Sunday Times Column Australian Open 2019

Arriving at the AustralianArriving at the AustralianOpen each year is a bit likethe first day of term atschool. It’s a time forgreeting friends after a longbreak, and for the playersit’s a time of hope andrenewal, or maybe a chanceof redemption. So it wasshocking and sad to arrive inMelbourne to the news that AndyMurray’s brave and often triumphantcareer is almost at its end. It has been areal downer. But not a surprise.I thought a year ago that Andy did notlook right, and each time he tried tocome back I wasn’t convinced. I couldsee him favouring his left side even whenhe was just standing still. Unfortunately,I was right and Andy has beendesperately unfortunate.Most injuries can be repaired. I hadtwo knee operations during myplaying days and I was back oncourt within a month each time.But Andy has been sufferingfrom a chronic condition; a vitalpart of his body has simply wornout.You could love Andy or notlove him. I always loved him, as aplayer and a person. In the earlydays, when he was surly, I defendedhim. I admired him as a fighter,the ultimate professional. Hewas always fair and he alwaysgave 100%. His movement fora tall man was cat-like. I sawhim as a big male leopardgoing in for the kill.He had grace, too. It ishard to overestimate thepressure he was under asa British player expectedto win Wimbledon.When he did just thatin 2013, I waswatching it with mywife Julia from theseats you get as amember whenyou win thetournament. Itwas actuallythe very firsttime I hadsat theresince gettingthose seats in1978. I was so nervous for him. I thoughtthat he was going to pass out in that lastgame against Novak Djokovic when hewas trying to serve out for the match.When he went up to his box and washugging his team, I wanted to yell: “Goto Judy, go to your mother!” and whenhe at last embraced her I cried like ababy. I’m tearful now just thinking aboutit.Judy Murray deserves all the credit inthe world. She has raised two sons whobecame world champions. They areboth fine people. Andy has been achampion of equal rights, an animallover. He is self-deprecating and he hashad to overcome shyness.As a clever, resourceful guy, Andy willhave any number of ideas and offers topursue. I just hope he doesn’t make themistakes that I made when I retired. Thefirst year, I said yes to everything. It wastoo much. The second year, I said no toeverything. It took me at leasttwo years to get the balanceright.He will have manychallenges ahead, but for themoment it will be difficult everytime he steps on to court. Myheart goes out to him. He hasthe pain of his hip to worryabout and all the emotionsinvolved in knowing thathe has to give up doingwhat he so desperatelywants to do, what heenjoys and what hasdefined him.Opponents, of course,will show no mercy.AS THE first Grand Slam ofthe year, the AustralianOpen is alwaysunpredictable, the mostlikely major to throw upunlikely winners. This year, itis even more unpredictablethan usual. Will Rafa Nadal’sbody hold up? How willSerena Williams fare, havinghardly played anycompetitive tennis since theUS Open? They could beknocked out early or theycould win the whole thing.There is a burst of youngtalent coming through as well, and it may be that the changing of theand it may be that the changing of theguard, which has been predicted yearafter year, will at last take place. Though,as fast as the courts are, Roger Federerjust might make it three in a row . . .Watch out for Aryna Sabalenka, fromBelarus, who improved so much in 2018,her first full year on the WTA Tour. She isonly 20, makes a habit of defeating top-10 ranked players and is learning tocontrol her temper. It will also beinteresting to see how Naomi Osakaresponds after winning her first GrandSlam in New York. She’s unassuming andfun to watch, but there’s fire in her belly.Sabalenka is seeded 11, Osaka four.There have been some complaintsfrom the men about the Dunlop ballsthat are being used in Australia for thefirst time this year. I haven’t hit withthem yet, but some say that they feel abit dead and that it’s difficult to generatepace with them. That could extendrallies and if it is as hot as it was last yearthe physical demands on the players willbe greater than ever.At least we will not have any more ofthose interminable matches, whichmade for some not-great-to-watch tennisin those long final sets. For the first time,the Australian Open will have a final-settiebreak. It will be a match tie-break, thefirst player to win 10 points (by two) atsix games all. Unfortunately, each of thefour Grand Slam championships nowhas a different format for concludingmatches. Wimbledon will have atiebreak at 12 games all, the French stillgoes all the way in the fifth set while theUS Open has a normal tiebreak at six all.We need a standard rule.I think the final set tiebreak rule willmake this Aussie Open a bettertournament and perhaps make it evenmore unpredictable. Let’s play!