May cash never dull tennis characters like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams

Caroline Frost
January 14, 2010

WHEN Roger Federer - who else? - bends towards the blue surface of the Rod Laver Arena and prepares to serve for the championship, the silence is such you can hear a ball drop on a faraway practice court.

As he and Rafael Nadal face off for one of their era-defining duels, it seems as though the future of tennis, if not sport in general, rests only in the hands of these two titans.

Graceful and powerful as they are, they are mere swans gliding along the Yarra, hiding the wealth of men and mechanics beavering away under the surface.

Like all good support systems, the logistics of the Australian Open operation should remain invisible to the spectator's eye. Nevertheless the statistics are mind-boggling.

More than 4000 tennis balls will be bounced in the next fortnight and 316 ballkids will be responsible for them - can you imagine devising that roster in this weather?

Last year, players kept cool with a staggering 36,000 bottles of water, and sent their racquets to one of 25 professional stringers on site - the logistics are endless.

The tournament is run to such strict military order that there's no room for lapses such as forgotten sports bags or hotel bookings. This means there's no excuse for tantrums by players, who are generally too busy anyway these days, checking they're doing their shoe-laces up in the right order, and waking up in a north-south alignment.

They may be consummate professionals, but they can still provide a thrill.

One Australian Open regular described standing at the counter one day where all players must personally attend to book their practice courts. She admitted to feeling the air change around her, and looked up to find herself next to a rippling Nadal. But he was as polite as ever, and charming to everyone, as is the modern way.

We're just not used to seeing the antics any more, the likes of John McEnroe's tantrums, the on-court clowning of Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah using tennis racquets like cricket bats - for comedians they made great tennis players - or the nightclub-straight-to-centre-court dashes of Vitas Gerulaitis and his hard-hitting pals.

Which is why it's so surprising, and secretly thrilling, when one of the star players still forgets her sponsorships, her prize-money, everything but winning, as Serena Williams did at the US Open Final last year - somewhat ungraciously, yes, and to the tune of a record fine and a suspended three-year ban from the game.

But, in the midst of all the gleaming corporate machinery and smooth operation that underpin such a massive tournament, it's kind of reassuring to be reminded that, at the centre of it, stand some truly single-minded people, whose personalities have not been stifled by the massive dollar sign hanging over the net.

In this post-religious age, we need new icons to worship, and sport still offers this rare prospect. It means we need our favourites to stand, facing their opponents, their inner demons, the elements, with character good and bad shining through. And most definitely alone, however many people are tightening their strings.