AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Roger and the Art of the Return

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Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Bill Simons

A wary wind swirls. En route to Australia, we see that New Zealand’s Sunday News goes on about the strange turns in American politics.

From old England to New Zealand, the US still very much matters.

Doubts swirl.

But sports reassures us. And tennis once again has headed Down Under to start anew. We know well our sport’s feel-good journey. Each year the game gathers to go to its launch point in civil Melbourne before going down its well-worn road, from Indian Wells through the Euro clay season to Paris, Wimbledon and finally brassy New York.

Tennis’ first Down Under days evoke baseball’s spring training. Both are welcome celebrations of renewal that evoke fresh, untainted feelings. Here, despite a cadre of well-worn and wary athletes, the power of renewal is clear. Even jaded veterans are empowered by a certain feeling of innocence that invigorates the spirit.

At its core, the Australian Open is laid back. It may lack vast wealth, old world retro-charm or cutting-edge ways. After all, humble Rod Laver, not Hollywood A-listers, are celebrated here. The charming Aussie city can boast little of Roland Garros’ continental flair, and while hype alights at the US Open, modesty prevails in sane Melbourne, where lives are well-led. Fierce forehands, not frivolous fancies, are front and center. Fun and sporting authenticity define. The quiet smiles of a good people embrace. And this Australian Open (and the year 2017 itself) shouts a clear theme. This could be the year of the grand return.

Rafa Nadal – once such a swirling force, whose play shouted physicality – was hobbled last year. At his beloved French Open – a clay battle he ruled for nearly a decade – a dicey left wrist forced the clay king to withdraw. This was like Tiger pulling out of the Masters or LeBron James sitting out the NBA Championships. Give Rafa credit, the longtime Spanish patriot struggled mightily to return for the Rio Olympics, where with Marc Lopez, he claimed doubles gold. But after that, more often than not, he found himself on the sidelines, not the front lines. For the first time since 2004, Rafa didn’t reach a Slam quarterfinal. Those who adore his unfiltered passion will applaud his return and his user-friendly path, which offers few fierce foes except young Alexander Zverev, who almost beat him in Indian Wells, and Gael Monfils. Still, skeptics share their doubts. Many wonder whether the 30-year old, seeded no. 9, can again use his mighty topspin forehand and macho competitiveness to win in Melbourne, where rough breaks and bad losses have haunted him. Here a run to the quarters might satisfy all but the most addicted of Rafaholics.

Another force of nature, the sublime Serena, will also be returning, after she retreated from the tour following a humbling loss in the US semis. Now with a big ring – but not the biggest of rankings – the recently engaged 35-year-old will engage a hungry, increasingly young field of wannabes as she seeks to reclaim her No. 1 slot (which she lost after a domineering 186 weeks) and her 23rd Slam, a feat that would surpass Steffi Graf’s Open Era record.

The hottest player last spring in the WTA, Victoria Azarenka, is now blissing out as a new mother and has no immediate plans to return, while former No. 1 and four-time Slam champ Maria Sharapova will be far from Melbourne. Still suspended for her illegal use of meldonium, she certainly will add to the season’s “return” narrative when late in April she is scheduled to play in Stuttgart after she completes her reduced 15-month suspension. But when she returns in April, will her laser ground strokes still punish so mercilessly? More than this, will her devastating fall dent her imperious manner? What limits does pride have? Will Sharapova – who seemed to like to stare at courtside walls more than chat it up with her fellow players – be more open or even collegial? Could a certain humility actually emerge? And will fans engage the fallen beauty? Paris could compel.

But long before Maria’s return, tennis will relish many tales of returns. Most of all, one question now looms.

Will our absent genius, the good Mr. Federer, return to grace? No, there is little doubt that the most artistic of all our champions will play with that easy flow and seemingly weightless movement that has amazed us since his 2001 shock victory over the then-reigning Wimbledon king Pete Sampras.

But last year in Melbourne, the man known for his gravity-defying balance on-court suffered a single unkind twist of fate, while playing with his daughters, and tore up his knee. The balletic battler who survived 17 seasons of combat was fallen by an ill-advised move near a Melbourne bathtub. Then again, going back to the days of the Titanic, tennis has a long history of senseless, or shall we say inexplicable, injuries. A German Shepherd bit off one of Helen Wills-Moody’s fingers. The once-dominant Maureen Connolly ended her career when a feisty San Diego horse tossed her to the ground by a busy road. A car accident derailed Tracy Austin, and both Monica Seles and Petra Kvitova were stabbed. Go figure.

Yes, the beloved Federer recovered from knee surgery to play Wimbledon. But while facing Milos Raonic on Centre Court, he fell and was out for the rest of the year.

Now, the man who won more Slams than any other, 17, is seeded No. 17: an odd reality that surely should be against some law of tennis. And speaking of odd, the Swiss could actually face three qualifiers in a row to start the Open.

He should likely prevail early in Melbourne, before having to face the considerable Tomas Berdych in the third round and none other than No. 1 Sir Andy Murray in the fourth round, in a quarter of the draw that’s crowded with land mines.

Of course, millions quietly hope the great “Rog” can strike lightning, defy the odds and again manage to hold high a Slam trophy. After all, the return of the most beloved champion of our era would be the ultimate (and need we say most welcome) of any return we can imagine in this most curious season of potential returns.