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Australian Open halted after 4th round!

Alex de Minaur endured four and a bit hours of torture at the racquet of a long-haired examiner, and admittedly as a consequence of his own brutally elastic running patterns. Throughout, he must’ve attempted combining newly-acquired gadgets – a more probing forehand, a slight pivot on-serve – with insights gleaned from his grand-mentor, the ‘First Desk’ of Australian tennis, whose legendary career in the field was also denied a crowning domestic moment by a Russian. In Lleyton Hewitt’s case, Marat Safin intervened at the cusp of the 2005 Australian Open. In de Minaur’s, it was Andrey Rublev throwing caution to the wind and preventing passage to a debut Melbourne quarter-final.

I must admit that I enjoy watching Alex de Minaur largely because he plays like he’s been handed Lleyton’s fire, and Lleyton was my favourite player – one of my favourite sportspeople – growing up. De Minaur may well continue as heir even when Cruz (Lleyton’s actual progeny, who bobbed-up at the juniors on Sunday) makes the big-time. Such a notion of inheritance is probably unfair, anyway, given de Minaur’s powers of persistence obviously predate Hewitt’s mentoring, were forged somewhere on the clay courts of a Spanish youth. I assume Hewitt saw, in the de Minaur who six or so years ago made the  Sydney International final on debut, a chance to extend his career vicariously on fresh hips – as must be many a coach’s logic. Hewitt burst onto the scene near the turn of the millennium, and maintained extraordinary popularity for over a decade afterwards via his ‘never-say-die’ qualities and battler mentality. I don’t know if it was the era or the limitations of a primary school perspective that told me these were uniquely Australian things. All this was around the time, for a year or two, Channel 7 badged Australian players with a flag, without bothering to identify the flags of others.

The average Australian tennis fan still claws at the best local hopes, yet perhaps with enlightened humility. All of the balls de Minaur returned to Rublev were made heavier by the weight of national support. There were some very good balls in this mix, mind you: a gliding backhand winner on a set-point, many a looping Lleyton lob, an exquisite trespass around the net-post (which posed the question of whether these are set between the tram-lines at professional level solely to create entertainment the average park player can't reproduce). And yet, in the fourth or fifth sets, when Rublev’s cramping body necessitated open-chested hitting and conspicuous ‘salt sachets’ for his water bottle, the Melbourne crowd silently submitted to a view the better player was unfortunately the one maniacally tonguing them during one of his celebrations. The ‘6-0’ scoreline in the last set wasn’t properly meek on de Minaur’s behalf, yet perhaps contained some acceptance of the present state of things. If we subscribe to a shonky view of statistics, to a certain concentration of value, then Rublev’s seeding (5th) should have warned from the outset he’s presently twice as accomplished as de Minaur (10th). And yet titanic performances in warm-up matches – perhaps getting towards the realm of too warm – had fostered belief that Alex was ready for a leap. He was this year’s golden child, because the women’s contingent hasn’t yet appointed a Barty successor (curse be upon the soulless Rado watch that ever told her it was time to retire), and because the inexplicable half-dozen Australian men in the ATP’s ‘top 100’ remain relatively low-profile. When it flares in January, Nick Kyrgios’ wrist injury debilitates de Minaur, too. This all, of course, assumes that de Minaur should have belied his ranking this year, that a title run which would’ve encountered arguably the world’s four form players was plausible, and that the lusty cheering of a home crowd and their occasional urging of your opponent to double fault aren’t more often marks of advantage.

De Minaur was emotional as his post-exam legs spun an exercise bike, perhaps hoping the world would just as fast rotate to next January, and the one after, and the one after. Maybe he’d agree to a Groundhog Day-esque lock-in if it led to the chance of at least once getting the Australian Open right. His serve was broken twice early in the fourth set (when expert commentators had suggested he should have had a physical and tactical advantage) and yet the Russian’s subsequent hitting ought to have countered any idea the night was truly a missed opportunity. In the final game, as he saved two match points, there was faint hope of de Minaur engineering a Hewitt-style comeback. Some celebrate that the scoring system means the clock is never an opponent in tennis – as in other sports – and yet so often this is fuel for delusion. De Minaur’s final netted shot struck like a reality check. Dispassionate as it is to say, there can be no suggestion of him letting anybody down, most of all the faceless Australian public.

And yet are we mature enough to feel like the tournament really goes on, now all those with a marsupial passport have tottered off-stage? Sure, years of middling Australian performances might have loosened the dogged nationalism, and we’re therefore better at getting behind foreigners (quite often on the basis of looks) for the remainder of the tournament. Heck, some might even, in the tradition of gracious losers, consider throwing support behind Rublev, because that empty quadrangle next to his name on TV denotes him as a ‘man of the world’, not the Kremlin, and because they’d like to ultimately say ‘our guy’ got beaten by the champ. Call me jingoistic, but on my own island-hopping tour of Melbourne Park show-courts last week, I found strange delight in the many instances a flavoursome European name was cheered-on by unsophisticated ‘Aussie’ drawl. A gravelly, unseen, ‘C’mon, Roberto!’, for example. A mispronounced, Anglicised, ‘Let’s go, Tomas!’. I imagined these were tactful tennis fans casting their net wider, hoping to attach to a player who might prove a back-up for the second week of the tournament. Here I am, now, wishing I'd made more of an effort at the same. For the next few days, 'de Minaur disappointment' shall have me dismissing centre-court matches as millionaire Pong, as mere traps to draw eyeballs to the real, commercial contest between toff brands. 

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