The Rally: Melbourne vs. the TV Set
I’m not rubbing it in, but I’m pretty sure you wish you were Down Under again this year. I know you like to get away and stay on the move, and the Slams give you that chance. I’m a little more of a stay-at-home by nature, but every time I go somewhere new, I think, “Why don’t I do that for more often?” Then I get back home and think, “Thank god I don’t have to go anywhere for a while.”
Since we’ve both been to Melbourne now—or, sort of; I’ve been to about a block of Melbourne—let’s ask each other some questions about our impressions of the tournament.
What’s the best thing about being at the Australian Open?
First and most obviously for me is the weather. It hasn’t been hot or even all that sunny, but it also hasn’t been freezing and snowy the way it was in New York when I left, and the way it will be when I get back. I don’t know about you, but it makes a huge difference in my mood and mental outlook, and makes me think I really should do myself a favor and move somewhere where it’s warm and sunny all year.
Second, from a reporter’s perspective, every chance you have to go to a Slam is a chance to learn all kinds of little things about the players. You get to hear them talk, watch them interact with people, and see them play, and you get to pick up little details about them from other reporters. I have a whole new appreciation for the press-conference persona of Francesca Schiavone after seeing how she handled her defeat here. And from listening to a Robin Soderling presser, I picked up the random detail that he and his new coach are trying to improve his “feel around the net.” Something to store away.
I usually start my year at Indian Wells, which is easier to get to and just as warm, but the bigger draws at a Slam offer more chances to see up and comers. It’s been a good two weeks for them, and I’ve gotten looks at Raonic (for the first time), Dimitrov, Berankis, Jovanovski (also for the first time), and Dolgopolov, among others.
What’s one thing you’d change?
This can’t be changed, really, but I’m a little underwhelmed by Melbourne Park. I like the blue side courts and the way they’re laid out in a triangle, I like the inside of Laver Arena, I sort of like Hisense and the other smaller show courts, though they're fairly character-less. But the buildings have aged, and the merchandise tents remind me of one of the smaller Masters events. Of course, I’m someone who has been to the last 30 or so U.S. Opens, and I’m comparing it to that size and scale. I guess the more I go away from Flushing Meadows, the more I realize what it does well—and the more I realize what a whole lot of money can do.
Did all that sound a little spoiled and ungrateful? Yes, I suppose it did. It’s not that I don’t love being here, and I would recommend it as a vacation to any tennis fan, especially if you're from North America. On the plus side, it's certainly the least stuffy and aggravating of the majors, and the fans have fun with the idea of rooting. That must be the great Australian trait: They seem to feel that it's a duty not to take themselves seriously all the time.
What’s been the most memorable match or moment you’ve seen?
Berydch’s Aussie fans, the late-afternoon, jam-packed atmosphere on Margaret Court Arena as the Isner-Cilic match wound to its inevitable lengthy conclusion, the flash of genius we saw for the better part of a set from Bernard Tomic, the light feet and quick racquet of Alexandr Dolgopolov, Li Na's press conferences, David Ferrer's classy handling of his win over Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki hiking up her sweats to show us where a kangaroo had allegedly bitten her, Gilles Simon letting it rip for two sets against Roger Federer, and, I almost forgot, Hewitt vs. Nalbandian.
Let's hear how it's been as a fan watching from home, Kamakshi.
I’m supposed to reply to the same questions as you? Or should I just pull a Caro and answer whatever questions I think of? :)
What’s the best thing about being at the Australian Open?
Well, the best thing about being at the Australian Open is being at the Australian Open. The Australians have the best attitude to the tennis—they don’t worry about whether tennis is up or down or whether a result is good or bad, they just enjoy the unfolding drama and delight in a Baghdatis or a Monfils or a Kzuentsova-Schiavone instead of complaining about Henin’s exit or Serena absence or whatever. The only fretting is over the Aussies. I love the way the tennis takes over and the whole country becomes an extension of the tournament. I like having decent tea and a verbally-sharp paper in the hotel room in the morning, the legacy of the British connection. And that they can make a parking lot fun to walk through—the leafy park you cross on the way to the site (even if it isn’t the tree-lined boulevard you imagined).
But the best thing about not being there is that at least it’s on, and you can watch it. I think all tennis followers know the delicious feeling of being curled up late at night when it’s cold and snowy outside but sultry and cheerful and tennis-y on your TV screen.
I’ve been watching quite a bit and while I’m walking into walls and falling asleep on the steps during the day, it’s been fun. I can’t see Tennis Channel, but ESPN's coverage has been very good overall. When they first took over the Slams a few years ago, I was a bit worried about the jock-ish, stats & technique approach they seemed to be veering toward. They’d drive people away if it became one big, loud, instructional video. You can’t go typical SportsCenter with tennis—half the viewership is female, the demographics and psychographics are different from the average football or basketball game, and as they say, half the game is 90% mental. If you don’t bring in the context and atmosphere and personalities, you’re missing a good chunk of what’s really going on. Trust me, the reason Player X didn’t make that backhand at 30-30 is not because he didn’t bend his elbow enough. He didn’t bend his elbow enough because it was a big point and he was a little tight.
Well, that’s changed and now I’d be more worried about it going off in a reality show direction, but at the moment, the balance has been pretty good. They’re into what’s happening on the court, which is vital. Sometimes with networks like NBC, it’s almost like they’re apologetic about having to show actual tennis instead of John McEnroe talking about how much better things would be if he ran everything.
They’ve got a very solid base in Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill, so you’re in good hands with the Xs and Os (and elbow bends), complemented by the more seasoned, broad-based former pros like Patrick McEnroe—and Cliff Drysdale when he’s fully awake. It was funny when Cahill first came on the scene and wowed us all with his minute breakdowns of the players’ games and mid-match tactics. I don’t think any other coach gives up that much as a commentator. At first, some of the others would try to hang with him in this department, but they could never do it for very long. That’s pretty much stopped now, except for Chris Fowler who still likes to try to hang with the big guns. He’s learned a lot, but not as much as that. I used to quite enjoy it during the U.S. Open Series when the match descended into some arcane discussion about when to hit backhands down the line against 6’2” opponents with semi-Western grips and size 3 collars, but it’s not something you really want to do too much at a Slam, when you have a broader spectrum of people watching.
At the same time, they’ve done a good job bringng in the fun stuff, like who’s saying what and various facts and themes to add color. During the Kuznetsova-Schiavone match they flashed up some of the humorous things Kuznetsova had tweeted during the Isner-Mahut match, which was pretty inventive.
They’ve been showing these great montages of footage of players from behind the scenes—waiting to go on court, signing autographs, working in the gym. It’s familiar if you’re used to being backstage, but if you’re not, it’s a genuine glimpse of the landscape.
What’s one thing you’d change?
The set isn’t quite quite as overcrowded as it used to be, but they could still stand to lose a couple of people. Too many personalities crowding out the on-court action sometimes. And it’s not a good idea to have a tennis-unaware broadcaster amidst the rest of the crew because she sticks out like a sore thumb.
They do sometimes beat you over the head with stuff, especially if you’re regularly watching the coverage. I get it, Na Li’s jokes about being coached by her husband are pretty funny. And did you hear how Caroline took in the oh-so gullible media? She said she’d been bitten by a kangaroo in a park somewhere! In Australia!! Can you believe it? Who in their right mind would think that could be true? Oh my.
I can’t say Mary Carillo’s absence has been gaping. She’s very well-respected behind the scenes and has set some important standards for commentators in the past, but now her commentary often feels more like a performance than background. She makes you listen to her instead of letting you watch the match. But the politics of her departure sound fascinating, from what’s been written.
Speaking of conflicts of interest issues (and I guess I was above), I’ve gone through all this before realizing that I’ve got some connections to the worldwide leader myself, so perhaps it’s time for truly impartial viewers to have their say in the comments instead.
You—and Djokovic—have been lucky with the weather, from the sound of things. Temperatures of 40C and smoke from bushfires is what I became accustomed to. This is something you can only relate to after two straight weeks of eating on site, but I’d change the pasta in the media centre, especially by the end of the first week when the French have started making their own sauces with olive oil and parmesan cheese from the salad table.
What’s the most memorable match or moment you’ve seen?
The thing about the time zones is that it’s hard to truly absorb the night matches. Federer-Simon was overnight, Hewitt-Nalbandian was so late I had to leave for the day before it finished. Kuznetsova-Schiavone was the only blockbuster that was at a good time over here.
I have to say it was also fun to see Milos Raonic break out like he did. Thinking back to a couple of years ago, sitting crowded around the tiny TV in the Montreal press box and watching him choke match points against Fernando Gonzalez—it was there, that same potential, but now so much bigger and steadier and closer to being fulfilled. Greg Sharko, spot on, said then, “He reminds me of Mark Philippoussis.” How many times did we hear that again last week?
And then last year at the U.S. Open, after he qualified and lost in the first round. ‘I know why I lost that match, and it’ll never happen again.’
He got quite a bit of press in Canada, too. Trudging through the snow and glimpsing a tennis headline— the tournament felt a bit more real from here.