You can never complain about tennis in Australia — they play it with gusto and enjoyment that just cannot be replicated in the classic tournaments in France and England or the “tennis world series” atmosphere that envelops the U.S. Open. Even from afar and on the Tennis Channel — you cannot object to television even as it reminds you how inferior it is to watching sports live, but tell that to Mr. Tyrrell -- the Australian Open is the best way to kick off the new season. Officially it began with some warm up tournaments in the first days of January during which, in particular, Agnieszka Radwanska displayed qualities that promise to make this her great break-out year.
She is a slight lady, seems shorter than her listed 5\'8\" but boy can she run. And she has the softest hands, as they say in tennis, which means control over shallow shots, putting them gently away where the other girl — excuse me, the other lady — cannot reach them. She hits well from the baseline, too, and most of all she is fast, she goes after everything, she has the classic all-court-hit-it-back game that makes high spirited tennis.
She has to beat Na Li tonight, an erratic player who at this tournament has thus far been steady. But Aga beat Nana a few weeks ago in one of the preliminary tournaments Down Under at Sydney, and my money would be on the Girl from Krakow over the Wuhan Wonder Woman, notwithstanding the latter’s extra 10 pounds.
And my money would be gone, down and under. After trading point for point for ten games, Miss Li went into a power game even as Miss Radwanska fell back on the most defensive kind of defense. Her famously steady, deep cross court backhand held steady, but she could do nothing against the former French Open champion’s running volleys and stunning down the line shots that repeatedly caught her on the wrong side of the court.
Meanwhile the fantastic Serena Williams will be giving a lesson to America’s Great Girl Hope, the teenage sensation from Florida, Sloane Stephens, though you never know, there could be an upset. Miss Williams’s elegant and legendary sister, Venus, was crushed by another Florida girl, albeit of Russian immigration, Maria Sharapova, who is looking as unbeatable as Serena, and if Miss Radwanska is not in the final, I would bet on these two. The defending champ, the White Russian (aka Belarusian) Viktoria Azarenka, has been playing sensational tennis but not with quite the dominating fanaticism of the Russian and American stars, nor the graceful skill of the Polish one.
But ya never know. Tennis like football that way, and I really feel awful for my friend — a real gentleman — Jim Antle, but ya win some and ya lose some, and I am afraid the Baltimore boys are going to the final instead of Jim’s beloved Pats. But now that is done, and we must support the Eastern team against the West’s champion, despite — or because — of the fact Don Budge was a Californian.
Jim Antle is a man of faith, and he will recover. I expect so will Brian Baker, but that, I must say, was the real heartbreaker at Melbourne, the bravest and most classy American now playing went out in the second round with a hurt leg, the diagnosis of which has not yet been released. We must hope he will recover in time, if not for Indian Wells and the American winter season, at least for the clay season in Spain, Italy, and France, where he did so well and won so many fans last season, after coming back from years of injury and disease without a single complaint and without missing a beat. That is what we want in Americans, the no-complaints strong silent type, and if only we can endure four years of — but halt, no politics.
But of course, the Oz Open is where promises are the stuff of daily drama. It is always someone’s break-out year at Melbourne Park, until he — or she — is the victim of someone else’s. Jerzy Janowicz — another Pole! — had a fantastic second round match, wherein he played for five hours or some other amazing feat of duration against a wiry, tough, skillful little fellow from the subcontinent, and it looked as if he would have the best of him, but the big man from Lodz (twice the size of Agnieszka) came through, notwithstanding being two sets down and having one of the all-time temper tantrums in the history of lousy manners, though to be fair it was due to a very questionable line call (they were playing on a court without the phototracker gizmo). Exhausted, he fell two days later to Nicolas Almagro — one of those, like his compatriot David Ferrer, who might pull a surprise against the Three Masters (the fourth, Rafa Nadal, is on the DL and is not expected to return until the clay season) -- and that was the end of Jerzy in Australia, but I look forward to his arrival at Indian Wells in a few weeks.
Yes, the year and the season are just beginning, everyone is refreshed and rested and full of hopes and eager to show what they can do. You catch yourself wishing our presidential inauguration could inspire the same feelings — but I know I should not say this. Politics and sports do not mix, and who am I to say Barack Obama will not do in his second term what we all expected in his first, restore American greatness, get the economy booming, reduce our national debt and our federal deficit, confound our enemies, rescue our brothers in Mali alongside our gallant French allies.
Speaking of whom, the French went fairly deep at Melbourne Park, and Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon — he who was mean to our rising star Sloane Stephens many years ago when she was a wee girl and he an advanced junior — played a magnificent endurance match that took so much out of Simon that in his next match, against the mighty Andy Murray, he scarcely could lift his racquet and followed his compatriot Monfils to the showers. On the other hand, in another all-Frencher, Jo-W. Tsonga crushed his friend Richard Gasquet and thus insured the Tricolor would be carried at least to the quarters, which begin even as we go to press. Tsonga is one of the most improved players not to have won a major, and hope is born again anew, in Australia.
Not that I would bet on him, with all due respect for his talent. After watching Novak Djokovic out-endure the mighty Other Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, in five excruciating sets, and the First Swiss handle the rising generation, in the form of Australian White Hope Bernard Tomic and Canadian White Hope Milos Raonic (what is it about these sons of Balkan immigrants to ancient English dominions?), with an ease that was almost embarrassing, it does not look like the old guard is ready to retire yet. It will be crunch time this week, with the usual suspects, as good as ever, and all pumped up.