Australian Open 2016: a good place, but not to start

The Australian Open on Monday looked like a good place. Photo: Cameron SpencerLondoner Chris Kermode, head of the ATP, was blissfully unaware of the curse he was calling down on himself and all of tennis. “I think it will be seen,” he said, “that tennis is in a very, very good place”. Good place? Very good place? James Hird, 2013: “When the truth comes out, I think I’ll be in a very, very good position, and so will this football club.” The echo fairly was ear-splitting.

Melbourne Park on Monday looked and felt like a good place. Sunshine, sun tans, glowing good health. Courts and concourses teeming. Bright colours, expensive labels, smart cuts, a feel of comfortably off. Out there, every sinew strained, every bead of sweat expended. Everyone was trying their lungs out. You could see it, and you just knew it, because as if anyone wouldn’t, in such a very good place?

Sport, you know just by looking at it, is a good place. It’s not like banks, or Canberra, or those smoky old Underbelly-ish pool rooms in Carlton. Then again, Essendon in mid-2012 looked like a good place. The London Olympics that year looked like a good place. Right now, the Big Bash League looks like a very good place. So why would you want to look any closer?

But some did look closer, and Essendon on closer inspection turned out not to be such a good place as it seemed, and so did the London Games, and cricket always has had its dark places, and tennis players are as venal as any other sportspeople, and arguably more than any others exposed to temptation. It’s a rich sport, always dangerous. It’s diffuse: matches are played here, there and everywhere around the world, all the time, so who knows where to look at any one time, and for that matter, who cares that much? It’s the cricket template, multiplied and squared.

People care about the majors, of course. Specifically, they care about the major players. But even at Melbourne Park on Monday, who really was dwelling on whether the Austrian or the Argentine won on court eight, or the Brit or the Bosnian on the court next door at the same time, dwelling as they will dwell on Richmond and Carlton across the footbridge three months hence?

The backcourt boys had plenty of watchers, but few fans in the true sense of the world. This is both the Open’s great success and essential failing, that they would be there anyway. They come for the event, not in these early days the competition. In Sopot, Poland, in 2008, where this whole thing first came to light, did anyone care whether a Russian or an Argentine won? Isn’t that the point? And unlike in soccer, for instance, or cricket, it only takes one player to make a workable fix.

But in this good place, who wants to contemplate, let alone believe, bad? “In its investigations, the tennis integrity unit has to find evidence, as opposed to information, suspicion or hearsay,” said Kermode, explaining why the Sopot probe washed up. “This is the key here, that it requires evidence.” In other words, they found smoke so black, dense and asphyxiating that it has not cleared yet, nearly 10 years later – but no fire.

It would be interesting to know what constituted the difference between information and evidence, but the media briefing was snapped off long before it got to that question. Move along, nothing to see here, not through all that smoke.

Nigel Willerton, who heads the the TIU, said that corruption was difficult to detect, even more difficult to prosecute, and the TIU was not a law enforcement body anyway. But is this not what Essendon, WADA and CAS have taught us so very recently, that when it comes to safeguarding the integrity of sport, it is better not to be a law enforcement body, but to be free to make your own laws and enforce them?

The last allowable question was an ageless one about the inherent contradiction in tennis’ formalised links with betting agencies. The answer also was ageless. “The distinction to make is that betting itself is not an illegal pastime,” said Kermode. “Many people bet on sport.” Here, resounding down the years, was Australian cricket’s justification for accepting the lavish sponsorship of Benson and Hedges. More smoke, still no fire. Smoking was legal, but cigarette company sponsorship never was compulsory. Ditto betting now.

Somewhere along the way, the 2016 Australian Open began, and in the wash of results, no one retired inexplicably, and although someone probably lost from a set and a break up – now identified as the Davydenko threshold – no suspicions were raised, because this was Melbourne and a major sporting event, the very definition of a good place.

But the good place that is sport in general and Melbourne in particular has been shaken badly in recent times by all sorts of revelations – about the AFL, about FIFA, about the IAAF, about Russia – and somewhere in the men’s draw here, it was now revealed, are eight players about whom tennis harbours documented doubts, and so there was a shadow across this day, even a pall. You couldn’t see it, and most ticketholders on their yearly pilgrimage wouldn’t have known it, and authorities didn’t admit to it, but it was there all right.

Tennis and the Open was still a good place, because you had to believe that most out there were in deadly earnest, but it was also a world-weary good place, because some at some stage might not have been for real, even in this tournament, a haunting thought.

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