Down Underappreciated

By Mateja Matt Vidakovic

Note: This piece was written before news of Djokovic’s VISA getting canceled had surfaced.

The Happy Slam. Fun Down Under. The Aussie Open. Everything pertaining to the first major of the year seems fun, chipper, upbeat – yet I’ve always felt it an underappreciated slam, often dismissed as the one with the least amount of history and gravity behind it (with players in the past often ignoring it altogether). Well, it’s my favorite slam, and I’m here – in my trademark, slightly arrogant yet amicable manner – to tell you why it is my favorite, by describing some of my favorite AO moments. Perhaps it will carry over to you. Perhaps it will lessen the tension as we await for Djokovic, the world number one, to declare if he will even play his most successful major. Perhaps it will do none of those things.

  1. The First Slam of the Year

After the admittedly quite short hiatus tennis undergoes each year, the Aussie Open is like an awakening – everyone is fresh faced, new contenders make their claim, we get a good preview of what is and what could be. There are rarely any excuses for a bad performance at the Australian Open other than extreme heat. The time difference caused me a lot of grief in my youth (as I mentioned in my origin story, girlfriends do not appreciate you staying up through the night to watch people bash a ball at each other) – but to me even this gave it a special feeling, almost like staying up for New Year’s Eve or some other event where your parents let you stay awake past midnight.

  1. The Djokovic Breakthrough/The 2012 Final

I lump these together because they both pertain to Djokovic, but they are quite different in what they signified. Had Djokovic burst onto the scene today, by the Australian Open, people would already be predicting multiple slams to the young Serb – but in 2008, the Federer Nadal duopoly was firmly entrenched; just the previous year they played the so-called ‘greatest match of all time’ (spoiler: it was not). When Djokovic beat Federer in the semis, most of Serbia was content with just that – he toppled the great Federer at a Slam! When Djokovic went on to win the tournament, it was the beginning of a new era in tennis, but even more so a new era of tennis in Serbia (as far as viewership).

The 2012 final was something else – fresh off the insanity that was Djokovic’s 2011, many wondered if Djokovic was not a spent force, or at the very least how he could possibly top his 2011 levels. Though in 2011 Novak proved he could match and even outlast Nadal physically (I will write on Miami 2011 soon) – doing so at any event, not to mention a Slam final, is always a daunting task at the very least. Novak’s answer to both these ‘doubts’ was a scintillating six hour  crucible that, while not consistent as far as quality of tennis, had bucketloads of drama – and the sheer effort the players expended still stands as a testament to human endurance… and let’s not forget the comedy gold of the Kia Motors guy’s speech as the players were about to topple from exhaustion. 

Nadal and Djokovic hunch over, completely spent, during the gratuitously long speeches by tournament officials and sponsors after the final. Photo: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images
  1. The 2009 semifinal and Federer’s tears

Both of these occurred in the same year and both of these were in a way pivotal to many changing their perceptions on both Nadal and Federer as players and as personalities. The 2009 Australian Open semifinal, featuring Nadal and Verdasco, is possibly the highest consistent level tennis major tennis match ever played – a spellbinding spectacle of constant aggression and shotmaking. I distinctly remember a teary-eyed Nadal falling to the floor in triumph (he started crying before match point out of sheer stress and pressure) – and I remember thinking ‘wow…Nadal is screwed. There is no way he will recover in time for the final.’’ Well, we know how that turned out…

I feel that what Nadal did in 2009 is still not appreciated enough, especially that Australian Open. To display that level of tennis vs Verdasco and then go beat his greatest (at the time) rival Federer is an astounding feat of willpower and physicality…and thus we get to Federer’s Holy tears.

Many were treating Federer’s tears as a sign of weakness, some were even gloating – happy to see the ‘arrogant Swiss’ taken down a peg. Others saw this as a sign of humanity and fragility, something that made them warm even more to the otherwise ‘cold’ Maestro. To me, the tears were neither of these – at the time my attitudes towards Federer were changing. I went from a diehard Fed fan to being indifferent, or even slightly annoyed by Federer as it became increasingly clear his “cold but fair” personality was a facade. However, the tears Fed shed – to me – signaled that Federer himself was becoming aware his era of dominance was coming to an end. Though Federer would later go on to demonstrate astounding levels of tennis mastery and dominance (Federer had MATCH POINTS in the 2019 Wimbledon final – a mere 2.5 years ago!) – I felt this was the exact moment Federer realized he would no longer be able to function on cruise control with a few minor blips. Things had gotten serious.

*****

There are, of course, many more moments and memories to be mentioned here – some dramatic and impactful, others more a matter of zeitgeist (do you remember the great onslaught of fresh faces touted to be the NextGen? I mean, of course, Tomic, Dolgopolov and the gang!). Instead of making this text overlong, I’d rather give you a call to action: follow @Popcorn_Tennis1 over on Twitter and hit us up with your favorite Australian Open impressions, no matter how banal!

Happy New Year everyone – I look forward to you all joining me in no sleep. Till then!

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