It’s dark out. We’re all knee-deep in one seasonal-affective thing or another, fresh off the holiday stretch where each of us had either too much or too little to do. At some point today you’re going to step around a patch of mud you’re not quite sure is frozen; in a little bit here I’m going to sprinkle sand out of a coffee can onto my driveway. Maybe, at some point, we’ll see the sun.
But, tennis. The imagery associated with the sport in deep winter isn’t much cheerier, honestly. Pressurized inflatable facilities that exude the dull roar of an airplane hangar and smell like wet felt, matches on courts that play too fast under light fixtures that hang too low. For me it will always mean trying to warm my body up before winter sectional matches set somewhere like Salt Lake City or Colorado Springs, getting rackets out of the car as quickly as possible so that the gut in the string beds wouldn’t freeze. Winter tennis isn’t fun. Winter isn’t fun. In January, the most stir-crazy part of the calendar, we sit and sleep and feel a deep itch to be elsewhere, to find some fantasia borne out of our collective depression.
All of that is to say: welcome to the Australian Open.
The tennis in Melbourne has always held a blurry, dreamlike quality that makes you wonder if you’re remembering it correctly. This is partially due to geography and TV scheduling, because if you’re watching the event live it means you’re awake when you shouldn’t be. That specific viewing experience is tied to all my memories of the event—when I picture Serena Williams beating the brakes off Maria Sharapova in 2007, I see it happening on a glowing screen in a dark room in which nothing else is visible. Same with when she won this event while pregnant, and same with that year Jo-Wilfried Tsonga marched to the final out of nowhere, mostly by hitting drop volleys from impossible positions every point. Remember Marcos Baghdatis? Me either. All of this feels made up.
The aesthetic of the event also factors in. There is something almost primal about being very cold while watching someone else be very hot; you start to sweat with Andy Murray when his legs cramp in the heat, or when ESPN cuts to their big beloved thermometer and Brad Gilbert starts trying to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit on air. One hundred and fifteen degrees—is that right? The heat shimmers off the hard court and blends with the neon colors Nike supplied everyone this year; most of the fans are drunk and waving Swiss flags, Spanish flags, Croatian; at some point a koala always appears on TV.
The tennis too feels impressionistic and dreamy, more cloud painting than photograph. The courts are slow with a high bounce, and it lets players camp out behind the baseline for looping rallies that feature big hitting but not necessarily progress. That dynamic can make it feel like they’re hitting a beach ball back and forth, huge strokes that somehow don’t cut through the court like they do in, say, Flushing. The fitness levels of even the top players can vary pretty widely coming directly out of the offseason. This is also the first time we see the results of coaching changes or strategy tweaks, when we find out who added a wrinkle to their game—memorable recent entries here include Caroline Wozniacki showing up with a brand-new fleshed-out offensive repertoire a couple years ago, and Rafael Nadal deciding to wear clothes made for an adult.
But despite the surrealism, and much to Jimmy Connors’s chagrin, the Australian Open counts. We are not actually dreaming; Oz really can function as a bellwether for the year to come if you can figure out how to make sense of it. In trying to do so, the temptation here is to pick the players who match the vibe. Roger’s been known to thrown on a pink shirt and smile a lot down here, and so he makes aesthetic sense, and the same logic could be applied to the delightfully wide-open women’s tour right now as well.
But aesthetics are not the story. Dress it up however you’d like, but tennis remains a raw set of geometries, percentages, and small variances that can be manipulated. The fun falls away pretty quickly in that light—we’re left with the mechanical reality of this tournament, which is slow hard-court tennis played in nasty heat at a time when offseason discipline counts the most. Perhaps you can hear my prediction left unsaid in that framing. It’s not a bold one whatsoever, but that’s probably the defining feature of his play, how statistically certain he makes it all seem when he’s rolling. At his peak—and the aesthetes should very much be worried about the fact that we seem to be returning there—he can make the game feel artless and inevitable, like he’s found the wires underneath the cheap trick and is now humorlessly showing them to you.
In case it does need saying out loud: we are about to spend a whole lot of time this year talking about Novak Djokovic.
I mean all that with love, probably, the same way once spring hits we’ll all say winter was fine in retrospect. We were all glad to get some snow. Objectively, Djokovic deserves every legacy-based accolade you could throw at him. He warrants your compliments as he accumulates titles. But did we have any fun? I’m speaking strictly of his tennis, because he seems to be a normal man who experiences things like joy and levity. He’s got a great sense of humor; it’s nice to see him smile while he’s doing the tennis equivalent of filling potholes.
(Remember his impersonations? He had one for basically all his rival players. His character work on Roddick was especially uncanny; he made Andy look like an aggro meathead full of useless anger. Which. But he did so many of them of so many people that it soon felt like Djokovic was actually parodying the concept of individual character itself; the joke was that these other people were playing tennis in some manner other than the most efficient.)
The guy showing you the strings in the magic trick, though—that’s the energy in his on-court smirk, and this I genuinely do love about him. For the back half of 2018 he brought it back out, same way he looked during the start of that unprecedented run in 2015. He is not that player anymore, I don’t think, but neither are any of the people who might stop him. If we are still waiting for the younger generation of talent to hit their primes, who’s going to win three out of five sets against him in these conditions? It’s math. So is the fact that his hold percentages are creeping back up to mid-decade levels, which when coupled with the rate he breaks opponent serves, his fitness level and renewed health, the fact that he’s cut out the errors and uneven play—where’s the opening? How do you beat Novak Djokovic right now? And how will you do it at Indian Wells or Miami, and what happens if no one does so by the time we reach Paris, and he enters Roland Garros as the defending champion everywhere else?
That’s a lot, and it probably won’t happen at that scale. But probably is another math word; eventually you have to show your work, and 2019 feels like a year in which Novak Djokovic has shown up with his spreadsheets updated. On that alone I am riveted by the possibilities of his upcoming tournament, and indeed his full season. Djokovic in 2019 will be an exercise in scaling up the same simple formula to whatever extent his body and the field allow. I have a suspicion that those parameters will prove to be quite expansive and loose.
But for the next two weeks, we’ve got our annual escapist wormhole toward somewhere warmer and weirder and possibly drunker than whatever cold place where we actually live. It’s fine to have what feels like blunt statistical certainty at its center—the most Australian Open parts of the Australian Open are rarely found in its winners. The women’s field has so many viable and compelling contenders that it makes more sense to observe than predict, which is deeply in spirit with the event. (But also: give me Kerber on fitness and experience.)
At some point over the next two weeks, you’re going to find yourself uselessly awake for some petty reason you won’t remember. You’ll have shit to do tomorrow, and it’ll be cold out. When this happens, just, trust me: turn it on. Let Melbourne be the iridescent dream you sift through in the morning. For a short while, be elsewhere.