x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Melbourne a major destination for the top tennis players now

There was a time when the Australian Open did not feature very high on a tennis player's schedule, a "lesser major" that was not worth sacrificing their Christmas and New Year festivities for.

Novak Djokovic is bidding to become the first men's player in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Barbara Walton / EPA
Novak Djokovic is bidding to become the first men's player in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Barbara Walton / EPA

There was a time when the Australian Open did not feature very high on a tennis player's schedule, a "lesser major" that was not worth sacrificing their Christmas and New Year festivities for.

Bjorn Borg played there just once, in 1974 when he was 18, and never again. "I have no reason for any regrets," the Swede said years later. "When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. My point was that a player requires some time to himself; he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break.

"They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed."

And Borg was not alone.

Jimmy Connors appeared there only twice in a career that stretched over 22 years. Ilie Nastase, the first men's No 1 when the ATP introduced computerised rankings in 1973, played at the Australian Open just once in a career spanning 1966 to 1985; his lone appearance came in 1981 when he was 35.

Arthur Ashe played only six of the 22 Australian Opens held during his career, while John McEnroe played in Melbourne five times in his 16-year career and later admitted he had received appearance money from the Australian Open organisers.

Even Andre Agassi did not bother to show up in Melbourne until 1995 and the American had spent nine years on the tour by then, winning the 1992 Wimbledon title.

Times have changed a lot since those days and the Australian Open has become a "real major" alongside the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Melbourne's neon blue courts have even become a cure for the winter blues of players coming from the northern hemisphere.

But, there was a throwback to the earlier days in August last year when the big names threatened to boycott the 2013 event over prize money, which was less than 20 per cent of tournament revenue in 2012.

Rumours claimed the ATP was contemplating an alternate tournament in Dubai and the Australian Open organisers, taking the threats seriously, increased the total prize money to AUS$30 million (Dh116m), paying more per round than any other event. Happy, the top players are back in Melbourne.

The tournament, which starts tomorrow, is a bit like the first day of the school year, with all the excitement that usually follows. Last year's headline acts are obviously the centre of attention. Can Roger Federer add to his record haul of 17 grand slam titles?

Will a quiet build-up help the 31 year old as he negotiates a tough draw that includes a possible second-round match against a rejuvenated Nikolay Davydenko?

In the third round he could meet the home favourite Bernard Tomic and the hard-serving Canadian Milos Raonic is a possible fourth-round opponent.

Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, the Frenchman, could be waiting in the quarter-finals and if Federer wins that, the Swiss runs into Andy Murray, the world No 3, before meeting Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, for the title.

Nobody would dare to write off Federer's chances, but Djokovic looks a better chance for a third consecutive Australian Open title. Or could Juan Martin del Potro spoil it for the Serbian?

Lleyton Hewitt, perhaps seeking one final hurrah in Melbourne, could do some damage as well. His triumph at the Kooyong Classic might just be the boost he needs.

Pity Rafael Nadal is not there to add a bit more intrigue, missing the event with a stomach virus. But still, there are enough questions to be answered on the men's side over the coming two weeks.

On the women's side, there seems to be just one: who can stop Serena Williams?

The media is abuzz with talk of a possible "Golden Serena Slam", or even a grand slam. The 31-year-old American has won the last two majors - Wimbledon and the US Open - and gold at the London Olympics as well. If she wins the Australian and the French this year the American will match her career grand slam of 2002-03, with the added glint of an Olympic gold.

If she stays fit, and keeps her mind clear, Serena could even match Steffi Graf's calendar grand slam of 1988.

And it is hard to argue against her doing just that.

 

arizvi@thenational.ae

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