Let me tell you something: this week, I was short on ideas for a blog post. I did not go to the cinemas, the weather was stifling hot, and I just finished a long overdue read (City of Bones). I was in the middle of the Barty-Sharapova tennis match on TV when inspiration struck me. I was looking at the week’s post all along. I could’ve written this an hour ago, but I wanted to finish the tie. Ash Barty was the lone remaining Aussie (male or female) in the singles draw. It was a tough out going up against five-time slam winner Sharapova, but Ash is looking really sharp and is as fit as ever. Allow me to provide some highlights of the 2019 Australian Open, the grand slam of the Asia-Pacific.
- Channel 9. Ever since I can remember, Channel 7 beamed the tennis action live on free-to-air. I’ve come to know their commentators and analysts, from Jim Courier to Bruce McAvaney, Todd Woodbridge to Renae Stubbs. Throw in Roger Rasheed and even little Lleyton, Sam Smith and Tracy Austin, and you’ve got a star-studded line-up of great tennis minds. Nine won the broadcasting rights some time ago, and the experience so far this tournament has been impressive. You’ve got the evolved list of announcers, the 360-angle replay, and the expert commentators. The additions of former star Jelena Dokic and firebrand John McEnroe caps off the all-star cast.
- Andy calls time. The three-time major winner has been battling serious injuries these past few years. His ranking has slipped, and his on-court performances have waned. He still remains a tough competitor, but his body couldn’t keep up. In a teary press con, the great ball retriever announced that this would be his last appearance at Melbourne park. After his first-round loss, contemporaries across the board showed their solidarity for the Scotsman through a tear-jerking tribute video. It’s one thing for fans to idolize you, but to have the same support from your adversaries is downright special.
- The Demon. Most of Australia must have heard now of Alex De Minaur. The Aussie number one just won his first title at Sydney and is one of a few teenagers ranked inside the top 100. McEnroe was singing his praises, the commnentators loved his never-say-die attitude, and he even awed the legendary Rod Laver. People have said how great the demon handled expectation, but I saw this as a recipe for disaster. The more that people piled up the praises, the harder for the lad to meet those demands. When even his third-round opponent, Rafael NADAL, was speaking glowingly of De Minaur, I knew the guy was in trouble. I wasn’t mistaken. With a 6-1,6-2,6-4 trashing, Nadal proved that Alex had a lot of work left to be done. It was the exact same score of their 2018 Wimbledon encounter, and even McEnroe was stunned as he searched for words. This matchup reminded me of Bernard Tomic against Roger Federer at the Open a few years ago. Too much hype, too little substance.
- Roger marches on. Despite being thirty-seven years old, Federer has defied his age. He may not be world number one but continues to amaze and win. He hasn’t dropped a set all tournament and has a laser focus. You can even say that he almost has as much fun in the post-match interview as he does beat his opponents. With four kids already, he is the ultimate super dad. Indeed, most kids (and even adult fans) would mention Federer as their favourite player in Melbourne.
- Back to Barty. When Maria won the opening set, 6-4, I was thinking game over. I busied myself preparing lunch when suddenly, I saw the score was 3-1 in favour of Ash in the second. I was as surprised as everyone when Barty levelled the match 1-set all. She even had a double break in that stanza. Barty led 4-0 and I thought she would make quick work of the tall Russian. However, Sharapova showed she’s the champ by ralling to take four of the next five games, trailing 4-5. When all seemed lost, Ash hung in there. She was only up a break when some strong serving ended any doubt. While Maria saved three or four match points, Barty put her to the sword. She becomes the first Aussie woman at the quarters in Melbourne since Dokic ten years ago. She faces Czech Petra Kvitovic in the next round, who squeaked by her in the Sydney International last weekend.
- The Aussies performed quite well this year. A few male and female players progressed to the third round, including a couple of wildcards. They certainly had the crowd behind them. They were there waving flags, chanting their support, clapping, encouraging the local heroes, and cheering after favourable points. Barty was gracious, thanking the Aussie crowd for all their support, and that she loved playing in front of her home crowd. Apart from Barty, Kim Birrell had a strong showing and reached the third round. Alexi Popyrin was another unknown making his mark. Alex Bolt likewise knocked on the door. As she said, ‘we’re very lucky to have a home grand slam’. Only four cities in the world have that honour, and Melbourne is one of them.
Melbourne, 2019. What an event! The tennis demigods from the far seas have descended onto Melbourne Park and watching them compete is an absolute pleasure. We relish as they chase after balls, serve aces, overcome rallies, challenge umpires, break rackets, win games, win sets, and win matches. Bon Appetit.
Special mention: who could forget that Frances Tiafoe celebration? He channelled some LeBron after winning his second-round match-up. Reminded me of Marc Gasol doing a McGregor after hitting a key three pointer.