Themes, Memes from Down Under

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—We know who won and lost, but what went on between the lines, so to speak, at this year's Australian Open? What were the themes and issues that cropped up over the fortnight?

There was, to start, player safety. There was the philosophy of rule enforcement. There were the gender dynamics of post-match questions. There was the future of Australian tennis's identity, which may have changed over the course of the fortnight. There was more, I'm sure, but they've been lost to the daily churn of a Grand Slam, where news cycles rarely last from the day session to the night session.

Now that those cycles are over, here’s a quick, thinking-out-loud look back at a few of the tournament's points of interest.

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The Not-So-Happy Slam

In recent years, the Australian Open has been the teacher's pet of majors. It has enjoyed a reputation as the most player-friendly Slam—essentially, the Aussie has been the anti-U.S. Open. Officials in Melbourne increased prize money, provided not one but two massage-therapists for post-match recovery, and this year went so far as to release the schedule for the first Tuesday a full 24 hours early. That last one may not sound like much, but the players liked it.

In retrospect, that might go down as the high point in the relationship between the tournament and the pros. For the rest of the first week, the Open, to the surprise of most of us, showed less then total concern for the health and welfare of the players by keeping them on court in 110-plus-degree heat, until a few of them became delirious. Then Dr. Tim Wood, the tournament's medical officer, reassured us that if the heat was OK for antelopes in Africa, it was OK for tennis pros today.

None of which, needless to say, went down well with the players. Like all honeymoons, this one was destined to end; crazy heat or no crazy heat, the pros will find something to grumble about eventually. By the second week, even the massage therapists were under fire. After Stan Wawrinka beat Novak Djokovic to record the win of his career, he went back to the locker room and fired off this angry tweet: “So NO massage for me tonight...They all left...Thanks guys...Great organization @AustralianOpen!!”

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Black Heart Conquers All

It was a breakthrough fortnight for Grigor Dimitrov. He reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and came close to upsetting Rafael Nadal when he got there. 

From a non-playing perspective, what’s interesting about Dimitrov is how much of a citizen of the world he already seems to be. It’s hard to forget that Novak Djokovic is Serbian, but it is possible to forget that Dimitrov is Bulgarian—that is, until his supporters show up in Rod Laver Arena bellowing his name. Dimitrov speaks English well, has trained in Paris and Sweden and now California, is sponsored by Nike, spends a lot of time in L.A. with his girlfriend, Maria Sharapova, and, most attractive of all to a lot of fans, plays like Roger Federer. 

Is Dimitrov a one-off, an appealing guy with a stylish game who naturally attracts fans? Or is he a sign that the borders between Eastern and Western Europe are becoming more fluid when it comes to tennis? The juxtaposition with Djokovic is interesting. Novak obviously has a strong and loyal following, and he entertains audiences wherever he goes. But he’s rarely the fan favorite in big Grand Slam matches—even Stan Wawrinka received most of the crowd love when he played him here in Australia, a place where Djokovic has won four times. That has a lot to do with the fact, I think, that Federer and Nadal still take up most of the global tennis-fan bandwidth (and Wawrinka has inherited many of Federer's fans). But would it be different for Dimitrov if he ever reaches No. 1?

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Rafa Time

In his fourth-round match against Kei Nishikori, Rafael Nadal was given a time warning by chair umpire Eva Asderaki on an important deuce point. In his semifinal against Roger Federer, it was noted, by Federer himself, that Nadal was taking more time between points than is allowed—as of the third set, Rafa was averaging 27 seconds, when the rule at Grand Slams puts the limit at 20.

First, that rule should be changed to 25 seconds. That's the law at tour events, and it's a more reasonable recovery period for today’s game. Even Federer, who plays quickly by any standard, was averaging 21 seconds between points in the Aussie semis. And, as Federer also said, Nadal has improved in this department over the years. In their 2008 Wimbledon final, Rafa averaged well over 30 seconds between points. The ATP’s crackdown on slow play, which began last year, has had at least some its desired effect on the game’s slowpokes.

Now, right after his final-round letdown in Melbourne, may not be the best time to say it, but Nadal can go further. After the warning from Asderaki, he argued that while he understands that he often takes too much time, he shouldn’t receive a violation on a key point. He also said that he wasn’t given a pre-warning from Asderaki to let him know he was taking too long. 

I understand Nadal’s pre-warning complaint. Without a clock on the court, there’s no way for a player to gauge how much time he or she is taking. I also used to agree with Rafa’s assessment that umpires shouldn’t give violations on big points; I thought they should get their warnings in early, before the crucial moments come around. But I don’t believe that anymore. All players, and especially Rafa, take more time before important points—and that can easily become too much time. If a player takes significantly too long at any stage, and a pre-warning has been given, a violation is in order. It’s the most effective prod the umpires have to keep the players from bending the rules.

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Genie Dreams of...

It was a week of ups and downs for Justin Bieber. He was arrested, as so many of us have been, for drunk drag racing, a day after he found out that tennis’s newest star, Genie Bouchard, is a true Belieber.

After Bouchard’s quarterfinal win over Ana Ivanovic, she was asked this question: Who, if you could choose anyone, would you date? The query was posed by a viewer of Australia’s Channel 7, and read by commentator Sam Smith (most of the on-court interviews done by Smith and Jim Courier featured one viewer question). With almost no hesitation, Bouchard answered “Justin Bieber,” and a storm of boos rained down on her. 

Inside Laver, I thought it was a fun moment, but when I got back to the press room I quickly learned that my Twitter timeline didn’t agree. “Why not ask Roger Federer that question?” more than one person angrily wondered. It was sexist, not to mention silly, was the conclusion.

Twitter had a point. Is this really a relevant question to ask someone who has just reached the semifinal of a Grand Slam? But I will also say that Courier asked Nadal about “girls” after one match, and about his girlfriend in particular after another—those weren’t great questions, either, but they were asked. Dimitrov was asked on ESPN about Sharapova. And while Federer, husband and father, obviously wasn’t asked who he would date, it would have been more enlightening than one of the questions Courier did put to him: “Why are you wearing two pairs of socks?”

So no more dating questions for young women players, though I wouldn't classify this one as a crime. After all, it did teach us two things about Genie Bouchard: She’s young, and she’s not afraid to get booed.

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Is That the NSA in There?

This period in time may eventually be known as the Age of Surveillance. Is there a better embodiment of this in sports than the Spider-Cam? The sleek black machine zooms down from the top of the arena to within a few inches of its prey—Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were primary targets—and stares directly at them, its red light blazing. Watching it float around the court, and then return to rest at the top of the arena when play started, it appeared to be exactly what it says it is: A giant, intelligent, and very nosy insect. It’s ingenious, and creepy, and it adds a sinister second layer to a sporting spectacle. Who's watching the watchers? That spider over there.

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