Yanks in Oz: American Men Show Their Stuff at Australian Open

The new tennis season begins auspiciously for American men, with Jack Sock and Taylor Fritz putting on a terrific first-round display of strength and skill. You can say it might have been nice to save this for a later round, but you can’t fix the draw—though evidently you can fix some other things —and it was fine to see our up-and-coming big men play so well.

Fritz is only 19 and, winner of the U.S. Open Juniors last year, he is touted as a comer, and while it is always risky in this sport to say that proves anything, sometimes it does and the bets on him are sound.

Sock too was touted as a comer, and the fact is, he is well on the way. It takes a little longer than anyone realized: he is 24 now, and the “old” men are crowding the top 10 zone, due to longer fitness spans. Maybe there is something after all to today’s training regimes, nutrition, racquets, and shoes. Roger Federer is still up there at 34, going on 35, and no one can beat him—except Novak Djokovic and, just lately at the Brisbane final, Milos Raonic, himself about Sock’s age, and the Swiss maestro played with a flu infection.

Sock had a very good year in ’15, in both singles and doubles, where he teamed with another young comer who waits in line, Raonic’s fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil. Sock began his year with an outstanding act of sportsmanship at the Hopman Cup, wherein he advised Lleyton Hewitt, ex-world number one reportedly making the Open his last hurrah, to challenge a line call. Which he did, and Sock was right: it was a bad call and Hewitt got to replay it and won the point, eventually the match.

Hewitt is Australia’s favorite tennis player, but for a few days Sock was the world’s.

It came at a good time, too, because a match-fixing story was about to break, bringing with it a global sigh of “not in tennis…” This was either sentimental or ignorant, because neither the practice nor this particular story is news, though the extent of the fixing over nearly the past 10 years may surprise. It has been known in tennis circles that gambling syndicates in Russia and Sicily have sought to bribe competitors to throw matches in which they were favored, allowing running bets, common in foreign countries, to bring in big bucks. The international tennis federation’s integrity unit is supposed to have more than a dozen highly-ranked players (inside the top 50) in their sights, though it seems unlikely names will be leaked just yet because reports have it that there is still no proof, and without proof a leak could amount to a libel and a libel will cause more damage than it is worth.

Novak Djokovic himself quickly came forward and stated he had been offered a bucket of kale (200 grand) to throw a match in 2007; he preferred to back out of the tournament, held in Russia, than risk an eventual association with it.

Teenager Noah Rubin, who is from Long Island and is like Taylor Fritz one of our young hopes, got through the first round with a victory over Frenchman Benoit Paire. It was a big deal for the qualifier, who is ranked 328th, against the 17th-seeded Frenchman. Even if he and Sock, who face older, more experienced players in the next rounds, do not make it to the second week, they and a few others—including Milwaukee’s small but mighty Tim Smyczek—are showing that American men’s tennis can be a force this year.

In fact, the best story of all is surely the return of Brian Baker. The Tennessee ace is a lesson in courage, a man who, at 30, has been written off several times as injured beyond hope of repair. With a finesse reminiscent of John McEnroe, grit worthy of Jimmy Connors, and class that evokes Arthur Ashe, Baker is the quintessence of American tennis. He was out most of last year, but entered the Oz thanks to the protected ranking rule.

It took Simone Bolellli four sets to defeat Baker in the first round, and every one of them went to the tie-break. It is nowise sentimental or condescending to say such resilience and determination against such bad physical luck as he has known is rare in any sport. Whatever happens in at the season’s first Open, tennis fans can rest assured that, thanks to Sock and Baker, and match-fixing be damned, the sport is still a class act.


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