Spanning The Globe
January 17, 2011 -- Tennis is an international sport. Just run your eyes down the country names listed next to the players. Even the most intelligent tennis fan might have to tap Google Maps to locate some of these far-away places.
We wonder how players from countries such as Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan have planted their feet firmly in tennis soil. Europe... yes. South America... yes. But the countries in North Asia and those north of Iran can seem curious only because many of us are only familiar with them superficially. But, things have and must continue to change. And so much the better for tennis.
Most fans dutifully follow their national tennis heroes before they decide to line up behind others. Just as Americans watch and hope American players will fair well at the U. S. Open, so do Australians dote on their own here in Melbourne.
For example, the Australian press went wild with news about Jelena Dokic this morning and her first-round "belting of Zuzana Ondraskova," as reported online in The Daily Telegraph. Her victory on Rod Laver Arena helped justify "Tennis Australia's decision to award her a wildcard."
Dokic, a naturalized citizen originally from Yugoslavia, last thrilled home fans in 2009 when she battled her way to the quarterfinals, after a long break from the sport.
But it was in 1999 that Dokic first woke the tennis world to her tennis talents. She shocked Martina Hingis by resoundingly defeating the then #1 seed and player in the first round at Wimbledon. Dokic entered qualifications ranked 129. By beating Hingis, Dokic scored the Open Era's biggest upset as the lowest-ranked player ever to beat a number one seed at a major.
By 2002, the heavy-hitting baseliner had cracked the top ten, reaching #4 in the summer. During this period Jelena's father, Damir, coached her. Soon word spread of his abusive nature and fluctuating moods. In 2004 Dokic finished outside the top 100, withdrew from tournaments to rest and recover from an elbow injury, then lost the last nine matches of the year. She didn't start a comeback in earnest until 2008.
Ten years beyond her brilliant beginning on the pristine lawns of Wimbledon, 2009, Damir was arrested in Serbia. He had threatened the Australian ambassador in Belgrade, where he lived. He was angry over an article published in Australia's Sport & Style section of The Age. In it Jelena spoke freely about her volatile upbringing.
"'If I was ever a little bit more aggressive towards Jelena, it was for her sake,'" Dokic told a Serbian newspaper.
The Serbian police reportedly found bombs and cache of guns, as they searched his premises.
Dokic's determined presence on day one of this year's Australian Open ignited the partisan crowd. Their hopes and sympathies for the woman who continues to struggle for an identity on and off court were palpable. Every Australian fan burst with good will and raucous cheers, as they watched Dokic do what she does best: play outstanding tennis.
Slice, The Australian Open's e-newsletter, was all bravado with news of Tuesday's lineup. Golden girl and Aussie star Samantha Stosur, seeded #5, would kick off her campaign to win her first major. Another wildcard, Alicia Molik, a formidable countrywoman of both Stosur and Dokic, will play for the first time Tuesday as well.
But journalists that composed this electronic blast went all out as they wrote about Lleyton Hewitt's match against Argentine David Nalbandian. "'Then we have the event we've all been waiting for. These two haven't been best of friends since Hewitt put up a "Don't cry for me Argentina" poster outside his hotel room in a juvenile prank when he was 14.'"
The state of Victoria has a large Argentine population, the scoop portended, so be prepared to hear both sides from these fractious patriots.
Lleyton Hewitt has never won his country's slam but came close in 2005, losing to Marat Safin in the final. This is Hewitt's 14th entry. The crowds will assuredly be on his side. But don't expect Nalbandian to succumb to the "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie... Oay, Oay, Oay" noise pouring from a capacity crowd inside Rod Laver Arena.
Both are Davis Cup heroes and fierce enemies. And nothing brings a player's pride to the surface more than international competition.
In total forty-three Australians are entered in the year's first slam.
The Australian Open is also known as the Asia Pacific Slam. The number of entries from countries such as Korea, Japan, and China, has jumped over the last several years. There are more Greek citizens living in Australia than in any other country outside of Greece itself. If Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus can conquer the first week of play, he may fill the stadiums with some of the friendliest and fanatic fans anyone has ever seen and heard.
One of the few players who can cut across all nationalities is Roger Federer. He is universally loved. Sit in any major tennis arena around the world, with the exception of Spain where Rafael Nadal is king, and Federer garners the predominance of attention.
Sunday, during the Rally for Relief fundraiser, four top women and men were introduced after the revolving rotations of two teams captained by Pat Rafter, Australia's current Davis Cup captain and two-time U. S. Open champion and Lleyton Hewitt, took their bows and ducked into the locker rooms for well-deserved massages and relaxation.
Samantha Stosur and Kim Clijsters were announced first, followed by Nadal and finally Federer. The Swiss maestro is ranked #2 to Nadal's #1, but the emcee and crowd showed their favoritism for Federer. He got the standing ovation. He was the one they wanted to see, no matter which country you called home.
Whether American, Spanish, Scottish, Swede, or Uzbekistani, the tennis courts at Melbourne Park will act as equalizers. Players will speak with their contingencies in native languages and eat foods they need to maintain health. Watch for enclaves of fans. These might just be family and friends that have traveled the farthest to see their countrymen compete on one of the biggest stages in tennis.