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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is Roger on the outer at Hisense?

IT SEEMED impossible. Roger Federer, Ice King of tennis, four times champion of the Australian Open, was to be cast into the outer.
Having played an unbroken chain of 52 games in Melbourne's central shrine to the game, the Rod Laver Arena, he was scheduled to appear yesterday in Hisense Arena, a futuristic satellite hovering at the edge of Melbourne Park. Indeed, it is less a tennis stadium than a velodrome.
Was this some dreadful insult constructed by the tennis gods? A cruel, albeit unintended, metaphor for a monarch on the slide, even one who has earned 70 singles titles and $67.4 million in winnings alone?
Worse, perhaps, the younger and much scruffier Rafael Nadal, who has spent recent years snapping at Federer's heels on the court and in the rankings, had this week taken to verbally snapping at him.
Peeved that Federer, president of the World Tour Player Council, was keeping his own cool counsel on grumblings in the dressing rooms about how the men's game should change, rather than making public statements in support of his colleagues, Nadal used a Spanish language news conference on Sunday to insert the needle.
''For him, it's good to say nothing,'' Nadal said. ''Everything positive - 'Oh, it's all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman' - and the rest can burn themselves.''
Nadal, clearly realising he was not being overly gentlemanly himself, has since tried to smooth it over, declaring he and Federer are on the best of terms. No one, however, could have missed the fact that the Spaniard, 25, had felt emboldened to bare his teeth at the former top dog, now 30.
And then, yesterday, as if to rub salt into the sore, Federer was to be consigned to a far pavilion, a converted velodrome, while Nadal was scheduled for the glamour match of the day against the German-born American Tommy Haas. And, of course, the Nadal-Haas rumble would be centre stage, in Rod Laver Arena.
It turned out to be an absorbing, edge-of-the-seat experience for the crowd of 15,000. Nadal appeared to have each set all but wrapped up when Haas would stage a thrilling fightback, forcing the Spaniard to shift gears and swat the American into submission, the fans shrieking their support for the underdog.
But then, merciful fate intervened for the distant Swiss. Federer's opponent, the German Andreas Beck, withdrew from the match, citing a back injury. Federer would not play at Hisense Stadium after all. He would advance like royalty, without having to play at all, to the next stage of the Open, which used to be his for the taking.
He opined that he had been looking forward to appearing at Hisense, that there was nothing unusual about playing on an ''outside'' court - why, it was commonplace at Wimbledon and the French Open - and declared he felt bad that fans who had come to see him play would go home disappointed.
He would simply go away and give himself an ''intense'' workout in preparation for his next round. Limbering up, you might think, with a view to treating young Nadal to a lesson in manners some time further into this intriguing competition. In the Rod Laver Arena. Naturally.

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