After Ash Barty’s semi-final defeat the guests shuffled in their seats at Rod Laver Arena in something of a daze.
There was more tennis to be watched, but not with the same sense of excitement and anticipation. Rather than seeing which player Barty would meet in the final they would instead see who she wouldn’t.
The party was over. But like one of those weddings where they insist everyone gets together for an awkward brunch the next morning, the function continued.
The hangover will no doubt lift and we will remember we have been left with a perfectly respectable conclusion to this Australian Open; one that might even be considered momentous most other years.
Novak Djokovic’s pursuit of an amazing eighth singles title is more than noteworthy, especially as he will be defending the pre-eminence of the big three against one of the game’s rising stars — the winner of tonight’s semi-final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.
Adding interest to the remaining semi-final, Zverev has pledged to donate every cent of the winner’s $4.12 million prize-money to the bushfire appeal should he take the title.
It is a generous gesture even allowing for Zverev’s huge earning capacity. Even more so if the tax he must pay on that colossal cheque is not deductible.
Perhaps given his large charitable efforts Aussie tennis fans should get behind Alexander Zverev. (AP: Andy Brownbill)
We also have a perfectly decent women’s final in which the resurgent former world No.1 Garbine Muguruza takes on Barty’s conqueror, fiery yet seemingly nerveless 21-year-old American Sofia Kenin.
The prospect of a Muguruza-Kenin final wouldn’t have had too many non-tennis buffs reaching for their credit cards when tickets went on sale. But grand slam tournaments are about making stars, not just minting reputations.
Fans robbed of dream moment
However, before consoling ourselves with the excellent tennis still to come, let’s all take a Berocca and admit Barty’s semi-final defeat has robbed the tournament of the one storyline that could have elevated this Australian Open beyond the run of the mill — at least for the home audience.
This is a parochial take. But no more so than acknowledging that Andy Murray’s presence in the 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon finals — his drought-breaking first victory, particularly — shook Wimbledon more than any epic showdown between Borg and McEnroe or Evert and Navratilova.
Ideally Ash Barty would have been holding another grand slam singles trophy. (AP: Michel Euler)
A Barty final wouldn’t have quite created the same sort of mayhem at Melbourne Park as Murraymania, but as the Australian hope walked on to the court for her semi-final you could almost touch the palpable sense of anticipation about the potentially nation-stopping, ratings record-busting Saturday night final.
Unfortunately, for the first time in the tournament, it seemed Barty also twigged to what it all meant too. Suddenly she had the prize on her mind, not just the game plan drilled into her by coach Craig Tyzzer.
Before the semi-final the host broadcasters asked Cathy Freeman, someone who has carried the burden of home nation expectation like few others, how Barty would feel.
“Alone in her world with her own thoughts,” replied Freeman.
At the time those sentiments did not quite ring true. Barty had not seemed alone, isolated or burdened during this tournament as Freeman had on the track. Instead she looked perfectly prepared to embrace her opportunity while coddled by a loving group of friends and admirers.
Yet as the semi-final unfolded Barty for the first time showed hints of the pressure that had previously washed over her. A couple of tight forehands, set points not converted, opportunities squandered in the face of the relentless and unconstrained Kenin.
As the hush that greeted Kenin’s victory attested, the shock of Barty’s defeat was amplified by the fact that, for the previous 10 days, everything seemed to be going her way.
Ash Barty congratulates Sofia Kenin after their Australian Open semi-final. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
In the scheduling of her matches there wasn’t much more the tournament organisers could have done to protect Barty from the enormous expectations that would surround her first home appearance as a major winner.
Even as Barty attempted to become the first Australian woman to reach an Australian Open final since 1980, kids were still on the school bus and office workers were forced to steal glances at tennis sites on their PC’s and there were empty seats in the grandstand.
More success than failure
But if Barty’s disappearance in broad daylight was disappointing, her performance can hardly be considered a failure; particularly if the lessons from being the first Australian woman to reach the semi-final since Turnbull in 1984 lead to greater success.
Otherwise, we are left with, well, a pretty good last three days of a tournament that had been top notch.
One in which Tennis Australia managed to deal with the sensitivities of Margaret Court’s 50th anniversary grand slam celebration by fitting the controversy-plagued former great with a tongue tie and placing a Trump-sized wall between her on-court deeds and her public persona.
Australian Tennis Margaret Court receives a trophy on January 27, 2020, commemorating 50 years since she won a tennis Grand Slam. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
TA won’t have thanked John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova for their banner-waving counter-protest, even as some more enlightened officials privately concede the blindingly obvious.
That those fiercely defending Court’s right to free speech are surely beholden to extend the same freedom of expression to others when they make their feelings known.
Otherwise, however, this has been a pleasantly controversy-free Australian Open; one in which even the presence of that lightning rod for mischief Nick Kyrgios managed to improve his reputation.
It is only to witness a conclusion that could be very good. But one that, without Barty, is unlikely to prove exceptional.