Two weeks in Oz: How Australia allowed escape for players, fans

Two weeks in Oz: How Australia allowed escape for players, fans

It was fun in Oz while it lasted: Looking back at two weeks of drama Down Under, and saying thank you to Melbourne and the Australian Open for making us appreciate how good normalcy can feel, and sound.

If you’re like me, you woke up automatically at 6:00 A.M. this morning, threw your legs out of bed, and started to walk toward your living room before you realized there was no more tennis to watch. Instead, sadly, it was back to the dull normal of local news. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to return to morning reports on traffic, weather, school closings, and the ups and downs of the vaccine rollout.

For the past fortnight, I haven’t had to pay as much attention to the unfortunate facts of pandemic life, because I could travel, through my TV set, to a land that has largely driven the virus it from its shores. Australia in 2021 has never felt more like its nickname, Oz. It’s a land where a Grand Slam can feel, and sound, properly grand.

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It wasn’t easy getting there. For two weeks, I'd gone to bed at midnight or 1:00 A.M. and been startled into consciousness by my alarm at 6:00 each morning. By 6:01 I had staggered out of my pitch-dark bedroom. By 6:02 I had the coffee-water boiling and had landed, still dazed and bleary-eyed, on the couch. Once there, I turned on the TV and tried to get a handle on what was happening in Melbourne Park.

This is not an ideal way to view or cover tennis. But for those of us who live on the East Coast of the United States, that early-morning wake-up call during the Australian Open can be a moment of special excitement and suspense. How many times have we turned on the TV and seen that a match we thought would be over hours ago is still going, into a fifth set? How many times have we tuned into the latter stages of a stunning upset, and realized something big was happening just beyond the buzz inside Rod Laver Arena? Getting up as the drama of a match is reaching its peak is not a bad way to start the day.

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This was doubly true in 2021, when nobody was sure the event could even be held. Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director, enjoyed far less sleep than any of the rest of us—three hours on most nights, he said. But he says he would do it all again if he had the choice, and certainly tennis fans around the world would agree. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as grateful to have a Grand Slam to immerse myself in.

As always, more happened in those two weeks than we can easily recall.

I was shocked when I looked back at the draw this morning and rediscovered that the event began with a stellar duel between two Next Genners, Denis Shapovalov and Jannik Sinner. From there, we spent our late nights and early mornings watching Venus Williams bravely finish her first-round match after rolling her ankle. Nick Kyrgios set John Cain Arena on fire for three rounds. A fan flip Rafael Nadal the bird. Jessica Pegula knock out Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina on her way to her way to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Fabio Fognini and his countryman Salvatore Caruso finish their five-setter with a war of words and hand gestures.

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We watched Su-Wei Hsieh inject some whimsical fun into the bubble with her shots and her laugh. Stefanos Tsitsipas exorcise a few demons with a five-set comeback win over Nadal. Garbiñe Muguruza reach the brink of victory against Naomi Osaka, and go no farther. Aslan Karatsev coolly and calmly, and with a rocket forehand, emerge from qualifying to make the semis. Ashleigh Barty lose her way, suddenly and thoroughly, at her home Slam again. Karolina Muchova and Jennifer Brady stage a heart-attack-inducing, multiple-match-point, multiple-break-point concluding game to their semifinal. Serena Williams put her hand over her own heart as she walked off of Rod Laver Arena for what could be the last time.

Finally, after all of those Cinderella stories, stories of frustration and perseverance, stories that make Grand Slams the most eventful and overstuffed of all regular sporting events, everything went back to normal at the end. The two players who many of us picked to win the singles titles, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, proved to be too good, far too good, for their final-round opponents. One is 22, the other is 33, but each looks set to have another big season.

For now, the rest of that season will have to wait. No one is exactly sure what 2021 will hold. All we can do now is thank Melbourne and the Australian Open for giving us hope for normalcy in the future. It was fun living in Oz while it lasted.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).