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Sporting Life

For tennis players, holidays end and a Slam starts

Sixteen days after the year turns, a Grand Slam event begins. You've barely got your passport stamped and the matches are five sets, the questions tough, the pressure throttling. The first Slam is beautifully mean. It's a long way to fly to lose early.

The first Slam is the Australian Open and it expects you to be ready. It's as hard as the land it's played on. It demands that you find your feel fast, relate to your new coach quickly, adjust to your changed racket rapidly. If you want time to play yourself into the year, try a Challenger.

Golf's first Major is in April, Formula One's first race is in March, football's Champions League final is in June. If you played those sports maybe you took Christmas off. Even had a beer. If you're a tennis pro, you had better be practising because did you watch Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic eat up the court in Doha? Scary, yes. Epic, no. Epic is what Homer wrote.

The first Slam is democratic. No one's in full flight yet and everyone has had roughly the same rest. You're right out of excuses. As Jon Wertheim wrote in his delightful Mailbag section in Sports Illustrated, "The narrative begins early; we get an immediate sense of how players stack up. A tone is set."

The first Slam is intimidating and it's priceless. If you lose it, the calendar-year Grand Slam is gone; if you win it, you have a head start. It's so downright weird that champions dive into a filthy river on winning and a fan once demonstrated his backstroke technique on a flooded centre court in 1995.

Formula One's first race is in March, football's Champions League final is in June. If you played those sports maybe you took Christmas off. If you're a tennis pro, you had better be practising because did you watch Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in Doha? Scary, yes. Epic, no. Epic is what Homer wrote.

The first Slam is koalas, kangaroos, Kia cars and a Kyrgios question: Will he be fine, or fined? The first Slam is where Mark Edmondson is a quiz question which even he must be tired of: who is the last Australian man to win his Open. It happened in 1976 and it is proof of sports' cruel cycle. After all, there was a time, from 1956 to 1973, when Australia's men won 51 of the 72 slams. Please, applaud.

They appreciate tennis in Australia and it is this affection which brings 6,000 people to one man's practice session, which is enough people to fill the OCBC Aquatic Centre. Same man had 286,816 people watch his Dubai practice on YouTube. Same man has two Singapore readers mentioning to me in their letters that they are taking their families to Melbourne to watch him. Because what's a first Slam without The Fed?

I want to tell these letter-writing folk, go early to the Open if you're a Federer follower. He, at No. 17, may not last long. Neither may Rafael Nadal, No. 9, who still speaks the same sweaty haiku: "If you don't try your best then the sport loses its significance." People will say, these men could win the Open, you never know. You want to say, no, we do know, but the romantic view is better than the realistic one.

The first Slam turns us all into head-swivelling Sherlocks who spend January's first 15 days searching for clues. We sift through quotes, we consider body language, we examine history. Does Kei Nishikori really, truly believe? Has Serena lost her mojo? Is Alexander Zverev The One?

A story emerges and it's a Bulgarian. At one point last year Grigor Dimitrov lost five consecutive times in the first round. How then does an athlete ever think he will win anything again? Where does he find the will? Last week Dimitrov beat Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, Nishikori to win in Brisbane and he is an altered player. Just like that.

Dimitrov is coached by Dani Vallverdu, who used to tutor Tomas Berdych, who is now coached by Goran Ivanisevic and was beaten in Qatar by Murray, who once worked with Vallverdu. In short, everyone has a file on everyone. On court, what matters isn't just information but execution.

The first Slam always seems more powdered with hope than any other. New years speaks of resolutions and resoluteness, clean slates and calmer spirits, rebirths and revivals. Down the road failure awaits most athletes, but in January life has not yet been heartless.

This Open is where Stefan Edberg broke through and so did Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and Stan Wawrinka. And another fellow whose left wrist measured 18cm and his left forearm 30.5cm, which he swore was the same as heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. Rod Laver's first Slam came in January 1960, in searing heat, after being two sets to love down.

Fans melted and legs buckled on court and there were no chairs at changeovers. Instead wrote Laver in his autobiography, he and his rival, Neale Fraser, "stood together for a moment in the shade of the grandstand". A short respite and then "we went hell for leather".

Some days, the gentle Laver sits in the front row of the arena named after him at the Open and looks on. For players his attendance must be a privilege, a pressure and a charming lesson in humility. These fellows on court are highly paid, hair-jelled universal idols. People pin up their posters. Nice. For Laver they put up statues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'For tennis players, holidays end and a Slam starts'. Print Edition | Subscribe