From Masks to Unmasked Glee, the Happy Slam Is Set to Begin

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Bill Simons

Melbourne

While the exotic birds of Melbourne’s parks squawk loudly in anticipation of a much-needed but fierce thunderstorm, tennis fans around the world talk of the first Grand Slam of the new decade.

But the Happy Slam has been unhappy. Australia has been on fire. And of late the world became a little less royal as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex boldly orchestrated their breakaway. Who knew intentional, mold-breaking downward mobility could be so inspiring? But Roger still has his role as the leader of our game and he’s more royal and regal than ever.

Surprisingly, he’s been under attack by an unlikely duo, who’ve been as pesky as a Nadal topspin forehand. Canadian Braydon Schnur, No. 103, said Federer and Nadal were “a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves.” Schnur said the game’s leaders should have considered the issue of air quality, and added, “Those guys need to step up.” Later he apologized for his choice of words.

And climate activist Greta Thunberg retweeted a message that questioned Roger’s partnership with Credit Suisse, the huge bank that has invested over $7 billion in the fossil fuel industry. Roger responded by saying he admires the youth climate movement and appreciates his own responsibilities. “I take the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously,” he said in a statement. And he added that he is “committed to using my privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.”

Roger does incredible work in support of youth education in Southern Africa, but he’s far from being a Jackie Robinson, an Arthur Ashe or a Billie Jean King in-your-face rebel. Yesterday, he seemed more eager to talk about his opening round match against former USC Trojan Stevie Johnson than the environmental Trojan horse that unbelievably just wiped out a billion animals here.

Aussie Open defending champ Novak Djokovic, who at the French Open called for athletes and fans to join the battle against climate change, today told IT, “It is really tragic to see the suffering that this country is going through…Many are suffering the consequences of a big force that is hard to stop. At times nature shows us how insignificant we are…Everyone is trying to do their best to understand what people, animals, ecosystems are going through in order to contribute in one way or another. Athletes are blessed to have such a great platform to do good things. Everything we say is kind of heard in different parts of the world. So we can…raise awareness. Everyone has an individual way of helping out.”

The Serb, who is hoping to gain his 17th Slam, said the Wednesday night hit-and-giggle fundraiser that netted over $5 million for bushfire relief was one of the greatest exhibitions he’d ever been a part of. He then referenced optimistic reports that pointed to rainy but decent weather through Thursday.

So – big sigh – the show can go on. For the second time in three Slams the great African-American legend Venus Williams, now 40, will face the emerging African-American teen Coco Gauff in the first round. Tennis draws are nothing if not an unpredictable celebration of the odd and quirky.

Venus’ baby sister Serena just swept through the Auckland warmup tourney, where she dropped just one set in five matches en route to her first title since giving birth. The 38-year-old, who looked fabulous, donated her $43,000 winner’s check to fire relief. She may again reach a Slam final, as she did last year, and as she’s done four times since returning to the circuit a year and a half ago. Her finals draw impressive ratings, regal royals and A-list celebs. Both Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton were on hand last July at Wimbledon. Markle was in Williams’ box at the US Open and, if Serena reaches the Aussie final, she’ll play in front of the controversial Margaret Court, who will be there to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of her winning the Grand Slam.

Federer unashamedly broke Pete Sampras’ record for Wimbledon triumphs right in front of Pistol Pete himself. That was one thing, but it would be quite another matter if Serena equals Court’s record 24 Slams in front of Court. The two champions are not exactly on the same page.

But everyone is on the same page when it comes to the Aussie Open. Not since 1968 – when the French Open was played despite an insurrection with barricades and street battles in Paris – has a Slam been so welcomed. Just days ago Melbourne had the worst air quality in the world. Soon it will have the best tennis in the world. Masks will be replaced with unmasked glee. Sports fans will turn from watching Big Bash cricket matches with players like Dwarshuis and Avendano in their bright pink and neon green uniforms. TV watchers will be less interested in following the fate of rugby teams from Tonga and the West Indies. And journalists will write less on that Aboriginal didgeridoo Ash Barty had as a kid and more on what she can do on court with her impressive athleticism and sublime backhand slice.

Yes, Melbourne’s enchanting trolleys will roll on with their colorful billboards that feature Barty promoting Vegemite. But hopefully, deep-worry headlines like “Wipeout” and “Clouds Over the Slam” will not reemerge. Instead, what may emerge is a new young Aussie Open champion named Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev, Barty, Pliskova, or, who knows, even Kyrgios or Anisimova. Then again, the three dukes of the game (Roger, Rafa and Novak) and the mighty duchess Serena may scoff at any notion of downward mobility and again prevail at a Slam that so many will welcome with joy and relief.

 

 

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