Isolated early in the calendar, the Australian Open often finds itself overshadowed by its three rivals.  Yet while the year’s first major may rank below the others in glamor, it equals and often surpasses them as a venue for scintillating tennis.  From our perspective, in fact, Melbourne represents the ultimate tournament destination.  We discuss a few reasons for this viewpoint.

1) The position in the calendar:  Often considered a weakness, the Australian Open’s position at the start of a new year and far from the other majors may in fact represent its greatest strength.  Not by accident have many of the highest-quality Slam matches occurred in Rod Laver Arena and environs over recent years.  Since Melbourne immediately follows the (admittedly too short) Christmas holiday, players generally arrive there in the best physical condition that they will enjoy throughout the season.  On a mental level, the disappointments of the year behind them have receded or melted away entirely, allowing all contenders to approach this major with reinvigorated confidence.  Every January, therefore, fans relish thrilling first-week performances from players like Gasquet, Blake, Almagro, and Dokic.  None of those players had a realistic chance to win the tournament, but all of them competed with desire and conviction in those early-round encounters. 

Moreover, the Australian Open sets the stage for the narratives that will emerge during the season to come.  Providing a first burst of momentum for players, it can remove pressure from those who excel in Melbourne and insulate them from negativity when their form dips later in the year.  The pressure simultaneously mounts upon contenders who suffer untimely exits, for momentum can prove far more difficult to capture in this sport than it is to maintain.  In recent years, the stars of Melbourne often have not shone brightly throughout the season, but their achievements there nevertheless erect a target for those who seek to challenge them.  And the lengthy percolation period until the season’s next major offers observers greater opportunity to contemplate these narratives than do the brief intermissions between each of the Australian Open’s three sisters.

2) The surface:  One suspects that Davis and Fed Cup tournaments will not often use the Australian Open’s Plexicushion, a medium-speed hard court that offers few clear advantages to any type of player.  Beyond the special demands of clay and grass at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the US Open’s swift Decoturf distinctly benefits aggressors over counterpunchers.  When Melbourne replaced the sticky Rebound Ace with Plexicushion, players and observers alike feared that the year’s first major would resemble the year’s last major too closely.  But their concerns have proved unfounded, for the medium-speed surface has witnessed a dazzling finals run by Tsonga in 2008 and an equally magnificent finals run by Murray two years later.  Few styles diverge more sharply than those of the flamboyant Frenchman and the counterpunching Scot.   Consequently, the equilibrium once afforded by Rebound Ace probably will extend into the Plexicushion era, testing the game’s best offenses against the game’s best defenses on the most neutral surface of any major.  An Australian Open title rewards no specialists and thus carries few asterisks.

3) The surprises:  Connected to the two previous topics is the recurrent Melbourne phenomenon of surprise finalists, accompanied by several surprise semifinalists.  The Australian Open remains the only major over which neither Federer or Nadal have established a suffocating hegemony, while Serena has only once won consecutive titles there.  Exploding from improbable corners, dark horses like Gonzalez, Baghdatis, and Tsonga have injected the season’s first major with an energetic optimism.  In contrast to the predictable events that usually unfold in ATP draws at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and (to a lesser extent) the US Open, the Australian Open frequently poses a challenge to the sport’s established order, as refreshing for the fans as it is disconcerting for the favorites.  Among the most compelling reasons to watch any sport are the surprises that can spring from it.  Even when a legendary champion has prevailed in Melbourne, their triumphs often have come in unexpected circumstances.  Outside the top 75 and struggling for motivation, Serena revitalized her career with her inspired 2007 charge.  A year later, Sharapova brusquely thrust aside her confidence-draining shoulder injury to conquer three top-five opponents in the finest fortnight of her career.

4) The Australian fans: Knowledgeable and thoroughly engaged in the sprt, Melbourne crowds exude a positive energy that mirrors Federer’s characterization of the Australian Open as the “happy Slam.”  Blending enthusiasm with etiquette, they diligently support their beloved Aussies but do not descend into the harsh hyper-nationalism of the Roland Garros multitudes, who often show little respect for the opponents of French players.  Nor do the Australian fans sit in the starched silence of a Wimbledon Centre Court, or attempt to seize the limelight themselves like some of the US Open’s less courteous spectators.  (Without a doubt, some of the national-fan contingents in Melbourne have engineered disturbing scenes of their own; we speak only of the native Aussies.)  The relaxed yet respectful atmosphere that reigns in Rod Laver Arena and elsewhere thus creates an ideal setting in which to watch world-class tennis.  At any rate, so it appears on television or the internet; we hope to find out for ourselves someday.

***

Planning the articles over the next two weeks, we envision a Sydney preview with maybe a short detour to Hobart as well as four or five articles previewing the Australian Open itself, from the contenders to the dark horses to a quarter-by-quarter draw preview.  Before Rod Laver Arena opens for play two weeks from today, you will know all that you wanted to know about the first major of 2011.

Advertisements