When I last visited Melbourne, I made a crucial error with my trip planning. I flew back to Amsterdam the day before the Australian Open was to begin.
This time, I wasn’t going to make such a mistake. Paul wouldn’t let me. He’d never seen a Grand Slam before, so we pencilled ourselves in to get Ground Passes for Day 2 of the Australian Open.
All was dandy. Paul was excited, and I was a little bit too. I hadn’t been to the Australian Open since 2010 after going every year for about a decade. The sport had lost a bit of its luster for me and I was keen to try and find that spark again. I wanted to feel that love that I’d felt back in the days of Rafter, Sampras and Agassi.
Well, the spark came in a somewhat different form. Melbourne was to experience its longest 40+ degree heatwave, and we were set to experience it firsthand. Day 2 was to be 43 degrees. (That’s 110 Fahrenheit for all you Americans.)
Paul kind of freaked out. The pale Dutchman had not experienced 43 degrees, ever in his life. Not ever. And we were going to sit in the heat all day, cooking under the sun. I was worried for him.
But we had no other choice. The next day was going to be 40 as well, and then we were scheduled to fly out. We froze our water bottles overnight (Paul had never seen this practice before, either), picked out our breeziest-yet-not-potentially-bordering-on-inappropriate attire and stocked up on the sunscreen. This was going to be painful.
We woke up at 8am, and it was already 31 degrees. By the time we got to Flinders Street, we were up to 36. I was sunburnt before 10am, waiting with a few hundred other crazies for the gates to open. I was there early for a reason, though. There was one thing that I wanted, and one thing only. To miss out would make the day completely unbearable.
We needed a spot in the shade.
I sprinted in, and I don’t sprint anywhere. This was what was at stake. I knew of only a handful of shady spots available to Ground Pass holders; about half of Margaret Court Arena (which is in the process of getting a roof) and perhaps a couple of hundred seats in Show Courts 2 and 3 that are protected by flimsy tents similar to little backyard marquees.
I ran into MCA at about 10.10, and ninety per cent of the shaded seats were already taken. In ten minutes. These people knew what they were doing. I had to act fast. Paul, Amy and Ola were all still coming through the turnstiles; I’d run ahead, not needing a bag-check. Yet I was panicking. I’ve never learnt my north, south, east and wests, I have no idea of the direction the sun rises and sets and having spots that were shady for ten minutes versus ten hours hung on was was going to have to be my unscientific decision-making process.
I sat down in the shade. Immediately my chosen spots then looked attractive to others also not well-versed in the daily movements of the sun. ‘These seats are taken!’ I shrilled like Elaine Benes, silently willing the others to hurry. ‘They’re taken!’
It was 40 degrees by the time the first players took to the court – their identities are so unnecessary to this story that I won’t even bother you with them. Let’s just say that I wasn’t dazzled with any stirring victories or even mini comebacks. Everyone seemed to have the same idea – let’s just get this over and done with. Up in the stands, we agreed. Not being in the sun, we didn’t sizzle, but rather baked. The only thing I can compare it to would be a dry, unrelentless sauna. Imagine sitting in one for eight hours.
I amused myself by watching the crowd. We all bonded, as if our common idiocy to attend an outdoor sporting match on a 40-plus day was enough to make us friends. At each change of ends, I’d see dozens stand up and grab their behinds, embarrassed looks on their faces. Others would run to the relative cool of the corridors around Rod Laver Arena (perhaps only 30 degrees instead). However, this would necessitate running through the No Man’s Land in between the two courts and here would punish you with hot wind and harried faces of those lost souls who couldn’t find shady seats. People would return, warning those sitting nearby not to go out there, into the abyss. ‘It’s just terrible, horrible,’ they’d say with wide-eyed terror, dripping with water from the nearby drinking taps. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen grown people queue for drinking taps.
If I wasn’t watching the people, I was watching the shade. Or should I say, its movement. I grew obsessed with it. Again at every change of ends, the sunlight jumped a couple of seats up and across. A dozen or so people would be forced out – they’d try and hack it for a change of ends, but few could take much longer – and they’d try and scamper and claim the new shady seats that would appear on the opposite side of the court. Every so often, people would wander down to the sunny seats voluntarily, amazed at their apparent good fortune in finding so many spare seats in one of the main courts. They would hardly last a game.
After the first match, we were two bays away from the sun. Then we were one. When we were only four seats away, we took matters into our own hands and moved across the aisle. But that was too much for Amy. We lost her at about 1.30, and she was last seen stumbling out of the row, muttering something about the comfort of air-conditioning in the tram, her car, home, anywhere.
The three of us who remained soldiered on until about 5, when we lost Ola. She’d run a great race, however, and still had to negotiate the temperamental train system to Glen Waverley. We bid her farewell, and gave up our MCA seats. The sun was only inches away now, and the seating situation was almost completely the reverse of that morning.
As for Paul, he was a machine. He was the chippest of all of us, perhaps knowing that we were all there for him, really. I told him so at one point in the afternoon, when he asked me if I was having fun. ‘I’m here for you,’ I replied testily. Next to me, a Scottish woman piped up. (See what I mean about us all being friends?) ‘Me too, I’m only here for him,’ she quipped, pointing to her significant other in the next seat.
Oh no, I thought immediately. I’m that girl. That one I thought I’d never be, the one who goes to sporty things just for her boyfriend. ‘No, people of Margaret Court Arena!’ I wanted to yell. ‘I love sport, I really do!’
But not when it’s 43 degrees. At the hottest part of the day, when the office workers of Melbourne were heading home, Paul and I explored the grounds. I felt for him, I really did. I wanted him to see how fantastic the precinct was, how you can wander around and watch dozens of matches within a matter of minutes.
But by now we’d run out of our frozen water (yes, otherwise known as the ice that we’d drip-fed ourselves all day) and we were both feeling it. We hiked over to some of the outside courts (probably only a couple of hundred metres away, but in the heat it felt like crossing the Sahara Desert) before hanging around in front of a group of water-laced electric fans. We pretty much knocked over the little kids to get a good spot in front of them, but hey, who brings little kids to the tennis anyway?
We spent our last hour in Show Court 3, where a Dutchie was playing an Aussie. I wanted to see the match, I really did, but it’s never good when you’re cranky that the first set has gone into a tiebreak. My water bottle now contained a liquid that was just short of boiling, and I’d wet my face and hair so many times that when I caught sight of myself in a mirror, I realised I’d probably scared away the little kids from the fans rather than me pushing them aside.
Paul could have kept going, but it was time. A little after seven, we left Melbourne Park. We probably didn’t appreciate tennis that much more, but we certainly admired the crowds. ‘Well, that was fun,’ remarked Paul on the tram home. He paused. ‘But I probably wouldn’t go when it’s forty again.’