After watching teenage Spanish-Australian tennis star Alex de Minaur win the Sydney tournament last week on tele, I was excited about watching his second-round Australian Open match last night. I’m no flag-waving patriot, but I do get a kick out of seeing a fellow-countrymen do well, even if Australia did pinch the talented young bloke from Spain, the place where he has lived most of his life.
De Minaur, who has recently rocketed to 29 in the ATP world rankings, was on a seven-game winning streak and was unlikely to be troubled by his opponent, twenty-six-year old Swiss tennis journeyman Henri Laaksonen, who, as the 166th ranked player in the world had had to win his position in the Australian Open field through a gruelling qualifying tournament. On paper the two were chalk and cheese. De Minaur was a rising star of world tennis and the darling baby of the Australian sports press and Australian tennis-worshipping crowd while Laaksonen was a… was a… was a Swiss chap, I suppose, who no one seemed to know much about. Given the difference in the players rankings it was no great shock that De Minaur breezed through the first two sets without raising much of a sweat. I was impressed. That much confidence combined with power, speed and an array of shots was a rare thing in a kid who had only recently turned nineteen. I was excited. I was enjoying the young bloke’s success.
Then something happened. The Swiss guy decided that he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He didn’t come to Australia to labour his way through a tough qualifying tournament to be dumped out of the main draw by a kid with a precocious talent in straight sets. After a seesawing third set Laaksonen clawed and scraped his way back into the game through edging de Minaur in a tight tie-breaker. He wasn’t finished there. The Swiss, enlivened by his third set win, threw everything he had (including the kitchen sink) at the Spaniardalian and with de Minaur, looking just a little worse for wear, grabbed the fourth set as well.
Hung on by the skin of his teeth
The deciding fifth set was torrid. Both players, at times, looked liable to break the other down but it was young de Minaur who hung on by the skin of his teeth while Laaksonen made several unforced errors at critical moments to give the match to the rising star.
Overall, the game was tense, exciting and interesting. From my point of view the most interesting aspect of the game was that somewhere between the end of the second set and the final point I swapped my allegiance. I don’t even quite remember when I started cheering for the Swiss and I am not even sure why I wanted the old fella to win but want him to win I did.
Post-match, after pondering upon my fickleness, the following occurred to me.
Tall and skinny Lleyton Hewett
Firstly, de Minaur, as the match grew tighter and the pressure increased, seemed to morph into a tall and skinny Lleyton Hewett. The earlier fist pumps and “c’mons” were tolerable and understandable but as the match drew on and they increased in frequency, my blood pressure began to increase. While Laaksonen met each of his own successes and failures with a respectful and calm demeanour, de Minaur seemed like he wanted to celebrate each success and mourn each failure by jumping over the net and assaulting his opponent with his racquet.
Secondly, the better the Swiss journeyman played the more the crowd got behind their ailing young hero. I swear, if I had been there and if I had had a water cannon, I would have blasted that idiot who started the puerile “piggy, piggy, piggy… oink, oink, oink… piggy… oink… piggy… oink… piggy, piggy, piggy… oink, oink, oink,” chant into the back row of the next stadium. That chant was moderately funny and clever precisely once… around thirty years ago. It is now beyond brainless and makes all Australians look and sound like idiots. People who lead and participate in the “aussie” chant should not only be removed from the stadium but charged with bringing the sport into disrepute and banned for life when found guilty! It was no fault of young de Minaur that the crowd and their support of him was irksome and offensive, but it played a significant role in my shifting support to the Swiss bloke.
He should have won it easily
Thirdly, the television coverage made no effort to conceal the fact that it was only interested in one player on the court. The constant prattle about how “the demon” was going, what he was doing well, where he was going wrong, how amazing he was as a mere nineteen-year-old, what a huge fighting heart he had, how courageous he was and what a mighty achievement his win was became stomach churning as it continued. For goodness sakes. Here we had a highly successful young man, ranked 29 in the world and seeded 27 in the tournament playing against an unknown, lowly ranked, not only unseeded but tournament qualifier and the commentators could not shut up about the enormity of the achievement in de Minaur winning the match. Of course he won it. He should have won it easily. There was barely a word of praise for Laaksonen before, during or after the match. It was like the Swiss fella didn’t even exist.
Fourthly, in the post-match interview the court-side interviewer and the victorious de Minaur did not even mention the performance or effort of the unknown player who bloody nearly knocked off the young hero. What the hell?
Fifthly. What was that post match celebration all about? De Minaur pranced around the court, jumped up and down, bowed to his adoring fans, pumped his fists, once, twice, three times, four times, five times etc, threw one pair of shoes onto the crowd, then another pair, then a pair that he hadn’t even worn, then his shorts, then his undies, then his thongs, then his racquet and then his kitchen sink. He had just beaten an unknown, 166th ranked player in the second round of the Australian Open. Big deal. It wasn’t the FA Cup final. It wasn’t the NBA play offs. It wasn’t even a Big Bash match up. It was the Australian Open second round. That post match celebration made Sam Kerr’s somersault seem understated.
Marketing bollocks or narcissism
Sixthly. Who has his nick name emblazoned on the back of his shoes? Are you serious? Earlier on, I would have dismissed this little piece of narcissism as a bit of marketing bollocks that was beyond the young chap’s control but by the end of the match, I didn’t feel so tolerant. I, for one, will not be running out to buy a pair of pink tennis shoes with “the demon” printed on the back.
So, what happened? Over the three hours of the match I didn’t exactly turn against the talented young Aussie kid, but I did start to feel admiration for… and feel sorry for… his Swiss opponent who, despite his clear underdog status, and despite his courageous effort, didn’t seem to be getting a fair deal from anyone other than the umpire. I grew up in an Australia that respected the underdog. I grew up in an Australia that was moved by guts, effort and determination shown against a superior opponent. I grew up in an Australia that didn’t think much of overt and loud patriotism (characterized by chants, songs and flag waving) which we dismissed as “so American.” I grew up in an Australia that admired humility and a self-deprecating humour. I grew up in an Australia that was suspicious of anyone who demanded that they be the centre of attention. I also grew up in an Australia that believed that people should be given credit when it was due.
I changed at some stage in my watching of this exciting tennis match. My allegiance swung from the young champion to his older, less skilful opponent. It wasn’t all because of the young champion. In truth, I found the commentators and the crowd much more annoying than de Minaur himself. At some stage during my life time, Australia too has changed. We seem to have come to admire the things that we used to consider crass and obnoxious. Our admiration for humility, modesty, quiet determination and respect for out opponent seems to have faded. I don’t know how or why or when… but I don’t think that I like it. Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that I will grow to like the young kid as the years go by as he grows into an even greater champion. I will certainly join with the rest of Australia in celebrating his first grand slam victory whenever that comes. But I’m not sure that I will ever love what Australia’s sports watching culture has evolved into. But I guess that I am just a grumpy old man who needs to move with the times.