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At the heart of Melbourne Park

No ‘Fedal’ this year, but as the men’s finalists meet today at the Australian Open, a look back at the atmosphere at the Rod Laver Arena in 2017. Will it be as much of a ‘Happy Slam’ as it always promises to be

At the heart of  Melbourne Park

Rafael Nadal rushed to the net and struck the backhand pass beyond rushing Roger Federer to make it 15-15. It was the fourth game of the final set of the Australian Open final last year. The Spaniard had broken the Swiss in the first game of the decider and after the winner, looked set to pull off another five-set major win against his long-time rival.

To put things into perspective, Federer had not beaten Nadal at a Grand Slam event for 10 years – and had never beaten his nemesis outside of Wimbledon’s grass at majors.

After looking set to be victim of another Nadal voodoo that had historically engulfed the Swiss in their head-to-head, something switched in Federer’s head. He relied on his traditional one-two first serve-forehand punches to swiftly bring up game point, and would go on to win it.

The Australians are known for their sporting savoir-faire, which stems from the nation doing well in a wide array of sports. But even they couldn’t predict what was to happen last year.

Federer won’t lose a single game after this, winning his then 18th Grand Slam title. It was arguably his greatest triumph given that he managed to overcome the arch-nemesis in the final – he would then dominate the rivalry with four successive wins in 2017 – and the fact that Federer was coming off a six-month injury layoff.

I was fortunate enough to cover the Australian Open last year and witness history at the heart of Melbourne Park. Not only did the two most illustrious male tennis players take centre stage to play out another chapter of what many believe is the greatest rivalry in the sport, the two did so as outsiders, eventually using their respective runs to add more history to their names in 2017.

Unfortunately, we won’t have another ‘Fedal’ final this year in Australia, with Nadal bowing out against Marin Cilic in the quarters after retiring in the fifth set. But, this time last year, the U-turn that men’s tennis was taking was being witnessed at Melbourne – especially, at the Rod Laver Arena.

Rod Laver Arena is one of three tennis arenas with a retractable roof at Melbourne Park, along with 35 outdoor Plexicushion courts. The park features Melbourne Cricket Ground and hosts all kinds of sporting events ranging from basketball and netball to watersports and motorsports.

But the last fortnight of every January is dominated by tennis, as Melbourne Park hosts the first Grand Slam event of the year. And the ambience of the tennis arenas has meant that the Australian Open is dubbed tennis’ ‘Happy Slam’.

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It has been particularly happy for Novak Djokovic, who in 2016 won his record equalling sixth Australian Open title, which was also the third in his four successive slam wins that meant that he was the first male player to hold all four majors at the same time on three different surfaces.

At the start of Australian Open 2017, the question was over which of Djokovic or then World Number 1 Andy Murray would win the title. The two had dominated 2016, with the Scott’s late surge meaning that he pipped the Serb to the No 1 ranking. But both of them were knocked out in the first week.

The Australians are known for their sporting savoir-faire, which stems from the nation doing well in a wide array of sports. But even they couldn’t predict what was to happen last year.

It was after Djokovic and Murray had both been knocked out, and local Nick Kyrgios booed off the court following his second round loss to Andreas Seppi, that the fact that 17th seed Federer and ninth seed Nadal were in opposite halves — and hence could potentially meet in the final — was first discussed among the crowds.

With Aisam-ul-Haq’s first and second round exits in the mixed and men’s doubles respectively, the interests of sports editors were also low back home. Simultaneously, Pakistanis were being walloped in cricket Down Under, resulting in quite a few smug encounters with Australian journalists!

Nick Kyrgios, and the fact that Australia did not have anyone else in the ATP Top 50, was the only comeback at the time.

As the second week kicked off and the quarterfinals shaped up, then the US Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka was touted as the favourite to bag his second Aussie Open. He had fought off a tough opener against Martin Klizan and then had sailed into the quarters where he dismantled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets.

While Wawrinka was being fancied, and Federer-Nadal the sentimental choices, the highest remaining seed was Milos Raonic. It was after beating him in the quarters that ‘Nadal is back!’ was being echoed inside Rod Laver arena.

Two pulsating semi-finals later, as Federer and Nadal fought off Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov in five sets each, the world had the matchup that most wanted, but wouldn’t quite have believed in only a week ago.

What makes the Australian Open unique is that despite brimming over with history, it is open to change. Melbourne’s weather in the Australian mirrors this flexibility, where one often has to switch from a jumper to a tank-top multiple times in a day.

That it’s the very start of the year has historically meant that before Djokovic, no single player had been able to dominate the event, since Rod Laver Arena – then the National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park – began hosting the Australian Open in 1988.

While that should be the case in the near future as well, the Australian Open 2017 final would forever remain as the moment that the two greatest male tennis players announced their respective resurgences in perhaps the twilights of their career.

It will also be remembered for perhaps the greatest female tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, surpassing Steffi Graf as the player with the most majors in the Open Era, giving us perhaps one last Williams sisters final.

That it all happened in the arena named after the player many believe was greater than the greatest, made it the perfect setting for history.

K Shahid

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