MELBOURNE — Dire musings from the tennis parlor called Melbourne Park:
Has Australian tennis civilization gone the way of the Etruscans and the Aztecs?
Are the Aussies emulating the ancient Romans in playing bad defense against the Barbarians at the gates?
Can Australians masquerade as phoenixes and rise from the ashes? (Not the beloved cricket kind.)
Is a native (by way of Croatia), Childe Bernard, the one who will flap his wings and lead them back? Back to respectability, holding back the tides and avalanches that have been flowing in the wrong direction? We got a hint as he faced off favorably against Rafa, who didn’t win the title after all. But will Childe Bernard Tomic need to carry an alarm clock to keep him alert during the inevitable late nights?
Isn’t it time to canonize Christine O’Neil and Mark Edmondson as the last Aussies to hold the Australian trophy high in 1978 and 1976 respectively? My god, those dates go way back to another century, back in the days of shaky black-and-white TV and the 5:00 o’clock swill. They signalled the beginning of the “Dark Ages, Down Under” style. Those two warriors, O’Neil and Edmondson, should be on a lifetime pension from Tennis Australia and paraded around as proof that an Aussie can actually win the homeland title.
What about Samantha Stosur, you say? She’s easily recognizable – the woman who’s walking around with a rather large island on her shoulders. Well, maybe she can carry the burden better next year, answering millions of prayers by launching enough of those “Wham bam, thank you Sam!” aces and service winners to move her farther along?
So, why am I, a Yank, sticking my nose into Australian domestic affairs? After all, U.S. tennis isn’t exactly booming. Andy Roddick and John (Endless Match) Isner didn’t show us much as the last-standing American guys, and Venus Williams limped out of town on impressions no better.
It looks like we’re in this together, doesn’t it. Are the Yanks and Aussies, such good mates, fated to vanish hand in hand like the ball playing Incas and Mayas? Didn’t Nostradamus predict that we’d run out of champions?
I hope not. After all, Nostradamus’s bookmaker said the sage bet on a few clunkers, too.
But I must admit that I miss the old days when the Aussies and Americans owned the world of tennis. Does anybody else remember? It was such a fierce yet comradely rivalry of memorable battles that usually climaxed with a Davis Cup final in one country or the other. Between 1946 and 1959, a run of 14 straight Cup final years together, the Aussies led 9-5). It was 2-2 between 1963 and 1973, overall 11-7 Australia.
By 1973 when Rod Laver and John Newcombe seized the Davis Cup in a blazing 5-0 victory at Cleveland, the ROTW (rest of the world) was beginning to catch up. Even so there were five more Aussie Cups through 2003 while the U.S. has won only one since 1995.
That era of a two-nation monopoly on the Cup has passed. The game has gotten bigger, more demanding and more rewarding. Huzzahs for the ROTW. Imagine how the 111-year-old Cup has become a wanderer well away from Oz and the States. Currently it is, if you can believe it, vacationing in teeny Serbia, and the Aussies and Yanks can only tearfully inspect from a distance.
Right now the TV interviewer Jim Courier, who moonlights as U.S. Davis Cup captain, will take his team – barely victors over Colombia in a prelim – to Santiago to face Chile on dreaded clay. I have no idea where the forces of new boy Aussie Capt. Patrick Rafter have descended. Possibly the Himalayan Zone, a long way from having a telescopic peek at the grand punchbowl which was called “Dwight’s Pot” by the mates of founder Dwight Davis. Best luck, with the Pot, Pat.
Gazing at the palatial playpen, Rod Laver Arena, a monument to perhaps the greatest of all, I think of Rocket’s two Grand Slams, 1962 and 1969. Not to forget the original in 1938 by Californian Don Budge. No man since Laver has come close to even one Slam. I think about Margaret Court, 1970, out of country town Albury, one of three female Slammers, the first being another Californian, Little Mo Connolly, 1953. In between, the most recent, German Steffi Graf, 1988, is the lone non-Aussie or Yank on the singles Slam list.
Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor registered the only men’s doubles Slam in 1951, Margaret Court and Ken Fletcher a mixed Slam of 1963. Americans Pam Shriver and Martina Navratilova were doubles Slammers in 1984.
It was practically an Aussie-U.S. partnership as Slamographers. And Aussies have been innovators. Davis Cupper Viv McGrath introduced the two-fisted backhand in the 1930s, and Jan Lehane did the same for the ladies in the 1960s.
The nifty little Doomsday Stroking Machine, Ken Rosewall, as good as they come was the youngest and oldest Australian singles champ: 18 in 1953. 37 in 1962. Still the real geezer among Aussie champs was 52-year-old Horace Rice, winner of the 1923 mixed with Sylvia Lance. He used the same face of the racket for backhand and forehand, the latter described by Davis Cupper Tony Wilding as “peculiar, but for ugliness and effectiveness combined I’ve never seen anything to approach it.”
No, I didn’t cover Rice, who won the singles in 1907. But luckily I was around for the peerless Laver, Rosewall, Court and Sunshine Supergal Evonne Goolagong, plus applauding as a squadran of Aussies (28) entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport Rhode Island.
OK, the Aussies and Yanks have won the history, but the ROTW is in full swing, taking over. Tennis Australia and the U.S. Tennis Association have plunged into ambitious talent development schemes. I wish Aussie CEO Steve Wood and USTA President Jon Vegosen all good fortune as our two countries strive to avoid becoming roommates of the forgotten Mesopotamians.
However, it’s tough sledding on hard courts to hold off the barbarians of ROTW.