John Alexander was fated to be the leading Australian male tennis player behind Newcombe. Later in their careers, Newcombe and Rosewall held off the brash and aggressive American Jimmy Connors, but Alexander in his prime could not. The 1970s saw the Europeans adopt Australian coaching techniques: Ilie Nastase from Romania, Bjorn Borg from Sweden, Guillermo Vilas from Argentina, Connors, and others all showed that there was nothing in our water, nor in Vegemite or Milo, nor in any other way essentially Australian about the skill and focus necessary to win big-time singles tennis tournaments. Alexander was a very good singles tennis player, but not a great one. He wasn't lucky, like Gosford's Mark Edmonson winning the 1976 Australian Open. He didn't have a heart-rending back-story and an oafish foil, like Jelena Dokic. The recent parallel would be Andy Roddick, the US male succeeding Sampras and Agassi and Courier, but fated to be creamed regularly by Nadal and Federer and Djokovic. John Alexander showed us the important lesson that sometimes guts and determination just aren't enough.
Alexander won the Australian Open twice as half of separate doubles pairings. He didn't bond with one other player to form a memorable killer team like like MacNamara/McNamee or Woodforde/Woodbridge, and he had a reputation for being short-tempered. Other tennis players had this reputation too - but in the 1950s and '60s the optics were all of Gentlemanly Behaviour and Good Sportsmanship. Winners are grinners, and the image of Laver or Newcombe grinning so often holding up trophies smoothed any jagged edges in their reputations. In their later years, Connors and Nastase freely admitted to having been pricks, assessments not contradicted by observers at the time. Not so Alexander: when Connors or Nastase threw their racquets around, intimidated ball boys, talked back to umpires, or snarled at interviewers, this Bad Sportsmanship somehow underlined their foreignness. When Alexander did the same, it confirmed him as a sore loser and UnAustralian and Surely There's Another Talented Young Australian We Can All Get Behind?
I was a kid in the 1970s. My Dad's family were all big on tennis, playing and watching. They made it clear to me, my brother, and my cousins, that we were not to carry on like John Alexander. Better to do your best and lose gracefully than to end up like that guy.
I've said before in this blog that I used to live in Bennelong, and that I observed a number of times how awkward he is with actual humans whom he has represented in parliament. He seems to be attentive only to people he knows well, or who are important, or both; seven years representing the community has not defrosted him. One thing the left always underestimated about Howard was his preparedness to engage with locals, to talk sincerely about vandalism in West Ryde or schools in Gladesville at the same time as he was dealing with Iraq or the economy. Alexander still can't fake genuine interest in the small stuff. Alexander is a tall man (I'm 183cm and he's a head taller than me), and often such people have to work hard not to appear aloof - but he always looks pained when approached by randoms, always on the lookout for someone else to talk to or somewhere else to be. He has mastered the ability to turn up to an event just before pictures are taken and leave immediately afterwards, with local papers happy to create the impression of warm engagement on his behalf.
Once he beat Maxine McKew in 2010 the massed dim lights of Australian political journalism went off him, and he seems to like it that way. He increased his margin out of that limelight, confirming his political instincts. In the past two elections he has faced an authentic product of Labor's left-leaning local branches, Lyndal Hewison, a local teacher and a nice person; at the last election she lost the primaries to Alexander 28-51. Yes, that's right: this remote man has increased the Liberal vote in Bennelong to the point where it doesn't go to preferences, back to where it was early in Howard's prime ministership despite the massive demographic changes in the area since. The swing against the Coalition that saw so many Liberals lose their seats last July saw Alexander hold steady.
I kept looking around Bennelong for an example of Alexander's legacy, and I think I found it. Behind Eastwood Library, there's a kids' playground and a public toilet and an oval that shows up in old maps as a lake. In that area is a green, wooden table-tennis table: Alexander had it placed there, a nod to Eastwood's Chinese community, who all seem far too busy to use it. It's also a nod to Alexander's tennis career but he's too busy to use it too. Like the local real estate market, it isn't a level playing field. Only the die-hards come forth with bats and a ball and a cloth to wipe the birdshit; they don't stay for long.
It's almost fitting that Labor have passed over Hewison for the byelection, or promising local mayor Jerome Laxale, in favour of Kristina Keneally. She's warm and engaging where Alexander is aloof and awkward. Like Alexander, she lives in another part of town, and in the 1970s and '80s spent quite a bit of time in the United States. Also like Alexander, she knows what it is to step up just as a winning streak is ending, and to cop the blame for that.
Her media experience counts for nothing. The total audience for Sky News is so small, and perishingly so in Bennelong, that she may as well have spent the past six years getting drunk. Her former co-host Ross Cameron is politically just as dead today as he was in 2004. The idea that she'll be a media darling like former press gallery journalist Maxine McKew - and that this will count for something - is bullshit.
Toward the end of his career, John Watkins was Deputy Premier and State MP for Ryde (the state electorate that takes up much of Bennelong). When Watkins retired in 2008 Ryde swung heavily to the Liberals. That byelection may have been the last time Keneally set foot in the electorate until the last day or so. That byelection was a precursor for the 2011 state election, and so too Federal Labor is hoping for a dramatic result that works against the incumbent government. Like it or not, Keneally is associated with a flailing and failed government, one that casts a shadow over a government that is yet to come.
What are the possibilities for this byelection, and what are the consequences more broadly?
- Alexander wins handsomely, like he has at the past two general elections. This (along with the likely re-election of Barnaby Joyce in New England) would confirm Turnbull and the government and they will blunder on. Surely the performance of the government will give rise to a protest vote.
- Keneally wins Bennelong. This is unlikely but it would panic the Liberals into wounding Turnbull and generally running around with their hair on fire while trying to convince Sharkie and McGowan that they really are a stable and responsible government.
- Keneally gets a swing toward Labor but doesn't win. This will be the kind of result that anyone can read anything into, producing the kind of inconclusive and fatuous jabber that is "political debate" and "insider commentary" in the Australian media. This is the most likely result.
It will be quite the blessing that the press gallery will mostly be on holidays, and that The Daily Telly won't lose one of its few presenters who doesn't just nod along with Paul Murray or Chris Kenny. The sheer witlessness of Australian political journalism will not be affected in any way by this byelection. The Australian media has in its archives all of that stuff about Alexander's sporting and political career, and Keneally's: and yet the sheer wasteland of drivel on this topic (no I won't link to it) stretches out before us once again, with no useful information and no respite.