My appetite for the Australian Open was whetted by a magnificent weekend of NFL playoff football. So you can imagine what a downer it was when I flicked the channel over to ESPN2, and about the first thing I saw was that precious commercial for Melbourne tourism—you know, the one featuring the “I want to know where you go when you’re gone” song (officially, “A Heart Divided” by folkie Holly Thorsby).
I want to know where you go. . . I just wish the commercial would go away. Are we going to be subjected to this ad for every Australian Open going forward?
Well, it was a rocky start, and I must say I also was disappointed to see that the color scheme of the courts remains blue-on-blue. It’s too much, for me. A hard court is a pretty sterile, severe-looking thing; it doesn’t even have those intriguing circles and hemispherical boundaries that define a basketball court or hockey rink. I much prefer to see a significant contrast between the actual field of play inside the lines and the surrounding territory.
But when it comes to the tennis I watched, no complaints. None at all. It was good stuff, at times bordering on great stuff, from the get-go. And hopping around the courts, I was reminded once again of just what it means to be a. . . Player—with an upper case “P.” That is, someone with an intrinsic understanding of the game, not in terms of backhands and forehands, or inside-out vs. down-the-line, but of what it takes to win matches regardless the mechanics or “Xs and Os.”
There isn’t a better present-day example of the kind of player I’m talking about than young American Steve Johnson, who’s still so new to the pro ranks that instead of a mug shot, the Australian Open’s website features the message, “Photo not available.”
The 23-year-old Johnson is no prodigy. His 20-year-old countryman Ryan Harrison, who started taking his lumps on the pro tour as soon as he was able, is already ranked more than 100 places higher on the ATP computer (No. 175 vs. No. 62). Johnson, an Orange County lad, followed the model created by John Isner. Like the former Georgia Bulldog, Johnson remained in college (USC) and enjoyed a brilliant career there, winning the NCAA singles title in his junior and senior seasons.
Well, that’s over now, and there he was, hoping to qualify for the Australian Open main draw last week. It didn’t go so well, or at least that thought must have flashed through Johnson’s mind right about the time that he and 16-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia were deadlocked at 15 games apiece in the third and final set of their first-round qualifying match. Johnson pulled out that match, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 17-15, and went on to win two more matches—the latter over fellow American Ryan Sweeting, who’s had considerable tour experience—to make the big show.
Johnson drew No. 10 seed Nicolas Almagro as his first-round opponent. That’s a tough break; Almagro’s a bullish player who, were he a little taller than his listed 6’0”, would be even more of a threat to the established order. The match went the distance—five grueling sets—before Almagro put Johnson away, 7-5. 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (6). 6-2. And if you stumbled across this result on the Internet or at the arena, you might have been surprised to see that Almagro had so much trouble. That’s because Almagro looks so strong, so good, so, professional.
By contrast, Johnson looks like . . . well, an enthusiast. His desire is conspicuous, as is his high level of energy; but those features, combined with his vulnerable backhand, only add to this impression that he’s an amateur, out in a brave, bad new world with a homemade, old-schoolish game in which the slice backhand figures a little too prominently.....read more