x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A racket in Melbourne

Paul Stafford examines why the decibel level will be so high at the home of the Australian Open this weekend.

The 1995 Australian Open was an emotional one for Peter Sampras who beat Jim Courier in an epic five-set quarter-final match despite the deteriorating condition of his coach, Tim Gullikson.
The 1995 Australian Open was an emotional one for Peter Sampras who beat Jim Courier in an epic five-set quarter-final match despite the deteriorating condition of his coach, Tim Gullikson.

Sports-mad Melburnians fell in love with Pete Sampras in the summer of 1995. Sampras, the defending Australian Open champion, went into his quarter-final against his compatriot and old mate Jim Courier that year with a heavy heart. His long-time friend and coach Tim Gullikson had collapsed earlier in the tournament and had to be flown back to the US for treatment on a brain tumour that claimed his life a year later.

In the fifth set of an epic match, with Sampras holding back the tears, a cry from the crowd pleaded with Sampras to "Do it for Tim". It was all too much for him. When play resumed, Sampras would stop mid-sob to whiz another of those blistering aces past Courier before walking back to the baseline in the same distress. Despite his grief, "Pistol Pete" clawed back from two sets down to win the quarter-final 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

It was a rare and bitterly beautiful insight into the emotions that drive a champion. There was not one dry eye in the house. The crowd response in backing this display of humanity was also a good indication of the sort of emotion the first tennis grand slam event of the calendar year can arouse in those who pay to see it. The flame-haired Courier had scored points with the populace with his supportive words for his suffering friend.

In fact, he became so overwhelmed by the Melbourne crowds in 1992 that he bravely took a dip in the murky waters of the Yarra River that flows past Flinders Park in Melbourne, after winning the singles final. He repeated the questionable act the following year after making it two titles on the trot. Even the locals will not swim in the polluted water so what compelled Courier who, let's face it, was not the most charismatic character on the international circuit, to do such a daft thing?

Part of the answer can be found in the fact that the temperatures on centre court at Flinders Park quite often rise to Abu Dhabi summer highs. But the crowd factor is also a big one. Australian fans can be a bit like the little bloke standing on the edge of a fight, urging it on without taking part. They are fiercely parochial if an Australian is playing, but still knowledgeable and passionate enough to become fully involved even if there is no local to cheer on. And they will all too willingly engage in the game's humour and its drama.

They will be there again early this morning. The stands of the Rod Laver Arena will be creaking under the weight of those eager to participate in a small slice of Australian sporting history as the last two women standing from a pool of 128 slug it out for the title. They will return tomorrow for the men's final. The crowds at the tennis are completely different to those at the other blue-riband events in the south-eastern capital.

Unlike the crowds for the Formula One Grand Prix, the Melbourne Cup or the Boxing Day Test - who are generally there for the social side of the event - the Australian Open crowd are there purely for the love of the sport, and the theatre that goes with it. But with every crowd there is "an element". No event in the city is so drawn out, nor includes competitors from so many countries as the tennis. And no other event in the city has recently attracted so much attention from the world's media for such regrettable reasons: dragging a world-class sports festival into disrepute.

Melbourne prides itself on the large numbers of people from all corners of the globe who have chosen to build communities there. But nationalistic feelings, revived from cheering on a player from the native country over so many days, and the disappointment of their eventual departure from the tournament, can also bring to life bitter histories of past wrongs, perceived or real, suffered in the homeland.

In 2007, a small minority, with no claim to representing their communities, used this prejudices as motivation for violence. About 150 youths were kicked out of the complex on the first day of the event after fighting in the Garden Square, where a giant screen shows matches for those who can not attend them, but still want to be a part of the atmosphere. Young people of Greek and Serbian backgrounds battled with Croatian youths before they were led from the premises by police.

In 2008, a minor scandal erupted with the release of footage on YouTube of a crowd favourite, the Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, at a barbecue with the Hellas Fan Club, waving a flare and chanting slogans calling for Turkey to vacate Cyprus. And in 2009, more than two dozen Serbian and Bosnian youths were escorted from the square after a fight where chairs were thrown during a match between Amer Delic, an American born in Bosnia, and the Serbian Novak Djokovic, the defending champion.

Hooliganism had only been witnessed in Melbourne before in football grounds, where the problem eventually led authorities to ban ethnic names for clubs, with only some success. It unfairly besmirched efforts by the organisers to keep the peace, and the reputation of the majority of the Australian Open crowd. You cannot imagine those sort of unsavoury scenes at Garden Square taking place in 1972. In that year the sedate Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club became home to the previously nomadic Australian Open until 1988, when its sweet green grass was replaced by the blue hard courts of Flinders Park.

Kooyong Stadium, which is these days nestled into the side of a major freeway looking like a green Coliseum without the interesting holes, was chosen when it was decided to permanently keep the tournament in one city. In those days, the crowds, while of course parochial (and they pretty much had to be, as few international stars would make the long hike to the land of the Southern Cross) were as well behaved as the players. They were just after the heydays of arguably the greatest tennis player ever - Rod Laver, who won the first Australian Open in 1969 (it was previously called the Australian Championship before being thrown open to professionals).

Laver holds the distinction of being the only player to twice win all four grand slam singles titles in the same year. Roy Emerson was also just past his prime having amassed 12 grand slam titles, a record that stood until Sampras won Wimbledon in 2000. The baton was passed to Roger Federer when he beat Andy Roddick to win his 15th singles title last year. But still making his mark on the Kooyong turf was Ken "Muscles" Rosewall, who finished his career with eight grand slam singles titles to his name, including the Australian Championships in 1953 and '55, then 16 years later in the Australian Opens of '71 and '72.

One of the greatest success stories from this period, however, came from the other dressing rooms, and the other side of the tracks. Evonne Goolagong, a young indigenous woman from the country town of Griffith, in New South Wales, burst onto the scene when, as a 19-year-old, she won the French Open singles title, and in the same year dethroned the grande dame of Australian tennis, Margaret Court, at Wimbledon.

Goolagong won 11 grand-slam singles titles in all, four of which were Australian Opens. To this day, she and Court are the only Australian women to have won the Wimbledon singles title. Goolagong, a pretty, modest young woman, became the darling of the crowd and of the editors of the country's women's magazines. As observed earlier, however, nationalistic pride is a double-edged racquet. In 2001, another pretty, shy young woman received a different response from the Australian Open crowd. Jelena Dokic, at 17-years-old, was roundly booed after arriving to play her first grand slam event for her native Yugoslavia, having returned there from Australia, her home since 1994.

Reports differ as to the extent to which her father and coach, Damir Dokic, was responsible for her decision to return to Australia, but it was obvious the young athlete relied on the support of the man, who was to become a menace on the international circuit. Damir, a threatening figure, was a prison term waiting to happen. It did last year, when a Serbian Court threw out his appeal for threatening the Australian ambassador to that country and imposed a 15-month sentence.

Jelena split from her father in 2003 and spent years trying to recover her badly shaken confidence and form, efforts that were not aided by constant media reports of her father's latest rantings. She returned to play for Australia in 2006 and was welcomed warmly by the crowd that had disowned her as a sadly misunderstood teen five years earlier. Such is loyalty, and such is the fickle nature of the collective spectator.

pstafford@thenational.ae