Summer Interlude

by: Steve Tignor | January 13, 2013

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MELBOURNE—In the waning, dimming days of 2012, a few tennis players took to Twitter to let us know that they were about to begin a “journey.” The message was often accompanied by a photo of them at an airport, killing time by themselves or with their team. Even for these travel-hardened warriors of the sky, this was a trip worth noting. It was one that would take place in both time and space, one that would begin either in the U.S. or Europe and end in Australia, in a different hemisphere, on a different side of the equator, and in a new year. The rest of the world's tennis vagabonds would soon follow in their wake. 
I think of the beginning of the new season, and the Australian Open in particular, as a journey from darkness to light. This is true wherever you happen to be. If you’re a fan on the East Coast of the United States, beginning tonight you’ll get a fresh blast of summer sunlight, filtered through the blue courts at Melbourne Park and injected into your dark living room. With a large enough TV, it might even make you feel warmer for the next two weeks. The Aussie Open isn’t the most prestigious of the majors, but in certain parts of the world it might be the most welcome.
For me, this journey also begins at night, in the cold, in New York, at a time when the holidays have past and the general color scheme in the Northeast might best be described as oatmeal-esque. It gets darker from there, during the 22 hours and three flights required to circle the globe. At a certain point during those hours, after so much time in the artificial, claustrophobic environment of the plane’s cabin, I start to feel like I’ve left the earth altogether.
The feeling continues when I land in Australia, which at first does feel something like a different planet. Each time I’ve arrived it’s been blindingly bright and startingly warm, with wide skies and slow moving clouds, a landscape seemingly without horizon. All of that light—it’s like a bubble that encases you—can leave you dizzy.
That sense was heightened this time when I had to hustle to catch a connecting flight from Sydney to Melbourne. We had been delayed getting out of Los Angeles, and still had to make it through customs, immigration, security, and over to another terminal. It was already too late to check my bags; they would, hopefully, go on the next flight. I ran from the security station, with sneakers still untied, to a bus that tore across the airport toward our gate. This careening trip was made with a college kid from Montreal who had sat next to me on the plane. He was going to study in Brisbane for a semester, once he had spent a month roughing it around New Zealand. It felt like a good place and time for an adventure.
The equivalent for me of seeing the Australian sun in my TV screen at home is seeing it from the window of a plane during the last leg of this adventure, the 55-minute flight into Melbourne. This is the highlight of the journey, the moment when it begins to seem worthwhile.
It’s mostly Aussies on this quick inner-country jaunt. One time a flight attendant asked me, “Is that an American accent?” (Which is a little surprising, considering that the TV show that was playing behind him was "The Big Bang Theory"). This is where I feel parachuted into summer. Shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops are in full bloom—there’s also a lot of blotchy skin in this land of little ozone, but we won’t worry about that for the moment. The flight staff is cheerful and tan, the passengers mellow as they spread out in the mostly empty cabin. Out the window the cliffs around Sydney give way to a long stretch of dry land and hazy seacoast. The ocean, an improbably deep blue, looks alive. The clouds break into wisps and float near the plane, seemingly in slow motion.
Everything is anticipation. For some it might be for the beach, a vacation, or just a return home. For me, it’s the thought of a new season. It begins soon after I get to my hotel and begin walking toward Melbourne Park. It begins with those blue courts, and the sound of the first walloped tennis ball that echoes up from them. Here it is, ready to begin, another of our summers, one of the handful we're given. Cold or hot, live or on TV, the tennis journey begins again.
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