The search for the extraordinary

At the Australian Open, the matches to watch are pencilled in not on reputation but appeal, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH

AUSTRALIA is prepared for the invasion. Re-laid courts sun themselves in anticipation like blank canvasses awaiting an artist's imagination. Safin, if he comes, will bring colour, Hewitt precise lines, Federer angles. Then statisticians will grimly reduce all this art to numbers.

Towels sit fluffed and clean in the locker room, soon to be damp with tears. Balls rest inside pressurised cans, like fresh bullets yet to be fired (don't you wonder, after those nine games, where do old balls go?). Linespersons practise keeping their faces immobile. Ointment sits on a shelf awaiting a swollen ankle. Translators will be on call. How do you say testosterone in Spanish? Some Argentine will be asked for sure.

Everything has been calculated, even the number of potatoes. Silence hangs over the courts waiting to be pierced. Then it is.

Sneakers squeak, irritation is muttered in multiple languages, strings are checked, re-checked, rejected, bandages unroll with a whisper, bottles open with a hiss, instructions are repeated, nervousness echoes. Battle is joined.

They come, in a trickle first, then a flood, and even here, in so-called egalitarian Australia, a class system prevails. Everyone is welcome, but if Federer asks for the moon it must be lassoed and brought to him. Some arrive squashed in the anonymity of economy, others rested in monogrammed private jets. Some arrive still attached by a coaching umbilical chord to their mothers; some come alone and have no one to look to while on court except the surface that burns their feet. It is a desperately lonely sport.

Players spit under the sun and swear under the stars, frantically cajoling greatness out of themselves. Some come to win, some just to earn enough prize money to get to the next stop. Everyone is on a mission, everyone plays their own personal finals. Some will quickly find their games and ease into a rhythm swiftly. Some will say, my best game is a week away like Mark Philippoussis. Some years those weeks never come.

Eavesdropping over injury will not be uncommon. Whose shoulder hurts, knee aches, stomach rebels, but hopefully not mine. Draws will be perused by all and someone will find his name against Federer. Everybody would like to play him and nobody. Clay-courters early in the season on hardcourt are not a bad pairing. Agassi is not coming and somewhere a lower-ranked player is grinning as he sneaks into the draw as a replacement. Every man's misfortune is another's opportunity.

Maybe we'll never see Agassi and his pigeon-toed precision again here. But at least we have Hingis, who owns an interrogator's forbidding grin. She does not so much play opponents as cross-examine them. Or at least she used to. Roddick is a rude fellow and prefers to use his serve to end all efforts at conversation. The Spaniards are garrulous chaps and their rackets can talk forever. Of the Williams sisters it will be wondered if they have forgotten the language of tennis.

Everyone has favourites, me, too. Taylor Dent must be watched, just for the simple, fluid act of propelling himself forward as his serve is completed, an adventurer in a tournament of players who prefer safety nets. Nadal's topspin, should he arrive, requires closer examination, Sharapova's shriek must be heard, Tomas Berdych is catching the imagination, James Blake carries himself with certain dignity, Sania has an appealing growl to her game. Matches to watch are pencilled in not on reputation but appeal.

Eventually only for one man do locker rooms empty and journalists scramble out of their air-conditioned bunker in the bowels of the stadium. Everyone fancies this Federer. No one can explain him. His tennis is met less with applause and more with exclamation. Did you see that? How does he do that? Ohmigod! Unbloodybelievable!!! The Swiss smiles the sly smile of a magician who knows something we don't. He is from this planet yet out of this world.

Drugs will be talked about, and fashion, and HawkEye, but in all the million words asked and replied rarely is an innermost fear or insecurity revealed. Few players go naked in the interview room and only in their head-down, wounded monosyllables will we see a flash of pain. Sport is not life or death but for a while it seems that way, and it takes courage for a failing athlete to present himself for public scrutiny and then be generous to his opponent. When we were 20 did we own such poise?

This January, this Open, this moment, is what players play for, wait for. This is their calling. Some on arrival will ask to see centre court and make their silent way through the runnels into this arena they are not yet worthy of. They will envision a full crowd, imagine the applause, and even here, without an opponent, sometimes they will get the shakes.

History will remember tournaments won, rankings reached, but the slams are the true arbiter of greatness. It is the separation of the good from the champions. It is a summoning up of nerve, a beckoning of courage, an appeal for character. No excuse suffices. Here, only the best man and woman wins.

Sometimes you wish you could creep into an athlete's mind during a final, burrow through his body, what might we find. Adrenaline releasing like some natural tonic, the heart quivering in apprehension, anger and fear swimming together in the stomach, doubt promising to arrive like an uninvited guest, instinct released then held back, and through all, this chaos of emotion and idea, the champion finds an unnatural, impossible calm. There will be no ordinary players at the Australian Open. But one will be extraordinary.