This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The Australian Open has long been the black sheep of the tennis' four Grand Slam events. The other marquis Slams, the French Open in early June, Wimbledon in early July, and the U.S. Open over Labor Day are summer fare, the logical time for peak tennis. Many great players have skipped the Australian Open because they felt the arduous trip was a hardship at a time when they were training hard for the big season. Count Andre Agassi among those absent from the Australian for several years before finally traveling Down Under and winning his first time out.
Well, the Aussie Open has grown in stature in recent years. All the top players enter now and players from all over the bleak wintry world love getting down to the bright January sunshine of Australia. The blimp shot of matches bathed in bright sun with the aesthetic Melbourne skyline behind are postcard-inviting. And the Melbourne facility is the only grand slam venue that offers two courts with retractable roofs, for rainy days and the days that scorch beyond 100--. All three, the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, envy the Melbourne roofs for the many days they lose to summer rains.
It's de rigeur at the outset of any of the Slams to size up the competition, analyze who will wind up still standing at the end of the two weeks. As this Australian Open kicked off, two weeks ago, many of us predicted a dud of a tournament. On the men's side, too many big guns were out with injuries. The ever-popular Agassi; the super talent, current French champ Rafael Nadal; the powerhouse, would-have-been defending Australian Open champ Marat Safin. It was virtually a foregone conclusion that Roger Federer and Andy Roddick would easily breeze through the rounds and then maybe we'd get some excitement in the final. Not only has the usually superlative Federer been put to a dramatic test twice but, as sometimes happens in the Slams, a relative unknown has had his breakout tournament and turned out to be the shining star throughout.
Ever heard of Marcos Baghdatis? He's a 20-year-old from Cyprus who has been playing out of his mind Down Under. What's been so much fun about Baghdatis is that the largest population of Greeks living outside Greece reside in Australia and they've been a raucous, fun-loving, passionate, collective force in the stands every time Baghdatis takes the court. They're up in the cheap seats, all dressed in the Greek signature royal blue and white, waving the Greek flag, chanting in Greek and screaming opa! every time Baghdatis runs down an impossible ball and zips back an impossible winner. Playing world-class tennis, with the proverbial Greek chorus behind him, he is now the unlikely winner of his side of the draw and will fight for the title on Sunday. When he won that last point of his semi-final, he cried and the crowd erupted in a fury of Hellenic joy.
On the women's side, the long-on-talent, short-on-practice Williams sisters lost early on. But I haven't missed them. As much as Baghdatis is the men's story, the women's story has been a former five-time Slam champion who was forced out of the game with foot injuries. Martina Hingis retired from her stellar tennis career more than three years ago. And many of us thought it was none too soon, given that she is a slight 5'6", nicknamed "the; Swiss Miss," and the game had already evolved in favor of six-foot power hitters. After winning $18 million in her career, she didn't need more money, but a healthy Hingis came back for the sheer love of the game. She lost last night to the new World's Number One, Kim Clijsters, but she showed great speed and shot making and competitive fire for ten days. Hingis once virtually owned this tournament, in her hey day, and now her return--along with a crazy Greek named Baghdatis--has helped elevate the Grand Slam Down Under from black sheep to equal status with the big three of summer.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.