This article was written by Nicole Hunt.
So we’re deep into the business end of the Australian Open with the finals just around the corner. I’ve reached that point where I can feel it drawing to a close but I’m not ready for it to end.
Case in point – Thursday saw one of the finest tennis matches I’ve ever seen, not just in the women’s game, but anywhere. The number one player, Simona Halep, faced up to former number one Angelique Kerber. Kerber is also a Grand Slam winner – the title holder of the US Open and Australian Open in 2016 – whereas Halep is the current number one without a Slam to her name.
She may well have one come Saturday, staying strong to eventually defeat Kerber in three long sets. These two athletes showed the world one of the most gruelling, grinding and gritty performances in sport. Both found more to give when they thought there was nothing left and any fan who saw it would have been in awe of them both.
I learned about guts watching that match, but I learned some other stuff the last couple of weeks as well.
Technology will always let you down
Ask Roger Federer, who turned to the umpire after the irritating beep of the net sensor indicated that one of his best serves was a let, saying ‘You know that’s wrong, right?’ He’s long made it clear he’s not a big believer in ‘Hawkeye’ either. Some love it, some don’t.
But the most talked about piece of technology at the Open this year has been the new umpires’ chairs. Part seat, part elevator, the chairs in the main arenas allow the umpire to sort of gracefully place themselves in the chair and then press a button to slowly levitate into the air. No more climbing that dodgy ladder to the seat of power for our AO umpires – No!
The new chairs gave me two of my favourite Open moments in 2018. The first was at the start of a big match, the roof open, it began to rain. The players looked to sky and then to the umpire but from under the little canopy of her levitating chair she couldn’t see the sky. She pressed every button on that chair but it wouldn’t budge. The rain got a little heavier, the players headed for shelter and our umpire was still perched in the air, looking for help and unable to move. Eventually a technical expert came to her aid and she saw solid ground again, but not before the players had retreated and the ballkids sent out with towels to mop up the court. Ah my kingdom for an ordinary chair.
My second favourite chair moment was right before a marquee match on Day One. The electronic chairs were new and exciting then, for most people anyway. The players were on court, the umpire had been introduced and seated, and the chair started to magically raise itself into the air. Right then a lady behind me said ‘I don’t know what’s so exciting about that. My nanna’s had a chairlift in her home for years.’
Being an umpire is dangerous
Sure, if you’re a line judge you can expect that a few things will happen to you. You’ll be melting in the heat. That’s a given in Melbourne in January. You’ll also be eyeballed by players who don’t like your calls, and heaven help you if you have to call a foot fault on serve. No one likes that one and the line judge often cops a good stare. You’ll likely also be hit by a ball, particularly if you’re calling those rocketing serves coming straight toward you, trying to signal the call and scurry out of the way all at the same time.
You’d think that being perched up in that chair, you might be a bit safer. That wasn’t to be for one umpire who was hit hard in the cheek by an errant return of serve from player, Victor Troicki. Troicki was terribly apologetic then, and at the end of the match. A complete accident of course, but it wasn’t the only time I saw that particular umpire have less than a good day. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.
Tennis was in the pink
What was with all the pink anyway? If you saw any of the men’s matches, you saw a lot of gentlemen wearing pink. Or salmon. Or a glowing peach. Whatever you want to call it, Nike decided that this particular shade was ‘disruptive’ and everyone sponsored by Nike seemed to be wearing it. There were so many different versions of the contrasting gear it was impossible to tell some opponents from each other. Even Nadal and Federer were wearing versions of it. There were so many unfavourable but funny comparisons – is it modelled on a licorice all-sort? A pink highlighter pen? A homage to a Neenish tart?
Remember those high school pictures you have with big hair and terrible outfits? On Sunday one of these lovely fellows will have achieved one of the greatest feats in tennis, and twenty years from now they’ll look back at those photos and wonder what on earth they were thinking, just like I do about my all my teenage hairstyles.
It’s a speedster’s game
On a more serious note, the surprise standout performances of the last few weeks have been the young, superfast fighters who chase down every ball. That was the case in the amazing Kerber and Halep women’s semifinal, but it was also in the performances of young Aussie Alex de Minaur and South Korea’s new hero, Hyeon Chung. Both these young players are there at the ball every single time their opponent looks across the net. When you think you’ve done enough, you simply haven’t. When you think you have them beaten, there they are again. They somehow make it to the ball and get it back on your side of the net to make you play another shot. They’re fast and they don’t ever give up. Chung will bring that to his semifinal match with Federer and no matter the result, it promises to be enthralling.
It feels like a new era of tennis has begun. There are new young faces and fast feet and they’ve brought a new game into the arena with them. I cannot wait to see what happens next.