In the dark heart of winter, the Australian Open has become a kind of early spring break, a virtual vacation for tennis fans in the northern hemisphere who’ve come to look forward to getting – or staying – up at ungodly hours to watch the live feed from Melbourne.
This year’s tournament has been a particularly raving smash hit, captivating tennis nuts both with play but even more so storyline: extraordinary upsets and comebacks that have produced the most anticipated semifinal showdowns on both the men and women’s sides (for a change) in recent memory.
A few highlights:
Roger and Rafa return – For all that divides and has people marching in the streets these days, there is one fantasy that just about everyone in the tennis world shares: a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final in another Grand Slam. Notable exceptions of course include the reigning world number one and two, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who both fell in shocking fashion to unseeded strivers, helping pave the way for Federer and Nadal’s largely painless path to the semifinal round. Certainly, each has benefitted from those early departures but also their own upgraded play, aided by time spent away from the game over the last year, healing their aging bodies.
These are two of the game’s greatest champions, and if they are to survive their Thursday and Friday matches (with Roger having the more daunting task against the game’s hottest player, his Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka), their final in Rod Laver Arena will be one of the most-watched tennis matches of all time.
Venus is in the zone, Coco comes alive – Continuing the ‘what’s old is new’ theme, Venus Williams has shredded the competition en route to the semis, with flawless tennis that has included a particularly tenacious – and accurate – baseline game. This is the 36-year-old’s first Aussie semifinal since 2003, and her demeanor and body language signal she is brimming with confidence. She’ll face the brassy California comer Coco Vandeweghe who has absolutely devastated her opponents with a powerful serve, blistering groundstrokes and a cocky, casual self-assurance.
Three American women in the semis – I don’t have to tell you that these two Yankees will be joined in the final four by Venus’s sister Serena, probably the greatest female athlete of all time and at 35, still by a mile the best and most consistent player in women’s tennis. For the first time since 2002 the US will provide seventy-five percent of the players in a Grand Slam semifinal.
Mid-late thirties the new twenties? – Speaking of age, in addition to the Williams’ sisters, it is worth considering the age of other semifinalists: Federer is 35, Nadal 30 (only! Seems he’s been around forever and he has – turned pro at 17!), Wawrinka 31, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 34 – and the American twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, 38 years old and the tourney’s third seeds themselves play in the doubles semifinals tomorrow. What does any of this mean? We are getting stronger as we age? Younger players stink? Who knows. But it is something USTA league hackers everywhere can cheer.
Television coverage has been superb – Between ESPN and the Tennis Channel, television coverage has been excellent. ESPN’s Chris Fowler has really become the best broadcaster of his generation, with unrivaled versatility and clearly a true love for and knowledge of the game. He’s been complemented by familiar commentators including the brothers McEnroe, Jim Courier, Chris Evert, Mary Joe Fernandez, Darrin Cahill, Brad Gilbert and others – a deep bench of talent and candid insight.
Aussie Open Logo: not crazy about it – OK, so one minor beef: the new tournament logo looks like letters on a fraternity house. Can we get our friends, the internationally-renowned font creators at House Industries in Yorklyn to help the tourney brand guys out next year?
I finally figured out the timing – A friend explained to me a simple way to keep track of the time in Australia that I have been able to remember: In the Eastern Time zone, add four hours to whatever time it is and flip the am/pm. See you at 4:00am tomorrow morning.