Play Off: True Blue.
There is a certain limit to my love for tennis.
Outside the slams, the masters and premier tournaments, my interest (as many of yours too, no doubt) wanes dramatically. Challengers? Futures? Qualifiers? Err … what’s the difference? Who even plays those?
Oh relax. I’m kidding.
But perhaps it’s the tennistic dry season. Perhaps it’s the not-so-subtle way I flip open the free metro newspaper everyday to see a giant one page promotion of Tennis Australia’s December Showdown (“FREE ENTRY!”, it screams), or perhaps the silly season, the copious amounts of free time I have on my hands to indulge in silliness … regardless, I found myself hopping down to Melbourne Park for the morning to watch the Australian Open play-off for the wildest card of all time.
The tournament set up is a little confusing, although the prize was clear – a wildcard entry into the Australian Open. On the men’s side, a 32 men field form the usual singles knockout draw, while the women fight it out in Round Robins, drawn into green, magenta, yellow and blue groups.
The crowd, an eclectic mix of tennis parents, journalists, diehards, enthusiasts and those-in-need-of-a-tan, not to mention an amusing group of primary school kids on excursion, whose well-timed potty breaks provided some distraction when the play got dull.
Notable absences include 2007 Australian Open boys’ singles champion Brydan Klein, 2006 runner-up Nick Lindahl, and Dayne Kelly. While Lindahl’s temper and Klein’s racial slurs have been well documented, the bizarre twist in all of this seems to be that Nick Lindahl, who beat Tomic in last year’s play-off final, has suddenly decided to chase up his Swedish roots and defect to Sweden. As of yesterday, Bernard Tomic had also pulled out of the tournament, citing an undisclosed illness. Dude’s been off the radar since September this year, what’s going on there?
The tennis was … unremarkable and routine.
Being a challenger-tennis dummy, I naturally chose to stick to the main court (Court 8), where the players were recognisable and the shade was abundant. The downside to that was, of course, that we spent two hours watching Molik and Dokic gobble up their younger, much less experienced opposition with ease.
Molik put her recent losses on the Australian Pro Tour behind her and started proceedings with an easy victory over Queenslander Jade Hopper, 6-1 6-0. Overpowered and outserved, story of the match. What more did you want?
Jelena Dokic, of course.
Enter “Dokic Fanboy”: friend-of-a-friend who slid into my row 2 seats away from me.
On my other side, an elderly gentleman at alone, dressed formally in a dark suit and a hat. At times, he wore an expression so sombre, so stately, that I really fantasized about him being some sort of unrecognised Australian sporting great with heavy metalware in his cabinet.
Dokic Fanboy, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. “Ajde Jelena!” He yelled, as Dokic blasted away a short ball with interest, causing half the docile crowd to turn and stare at his emotional investment.
In a way, I can relate. I feel that way about Roger too, only in my case, I am never alone in my emotional investment. (In fact, I’m mostly out-psychoed by actual psychos whenever I attend Roger’s matches). Nor I am left with such a massive, gaping hole in my tennis-following calendar when my favourite player goes AWOL for 10 months of the season.
He tells me that Dokic has been working with a new coach, Glenn Schaap, remodelling her forehand and her serve, ‘because Jelena treats her second serves like a second chance at a first serve. Watch out for that.’
I did. And yes, her second serves still possess about as much subtlety as Wikileaks.
If the truism here is that “you’re only as good as your second serve”, Dokic’s second serve says a lot about the rest of her game: do-or-die, crimson-and-black, to the complete absence of grey. At times exhilarating, in equal measures frustrating. It’s the reason many love her. For those who don’t, I hazard a guess that she still tugs many heartstrings simply because of what she has been through in her career.
And miraculously, after everything, Dokic still can’t walk away. She is still out there on a fine December morning, clobbing away against a player 10 years her junior (def 62 62) for just one more shot after so many misses, one more chance at the Australian Open, at a glimpse of a career she could’ve had.
And there is still one die-hard fan sitting in the crowd, hanging onto every shot, taking the journey with her.