The Happy Slam

Less than a month ago, Rafa Nadal and his countrymen brought down the curtain on a momentous 2009 tennis season by cruising past the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup Final.

Fast forward just a few weeks and the 2010 tennis season is already about to heat up in a big way. After the shortest of off seasons, play on the tour has already begun and the first grand slam of the season is less than two weeks away.

Yep. That is correct. The Australian Open begins in less than two weeks. Can you believe it? Do you even care? Tennis is a sport that flies under the radar anyway, but more so for these these two weeks in late January. It's the only grand slam that has no exposure on network television (it is exclusively shown on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel). Globally, it's accepted as the least prestigious of the grand slam events. Despite all this, it's easily one of my favorite sporting events to follow on an annual basis.

Dubbed the Happy Slam by Roger Federer as a testament to the eternally relaxed and jovial atmosphere surrounding the event, there is something strangely hypnotic about the this slam down under. Maybe it's because watching tennis in Australia during January seems not like a world away, but an entire universe.

Think about it. If you're watching the Australian Open in most places inside the United States, Australia looks like some kind of oasis. While sitting in your dark man (or woman) cave during the middle of the night (Melbourne is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Time) with freezing temps outside, ESPN transports a signal to your television that conveys a completely different image, for Australia is a month into summer at this point in the year and the temp often climbs into triple digits over the course of the tournament. While you are bundled up in scarves, sweaters, and toboggans, ESPN correspondents are trying to shield themselves from the sun via some shade or sunscreen. The heat seems almost to radiate from the television while the projected sunlight momentarily whisks you away from your dark, isolated existence. With the cold spell we are enduring right now, the complete contradiction in weather and time is always alluring.

Then there is the tennis action itself. Given that players were spending their off season celebrating Christmas and New Years less than a month before, it's understandable that the players aren't in absolute top form at the beginning of the tournament. But that doesn't mean players don't eventually round into form by tournament's end. Last year's semi-final classic between Rafa Nadal and countryman Fernando Verdasco was probably the highest quality match played all year, including the Federer-Roddick epic from Wimbledon. The Federer-Safin semi-final from 2005 probably ranks second only to the 2008 Wimbledon Final as far as matches of the decade go. Late night drama usually abounds for these two weeks in Melbourne.

So let the countdown begin. On January 18 (actually January 17 as far as Americans are concerned with the time difference), one of the year's most surreal sporting events will get underway. Grab a blanket, set your alarm, and put on a pot of coffee. Another world awaits.

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