Hello from Melbourne, where over the next two weeks I’ll be deep in the thick of things with Tennis Channel’s Australian Open production team – in the booth with our announcers during matches, in the studio for our pre-game show and overall, embedded in bringing you our broadcast of the event Roger Federer has dubbed, “The Happy Slam.”
The Spirit of Australia
How best to capture the texture of a major tennis tournament such as this year’s Australian Open? Certainly the enduring excellence of iconic champions has been a major storyline, demonstrated vividly by both singles finals matchups. But the 2017 tennis year has also been driven forward into new territory, thanks to the efforts of rising stars like first-time semifinalist Coco Vandeweghe, resurgent Grigor Dimitrov and the precocious Alexander Zverev. Then come the surprises in the form Zverev’s brother Mischa, Denis Istomin and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
It’s often a head-scratcher to start the year off with such a major plot propulsion device. Boom, January, the world barely emerged from the holidays, and here’s a big-time tennis event. Then, off the circuit scatters – Davis Cup, Fed Cup, tournaments in Europe and South America.
But perhaps the genius of a major tournament kicking off the year lies in the heart and soul of its host nation. No country better captures the spirit of what tennis should be than Australia. From work ethic to sportsmanship, from the spirit of hearty competition to looking out for one’s mates, to comporting oneself with grace be it in victory or defeat, this nation is to tennis what the French are to wine-making: exemplary practitioners of the craft.
Yesterday I attended the annual Australian Legends Luncheon. Nominally, they are there to honor one of their own. This year the honoree was Hall of Famer Ashley Cooper, a sturdy gent who won four major singles titles in 1957 and ’58. But while certainly it was fine indeed to see “Coop” celebrated, at heart, the Aussie bask collectively. Joining “Coop” on the stage to tell stories were fellow Hall of Famers Neale “Fraze” Fraser, Roy “Emmo” Emerson and “Rocket” Rod Laver. We learned about Cooper’s first encounter with the woman who would become the love of his life. We heard about his skill at playing such left-handed rivals as Fraser – he of the wicked serve – and the young blooming genius that was Laver. We listened to Fraser concur that he was Cooper’s “bunny” and also his roommate as the two made their way to the 1958 Wimbledon final. We took in the tales of each of these young men serving dutifully on the Davis Cup squad as a teenager under the eye (thumb?) of Australian majordomo Harry Hopman.
But most of all, the Aussie tale was one of community, of hearty men pitched in battle, infused with friendly nicknames, disregard for social hierarchy, and, quite delightful, the joy not just in work, but in play.
While in America the tennis player often becomes a fire-breathing solo act, in Australia the sport’s individual aspects are balanced out. Compete. Camaraderie. Community. These have long been the cornerstones of Australian tennis. Absorbing those values is a good way to start off a year, the tournament nicely closed out by a pair of singles finals starring all-time greats. Venus and Serena, who’ve also been roommates. Roger and Rafa, who have brought out the best in one another. The battle will ensue. But in the end, the start of the tennis year has also been spiced up considerably by another attribute so prevalent in Australia: affection.
Australian Open ’17: Flashback
(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)
January 29: Roger & Rod, in the Arena
Roger Federer had long had a deep appreciation for tennis history – particularly the great Aussies. After all, Federer’s coach throughout his teens and early 20s had been an Australian, Peter Carter. Carter had died in a car accident in 2002. Soon after, Federer blossomed, the next year earning the first of his record 17 Grand Slam singles titles a year later. But as poised and precise as Federer was in the heat of battle, all that skill was fueled by deep emotion – all of which came to the surface just after he won the 2006 Australian Open. In the wake of that victory, Federer was given the champion’s trophy by the man for whom the Australian Open’s main arena is named – the great Rod Laver. At which point, Federer burst into tears. Said Federer, “I hope you know how much this means to me.” Not for a minute was there a doubt.