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As this Australian Open will show, once again, tennis doesn’t need any single player to make it viable, or make a Slam successful
A look at the first two days in Melbourne, as controversy receded and the story of its major tournament began to take shape.
Published Jan 18, 2022
MATCH POINT: Emma Raducanu takes out Sloane Stephens in a marquee first-round matchuo
“The treatment of players who fall into one of these categories goes to the heart of the viability of the Australian Open,” tournament director Craig Tiley wrote last November, in a letter to the country’s immunization authorities. Tiley wanted to know if players who had received only one vaccine dose, or who had been recently infected with COVID-19, would be granted an exemption from the country’s vaccination mandate for incoming travelers.
At the time, when the vaccination rate among tennis players was lower than it is now, Tiley may have been concerned that a significant number of big names could miss the tournament. But at the top of that list, and foremost in his mind, had to be Novak Djokovic. The event had already lost Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and there were doubts about whether an injured Rafael Nadal would make it. Tiley must have seen Djokovic’s quest to break the men’s major-title record as the best chance for the tournament to generate buzz and draw eyeballs.
That’s understandable. But to use the word “viability” is to overstate, or not understand, the case. Did Tiley think a Grand Slam event needed to include Djokovic, or any single player, to be successful? If so, he wasn’t the only one; Tiley’s fears were echoed by Nick Kyrgios.
“If all three aren’t there, it’s a disaster,” Kyrgios said of the possibility that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal might not be in Melbourne. “It’s an absolute disaster for the fans and the people that enjoy tennis.”
Australian Open will be great Australia Open, with or without him. That’s my point of view. Rafael Nadal
This isn’t the first time that Tiley and the Australian Open have been accused of giving a top player special treatment. Three years ago, Julien Benneteau caused a minor stir when he pointed out that Tiley and Tennis Australia, as backers of the Laver Cup event, had an interest in Federer’s success.
“As luck would have it,” Benneteau said, “Federer played 12 of his 14 matches at 7:30 P.M. [when it wasn’t as hot].”
At the time, Djokovic backed the idea that star players earned their perks.
“You have to understand that Federer is a driving force of tennis in terms of revenue, in terms of attention,” Djokovic said.
Few would argue with that. But I tend to agree with Nadal’s view of the Djokovic situation, and the relationship between stars and the sport.
“Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event, no?” Nadal said. “The player stays and then goes, and other players are coming. No one, even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg who was amazing at his times, tennis keeps going.”
You could see the truth of that statement in the last women’s match of the first round, in which Emma Raducanu beat Sloane Stephens in front of a loud and supportive late-night crowd. Last year at the US Open, Raducanu and her fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez made themselves the center of the sports world for two weeks, and more than made up for the absence of Roger, Rafa and Serena in New York. Their final earned huge TV ratings in Great Britain, and drew more viewers in the U.S. than the men’s final between Djokovic—vying to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam—and Daniil Medvedev (though the men had to go up against the NFL’s opening week). Raducanu showed how quickly a household name can be created in tennis.
The beauty of the majors is how, over the course of two weeks, they take on lives and storylines of their own. The event itself—the famous arenas, the big crowds, the late-night matches, the five-set classics—is the star, and you need more than a couple of players to fill all of those sessions. You could see the story of this year’s Australian Open, and the 2022 season, begin to play out over the first two days, as the results came in and the Djokovic controversy receded.
We saw three potential future Grand Slam champions on the men’s side, Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, and Sebastian Korda, look sharp in straight-set wins. Which of them might make a run Down Under? We saw 34-year-old Andy Murray continue his Lion in Winter phase with a five-set win over Nikoloz Basilashvili, and 37-year-old Sam Stosur, who is retiring after this tournament, keep her career alive with a three-set win.
We saw husband and wife Gael Monfils and Elina Svitolina advance impressively; Naomi Osaka bounce back from a long layoff with a win; Amanda Anisimova run her record to 6-0 with new coach Darren Cahill; Daniil Medvedev and Nick Kyrgios set up a must-see second-rounder; Sorana Cirstea send a shock through the grounds with a blowout win over Petra Kvitova.
And we saw a whole lot of contenders, from Ash Barty to Anett Kontaveit to Andrey Rublev to Stefanos Tsitsipas to Paula Badosa, begin their collective march toward the second week, and possibly their first Australian Open crown. Yes, Djokovic’s absence keep us from seeing him go for No. 21, but isn’t it just as fun to see others go for No. 1?
We also saw two teens on the women’s side, Fernandez and Coco Gauff, make early exits. They won’t be part of the story of this year’s tournament, but the women who beat them, Maddison Inglis and Qiang Wang, might be. Inglis is a 24-year-old from Perth who had never won a main-draw match at a major before; Qiang Wang is a talented 30-year-old from China who is making a comeback with a new coach, Pat Cash. For every story that ends at a Slam, there’s one that begins.
“The Australian Open is much more important than any player,” Nadal concluded. “…Australian Open will be great Australia Open, with or without him. That’s my point of view.”
Tennis and its officials should take the same point of view, and trust that their events, and their sport, don’t need any single player to make them very much viable.