Australian Open, First Round (Day One)
Tomic d. (22) Verdasco, 4/6 6/7 6/4 6/2 7/5
(13) Dolgopolov d. Jones, 1/6 4/6 6/2 6/2 6/2
“Is that Greg Jones? The one with the ponytail?” asked the sun-pinked lady behind me in the queue for Margaret Court Arena. Each of her flushed cheeks sported an Australian flag decal. I brought my mighty powers of deduction to bear, and guessed she might be Australian. She was pointing at Alexandr Dolgopolov.
“Yeah, that’s him,” replied her boyfriend with authority through his utterly ordinary goatee, the kind that is standard issue in IT departments the world over. He wore an Australian flag like a cape.
On the scale of their esteem, tennis clearly languished somewhere shy of the national logo, which I suspect they appreciated on a patriotic rather than an aesthetic level. Happily, the Australian Open encourages both passions to coexist, and so they set about brandishing their flags at their new favourite tennis player Greg Jones, even if he did have a girly ponytail. From that point it took them only five minutes to realise they had the wrong man, having carefully observed that the stadium erupted whenever the other guy won a point. The couple exchanged a chagrined grimace – regretting all the A-grade patriotism they’d just wasted on a foreigner – and set about urging on the dude in the green shirt. When Jones moved ahead two sets to love, amidst a flurry of surly remonstrations from Dolgopolov, they joined everyone else in going nuts. If nothing else, it suggests Channel 7’s campaign to rebrand Dolgopolov as Aussie Alexandr is gaining little traction. No one is buying it.
In Rod Laver Arena they had no trouble telling the Australian player apart from his opponent, since the Australian was Bernard Tomic and his image has saturated the airwaves for weeks. It helped that his opponent was Fernando Verdasco, who’d come dressed as an exploding canary. The green and gold horde in Garden Square had swelled, and the ululating murmur across the grounds grew to a sustained roar as Tomic broke late in the fifth set. I am not superstitious by nature, but I was tempted to look away, if only to spare my compatriots the agony of seeing Tomic broken back. It had been that kind of day. My patronage was the kiss of death.
Cipolla d. Davydenko, 6/4 4/6 3/6 6/2 6/1
At least, that’s how it felt. Every match I visited, the player I favoured either commenced poorly if I was present from the outset, or saw their form take a sharp nosedive once I arrived. First up was Nikolay Davydenko, who has fallen on hard times, but was still a sure thing against the sadly overmatched and frankly underpowered Flavio Cipolla. It was smotheringly warm in Melbourne today, with a bold northerly breeze and an unhindered sun. Davydenko, from the very beginning, proved incapable of coping with any of these factors, even in isolation. He could not hold serve into the wind, and would commence each service game from that end by conducting an elaborate pantomime, shaking his head and rehearsing ball-tosses, inviting our commiseration. Cipolla brought no weapons to bear beyond a willingness to scurry for every ball, and thereafter apply slice to it. His patience was admirable, but the Russian was still creating plenty of opportunities. The issue was that he could not capitalise on them.
Karlovic d. (31) Melzer, 7/6 7/5 6/3
From there I swung by Court 18, where Jurgen Melzer was incongruously serve-volleying his way to a maiden loss to Ivo Karlovic. Karlovic was, of course, serving big, but he was also making plenty of chipped returns. Through the early going, Melzer was making plenty of volleys, and he looked even less like losing serve than his opponent. It all came undone for the Austrian in the first set tiebreak, when volleys suddenly were missed. Karlovic’s supporters, more comprehensively festooned with nationalistic drapery than even the locals, began chanting mean slogans at Melzer in close harmony. Novak Djokovic was hitting up on the court behind, and so they chanted at him as well.
Kohlschreiber d. (25) Monaco, 7/5 4/6 6/3 6/7 6/0
After that I roamed, swinging by Rod Laver, where Tomic had somehow contrived to lose the second set, to Court 6, where Philip Kohlschreiber and Juan Monaco were just commencing an enthralling five setter, although they weren’t to know that. As ever, it was a match entirely predicated on the German’s willingness to intersperse normal strokes in amongst the plentiful winners and errors, to ‘rally’, as it were. I was seated with Germans for this one – no flags, but plenty of Bundesliga jerseys – which really rammed home just how draining being a fan of Kohlschreiber’s must be. They rode every flashing backhand up the line, and every forehand into the back hoarding.
Dimitrov d. Chardy, 4/6 6/3 3/6 6/4 6/4
Even at this early stage of his career, Grigor Dimitrov’s more cosmopolitan fan base is similarly conditioned to highs and lows. When I arrived at his court, he had a break point on Chardy’s serve in the first set. Four minutes later the Bulgarian had lost his own serve, and, shortly after, the set. As I said, it was that kind of day. It thereafter developed into a pretty wrenching encounter, whose limits were defined by Dimitrov’s backhand, Chardy’s serve and both player’s insipid shakiness on break points. They moved to two sets apiece, and the heat was endless. Kohlschreiber finished off Monaco with a bagel – it was as brilliant as you might imagine – while Dimitrov limped home along a path littered with Chardy’s double-faults.
Over on Margaret Court Arena Stadium, Greg Jones was foundering badly as Dolgopolov galloped through the remaining few sets. The Australian flags went limp, though the groans of the punters were knowing, if not affectionate. Despite his obscurity, Greg Jones, by gallantly blowing a two set lead, was demonstrating his credentials as a native son. The Cultural Cringe dictates that we both expect and celebrate our countrymen falling short against the rest of the world. But in Rod Laver Arena and Garden Square the roar was immense as Tomic served out the match, having recovered from a two set deficit, taking Verdasco’s best blow and triumphing in a touch over four hours of real tennis. It turns out there’s another, rarer kind of Aussie, and we appreciate this kind even more.
As it happened, I did not look away as Tomic served out the match. I’m not superstitious, after all. But for all that I’m not nationalistic, either, I will admit that as Tomic’s final forehand landed and he hurled his racquet to the court, I was clapping and cheering as vigorously as the guy next to me, who wore a pair of green and gold spectacles, and had the Southern Cross tattooed on the side of his neck. Sometimes the moment gets you.