During the first weeks of the new tennis season, the top players are usually at their most relaxed. As they step forward into the new year after quality time away from competition, they arrive in Australia before the toll of constant travel, countless matches and numerous frustrating losses leaves its mark.
But this was no normal Australian Open. The tournament began in the shadow of unprecedented drama as Novak Djokovic’s visa saga played out for nearly two weeks. His building was surrounded by human rights activists protesting for the thirty-plus refugees detained indefinitely, hundreds of Serbian-Australians and numerous anti-mandate protesters. After many long, dull court hearings expedited at the speed of light, it ended with Djokovic being deported from the country on the eve of the tournament.
This had nothing to do with any of the other players, many of whom had not been vaccinated a few months ago but chose to do so in order to compete, yet the vibes across the Australian Open at the beginning of the tournament were off. Djokovic’s deportation loomed large, with players constantly peppered with questions about him. Naomi Osaka summed up the mood as she passed on giving an answer. “Is my opinion going to help anything?” she said.
Yet what unfolded over the following two weeks is an affirmation of the sport itself and the moments of joy, levity and hope it brings. From the first rounds of a grand slam tournament when 256 men and women play for the titles, almost every round has the potential for someone to enjoy one of the best days of their life.
One of the most poignant stories of the fortnight was Alizé Cornet’s long-awaited moment in the sun. While contesting her 60th consecutive grand slam tournament at 32 years old, Cornet finally reached a quarter-final. In one of the most joyous moments of her life, Cornet used it to shine a light on Jelena Dokic, the interviewer, applauding her strength for being a survivor of abuse.
Her compatriot, Gaël Monfils, entered the press room at 1am on Wednesday morning after a tight quarter-final loss to Matteo Berrettini, yet as he talked with two English-speaking journalists he delivered one of he most emotional moments of the event by resolving to fight for the possibility of winning a grand slam title. “All the time in my career, I never made the good decision [on court],” he said. “I’m fine with that. I must say I’m very fine with that, but I believe I can click once. Before I finish, I believe that once I will do it. So, that’s my faith.”
The Special Ks continued to rise as Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis won the men’s doubles title. Osaka bounced back, losing in the third round but tackling her career with a greater perspective that she hopes will carry her through the season.
Carlos Alcaraz, the next great hope, ploughed on. Two 17 year-old trailblazers emerged in the the juniors, with Angella Okutoyi becoming the first Kenyan player to ever win a junior grand slam match as she reached the third round and Meshkat al-Zahra Safi becoming the first Iranian to win at a junior major.
The tournament ended with a variety of lessons and ample perspective. Danielle Collins is only nine months on from a surgery to remove a tennis ball-sized cyst from her uterus due to her endometriosis, yet she marched all the way to the final, taking her chance with a performance of the highest quality. As she won and won, Collins was continually open about her health problems and, at times, the crippling effects they have had on her.
Ash Barty had arrived in her home slam as the heavy favourite and in her third Australian Open as the world number one. With all of the pressure that can arise in front of a home crowd, Barty blocked the world out and picked apart her opponents one-by-one to take her first Australian Open title, delivering an all-time great sporting moment before a huge audience.
Barty’s victory was watched by a record-breaking average national audience of 3.577 million and, a day later, the men’s final became an instant classic as Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev did battle. Nadal had no reason to expect that he would still be present in the draw by this point in the tournament. Just reaching the final had already been enough for him to react with tears. His preparation for the tournament was a mess, yet his mental fortitude carried him through to one of the most astounding wins of his storied career.
Despite the gloom at the beginning of the tournament, what unfolded at Melbourne Park was an extraordinary few weeks and there will probably never be anything like it again. It is a reminder that no player is bigger than the sport, but also that, despite its flaws, tennis has a knack of providing uplifting, human moments from the least celebrated players in the earliest rounds right until the end.