There were two Australian Opens in 2022. One played out at Melbourne airport, in a refugee detention hotel and on the front of activists’ T-shirts. The other took place on tennis courts, and it is by virtue of the latter’s quality that the former will not dominate the collective memory.
This tournament has been with little doubt one of the more extraordinary grand slams to date. Craig Tiley on Monday declared the 2022 Australian Open as “the best sporting event in the history of our game”.
Setting aside for one moment – if that is even possible – the remarkable Rafael Nadal, the local playing contingent quenched the public’s thirst for home success.
Ash Barty shone, the Special Ks showboated and Dylan Alcott again showed us all what we can aspire to be. Australia has much to be thankful for. Tiley has much to be thankful for. He too will be feeling grateful, that his happy slam ended happily even though Novak Djokovic is exiled and we still don’t know where Peng Shuai is.
The Tennis Australia chief executive and tournament director has pulled off a Nadal-esque comeback. He watched on as Barty broke a 44-year drought and Alcott was named Australian of the Year. As Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis made doubles sexy again and Alex de Minaur surged into the fourth round of the men’s singles.
In one dramatic, euphoric fortnight, Australia’s tennis players helped heal after a cursed couple of years overshadowed by a life-altering pandemic. Part of the combined beauty was the individual variety therein.
Barty’s story is one of understated brilliance and relatability. Throughout her early career, the indefinite break from tennis and then rise to world No 1, the 25-year-old has taken her supporters along for the ride. When she arrived at Melbourne Park she was in imposing form.
She started and finished her campaign in much the same way. Her problem-solving in the latter stages of her final confirmed she will be one of the greats of this game for some time to come, and the rousing response to Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s surprise appearance once again underpinned her importance as an Indigenous athlete.
Barty’s final smashed television records, drawing 4.26 million viewers, while 4.5 million watched the trophy presentation with Goolagong Cawley. This says a lot about the widespread support for Barty but it also provides context to just how many jumped on the Kyrgios and Kokkinakis bandwagon.
The pair’s all-Australian men’s doubles final against Matt Ebden and Max Purcell, staged straight after Barty’s final on Saturday, attracted a peak audience of 3.15 million. It is the highest-rating Australian Open men’s doubles match of all time. The Special Ks proved pugnacity can be popular, albeit controversial.
Kyrgios, ever the entertainer – even unwittingly – was still racking up the ratings on his Instagram page on Monday, lashing the media for what he saw as a misrepresentation of his post-final comment that “obviously Ash is a hell of a player, but I think the ratings speak for themselves”.
He also responded to Purcell’s position that the Special K spectacle may have turned overseas viewers “off tennis a little bit”, calling him a “donut” and adding he “would rather watch paint dry than your S&V [serve and volley] game style”. It is all rather infantile, but therein lies the insatiable hook.
Alcott needed none of this to make his impact. A final slam – and a home one at that – before retiring as one of the great Paralympians would have been enough to arrest the national consciousness. Then he went to Canberra and was named Grace Tame’s successor, and used his new platform to call for guaranteed funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and free access to rapid antigen tests for people with disability.
Tiley said it was “going to be hard to top it off”.
“It is hard to think this happened and everything else that happened and everything else that happened in between,” told the Nine Network on Monday. “An amazing two weeks … we would never dreamed we would end up like we did today.
“We hoped. It was a long shot. Rafa came in hoping to play one match. Ash playing at home, always a tremendous amount of pressure. At the very beginning on the first day, I said if there was a situation where it would end up being a dream event at the end, it would be the one we just had. Maybe we are still waking up from that dream.”