Great Sporting Moment Number Five: The 2013 Australian Open (The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific)

6 Feb

I was so shocked I was momentarily lost for words.

We’d travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne while the women’s quarterfinals of the Australian Open Tennis championship were under way. Our flight was delayed, we arrived tired and a little cranky, and I didn’t bother to chase up match scores.

Over breakfast early next morning I checked the newspaper for the day’s matches. We had tickets for the women’s and men’s semifinal scheduled that day in Rod Laver Arena and I expected to see my favourite, Serena Williams, listed. Strangely her name wasn’t there. I couldn’t grasp that she might have lost her match so I logged onto the championship website to double check. Horror of horrors. Serena had been knocked out by 19-year-old Sloane Stephens while we were in the air! I screamed louder than Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and John McEnroe combined. ‘Noooooooo, you can’t be serious!’

Since watching Serena play at both the Paris and Wimbledon Grand Slams I’d been planning a personal trifecta, three Serena Grand Slams within twelve months. Yes, I’d become a true Tennis Tragic.

The day the Australian Open tickets went on sale I’d fronted Ticketek and handed over an obscene amount of money to get the best seats I could for the women’s semis and the final expecting to see ‘my player’ in at least one or both matches. This was to be my first and probably last Australian Open and who knew how many more Serena had in her? Now the third ranked female player was about to board a plane back to Palm Beach and I had to find a new tennis heroine to cheer for pronto. Worse problems to have in life huh?!

Stuart generously donated his ticket for the morning session to my sister Maria, our host, so Day 11 was sisters’ day at The Open. The warm up event was a men’s doubles semifinal with the Bryan Brothers giving a tennis lesson to the Italian pair, Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini. It takes more than hunky looks and good hair to beat the Californian brothers!

By the time the first women’s semi of Li Na versus Maria Sharapova started at 1:30pm it was 32 degrees celsius in the sun. Thank God I went for end seats in the shade! Contrary to expectations Na wiped the floor with the number two, 6-2 6-2. The Chinese player looked confident, relaxed, grounded and strong. Maria appeared nervous, cranky and kept sending herself to her naughty spot when she missed shots. Interesting.

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The second semifinal, with number one ranked Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, was expected to be a cake walk for Vika. Vika did have her way most of the time and took the first set 6-1 but choked with match points in hand in the second. As is now a matter of public record Vika called for her trainer who seemed to attend to a spinal rotation problem but from where we sat Vika didn’t appear to be in pain, just rattled. As Vika walked off for what would be a ten minute medical time out my sister announced, ‘There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s choking!’ As Vika herself conceded in the post match interview that’s exactly what happened. Azarenka came back and served to beat Stephens 6-4 in the third set. While Azarenka may have won within the rules my sister and I were so upset for Stephens we sat on our hands and zipped our lips. Maria even made me promise I wouldn’t clap for Azarenka in the final. No chance of that, I had found my heroine. It would be Li Na I cheered for in the final!

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That evening’s men’s semifinal featuring number one Novak Djokovic against David Ferrer was an opportunity for Novak to hone his brilliant play. On a good day Ferrer can run down anything but the night belonged to Novak who whipped off winner after winner. The match was over disappointingly quickly at 6-2 6-2 6-1.

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Now the fun for Stuart and I really began. A feature of the Australian Open is the ‘Legends Series’. These are exhibition matches by past ‘greats’ of the tennis world. We were lucky to see Pat Cash pair with Goran Ivanisovic against Guy Forget and Henri Leconte. Most of the spectators left after the men’s semifinal so we dawdled down to the front and occupied seats in a corporate section in the third row. Any illusion this might be a serious match was dispelled when Goran sat on the net waiting while Henri hammed it up. The net became detached in the centre so the referee came down from his chair to assist, at which point Leconte climbed up into his seat and announced, ‘Time gentlemen’.

Play recommenced when a young ball boy was handed Henri’s racquet. The ball boy acquitted himself well. It got even sillier later when a fan threw down a giant tennis ball for Goran’s autograph and he switched to playing with it. The biggest laughs came for Novak Djokovic who came on court in a medic’s coat when Henri feigned illness. It was close to midnight and he had just paid three sets but Novak was up for fun.

Amongst all the laughter and clowning around we witnessed flashes of the brilliant play all four men are still capable of. Goran’s aces registered up to 216kph and Pat Cash, even with a gammy knee, is still a killer at the net. Guy’s reflexes and concentration were awesome and when Henri could be bothered he won all the points he went for. Fans who stayed to the end (Pat and Goran won) were rewarded by the players staying on court to sign endless autographs.

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We were back Saturday, for the women’s final. It was Australia Day so the children’s choir singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to open the match had extra significance. I could have done without the fireworks over Melbourne that caused play to be suspended for ten minutes but blowing up chemicals and minerals in the air seems obligatory on national holidays, New Year’s Eve and any major festival nowadays.

The Australian Open is promoted as a family-friendly Grand Slam with mini-tennis, face painting and such. I’m not sure how a regular family can afford to go with ticket prices well above AUD100 but there were plenty of kids around. The only other evening event scheduled was the finals of the women’s and men’s wheelchair tennis on an outer court. This was the first time we’d seen the sport. We were both blown away by the skill and upper body strength of the players, all from overseas. The only concession to the wheelchairs was that the ball could bounce twice. The speed of players turning and accelerating was amazing and when they crashed into the barriers they just bounced back, wiped their brows and set off again.

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At last it was 7:30pm, time for Li Na versus Victoria Azarenka (or ‘Azawanka’ as my four-year-old niece dubbed her). I had my war paint on; a Chinese flag and Lin Na’s name on my cheek. I was ready. I hoped Na was. She’d been so self-effacing and good humoured in all the interviews I’d seen I was really hoping she could pull off an upset. Our seats were in the nose bleed section but I still cheered and clapped every one of Na’s shots.

Na wasn’t making the same winners she hit against Sharapova but her form was good and when she took the first set 6-4 I started getting excited. That excitement turned to dismay when Na rolled the same ankle twice running the baseline and we watched her crumple in pain. After strapping she played on in pain. The second set slipped away 6-4, then the third 6-3. This was not to be Na’s Open but for the hundreds of longtime fans and new ones, like me, she has our lifelong loyalty for the way she comported herself; gracious in victory and brave in defeat.

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Again the spectators thinned and again we were able to take our pick of seats to watch the Bryan brothers dominate their Dutch opponents in the doubles final. Mike and Bob won their 13th Grand Slam title convincingly in front of an enthusiastic Kevin Spacey in the VIP seating and a whole box of sun tanned, blonde Californian family and friends.

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If I could only choose one of the three Grand Slams I’ve been to (I have yet to get to Flushing Meadows) I would have to choose Wimbledon. For its value for money, for the sheer variety of play for spectators on the outside courts, and for its well oiled organisation, Wimbledon takes the prize. In my experience the Australian Open is dominated by commercialism and corporatisation. So many seats are reserved for corporates and tour packages it’s slim and expensive pickings for regular folk. The great myth of Australian egalitarianism has never been more obviously on show.

There was, however, one great sporting moment in Melbourne I felt extremely privileged to witness. It came when the Japanese paraplegic, Shingo Kunieda, beat the below knee amputee, Stephane Houdet, in the final of the men’s wheelchair tennis. Slightly built Kunieda played an intelligent, patient, precise match to overcome his much larger French opponent in two sets. Game, set and match to wheelchair tennis!

Video Notes:
I captured the match point of most of the matches I saw, including the chest bumping Bryan Brothers. You can hear Sharapova and Azarenka’s exertional vocalisations loud and clear from high up on the opposite side of the stadium. Enjoy!

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