South Africa, Sport

2017 Australian Open: Some romantic relief from our alt-reality

By Styli Charalambous 30 January 2017

If the year that we cannot name was the proverbial poop hitting the fan, the first 30 days of January have already shown that 2017 will be when the above-mentioned splatters in all directions. Global democratic politics have graduated to the incredulous levels that many South Africans feel entitled to claim a monopoly over. But for tennis fans, at least, the past two weeks have culminated in welcome relief from a news cycle besieged with xenophobic bans and un-neighbourly brick laying. By STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.

Going into the 105th edition of the Australian Open, no betting man worth his credit rating would have predicted the finalists in either of the men’s or women’s draw. It was as if the cosmos heard the groans of a species undergoing an excruciating procedure and duly obliged the request for a shot of mental morphine.

The Williams sisters, a duet so domineering of the women’s game in both singles and doubles, set the championship weekend off in quixotic style as the highly favoured Serena showed she was from another planet in winning her 23rd Grand Slam title against older sister, Venus. Trailing only Margaret Court in the tally of major victories, and also winning at 35, Serena continues to rubbish those who defy her greatness not only in this sport but in all of sport.

As inspiring it was to see the Williams’ contest another major, theirs was less of a fairy tale only due to the relatively good form both carried into the tournament. For Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, much less was expected of them and even by them or their teams. Returning from their longest injury-induced absences from the tour, these two grandmasters of the game would, by their own admission, have been content just by making it into week two.

Federer with his redesigned 35-year-old knee and Nadal with wrists aged beyond their 30 years, were frailties not expected to stand up to the robotic assassination of efforts by the two men who dominated tennis in 2016. But with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both succumbing to shock early exits, the tennis gods seemed intent to offer the world a slice of magic to forget our troubles on the western front.

Even before the first serve of the final, the two friends, competing as the most decorated owners of Grand Slam medals, confirmed theirs as the greatest rivalry of all time. Federer with his 17 wins and Nadal with 14 each possess a laundry list of achievements for their case as THE greatest of all time. A mental exercise purely to stoke the embers of debate among scholars of the game, the case for G.O.A.T is measured against many yardsticks. Number of grand slams won being the go-to measurement and others that include the number of weeks holding the top ranking, the ability to win across all surfaces and, of course, the ability to win when others of similar ages had long since retired from the game.

For Federer the number of times his career has been written off by the doomsday brigade is only outnumbered by the number of record books he has forced the rewrite of. Although Nadal triumphed in most of the finals they played, barely any were one-sided affairs while most were stamped “classics” with the Wimbledon 2009 final spoken of as the sport’s anointed pinnacle.

This final will surely rank alongside the many epics with which these exquisite players graced the watching public. Even for those who had to resort to buying resold tickets for A$16,000 (R163,000), this match lived up to expectations. Another enthralling five-setter where fortunes swung as much and as hard as the players did out on the court. A fact reflected in the score line 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 that took 3h and 37min to complete.

The first set was all about testing defences with aggressive hitting from the start and ripping the ball with the power and precision of their marathon finals from almost a decade ago. While the array of shots were out of the usual top drawer, Nadal was unusual in his tactics, opting to serving to Federer’s forehand and stepping up to the baseline on some of his opponent’s 2nd serves. Where young Nadal would rely almost exclusively on his athleticism and ability to muscle the ball like no other, here was a more mature, thinking veteran on display.

As so often seen in the past, the two would exchange sets in temporary bouts of ascendancy only to see the other champion from across the net press back with added vigour and determination. As Federer blitzed winners to take the third set 6-1, his fans would have been hoping for their champion to close it out in four, weary that going the distance would see his five additional years of tennis and life experience consumed by lactic acid.

Nadal wiped that setback, and Federer’s call for a medical timeout, from his RAM breaking the Swiss to win the fourth set and tee up the match for the grandest of resolutions. The opening game of the fifth set had Federer’s fans face-palming at the all too familiar sense of Nadal grinding out a major final win. Unforced errors littered the net from Federer’s racquet and 0-1 quickly became 1-3 and even the most ardent Federer fans would have doubted whether their fully stretched and tested hero could overcome his nemesis with the necessary break of serve to stay in the game.

Federer obliged the will of the tennis fans, with even Nadal supporters happy to see the contest of the highest quality continue. After having broken the Spaniard twice to serve out for the match, Federer had to come from behind in his own service game and then had to wait as the algorithms of the Hawk-Eye review system churned before splashing “IN” across the stadium screen to confirm Federer as the 2017 Australian Open champion.

With this victory Federer undoubtedly reigns as the G.OA.T of the men’s game, his reaction to the win telling as he dropped to one knee – overcome with tears and emotion. It’s been 13 years since he beat an Australian for his first Grand Slam title, five years since his last major and nine years since “that” Wimbledon final – and yet this one will probably be the one he recounts the most to grandchildren in future years. For a champion beset by injury and setbacks, he needed this, if nothing but to press the mute button on critics who have been penning his tennis eulogy for the better part of seven years. Federer has always maintained he’ll continue playing as long as he remains competitive and with that performance there at least remains some hope for an upbeat 2017. Well, for tennis fans, at least. DM

Photo: Roger Federer (L) of Switzerland celebrates winning against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the finals of the Men’s Singles at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 29 January 2017. EPA/TRACEY NEARM


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