Report from Melbourne: Grounds Pass

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—My first impression of the Australian Open, after so many years of seeing the tournament from the other side of a TV screen, wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Melbourne Park isn’t as colossal as Flushing Meadows, nor does it have the museum-piece appeal of Roland Garros and the All England Club. At first, the circular, grass-covered plaza where fans gather in front of Rod Laver Arena seemed surprisingly small. From the outside, the stadium itself looked like it had seen better days.

But I’ve come around in the years since. I began by appreciating what the Aussie Open is not. It’s not stuffy or corporate or overly tradition-minded. There are long lines and high prices, but there’s a populist appeal as well. Instead of logos or ivy-covered walls, what you see mostly as you walk the grounds are people—sunbathing, drinking beer, sitting and talking, watching matches on a big screen, dressed up in kangaroo suits and playing the clarinet. In Australia, you tend to hear people say the pros’ names with more knowledge in their voices than you do elsewhere. Not that they’re always happy about who they’re going to see. I overheard two flight attendants talking in the elevator at my hotel this morning. One had tennis tickets, but he shook his head sadly: “Almagro against Ferrer,” he said. (Hopefully he enjoyed their five-setter a little bit)

What you also see on the grounds, if you’re in the right spot, is the Melbourne skyline right above you. Unlike in Paris, London, and New York, tennis is in the heart of the city Down Under. 

Here are a few scenes, unstaged, from the first 10 days or so on the Aussie Open grounds.

*****

Aussies like fun. Contests are fun. So Aussies like contests? I’m not going to speak for all of them, but there do seem to be a fair number held around Melbourne Park. There’s a trivia contest each day in the press room, though it would almost certainly draw more participants if it didn’t come at the same time as the daily “5 o'clock Press Feed.” This event works much like it sounds: Free sandwiches and wine are put out each day at 5:00, and we line up, in a very long line, to scarf as many of them as will fit on a plate. When the Feed is announced over the loudspeaker in the press room, its feels like “fire” has been (discreetly) yelled in a theatre. Reporters, while trying to remain inconspicuous, begin walking with quiet determination toward the door.

The most promising contest I’ve seen among spectators was a “Dance like Jo-Wilfried” competition that was held one sunny morning in the plaza in front of Laver. Tsonga’s celebratory post-match point-and-spin moves were shown on a big screen, and volunteers were asked to step forward to imitate them. 

First, two young men dressed in matching retro tennis outfits—all whites, short shorts, headbands—took a few feeble, half-hearted turns. Next came an extreme version of what’s known as a “tennis tragic” Down Under, an aging female super fan dressed in a kilt and a plaid shirt, with a bright yellow tag on the back that read MURRAY. She launched into her Jo impersonation with gusto, spinning and throwing her arms up high. But she couldn't get her feet even an inch off the ground, which kind of hurt the effect. Jo’s dance is obviously not as easy as he makes it look.

Finally, a college-age kid was pushed onto the stage. He said, with a sickly rasp, that he was “a little hungover.” Then he took off in a series of wild, erratic hops and spins. He hopped and spun so far, in fact, that he tripped and fell backward off the stage, and nearly landed flat on his back. The crowd roared. He won first prize.

*****

“What’s this?”

“It’s the women’s doubles.”

“Ah. I see.”

I'm on Court 13, a sizable side court on the periphery of the grounds. It’s a good place to sit after you’ve finished writing something and want to be lullled by tennis balls being hit back and forth for a few minutes, without actually having to care or think about whats’s going on. 

It also seems to be a gathering place for people who don’t know a whole lot about the sport. Exhibit A are the two men behind me. I can't see them, but their back-and-forth snicker sounds not unlike Beavis and Butthead’s.

A rally on court ensues. 

“That’s a good double-fisted backhand, isn’t it?

“Better than yours, I’m sure.”

“I can double-fist, mate.”

“Cans of beer, eh?”

“Right.”

Snickering.

Three young women walk, a little tipsily, down from the top of the bleachers.

“Look, it’s the Marat Safin entourage.”

“Who?”

“Those girls who just walked past, over there.”

“No, who’s Marat Safin?”

“He’s the guy had all the girls.”

The two men peruse the scoreboard, where they see the names of the players and their nationalities.

“I wonder if that one’s the Russian.”

The Russian player cracks a forehand return past the opposing net player for a winner.

“Wow, what a shot.”

“From Russia with love, eh?”

They snicker. It’s time for me to go back in and start writing again.

*****

The U.S. and Aussie Opens have added sonic enhancements to their events over the years. A DJ in Ashe Stadium, harmless jazz bands on the grounds at Flushing Meadows, horrible quasi-techno in the shopping area in Melbourne Park.

Except for the occasional Roy Orbison tune in Ashe, it’s mostly not my style. So I couldn’t quite believe my ears the other afternoon when I heard, coming from somewhere in the distance, a nice, slow version of the country song “Jackson.” It was done most famously by Johnny Cash and his wife, June, but it’s campiest version is by the man who wrote it, Lee Hazlewood, with Nancy Sinatra of all people. (See it here.)

This half-speed rendition had an indie flavor, but the musicians remained invisible. I circled Laver Arena trying to find the source, but while the music got louder, I never caught a glimpse of who was playing it. Maybe it was a dream, a hopeful hallucination brought on by typing too much and watching too many balls hit back and forth.

*****

Speaking of balls going back and forth, there were, at least according to my Twitter timeline, far too many of them hit by Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils here late the other night. I began watching the match in Hisense Arena; it seemed like a good way to wind down after writing about the Federer-Tomic showdown from earlier that evening. The two Frenchmen rallied and rallied and rallied, and rallied some more. The paying customers in Hisense, most of whom stayed through all five sets, enjoyed the Gallic, if quixotic, exhibition.

I left the arena at the start of the fifth set, and found a very different reaction from those viewing the match in the press room. There were groans. There was laughter, which couild only be described as "derisive." There were cries of “Arrrrgggghhhh!!!!” Among the tennis Twitterati there were similar reactions, with requisite snark appended.

Simon and Monfils, content to rally themselves into the hospital, earned the condescension, and I threw my two cents of it in as well. But because I was merely a spectator for this one, rather than a writer, I switched my iPod on early in the fifth set. A random shuffle found Vampire Weekend—serendipitous choice. The band’s springy rhythms were the right accompaniment, and antidote, to the Frenchmen’s eye-glazing rallies. Set to music, their play went from tedious to mesmerizing.

I may be alone in this opinion among readers here, but I didn’t want the match to end.

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Top Ranked Players
More Rankings