If you live in a northern climate as I do, glimpses of summertime anywhere else in the world can provide a welcome relief. Thank goodness for the Southern Hemisphere! The sunshine over Melbourne can seem relentless and I don't envy the players the heat but it's so pleasant on the TV screen. Then there's the people. To say that Australians are more laid back than Parisians, Londoners or New Yorkers is an embarrassing understatement. The atmosphere of the tournament is reflected accordingly. The beer is free-flowing, though, and crowds can occasionally tend to the raucous. If any Slam feels like a day at the beach, this is the one.
No Longer Optional
The Australian Open was, for decades, the ugly duckling of the Slams. Quite often, the top American and European players would decline to make the trip Down Under at all. That time has passed. Endorsement contracts are now structured to give everyone ample incentive to show up. Also, ever since Pete Sampras established total Slam titles as the measure of all-time greatness, no one in search of a legacy can afford to pass it up. While perhaps still not as glamorous as its brethren, the Australian Open is a world-class event by any measure.
The Big Kickoff
The tours have already been in action since the beginning of the month but Melbourne is the first big gathering of the tennis season. Some are critical of the fact that the tennis year begins with such an important event right off the bat. It's not quite as strange as NASCAR beginning its year with the Daytona 500 but the timing does present unique challenges. The summer Slam season is a marathon. The physical challenge is to pace oneself at the smaller events and peak just in time for the big pay day. As for the Australian, this is the first tournament of the year for many of the top players. Those who trained well in the off-season are rewarded here.
A Slower Hard Court?
The hard court surface used in Melbourne is of a different chemical composition than that used at the US Open. The stuff is called Plexicushion Prestige and is apparently slower than the Deco Turf at Flushing Meadows. Thus, it is not so surprising that Rafael Nadal has found greater success here than in New York. I'm not sure I really buy it - concrete is concrete, right? But as I have no personal experience whatsoever in the comparison, I must defer to the experts.
Ideal for Night Owls and Early Birds
If you live in the Western Hemisphere and are at your best in the afternoon, the Australian Open is probably not the tournament that will turn you on to tennis. But, if you're like me and just start to hit your stride around 10 p.m., the coverage will suit you just fine. Similarly, morning people like my wife could watch over morning coffee (assuming they care more about tennis than my wife does, of course). It upsets me that so much of the tennis is played as I slumber but my schedule works out pretty well for the other Slams so I really can't complain.
The Men's Game
It is such a marvelous time for the sport. Pick your story line. Can Fed add one more to the trophy case? Is Nadal really in decline? How long before del Potro wins another Slam? Can Murray finally win his first? Where does Djokovic fit in the current pecking order? Can Davydenko continue his impressive form of the past few months? Who will be the next threat to emerge? The men's tour is a murderer's row. Great matches are, no doubt, in store.
The Women's Game
The biggest story heading into the tournament is Justine Henin who, like Kim Clijsters before her, is coming out of retirement (more of a sabbatical, really). There will be plenty of other narratives to follow, of course. What will be the fallout, if any, from Serena Williams's explosion at the US Open? Can Yanina Wickmayer, fresh off of having her drug suspension overturned, build on her New York breakthrough? Is Melanie Oudin America's best new hope or just a flash in the pan? Can Dinara Safina finally get the monkey off her back and win a Slam?