Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is it something in the water?

The Australian Open has got to be the strangest Slam. Wimbledon gracefully endures, white against green, genteel and manicured. The US Open is raucous and rowdy, especially at night when New Yorkers come out to party, and on Arthur Ashe day when they celebrate their inner child. And each year Roland Garros shows us the best of Argentina, Spain, and Brazil as we wonder why we Americans continue to have embarrassing feet of clay.

And then there is Australia, where very strange things have been know to happen. I suspect it's the water in Melbourne, its source the massive Yarra river flowing through the city, carrying with it the memories of ancient dreaming as old as time itself.

Take Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 22 year old with the French mother and Congolese father. This time last year he was playing Challengers. Today he has made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne, against all odds.

In France, Jo-Wilfried (pictured below) is literally the dark horse. The golden boy was supposed to be Richard Gasquet. When last I checked, most bloggers remain more interested in Gasquet's sexual orientation than in his tennis. Tsonga has become the breath of fresh air. He's the Marcos Bhagdatis of 2008, the unknown outsider who has stolen our hearts and whose tennis takes our collective breath away.

And what to make of Janko Tipsarevic, the glasses-wearing oddball with body art and sundry tattoos including a Dostoevsky quote ["Beauty will save the world"] inked in Japanese on his left arm? Tipsy took Roger Federer to five agonizing sets and lost 10-12 in the 5th. I hear Federer is still having nightmares of that match.

Or Kohlschreiber the giant-slayer, who had Andy Roddick cussing a blue streak even as he bundled him unceremoniously out of the tournament.

And then there's James Blake, the tremendous overachiever whose brain has got be water-logged. Nothing else explains his proud [and bizarre!] announcement - on Martin Luther King Day no less - that he had just found out that he has the same name as the guy who asked Rosa Parks to give up her seat on the bus. Talk about a pathetic attempt to insert himself into history. And failing abysmally. His deceased African-American father probably turned over in his grave in shame. Federer has my permission to drink as much Melbourne water as he needs to crush the idiot in straight sets.

But it's not only the men who seem affected by the water. Has Maria Sharapova ever seemed more ferocious, more wily, her mouth wide-open, screaming, like a hungry crocodile? Has Henin - with her massive club of a right arm and muscled tree trunk legs - ever seemed more delicate, more frail? Have the William Sisters ever both lost to Serbian women in the same round of the same tournament? What does the inside of Venus' mouth look like after all that nervous chewing? Where do those swallowed emotions go? And what happened to Serena's spunk, her brashness, that confident attitude that allowed her declare herself the winner of the Serena Slam? It was a whisper of that woman who showed up on court against Jankovic, a shadow hiding beneath the murky purple brine of fear.

I am reminded of the aborigine legend of Koobor the koala who had a thirst so strong, so unquenchable, that when his relatives left him alone to go forage for food, Koobor drank up all the water in the village. Try as he did to escape punishment, Koobor was eventually caught and beaten within an inch of his life. He placed a curse on the villagers. And this is why koalas don't need water to live and why aborigines still follow Koobor's law when cooking a dead koala.

Never mind the 130 degree weather. I think the message of the legend is to drink just enough of the water in Melbourne to be satisfied. Too much and you end up bloated, foolish, full of yourself. Not enough and your thirst goes unslaked, you crave but cannot achieve. Just enough and you might have a chance of holding that trophy aloft.

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