Report from Melbourne: Fun to Play at the MCA

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MELBOURNE—Every tennis fan who has ever attended a tournament knows the sensation. You see the draw sheet and circle a match that you want to watch. You walk to the court at the time it’s scheduled to begin, and when you get stop in your tracks and groan. You forgot that there were going to be lines, long lines, lines at every gate, lines that twist and turn and disappear around corners and maybe even thread in and out of bathrooms. You groan again.

There was a lot of groaning at approximately 7:20 P.M. this evening in the vicinity of Margaret Court Arena. The much-anticipated match between Gael Monfils and Alexandr Dolgopolov had begun minutes earlier, which meant that everyone would have to wait for three games before they'd have a chance of seeing a point. Even that seemed unlikely, considering that there didn’t appear to be an empty seat inside the stadium. The crowd outside, which included a high percentage of the backwards-hatted and the beered up, had the ragged and reddish look of people who had spent a day squinting into the sun. They didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect of standing in line for the next half hour. 

As generally happens in these situations, the next game between Monfils and Dolgopolov was interminable. Each time the chair umpire called deuce, there was a collective muttering, as well as a few “Jesus Christ!”s hissed for good measure. Inside, the roars of the delighted audience made the arena sound like a paradise of incredible tennis, a paradise we could only imagine as we stared at the concrete wall in front of us.

With a story to do, I couldn’t wait any longer; I walked to the front of the line and showed the usher my credential. While I waited there, I had a view of one side of the court, where Dolgopolov was playing. In isolation, he made the sport into a dance. Leaping to his right on a return, he smoothly folded his arm into his side and reflexed a blistering serve back. He hopped high in the air as he split-stepped across the baseline. Dolgo, the most graceful of players, almost made more sense in this context, as an artist, a solo act on a stage, rather than as a competitor.

By the time I sat down in the media section, I had forgotten all about the grumbling unlucky ones outside. It did feel something like a paradise of tennis in here. Sitting in Margaret Court Arena as the sun sets and a quality match is building momentum can give you that feeling. It’s no accident that this court is the annual residence of those crowd-pleasing Frenchmen, Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. 

MCA is also the heart of Melbourne Park, a public space that feels lived-in and democratic. There are no luxury boxes or box seats that I've seen, no loge or mezz or corporate section, no ticket hierarchy of any kind. This will likely change when MCA receives a planned makeover and expansion, but for now, the people occupying the front row seats look and dress pretty much the same as those in the back row and every row in between. As for viewing, MCA is small enough to make the audience feel like one, unified group, yet big enough to make the crowd’s collective actions seem significant. Where else but here, in Oz, in MCA, would an audience do a slow-motion wave during one set, and then try it on fast-forward a little later? Both worked brilliantly.

Just as it made sense to watch Dolgo playing in isolation, it made sense to watch him play Monfils. Each has a well-earned knucklehead’s reputation, but against each other they could go through their ups and downs and ebbs and flows together—neither had to worry too much about having his moments of weakness exploited. Two years ago, I watched Monfils, on this court and at this time of day, lose a first set in a tiebreaker. I could have sworn he did it on purpose, so that he would have a chance to stretch the match into the evening and make a stirring comeback, which he eventually did. (Last year La Monf pushed this concept too far on MCA, in his five-set train wreck loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.) Here Monfils was again tonight, losing another first-set tiebreaker after being ahead. When he made a last-second comeback to win the second set, in yet another breaker, he spun around, pumped his fist, snarled, and yelled, “Allez!” toward the roaring crowd. It was all so perfect I could have sworn it was choreographed.

The scene last night was like summer gatherings everywhere, but it was more notable to me because this isn’t my summer. Here were a girl’s bright white canvas Keds, a guy’s scuffed white Tigers. Straw hats. Oreos (though Aussies don't seem to stuff their faces as much as Americans do at these types of things). Novelty tennis balls. A purse with colored beads on its handle, and a handbag that said "Rendezvous in Paris." Packs of 20-somethings, giggling. Couples taking pictures together with the Melbourne skyline behind them. A sunset that went from a painting to a charcoal, each one as striking as the other. Three young guys near me having an hysterical, uncontrollable laughing fit. The girls next to them rolling their eyes—but quietly laughing too, at whatever the rude joke was. A fan who yelling for Dolgopolov: “Come on, Doggy!” A man behind me sounding like a TV commentator: “Dolgopolov could really use a free point right here.”

The crowd on this carnival night was waiting for a corker, and it looked for a time like we might get it. But we didn’t. Not quite. The match, despite some terrific shotmaking, never caught fire again after the second-set breaker. Dolgopolov couldn’t put his dance moves together, while Monfils was in his theatrical element. He brought out his bag of shotmaking tricks, which never get stale. The jumping overhead that he actually jumps too high for. The stretch forehand where he nearly goes into a split yet still makes it look elegant. The backhand hit while kneeling on one knee. After one point, Monfils reached down to grab his lower leg, seemingly in pain. On the next point, he tracked down a drop shot, skidded on that same lower leg, and came up with a winning pass. I wondered: What would tennis have been like if Monfils had been a No. 1 player? What a phenomenon he would have been.

The crowd certainly appreciated both players. Duiring one rally, Dolgo and Monfils began trading bullet ground strokes. Monfils stood straight up and snapped his arm, while Dolgo flipped his body forward at the hip and tomahawked his racquet over his head—he's a player who doesn't like to make his strokes too repeatable. As the pace of the ball increased, the young dudes near me started grunting in amazement: “ you see that?...ho-ly...”

These tennis non-experts were doing something that you rarely hear among the cognescenti. They were appreciating the sport as it’s played today. They were doing speaking for, of all things, the baseline game. What they loved, and what I love about creative baseline tennis, is most of all the trajectory of the ball—seeing it stretch out in a line, bullet-like, as it crosses the net, can be as aesthetically pleasing, as beautiful, as the smoothest serve and volley. It’s good to be reminded that the game can still be loved just as it is.

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