Tennis Goliaths Blink at Australian Open

Now that it's over, they are merely a footnote, but for a moment, they were championship-bound:

Alexander Waske of Germany and Jurgen Melzer of Austria were unknowns, a pickup doubles team given little chance to succeed in the 2005 Australian Open.

But for seven shining days here in Australia, they defied the laws of gravity in international tennis, upsetting the world's top doubles team in the first round and winning three more matches in short order.

Then they were gone.

Their story begins 10 days before the start of the tournament, when neither Waske nor Melzer had a partner.

On Jan. 7, Melzer called Waske to see if he would enter the competition as Melzer's partner, replacing his regular teammate, Alexander Peya, who was injured.

Waske, who won All-American tennis honors playing at San Diego State University (1997-00), quickly agreed. Once ranked 100th in the world in singles, Waske's ranking had plummeted after an injury and surgery, from which he attempted to return too quickly to the tour.

More recently, Waske's doubles career had gained some luster when he was chosen to play on the German Davis Cup team. Melzer ranked in the top 40 as a singles player.

Still, this Austro-German partnership seemed to have few chances against the world's best doubles specialists.

What happened next lowered hopes still further.

For their first-round opponents, Waske and Melzer drew Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Daniel Nestor of Canada, the world's No. 1 ranked team and the top seeds for the 2005 Australian Open. The fate of the pickup team seemed settled.

What happened next defied all expectations.

Waske and Melzer won. In straight sets. The Goliaths blinked.The score, 6-3, 7-6 (5), suggested that improbable things had happened. In fact, while the score showed a clear victory, it was nip and tuck all the way. But it happened.

Surprisingly, almost no one noticed. Most of the world's top tennis writers, gathered here to cover one of the world's four premier tournaments, didn't bother to attend the match, focused instead on the men's and women's singles competition.

Tom Tebbutt of the Globe and Mail of Toronto covered the match's waning moments and managed to provide an account for his readers in a delayed dispatch.

Two days later, the improbable pair won again, grinding down Mariano Hood and Martin Garcia of Argentina, 6-1, 7-5.

Since Argentines are clay court specialists, no one expected them to win. But two days later, Melzer and Waske scored another triumph, over Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei and Takao Suzuki of Japan, 7-5, 7-6 (3). The conventional wisdom was that the Asians were simply no match for their European conquerors.

Still, explanations were sought.

"It helps to communicate with someone in your native language," Melzer said, pointing to their common tongue, German. Both men agreed that in doubles, communication is vital between partners.

"The Germans and Austrians share the same culture," Waske explained.

"You mean forehands and backhands?" he was asked. Waske smiled.

What that didn't explain was the ability of the new team to march forward without the loss of a set. In their drive, Waske's serve was particularly potent.

Then, in the quarterfinals, they scored again, defeating Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and the veteran Andrei Pavel of Romania. The score was close, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (8), but when it was over, the miracle team stood on the threshold of the men's finals.

Standing in the way: Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe, another of the world's top teams. As 2001 U.S. Open doubles champs, the Africans were ranked fourth in the world. Yet, when Melzer and Waske took the stadium court at Rod Laver Arena, they looked confident.

"The first three points, I felt pretty good," said Waske. "We hit some tremendous returns. I thought, 'If we keep playing this way it's going to be really good.'"

But it didn't last. Black and Ullyett pounded service returns and ground strokes at the rookie partners, ultimately breaking Melzer's serve in the first set and closing it out, 6-3. In the second, they broke Waske's serve and squeezed out the set, 6-4.

It was over. Perhaps forever.

In a few days, Waske jumped on a plane to play in a Challenger tournament in Europe, and Melzer went his separate way.

"We don't know," said Melzer when asked if the two would team up in future tournaments. His commitment to play with his countryman, Peya, hangs in the balance.

Why had they played so well together that one week? No one had a good answer.

Had American college tennis been good preparation for Waske?

"For the tour yes," he said. "For doubles even more. John Nelson, my college coach, always put a lot of emphasis on doubles."

Melzer, who did not attend a university, agreed that doubles is not emphasized in Austria.

"In Europe, they don't play much doubles," Waske said. "If you look at the best doubles teams in world, there are not too many Europeans there. There are a lot of Americans."

And two Africans, Black and Ullyett.

In Melbourne, two Americans did reach the men's doubles final.But there, Mike and Bob Bryan, twins reared in Northern California and trained at Stanford University, won only one more game than Waske and Melzer. The final score, 6-4, 6-4, confirmed the dominance of Black and Ullyett.

It also showed how close Waske and Melzer had come. For their efforts, the Europeans collected $109,210 in prize money. And gained the realization that Cinderella's glass slipper had come awfully close to fitting.

Editor's Note: The writer, John Martin, attended San Diego State University and played on the tennis team.