Thursday, January 19, 2012

Australian Open: the main event

Gerard Whateley

Updated January 16, 2012 18:04:38

The majors have such a hold. On participant and spectator alike. Be it tennis or golf, the chosen four are iconic.

Though the game itself is recognisable from the routine stagings that fill out the calendar, these tournaments exist on a higher plane.

They define the great ones and reveal the imposters. It is one thing to win. It is another to do so when the competition is at its fiercest and your very character, as well as your game, is under examination.

The stain on Greg Norman is the majors he lost. It colours the multitude of wins and the monopoly he exercised as golf's best.

Amid the many, the greatest endorsement of Roger Federer is the stretch of 23 grand slam semi-final appearances he racked up in his majestic reign. When history was made, he was forever present and correct.

Caroline Wozniacki carries the world number one tag. She has done for all bar one week since her ascension in October 2010. No-one with even a casual reference to tennis believes she is the best female player in the world. She can't get it done at the slams. The ranking is her burden, the failure is her curse.

Australians are canny sporting observers. We treasure the majors. And we crave involvement.

Jason Day has opened up the possibility of a presence on Sunday at the US Masters and the British Open for the next decade. He will be loved for it. Affection for Lleyton Hewitt has at times been begrudging, but he has carried a banner magnificently. Hindsight will be especially kind.

This fortnight of tennis captivates beyond the gaudy fashion and cringing declarations of love for fans and country. More compellingly than any other event on the Australian sporting calendar, it gathers the world's best.

How lucky we are to have been graced by Andre and Steffi, entranced by Federer, dazzled by Nadal and thrilled and appalled by Serena.

There is no faux hype surrounding the Australian Open. No bogus figures of rationalisation by economic impact and tourist exposure. This is the main event by definition alongside Wimbledon, Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows.

The first week will serve as the annual referendum on the state of Australian tennis. This might be superficial, but it is appropriate. When the entire nation looks in, a sport needs to appear its best. It should be judged.

It has the reigning US Open winner Samantha Stosur. The likable, unpretentious Queenslander who shot down Serena Williams on her home digs in New York. Had it not been for Cadel Evans and his once-in-a-generation offering, this would have been hailed the sporting achievement of 2011.

A New York tornado put the tournament off kilter and Stosur achieved her feat on a Monday morning after work had commenced. Her appearance in the previous year's French Open final had been more heralded. After midnight on a Saturday, she failed and heavy hearts matched bleary eyes. The US Open was a mild surprise. But a joyful one.

Stosur should be the poster girl for the local scene. But the hope is quashed by her fear. Performing on home soil is a mental impediment she has diagnosed, but not conquered. Her appearances on Rod Laver Arena will be shaped by trepidation rather than a sense of celebration.

This is for Stosur to alter.

Her partner in prime is Bernard Tomic. The teenager is a beacon of such youthful optimism. He is marked by fearlessness. He is frightfully young yet so familiar. The empty cupboard has had us riding Tomic since he was a kid who resented being up past midnight.

There is no tempering expectation after the breakthrough at Wimbledon. The youngest quarter-finalist since Boris Becker. He lifted the trophy and his stocks further at Kooyong.

He has the markings of a top-10 player. His game will delight and intrigue. He is entirely watchable and presenting as humble and likable. Tomic's temperament lends itself to the fires of home. He won't flinch in the exposure and might deliver well above his station. The very first day will determine that.

But the next five years will reveal whether he's capable of converting the promise to a grand slam trophy. Time is his enemy today, but his ally thereafter.

Beyond that pairing will be a smattering of names heard annually and those mentioned just this once. There will be surprises and bundlings out and after four days the Australian tide will recede for the international tournament to take shape.

The women's game craves regime change. The cartel run by Serena and Clijsters having had its grip on power loosened, but not yet formally crushed.

When Clijsters lifted last year's Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy, she and Serena had split seven of the past nine grand slam titles without playing each other in a final.

The Belgian's comeback was supposed to have been brief, but given how spectacularly successful it proved, Clijsters is having a difficult time fulfilling her promise to return to retirement.

Serena, by her own admission, has to remind herself she's still a tennis player and derives little enjoyment from the grind and obligation. She'd rather be doing a million other things, but each time she turns up at one of these, she damn near wins. How do you walk out on that?

Journeywomen like Italian 30-something Francesca Schiavone, 29-year-old Chinese Li Na and Stosur found their moments to force a place on the honour roles at recent slams while Wozniacki missed a chair when the music stopped. Both instructively and damningly failing to even make a final at one of the big four last year.

The best chance of revolution comes in the form of the Wimbledon champion. Czech 21-year-old Petra Kvitova has the game. It's time to produce the temperament and consistency to match. Kvitova can take Melbourne and carry change all at once.

The men's tournament is fuelled with quality and intrigue.

Novak Djokovic had so convincingly staked his territory as an honourable third wheel that what transpired last year couldn't have been predicted. He eclipsed Federer and Nadal as the ultimate force in the game.

Three grand slam titles amid 10 tournament victories. A 70-6 record and a record $12.6 million haul. Will the Serb back it up? Or was that one season in the sun?

His deeds might have the residual affect of inspiring Andy Murray. Around the mark for four years without breaking through, such a quantum leap in a rival might ward off the terribly British response of becoming the downtrodden.

Murray has boldly appointed Ivan Lendl as his coach. Not much in Lendl's disposition has changed since he ruled the courts in the 80s. The man who spent 270 weeks at number one has been seen putting Murray through a punishing physical schedule and, during lengthy sessions, demanding in his eastern European accent that Murray hit the ball harder.

Rafael Nadal comes to Melbourne under an injury cloud but the Spaniard has proven proficient at playing hurt in the past.

While Federer is a fading, but not entirely spent force. His season-ending win came when others had put the cue to rest. Still, the maestro was moved to suggest the best was yet to come. That's nonsense as age has wearied, but a stray title to add to his 16 will never be out of the question.

The best in the men's are too good to allow an upset. Since Marat Safin won the Australian Open of 2005, only Juan Martin del Potro (2009 US Open) has interrupted the triumvirate of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic accumulating the spoils.

Murray could lead the Empire to strike back.

Gerard Whateley leads Grandstand's coverage of the 2011 Australian Open on ABC Local Radio and Digital Radio. See his full profile here.

Tags: tennis, sport, australian-open

First posted January 16, 2012 08:52:32

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