Australian Open 2017: Lifetime trip for some, ritual for few, how Australians celebrate 'the tennis'

The tennis. In Australia, it’s not just tennis. “Are you going to the tennis?”, I was asked by nearly everyone I spoke to in Melbourne, as I landed there for the Australian Open.

The tennis. They have to elevate it with that grammatically undefined word. They have to set it apart, as if to say: It isn’t just any tennis. It’s our tennis. It’s the tennis.

But the real question isn’t what they call it. It’s why they go.

Representational Image. AFP

Representational Image. AFP

For some it’s a once in a lifetime trip. For some it’s an annual ritual. For some it’s work. For some it’s a respite from work. For some it’s fanaticism. For some, a pilgrimage. The Australian Open brings people in for different reasons. Not just for the tennis.

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Aubrey has been coming to the tennis for 15 years. She used to play tennis herself, and now brings her children along for the ride. She loves the old school charm of the tournament, the etiquettes, and even how systematic everything is. Not surprisingly, she does not like Nick Kyrgios and his hubris.

“If I was his mom, I’d smack him.”

She asked me if I played tennis, and I said no. “Will you now?”

Isn’t that the point of holding a tournament like this, to put role models on a pedestal and hope that the next generation will start to carve steps into it so they can reach that high.

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Dean, Nick and Adam have played tennis too. They came with two other friends. All of them were probably born around the time Aubrey came to her first Australian Open. That itself sets them apart from most of the plebeian viewers I have seen in Melbourne Park.

There are old timers who sit at a certain court all day and lap up whichever game is on. There are tourists, mostly in pairs or groups, and mostly adults. There are families with kids, who can let their children loose in the Lego and Nerf sections of AO Ballpark, the children’s play area. But millennials? Most of the non adults I had seen till then were ball kids. So what brought this group to the tennis?

“It’s entertaining.”

Which part, the atmosphere? The sprawling venue? The bibulous company?

“The tennis. Watching the actual tennis.”

Was it a particular star whose gravity pulled them here? Federer or Djokovic? Or someone closer to their own age? Perhaps Kyrigos or Dom Thiem?

“We don’t know who we will watch. We will figure it out once we get inside.”

Millennial purists. After today’s outing, the pair amongst them who didn’t play tennis might just want to. The future of the tennis is in good hands.

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Vanessa and Arran had been talking about coming to the Australian Open for ten years. This year, they actually did it. “It was on our bucket list for a while.” So they drove the five hours from country South Australia to get to the tennis, just for a day. They would have loved to come watch their all-time favourite Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt play, but never made it while he was still playing. Instead, they got to watch as the last Aussie in the singles, Dasha Gavrilova, went out in the third round.

“We’re not really disappointed”, Vanessa said. “At the end of the day, she was the last Australian.” The pair, who are big fans of Roger Federer, are counting down every appearance he makes at Melbourne. “We’d like to see him come through because it’s possibly his last year.” Next year, Vanessa and Arran will be visiting the tennis for a whole week.

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Peggy Zaman, who has roots in India, was not as ambivalent as the Aussie pair to see Indians crash out one by one. “Obviously we would like to see more of them”, she said after Rohan Bopanna and his partner exited the men’s doubles competition. But being a former tennis player herself, she knows players don’t just appear in showrooms.

“That needs to start in India. They need to start putting more tour events and give our players wild cards and include the doubles. (Right now) It’s just the Chennai Open. Apart from that, they just have the Challengers, so need to give them tournaments and give them wild cards”, she suggested.

She was all praise for Leander Paes though, whose match she had come to watch. “I’ve watched Leander for years and years, I watched him all over the world, and I watched him at the French open, the Olympics, Australian open, the US open. He is able to play with people who use semi-western grips, and he’s still playing traditional tennis, and is still able to win grand slams at the age of 43. It’s just phenomenal.”

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This tournament was possibly the most storied Slam in recent years. Between Lucic-Baroni, ‘Fedal’, and the Williams sisters, there were so many feel good tales to take home with you at the end of the two weeks. Audrey, who we began with, veteran of the fifteen years at the Australian Open, had some too. She remembered the sadness she felt when Federer lost his first final here in 2009, and had to walk off the Rod Laver Arena first. This year though, her most poignant stories did not come in the Rod Laver or Margaret Court Arenas.

They came on the steps leading into the grounds, as she watched two elderly people climb shakily up the stairs. “They were walking hand in hand, and in their other hands, they both had walking sticks”, she recalled. They were almost crippled, and still they were walking up those steps.” Is that any less incredible than the endurance of Serena’s #23 or the athletic astonishment of Federer’s #18?

But Audrey was not done. “I sat down next to a sweet young Japanese boy earlier. He offered me some Japanese snacks he was eating, and I offered him some of my food in return.
“In this age of terrorism and fear, isn’t that great? Isn’t that what sports is all about?”

Isn’t it?


Published Date: Feb 01, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated Date: Feb 01, 2017 04:25 pm


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