2012 Australian Open Midweek Review: The Book Of Revelation
It’s not a debate in golf: The four major tournaments are the great revealers of excellence, the crucibles that strip naked each competitor and separate the fortified from the frail. In tennis, however, it is a debate: Do the Masters Series tournaments – which do not have an equivalent in golf – matter just as much (collectively) as the majors? Very astute, learned and passionate tennis fans have made compelling cases for recognizing the Masters 1000 events as a better marker of supremacy than the majors. (You will often read me interacting with one during the tennis year on Twitter.) However, it is my contention that the majors remain where it’s at in the world of big-boy and big-babe tennis. The 2012 Australian Open offers a perfect case in point, as does this new era of men’s tennis in particular.
The era of the Big Three (Murray, you know what you have to do to make it the Big Four… not there yet…) will long be remembered for the ability of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to so consistently make the quarters, semis and finals of major tournaments with precious few hiccups. Before Federer entered the scene, there was a period of several years in which men’s tennis belonged not so much to individuals as it belonged to seasons and surfaces. Gustavo Kuerten battened down the hatches on the red clay of Paris. Pete Sampras held court – and serve – on the grass of Wimbledon. Andre Agassi – reborn fitness freak and refreshed tennis soul – made the Australian Open his own by outlasting everyone else in the Melbourne summer heat. The U.S. Open wound up being the principal battleground in men’s tennis in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The last major of the year on another hardcourt surface, it gave each champion the chance to show that his earlier major in Melbourne, Paris or Wimbledon was not a one-off occurrence. It also gave the major-less players in the field a chance to snag their own scalp. Patrick Rafter – or as it sounds in an Australian man’s mouth, “Pot Roftuh” – was able to break through in New York in 1997 and 1998, part of his brief but oh-so-enjoyable five-year run. (It was, after all, the last great ride for serve-and-volley tennis that we have seen in men’s tennis. Sniff.)
Now, notice how different men’s tennis is. There are no one-surface wonders. Only at the French can you say that one man has a noticeably better chance than the others, and even then, Mr. Djokovic could spoil Rafa’s party this year. (It’s the second biggest question this year in men’s tennis, right behind “Will Murray win a major?”) Men’s tennis has become a fortress guarded by three men and regularly occupied by Murray, a semifinalist in three majors last year and a runner-up in a fourth. Djokovic and Nadal currently devote a lot of energy to the Masters events, while Federer – at 30 – necessarily saves his fuel tank for the majors – but it’s hard to deny the notion that the best men’s tennis players are the ones who deliver the goods in Australia, France, England, and the United States.The effort these men put forth offers a convincing case for the claim that tennis players ARE remembered mostly for what they do at the majors. Yes, Djokovic’s haul of FIVE MASTERS TITLES last season SHOULD be given a lot more publicity and credit – the people who write the history of tennis SHOULD trumpet Masters prowess when it is displayed on such a grand scale; the narrative needs to reflect that – but the majors, for me, remain the holy grail.
This is where we get into the first week of the 2012 Australian Open at its midway point, lighting the way to what is shaping up to be a spectacular second week of tennis in both the WTA and ATP brackets.
Do the Masters Series events (for the men) and non-major tournaments (for the women, who have a less recognizable branding/labeling system) mean a lot to Mardy Fish and Kaia Kanepi right now? It’s hard to care a lot about Fish’s Montreal final and Cincinnati semifinal last summer (plus his Atlanta title and Los Angeles runner-up results), and it’s similarly hard to view Kanepi’s Brisbane title with all that much fanfare after her early exit in Melbourne.
Milos Raonic has won in Memphis and San Jose. Those tournaments did him little good, however, when he played his first center-court match at a major tournament and tightened up in the key moments of a thrilling (and generally well-played) four-set match against fightin’ Lleyton Hewitt, who provided his Australian fans with a memorable old-man moment near the end of a decorated career defined by overachievement.
Marion Bartoli thrives at the Stanford event during the U.S. hardcourt summer swing, and she’s been a dangerous floater at the majors in recent years, but her loss to Zheng Jie makes it hard to take her seriously as a “pre-tournament co-favorite” type of player.
I’m a huge fan of Slammin’ Sammy Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova, but I can’t deny that their flameouts make their major titles that much more aberrational. Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer, and Nikolay Davydenko – three men who made a major semifinal (Davydenko on several occasions, Hot Sauce and Tuna Melt only once) – are staring at the end of the line after their first-round departures, and history will look kindly only on Davydenko’s career, given his ability to make his work ethic pay off for several years on the tour despite a thoroughly unremarkable serve and a nonexistent net game. Vera Zvonareva had two strong years at the majors, but her first-week loss to Ekaterina Makarova does not bode well for the rest of her 2012 campaign.
You can see how the first week at a major – especially this Australian Open – separates the wheat from the chaff. The players who strolled through the many blowouts on hand at Rod Laver Arena over the past seven days did not make news because… there was nothing newsworthy about 6-1, 6-2 (Sharapova, Serena, Azarenka) demolitions or 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 (Djokovic, Nadal, Tsonga) detonations of tomato-can opponents. These professionals know how to handle their business; it’s why they’re safely into week two in Melbourne with nary a peep. Their bodies are fresh. They’ve saved extra fuel. They’ve stocked up on rations for the times when they find themselves deep into the final set of a protracted war.
You might have snoozed this past week when you watched a blowout on Laver Arena. However, those waltzes were reflections of airtight professionalism from people who recognize that the majors are where greatness pays off the most… and is remembered for the longest time. Now, the big boys and girls are ready to throw down in five-star fistfights – you know what the draw sheets tell you – so as week one ends and week two begins with the round of 16, there’s only one thing to say:
The revelations of greatness – the unmaskings of both magnificence and inadequacy in main-event motivational moments – have only just begun.
Tennis can be naked that way. That’s why it’s such a magnificent gladiatorial marvel of a sport.