For those of you who don't follow tennis, there are four major championships, The Grand Slams, held each year – the Australian, French, and U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, the oldest major tournament, held in England, and still played on grass.
The first is played in January in Melbourne, Australia, (mid-summer for the Southern Hemisphere) in a tennis center which most experts feel is the finest tennis venue in the world. As I mentioned in an earlier column, my wife and I attended the Open last month, a life-long dream, as I have played and followed tennis regularly for 53 years.
While some Aussies might disagree in favor of Cricket – tennis is their national sport – and one where they have excelled internationally for over five decades.
Hoad, Hartwig, Rosewall, Emerson, Cooper, Anderson, Laver, Stolle, Newcombe, Rafter, Hewitt – a large number of superstars from such a small population – more than all of the European countries combined and on a par with the U.S. The Open is on network television ten hours or more each day for the entire two weeks of the tournament.
The tennis center is right in the heart of the city, a five minute free tram ride from the Grand Hyatt where we and many of the players stayed.
The Rod Laver Stadium, which holds 15,000, the largest tennis-only facility in the world, was the only one with a retractable roof, until a sister stadium, the Vodaphone arena was built next to it. Twenty uncovered courts with varying seating capacities complete the venue.
A reserved Rod Laver seat permits attendance at all other courts on a seating available basis. Most high profile matches between top seeded players are held in the Rod Laver arena, as are all quarterfinals, semi-finals and final matches, for men's and women's singles and doubles and mixed doubles.
There is great debate over who was/is the greatest male player of all-time. Based on performance, although they played in different eras with different equipment – one a very tall man still playing and the other quite short and 25 years retired – there is almost unanimity – either Australian Rod Laver or American Pete Sampras. Pete played in this year's Open as third seed, but was eliminated in the fourth round by a fellow thirty-year-old American, Todd Martin, whom Sampras had beaten consecutively 14 times.
In fact, the 2001 Open was unusually exciting for many reasons. The four top men seeds – Safin, Kueraton, Sampras, and Kafelnikov, were all eliminated before the quarterfinals, a first in Open history.
Also for the first time, a very short, very young Frenchman, Arnaud Clement, reached the finals where no Frenchman had been in nearly 70 years.
Andre Agassi, seeded six and rebounding again from a sub-par year 2000 at age 30, beat Clement in the final and won the title for the second straight year. His seventh Grand Slam victory, passing Boris Becker and joining John MacEnroe. His beautiful girlfriend, Steffi Graff, who attended all of his matches, recently retired with 22 women's Grand Slam single titles, the most ever – man or women.
Agassi established himself as perhaps the greatest ever ball striker from the ground as he swept Clement in straight sets, a day after beating Australia's current favorite, Patrick Rafter in five grueling sets, at night, in intense heat and humidity, in front of 15,000 very loud Rafter fans. As is always the case with the Aussies, while devoted to their "mate", they cheered every great Agassi shot and gave both players a standing ovation at the end of perhaps the best match of the tournament.
The greatest excitement, however, was on the women's side with the extraordinarily powerful Williams sisters, the first African-American playground trained women, with the potential to dominate the sport, reached the quarters (Serena) and semi's (Venus) in singles and again proved unbeatable by capturing their sixth Grand Slam doubles championships.
Both Serena, 18, and Venus, 20, hit serves harder than most top male players and are dominating at the net, a place where very few modern players of either sex excel.
The Cinderella story, player, event was the courageous performance of Jennifer Capriatti, the 24-year-old American who at 14 was the darling of the tennis world and at 18, overweight, out of tennis, into drugs – a shoplifter with a mug shot to prove it. The sole support of a dysfunctional family, as an early teen she cracked under the pressure/expectations of huge endorsements, and intense competition. She returned to the game at 20 as a qualifier given no chance. After three dedicated years of bodybuilding and tournament play, she finally won a tournament in 2000 and reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam.
To get to the finals, Jenny had to beat Monica Seles, the winner of six Grand Slams, Lindsey Davenport, ranked 2 in the world, a Wimbledon, U.S. Open winner at the top of her game and world's number 1 Martina Hingis – the 20 year old Swiss Phenom, who already has six Grand Slam titles, the last two Australian Opens, and won ten tournaments in 2000.
Capriatti had lost all five matches previously played against Hingis. Hingis had beaten both Venus and Serena Williams to get to the finals and was the prohibitive favorite.
We were fortunate to be first row center court, right behind the players, for the last three matches. Against Seles, a power hitter off the ground, Jenny lost the first set, but rallied behind a crushing serve and overpowering forehand. She wore Seles out. Against the taller and heavily favored Davenport, Jenny appeared stronger, more resistant to the heat, in better shape, and in the end more confident and focused, winning in straight sets.
The final was more of the same, in high heat and very bright sunshine, Jenny came out smashing, winning the first four games and breaking Hingis' serve twice in 14 minutes. Hingis settled down and made a match of it, but was beaten by her fresher and stronger opponent in straight sets. Amazed at the level of support Jenny received from the crowd throughout the tournament, my seatmates explained – "Australians always pull for the underdog." When Jenny won the final point she let out a howl and raced over to the area where her father and coach sat, there were not many dry eyes – even among the network commentators, as Jenny celebrated her first Slam victory, a feat that earlier seemed unreachable.
While both finals had been won by Americans, the character of the winners was most appreciated by the Australian fans. A day later, sitting in the United Airlines Club waiting for our flight to Chicago, I found myself sitting next to a very healthy looking Pancho Segura, one of the pioneers of professional tennis, the first player to use a two handed grip, who teamed in the 40's and 50's with Pancho Gonzales to form one of the greatest doubles partnerships of all time.
I couldn't resist starting a conversation as I had once had been ball boy for Pancho nearly 50 years ago when the touring pros played in Boston. Gonzales – the meanest man I have ever met – Segura the nicest and I told him so. He smiled. He said he enjoys the Australian Open more than any of the Slams because of the Australian's extraordinary sense of sportsmanship and appreciation of high quality play.
If at all possible, we are going to attend the Open next year.