Homes Away from Home

by: Steve Tignor | January 30, 2014

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WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA—“In January, you know you’re going to be in Melbourne. In the spring you know you’re going to be in Paris. In the fall you know you’re going to be in New York. It would feel strange if I wasn’t there.”

Those were the sentiments, if not the exact words, expressed by Monica Seles when she was asked late in her career what she still enjoyed about the game. Seles’ best days, sadly, were behind her, and it had been years since she had been a threat to win the Grand Slams she once dominated. It wasn’t so much a love for the game or competition, it seemed, that kept Seles going. It was the simpler and deeper fact that the tour was her home. Or, more precisely, it was a series of homes away from home.

Monica wasn’t the only one who has found it hard to locate the exit ramp off the pro-tennis road. For anyone in the press, a few days at a Grand Slam will have you shaking hands and sharing elevators with dozens of former players. Many of them are there to make a living, either as coaches or commentators, but you also get the feeling that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else—they wouldn’t know how to be anywhere else. On a few mornings in Melbourne this year, the first person I saw sitting in the lobby when I came down for breakfast at the nearby Hilton was Marion Bartoli. You might think she’d want to get away for a year or two, but this is the life she knows.

You don’t have to be a Wimbledon winner to feel like January means a trip to Australia. Everyone in the traveling tennis caravan follows the sun for most of the year, sampling summers in Australia, London, and New York (sometime around August in Cincinnati, admittedly, that sun can begin to go to your head). For the last decade, I’ve spent some of each year on this often-sweltering road, mostly at the majors. I understand its addictive quality, and how quickly a faraway place comes to feel like home. When you go somewhere once a year, every year, it can begin to feel like you're always there. The time at any event is temporary, but so is the time away. 

In Paris, I’ve felt at home in the mornings at Le Rostand, a café facing the Luxembourg Gardens. In the orange-ambient glow of the Degas room at the Musée D’Orsay. Making the long, dusty, overcrowded march from the Porte d’Auteil metro stop to the Roland Garros gates; the anticipation rises and the pace quickens as fans start to hear balls being struck and scores being announced on the other side of the wall to your left.

At Wimbledon, I’ve felt at home in the neat grid of low-lying suburban lanes in nearby Southfields, where cats, dogs, and foxes roam, and every house greets you with a distinctive glass pattern on its door window. It always surprises me how quickly you can go from not knowing anything about a city, and being vaguely anxious and unsettled about that, to feeling like you know it like the back of your hand. The shift can take as little as a few hours and a trip or two around a neighborhood. By the next day, you might be imagining that you could move there.

All of that is true of Melbourne for me, though in reality my version of the city is a very limited one. For the first 10 days or so of the Aussie Open, when the tournament is going strong from 11:00 A.M. to midnight, Melbourne for me consists mostly of the 10-minute walk from the thick, brick pseudo-Brutalist slab known as the Hilton on the Park down to the Melbourne Park tennis center—the highlights, as I've written here before, are the Melbourne Cricket Grounds' statues of famous Aussie batsmen and bowlers in full flight. The Aussie Open has always been a time-consuming Slam for writers; this year I regularly finished my last post at 3:00 A.M. 

But when the tournament isn’t going strong, there’s time to extend that small radius a little bit, to take a turn around a corner where I’ve never been, or walk an extra block or two into a new neighborhood—that’s often enough to change my perspective on a city. This year, though, I didn't have to leave my hotel room to gain a new perspective. I was sick at the start of the tournament, and spent the entire Sunday before it began in bed, watching Australia and England play cricket on TV, in a match that was taking place a couple hundred meters from me at the MCG. With nothing to but lie there and watch, I found myself finally able to concentrate long enough to get a grasp of how cricket works. Essentially, what I realized was that the two players running back and forth were accounting for the runs accumulating on the scoreboard. This may sound a tad rudimentary, but it was the breakthrough I'd been waiting for; after that, everything else about the game fell into place. I certainly don't know all the rules now, but throughout the trip in Australia, I've watched cricket, and the nation's matches against England, with a new enjoyment.

Once I got out of bed, I made a few new inroads into Melbourne itself as well. I’ve always loved the calming, regally landscaped Fitzroy Gardens (pictured above), its 19th century rotundas and pavilions, and the flat white coffees at its central café. This year I pushed into the blocks around the Gardens, into the eclectic architectural mix of East Melbourne, where Victorian terraced houses give way to compact Art Deco apartment buildings. This is the first year I noticed how eclectic the buildings are in Melbourne in general. From Victorian to Deco to monumentally modern to playfully post-modern, the majority of the structures in the downtown area feel like they’ve been designed with a definite style in mind, to make a statement. The city doesn’t seem to have bulldozed its history, the way New York once did, or littered it with commercial throwaways.

My favorite of Melbourne’s buildings is its art museum, the National Gallery of Victoria. Built in 1968, it’s a titanic, block-long gray stone box with a glass front of falling water and a stained-glass ceiling in back. It feels like Melbourne’s anchor, and to me is worth revisiting each January to see Courbet’s The Wave and Hockney’s endlessly strange The Second Marriage alone. This year the museum also featured an Edward Steichen exhibit with this photo of American tennis great Helen Wills.

I pushed past Fitzroy Gardens and into Melbourne’s other parks, which ring one side of the city in green. I made my first trip to the Botanic Gardens, and had my first black swan sighting. In another park, I stumbled onto a classic car show, or a “Hot Rod Show,” as it was billed there. It’s good to know Aussies in tattoos will come out to bow before a ’68 Camaro to a blaring soundtrack of Guns ‘N’ Roses just like we Americans will. There were some beauties at this show, including a fire-red Belvedere with fins, a ’59 powder-blue Bel Air bomb, and a pure black ’56 Thunderbird. Or at least the owner thought it was a ’62; when I walked past, he was in a heated argument with a visitor to the show who insisted that the interior was from ’63. All in all, it was a day for an American to be proud—though maybe the scene felt a little too close to home.

On another afternoon, I visited the park that houses the country’s Shrine of Remembrance, an impressive monument to its fallen veterans—though I had mixed feelings about the militarism on display in the city in general, which included an air show on Australia Day that briefly made think the city was under attack. On the way back to the tennis center from the Shrine, with an hour or so before any play began, I stopped in another park, the Kings Domain, to get some much-delayed reading in. I sat at a bench where I could see a small gazebo up the hill, and trees all around it bending in the breeze. A couple laid on the grass off to my left, a woman sat reading in the grass 50 meters in front of me, and to the right were two men punting a football back and forth, Aussie-rules style, with perfect accuracy from a long distance—they were as accurate kicking it as we Americans are throwing it. 

I sat and read for an hour, and in that time there were no sounds except the breeze in the branches and the thump of the football. By the time I got up to leave the woman and the couple and the punters were all gone, and new small groups of people dotted the lawn. It felt like the true movement of humans through time—there and gone on a summer afternoon, leaving no trace on the lawns and trees that had been there for a century and would be there for centuries more. I walked back to the tennis courts and left the park as well, not to return in 2014. It felt like a new home.

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