Any mouth-foaming debate on the world's most sports-mad country might include India with its cricket bedlam, or Brazil with its long-spoiled insistence upon soccer not only victorious but pretty, or the United States with its civic reverence for franchises and universities.
Still, it pretty much has to end with a country so ludicrously far from everybody else.
Take the citizens of Australia, tally up the amount of sport they feel in their corpuscles and divide by their 22-plus million, and I contend you would find the highest quotient of sports passion. From their national center for sport in Canberra to their excellent Olympic medals-per-capita counts through the years to their annual cessation of work for a November horse race to so many other games and things, in no place does victory seem so craved.
So as I wipe the foam, let me mention the strangeness of two facts.
The first is that it makes no sense that the Australian Open, which begins right about now, is forever the fourth-most exalted of the four tennis Grand Slams. Any tennis major in Australia ought to pull up right up next to anybody else's, even if New York, Wimbledon and Paris happen in Western hype hubs.
The second comes in two names: Chris O'Neil and Mark Edmondson. There's a fair chance you've heard of the second and a low chance you've heard of the first.
As an Australian Open begins with Serena Williams primed to burnish a greatness that hardly needs any burnishing, and with Rafael Nadal's absence leaving a muscular crater in the men's draw, the fact remains, as it has remained for an inconceivably long time: No Australian man has won the Australian Open since Mark Edmondson in 1976, and no Australian woman has won the Australian Open since Chris O'Neil in 1978.
The men have reached five finals: John Marks in 1978, Kim Warwick in 1980, Pat Cash in 1987 and 1988, Lleyton Hewitt in 2005. The women have seen one, and none since Wendy Turnbull in 1980. This cannot be true in the world's stud-liest athletic country, except that it is (true). Their drought hardly makes them lonely -- no British Wimbledon winner since Virginia Wade in 1977, no French since Yannick Noah in 1983 -- but hardly makes them giddy in Australia.
So as I follow Australian Opens now, I make a point of following Australians. Yes, I follow Williams because this Open is her foremost Slam, yielding five of her 15 titles and possibly her most satisfying: the 2007 win as an unseeded, 81st-ranked player. I follow the men because from Nadal-Federer 2009 to Djokovic-Nadal 2012, they have had some powerful stuff that can keep you up nights -- or early mornings. But I'm compelled by the Australians because while the players routinely say they relish the public support, their results routinely say it might heap unmanageable pressure on them.
Hewitt's winning percentage is .796 at the U.S. Open (where he won the 2001 title), .750 at Wimbledon (where he won the 2002 title), .700 at the French Open and .652 at the Australian. Other than his 2005 final in which he lost to Marat Safin, which on any day could happen to anyone, he unbelievably has never surpassed an Australian fourth round. Samantha Stosur's record is .710 at the French (where she reached the 2010 final and 2011 semifinal), .680 at the U.S. (where she won the 2011 title in a smashing performance against Williams) and .583 at the Australian. Good thing she has that .375 mark (6-10) at Wimbledon, or the trend would be absolute. When she turned up last year as the winner of the most recent Grand Slam (2011 in New York), she promptly lost in first-round straight sets to Sorana Cirstea and said of the role of the expectations, "I don't know."
Now, the reasons for this dearth probably extend beyond the tabulation capacity of any non-Australian, but I do know one for sure: air-travel improvements. Until late in the 20th century, the trip to Australia took eons and really might have seemed almost interplanetary. You get a sense of untold duress, of interminable ocean, of overworked propellers. Much of the world did not show up. Jimmy Connors missed 20 Australian Opens during his career, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova missed 12 each, John McEnroe 10 and so on. All would have even more big hardware otherwise.
Between 1920 and 1976, Australians won 44 of the 52 Australian Open men's singles titles (with a five-year hiatus during World War II), and between 1922 and 1978, Australians won 38 women's singles titles, with 11 -- eleven! -- in a 14-year span going to a sole Australian citizen, Margaret Court. In 1976, when Edmondson beat John Newcombe to belie his ranking of No. 212 and become the lowest-ranked man to win a Grand Slam (a distinction he still retains), and in 1978, when O'Neil bested the American Betsy Nagelsen in the final, those titles were unexpected and routine at once.
Now the capable world floods to Melbourne every January, and the flags color the draws with their expanding variety (Uzbekistan! Serbia! Colombia!). The path has hardened and hardened, especially in a world that contains Williams (five titles), Roger Federer (four), Novak Djokovic (three) and Andy Murray (two final appearances and a recent U.S. Open title). That hardened path and that old pressure greet Stosur with her recent-months injuries and Bernard Tomic, the 20-year-old puzzle who just won the Sydney International. But the hardened path also means that someday, somehow, someone will break through, and a whole lot of boisterous someones will make it, at that moment, the best party on Earth.