Australian Open 2017: How Melbourne's Federation Square watched Rafael Nadal roll back the years
With Nadal five-four up in the fifth, Dimitrov finally pushed that backhand long, and the faithful at Federation Square were rewarded. Hands went up in the crowd as Nadal went down; a roar went up as Nadal went quiet.
Rod Laver Arena is where the tennis action has been for the last two weeks. But it is not the only place to watch the action. No big ticket for the big games? No worries mate, as they keep saying in this country. You can watch the game on the big screen in so many places, without reaching too deep into your wallet.
There is Grand Slam Oval, that little block within Melbourne Park that recreates every city that hosts a Grand Slam. There is Garden Square, where the foliage and fountains provide relief from the stinging heat. There is the slope outside Show Court two, ideal for a lazy stretch or even a discreet nap with the sun glasses on. Else find the two big screens in the AO Festival area, outside the grounds. There are options for everyone.
But for me, the best place to watch the Australian Open, besides inside the arena itself, is Federation Square.
Melbourne’s cultural hub, Federation Square is flanked by the Yarra river and the CBD in one direction. In the other, it is juxtaposed by the renaissance architecture of Flinders Street station the ultra modern metal façade of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Thus hedged between water and steel, history and attempted art, it was an appropriate place to watch the single handed backhand go up against the whipping forehand.
The paved courtyard, recipient of the many million footsteps a day, got a breather on Friday when the match began, as people settled down on every available space. Its upward incline made for an unobstructed view of the big screen, and the biggest bonus was that we could hear the commentary, which isn’t aired on any of the screens inside Melbourne Park. Plus, it was free, so the crowds were larger and more colourful, unrestrained by the etiquettes that come with tennis.
In short, it was the perfect place to watch Rafael Nadal win his semi final.
The big screen cast half the crowd in the shadow of the setting sun when the match began. But there was no split loyalty; much like the crowd inside Rod Laver arena, the Dimitrov supporters were vocal, but in a minority. This was Rafa’s crowd, just as it had been Roger’s the night before. Some had brought deck chairs, some found ledges to sit on, but most just leant back on their elbows or used their backpacks as pillows. There were canoodling couples, packs of friends small and large, and the odd lone wolf. I happily took my place among this last category for the first point.
Nadal seemed to take the first set before Grigor Dimitrov had time to process that he was a break down. The tactic of attacking the one handed backhand with the forehand top spin worked, but only till then. After that, Dimitrov seemed to play the backhand more mindfully, picking his moments to fire in winners, showing that it was no longer the weakness it once was.
The second set was a shouting match, only the players seemed to be trading hard fought breaks, not coarse insults. First Dimitrov went ‘Break you!’ when Nadal got his forehand wrong in the fourth game. Nadal replied with ‘Break you back!’, benefitting from a double fault. And on it went, for another round, until the Dimitrov laughed last with the late break; a stinging retort to which Nadal had no time to reply.
The next two sets saw probably the best tennis of the tournament. Shots that crisscrossed the court like the wires suspending the yellow bulbs above us. Agility that got the public to inhale and exhale as one, something no yoga class will ever achieve. As the old Flinders Street clock ticked past ten, the crowd thinned some, and two tie breaks later, perhaps just a thousand faithful still remained, with nail marks on their palms from the fist pumps.
On court, it seemed Nadal had no business winning that match. He hit 45 winners to Dimitrov’s 79. He had less than half the Bulgarian’s 20 aces. His first serve was on an average 13 km an hour slower, and his fastest serve was nowhere comparable. But this was a champion athlete; always chasing balls back in, taking the game deep, until his opponent had to defeat his own body before he could defeat Nadal. It was a style of play that, surprisingly, Dimitrov showed he could play as well. Not only were the Bulgarian’s attacking plays astonishing, but he made Nadal play more balls to win points, chasing down sure shot winners even deep into the fifth set. In effect, he was trying to beat Nadal by being Nadal.
The one stat Nadal did have in his favour was the errors. The Spaniard showed how to play attritional tennis, with 43 errors to Dimitrov’s 70. He chose his battles. He knew he couldn’t out-serve Dimitrov. So he out lasted him.
With Nadal five-four up in the fifth, Dimitrov finally pushed that backhand long, and the faithful at Federation Square were rewarded. Hands went up in the crowd as Nadal went down; a roar went up as Nadal went quiet. Well past midnight, Federation Square was now showing bald patches of pavement where previously there were only people, but the exultation of joy, and not a little relief, was undiluted.
It was not as loud as it was on the previous night though. I was there when Roger Federer scored his winning point after five sets against Stan Wawrinka. The conditions were different; the game finished earlier, it was a public holiday, and it was Federer, so naturally, the place was packed. For those few hours, Federation Square became simply Fed Square. It will be even better on Sunday; an event which in Nadal’s own words “could never happen again”.
After the game, I pulled an all-nighter to write most of this piece, something I never do. But I could not help it. My head was buzzing as I sat down at my laptop, and when sleep did look to overcome me, I simply thought of the endless energy Rafael Nadal had just displayed. By his own admission, he had outdone himself: outrun age, dodged injury, and punched past a gifted opponent. In the process, he had gifted us a final for the ages. I thought of his fortitude, his drive, his doggedness, and I kept typing.
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