And So It Begins

By Jane Voigt

January 13, 2013 -- It's the light that distinguishes the Australian Open from its three sister Grand Slams. 

At once harsh and welcoming, the summer glow from the courts of Melbourne make spectators squint at first. The sun seems to cast no shadows, it is so intense and masterful. And the courts are so blue under its blaze they appear overdone, like paint gone awry. Ask those who have been there: There's really nothing like the look of the Australian Open.

Players are tanned from weeks of preparation and tournaments held in this, the largest country on the planet without land borders. Ball kids wear long-sleeved shirts with sun protection woven in the mixture of fabrics. Their hats have tails to protect tender necks. Ones worn by linesmen tie under the chin and have extended brims to block distraction ... the way a stray beam of sun could, causing misjudgment and player distrust. 

Australians are big on hats. They know the damage caused by the sun when skin's exposed year after year. And like kindred souls, they are drawn to the warmth and cozy feeling it surrounds them with plus the memories it will leave them from summer Down-Under 2013. 

Melbourne is a happy place with or without the tennis scheduled from January 14 - January 27. Add the arrival of more than 600 professional tennis players and their entourages, media crews, electronic wizards, grounds crews, entertainment celebrities, ATP, WTA and ITF administrations, sponsors, and those lucky enough to have a ticket ... well, that happiness expands one-hundred fold. 

This is Australia's summer vacation and Australians are nuts for tennis. 

Samantha Stosur, seeded #9 and from Gold Coast, will carry the burden of her home country when she begins efforts tomorrow against little known Kai-Chen Chang of Taipei. Lleyton Hewitt, the recent and two-time winner of the Kooyong Classic, will once again attempt to impress his countrymen, although a tough opponent awaits in round one ... Janko Tipsarevic, the #8 seed. 

A few familiar and favored faces will not be on hand, too, for the first major tournament of the year. 

Raphael Nadal, the 2012 finalist, announced he would not participate a couple weeks ago. His bout with a viral stomach ailment coupled with a schedule that wouldn't include enough practice, were noted in the press as reasons for his withdrawal. The Spaniard, who should be seeded #4, hasn't been seen since the second round of Wimbledon, 2012. He plans to return to the tour at the end of February.

Americans John Isner and Mardy Fish will not play. Isner has a knee injury and Mardy Fish's heart condition although improving is not match ready. Former top-ten Russian Vera Zvonareva continues to nurse a shoulder injury and is hopeful for the hard court season this spring. 

Recent retirements of Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick will leave even bigger gaps in fans hearts and draws. 

The new crackdown on time violations between points will come under even a brighter light than the burning Aussie sun, as the fortnight gets in gear.

Before the new year, players were warned that violations would be called to the 20-second rule in grand slams and the 25-seconds between points at ATP tournaments.  

Some 35 players have felt the sting of enforcement since the beginning of the year. If they don't start the point within 20 seconds, they are first warned then they lose their first serve. If an opponent prevents a server from complying, they are warned and then lose a point. 

"'Australian Open defending champion Novak Djokovic says he's not concerned about a crackdown on the time taken between points in tennis matches, saying if he is guilty of delaying play, he'll take the warning without complaint," Dennis Passa, AP sports writer, wrote to nbcsports.com, a couple days ago. 

Djokovic has been one of the major offenders along with Nadal. Their final last year extended to just under six hours, breaking a record for the longest slam final in Grand Slam history.

Tournament Referee Wayne McEwen "thinks common sense will prevail at the majors," according to the same article by Passa. He has spoken to the chair umpires, reminding them of the 20-second rule and "to keep it fair, keep it consistent."

We will see if chair umpires can consistently manage the rule, and players, especially when temperatures soar and rallies lengthen. Two stadium courts have retractable roofs, which help negate some of the consequences of intense summer heat plus world-class tennis.  

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013