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The Unpredictable Slam

Australian Open 2009

Courier and BaghdatisGetty ImagesTwo-time Australian Open champion Jim Courier interviews surprise 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

Surprise finalists have almost become an expected sensation in Melbourne. With an early spot in the calendar and often sweltering conditions, the Aussie Open provides a test incomparable to any other Slam.

A player might enter the Australian Open fresh of mind and of body but a lack of match preparation is always his concern.

The prospect of playing and winning seven potentially long matches to clinch the first major championship of the year has meant that Melbourne Park has become a theatre for tennis fans of titanic struggles and surprise results.

At times, on-court conditions resemble the inside of a kiln. The Extreme Heat Policy may give players temporary respite from competition when the mercury level crosses 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature reaches 28, but ultimately the Australian Open is no place for shirkers of hard work during the off-season. Only those who turn up fit and prepared, succeed. The eventual winner earns their prize money all right.

Former World No. 1 Jim Courier, the 1992-1993 champion, who played from the baseline and relied on his physical conditioning to win matches, not surprisingly said: “[There’s] nothing too tricky about winning in Melbourne. Work hard, come prepared and play better than the rest. [It’s] pretty simple really.”

Ever since the Australian Open moved to a January time-slot on the international tennis calendar in 1987, predicting the two finalists has become a challenge. Due to the early scheduling of the championship the top players are often not in mid-season form and can be more vulnerable than at the other majors – Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.

“Some players are slow to start and need matches under their belts,” said Australian Pat Rafter, who reached the 2001 semi-finals and often shouldered the weight of national expectation. “A lot of it relates to the lack of tournaments beforehand, coming off Christmas and a lay time and not finding form yet. However [Pete] Sampras, Courier and [Andre] Agassi were great champions who found their form early.”

When players called for the Extreme Heat Policy to be overhauled two years ago, four-time former champion Agassi said the players had only themselves to blame and they needed to come better prepared. “It’s about handling the conditions the best, it’s not about playing great,” said Agassi. “From a tennis player’s [view], we train for this. [If you are not prepared], too bad.”

Tennis fans, in arguably the finest city in the world for watching a sporting spectacle, have often witnessed pre-tournament favourites slip up before the end of the first week to unheralded players free of pressure and expectation – ready to make a name for themselves. Just look at the number of finalists over the last 10 years who have made a career breakthrough on Rod Laver Arena, the main show court.

Marcos Baghdatis was one such finalist in 2006, when the Cypriot knocked out three Top 10 players en route to the title-match where he lost to Roger Federer. He fondly remembers his dream run as he considers Melbourne a home from home, but he is equally clear in his reasoning why the Australian Open produces so many surprise finalists in recent years.

“It’s the beginning of the year, everyone is fit – especially the young guys. Everybody has worked a lot during the off-season and that is why they want to show everybody at the Australian Open that they can produce a good year,” explained Baghdatis, who was No. 54 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings at the time of his career breakthrough.

Few predicted Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would beat Andy Murray in the first round last year, let alone Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic may have been too strong in the final but the Australian Open provided Tsonga a launch pad to establishing himself in the Top 10 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

The World No. 6 said: “The weather is always very hot and sometimes even when the best players play a long match they find it is tricky to recover for your next match two days later.”

Mario Ancic, who has battled bouts of illness and injury over the past two years, believes the championship “definitely produces the most upsets, as players lack matches and fitness.”

Having reached the fourth round on two occasions, the former World No. 7 says: “I have aimed to be fitter each year and I definitely work harder during each off-season. I have spent a lot of time interval running and spending time in the gym. On the court, I’m been drilling my strokes. It’s really the only time of the year, when you can do the grind work.”

The unpredictability of the Australian Open has given career-best moments to 2002 champion Thomas Johansson, the one surprise finalist in the past decade to claim the title, and to the likes of runners-up Thomas Enqvist (1999), Arnaud Clement (2001), and Rainer Schuettler (2003). Whose hard work and dedication to training in recent weeks will be richly rewarded on February 1? We’ll find out soon enough.

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