Australian Open's soul is in its tail

Australian Open, by Chris JohnstonFor two weeks every January thousands of people descend on Melbourne to watch young men and women stand on a rubber surface and hit balls to each other. Melbourne, January, tennis. It's the holy trinity of summer sport.

Like the Melbourne Cup, the Boxing Day Test and the Aussie Rules grand final, the Australian Open is an institution that transfixes the nation. In homes and pubs across the country, big screens and small, we are glued to the daily battles.

The city itself sizzles with an electricity that is absent from London, Paris and New York when they host Wimbledon, the French and US Opens. Unlike those Grand Slam events, the Australian Open is held in the centre of the city. Everywhere you look, people are going to, coming from or talking about tennis.

The buses and trams are chock full of fans who make the daily trek to Melbourne Park, a stone's throw from the MCG. On the way, they pass locals who pack Federation Square to meet, drink and watch the action on huge screens. The city is united with a sense of kinship that brings people back year after year.

Part of that appeal is the game itself. Tennis occupies a special role in the Australian psyche. It is the most egalitarian of all sports, and so nearly everyone in Australia has played the game. The equipment is cheap, the courts are accessible, it's not dangerous. You can play for exercise or recreation, singles or doubles, with men and women. Tennis is the only sport that is played equally by both sexes.

On a physical level, tennis has an elegance that makes other sports look lumpen. From the graceful arch of the back before serving, to the whip of a groundstroke, the pinpoint precision of a passing shot, the snap of a crisp volley, and the topspin lob that lands on the baseline, tennis exudes beauty.

It demands versatility, rewards soft touch as well as raw power, and requires a mental toughness that separates the best from the good. For many years this package was encapsulated in Roger Federer, whose artistry has made him the most magical player of all time, even if the jury is still out over whether he is the greatest.

Last year Federer had the strokes and the skill to beat Rafael Nadal in their final, but having lost to the Spaniard at Wimbledon in 2008, the Swiss player started to doubt himself. Federer wasted so many break points it was no wonder he cried at the presentation ceremony. The magician had reduced himself to a mere mortal.

Watching this on the screen is one thing. To see it in person lifts the pleasure even higher. When you sit courtside and see how fast a first serve actually moves, how hard players hit the ball, how low it fizzes over the net, how little time they have to react, tennis is endowed with an almost hypnotic magnetism.

My son's tennis coach once told me that when you're in the top 100, tennis becomes a mental contest, a test of character. And so it is this year. Federer is struggling to regain his intensity, Nadal is searching for confidence after injury, Andy Murray will confront his demons as he tries to claim his first Grand Slam.

Will the Belgian comeback queens Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin be genuine contenders, or will the Williams sisters and Eastern bloc Amazons, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanova crush them?

Parallel to this is the Australian campaign: Lleyton Hewitt, teenager Bernard Tomic, Samantha Stosur, and Alicia Molik (also making a comeback).

Walk around the outside courts, however, and you discover what sets tennis apart from other sports. Unranked players, veterans with wildcard entries, fringe youngsters, doubles specialists — a gallery of invisible journeymen who will never be famous but keep playing because they love the thrill of being on court.

The telecasts rarely cross to these matches, the results don't make the nightly news. The early round losers pack up quickly and fly off to the next tournament in another country, determined to do better next time and improve their ranking. For every Federer or Nadal, there are 10,000 no-names. Without them, the Australian Open would be all head and no tail, all body and no soul. These are the players that remind you what sport is all about.

Michael VisontayMichael Visontay is Editor-In-Chief of CathNews and lectures in Sport, Media and Culture at the University of NSW.

Topic tags: australian open, tennis, grand slam, federer, clijsters, serena, venus, murray, nadal, ivanovic, sharipova



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Existing comments

Excellent article showing insight into the event and a empathy with the lesser known players. I was delighted to read this comment and commend the author
Marion Firth | 19 January 2010

Interesting article and great to see a sport piece once again in Eureka Street. Though there is nothing "lumpen" about the cover drive in cricket. It is elegance personified!
Tom Cranitch | 19 January 2010

I concur with Marion FIRTH.
The author has keen perception
and paints pictures with every phrase.
Bob GROVES | 19 January 2010

The `whip` of my ground-stokes! I only wish!!!
Eugene | 19 January 2010

Somewhat Melbourne orientated. Rugby union and rugby league are far more enjoyable to watch for me ... and I like the Sydney cricket test more.
Rob Colquhoun | 19 January 2010

Full marks for enthusiasm but off the mark about the uniqueness of the gender equality of tennis. What about swimming and athletics for example? Sadly high level tennis has become so much managed by the media that it is encapsulated in a couple of weeks of frenetic promotion and then it's all over. Not much feeling of ownership even though it is called the Australian open. For the next 11 months there are fragmentary reports of the doings of a few winners but tennis has lost out bigtime to all the football codes in terms of community ownership.
Mike Foale | 19 January 2010


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