The Australian Open craved just one thing – normalcy.
The tourney is called the Happy Slam, but in recent years it’s been devastated by chaos and turmoil. First there were ravaging bush fires, then COVID lockdowns and last year there was the dysfunctional train wreck of Novak Djokovic’s deportation. What a nightmare.
But today, the popular but often embattled tournament director Craig Tiley seemed relieved and almost calm. An hour before play was to start, he told Tennis Channel, “The big difference this year is that we are close to a normal event.”
But not so fast. Disaster soon descended on the Happy Slam. A most unhappy Nick Kyrgios, all in black and looking glum, told somber reporters he was withdrawing from the tourney due to a partial meniscus tear and a parameniscal cyst in his knee and soon will have a surgical procedure.
So what’s up with Australian tennis?
Just 10 months ago their darling women’s champion Ash Barty retired at just age 25. Now the most charismatic man in the country, and arguably the most compelling star of this problematic post-Federer era, is out.
Just two days ago Kyrgios was the lead star on Netflix’s long awaited docuseries, “Break Point.” Nick gloated as he correctly informed the media that his story had just been told globally and across social media. Plus, his feel-good fundraiser with Djokovic had sold out the 15,000-seat Laver Arena in just 58 minutes.
Rarely has there been a more ascendent local star. His possible quarterfinal match with Novak was already touted as the most compelling pre-final match-up of the tournament. His tumultuous matches were drawing a dearly needed generation of fans who were eager for a new, sometimes over-the-top, narrative to come to an old sport.
Injuries, sudden withdrawals, shock upsets and early retirements are woven into the fabric of this very individual sport.
Still, Nick’s withdrawal was an earthquake. Andy Murray on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and a surging American on Ashe Stadium at night are always special happenings. But the ringmaster Kyrgios on court in Australia – brilliant, inventive, volatile and whipping the crowd into an unbridled frenzy – is a singular, buckle-your-seatbelts and lift your beers happening.
Last year’s Wimbledon finalist, who had been doing all who could to play. He withdrew from two warm-up tourneys, got injections and had his cyst drained. Now his emotions were drained. With a distant glaze, he confided, “I’m devastated obviously.” His body slumped as he spoke of his hopes of winning his home tournament.
But it is not to be this year. A tournament that craved normalcy was hit with a shock withdrawal like few others in tennis history, and Melbourne, once again, was shaken by trauma.