Born on Independence Day, Lives Actively & Family Focused
Reflections Prior to AO 2019January 12, 2019
Since I am on the 15-hour flight from LA to Melbourne about to cover another Australian Open for ESPN, I wanted to reflect some on my 40 years since coming to Melbourne for the first time. In December 1979 Melbourne hosted two women’s pro tennis events during a 4-week Australian circuit. I played the first Melbourne event then went onto Adelaide and Sydney the week before Christmas. The tournaments were all on grass. I had never been away from my family for Christmas, so I left Australia before the Australian Open started to fly back to Baltimore. At the time the Australian Open was not even the largest prize money event on the Australian circuit. Melbourne felt more like an English town with English food and a slower pace.
By 1981 the women’s Australian Open moved to January a few weeks after Christmas. Immediately the player field became as strong as other majors on the women’s side. Martina and I won our first of 7 in a row in 1982. Starting our streak at Kooyong, a tennis club in a nice Melbourne suburb. In January 1989, we won our 20th and last major 30 years ago at Flinders Park (soon to be renamed Melbourne Park). On the grass courts I managed to get to 4 singles semifinals at the Australian Open, but the move to rebound ace was not good for my game or my body.
In 1990 I lost first-round to Kimoko Date. ESPN asked me to join their talent team covering matches on the stadium courts outside from Laver. I had enjoyed broadcasting part-time for CBS in the early to mid 1980s, so it was easy to say yes.
In 1996 I played my last Australian Open, two years after playing in my last major doubles final with Liz Smylie in Laver Arena. I had already started my transition to broadcasting while I was playing. I worked a few years on both men’s and women’s matches for Channel 7 Australia. I was the one on our broadcast team that first spotted Pete Sampras crying during his match with Jim Courier when his coach, Tim Gullickson was sick in the hospital with the beginnings of brain cancer. I was in the booth when teenager, Lleyton Hewitt played his first of 20 Australian Opens.
For a few years, I worked for both ESPN and Channel 7, but since having kids 14 years ago, I have focused my broadcasting with ESPN. When I played my tennis, I traveled to Australia from my hometown of Baltimore and the trip was so long and grueling. But now as a resident of Los Angeles, it makes trip is much easier. I arrive the Sunday morning before it starts, unlike the weeks ahead of time as a player. (By the time you read this, I will be there on this Sunday.)
This year’s Australian Open has already made world headlines before first ball of the main draw is played. Andy Murray held one of the most emotional press conferences with the news that his hip is not healthy enough to regain full range or joint health, and his retirement is imminent. He hopes he can play his last match at Wimbledon in 6 months. The social media reaction of support and appreciation has been immense. Just about everyone in pro tennis has weighed in on Murray with so many positive thoughts, wishes, and concerns. Murray’s retirement announcement feels like the first of a wave of momentous retirements by some of our games greatest-ever players. In 3-5 years, Nadal, Venus, Serena and Federer will all be gone, if not sooner. What will it feel like then?
I also believe the conditions of the last 15 years, slower courts, heavier balls, greater string spin, bigger stronger athletes who train almost year-round, producing mostly concussive baseline rallies or staggeringly physical defense, has taken its toll on Murray’s body. The power in the game has damaged Del Porto’s body and Nadal has just been able to just keep going with great bioscience recovery methods that were unheard of 10 years ago.
It’s a good thing all the majors have a finish line in their matches now, but it has not gone far enough to cut down on the length of time on court in this era of power tennis? To what purpose looking back, did the 15-round fight for world boxing title mean? It meant more damage to Mohammed Ali. In the future, with shorter matches if our great champions can have healthier longer careers and play more tournaments, everybody wins. About a three-hour grueling match is as long as it needs to be.
Times have changed, kids interests in watching live sports has changed, climate has changed, rallies have changed, rackets changed, string changed, court surface has changed and Melbourne has changed. The format and maximum length of matches needs to continue to be studied. Perhaps more limits can be placed on court speed or string technology limits.
Meanwhile when I close my eyes and reflect on some of the toughest, longest, physical and most entertaining rallies and matches of the last 20 years, many have been played at Melbourne Park. I can’t wait for this year, and hope for the best for Andy Murray’s condition. PS
(Typed from my laptop on the plane, excuse any typos)