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Excalibur To Australian Open, An Ode To The Knights Of Tennis

Like the jousting events of the Middle Ages, modern-day tennis tournaments combine skill and courage with unparalleled excitement and drama.

Federer parries in Melbourne
Federer parries in Melbourne
Laurent Favre

MELBOURNE — New year, new perspective. As usual, the year in sports begins with the Australian Open, which isn't just a competition but a tournament. It is a gathering, in other words, of all the world's best players, who pair off until the designation, through successive elimination, of a champion.

Of the four main types of sports competitions — the others being: championship, race and contest — the tournament is perhaps the most codified, the most symbolic. It respects the three unities of classical theater (time, place, and action), and the way it unfolds orchestrates a slow but unstoppable crescendo to the final denouement.

The tournament is still anchored in the past in that it reproduces the code of chivalry established centuries ago during the jousting events of the Middle Ages. Tennis players are the modern-day knights. Babolat and Wilson have replaced Durandal, the sword of Roland, or Excalibur. The sponsor logos act as coats of arms and the bags are too big not to be seen as shields. It's the same white panache adorning Roger Federer's head, the same armor protecting "Iron Stan" Wawrinka, the same blue blood that makes Rafael Nadal fearless and without reproach.

There is a direct lineage. Tennis comes from the French jeu de paume, imported in England by the Duke of Orléans, after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The Duke dedicated himself to the game for 20 years. Centuries later, tennis still knows how to honor courtly love. Nowadays, as in times gone by, the fairest ladies swoon in the player boxes. Players fire aces the way they once shot arrows. Bjorn Borg, it's worth recalling, married a Marian and named his son Robin.

A tournament also needs two essential ingredients: a players bracket and a trophy. The path and the purpose. Both are exposed near the court. The question, of course, is which of the contestants will perform enough feats to advance through the first and lift up the second. Legend has it that the cup, like the Holy Grail, will elude he who casts his eyes on the bracket. "It's a myth! Everybody does it!" admits Severin Lüthi, Federer's coach. "We all look at it, we all know who our potential opponents are," Stan Wawrinka confirms with a smile.

Depiction of Jeu de paume in the 17th-century France — Wikipedia

The crowd picks their favorites. They rush to see Alexander Zverev, the young German player whose long blonde curls make him look like a squire. But his burgeoning reputation is still fragile. Here comes Rafael Nadal and his police escort, and all eyes turn towards the Spaniard. Here in Melbourne, there are some who walk about alone, others surrounded by their personal guard (trainers, masseurs, girlfriends, etc.) and finally those who can't set foot outside.

They all came to Melbourne to duke it out and try to improve, or at least maintain, their status. What other situation could bring together the world's 128 best athletes in their field? This profusion and confinement give athletes a unique feeling, something Federer knows all so well but was deprived of during his six-month absence. "That's what I missed the most," he said as the tournament began. "Not being there, not seeing all these faces I've been seeing for 20 years."

The context of a tournament also arouses curiosity and a certain mistrust. In the players' lounge, a sort of antechamber, and the locker room, a name that by itself suggests secrecy and mystery, players evaluate, weigh each other at a distance, looking for a detail, something to exploit. That is especially true for newcomers.

And the same happens with female players. Timea Bacsinszky felt how the regards of the others players changed. "It happens whenever a new player emerges or has a series of good results," she says. She didn't necessarily take it well. "It's not exactly like we're being better considered," the 27-year-old Swiss player adds. "We're being observed because the others think we must have a thing, something they might draw inspiration from. But it's silly. In a sport like tennis, everyone must find the answer within themselves."

But such is not the current trend, according to Serena Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. "People spy a lot on each other, copy one another," the Frenchman recently told La Tribune de Genève. Like all inward-looking systems, the tournament functions in a vacuum and contains within itself the seeds of its own drifts. But these usually wash off after a few rounds, when things get serious.

As in the days of old, the rules are brutal. Half the field loses every round. But that's, of course, what makes those who remain, the survivors, thrive. "I like this moment when the locker room gets emptier," Belgium's David Goffin admitted at last year's French Open. "The fewer players that are left, the stronger you feel."

In the end, there will of course be just one man left standing. That's always been the rule of a tournament, from time immemorial, and thus it shall be come Sunday.

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