The professional tennis season seems to commence earlier every year, which is to say, less late in the previous year. Eight elite men endorsed by the International Management Group were already darting through Abu Dhabi’s liquid air while the less athletically ambitious among us still metabolised our lazy Christmas feasts. I assume someone won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the whole thing evaporated in a haze of irrelevance.† It was over before I knew it, and certainly before I bothered to tuned in. I’d barely begun searching for chocolate in the unopened panels of my children’s advent calendars before meaningful play was under way in Chennai, Doha and Brisbane.
For many Australians, Christmas represents merely the most concentrated expression of the perennial fantasy that we are a small, cold county in the United Kingdom, and not a hot, dry continent located in the southern Pacific Ocean. A disembodied and dislocated Bing Crosby extols the benefits of a white Christmas in every department store. Vast artificial pine trees, festooned with yuletide bling, conveniently obstruct shopper’s views of the outside world, where eucalypts sag in the heat, sap dribbling away. School children are organised into ad hoc choirs, forced to pipe movingly about an unexplained feast (Stephen) where a king they’ve never heard of (Wenceslas) slogs through a substance they’ve never touched (snow). (There is only one well-known Australian Christmas ‘carol’ – well-known in Australia, that is – called Six White Boomers, which rousingly recounts that famous occasion when Santa’s reindeer were replaced by half a dozen kangaroos.) Trapped by December’s dull immensity and two centuries of cultural inertia, we gorge on imported turkey, hide superseded currency in hot puddings, and bunt our homes in tinsel. The best times, the ones that unite the nation, come when we beat the English at cricket.
Sport is one of the few areas where Australia’s strident declarations of global relevance don’t mask crippling insecurity. This is not to imply the sporting declarations aren’t bombastic and delusional, merely that they aren’t born from the cringing assumption that everyone else does everything better. As a nation we legitimately believe that we should win at any sport we turn our hand to, excepting those events conducted on ice or snow, and possibly gymnastics. That we aren’t dominating baseball or hurling merely speaks to the fact that we haven’t got around to them yet. It also means that the sporting public can be slow to cotton on if our dominance wanes. When our swim team doesn’t win all the gold medals, we launch exhaustive reviews to uncover structural flaws, barely pausing to consider that we might just lack the best swimmers.
As I write the Australian cricket team is seeking to complete a 5-0 series demolition of England’s cricket team, which I won’t deny has been a treat to watch. Before the current series, however, Australia had barely won an international cricket match all year, and hadn’t beaten England in a Test series since 2007. Australia at present is far from the best cricket team in the world, but for a very long time it knew no peer. Given the substantial lag-time between events occurring and their significance penetrating the general consciousness, recent poor results were treated as an aberration rather than the new norm. Thus the current resurgence hasn’t been greeted with relief so much as satisfaction at the resumption of normal service. Meanwhile the English press, long-inured to abject losses, have found their best fears confirmed, thus enabling their favourite pastime, which is excoriating their cricketers. Cultures of victory and defeat originate in reality, but they always leave it behind.
It’s much the same with tennis. Those who know only a little still assume Roger Federer will win every tournament he enters. Certainly the good burghers attending the Brisbane International aren’t discouraged in this assumption, nor are television viewers. Vision of him cradling koalas and promos for his upcoming charity night fills whatever space is left over once the commentators finish extolling the local talent. To be fair, there’s no good reason to think Federer won’t win it. The draw wasn’t strong even when it was still intact, and it broke apart almost immediately. He has reached the semifinals by defeating Jarkko Nieminen and Marinko Matosevic without any discernible effort, though Matosevic looked like collapsing by the end of the second set, after less than an hour on court. Nor has Federer’s new, larger Wilson frame caused a problem. His serve has regained its erstwhile effectiveness – last year it proved a useful barometer of the state of his back – while the famed forehand, John Fitzgerald reassures us, still boasts ‘plenty of trajectory’. More entertainingly, he has partnered with Nicolas Mahut in doubles, and their matches have so far produced the best tennis of the tournament. Yesterday’s victory over Grigor Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy, secured 11-9 in the match tiebreak, was great fun.
The dream final, from the perspective of the Brisbane organisers, the official broadcaster, and locals who’ve secured tickets, would be for Federer to face Lleyton Hewitt, who today pushed through to the semifinal with a comfortable victory over Marius Copil. Word is that the Australian hardcourts are considerably faster this year than they’ve been in a long time, with the speed of Pat Rafter Arena more in line with the kind of court Pat Rafter once thrived on. Rafter himself, interviewed courtside, suggested that Federer will enjoy himself this year. He also admitted that it’s still weird to enter an arena with your own name on it. (Having just renamed my house the Jesse Pentecost Coliseum, I can sympathise.) Australians are still encouraged to believe Hewitt is a legitimate contender for major tournaments, based on the fact that he was a top player a decade ago, and always tries very hard. , As I say, the culture of winning dies hard. The exception comes when he faces Federer, who has instilled in the Australian public by rote the knowledge that some battles just cannot be won, no matter how hard you try. Hewitt will next face Kei Nishikori, who beat Marin Cilic. Federer will play Chardy, who beat Sam Groth.
† Apparently Novak Djokovic won Abu Dhabi, defeating David Ferrer.