Hot Tennis in Australia Is Leaving Other Sports in the Shade

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IJanuary 24, 2009

This Australian Open is turning into a scorcher! As the men head into Round Four and a place in the quarterfinals, all the main contenders are still in place and all are looking more impressive with each match. If the result was wide open before the tournament started, it now really is anybody’s guess.

But the fascination goes way beyond the magnificent tennis being played.

Who would have thought Andy Murray could work his way into this laid-back, mature, focused individual, for whom taunts from fellow players and questions from the media roll like water from a duck’s back? He clearly thinks he can win his first Grand Slam.

Who would have expected Novak Djokovic to disappear into the shadows of the publicity machine and quietly wend his way through matches with relative anonymity? He is behaving, and playing, like a defending champion.

It’s also a pleasant surprise to see Rafa Nadal transformed by a carefully-chosen change of kit that reinforces his image as the world’s No. 1. Besides that, he looks fitter, slimmer and like a champion-in-waiting: an unexpected bonus considering his record on hard courts and his preseason knee problems.

And did we expect Federer to be enjoying himself quite so much? His last few matches had shown a slight more tetchy, inconsistent and irritable side from the one most commentators expect. He was coming back from injury. He was clearly irritated by the constant references to his poorer-than-usual record in 2008. He appeared to dislike the cold in the Middle East.

So it was difficult to predict what Roger who would turn up in Melbourne. It seems, though, that he has decided to let the barriers down and show more of the emotional man, the one has who wept uncontrollably at previous GS wins. Smiles have broken through in every match so far, and he is clearing relishing the opportunity to share some of his more magical shots with the crowd: fists thrown aloft, roars of pleasure, saluting the applause. The crowds can’t get enough of it, and apparently nor can he.

And what of the other pretenders to the first 2009 crown? There are some very strong signals of intent from both halves of the draw.

Tsonga, Simon and Gulbis have all been posting very convincing wins over decent opponents—and one stand-out result has been the thrashing that Verdasco handed out to Stepanek. He has Murray next and is going to pose more of a problem than the No. 4 has so far encountered.

It’s been an easy run for Murray so far, but he’s nevertheless looked extremely convincing and is still in with an excellent chance of going through to the semis. Should he beat Verdaso, he may then have Tsonga to take care of first and that, too, will be a stern test.

The result of his likely matchup with Nadal looks less of a foregone conclusion than might have been predicted a week ago, though.

Nadal looked very impressive in his opener, though he was only up against a ranking of 75. In third round match with Haas, however, he raised his game to a quite outstanding level against a player who was producing some of his own best tennis. It was a terrific match of great quality, many long rallies and some very attractive play.

Most striking was Nadal’s ventures to the net—which produced some very sound volleying—and a stunning variety of drive, spin and pace. His own pace and light-footedness were a revelation. Murray will have his work cut out.

The other half of the draw is even more difficult to read. The second-tier players, Roddick, Del Potro and Berdych, all look strong but some of the best results have been posted by Robredo, coming through each round with very impressive margins.

It’s tricky to predict how the top two will fare. Djokovic has not had to face a seed yet and even in Round Four is against the unseeded Baghdatis. Federer, on the other hand, has already had the top-ranked player outside the seedings in Seppi and the 26th seed in Safin. He beat both in straight sets, though had some tough games and needed tie-breakers to win.

He now faces seed No. 20 and, if he wins, a very in-form del Potro—the outsider’s choice for many critics. Should he make it through to the semis, he’ll have played some terrific tennis. He may also have played some very long matches and fatigue could hit him earlier than Djokovic. However, if he gets through the semis in straight sets, his form, fitness and prospects must be top-notch.

So the next couple of days will be telling. The competition has rarely been better, more wide-ranging, and with so much at stake. Oh to be in Melbourne with seats in the Rod Laver arena! If, as is being predicted in the Press, Laver himself presents the trophy in a week’s time, it will be to an awesome champion.