The Happy Slam
January 21, 2010 -- The Australian Open is known by players, fans, and the media as the 'Happy Slam.' Australians love their tennis as much as they like their Vegemite sandwiches at lunch. Their devotion shows in their personalized presentation of this first major of the year. Tournament officials provide accoutrements plus a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that radiates across the grounds at Melbourne Park.
Marcos Baghdatis is his happiest at Melbourne Park. He loves the Greek fans that spurred him on today, the way they had four years ago when he made his fairy-tale run to the finals. On the way he defeated David Nalbandian, Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick. Roger Federer, Baghdatis's opponent in the final, didn't allow the emotionally charged audience to interfere with his victory -- his second Australian Open title.
Baghdatis, who hails from Cyprus not Greece, reached a career high ranking of #8 that same year -- 2006. He made the quarterfinals at Indian Wells and semifinals at Wimbledon. He lost to Nadal at both events. Baghdatis, though, will probably be remembered most, by Americans at least, for his five-set night match in the second round of the 2006 U. S. Open against Andre Agassi. It was Agassi's farewell major, which he had announced to the world months prior. New York fans adored him and had fallen in love with the gentle and generous personality of the Cypriot, too.
Baghdatis, before their match, asked Agassi to play a practice match with him for a Cypriot television show. Agassi agreed and won it 6-2. The eight-time major champion was taken by Baghdatis's compassionate character, too, and his smile. Win or lose, Marcos Baghdatis smiled, as Agassi remarked early in his recently published autobiography Open.
But as a tour player currently ranked in the top fifty and just having come off an ATP tour victory at this month's Medibank International in Sydney, Australian, Marcos's smile would brighten more if he advanced to the second week of the 2010 Aussie Open and lifted his ranking closer to where it had been back in 2006.
The match against Agassi was one for the ages, of course. The stadium was packed. The noise deafening. Agassi went up two sets and 4/1 in the third before Marcos unleashed his sine quo nom ... shot-making. Crazy, beautiful shot making. The third set went to the Cypriot, as did the fourth. But, in the fifth Baghdatis cramped badly. Agassi wasn't about to get crushed at his farewell slam and clearly saw a path to the finish line.
Even in defeat, Baghdatis was all smiles at the net. The game was over. He had lost to his hero. But he demonstrated a humility and grace that remained painted in fans' minds.
Roger Federer was another happy tennis camper on court today. He had one of those matches where his racquet takes over mysteriously and points accumulate rapidly in his favor. Opponents fear the Federer that gets on a roll and plays from the zone. Victor Hanescu of Romania played a good match. It didn't matter. Move the ball around the court. Serve and volley. Drop shots. They all failed. Federer was a straight set winner: 62 63 62.
Sitting in the front row behind the baseline at the Rod Laver Arena was Prince William, second in line to the British Throne. In a candid on-court post-match interview conducted by American two-time French Open champion turned broadcaster Jim Courier, Roger was prodded about tennis, fatherhood, and changing diapers for his twin daughters.
Roger, the consummate gentleman, played along with the semi-intrusive line of questions, which might have made him a touch uncomfortable in front of royalty. Not so. When Roger lost to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, the press quickly jumped on the royal wagon metaphor. Their pens were sharp and unflattering. They pronounced him 'dethroned.' However, fans and journalists alike crowned him anew last summer as the Greatest Player of All Time. He had won his 15th major title at none of than Prince William's backyard: Wimbledon.
Obviously the question of royalty, when it comes to those 15,000 witnesses seated inside Rod Laver Arena today, was up for grabs depending on their point of view and loyalties.
Big smiles were the facial gestures of the day for Lleyton Hewitt, after his win today over American qualifier Donald Young. Up 4/1 in the first set, Young battled back to take the set to a tiebreak. He lost that due to unforced errors and the next two sets as well. The scoreline was 76 (5) 64 61.
Hewitt's next opponent is the happy Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. Both pray for a start time other than the one assigned in 2008 -- 11:47 PM. That match ended at 4:33 AM. Anointed the best of the entire fortnight, Hewitt won in five dramatic sets on home turf. Now 28, many think this is his last chance at a major title in Melbourne that has evaded him and Australia, a country known for its long line of tennis champions: Roy Emerson and Margaret Court, to name just two.
Ironically, this year's match is also a third-round match. And, the winner will face Roger Federer. Sometimes the tennis world seems small.
Wildcard and Aussie Casey Dellacqua controlled Caroline Sprem this morning, defeating the Croat 76(4) 76(6). Dellacqua has just returned to full-time play. She had shoulder surgery last year.
"I'm glad it's fixed," she said, smiling right after the match.
The sunny disposition of Dellacqua rubbed off on fans that remember her grandmother Nan faithfully sitting in the stands for all her matches at the Australian Open and in Casey's hometown of Perth.
"I want to say hi to Nan," she said as the crowd roared its approval. "All of Perth is always behind me. It's great to be back."
Dellacqua will need all the support she can muster because her next opponent is the #6 seed Venus Williams, big sister to the defending champion Serena Williams.