still playing flat, cross-court, without much pace or clearance and sometimes it looks like Etch-a-Sketch options in an iPad age. On some level, there’s a raw appeal of the rage-against-the-machine type of intensity Hewitt (and Connors) exude.

You’re right though, I think Aussies appreciate the self-deprecating humor of Rafter. Rafter seemed like a player who would fight you for four hours then buy you a beer afterward; Hewitt always struck me more as the guy most likely to dump the beer on you afterward. Remember Hewitt ranting against Rebound Ace all those years (“Fix it!”)?    

Still, it’s fun to start the New Year watching the older guys grinding away. As we get older the margins seem to shrink even more, but maybe a little bit of defiance and a lot of desire can still take us somewhere or at least keep us going another year.

Safe travels to Australia, I'll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the draw, Steve.

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