Popcorn Tennis Roundtable #1: Australian Open

Claire Stanley

The Australian Open holds so many great memories for me. It’s where I first saw Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Gael Monfils, Serena Williams, Li Na – and of course Andy Murray – among many others, live for the first time (and, for some, the only time) – it’s where I realised that nothing can compete with watching live tennis, feeling the electric atmosphere round about you, the sound of the tennis ball hitting the racket, the cheers of joy and the cries of anguish. Watching on TV or online would never be the same again. It was at Melbourne Park in 2010 that I had my first encounter with my hero; he signed my Scotland flag and high fived me following a second round win against Marc Gicquel. It was at Melbourne Park that I saw Andy Murray put his heart and soul into reaching the final for the first time, in a thrilling four set match that had me on the edge of my seat, roaring almost as loudly as Andy did when he won *that* point.

Seven years later, the Australian Open was where I took my daughter, then age 3, to her very first tennis match. It was also where she shouted at Jamie Murray and asked him where Andy was. Maybe one day Jamie will forgive her for that. It’s the place where I queued outside of the Hisense/Melbourne/John Cain Arena in the blazing heat for six hours just to watch Andy play two sets of tennis. It’s also where Ivan Lendl essentially told me to eff off when I asked him for a photo. But even that can’t dampen my memories of the Australian Open. I plan to return in a couple of years – and to me, it’s almost like going home. Bring on AO 2022.

David Gertler

When I think about the 2021 men’s open, besides the obvious regarding Novak Djokovic, there’s two storylines that I’m looking very closely at. First, Alexander Zverev is World No. 3 and has won the 2021 ATP Finals, the Olympics, along with the Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Cincinnati. Yet, he’s never won that elusive Slam. The Australian Open surface should, theoretically, suit his game. Is this the Slam where he makes his breakthrough? Second, Andrey Rublev is World No. 5., yet has never made a Major semifinal and is yet showcased himself to be a serious contender at the biggest events of the game. Will this be the major where this changes? If you’re looking for my honest opinion, I doubt it.

On the women’s side, the hype surrounding Naomi Osaka is not nearly as much as it has been in years past. The reigning champion is down to World No. 13 and her results are not nearly what they once were. But, back on hard courts and with the pressure tone down, it’s hard to believe that Osaka won’t be making an appearance at the later stages of this tournament. I will be watching Osaka’s early-round form very closely during this tournament.

Owen Lewis

The Australian Open has been my favorite tournament since I watched it for the first time in 2017. There’s just no better experience than watching the fields (who are generally well-rested, for once) do battle on those bluer-than-blue courts. The Big Three have all won legacy-defining tournaments down under, sealing the deal with five-setters in the semifinal and final (Nadal in 2009, Djokovic in 2012, and Federer in 2017). The Happy Slam is conducive to marathon matches, like Halep’s trio of draining three-setters in 2018 — finishing 15-13, 9-7, and 6-4 in the deciding sets.

I couldn’t be happier that the Australian Open is more prestigious than it was in the 1900s. Though Wimbledon is more historic, I think winning the Australian Open is a more momentous achievement than winning the other majors. It shows promise for the rest of the year — not only does it build momentum, but there lies another hard court major later in the calendar in the form of the U.S. Open. I can’t wait to watch Sara Sorribes Tormo grind down an unfortunate opponent, to watch Daniil Medvedev make a push for a title Down Under after falling short last year. I can’t wait to push the limits on my tolerance for operating on little sleep, to watch tennis until my eyes itch from exhaustion. But most of all, I can’t wait to watch that inevitable epic night match: two players competing at their best while most of the city sleeps and the court practically glows.

Jack Edward

When the world paused in 2020, I had a lifeboat. 

Every weekend from April to July, I used to cycle to a friend of mine’s grandparent’s tennis-court in the middle of the Shropshire hills – we’d play a three-hour epic, I’d make the long cycle home and I’d enjoy a beer in the evening with my partner. Whilst the world was left hungry from the empty calories of Zoom quizzes, I was living the dream. 

Unfortunately (fortunately), tennis is no longer just a part of my life – tennis is my life. So this year, I’m nervous… Nervous Andy will catch COVID, nervous it’s already too late for Rafa, nervous Novak isn’t vaccinated, nervous Barty will crack open a cold one and play golf instead. 

In the cold of January, with no sunny Shropshire hills to retreat to, tennis is my sinking ship and there are no lifeboats left. 

Please, FS, let the Australian Open go ahead!

Brenda Parry

I’m normally buzzing with anticipation as another grand slam
approaches and the Australian Open, known – somewhat ironically this
year – as the Happy Slam as the players love it, is no exception.
However, the drama surrounding the detainment of world No. 1 Novak
Djokovic at an immigration facility in Melbourne after his visa was
cancelled at border control following scrutiny of the medical exemption
he had secured to compete in the Australian Open has completely
overshadowed the build-up to the start of the Australian Open this year.
As many tennis fans, I admit to having been totally swept up by the
whirlwind of information being communicated on social media regarding
this story and am intrigued to learn the outcome of the court hearing
which will take place in Melbourne on Monday morning, 10 January (11
p.m. Sunday evening UK time) and Djokovic’s fate.

Had Djokovic not been denied entry to Australia this week, I wouldn’t
have looked beyond him to claim his 10th Australian Open title and 21st
grand slam Down Under thereby securing his place as the greatest of all
time by overtaking Federer and Nadal in the grand slam count. However,
given the mental strain and conditions he has been under during his
detainment, even if he wins his appeal and is able to play, it would in
my opinion take huge mental fortitude to win the title and I honestly
can’t see it happening now. Instead he is making history for all the
wrong reasons. The main contenders in Djokovic’s absence are for me
last year’s Australian Open runner-up and US Open champion Daniil
Medvedev and Rafael Nadal, who has successfully returned from a foot
injury which curtailed his 2021 season with a first title of 2022 at the
Melbourne Summer Set. Having said that, I’d love to see Andy Murray,
returning to the Australian Open for the first time since 2019 and
runner-up five times, Dan Evans, Pablo Carreno Busta and some of the
younger generation – Matteo Berrettini and Félix Auger-Aliassime to
name a few – have a good run and make it to the later stages.

On the women’s side, my firm favourite to claim the title is No. 1 Ash
Barty who has just won the Adelaide International for the second time in
three years. As well as a talented player with a unique style of play,
she seems like a genuinely gracious and humble person and comes across
well on and off the court. It’d be fantastic to see her win her home
slam for the first time. Another favourite of mine – Simona Halep – has
also started the 2022 season with a title in Melbourne, and I will be
following her progress closely through the tournament. It will also be
interesting to see how the US Open finalists – Emma Raducanu and Leylah
Fernandez – fare in the first grand slam since their rise to fame in New
York, although I expect stiffer competition to come from Garbiñe
Muguruza and Naomi Osaka.

Once the draw is made on Thursday, I’ll start plotting which matches I
want to follow and praying that my insomnia kicks in at the right times.
Let the Happy Slam begin!

Nick Carter

Ah the Australian Open, the event known as the ‘Happy Slam’, and one that has a lot of happy memories for me. From watching night sessions first thing in the morning before revising for January exams to waking up and getting ready for work catching up on any shock results that happened overnight (for me in the UK). It also has some of my favourite tennis memories: the awesome 2012 final between Nadal and Djokovic, Wawrinka’s exploits in 2013 and 2014 and Federer’s surprise return to the top in a bonkers 2017 event. I think the reason I like the Australian Open so much might actually be pretty simple: it is one of the few tournaments where I can start my day with tennis. At Wimbledon, it’s usually on whilst I am at work or I have to wait for a few hours before any play starts. The US Open and any other American events are in the evening for me, so it’s something for me to relax with after work. The time zone difference with Australia means I can open my eyes on a new day and immediately think about tennis. I can catch some action before going to work, or spend a lazy Saturday morning watching. It also means I can enjoy the night matches more. Melbourne night sessions have incredible atmospheres and it’s nice to experience them whilst I am fresh. Often during evening matches at tournaments (particularly US ones where they’re after midnight), I am tired and thinking about going to sleep. So, in general, I just love the Australian Open.

So, the question is: why am I excited about the 2022 edition of the Australian Open? I’m looking forward to seeing the stories for this season get started. The Australian Open usually ends up setting the tone of so many people’s year one way or another. Let’s get a bit more specific though. I’m interested in seeing how well Rafael Nadal can do, as I have a weirdly positive feeling about him going deep this tournament. That’s strange for me, because although I respect Rafa and think he is incredible, I would never describe myself as a fan of his (I have remained loyal to Federer). However, I am also excited to potentially see a new men’s champion in Melbourne, especially if Djokovic is not allowed to play without being vaccinated. Even if the world number one plays, it will be interesting to see if he is dethroned by Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas or even Nadal. The number one ranking is going to be on the line for the first time in a while, and I will be monitoring that closely. Before the Djokovic fans jump on me, if he does win, I hope achieving ten Australian Open titles is properly recognised for the incredible achievement that it would be. Similarly, Ash Barty is under threat at the top of the WTA rankings, and is also experiencing the pressure of being the home favourite. I will be curious to see if Aryna Sabalenka can break through and really challenge this year, but also I would love to see a home champion in singles for the Australian fans as they have been waiting longer than any other major now (in men’s or women’s). I’m also really hopeful that Naomi Osaka puts in a good performance. She seems to be genuinely happy to be back on a tennis court and that fills me with optimism that her mental health is in a better place. Those are some of the big stories, the obvious ones, but I am also excited to find out who else might write their own moment in tennis history.

Jake Williams

One of the fondest memories I have of the Australian Open was in 2006 when Marcos Baghdatis reached the final of the tournament, eventually losing a tightly contested match in the fourth set to Roger Federer. Baghdatis’ run to the final was incredible where he played some phenomenal tennis beating top quality players including Radek Stepanek, Andy Roddick, and Ivan Ljubicic. However, the one match that stood out to me and those who remember it would have to be his semi-final against David Nalbandian. Baghdatis, being the underdog, had the overwhelming support of the crowd. Both played some fantastic tennis but it was Baghdatis’ vibrant play which secured him the victory in five sets. This match at the Australian Open is one of many which has helped drive my passion for tennis. 

Damian Kust

Qualifying tournaments for Grand Slams are basically my favorite weeks of the year, it’s like a one huge Challenger event, so what’s not to enjoy? Expecting some real quality there with plenty of younger players getting one of their first shots to fight for a spot in a Major main draw. The Australian Open is the toughest time zone for me out of all the four Slams and the cost of watching it thoroughly is becoming a walking zombie for a good couple of weeks. But I’m not gonna complain, there’s some charm to it. Being a crazy tennis fan takes sacrifices. I’m very excited for the juniors event too, which wasn’t held in 2021. Novak Djokovic’s exemption drama has been very exhausting to follow and at this point, I really don’t care how the whole thing ends. I’d rather focus on the tennis and I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of classics over the next three weeks.

Jordan Holt

On the women’s side I’m really excited to see what Ash Barty can do. Pretty much any time she has stepped on court post pandemic she’s been nearly unstoppable apart from a couple of bad days. One of those days came at her home slam last year, although she had withdrawn from the doubles too. At the same time, she’s the #1 in one of the deepest fields in memory. A qualifier won the last slam. Nobody is safe.  

On the men’s side, I’m also slightly excited at the prospect of a slam without Djokovic. The whole drama about his vaccination status is not good for the sport and I would prefer him to play if I had a choice just to put it bed for once and all. However, in the event he doesn’t play, it will be fun to see a slam where you don’t feel that inevitability, watching a tournament for who’s going to be the runner-up. It’s kind of funny to watch all the young guns panic when they actually have a chance to win it too. Then there’s Murray. Last time he played in Melbourne; I was sobbing in a bathroom stall at work thinking this would be his last ever match. Whatever happens, seeing that full circle moment where he steps onto Rod Laver Arena will just be a truly symbolic representation of everything he is as a player: never willing to give up.

Josefina Gurevich and Shravya Pant

When the two of us first bonded over our shared love for professional tennis, there were a few players we both loved: Federer, Osaka, Gauff, Murray, the usual. These are the obvious picks, but there was one player, certainly a bit more obscure for us both to be fans of, who we unexpectedly loved: Alex De Minaur. Whether it be his endearing quarantine TikTok videos that frequented our text chains or laughing over his viral Un‘de’ Cover with Alex De Minaur video, the Speedy Demon was the one player who truly brought us closer under the umbrella of tennis fandom and sparked our ambitions for an ultimate tennis getaway to channel our inner Aussies.

It’s hard to dissociate our love for Demon with his Aussie-ness, so we wouldn’t at all mind taking a trip all the way “Down Under,” just to cheer him on. Other than tennis, of course there was so much more that drew us to the home of the “Happy Slam.” The accents, the unique animals, and just all around vibes have been calling our names, putting Australia at the top of our destination bucket list. 

Naturally, as tennis fans, our foremost attraction to Australia is quite obvious. We’ve been going to the US Open since we were small, Wimbledon is a series of rain delays, and the French Open is, quite frankly, played on dirt. What does that leave us with? The “oh-so-glorious” Aussie Open. There’s just something about those light blue courts perfectly complementing the open Australian sky. We may not be natives ourselves, but we’d give as much Aussie spirit as anyone to cheer on the “home favorites” (which also happen to be our favorites), like Alex “Demon” De Minaur and Ashleigh “Barty Party” Barty.  What’s there not to love about awesome accents, iconic opera houses, and to top it all off, one of the greatest tennis sporting events EVER?! 

What’s that? Oh…it’s probably just the Australian Open calling out our names again. 

PSA: We don’t support the ‘stache.

Scott Barclay

Cereal bowl left abandoned as I’m halfway out the door, late for the bus, shoes untied, hair all tangled, uncombed, underprepared, under-layered-up ahead of heading outside into the January morning brisk.

But I can’t leave. Not yet.

It’s the time-zone pain that comes alongside with being a tennis fan. Everyone has felt it and knows it, feels it deeply as they slouch over work desks or school desks, dozing in their afternoon lunches with mayonnaise staining their ties and crusting there, standing out as they embarrassingly give afternoon class talks or powerpoint presentations, mind still pure fuzz from the buzz of a match watched all the way through right beneath the stars.

For me, that tournament is the Australian Open, the Happy Slam, the Sleepy Slam, the Has-everyone-got-their-visas-sorted-properly?! Slam, the I’m-gonna’-have-to-miss-the-end-of-this-night-session Slam.

I love it.

A sunset behind Rod Laver Arena. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel.

 

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