One of the biggest perks of being in Melbourne is that you have access to innumerable sporting events, prestigious, historic and fun. The city is called the sporting capital of the world for good reason. With no need for introduction or explanation, the Australian Open tennis tournament is one of the biggest such events. Even though I did it on a limited budget (read student life), going to ‘The Tennis ’ was a dream come true as a sporting fan. The joy of hearing the thwack when the ball hits the sweet spot of the racquet, the roar of the fans, the electricity in the atmosphere, are magnified manifold when you are just a few feet away from the action.
From a distance, the Australian Open is a major sporting event with a total prize money of 55 million AUD. 743, 667 people are said to have passed through the gates this year. When I put in my contribution to that number on Day 5 of the event, I could appreciate that it was more than ‘the first Grand Slam of the year’. This was a celebration of tennis, of Australia’s sporting culture (forgive the clichés). It acts as the extended festive period after the Christmas-New Year celebrations, with schools conveniently shut for the summer.
At least a month before the event begins, Melbourne begins its preparations. Posters of Federer and Serena begin cropping up on billboards, Agassi can be seen endorsing the official coffee, and Rolex is everywhere. There are extra trams running to the tennis, which are of course free if you have a ticket. During the tennis fortnight itself, all roads lead to the Melbourne Olympic Park. Restaurants, pubs and cafés are at their creative best, with screenings lined up everyday. The city is seemingly driven by ‘AO’, with every other person sporting related merchandise.
The tram I got onto on the day was buzzing, with people of all ages excited, like young kids. The kids themselves, if you happened to overhear them, were walking encyclopedias of tennis. Stats and opinions were flying around, new service motions compared, not to mention sleeves and kit colours. The air smelt of sunscreen and sandwiches.
You couldn’t help feeling you were going on a family picnic to the beach. Half an hour before gates opened, at one of the longest queues I’ve seen, camping chairs, prams and picnic baskets were a common sight. Temperatures were touching 40 degrees Celsius, certainly not ideal for fun and frolic. Yet, I could see elderly people, who might have watched Rod Laver play, to babies who couldn’t walk, but with faces painted, braving the sun. My friend and I ran into a lady from San Francisco, who said she had planned her vacation according to the tournament schedule. And she did provide us useful tips on making the most of our day, drawing on the experience from the four days she’d already been inside. She planned on going every day.
Throughout the day, we ran into these devotees. Some with their beers (Not us. Students, remember?), some with their meat-pies, others beating the heat with their ice-creams. Yet, none of them were here out of boredom. They were here to watch tennis of the highest quality, and catch a glimpse of their heroes. They were here to watch Sam Groth play his farewell tournament and cheer him the loudest. To will Argentine Diego Schwartzmann into the Round of 16, with their feverish ‘Ole, Ole, Diego’ chants.
And to watch some of the biggest superstars of the game practice before their matches. To be entertained by the Djoker and Agassi playing left-handed. To watch Rafa showcase his footballing skills by returning stray autograph balls. The Bryan Brothers were cheered as much as Marin Cilic in the Hisense Arena. Australian Open spectators understood quality and spirit. They meant serious business, prepared to wait for hours together for eventual champions Federer and Wozniacki.
The Fan shop, a star attraction itself, had unending queues. And not only because the air-conditioning was effective. It had everything, from autograph books and Yo-Yos, to salt & pepper shakers and can coolers. My personal favourite were Bandana Bibs, proclaiming – ‘Future Tennis Star’. You could really catch them young with stuff like that.
My first-time also exposed me to mini-narratives, often missed out and ignored. Like Duckhee Lee’s story of determination and bravery, Kyle Edmund scripting his own British story. Or another side of ‘bad boy’ Nick Kyrgios, who decided to make a young fan’s day by playing a few points with him. There is only so much the television can show us. Which is why we usually fail to appreciate how much work goes behind the scenes. The security, the drivers, the volunteers, the hospitality staff, working in the searing heat to keep the fans happy. And the ball kids. Especially the ball kids. Only up close do you realise the amount of work they do, the distances they cover, and how focused they need to be to give us uninterrupted world-class tennis.
Almost in deference to the efforts of so many people, the fans were incredibly well-behaved. No shoving, no jeering, and certainly no disruptions during the matches. Water and sunscreen was passed happily around among autograph-competitors. An old couple almost moved me to tears when they let me use the misting fan before them. Every single person seemed so knowledgeable, I felt ashamed to be calling myself a tennis fan. And proud when a gentleman remarked that Leander Paes’ was a legend in his own right.
Amongst all this, it was hard to miss the advertisements and creative branding that the sponsors came up with. One of it was Mastercard’s, calling the Australian Open – The Happy Slam. After ending the day lounging in the grass with scores of other enthusiasts watching Kyrgios get past Tsonga, I couldn’t help but agree.