A year ago, the 108th Australian Open, the first played on the GreenSet acrylic hardcourt surface at Melbourne Park, survived bushfires that made the air almost toxic. That, along with one of the hottest fortnights in recent memory, was the story.
At the time, few in the tennis world could ever have imagined what would be a headliner across the globe this year. Health professionals would sadly commandeer the news everywhere. No one could have predicted that the Australian Open would actually be the only Grand Slam to proceed in a “normal” fashion in 2020.
After the challenges handled a year ago, it would have seemed, based on the precedent setting success while dealing with varied difficulties then, the organizers of the 2021 championships could likely be prepared for almost anything.
The problems turned out to be…everything…because COVID-19 has always played by its own rules that follow a fluctuating timeline.
Fortunately, medical officials stepped up and provided unflinching direction through the voice of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. The tournament responded by doing the necessary juggling of more than even they expected, to safely hold the event. It was one that actually required some real Cirque du Soleil highwire skills and a lot more than just juggling recycled bowling pins.
Here are our “Circus of the Sun” 2021 remembrances…
Quarantine For Some – Not Really The Same For Others…
Certainly, most readers are aware of the task undertaken to get a full component of players and their support teams to Melbourne.
At least 15 Charter flights handled the transportation. Unfortunately, because of positive virus tests on three of the arriving flights, 72 players were forced to “hard” quarantine and remain in their hotel rooms for fourteen days.
Being a name is advantageous in any sport or business. Because of their “status”, Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Dominic Thiem and Serena Williams were able to enjoy a cushy, “soft” quarantine in Adelaide. They were allowed to practice up to five hours a day and at the end of their confinement were able to take part in an exhibition showcase.
Meanwhile, things were different more than 400 miles away at the tournament’s home in Melbourne. Dealing with the contagion resulted in a “lock-in”.
Players, coaches and companions were unable to follow a regular training routine for two-weeks. “Room training” became a creative adventure as many player videos brought out. For example, Heather Watson of Great Britain set up a triathlon course in her room pretending to swim in her tub.
For some, it was window and/or upended bed groundstroke and/or volley rehearsals. Dan Evans kept his fellow Brits fit with daily zoom stretching and yoga video lessons.
When it came to the “Best In Show”, Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin was the winner hands down. When he was in school, math was his favorite class. He showed why, letting his imagination run wild and creating an obstacle course using his racquet, room furnishings and a ball. (It is really a shame that popcorn and soft drinks were not made available for the many viewers.)
With so many coping with restrictions, it wasn’t surprising that unhappiness flooded social media. Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, believing he was on a private call, told his agent he felt like he was in jail.
Belinda Bencic of Switzerland and Sorana Cirstea of Romania claimed that the quarantine protocol they had seen before arriving in Australia wasn’t what was actually being practiced. (It must be noted that everyone was notified about the quarantine rules prior to their arrival.)
Of all the strange goings on, no one could surpass the experience of Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, (nor would they wish to…). There was a mouse residing in her first room. She called attention to it in a post and some of the responses to her plight were quite good natured. She asked for a new room…and one cannot make this up…there was a mouse in the second room too…which opens up a lot of questions about the sanitary conditions in rooms at a players’ hotel, one where they were forced to quarantine. (Someone should have asked if the mice were also in “hard-lock down”?)
As mentioned, Djokovic was in soft quarantine. Perhaps he had guilt pangs because of his privileged treatment? Or maybe he had good intentions which crossed the line.
Whatever the reason, he drafted a letter to the tournament, that was leaked to the media, requesting a relaxation of the quarantine as well as asking that fitness/training equipment and so on be provided for each player to use in his/her room.
While his effort seemed to be based on genuine concern for his fellow competitors, a number of players and Victoria government officials were less than enthralled with his intrusion. After receiving criticism, he offered an apology, adding that he had been misinterpreted.
Organizing the dos and don’ts of a quarantine was a monumental task. With such an undertaking, there is bound to be some grief. With all the unique personalities found in the game, each with strong self-interests, it was easy to see why there was discord.
Generally, the dissonance centered on the special treatment that was provided certain players. (It is ironic that the singles trophy winners – Djokovic and Osaka – received special treatment, while the finalists – Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Jennifer Brady of the US, didn’t.
Brady admitted that she is “a creature of habit…”. The No. 22 seed had all her meals delivered to her room, stayed in touch with her coach Michael Geserer and friends via FaceTime, hit balls into her mattress…and was particularly proud of not watching any Netflix series.)
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, the women’s champion in 2012 and ’13, and Angela Kerber of Germany, the 2016 winner, both mentioned that their lackluster first round performances and subsequent losses were the result of being part of the hard quarantine group. (Azarenka, who had trouble breathing in her defeat, said that being stuck in her hotel room where the windows didn’t open was not ideal…but “I’m not going to sit here and [ask]: ‘Should I have come? Should I have not come?’ It’s a waste of time…”)
Benoit Paire, the irrepressible Frenchman who was unable to play the US Open because of a positive test prior to its start, was another member of the locked down contingent in Melbourne. He claimed that there had been a positive test among those who flew to Adelaide (which we have not been able to verify), and it had been glossed over. He added, “…Either we do the same things and have the same rules for everyone. I do not understand why it’s not ‘fair’ for everyone…”
Vasek Pospisil, the Canadian who organized the Professional Tennis Players Association with Djokovic last August, echoed Paire’s feelings, saying, “…this is an extraordinary circumstance. So extraordinary changes to rules (and) exceptions can be made … right?’ Because at the end of the day, that’s the essence of sport,” Pospisil said. “That’s the beauty of sport: the equality of opportunity.”
Alexander Zverev of Germany praised the organizational effort for everything that was done except, “…the only real mistake that there was, was the Adelaide thing for top players…”
In summary, Pospisil, said, “Could it have been better? Yes. Did they do a good job? Yes,” Pospisil said about holding an international sporting event amid a pandemic. “I think they tried, but it wasn’t perfect.”
Osaka – Words Don’t…
Words simply don’t do justice in an effort to describe Naomi Osaka, (who has lived most of her life in the US, now resides in Southern California and represents Japan).
Her aura on and off the court is almost ethereal. The No. 3 seed defeated the surprise finalist, Brady, 6-4, 6-3 for her second Australian Open singles title.
With the victory, Osaka became a member of a rarified group including Roger Federer and Monica Seles, who won their first four Grand Slam championships in their first four final appearances.
As only she can, Osaka said post-match, “It’s really weird when you get to that final point, you start trembling because you can think of the ‘what ifs’. So, for me I feel like I’m living in a ‘what if’ [world] right now”.
Her most difficult match was a quarterfinal 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over No. 14 seed, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who said, “really the difference I feel it was one point…”
The winner opined, “I felt the entire match I was overthinking. There was a moment when I got angry and hit my racquet on the ground. I am mad at myself for doing it. I was stressed but doing it, I released a lot of thoughts I had. It just made me go more into instinct-based tennis.”
She used more than instincts to get through her next match, (the one everyone was waiting for), with Serena Williams, the No. 10 seed. In the semifinal she defeated the esteemed Williams, 6-3, 6-4.
It seems that those both inside and outside the tennis world were well aware that Williams was on a “Crusade For 24”. Further, it is fairly well known that her career has been anything but attention denying. So, it was fitting that she donned a photo captivating pink, red and black one-legged Catsuit designed by Nike to honor Florence Griffith Joyner, (Flo-Jo), the dynamic Olympic sprinter who passed away in September of 1998.
The outfit’s debut was truly fitting because the last Grand Slam singles title she claimed was the 2017 Australian Open. Since then, she has played 11 major championships seeking to tie Margaret Court’s storied 24. She entered Melbourne this year hoping to finally reach the goal.
Perhaps, in an effort, to “playback” the success enjoyed four years ago at the event, she had her own film crew following her progress while in Australia. After one of her matches, Jim Courier, the men’s champion in 1992 and ’93, (who now is an emcee providing post-match interviews on court), asked her about the film crew that was chronicling her every move. Caught off guard, she didn’t respond directly, she merely offered that they were working on a project.
It now seems there will be plenty of B-roll supplemental footage to use whenever the documentary is produced. Following the Osaka match, in her press conference, she was asked if the pause she made before leaving the court to enjoy the crowd’s heartfelt applause was a farewell? Smiling, she said, “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone…” When the next question attempted to go a little deeper, she admitted it was a “bad day at the office…I don’t know…” Then tearing up, she said, “I’m done…” and left the press conference.
After crushing Williams, Osaka was, as she always is, very respectful, bowing, when she approached the legend at the net post-match. “It’s always a surreal moment, just to see her in real life, like close up because I rarely see her to be honest,” the winner said. Osaka added, “…every time I play her, I feel like it’s something I’ll definitely remember a lot.”
Before meeting Brady, the 23-year-old pointed out, “I played her in the semis of the US Open. It’s easily one of my most memorable matches. I think it was super high quality throughout. For me, it’s not really surprising to see her in a final.”
Following the match, Osaka, as only she can, explained, “…You know, it’s really weird, when you get to that final point, you start trembling because you can think of the ‘what-ifs’. So, for me, I feel like I’m living in a ‘what-if’ right now”.
It is almost a Grand Slam tournament tradition. There are always players who are either lesser known or actually not known at all, yet they post impressive singles results. Australia’s own Bob Giltinan became the first qualifier to reach the tournament’s semifinals. He did it in 1977. This time out, Aslan Karatsev of Russia became the second player to accomplish this impressive feat.
The 27-year-old had an unfathomable run in Melbourne that almost matched the size of his formidable calves. A professional for ten years, he had played a total of 18 ATP Tour matches, winning only three and had rung up just $618,354 in winnings during his entire career. He had been ranked No. 114 going into the tournament and his story is epic. In reality, it is almost fanciful.
Born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, when he was three his family moved to Israel where he was introduced to tennis. (In 2020, that country attempted to convince him to play Davis Cup, but he had already committed to Russia.) At 16, he returned to Russia, developing his game first in Anton Chekhov’s birthplace, Taganrog, then moving on to Moscow.
He went on the road when he was 21 ending up in Germany. He trained at the BreakPoint Base Tennis Academy in Halle, Westfalen. He has conceded that the coaching was beneficial but his attitude wasn’t positive and nothing was working for him. Still, he remained in the city and even played some Bundesliga matches for TC Blau Weiss.
Barcelona was his next training stopover, but a knee injury in 2017 caused him to miss six months of competition. Conceding that he had been moving too much, (almost like a living version of Willie Nelson’s song “On The Road Again”), he left Spain and settled in Minsk, Belarus where he has been working with Yahor Yatsyk for nearly three years.
But his “road trip” really doesn’t compare to the actuality of his Australian Open performance. He scored a “career highlight” trifecta, winning third round, fourth round and quarterfinal contests, defeating No. 8 seed, Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; No. 20 seed, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 and No. 18 seed, Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, 2 -6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. (Dimitrov wasn’t completely fit, suffering back muscle spasms during the match).
Djokovic provided a semifinal reality check, ending Karatsev’s surreal tournament 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals. (He was the lowest ranked player to reach the Australian Open semifinals since Patrick McEnroe in 1991, who also happened to be ranked No. 114.)
Looking back on his first appearance in a major, Karatsev said, “…It gives me more experience, more confidence. Now I will be playing all the big tournaments without playing the qualies.”
He added, “…I can play with everyone; to be there and to compete with everyone. I think it’s helped me a lot…I improved my ranking to the Top 50…”
BMP is not a new grocery market chain, a new musical group or a Basic Metabolic Panel. BMP stands for (Jennifer) Brady, (Karolína) Muchová and (Jessica) Pegula, and taken together, they turned the women’s singles into a BMP Show.
Brady made her Melbourne debut in 2017 and reached the round of 16, which had been her best showing prior to this year. She won her first title, the Top Seed Open at Nicholasville, Kentucky prior to the 2020 US Open, where she realized, (at the time), a career defining result reaching the semifinals where Osaka, the tournament winner, was 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 better.
Muchová of the Czech Republic was making her third tournament appearance. The 24-year-old was seeded No. 24. She got off to a rolling start rolling over 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, 7-5, 6-2.
She sidelined countrywoman Karolina Pliskova, 7-5, 7-5 in the third round and followed up with a 7-6, 7-5 decision over Elise Mertens, the No. 18 seeded Belgian.
Next up was her quarterfinal match with No. 1 seed, Ashleigh Barty. Unfortunately, Australia’s heroine finished on the short-end of the 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 score. As is often the case there was more to the match than the score. “I felt like I lost my way with overplaying, over-pressing, not letting myself work into the points and really construct points as well as I’d like to,” Barty said.
Asked about Muchová’s emotional collapse when she trailed 1-2 in the second set, Barty added, “It’s not my place to comment whether she has an injury or not. That’s the physio’s and the doctor’s [role]. Obviously that she’s taken her medical timeout meant that there was something wrong…”.
(In 2011, we covered Roland Garros. Christina Makarova was one of the top US juniors playing the Girls’ event. Her mother, Ludmila, (Luda), who had been an outstanding Russian player in her day, was coaching her daughter.
When she wasn’t attending junior slams with Christina, she was in charge of the High Performance Program at the Barnes Tennis Center, in San Diego, California. Unlike so many parent/coaches, she allowed her daughter to learn by playing the game. She wasn’t a “helicopter” parent.
That spring, I spent a great deal of time talking with “Luda” because of her background in developing young elite players. I clearly remember asking – Which junior girl has the most potential? Without a pause, she said, “Ashleigh Barty.”
From that time on, I became a Barty watcher. Later that summer, she won the Wimbledon Junior Girls’ singles title. For the past 10 years now, I have been captivated by her work ethic, her honesty and her respect for the game.)
The medical officials quickly checked Muchová’s vital signs, then she left the court for almost ten minutes. When she returned, she won nine of the next 11 games. Muchová explained, “I think it was a bit of heat…it got to me. I was feeling kind of dizzy…really lost and almost fainting…So, I asked for help.” She continued, “Definitely they cooled me down with the ice. I was a bit in a shadow. Doctor checked my (blood) pressure, my temperature and everything…I think the ice thing was the main one.”
Pegula, who will be 26 in April, played in Melbourne for the first time last year and lost her initial singles match. This year, at No. 61, she was the lowest ranked player in the women’s quarterfinals where she faced Brady, her long-time friend.
Following her, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 defeat, she offered, “…It was a tough match. I’m happy for Jen. She played really well, really stepped it up, stepped up her level.”
Having dispatched Azarenka, 7-5, 6-4, in the first round and three rounds later, Elina Svitolina, the No. 5 seeded Ukrainian, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, Pegula observed, “…I think the big take away is that I’ve proved that I have the level to play with the top players now which I think is such a steppingstone. It’s not that I haven’t had bigger wins in the past, it’s just the consistency I was able to put together the week before this, beating two top player that have been at the top before…”
Her match with Pegula primed Brady for her nail-biting 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Muchová. After performing a “Nadal collapse on the court” prematurely because of an overrule, it took her another 12 minutes before she was able to actually celebrate her biggest, (at the time), career triumph. “…it took a lot longer than I hoped for,” she explained. “There were a lot of extra points that I really (hadn’t) planned to play. I was so nervous. I couldn’t feel my legs. My arms were shaking. I was just hoping she would miss and she didn’t and she was playing more aggressive.
“Then I would say, I started rambling, mumbling on and on and on and on. It was just point by point, point by point and eventually I was able to close it out.” And it turned out that it was the set-up for her first Grand Slam singles final appearance.
Nothing Ordinary About This Jones…
Jones is one of the world’s most common family names. In Great Britain, it stands second to Smith in the last name “Name Game”. Francesca Jones is second to no one (Personally, I must add the same holds for my wife, Cheryl Jones, whose family is from Alsace-Lorraine, not GB).
Life for Francesca has been far different than it has been for other players. The 20-year-old from Leeds, Great Britain suffers from Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia (EED). It is a genetic disorder that resulted in being born with three fingers and one thumb on each hand. In addition, she has four toes on her left foot and three on her right foot. To make her existence easier, she has had countless surgeries over the years…
Ranked No. 241, she played through the women’s qualifying in Dubai to earn a spot in a Grand Slam singles main draw for the first time. At five, her father, Simon, who like her mother, Adele, is a financial advisor, enrolled her in a local tennis camp program. From that point on, tennis was her game.
From a very young age, she was determined not to be defined by EED. Her self-belief and strong will led her, at nine, to move to Barcelona to attend the Sánchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona.
As she has explained, the fact there was also a school at the facility gave her “the best of both worlds.” The city had become her second home so at 16, she headed across town and joined the Ad-In Portas-Puentes Tennis Academy. Andreu Guilera became her personal coach. From the very beginning, he was impressed by her appreciation of the nuances of the game and her tenacity.
Shelby Rogers of the US brought Jones up-short, 6-4, 6-1 in the first round. Following the match, she observed, “Well, it didn’t start probably as quickly as I’d like but I managed to get myself into the first set. I felt like my tennis was kind of on par at some stages, probably better than hers in terms of when we’re playing some of the longer points. But I think the big difference was obviously she’s got a very big serve…”
When she has been asked about her focus and drive, she has made it clear that her parents, along with their values, are a source of inspiration. More important, she is wise beyond her years and is comfortable offering thoughtful opinions.
Serving at 30-0 Rogers hit a ball that was out but HawkEye missed the call. Jones spoke to the chair umpire but to no avail. She was down 40-0. “I prefer human error to systematic error,” she said when asked about the situation. “Look, it’s a new system and I understand why it’s being used but I think that it definitely needs to be revised.”
Jones also has a clever sense of humor. “I’m not Italian, but I definitely was Italian in my previous life, let me tell you… But Italy is probably my favorite country and I absolutely adore the language. I can’t say I don’t like Italian guys, either…I definitely love Italy, but we have absolutely no connection as you can tell by my strong northern accent. It’s all British…”
As to her message to others, “…I have never doubted that I would be a professional tennis player as a result of my syndrome. I have [however] doubted that I would be a professional tennis player as a result of my ability, as a result of my serve, my forehand, my backhand, the doubts that every professional tennis player encounters on their journey to the top.
“I have never doubted that I will [not] give up. I want to be persistent. I want to just give everything I can and if the result is not what I set it out to be, at least, I won’t have regrets.”
Initially, it was hoped that, following the dictates of health officials, 30,000 fans, split between day and night sessions, would be able to watch daily matches in three separate zones (but not move from one zone to another).
As often has been the case in dealing with the virus, plans had to be altered. A snap [last minute] five-day lockdown was included in the adjustments. It began to take effect during Djokovic’s third round match with American Taylor Fritz, the No. 27 seed. Getting fans out of Rod Laver Arena and on the way home before the midnight lockdown hour resulted in a 10-minute delay.
Striving to be COVID Safe often left Australian players and the rest of the competitors home (playing) alone…
That didn’t bother Nick Kyrgios. Not only was his right arm tattoo sleeve dedicated to Kobe Bryan’s legacy impressive, so was his initial play against US Open titlist, Dominic Thiem. In fact, he won the second set against him, hitting an ace using an underhand serve.
But the No. 3 seeded Austrian battled back winning the third round match, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
In recent years, Thanasi Kokkinakis has had a Grey’s Anatomy textbook list of injuries including back, chest, groin, knee, shoulder, along with glandular fever (mononucleosis). Ranked No. 267, it had been two years since he last played the Australian Open.
Using a tournament wild card, he was stellar defeating Soonwoo Kwon of Korea, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. In the second round he forced Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed who is from Greece, to go the distance before he lost 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4.
Long-time mates Kokkinakis and Kyrgios were given a doubles wild card and they triumphed in their first match, 6-2, 6-4 over Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Julian Knowle of Austria.
Usually, Kyrgios is the headliner. In this case, Knowle upstaged him. The 46-year-old lefthander, who last played a Grand Slam tournament in 2017, was in Australia as the coach of the German tandem Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies. But when Mies injured his knee playing the ATP Cup prior to the Australian Open, Knowle had nothing to do until Harris asked him to play doubles.
The Kokkinakis and Kyrgios fun run was ended by Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Lukasz Kubot of Poland, 6-3, 6-4 in the second round.
Matthew Ebden and John Patrick Smith, another Australian tandem that received a wild card, dropped a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 quarterfinalist decision to Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Filip Polášek of Slovakia. The No. 9 seeds moved on and ended up defeating Rajeev Ram of the US and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, the No. 5 seeds, in the trophy round, 6-3, 6-4.
It always speaks well of the selection when a wild card enjoys success. Samantha Stosur and Matthew Ebden, who were wild carded into the Mixed Doubles draw, were defeated by the No. 6 seeds, Barbora Krejčíková of the Czech Republic and Ram, 6-1, 6-4 in the final. For Krejčíková it was her third Australian Mixed trophy in a row, having also won with Ram in 2019 and Nikola Mektic of Croatia in 2020.
After the match Ram praised his partner’s “three-peat”. He went to say, because of their time as competitors on the tour, it was always a pleasure to play Ebden. He added that “Sam is obviously a legend…and it was a real pleasure to share the court with you guys.” Ebden, in his on court comments after the match, offered kudos saying the champions were “flawless”.
Krejčíková finished 1-1 in the finals count losing with countrywoman, Kateřina Siniaková, 6-2, 6-3, in a No. 3 versus No. 2 seed Women’s Doubles final to Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
It is not often that a sponsor mention is included in our Grand Slam tournament wrap-ups but Ralph Lauren was singled out for putting the names of “First Responders” on the back of the shirts worn by US Open court officials and ball people last year.
As the Official Outfitter of the Australian Open, the company “kitted out” members of the 380 strong ball people’s group. (It was the largest in the tournament’s history.) Ever-inventive, the youngsters wore Earth Polo shirts, made from a yarn derived from recycled bottles. The material stretches easily, is moisture absorbent and offers UV sun protection.
Logan Wells of Balwyn, Melbourne and Eliza Chong of Hampton, Melbourne were singled out by the tournament as the top ball people. The 16-year-olds earned the recognition because of their exemplary work and “desire to do more…” attitudes.
Dylan Alcott, the legendary wheelchair player, won his seventh consecutive Australian Open Quad Wheelchair singles championship. That’s right, it’s not a typo, he earned his “seventh consecutive” trophy defeating Sam Schröder of the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-0 in the final.
Alcott also teamed with countryman Heath Davidson in the doubles. The three-time defending champions edged Andy Lapthorne of Great Britain and David Wagner of the US, 6-2, 3-6, 10-7.
In a fiercely contested Men’s Wheelchair final, Joachim Gerard of Belgium upset four-time major singles winner Alfie Hewett of Great Britain, 6-0, 4-6, 6-4. In Great Britain’s triumph over France, Hewitt and Gordon Reid claimed the Men’s Doubles title 7-5, 7-6, over Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer.
In the Women’s Singles, Diede De Groot of the Netherlands escaped with a 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 victory over Yui Kamiji of Japan. De Groot and countrywoman Aniek Van Koot took the doubles championship, defeating Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa and Lucy Shuker of Great Britain, 6-4, 6-1.
Djokovic – A Champion Who Doesn’t Act Like One
What can be said that really defines Novak Djokovic? Ah yes, the top seeded Serbian throttled No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia unmercifully 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the final. In the process, he solidified his No. 1 ranking, and collected a record setting ninth Melbourne singles title, (which is his 18th Grand Slam championship).
But, as he regularly seems to do, the 33-year-old self-destructed. This time out, he didn’t stage a COVID-19 spreading tour or petulantly hit a lines person with a ball.
As mentioned above, he decided to become “The Spokesperson” for tournament participants and sent a note to Tournament Director, Craig Tiley offering quarantine changes for those locked down in Melbourne. Many players, as noted earlier, were irate, stating clearly and emphatically that he didn’t represent them.
As is so often the case when his “seeking fan’s love” efforts bring about criticism, he claimed he was being vilified, he said he did it out of concern for other players and what he did was actually thoughtful and that he had been misunderstood.
Because of his popularity, Kyrgios pretty much enjoyed an “open mic” with the media during the tournament. He didn’t mince words calling Djokovic out.
After such a fiasco an ordinary player would be cautious, even reticent in his press dealings – but not Novak Djokovic. In his match with Taylor Fritz of the US, he was comfortably ahead 7-6, 6-4 when his left foot slipped and he slid on the Melbourne logo behind the baseline. He requested a medical timeout and the trainer worked on his right-side midsection. (He received another trainer visit later in the match.)
Fritz took the next two sets, 6-3, 6-4 but Djokovic dramatically recovered to claim the last set 6-2 (in his 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 third round victory).
After the last point was played he unleashed a bellow and did his rote match completion self-aggrandizing act, throwing his arms wide waiting for adulation from the crowd-less Rod Laver Arena. Then, in the post-match interview, he was equally bold, “I know it’s a tear, definitely, of the muscle.”
When queried at his press conference about the supposed injury Djokovic suffered, Fritz, who is the epitome of a twenty-three year old laidback Southern Californian, offered, “I think if you all watched the match, it looked like he was struggling in the third and the fourth, and he didn’t really look like he was struggling in the fifth. He looked fine in the fifth. Let’s be honest. Maybe he fought through it…I’m happy for him that he had such a good recovery and that he’s feeling a lot better…”
Sadly, as he regularly does, Djokovic did nothing to clarify the situation. Initially, he claimed he was going to have an MRI. Then he wasn’t. Then he had one but wouldn’t indicate what was discovered. But he stayed in the spotlight making sure it was well known that if this wasn’t a Grand Slam he wouldn’t have continued to play…but to make sure things were truly muddled, he added that if it were a little tear, it wouldn’t get worse if he kept playing.
In the fourth round against No. 14 seed, Milos Raonic of Canada, he grimaced through a 7-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 win. Alexander Zverev of Germany, the No. 6 seed, was next to fall 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6. At times during the first set of the Zverev match he seemed to be struggling physically. In fact, in the third set he sat down near the court’s back fence between games.
So, the “tear, no tear” mystery lingered until the day after the Medvedev contest when he paraded on the beach in Brighton with the winner’s trophy. Admitting he had an MRI that morning and learned that having finished the tournament the tear had gotten worse which meant he now had to take some time off to recover. (His next tournament appearance is supposed to be the Miami Open, March 22 – April 4.)
As we said in the beginning of this section, Novak Djokovic has accomplished so much in Australia (and in his career) but he regularly opts to taint his record in some way or another.
Tenacious Tiley’s Highwire Act…
This was the 15th year Craig Tiley had served as Australian Open Tournament Director and – It was his most challenging. Overseeing the “Player Ferry Service” that involved at least 15 charter flights, and over 1, 200 players along with their support teams, and the follow-up quarantine would have resulted in most tennis officials asking for an early retirement (with just compensation of course).
Professing a “No Place For Impossible” belief (both his and the tournament’s slogan), he and his staff, staged a commanding performance. It seemed everyone had his/her contact details yet rarely did he appear put off by being the “go to” information source. With any undertaking of this size, mistakes were made.
The “special quarantine treatment” afforded to a group of top players was the major complaint he handled, along with issues borne of the fact that tennis is a competition for individuals.
Tossed into the mix, he had to deal with a five-day emergency lockdown, crowd size that was dictated by health officials and the subsequent ticket sales and then refunds. (Over all, 130,374 attended matches during the fortnight.)
Tiley candidly addressed the reality, that even with the contingency fund that has been increasing over the years, the tournament will be more than $60 million in the red.
Nonetheless, an Australian tennis insider observed, “Tiley took on too much. But he did pull it off. I never doubted he couldn’t, but I think the State government laid down all the rules so he had his hands tied…and he should have known that.”
At the end, a weary Tiley expressed happiness that the tournament reached its conclusion. He noted that he was regularly berated during the fortnight, noting that the abuse came with his position. Admitting he hadn’t “gone troppo” (crazy), but dealing with the constant stress altered his good nature and led to the decision for his wife and three children to leave home and stay near Melbourne.
Tiley told AP, “It felt like we were drinking from a firehose every single day, gasping for air. It’s just relentless.”
But he, along with the Australian Open survived…
It was a one-off. It began during a pandemic. There was quarantine. Limited training and practice opportunities existed. Spectators were allowed, then they weren’t; finally, they returned, but the number was limited. Line calls were argued with Siri while lines people took up residence in the major’s as “memories of the past” museum.
So, what is ahead for professional tennis and the world tour? Djokovic suggested that the injuries affecting some of the players in Melbourne “has something to do with these kind of circumstances we are in…” He continued, “…talking to a lot of players, the majority just don’t want to go ahead with the season if we are going to have to quarantine to participate in most of the tournaments.”
Zverev opined, “…we can’t have a traveling circuit right now. It’s just as simple as that. Injuries will keep on happening …there are restrictions to countries. Depends on what passport you have. You might not even be able to go to some… I think what the ATP should do is maybe have a venue like here and play multiple weeks in one place…We can change the background, change the city name on the court then play at one venue…”
(In view of these feelings, it is appropriate to call attention to a tweet by Gilles Simon of France. He said that he was taking a break to preserve himself because of all that was required to play during the days of COVID-19.)
No matter what is ahead for the game, it is abundantly clear that the 2021 Australian Open, stayed strong and will be forever regarded as a modern day miracle. It arrived at the finish line as a truly unique achievement.
Title photo of the Norm and Daphne trophies at the Grampians by Tennis Australia.