Tennis: Australian Open is different kind of Grand Slam
Published January 18, 2004
Attention cabin-fevered Minnesotans: If it makes you feel any better, the temperature when the players hit the courts today for the first round of the Australian Open will only be 28 degrees -- centigrade. Sure, that's 82 to us, but practically sweater weather for Aussies in January.
Temperature conversions aren't the only thing you need to know about the year's first Grand Slam event: Winter here is summer there, today is actually tomorrow, the hard courts are soft, up north is like down south, and rain means a roof. Got it?
Just what you would expect from a place 17 time zones, 19 flying hours, and 9,451 miles away.
Since the Australian Open moved across town in 1988 from the grass courts of historic Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club to magnificent Melbourne Park, the tournament has become known as the "Player's Slam." The city of Melbourne (to sound local, say "Melbin") is positively comfortable, the tennis center exceedingly fan and player friendly, the organizing federation (Tennis Australia) extraordinarily accommodating, and the tennis atmosphere absolutely riveting.
All you need to do is wear your face paint and know your chants -- "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!" No matter which country's flag you plan to wave, tennis is most definitely fair dinkum (good stuff) in Australia!
The sponge factor
Now say "G'day" to the soft, hard-court surface known as Rebound Ace. From a distance, it looks like any ol' asphalt rectangle, but plunge a thumb and you'll find a half-inch of give. Theorized to be easier on the body, the surface behaves like a Minnesotan in winter -- its mood changes with the temperature.
When hot northern blasts swoop down from the Outback, the rubbery surface turns bouncy and sticky. Wear the wrong soles and ankles beware -- use heavy topspin and your opponent will despair. Cooler temps bring just the opposite: a lower, skidding ball.
What's over your head matters, too. Always on the forefront of innovation, Tennis Australia saw to it that Melbourne Park has two, count 'em, two stadium courts with retractable roofs. Three-day rainouts, like we saw at last year's U.S. Open, will never be a risk Down Under.
And nowadays, you might even be saved by the bell, I mean roof. When the summer heat becomes seriously dangerous -- 95-plus degrees -- the the roof can be closed and matches on the field courts can be delayed.
One of my first important professional matches was against Stefan Edberg in the quarterfinals of the 1990 Australian Open. I needed the "Roof Rule." In the best shape of my life, I was taken down in four sets by the scorching heat, searing northern winds, screaming Swedish fans, and the serve and volley genius of the two-time Aussie Open winner. At times during the match, I would have given anything to be lacing my skates at an outdoor rink back home.
Quite often it does come down to survival of the fittest at the Australian Open. It seems every year, a relative unknown or newcomer makes a deep foray into the men's draw. Case in point: Rainer Schuettler of Germany made it all the way to the final last year. In 2002, it was Thomas Johansson of Sweden who brought home the title.
The bottom line: Players who spend the Christmas break training rather than overeating are primed for production Down Under.
Enter four-time champ Andre Agassi. Understanding the math as to how Andre has won three of the past four Aussie Open titles is elementary: Gifted player plus great fitness equals Grand Slam victory.
No doubt Andre has made the Pacific crossing fit for the fight, but some of the young guns are now coming into their own. Look no further than America's new ace (pun definitely intended), current world No. 1 and U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick. He overcame Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui in a five-hour match of the year last January in Melbourne before running out of gas in a semifinal. With the confidence that goes with a Grand Slam victory (not to mention his high-kicking second serve), Roddick will be a major force to be reckoned with.
Tourney wide open
In the spirit of Pete Rose, I have a confession to make: Choosing a champion at the year's first major is a bit like prospecting the Democratic nominees' chances -- I'll tell you who won after it's over. Couple this with the fact that eight different men have won the past eight majors and you'll know why any prediction could bring pain.
That being said, it would be nice to see some of the Aussie blokes live up to the country's huge expectations. Not since Mark Edmonson way back in 1976 has a home boy won the Australian Open -- not poster boy Pat Cash, beloved Patrick Rafter, feisty Lleyton Hewitt, or Mark Philippoussis. Heck, for a country so rich in tennis tradition (e.g. Rod Laver, Roy Emerson), they haven't had a guy in the finals since '88. Further proof that patriotic pressure can be paralyzing.
Catastrophic suffocation would take place if the Aussies collectively held their breath for one of their own sheilas to take the title. That ain't happenin'. Instead, they can hope for their adopted daughter -- Lleyton Hewitt's bride-to-be, Belgian Kim Clijsters -- to win her first major. Standing in the way will be her recently injured ankle and her archrival, compatriot, and twice Grand Slam dream-breaker, Justine Henin-Hardenne. American results could be slim with Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams not showing and Venus Williams playing for the first time since Wimbledon.
So now you know what's up Down Under. My recommendation would be to pull the shades, turn up the furnace, and recline in your favorite chair with Kanga or Koala. With our summer tennis season a full six months away, you'd don't want to miss this opportunity to enjoy the game in the Land of Oz.
The author, Minnesota's David Wheaton, reached the quarterfinals in singles at the Australian Open in 1990 and the finals of doubles with Patrick McEnroe in 1991. He hosts a weekly radio show and is a motivational speaker. You can find out more at his Web site at http://www.davidwheaton.com