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Australian Open…Eventually, There Was An Epic Tournament

By Mark Winters

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The 110th version of the Australian Open actually did take place at Melbourne Park this year. Yet, with so much attention focused on what was happening off and around the courts, it was almost as if, initially, the event had become the “Distraction Championships” which set about upstaging the first major of 2022.

Before applauding the January 17 to 30 exemplary AO performances, it seems appropriate to wade through an array of the commotion causing issues in order to put the fortnight into perspective…

Who Really Called The Shots…?

It is fitting that the Novak Djokovic “He’s In…He’s Out” minuet tops the Miasma List. In the end, instead of being able to compete for a tenth Men’s Singles title, (he owns the record having already won nine times in Australia), the Serb ended up losing the “I’m bigger than the game…” contest.

As Rafael Nadal pointed out, Djokovic knew the rules regarding the necessity of foreigners being vaccinated when he entered the tournament, “… they were very clearly stated….” The Spaniard went further saying that he was “tired of the circus…” and wanted to get on with playing tennis. He added that the “Australian Open is much more than any player…”

(In a January 15th CNN interview from Australia, Christopher Cleary, the widely-respected New York Times journalist, said that for someone who speaks so many languages Novak Djokovic has problems, at times, communicating…)

After admitting he was unvaccinated in an immigration interview at Melbourne International Airport, Djokovic’s automated visa was canceled and he was taken to a suburban detention center to join dozens of asylum seekers. He promptly launched proceedings in the Federal Circuit Court to reinstate the visa. When the judge appeared to be leaning the way of Djokovic, lawyers for the Department of Home Affairs consented to Djokovic regaining his visa. The Federal Immigration Minister then exercised his right to cancel it. So, Djokovic applied for a review of the Minister’s decision in the superior Federal Court, which found against him and ordered his deportation.

The website of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia crashed as too many people tried to stream Djokovic v Minister for Home Affairs. The sequel Djokovic v Minister for Immigration was also a smash hit that caused the Federal Court website to crash and had to be transferred to YouTube. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

To a greater or lesser degree, Tennis Australia, the Australian Open and many politicians joined Djokovic in the 11 day muck about. Being the Tournament Director, Craig Tiley was regularly pilloried. In the Los Angeles Times, Sports Columnist Helene Elliott wrote on January 16th, “…Djokovic shouldn’t have been allowed to enter the country in the first place. For that, blame Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, who contorted himself into a pretzel to push Djokovic through a dodgy loophole. Why? As always, follow the money….” Some called for his resignation but Tiley and the Tennis Australia Board were unyielding. In a discussion with ABC News, he blamed “changing conditions”, along with “miscommunication” for what had happened.

(A sidebar to the two-weeks of stories surrounding Djokovic is that China’s Peng Shuai disappeared from the tennis news. Even crazier, while his father Srdjan, went to great lengths comparing what was taking place to “the crucifixion …”, it was discovered that in 2020, Djokovic and his wife Jelena became the majority owners (80%) of QuantBioRes, a Danish biotech firm that is working on treatment for COVID-19.)

Denis Shapovalov gestures to his box after defeating Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea in a tough five-setter in the second round.
Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Most fans of the game have an opinion (or more..) to offer about umpires. Keeping it simple, I will go with “No one has ever attended a tennis match to watch an umpire…”

Unfortunately, there were matches where Chair Umpires seemed to be pictograms. Other than calling the score, they did little else. On a sweltering day, Nadal somehow survived the brutal conditions to slither away with a 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal decision over Denis Shapovalov. At the end of encounter, the Canadian destroyed his racquet no doubt because of his ire with Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes for allowing Nadal to control the speed at which the match was played and taking full advantage of medical timeouts.

For as long as he has been on tour, Nadal has regularly gone through a collection of “Boogaloo Down Broadway” twitches and ticks before serving. Rarely has he received a warning for stalling. Channel 9 caught an exchange between Shapovalov and Bernardes…

Shapovalov: You started the clock like 45 seconds ago and he is not ready to play. You started the clock like so long ago and he is still not ready to play. You’ve gotta code him.

Umpire: Yeah. I code him now, now you are not ready to play?

Shapovalov: Code him!

Umpire: For what?

Shapovalov: He’s not ready to play!

Umpire: Yeah but you are not ready to play, because you came to talk to me.

Shapovalov: Are you kidding me?

Umpire: I’m not kidding you.

Shapovalov: You guys are all corrupt! You guys are all corrupt! 

Umpire: What do you want?

Shapovalov: What are you looking at?

Umpire: You were looking at me; there were 8 seconds to play. What do you want? Why are you looking at me like I need to watch the … you have the shot clock. So this…it disturbs me.

Denis Shapovalov and Rafael Nadal at the net during the first set to discuss Shapovalov’s concerns. Photo: Nine Entertainment

Once he reined-in his emotions, Shapovalov told the media that he had misspoken using the word “corrupt” but added the pace of his previous matches had been quick because the Chair Umpire followed the clock. “…It’s unfair how much Rafa is getting away with. I’m ready to play and the clock is ticking three, two, one, towards zero. “I’ve been ready to play for a minute and a half and he (Bernardes) tells me he’s not going to give him a code violation because I’m not ready to play…”

Nick Kyrgios playing at Kia Arena. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

It doesn’t matter if it is watching “footy”, rugby or tennis, Australians have a fondness for supporting favorite teams and performers. In the past decade, “larrikinism” has swung the pendulum from avid to downright rude. In some instances, Chair Umpires reacted to these situations with a “deer in the headlights” response.  

Nick Kyrgios regularly seemed to be driving the car that had its headlights on High Beam. When he wasn’t playing he served as “The Vice-Mayor of Correctness”, unloading about such things as Djokovic’s visa treatment (but somehow neglected to voice a judgement about Renata Voracova of the Czech Republic having her vaccine exemption and visa revoked) and assorted other “Live Streaming” topics (and yes, as long has been the case, it was regarded as “Nick just being Nick…”)

On court, Kyrgios was a featured player in several of the fans getting out-of-hand incidents. After dropping a 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 second round decision to Daniil Medvedev, the Russian, in his post-match on-court interview with Jim Courier, said that he understood the support the Australian received but heckling him (Medvedev) between his first and second servers showed no respect. He went further saying the disruption of play was probably the result of “people who have a low IQ…”

A tweet seemingly from Stefanos Tsitsipas during his match against Taylor Fritz. Source: Twitter

In his semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Medvedev double-faulted to lose the second set 4-6. When he reached the sideline for the break between sets, he verbally “blowtorched” the Chair Umpire for allowing Apostolos Tsitsipas to talk to his son from the stands and not issue a code violation.

The No. 2 seed, who admitted “losing it…”, won the match 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, but he wasn’t alone in his reaction to the “coaching…” Tournament Referee Wayne McKewen and widely respected umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore, who is Greek, stealthily found spots in the tunnel under the Tsitsipas Player Box…and to no one’s surprised they discovered the “Daddypas” (the name is the creation of a long-time tennis devotee who resides in Melbourne) was, indeed, coaching. Stefanos, who became “Bathroom Break Man” famous at the 2021 US Open (which brought about a change in the tour rules in 2022), denied the accusations, but was eventually “coded” during the Medvedev match.

Hyperbole from Channel 9. Source: Twitter

In the doubles, Kyrgios teamed with Thanasi Kokkinakis and they turned the new Kia Arena into a forbidding place to play for their opponents. The “Special Ks”, as they have been nicknamed since they were teenagers, defeated Tim Puetz of Germany and Michael Venus of New Zealand, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, in the quarterfinals.

Kia Arena was opened this year and became the home of the Special Ks until the semis. Photo: Tennis Australia

The bar-fight atmosphere, in which Kyrgios thrived, led Venus to offer, post-match, “On the maturity side, you see why he’s never fulfilled his potential and probably never will…His maturity level, it’s probably being generous to [say it’s] about a 10-year-old…”

Venus, who said that Kyrgios encouraged the mayhem, concluded, “They’ll always be his supporters and he’ll spin it in a way that helps him but, at the end of the day, he’s an absolute knob.”

Kyrgios, after saying he didn’t want to destroy Venus in a press conference, explained that what had been done wasn’t disrespectful, it was a way to create atmosphere…It wasn’t personal, but some opponents ended up taking it that way.

The “Special Ks” celebrating with a chest bump, a routine possibly started by the Bryan Brothers. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Realizing that certain matches could possibly be combustible – Who assigned the chair umpires? (Was it solely the Tournament Referee?) How much thought was given to selecting individuals who had the ability to maintain control if there was a possibility that match could edge toward chaos?

Spectators wearing the free “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts at the Women’s Singles final. Source: Twitter

Control was foremost in the initial reaction to the “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts that were worn by two spectators watching a Naomi Osaka practice session at an outside court. The T-shirts had an image of the former Grand Slam doubles champion on the front and the question on the back. The spectators were asked by tournament security to change into something that didn’t have “political messaging…” The police were then enlisted to confirm that the message on the T-shirts breached the tournament’s conditions of entry. The confrontation video went viral on social media.

Martina Navratilova, a three-time Australian Open Women’s Singles champion, tweeted, “…this is pathetic…it’s cowardly…” The international reaction was even more condemning…which led the tournament to double back and allow the T-shirts to be distributed on the day of the Women’s Singles final. (1,000 T-shirts were given away and a GoFundMe page was set up to raise AU$10,000. The figure was reached so $20,000 became the goal…As of this writing, the total collected is more than $21,000.)

Five days later, Tiley announced, “…if they’re coming in to do what everyone else is doing – to enjoy tennis – and if they’ve got a T-shirt that says, ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’, that’s fine.” He added, “Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of miscommunication and lack of understanding on it…”

Craig Tiley at a media conference for the tournament.
Image: Tennis Australia

The same can be said about the specifics on number of spectators that would be permitted to attend each day, which was originally set at 50% of capacity, then increased twice throughout the fortnight. A total of 346,468 people attended. Contrary to expectations, with Omicron cases having been on the rise in Melbourne, a slight dip in the daily infection rate allowed more spectators.

(As it turned out, the State Chief Health Officer did not provide advice to Tennis Australia for either of the increases to 65% of capacity or to 80%. The official wasn’t asked. The decision was made by the politician who serves as the Health Minister.) 

Why…

…those who cherish the game will almost reverentially discuss the 2022 final rounds of this year’s championships. The scores and the match participants are only part of the reason. The “nothing left…” grit displayed, coupled with the emotion of witnessing what took place, will be cherished.

In the case of Ashleigh Barty’s 6-3, 7-6 Women’s Singles title victory Danielle Collins will be a “forever…” memory. A big to-do had been made about the No. 1 seed becoming the first Australian to claim the trophy since Chris O’Neil, (who was on hand), in 1978. Truth be known there was much more to the result than defeating Collins.

Ash Barty receives the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil

It was an opportunity for the 25-year-old Australian to share not only with the entire country but also with special people like Casey Dellacqua, her former doubles partner, who was commentating courtside and the first to greet her after the win. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a close friend and mentor with whom she shares Indigenous heritage, unbeknownst to Barty had flown in from Queensland to present the winner’s trophy.

After the match, the champion, who comes from Queensland, offered, “It was a little bit surreal. I didn’t quite know what to do or what to feel – just being able to let out a little bit of emotion, which is a little bit unusual for me, and being able to celebrate with everyone who was there in the crowd, the energy was incredible.”

Danielle Collins at the trophy presentation of the Women’s final.
Photo: WTA

Collins nicknamed “Danimal” because she is a never surrender competitor, led 5-1 in the second set but Barty problem solved as she had throughout the tournament, never losing a set and played her way out of trouble. No stranger to pain, Collins had emergency endometriosis surgery in April 2021 after dealing with rheumatoid arthritis issues throughout her career. Following the contest, the 28-year old explained, “…I was having some issues really being able to fully rotate on some of my shots… It was really unfortunate, but did everything I could, tried to push through it, fell short.”

The American’s trophy presentation comments were earnest.  Breaking into tears, she said of her mentor, Marty Schneider, “Thank you for believing in me. I haven’t had a ton of people believing me in my career. 

“So it was a great event for me. Accomplished some new things. Learned a lot of new things.”

The No. 27 seed saved the best for last saying of Barty, “It’s been tremendous to watch her climb the rankings all the way to No. 1 and live out her dream.”

The congratulatory message from Roger Federer. Source: Instagram
The congratulatory message from Novak Djokovic. Source: Twitter

After his Melbourne performance, Rafael Nadal has replaced the storied Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez as the competitor one would choose to be play if his/her life was on the line. Having watched him compete throughout his career, there isn’t a suitable word or phrase to use to describe his formidability.

During the tournament, he experienced a “Miracle”. Two of them as a matter of fact. The first was in his four plus hour endurance run against Shapovalov.

In the second, a five-hour, and 24 minute brawl, the “Ultimate Fighter” outlasted Medvedev 2-6 6-7, 6-4 6-4 7-5. It was the No. 6 seed’s second Australian Open championship (2009 was his first) and more significant, a record setting 21st Grand Slam singles title.

Post-match the emotional champion revealed, “I was repeating to myself during the whole match, ‘I lost a lot of times here having chances’, sometimes I was a little bit unlucky. I just wanted to keep believing until the end.

“Tonight has been unforgettable. I feel very lucky.”

Daniil Medvedev required several bottles of pickle juice and thigh massages to get through the long and arduous final. Photo: Tennis Australia

Medvedev, the No. 2 seed, joins Steve Denton of the US, Pat Cash of Australia, Stefan Edberg of Sweden and Andy Murray of Great Britain (on two occasions) who were back-to-back Australian Open finalists. Not everyone’s favorite because of his brutal honesty, after the match the Russian redefined candid. Before taking questions, he began his press conference talking about his dreams as a youngster. “The kid that was dreaming is not anymore in me after today,” he revealed. “It will be tougher to continue tennis when it’s like this.”

Many of those listening were taken aback. They weren’t able to comprehend the depth of what Medvedev was saying…But, in truth this wasn’t a surprise. Particularly when it is recalled that his favorite player is Marat Safin, another Russian who played the tour listening to a different drum…

The underdogs of the All-Aussie Men’s Double final. Source: Twitter

In 1980, Mark Edmonson and Kim Warwick defeated Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee, the “Super Macs”, in the last “Homegrown” Men’s Doubles final, 7-5, 6-4. In another version, this was the “Special Ks” against the “M & M’s”, Thanasis Kokkinakis and Kyrgios, the cereal duo, stopped Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell, the candy treats, by the same score as the Homegrown contest, 7-5, 6-4. (The wildcard Melbourne winners were unseeded when they claimed The Championships Boys’ Doubles in 2013.)

Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková, of the Czech Republic, proved why they are currently the best tandem in the women’s game. The No. 1 seeds overcame the “Surprise Team”, the unseeded pairing Anna Danilina, a Russian born Kazakhstani, and Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4. The victory was the fourth Grand Slam title for K-S (Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2018, and Roland Garros again last year.) Danilina/Haddad Maia, in the past had played with other partners. They teamed up for the first time in Sydney and finished holding the champions’ trophies. Assuming they will continue the partnership their future appears promising.

Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková, elated to win the Women’s Doubles championship. Photo: Tennis Australia

The Mixed Doubles showcased Tennis Australia’s wildcard selection savvy (as it did with Kokkinakis and Kyrgios, along with Maddison Inglis, who downed US Open star and No. 23 Australian Open seed, Leylah Fernandez, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round). In this event, Jason Kubler and Jaimee Fourlis reached the final but Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Kristina Mladenovic of France, a more experienced pair and the No. 5 seeds, won 6-3, 6-4.

Bruno Kuzuhara, the Brazilian born American, lived up to his No. 1 seeding in Iron Man fashion, enduring a three hour and 43 minute Boys’ final to defeat Jakub Menšík of the Czech Republic, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5. (At the end, Menšík, the No. 4 seed, went into full-body cramping and had to be wheelchaired from the court.) Petra Marčinko, the No. 1 seed from the Czech Republic, downed Sofia Costoulas of Belgium, the No. 8 seed, 7-5, 6-1.

Bruno Kuzuhara on his way to winning the Boys’ Singles final.
Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Kuzuhara and Coleman Wong of Hong Kong were the Boys’ Doubles winners 6-3, 7-6 over Alex Michelsen of the US and Adolfo Daniel Vallejo of Paraguay. Clervie Ngounoue of the US and Diana Shnaider of Russia swept the Canadians, Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko, aside 6-4, 6-3. In the Wheelchair competition, Shingo Kunieda of Japan defeated Alfie Hewett of Great Britain for the Men’s Singles title, 7-5, 3-6, 6-2. The Women’s Singles final was an All-Netherlands with Diede de Groot stopping Aniek van Koot, 6-1, 6-1. The countrywomen edged Yui Kamiji of Japan and Lucy Shuker of Great Britain, 7-5, 3-6, 10-2 for Women’s Doubles honors.

Further Whys…

…include career closing goodbyes and a standalone accomplishment. Samantha Stosur made her 20th appearance in the Australian Open main draw tying Lleyton Hewitt for most appearances by an Australian in the event. (Spain’s Feliciano Lopez also played the tournament for the 20th time.)

Samantha Stosur celebrates winning her first round match against fellow wildcard Robin Anderson. It was her first singles win since February of last year. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Stosur played her final Melbourne singles match again Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the No 10 seeded Russian, who defeated her former doubles partner 6-2, 6-2 in the second round. Once the match concluded, she received a standing ovation before time was taken to salute her magnificent career. Now 37, she won the 2011 US Open Women’s Singles. Between March 2010 and June 2013, she spent 165 weeks in the Top 10 and reached a career-high ranking of No. 4. She was ranked No. 1 in Australia an improbable 452 consecutive weeks (October 2008-June 2017). Topping that, she made a staggering 69 Grand Slam main draw appearances…more than any other Australian man or woman.

Rennae Stubbs (centre), coach and longtime friend of Samantha Stosur, wipes away tears after Stosur’s first round win. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Before the 2022 tournament began, Stosur, who rarely minces words, admitted, “In some ways I was never able to play my best tennis here in Australia a lot of the time. I still made fourth round a couple of times, but that seems to be not a good result when you’ve won a Grand Slam in another country.”

Following the match, when it was her turn to address the crowd, (with her family on court behind her), she emotionally admitted, “I’ve done more than I ever thought possible. I dreamed of winning a Grand Slam and to do what I dreamed of as a little kid, I think is phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for anything more…” She concluded, “It was a really special moment for me, so thanks for coming and sharing it”. Pavlyuchenkova remained at the court during the entire presentation to pay tribute to her.

Samantha Stosur after her final singles match. Photo: Tennis Australia

Stosur teamed with Zhang Shuai of China in the Women’s Doubles and the No. 4 seeds were upset in the second round by Magda Linette of Poland and Bernarda Pera of the US, 7-6, 1-6, 5-7. Stosur’s Australian Open tournament run ended when she and Ebden came up 3-6, 7-5, 11-9 short in the Mixed Doubles second round against Kubler and Fourlis. (But she is planning to play Women’s Doubles for the rest of 2022.)

The mural tribute to Dylan Alcott, painted by Paink, at this year’s Australian Open. The painting features an overlay of Melbourne landmarks.
Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Two days before he was going to bring his storied Wheelchair Tennis career to a close playing the Quad Men’s final, Dylan Alcott flew to the capital of Canberra, to participate in the ceremony honoring him as Australian of the Year. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, (who was a regular commentator in the Novak Djokovic visa drama), presented the award. And as only he can, Alcott charmed those attending. In his introductory remarks he said, “I thought I had no chance, and then I got here and I saw this really good-looking ramp (up to the stage), and I thought: I might have a chance here”.

Sam Schröder of the Netherlands decided not to make Alcott’s departure “Storybook” and defeated him 7-5, 6-0 for Men’s Quad Wheelchair trophy honors.

Recognizing Alcott’s status, the stadium was full to its permitted 80% capacity, Schröder said that the crowd was largest that had ever come to watch one of his matches and the atmosphere was great. He continued, “The Australians are very proud of Dylan, and they showed that out on court. But they’d also cheer when I made points. It was just an amazing energy on court today and in the stands, which really helped me get through it as well.”

Sam Schröder lining up a forehand during the Men’s Quad Singles final.
Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Dealing with “his last match…” drained Alcott, who admitted working hard to not let his emotions get out of hand, pointed out, “…but this was unbelievable. The crowd was so good, so loud.”

Alcott is only 31 but his accomplishments are Hall of Fame worthy. As a 17-year-old, he won a 2008 Paralympic Gold Medal playing basketball. Turning to tennis, he has set the benchmark for Quad Wheelchair competitors. He earned 15 Grand Slam trophies and in 2021 a Golden Grand Slam (winning all four of the majors and the Olympic medal in Tokyo.)

He has talked about his first Australian Open match in 2014 where his parents and family were in the stands, along with a few people who had walked into the wrong stadium. Now look at what Wheelchair Tennis has become. Primarily because of his attitude, “…I’ve been able to cut through is because of who I am and what I say and what we stand for as a community”. What’s more, it’s not about trophy winning, “…It’s about what I say, I guess who I am, mostly being fully proud of who I am, authentically me and challenging the status quo.”

Having turned Quad Wheelchair Tennis into a major tennis activity, he smiled and talked about being ready to turn its future over to the youngsters like Schroder and his countryman Niels Vink, (who were 2-6, 6-4, 10-7 Quad Wheelchair Doubles finalists to Andy Lapthorne of Great Britain and David Wagner of the US.) “… I’m officially a retired, washed-up proper loser, and I love that,” he said.

Dylan Alcott playing his last ever professional match. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The Alcott-Schroeder match was on court prior to Barty’s match with Madison Keys of the US. After her 6-1, 6-3 victory, the winner, in her on-court interview, she said, “…He’s inspired a nation. He’s inspired the whole globe.”

Finally, Alcott was a tradition setter. After every victory, he would fill his trophy with a beer (or two) then drain the cup. Though he lost to Schroeder, he played to form. He filled a water bottle with a couple of “brewskis” and re-hydrated while he chatted with Channel Nine after the match. During the visit, he was startled, “ I hope you don’t mind…Andy Murray just messaged me… ‘I don’t know if I’ve articulated that well but you’re an absolute rock star and inspiration. Thanks for everything you’ve done.’” Alcott paused to regain emotional control and said, “That kills me. Makes me want to cry. Like you’re just a part of it…they don’t even care if you are in a wheelchair…”

Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid, winners of the Men’s Wheelchair Doubles championship. Photo: Tennis Australia

There are doubles teams that have excelled at the Grand Slam tournaments. The Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike immediately come to mind in men’s play. For the women, Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver are often the first names mentioned. After the Australian Open, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid, a British wheelchair pairing, moved past Hall of Famers, Navratilova and Shriver, into history. They did it by breaking the US stars’ record defeating Gustavo Fernandez of Argentina and Shingo Kunieda of Japan, 6-2, 4-6, 10-7 in the Men’s Wheelchair Doubles final. It was their ninth consecutive Grand Slam title. For Hewett it was payback after losing to Kunieda, 5-7, 6-3, 2-6 in the Men’s Wheelchair Singles title round.

Asides…

There are always activities and individuals who don’t receive feature coverage at a major. Here are Australian Open “Asides…” Barty has a special place in the heart of tennis fans. This was more than evident when it was revealed on social media that the Women’s Singles final trophy presentation earned even greater national ratings than the match, because her devoted supporters were too nervous to watch things play out.

*****

Collins remained standing on serve side-changes throughout the tournament. When Jelena Dokic asked in a post-match on-court interview about the curious behavior the finalist joked that the courts are so big at Melbourne Park she didn’t have time to sit down. As it turned out, her physio had recommended she stood during the breaks to prevent back spasms.

Last year, the “Collins Boys…” appeared. While this is not the actual name of the group, the seven young Aussies guys who “barrack” for her are a reality. After the first match, her manager approached the supporters and offered to give members of the group free tickets to her matches for as long as she remained in the event. Since then the CB tradition has continued. This year her guys again turned up for every match. In her speech after the final, Collins paid tribute to their support, describing them as “friends for life”.

*****

Naomi Osaka after arriving at Melbourne International Airport.
Image: Tennis Australia

Defending Australian Open women’s champion Naomi Osaka was upset in the third round, after having two match points, by Amanda Anisimova, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6. In recent years, the two have lived through similar backstories. Osaka’s open book candor about handling mental health issues has been well documented. In 2019, Anisimova, at the age of 17, was a Roland Garros semifinalist. She was being touted as “America’s Next…” Her situation dramatically changed that August when her father, coach and really “best friend”, had a heart attack and passed away prior to the US Open. Overwhelmed by grief, she took a competition sabbatical.

Gradually Anisimova has made her way back. She announced her return by winning the Melbourne Summer Set 2 Women’s Singles title and came into the Australian Open with rebuilt confidence bolstered by the guidance (on a trial basis) provided by ESPN commentator Darren Cahill, (who used to work with Simona Halep of Romania.) Having lost nine consecutive matches against Top 20 players, the 20-year-old Anisimova was delighted with the accomplishment. But she was expansive when it came to her opponent, going into detail about Osaka’s mental health openness being inspirational. 

She told journalists, “Just to spread awareness and try to get rid of a stigma for mental health, I think we’re in a completely different time and this generation is becoming more honest about these kinds of things. I’m comfortable speaking about whatever. I’ve gone through a couple hard years, and don’t mind posting stuff on social media and spreading awareness for other people who are going through tough things.” (Anisimova lost to Barty 6-4, 6-3 in the fourth round.)

In her press conference, a setting in which Osaka used to be visibly uncomfortable, she seemed to be more relaxed. “I’m not sure if I’m going to have regrets about those two match points,” she offered. “I thought she played really well…I think the pace of her ball surprised me, but other than that it was fun to play…I can’t really look in the past anymore…I just have to focus on what I can do in the future to hopefully evade those situations.”

Osaka mentioned that she has begun meditating and add, “I just want to go into this year knowing that I’ll play the whole year and I’ll just have the greatest attitude ever. I’ll fight for every point and even if I win or lose I’ll just go off court trying the best I could. And there’s no way anyone can expect anything more of me because they saw how hard I fought.”

The mutual admiration society of Naomi Osaka and Andy Murray.
Source: Twitter

The weather conditions are always challenging during the Australian Open and 2022 was no exception. Due to the La Nina weather event, this January was the most humid in Melbourne since records began in 1908, which added to the players’ suffering. There were a couple of “spots of rain” during the men’s quarterfinal day. The roof of Rod Laver Arena is usually closed as a precaution when rain is forecast to fall over the tournament precinct. For some reason, this year the tournament and the weather were out of sync and the roof had to be closed halfway between Tsitsipas’s straight sets win over Jannik Sinner.

Jannik Sinner had an easy run in the tournament until he met Stefanos Tsitsipas. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

It was then opened again in anticipation of the next match, the Medvedev-Felix Auger-Aliassime quarterfinal. But play had to be stopped during the third set tiebreak to re-close the roof due to a torrential downpour. It took seven minutes before play began again. (While the roof was being closed, the ball people, on their hands and knees, dried the court using towels to mop up the water.) The delay seemed to revive Medvedev, who had lost the first two sets, 6-7 and 3-6. He endured winning the four hour, 45 minute joust taking the final three sets, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4. More remarkable each player won 182 points…

*****

Alizé Cornet, a spirited performer who regularly exclaimed “Allez” after hitting shots as she played, had plenty to rejoice about. In her 63rd Grand Slam tournament she finally earned a place in a Singles Quarterfinal breaking the record held by Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand who reached The Championships quarterfinals in 2008 after playing 45 majors. Cornet did it by defeating Simona Halep of Romania 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 on a day when temperatures reached 34 Celsius. In a memorable on-court interview with Jelena Dokic, she enthused, “It’s never too late to try again. To be in my first quarterfinal is a dream come true…It feels amazing. The battle we had with Simona, with the heat, after 30 minutes, we were dying.” She added, “I stopped thinking after 30 minutes of playing. My brain was like overloaded. My vision was not clear anymore. My hands were shaking…I thought on the other side of the court, she was not feeling much better than me.”

Cornet made her Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros in 2005. She had made five fourth round appearances in the past. Coincidentally the closest she came to reaching the Last Eight was in Melbourne in 2009 when she had match points against Dinara Safina, who was the Women’s Singles finalist that year. (Further coincidence that was the year Marion Bartoli, was last French women in the Australian Open quarterfinals.) Realizing that at 32, her days on tour were winding down, Cornet admitted to herself that reaching a quarterfinal would happen if it happened. She continued, “Maybe leave it in the hands of fate, destiny, I don’t know.” But after the victory she was clear – “The journey goes on…I still can’t believe it.”

With a ranking of 61 – 50 lower than her career-high No. 11 – Cornet came into the 2022 season acknowledging retirement must be close and that it was now or never for a Grand Slam breakthrough.

“I don’t know if it’s helping,” she said. “I just told myself that if it should happen, then it will happen. Maybe leave it in the hands of fate, destiny, I don’t know.”

As her visit with Dokic concluded, Cornet asked to speak again. “I want to tell you something…How you moved on in your life, I think we can all congratulate you. Because you were an amazing player and now you are an amazing commentator.” The two shared a hug and an emotional Dokic said, “You just made me cry. I can’t believe I’m crying. Thank you…”

Alizé Cornet and Jelena Dokic embrace after Cornet’s kind words.
Photo: EPA

*****

For most players the “off-season” isn’t long enough. Emma Raducanu can speak to the claim. While the Queen made her an MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire – She didn’t have enough time to train because of new sponsor commitments; she changed coaches and began working with German Torben Beltz, Angelique Kerber’s long-time guide; she also tested positive for COVID in December and had to quarantine. Once she arrived in Australia, she wasn’t fit and had to pull out of the Melbourne Summer Set event held before the first major of the year.

Not exactly the ideal preparation for the 2021 US Open champion as she embarked on her first full season on tour. But as she proved in New York, Raducanu sets her own standards. This was apparent in her first round 6-0, 2-6, 6-1 victory over Sloane Stephens of the US. Following the match, the No. 17 seed, told journalists, “…winning a set and then having to fight in a decider is definitely all just accumulating into a bank of experience that I can tap into later on down the line.”

Before the tournament began, Raducanu admitted, “The biggest challenge is to be patient I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Whether that’s practice, whether that’s off the court, I want to be the best I can all the time; sometimes it’s just not very viable.”

She added after the Stephens encounter, “I think 2022 is all about learning for me.”

Twenty-one days without playing tennis resulted in blisters and contributed to her having to hit slice forehands in a 4-6, 6-4, 3-6 loss to Danka Kovinic of Montenegro. Raducanu explained that her hands had become soft and from the first day blisters had been an issue, even when her right hand was taped. The spot would harden, dry out, split again and area became worse.

After playing Kovinic, the Borough of Bromley resident admitted that the problem area was, very deep in the crease of her palm leaving her unable to grip her racquet. Concluding she said, “… it’s very painful, every single shot I hit.”

*****

Andy Murray of Great Britain, a five-time tournament finalist, was given a wildcard in the Men’s Singles. He survived the cannon shots of Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4, to slip into the second round. There he was dispatched by qualifier Taro Daniel of Japan, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Following the defeat, the former ATP No. 1, who is playing this season with a large-sized head racquet, solemnly admitted that even being a tour veteran losing isn’t easy.

*****

Casey Dellacqua and Alicia Molik flank the bronze busts of Maude Margaret Molesworth and Joan Hartigan. Photo: Tennis Australia

Readers who remember either Maude Margaret Molesworth or Joan Hartigan stand-alone in Tennis Trivial Pursuit status. They were inducted into Australian Tennis Hall of Fame and their bronze statues were unveiled in Garden Square at Melbourne Park during the tournament. The 27-year-old Molesworth, who came from Queensland, was the first Women’s Singles champion at the 1922 Australasian Championships played at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney. She was the winner again the next year. She first drew notice in 1913, winning the Brisbane Metropolitan singles and doubles. From that point on Molesworth enjoyed significant success through the 1930s. Because of the complexity of tennis travel in those days, she was unable to compete in Europe until reaching the round of 16 at Roland Garros in 1934.

The Sydney born Hartigan was the No. 1 women’s singles player in Australia between 1933 and ’36. She paid her way to compete in Europe in 1934 and ’35. At the age of 21, she reached the Ladies’ semifinals at The Championships in ’34. The same year she was the Australian Women’s Singles winner, a trophy she first earned in 1933 and claimed again in 1936.

Historically, Molesworth and Hartigan are recognized as two of the game’s most significant players prior to World War II.

*****

It is no wonder that Alexander Zverev felt that the tournament’s COVID-19 testing had come up short. During the qualifying Bernard Tomic pointed out that “there was no official PCR testing” (and tested positive two days later). A day after losing in the first round to French countryman Richard Gasquet, Ugo Humbert tested positive (and began a week-long quarantine).

Ugo Humbert in his first and only round before having to withdraw from the tournament. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

ABC News (Australia) reported, according to the tournament, players were supposed to conduct daily rapid antigen tests by themselves and that supervised tests were being conducted on the day they arrived and between days five and seven of their stay.

After defeating Australian John Millman, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 in a second round match, Zverev, the No. 3 seed, told reporters that players for the most part were “allowed to do whatever we want…so it’s natural that more people get COVID.” Following his own approach to exposure safety, the German explained that with the number of cases in Melbourne, “I haven’t been anywhere but the hotel room and the courts, so I’m kind of doing a bubble for myself, simply because I don’t want to take any risks …” (He lost 3-6, 6-7, 3-6 in the fourth round to Shapovalov.)

*****

Being kind, the Australian Open television coverage in the US was “Abysmal…”. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated Executive Editor and a Tennis Channel analyst, wrote in his January 22nd “Australian Open Midterm Grades” column, “Television coverage in the U.S.: The definition of an unforced error. And this is mostly on Tennis Australia for the cash grab. One can only hope that this is corrected…There’s no better way to kill off a sport than making it difficult, if not impossible, for fans to find.”

In a tweet he said, “If you were authoring the handbook “how to kill a sport”….there are way too many other entertainment options available to play hide-and-seek like this.”

Wertheim added, “ESPN in a statement on the coverage that has frustrated so many of you: Last [Wednesday] night, a combination of factors led to certain matches being unavailable on ESPN+. One of those matches – Fritz vs. Tiafoe – should have been covered live in full on one of our platforms. We have addressed the issue and our plan is to ensure all matches are available live going forward. The combination of ESPN+ and our networks, including ESPN3, increases our ability to deliver comprehensive coverage of tennis majors and bring more tennis to fans.”

Once again – Tennis presentation has nothing to do with love of the game…

*****

Matteo Berrettini in his match against Gael Monfils. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

During Gaël Monfils’ 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 2-6 quarterfinal loss to Matteo Berrettini, the No. 7 seeded Italian, the No. 17 seed’s wife Elina Svitolina of Ukraine was observed sitting in his Player Box squeezing a stress ball.

One fifth of the Women’s Singles 128 player draw was over the age of 30.

During the tournament a Netflix film crew followed Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed. (And no, the filming wasn’t focusing on her erratic service toss…)

*****

According to Darren Cahill, Nadal was serving on average 15 kilometers faster on both his first and second serves than last year. Even more interesting, Madison Keys was returning both first and second serves to the forehand faster than any male or female in Melbourne.

*****

There was a rumor, (though never substantiated), that because Djokovic has a Serbian Diplomatic Passport, besides a regular one, he might use it as a way to remain in Australia. The mention of a diplomatic passport immediately brought to mind Boris Becker’s claim that his Central African Republic Diplomatic Passport, issued in 2018, granted him immunity from bankruptcy proceedings in Great Britain.

(Djokovic’s diplomatic passport is legitimate while Becker’s was never signed by the CAR passport agency.)

In The End…

For many in the tennis community, “The Happy Slam” didn’t do itself proud in 2022. An examination of what took place and more important “Why…” should be undertaken. Finger pointing should not be part of the process. The reasons for the dramatic failings need to be addressed and solutions developed. Fortunately, a complete disaster was averted by Ashleigh Barty winning on the 100th Anniversary of the Australian Women’s championship and Rafael Nadal’s “Milagros” (Miracles)…

Title photo of Rafael Nadal by Sydney Low

 

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