I made a slight mistake when booking my flight back to the Netherlands. I left on Sunday 15 January, the day before the Australian Open was to start.
I am a sports fan, so I like tennis. When the Australian Open would be on, I’d usually get a ground pass and hang around for the day. I’d watch most night matches on the telly. And when Wimbledon’s on, I’d stay up late half a dozen times to get some grass court action.
Tennis is one of those funny sports. I tend to live by the rule that you can tell a lot about a sport by the fans it attracts, and this rule fits tennis to a tee, so to say. Think about it. How many times have you heard people say, “I don’t like sports but I like tennis”?
Too many times, I say. But at the same time, I enjoy it. I played it a bit as a kid down at Laverton Park (badly), and I remember the night our coach brought in a speedometer to test how fast our serves were. Mine clocked an amazing thirty-five kilometres an hour. Any slower and it probably would have lost its trajectory and fallen down from the sky. Only then did I get an appreciation of Mark Philippoussis and Andy Roddick’s serves which hovered around the mid 200s.
Speaking of Mark Philippoussis, he does have a place in my heart for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was a local boy, coming from the adjoining seaside suburb of Williamstown. But more importantly, he played in the first match I ever saw live, back in 1995.
Now, this match has gone down in the record books as one of the great ones; one of the first epic night matches at Melbourne Park. Philippoussis was only nineteen and up against world number one and reigning champion Pete Sampras. Belting down thirty aces, ‘the Scud’ was never troubled and won in straight sets. And, at the tender age of ten, I was hooked.
The mid-nineties were a time where you could decide to go to the night session at the tennis that afternoon, and off you’d go into the city. Before long I would opt for the ground pass, usually sitting on Show Court 1 (now the controversially named Margaret Court Arena) until roving around later in the day. I would usually go on Day 8, where you’d get good fourth-round contests, yet smaller crowds than on the Sunday.
It all culminated back in 2002, when, as Amy and I were leaving, we were offered free tickets to Rod Laver Arena by some old ladies also departing for the day. Inside, we witnessed one of the best games in recent memory, a five-setter between the then youngsters Roger Federer and Tommy Haas.
Things have changed in the past five or so years. If you got a ground pass on Day 8 in 2012, you would have been delighted by match after match of doubles and the junior competition. Hisense Arena, once open for those with ground passes, is now fully ticketed and the word is that Margaret Court Arena is soon getting a roof and will be fully ticketed as well. I find the ads proudly confirming that the ground passes have stayed the same price again a bit hard to swallow; sure they’re the same price, but for a much more inferior product.
Of course, that’s the price you pay for having a Grand Slam in Melbourne, and staying there. We’re completely spoilt by having it year after year, and feeling as if it is a given to occur in our hometown. That wasn’t always the case, and was the reason why the tournament moved from Kooyong to Melbourne Park.
I don’t dislike tennis, not at all. I can probably trace, however, its slight decline in my heart over the years; its fall is mirrored by cricket’s advance as my summer sport of choice. This year I’ve watched it all a bit differently. I’ve viewed most night sessions on Eurosport 1, the main Dutch sports channel. Watching Lleyton Hewitt the other night against Novak Djokovic actually gave me goosebumps when he went on to win the third set. I may have even yelled a ‘come on’ to the TV screen.
But Eurosport 1 is free of patriotic hyperbole and, shock horror, they even let a woman commentate the men’s matches. However, when I’m tuning out a bit and multitasking, I miss the sense of excitement from the commentators that can help to drag you back.
But this time, due to the language barrier, I’m not dragged back, and I can look up ten minutes later and one player is a break up. I’ll be cranky that I didn’t realise, and watch for a few minutes before my attention is captured by something else. Which probably sums up my attitude to tennis these days. I can take it if it’s there, or leave it if it’s all a bit too hard.