THE GRANDEST SLAM
The lights were blazing, the court a bright blue and thousands of people chattered excitedly around the Rod Laver Arena. “Vamos, Rafa!” bellowed a lady from behind. A quick peek revealed a petite Asian gifted with a set of lungs rivalling that of a tuba player. Such was the amazing power of the Final Men’s Singles at the 2017 Australian Open.
Honestly, who would’ve have guessed for a final match of such epic proportions? This was the stuff that happens once every few lifetimes. It was as if Kia Motors’ – a major sponsor of the Australian Open – motto, ‘The Power to Surprise’, was bestowed with prophetic power. Two-time defending champion and No 2 ranker Novak Djokovic astonishingly fell in the second round to 117th-ranked Denis Istomin. The fourth round saw the surprise exit of top seed Andy Murray, who lost to Mischa Zverev. The women had their fair share of surprises as well, with defending champion Angelique Kerber defeated by Coco Vandeweghe in the fourth round. But, fate had a plan, which gave the world a Venus
vs Venus and Nadal vs Federer set up for the Women’s and Men’s Singles respectively, that had everyone on the edge of their seats.
Before delving into the epic Federer vs Nadal final, the Australian Open experience is certainly worth a mention. Immediately upon stepping onto the immaculate grounds of Melbourne Park, visitors are enveloped in a great party-like atmosphere, where ardent tennis fans from around the globe become bosom buddies. Between matches, they noshed on the best of Australian contemporary cuisine from the likes of Tokyo Tina, Huxtaburger and Jimmy Grants. Even the players themselves took a break from their gruelling training schedules to give the fans a treat, shaking hands and giving out warm embraces. To the delight of many, Rafael Nadal was seen with a sunny smile around Melbourne Park despite pounding the court almost every waking hour.
A quick walk around Melbourne Park will reveal how ubiquitous Kia is to the tournament. Its choice vehicles glinted under the Australian sun while showcasing their cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art silhouettes to thousands of fans. Amongst these marvellous vehicles, the 2018 Kia Stinger takes the cake – we have a sneaking suspicion this gorgeous GT concept vehicle, making its sophomore debut at the tournament, could have played a small part in Nadal’s buoyant mood. Unveiled at the North American International Auto Show earlier this year, it’s the Korean carmaker’s powerful all-new fastback sport sedan based on a GT concept. Peter Schreyer – a name synonymous with excellence – oversaw the design of the Stinger with his talented team in Frankfurt, while Albert Biermann, head of Kia’s Vehicle Test and High Performance Development, and his group of engineers developed its handling on the gruelling Nürburgring racing circuit. Though only slated to be available in the United States later this year, the Stinger GT promises to be a powerful ride, with a 3.3-litre Twin Turbo V6 Lambda II engine anticipated to produce 365 horsepower. It was the perfect testament to the Federer-Nadal competition.
Often said to be the greatest rivalry in tennis, this Fedal (as it’s affectionately called by fans) contest has seen the two face off 36 times to much excitement, with each player continuously outperforming one another. At this epic showdown, Nadal seems to have an advantage as he yearns to join Rod Laver as the only men to claim each major twice. Not since 1982 has a man defeated four top-10 seeds to win a major and, with Federer returning from an injurious 2016 at a fairly advanced age, it was perhaps a Sisyphean task for the 35-year-old Swiss.
For three hours and 38 minutes, they served, volleyed and waltzed around the bright blue hard court as millions of eyes bore into them, urging them on. But, as if spurred by an invisible force, 16th-seed Federer roared back from 3-1 down in the tense final set to mow through five straight games. As the umpire declared the winning point to Federer, the entire arena was up on its feet, cheering in a mix of shock and joy as Federer leapt in victory. He had just won his fifth Australian Open Men’s Singles title, breaking his own all-time record of Grand Slam titles to set the new mark at 18 and became the first man ever to win at least five singles majors at three different Grand Slams each.
As Federer was the proclaimed champion, the emotions of the night were aptly summed up by the CEO of Kia Motors Australia, Sang-Hyun Cho, who looked genuinely heartened to be there. “Congratulations for such a great display of tennis tonight,” he began. “I thank you for showing us exactly why the Australian Open is one of the most exciting major sporting championships. Unfortunately, only one winner can be crowned tonight.” Turning slightly to the players behind him, he continued: “But I believe both of you should be proud of the sportsmanship and passion you have shown throughout this year’s tournament.” The crowd erupted into a fresh wave of cheers as he declared the Australian Open fans the best fans in the world.
A triumphant but humble Federer received the coveted Norman Brookes Challenge Cup with perhaps one the classiest speech in sporting history. “Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws but if there was I’d be happy to share it with Rafa tonight,” he said before continuing to laud his defeated opponent. “Keep playing Rafa, please. Tennis needs you.” A class act indeed, but we have to say, tennis needs you too Federer as you are now, unquestionably, a legend who defied age, critics, seeding and logic to reaffirm the brilliance of the sport.
Will the next Australian Open be as exhilarating as this one? Doubtful, but one can always hope. After all, the magic of the sport does not lie in the big names, but the sportsmanship, competitive spirit and unshakable drive for success – ingredients that somehow make sitting through almost four hours of ball play with rapt attention an easy task. However, with staunch support from Kia and fans who pledge their undying love for the game, the next tournament will evidently be a passionate play with a few surprises thrown in as well.