Michael Pavitt

January is comfortably one of the worst months of the year in Britain. The days are short, the weather is cold and the festivities of December are in the past. The only positive is waking up to entertaining sport elsewhere in the world.

Just as the BBC schedule their Caribbean-based detective series Death in Paradise to warm your cockles during the cold snap, the Australian Open comes along providing warmth and sunshine.

Well, normally.

Whereas Brits can normally wake up to a list of results, we have benefited from a decision to rearrange the event as a night-based tournament. At least that is what it has felt like at times.

Our last singles hope Johanna Konta suggested that finishing her match against Garbiñe Muguruza beyond 3am in Melbourne "wasn't ideal for anyone". Muguruza, despite winning the tie, offered a similar opinion.

"I can't believe there are still people watching at 3.15," she said. "Who cares?"

The scheduling certainly seems questionable. A series of matches appear to have concluded with the time heading towards or beyond midnight in Australia and there has been a mixed opinion from players as to whether this should be the case.

Having benefited from being able to watch the late matches, I am perhaps more sympathetic towards organisers. You cannot help but think that the tournament has reaped the rewards from increased European attention due to the favourable hours, while I also distinctly remember players complaining about the scheduling last year when temperatures were soaring.

Spectators at the Australian Open have been forced to stay late for matches ©Getty Images
Spectators at the Australian Open have been forced to stay late for matches ©Getty Images

The first Grand Slam of the year has continued a running theme with tennis in recent years. Fans are still hoping to feast lustfully on the final years of the “Big Four” in the men’s game, yet equally hoping the “NextGen” begin to fulfil their promise and ensure the sport’s future remains in safe hands.

Andy Murray’s pre-tournament announcement that the Australian Open could be his last brought the latter into greater focus. The three-time Grand Slam winner’s declaration highlighted how abruptly this golden era of men’s tennis could come to an end.

The Briton appeared destined to make the most of the twilight of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s careers a couple of years ago, having stormed to the top of the world rankings. Instead, it seemed baffling to see the duo paying tribute to Murray in a video after his exit at the first-round stage.

To add to the confusion, Murray then added he might yet return should a potentially more severe surgery cure a long-standing hip complaint.

Federer’s four-set exit to Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas today has been mourned as the latest sign of the Big Four’s decline, while leading to the what feels like the 100th statement that the new generation have finally announced their arrival.

I had previously declared Federer’s time at the top to be finished after the Swiss great’s loss to Ernest Gulbis at the 2014 French Open. Five years and three Grand Slam titles later, I am reluctant to make a similar comment.

While the men’s game continues to be on the precipice between the Big Four’s reign ending and the NextGen’s starting, the women’s side also seems as unpredictable as ever. Barring Serena Williams relentlessly continuing to win matches.

Romania’s Simona Halep has largely proved the most consistent player in recent years, beside Williams. Given that she seems likeliest to fill the American’s void when she departs the scene, their match tomorrow is an enticing prospect.

As the Australian Open provides an annual fillip in the winter months, the quadrennial Asian Cup has also provided some additional intrigue.

Roger Federer's defeat has been viewed, again, as another show of the decline of the big four players in the men's game ©Getty Images
Roger Federer's defeat has been viewed, again, as another show of the decline of the big four players in the men's game ©Getty Images

A good deal of that has come off the pitch, with the tournament in the United Arab Emirates taking place in tense political climate.

There has been the ongoing feud in the region with Qatar, following Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being among the nations to cut ties with the gulf state in 2017. A blockade of Qatar, hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, also saw trade and travel bans introduced.

Some fascinating reporting from the New York Times on a subsequent group match between Qatar and Saudi Arabia highlighted this further as the newspaper pointed out how the former had just three fans present. One was a South Korean woman, while the other two were unidentified.

The tournament has also taken place amid a troubling case in which a Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee footballer, remains detained in Thailand. Al-Araibi, who has permanent residency in Australia, was arrested due to an Interpol red notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

The red notice was later lifted but Al-Araibi, a former Bahraini national team player, remains in custody. This has led to calls for the Asian Football Confederation to intervene.

You can also add into the mix that several nations participating at the tournament are currently blighted by conflict.

The Asian Cup is taking place amid a tense political environment ©Getty Images
The Asian Cup is taking place amid a tense political environment ©Getty Images

The highlights of the tournament have proved equally as interesting. 

There is the bizarre sight of grand stadiums and small attendances. You wonder whether this could be a precursor to the World Cup in 2022 or at least its aftermath when massive venues could remain unused.

A series of high profile coaches have led nations at the tournament. Former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson presided over the Philippines campaign, while Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcelo Lippi has guided China to the quarter-finals. You have to wonder whether these appointments are an attempt to raise standards in the nations or merely statement signings which will not have an impact.

The quality is certainly mixed, partly aided by the tournament’s expansion. There have been some outstanding goals – see Turkmenistan’s opener against Japan and three of India’s strikes against Thailand – some questionable goalkeeping and controversial penalty awards from referees. As a casual, neutral observer, it has made the tournament an interesting one to pay attention to from afar.

The arrival of the genuine star player from the continent in Son Heung-min – which I say frustratingly as a Tottenham fan deprived of his talent for a few weeks – does enhance to the tournament as it hurtles into the latter stages.