This year’s Australian Open got off to a shaky start amid controversy and accusations. By day 14 it was a tournament for the ages. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
A fairytale finish for the Australian Open
Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia, must have been relieved with how it all ended. This year’s Australian Open had, after all, been preceded by the messy deportation of the world’s best player, questions about the appropriateness of Tennis Australia’s petitioning for Novak Djokovic, and demands for Tiley’s resignation.
Then mid-tournament, Tennis Australia’s ban on politicised messages obliged police and security guards to evict fans wearing “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts, only for the heavy-handedness to attract global derision. In a unique coupling, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton were of a mind. “It’s pathetic,” Navratilova said. “It’s not a political issue,” Dutton told Sky News. “It’s a human rights issue.” Within 48 hours, Tennis Australia had reversed its policy (though retained it regarding the use of banners).
But by the climactic weekend, we had Ash Barty claim the women’s singles title – the first Australian in almost half a century to win the local tournament. We also had an all-Australian men’s doubles final which, courtesy of the unorthodox flair and grinning swagger of Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, had achieved the impossible: made Australians care about doubles tennis. (Their triumphant final was the most watched doubles match in Australian history.) Then we had the recently crowned Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott emotionally contest the men’s wheelchair final – his last professional match – while fan favourite Rafael Nadal performed an unlikely comeback in the men’s final, to historically clinch his 21st grand slam title – the most in men’s history, and one more than his great rivals Roger Federer and Djokovic.
It had all finished rather magnificently, as if conceived by an earnest and unsubtle scriptwriter. The sympathetic storylines, of course, don’t resolve the many unanswered questions about Djokovic’s exemption, nor do they resolve questions about his immediate future – will he play Wimbledon this year? The French Open? Will he finish his career as the man with the most singles grand slam titles as seemed likely only six months ago?
“Ash Barty to serve,” the chair umpire said. “Ready. Play.”
Just under 90 minutes later, Barty was crowned women’s champion. And yet this was a long game for her. Such was Barty’s dominance this tournament, her matches averaged only an hour. She had not dropped a set all tournament. In fact, she had not dropped one all summer. And nor would she in the final.
But Danielle Collins had come the closest to taking one. After a relatively passive first set, which she lost 6-3, the American began the second explosively. Her serve dramatically improved, and she was playing aggressive, confident winners. Quickly, she was up 5-1 and serving for the set.
Barty never blinked. She broke Collins, went on a run, and forced the set to a winning tie-breaker. This was Barty’s third grand slam title, and her gifts promise many more. Of these gifts, her serve might be one of the most remarkable. Barty stands at just 165 centimetres, but her first serve is amazingly accurate, powerful and unpredictably placed. Barty’s ace count was 10 to Collins’ one.
One of the many acts of will required of a tennis player is, having lost a final, affecting a respectfully sombre and inscrutable face while listening to the victor’s speech. Collins stood with a severe, Sphinx-like gaze, but I could imagine a bitter astonishment behind it: “How on earth did I relinquish that 5-1 advantage?”
There was joyous astonishment from Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, who were not expected to progress far in the doubles, much less win it, and who were sincere when they said after winning their first grand slam title: “I have no idea what’s going on, to be brutally honest.”
They were the brash arrivistes of doubles tennis, who played with little respect for convention (and often their opponents), but had raucously improvised their way to a title. They really seemed as surprised as anyone.
Then there was Sunday’s men’s final, Rafael Nadal versus Daniil Medvedev, and how unlikely this seemed in December. Here was a 35-year-old man playing the world No. 2 who was a decade younger than him and the tournament favourite after Djokovic’s departure. Nadal had only just recovered from Covid-19 in late December, and from the latest recurrence of a chronic foot injury that had him contemplating retirement not long before that.
Within minutes, it appeared as if Nadal was drowning in his own sweat, his shirt soaked, thick rivulets pouring from his face and pooling at his feet. A towel was kept close by, and was frequently needed to wipe down his slick racquet handle. Comparatively, Medvedev seemed as if he was made from marble.
It was an extraordinary match and, at five hours and 24 minutes, the second-longest final in the tournament’s history. There were a multitude of broken serves – and desperate holds – as well as long, thrilling rallies. (A 40-shot exchange in the second set ended with an impossible-seeming backhand slice from Nadal.) Medvedev is an exceptional defensive player, and for a man so conspicuously lithe and rubbery – compare his arms with Nadal’s – his backhand must be one of the most powerful on the tour. But his gifts were arrayed against one of the most competitive men the game has seen.
It is rare for a men’s player to win a match in one of the four majors after trailing two sets to love, and even rarer in a grand slam final. Nadal was the first to do it in an Australian Open final since 1965. It’s happened only once in the US Open since 1949, and you have to go all the way to 1927 for an example at Wimbledon. But funnily enough, that other competitive freak of will, Novak Djokovic, won last year’s French Open final from such a deficit.
Will we see the two men face each other on those clay courts later this year? The reigning champion versus the man with the most French Open titles? Vaccinations aside, their rivalry would seem to demand it.
As is often true with tennis, we spent as much time discussing behaviour as the game during this tournament. This might have something to do with its being chiefly a solo sport. The character analysis began, of course, with Novak Djokovic, and was followed by our annual pearl-clutching about Nick Kyrgios and raucous crowds.
There was also Daniil Medvedev’s complex relationship with those same crowds, defined by mutual provocations, as well as his explosively petulant outbursts at officials. When considered alongside his frequent upset about the crowd’s hostility, there seemed to be something perverse in Medvedev’s serial toying with them – calling them stupid, sarcastically acknowledging their jeers, refusing to play along with commentator Jim Courier when asked if he would be watching Ash Barty’s final (“Depends what time they play, I’m usually having dinner at 8.15”).
At times he seemed to relish cultivating the role of pantomime villain, and at others to be genuinely injured by the crowd’s resentment. This complicated relationship is not unique to Australian crowds – after winning his third-round match against Feliciano López at the 2019 US Open, he responded to the crowd’s booing with this: “Your energy tonight give me the win. Because if you were not here, guys, I would probably lose the match because I was so tired, I was cramping yesterday, it was so tough on me to play. So I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”
In his press conference after Sunday’s loss, a melancholy Medvedev lamented that the hostility had punctured a child-like enthusiasm for the game, and he wondered aloud if he would retire at 30 (he’s almost 26 now). “From now on I’m playing for myself, for my family, to provide my family, for people that trust in me, of course for all the Russians because I feel a lot of support there,” he said at two in the morning.
“If there is a tournament on hard courts in Moscow … I’m going to go there even if I miss the Wimbledon or Roland Garros or whatever. The kid stopped dreaming. The kid is going to play for himself. That’s it. That’s my story.”
Ash Barty offers none of this psychodrama. She’s relatively impassive on the court; smiling and gracious off it. I don’t write this to suggest her moral superiority – our parasocial relationships with athletes are weird. But while Medvedev’s contradictions make good copy, Barty leaves us with just the tennis and her talent: that distinctively fizzing backhand slice; her varied and ultra-accurate serve; her implacability. In her post-match interviews there were no melancholic laments, and while she’d never announce it herself, a long period of dominance could well be hers. None would resent it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Fairytale finish".
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