Down Under Too Early
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Another major sports title will be played along with the Super Bowl on Feb 1 and that’s the final of tennis’s first Grand Slam of the year, The Australian Open. But the Super Bowl comes at the denouement of a long, grueling grind while The Aussie Open is one of the very first tournaments of the tennis season. And that makes no sense. The four Grand Slams, The Australian, the French Open in early summer, Wimbledon mid-summer, and the U.S. Open in late summer, are the jewels of the sport. The elite players will tell you time and time again that other lofty achievements of the game, such as ranking #1 in the world, such as Olympic gold, all fall short in comparison to winning a Slam. Yet you’ll note that it isn’t always the highest ranked among the elite who win the Australian Open and that’s because it comes too early in the season. Nerves and ground strokes and match play shape haven’t settled in yet.
Roger Federer would tie legend Pete Sampras in terms of each winning 14 Slams, should Federer take the title in Melbourne on Feb 1. Federer and others among the men’s world best, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, have made their feelings known about the poor timing of the Slam Down Under. They have expressed, and are mounting a formal protest as they recruit other players to their side, the logic of pushing the first Slam back to the month of February.
For golfers, their counterparts to the tennis Slams are the Majors and, just like tennis, it is the number of Majors won that stands a player’s career apart from the rest. And golf takes its very short down-time at more or less the same time as tennis, the month of December. Like tennis, the pro golf season teed off right after the New Year but the first Major, the Masters, won’t be contested until April. Everybody’s had a chance to find the razor focus needed for a Major. Hone the swing, work out the kinks. Many of the players in Melbourne got only one tournament under their belts before trying to find their groove at the coveted Australian Open. Do you know what kind of revolt would arise if golf switched the Masters to late January and forced the best to play before they were at their best?
Even though the Aussies have long produced great tennis champions, from Roy Emerson to Ken Rosewall to Rod Laver to Margaret Court to Evonne Goolagong, the Australian Championships, first contested in 1905, weren’t always considered world-class because the champions from other parts of the world just couldn’t get all the way Down Under. Back in the ‘20’s, the trip from Europe was a hardship of 45 days by ship. Many of the greatest players in history (Bill Tilden, Rene Lacoste, and Jack Kramer, to name a few) never played the big Aussie event. There were many years when the timing of the tournament was even worse than it is now, taking place over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. And the facilities were second-rate until the late ‘80’s. Today, the two big arenas at Melbourne Park are the only Slam courts with retractable roofs.
One factor keeping the organizers from shifting the date down a few weeks is that the tournament takes place during the school summer holidays, even though the January sweltering days of 100-plus-degree heat is rugged on both players and spectators. Nevertheless, last year the tournament set a Slam day-plus-night attendance record of 62,885 fans.
The Australian Open is a Slam the players respect. They very much want their names etched on its trophy. The sport-crazy Aussies fill the stands with exuberance.
It’s a stellar event as it is. But move it to mid-February, and it fully earns its place among the four Grand Slams.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that’s The Score.