January 25, 2006

Tennis Down Under: Worth All the Racket

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At the risk of sounding like a Yankee fan, I find myself a bit bewildered during this, the two weeks of hype and posturing before the Super Bowl. After the giant stink bomb Brady and Co. laid in Denver a week and a half ago, I lack a vested rooting interest in the Game of All Games for the first time since 2003. Not that I’m complaining – after the championship run the city of Boston has been on over the past few years, I’m fat and happy. Still, without an emotional attachment to either the Steelers or the Seabags, I just can’t bring myself to dive into the excitement.

Hey, I’m thrilled for Jerome Bettis, who has always been one of the most likeable guys in the NFL, but I’m not going to be skipping class to watch his live Media Day interview.

But there’s a silver lining to the Patriots’ early exit. I can cast my gaze toward the land Down Under, where the beer flows like wine and the kangaroos dance in the outback twilight. I’m talking about the Australian Open. You know, that other major in that other sport you pay attention to for about five minutes every year.

Tennis doesn’t have the television draw of the major sports leagues, and like golf, it really only matters four times a year – the majors, or Grand Slams. In the U.S., you could make the case that of those four tournaments only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are important. The French Open is, well, in France. More importantly, it’s played on clay, the surface where 150 mph serves and devastating forehands go to die – the key tennis features that appeal to an American audience bred on slam dunks and home runs. An American has never really dominated the grounds at Roland-Garros (unless you count Michael Chang, which no one does), mostly because Americans grow up playing on hard courts, in contrast to Europeans and South Americans, who are often introduced to clay court tennis at a young age. We Americans tend not to care about things we aren’t good at, so most of us would much rather watch Sampras and Agassi duel on Centre Court than a bunch of Spaniards sliding around in the mud.

The Australian Open has always been the lost major, due almost entirely to the 14-hour time difference between New York and Melbourne. Remember how you didn’t watch the Sydney Olympics live because it was at 3 a.m., and then you accidentally saw all the results on the Internet before watching NBC’s patchwork primetime tape-delay extravaganza the next evening? Remember how that ruined everything? The same rule applies here. If the causal sports fan is going to watch tennis at all, it better be live, and it better be during normal viewing hours.

Regardless of the time zone, major tennis is my favorite spectator sport except for Red Sox baseball. I have a feeling that this immediately sets me apart from most people. I mean, I’m the guy who postponed driving to Ithaca until last Sunday (even though it meant missing both NFL conference championship games) so I wouldn’t miss the Roger Federer vs. Max Mirnyi third-rounder on Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, 3:30 in the a.m. is not normal viewing hours. Nevertheless, that’s when crazy people like me had to tune in to see the quarterfinal between Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

It’s a shame, because the Australian Open is so much fun to watch. Both Rod Laver Arena and the surrounding city of Melbourne are travel brochure gorgeous, in a way that Queens and suburban London can never hope to be. The intro graphics on ESPN usually involve kangaroos (always exciting) and the studio anchors are genuinely thrilled to be there. Think about it – it’s essentially a two-week paid vacation to one of the most beautiful places in the world while the rest of their colleagues are slugging through the winter doldrums. You can actually see Chris Fowler doing mental somersaults on the set and saying things to himself like, “this sure beats the hell out of bunking with Corso in State College.” Couple this with the presence of the completely insane Brad Gilbert, Andy Roddick’s former coach (from back when he actually won) and still the only man to wear a Metallica ballcap to Wimbledon without getting deported, and you have nothing but good times all around.

Do yourself a favor and see for yourself. Flip the dial to ESPN2 tonight at 9:30 p.m. (they play some morning matches over there, which mercifully translates to our late evening) and catch the Maria Sharapova/Justin Henin-Hardenne semifinal. Both are coming off tough quarterfinal matches against Nadia Petrova and Lindsay Davenport, respectively. Sharapova, the blonde Russo-American bombshell, is still trying to prove that her Wimbledon title in 2004 wasn’t a fluke. Henin-Hardenne missed nearly all of 2004 and parts of 2005, and while she won last year’s French Open, she had extremely disappointing results at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open due in part to her continuing struggle with an exhaustive disease. We’ll see if she can outlast the younger fiery Sharapova.

Most importantly, it’s two fit women running around in spandex, which is precisely why I got into sportswriting in the first place.

Maybe sex appeal isn’t the most tactful way to entice the masses to pay attention to tennis, but I’m trying to get the word out any way I can. Did anyone see Sharapova play Daniela Hantuchova last week? It was 90 minutes of sweat, screams, and halter tops. And yes, I hope Cornell women’s tennis puts that sentence on a t-shirt.

But I’m not 100 percent Neanderthal. I implore you, for reasons as pure as the driven snow, to catch the highlights of the quarterfinal match between Belgium’s Kim Clijsters and Switzerland’s Martina Hingis (which was played as this column went to press). You might remember Hingis from a few years ago, when she stormed through the women’s tour with her deadly mix of flawless execution and prima donna arrogance. However, as soon as the Williams sisters arrived with their raw athleticism she got blown off the court, unable to deal with the power game that subsequently permeated throughout women’s tennis. Hingis retired with foot problems four years ago, but she’s made a comeback in Australia, surprising everyone by making the quarterfinals. Clijsters, the 2005 U.S. Open champ, is the first big hitter Hingis will have had to face in the draw. If she wins, we’ll know the Swiss Miss is back.

But it’s not like I’m only watching the women. The lack of tight skirts notwithstanding, I enjoy men’s tennis even more. While I definitely appreciate the speed and power of the men’s game and I’m riveted by the talent of guys like Roddick and Federer, the best part are the nicknames. This is one area where tennis undeniably trumps the likes of football and baseball, where there hasn’t been a truly creative nickname since Oil Can Boyd, or maybe even Wee Willie Keeler. Nowadays, everybody throws together their first initial and the first syllable of their last name and calls it a day. (A poster on the Sons of Sam Horn recently referred to rumored soon-to-be Red Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez as “A-Gonz” and I nearly threw my laptop through my window like a discus.) Not so in men’s tennis. They’ve got The Beast (Mirnyi), The Magician (Fabrice Santoro), The Scud Missile (Mark Philippoussis), The X Man (Xavier Malisse), Tiger Tim (Tim Henman), Club Fed (Federer), and my personal favorite, Dr. Ivo (Ivo Karlovic). I think these are hilarious.

But of course, it’s really all about Federer. He’s the best, maybe the best ever. And it’s not even close. Everyone else is playing for second place. Roddick’s mind is so screwed up from the lopsided rivalry that he’s losing in the early rounds to players well outside the top-50, most recently to some cat named Marco Baghditis. Watching the Fed is like watching Pedro Martinez from 1998-2000 – you are witnessing the bright shining edge of human physicality, a kind of brilliant perfection that is simultaneously impossible and astounding. And that’s worth your time to watch. That, and Sharapova.

Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer. The Victory Lap will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Per Ostman