Call them the Unwitting Australians. Even in Australia’s long and cringey history of trying to appropriate tennis players from ‘overseas’ for a fortnight, there have been few examples as tenuous as the attempts to present Alexandr Dolgopolov, a young Ukrainian, as someone who knows his thongs from his flip-flops.
A year on from the Australia Day stunt with a giant inflatable hand in the colours of the Australian flag, an ‘Aussie barbecue’ and ‘munching on a snag’, Dolgopolov’s prefix appears to have dropped into the Yarra – ‘Aussie Alex’ has reverted to Alex, a 23-year-old born in Kiev, whose greatest claim to being Australian is that he has a coach, Jack Reader, with an Australian passport. Let’s gloss over the fact that Reader was born in Britain. So why have the corks come off Dolgopolov? Something to do with the fact that on Friday he will play Bernard Tomic, the man-child from the Gold Coast with the “funky” game (that’s Andy Murray’s fine choice of adjective). The Australian tennis public, the biggest magpies in world sport, have appreciated that there is little point borrowing another country’s young talent when they have some of their own.
It tells you something about the nation’s psyche, you have to think, that Australia has this need to make a claim on international visitors in the draw (think ‘Aussie Kim’, because she was once engaged to Lleyton Hewitt, or ‘Aussie Ana,’ because of her relationship with the golfer Adam Scott). In Britain, if Andy Murray leaves the building, no one tries to give Federer, Nadal or Serena a Union Jack makeover. This is Australian tennis’s cultural cringe.
So Alex has been de-frocked on the Rod Laver Arena; perhaps, if he beats Tomic to stay in the tournament, he will go back to being an Aussie again.
Before his quarter-final last January against Murray, Dolgopolov was urged to take “a traditional Aussie just-have-a-crack approach”. Though Andy Roddick once described Dolgopolov as being “aggressive to the point of psychosis”, no one should imagine that he is going to be taking blind swings against Tomic. This third-round match promises some unconventional tennis. Some of the time, you can tire of people saying that modern tennis is a dumbed-down version of a sport that used to be filled with touch and nuance, that the young generation can’t do much but tee-off and smack the hell out of the ball. Tomic versus Dolgopolov should show that there are some creatives out there. Murray is one of the most unorthodox players on the scene, but even he looks like a bit of a ‘square’ when compared to these two. Tomic is six foot five inches tall, so has the physique to go for big winners all the time, yet he bamboozles opponents with that funky game of his, with his deceptive style with changes of pace. So unusual is Tomic’s game that Novak Djokovic, the great impersonator of the locker room, has not tried mimicking the Australian’s tennis.
Dolgopolov is arguably more of an on-court eccentric. As one observer put it on the ATP website, “his look and game could very well have been created by an Xbox engineer”. He will play fast, he will play soft and slow, he will be brilliant, he will be terrible. Each player will be disrupting the other; at times, they will be struggling for rhythm as much as Bernie’s cheer-squads in the stands. “Tomic has just a funky game, so different to everyone nowadays. It’s fun to watch,” Murray said. “There will be some junk in there, for sure.”
“We both play a bit funny,” Tomic has said, after three defeats in three matches. On their previous meetings, Dolgopolov has out-weirded Tomic. Only Dolgopolov can do that.