Thursday, February 6, 2020


The stairs. I could look up the stairway and see the people and the sky and the white structure of the roof of Rod Laver Arena, the main show court of the Australian Open in Melbourne. My sister and I had traversed a long series of flights, navigated the airport, rode in a cab, and then after showers and clothes changes taken the short, spectacular walk along the Yarra River to the Melbourne Park tennis grounds. After all that, the only trip left to take was up those stairs to watch a dream come true.

From my seat, I looked on the scene for the first time, and yet it felt familiar. The bright blue court, the open roof, the full crowd looking down on the storied surface below. I’d mentally spent many nights there, and the place was special to me, but this was my first time there.

Indeed, I’d spent many nights back in Missouri, in the grasp of gray winter, watching the bright, sun-splashed joy of the Australian Open. The quirky “Visit Melbourne” commercials drew me in, one a catchy little song showing scenes from Australia that were all packed into a suitcase at the end, another reading a poem while showing mesmerizing scenes from that area of Australia. It was this beautiful area that I could enjoy on dark nights, often while almost everyone I knew slept. As the years went by, I dreamed more and more of going there, watching the tennis on those blue courts, walking along that Yarra River, feeling the warm sun and exploring that city.

And, of course, it was the sight of maybe the greatest triumph for my favorite tennis player, Roger Federer. I fully admit it is ridiculous how much I want that Swiss to win tennis matches. One of the great things about having a favorite player in an individual sport is close the bond between player and fan grows through the years, although the downside is eventually the players’ time will inevitably end.

In January 2017, after having not played for six months due to injury, following a gasp-inducing fall at Wimbledon the summer before, Federer ended his five-year major championship drought with a dramatic five-set win over his longtime rival Rafael Nadal. Federer had struggled some against Nadal in the big matches, and Nadal took a 3-1 lead in the final set. But, gloriously, Federer raised his level, flew around the court, dug in on long rallies, and came back to win the set and the championship.

He won another grinding five-set final at the 2018 Australian Open to win his 20th major and sixth Australian Open title, and as Federer teared up during the trophy ceremony the crowd gave him a standing ovation that went on and on.

* * *

So this is a special place for Federer, and for fans like me. And so it was a special feeling when I finally saw Rod Laver Arena after all that travel. You may have noticed, Australia is a long ways away. But we were there.

We got to see the defending women’s champion, Naomi Osaka, and the legend Serena Williams. Serena was annihilating the ball, looking like she was determined to get off the court with a win as soon as possible, the same intense force of nature she was on the tennis landscape 20 years ago.

Then it was time for the Federer match. The Australian Open does a good job getting the next players out fairly quickly after one match ends. But for the few moments before Federer and his opponent, American Steve Johnson, came out on the court the crowd was buzzing, that murmuring anticipation you get before a big sporting event when the public address system isn’t blaring nonstop.

Under a light gray sky, out came Federer, and the cheers went up.

Tennis is a delightful sporting experience for the senses, the aesthetics of the blue court and its white lines, the colorful stands full of people, the players in their bright outfits darting around the court. Then there are the sounds, sounds you’ll close you eyes and think about and hear months and years later, shoes squeaking on the court, the pop of the tennis balls being struck, the chair umpire rhythmically calling out the scores. Fun, peppy music played during changeover breaks. During the action I munched on fish and chips, which, like a montage in a movie where everything is going perfectly for a character, were simply the best stadium concession item I’ve ever had.

I savored the fish and the moment. It was one of those times when life is especially thrilling, and you know you’re experiencing something special, and you just soak it in. Johnson played well enough for Federer to show off his skills, and Roger popped serves, skimmed across the court, and darted to the net to put points away. He played the dazzling, attacking, varied tennis that has made so many people fans through the decades.

Midway through the match, drops of rain began falling down on the court. The players briefly left the court, and the arena’s roof silently slid shut. The speakers player “YMCA” and the crowd danced along. The energy in the crowd was great.

Federer and Johnson came back out and put on a good show under the roof. Federer cruised to a straight sets win, and then drew some cheers and laughter in his post-match interview on court. He walked off the court to more cheers, and the day session was over.

We stepped out to get some food. The Australian Open grounds are packed with fun places to grab food or drinks. It was raining so play was stopped on the outer courts, so we ate under the crowd covering at one of the courts that was not being used during the delay. We had a great view of the Melbourne skyline as the rain pelted the court and low clouds and mist occasionally obscured the towering buildings. Behind us, rain fell on a court that uses trees in the stands for shade.

That evening we went back into Rod Laver Arena for the night session. There was a light show to kick off the proceedings, and then a nice video presentation about the area’s indigenous people, welcoming everyone, followed by a song. Ash Barty, the No. 1 seed and an Australian with indigenous heritage herself, kicked off the night session. She lost the first set to a good Ukrainian player, but then rallied to win the second and third sets to take the match. During the silent moments just before serves, you could hear the steady rain hitting the closed roof, surely a joyous sound for Australians who have faced a summer of fires.

Novak Djokovic played next, against a tall, big-hitting German. The match had some tight moments, but Djokovic got it done. Djokovic is a bending, flexible, athletic marvel, a player with no apparent weaknesses flying around the court, soaring to more success at the Australian Open.

In Australia, one special thing gave way to another, and after a day of tennis the relatively short walk back to the hotel was a delight in and of itself. The rain was only very light now, the lights of the city reflected off the calm Yarra River and there was no place on earth I’d rather be. We walked through Federation Square and by the iconic, domed Flinders Street station, lit with a flattering light, and stopped in a small grocery store for snacks before heading back to the hotel.

The city was alive, glowing, happy. I felt fortunate.

* * *

Our next day of tennis was a frame-worthy ode to how great a day of Australian Open tennis can be. We had coffee and donuts in the quaint little Degraves Road alley of shops and restaurants, and a burger at a nearby restaurant. Then we took the short walk along the Yarra back to tennis.

Walking into the Australian Open is an experience itself, with the summer sun shining and everyone so happy. The UV index and fun index are both high. But people were handing out free sunscreen, one of the many little touches the event does for fans, along with great wifi.

It was a full day of tennis, but the event is about many things, not just tennis. The grounds have games and rides and areas to play in fountains. It’s a popular spot to bring kids. A stage rotates music acts and other performers. The grounds invite you to explore, to find places to grab food or drinks and sit in the shade or the sun and watch matches, either on the many courts or on big TV screens set up in different viewing areas. You can party, you can chill, you can socialize, you can quietly watch tennis and not be bothered at all. The sun was strong, but temperatures were in the low 70s. It’s hard to imagine better tennis weather.

We had some great day session seats at Rod Laver, with a showdown between the rising Donna Vekic and the former champion Maria Sharapova headlining the action. Vekic, with her frequent smile and pleasant demeanor, is like a lot of tennis players; very nice people who can be savage competitors on the court. She cranked up the pressure and movement on the biggest points, and won in straight sets.

Rafa Nadal followed that match. He is my sporting nemesis, but he is familiar and I’ve grown to admire his sheer tenacity on the court. He was playing a South American named Hugo, and Hugo fought hard just to get on the board, drawing big cheers when he finally did so. Hugo even broke Nadal’s serve after that, but the overwhelming Spaniard kept churning along to the win.

We got more food, explored the grounds more, saw some outer court action where you can get very close to the players, see the crazy speed of the ball and the athleticism of the players up close, human beings doing simply remarkable things.

After getting ice cream for roughly the 17th time (it’s summer down there; consuming ice cream is practically compulsory), we headed in for one more night session. The roof was oddly closed despite the perfect weather, but I soon learned that was for the light show before the match, and it was a darn impressive light show. But when it ended, the massive roof glided noiselessly open, revealing a beautiful evening scene in Australia.

It was a fun match, the No. 4 seed Russian Daniil Medvedev facing American Francis Tiafoe. It was a tough first round draw for Tiafoe, and he battled admirably, with the two players trading the first two sets. It was still competitive from there, but as the light faded and night fell, Medvedev used his all-around game, big hitting and court coverage to win in four sets.

Eventually the long and beautiful day of tennis ended and we had another gorgeous walk back along the river to the hotel. We still felt part of a group and an event, as many other people were making the same walk back into the heart of the city from adjacent Melbourne Park where the tennis continued deep into the night.

* * *

The tennis is what drew us to Australia, but like students picking a college based on the football team and then finding out they love the school itself, Melbourne won my heart. It’s just so fun, so historic, so beautiful. Parks here, skyscrapers there; alleys painted with vivid artwork, alleys lined with coffee shops and stores. The people were so friendly, seemed to be enjoying themselves and living where they did. It was hard to pick restaurants, but we ate at some great ones. We walked up and down the river, walked through the greenery of the Carlton Gardens and the Kings Domain, and saw so many cool old buildings and structures, including the massive, solemn Shrine of Remembrance, with its view back down toward the heart of the city.

At one point, my sister and I went up to the observation area at the top of the Eureka Tower, nearly a thousand feet high. (Or, it is some number of meters I don’t know high. Trying to get my mind to think in meters and kilometers was a challenge. And don’t even get me started on Celsius and trying to decide what was a good temperature to set the thermostat. Maybe 21? 22?)

The view from the Eureka Skydeck was breathtaking, literally so when I stood too close to the windows or looked at the perilous view down while standing too close to the window. I couldn’t have fallen since it was all window, floor to ceiling, by my hands still felt clammy. They even do now just thinking and typing about it. The sweeping views out over the Ocean, at the downtown buildings, over to the tennis venue and enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground, were awesome. It was also thrilling to look deep into the sparsely populated interior of Australia, toward far-off mountains rising above the otherwise flat landscape.

* * *

I thought about those views on the long flight home. I thought about the food, the sounds of shoes squeaking on the courts and tennis balls popping off rackets, the warm wind and sitting in a shady spot next to Rod Laver Arena and eating ice cream. I thought of Serena’s intensity and Federer skimming around the court and flicking gorgeous one-handed backhands on that first day. I thought about my dream coming true, how I’d finally met a place I felt like I’d known for a long time. And I thought of the wonderful Australians with whom we interacted, the kindness of those people and their happy, energetic, marvelous city on the Yarra. Here’s to you, Australia.