IT’S HOME FOR THE AUSSIES BUT NOT SO SWEET FOR HEWITT

CEO of Tennis Australia, Steve Wood, in his office

CEO of Tennis Australia, Steve Wood, in his office

MELBOURNE — Where have all the Aussies gone?  Or the Etruscans and Aztecs for that matter?

Lost civilizations that I miss, but maybe the Australian tribe will yet revive and make us remember their might that caused fright, and bite that gave them ownership of the tennis world in the 50s, 60s and a slice of the 70s.  Ancient history, I know, a time of wooden weaponry.  But whenever another Australian Open rolls around again (as it has on a couple of unseasonably chilly days this week), we Aussiephiles recall the past ruled by greats such as people named Grand Slamming Laver as well as Rosewall, Newcombe, Emerson et al — and hope that a revival is in the making.

It’s their tournament, so why can’t any of them win it?  Nobody has since lowly surprises Mark Edmondson in 1976 and Chris O’Neil in 1978.  Now, that is real Middle Ages stuff.

What happened since?  A plague?  Wearyness of too much success?  A national loss of interest?  Can’t be the last because record crowds keep pouring into Melbourne Park, and Sunday 15,000 tickets went faster than Adrian Bolt (raising $ 2.2 million) for flood relief in the nearly submerged state of Queensland.  Federer, Nadal and other luminaries filled Rod Laver Arena for a good-natured exhibition.  “We never thought that could happen on a couple of days notice,” grinned the boss of Tennis Australia, Steve Wood.  “And more money keeps coming.”

So the interest is there.  But what of the vanishing players?  Complacency?  Cockiness? Like the Obama gang forgetting to keep hustling after their runaway success in 2008?

Whatever, there is a new urgency to rejoin the world pinching the Tennis Australia management. A couple of bright spots pierced gloomy Tuesday.  The names, Stosur, Molik and Tomic made customers happy even though their victories were hardly planet shaking.

But they were Aussie victories, a scarce commodity: wild card Bernard Tomic No. 199, flattening a good Frenchman, No. 44 Jerome Chardy, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-5)… Samantha Stosur drubbing No. 443, wild card American 17-year-old Lauren Davis, 6-1, 6-1 (a Chris Evert protégé)…wild card Alicia Molik, No. 134 (No. 13 seven years ago) working on a comeback in an exciting decision over No. 37, Italian Roberta Vinci, 1-6, 6-3, 8-6.

Steve and Jennifer's 25th Anniversary

Steve and Jennifer’s 25th Anniversary

However, a clash as good as good can be — hard to imagine one better in the fortnight — took the bloom off and sent the full-house crowd home early Wednesday morning, 1:06 am, mournfully.  Their only real male hope, super competitor Lleyton Hewitt, fell to the Argentine, David Nalbandian, in a wowser of 4:48, despite holding two match points, 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1), 9-7).

It was a shotmaking feast.  Hard to imagine one better, and enough to make the locals weep as the 29-year-old rivals, now even at 3-3, ran several marathons in making brilliant gets over and over.  Hewitt — the last Aussie to make the final, in 2005 against Marat Safin — had beaten Nalbandian in the 2002 Wimbledon final, but he was overtaken on his own court.  Nalbandian, with his sensational double-fisted backhand giving him the slimmest edge, withheld the two match points on his serve to 6-6 in the fifth, but Hewitt responded by rescuing two break points to 7-6, as the lead went back and forth.  Nalbandian had been jolted when he served for the match at 5-4. But Lleyton would win no more games, broken to 7-8 and watching forlornly as the Argentine’s nifty bye-bye lob floated over his head, untouchable. The oft injured Hewitt said he was playing better than he had in a long time so found it very frustrating.

Of course No. 6 Stosur, 2010 French Open finalist (having beaten Serena in the semis), is a legitimate contender in a ragged field, that lacks last year’s champ, Serena. Samantha says she likes playing at home – “we don’t get many chances” – and the crowd helps.  But they expect a lot of Australia’s prime suspect, too, and Stosur’s nerves aren’t the firmest.

But as long as her hefty serve – wham-bam-thank you-Sam! – holds up along with the forehand, she’s in the chase.

“I’m rooting for Sam,” said an American spectating guy.  I had to remind him that rooting is a no-no verb form in Australia, and suggested he use “cheering.”

Not much cheering lately for Tomic, an 18-year-old nearly 6-5 whose serve zoomed unbroken. He has been a problem child for a couple of years though a definite talent.  After last year’s second round loss, he bitched that the match had been scheduled beyond his bedtime.  He didn’t get much sympathy on that one.  One of his problems is an overzealous father who pulled him out of a match, protesting the officiating.  The kid got a suspension, and waves of public disapproval. But he heard cheers against Chardy in a solid tie-breaking closer, and his seldom-seen smile was high voltage.

Bud with Steve, Bev and Vic Wood

Bud with Steve, Bev and Vic Wood

“The people were behind me,” he said, “and that helps.  I’m getting wider, stronger, but I hope I won’t be taller.  It’s so important to get stronger.  The game is more physical than ever, and I’m hitting the ball harder.  Used to just push it, and you can’t get away with that if you want to be in the top 100.  That’s my goal right now.”  Currently no teen- agers inhabit that precinct.

One more win would get Tomic a date with a thunderbolt named Nadal.  Bring your armor, young man.  Still, Tomic may be part of today’s Aussies acting like their ancestors.  It will take a while, but it would be nice to dig up that almost forgotten Laverian clan to inspire newfound successors.

I mean what’s an Australian Open without a champion Aussie once in a while?

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