And yet, here I am now in Melbourne, writing this piece from desk 198 in the press room at my first ever Australian Open. At long last, I have completed the career Grand Slam. For many reasons too numerous to mention here, I never was able to make the long journey from New York to the land ” Down Under” for a Grand Slam event widely celebrated by the fans, media and players as a ” friendly” fortnight. The Australian Open has garnered a well deserved reputation for the immensely appealing way it is presented and for how stylishly they kick off the Grand Slam season. So it was high time that I made amends for my inability to get here previously, and now, happily and irrevocably, I have done just that.
On the day that I arrived on site, I got settled in the press room and then joined my longtime colleague Tom Tebbutt of Canada in the media section at Rod Laver Arena. Tebbutt is a genial fellow, one of the sport’s premier journalists, and a deep admirer of the Australian Open from a writer’s point of view. He had long told me how much he admired the Aussie way of doing things. Tebbutt has been a ubiquitous individual in press circles for as long as I have been around the game, so it was somehow fitting to join him in Laver Arena for my first in person look at one of the world’s most renowned courts.
I was very impressed. Having watched countless contests over the years from Rod Laver Arena on television, it always seemed to me like a superb showcase for the game. But television simply can’t do full justice to the place. I sat there alongside the erudite Tebbutt, and immediately shared his effusive view of the arena. Roger Federer was holding court against the ever enigmatic Alexandr Dolgopolov in the second round on a partly cloudy afternoon, and the Swiss Maestro was putting on a serving clinic, finding the corners with uncanny regularity, keeping Dolgopolov thoroughly at bay with the supreme accuracy and reliability of his delivery. Federer released a cavalcade of aces, 25 in all. He cast aside Dolgopolov 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 in this encounter drawing his customary brand of support from an unparalleled legion of admirers.
Perhaps the mere presence of Federer was a reason why the Rod Laver Arena seemed to crackle so much that day, but I believe it was much more than that. Here is the way I look at it. Wimbledon’s fabled Centre Court is the single most elegant setting at any major event, a court frequently compared to a cathedral. The grass court feeling is unlike any other in tennis, a throwback to the gold old days. Centre Court will simply never be surpassed for tradition, class, and vast spectator appeal.
Philippe Chatrier Stadium at Roland Garros is defined by the distinctive red clay and the demonstrative audiences that shape the environment; the crowds that assemble there are ever passionate, unashamedly emotive, and even venomous at times toward players that that incur their wrath. Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open is the largest stadium at a Grand Slam event, and the most highly charged atmospherically of all the major stages. It is a New York sports showcase for better or worse, if ever there was one.
In my view, however, Rod Laver Arena has an identity all of its own. I put it right up there alongside Wimbledon, and slightly above Roland Garros and the U.S. Open among the premier stages in the sport. Having watched a cluster of matches over the course of this first week on that court, it is in many ways the best of the lot from my standpoint. As my friend and keen tennis analyst John Martini says, ” Rod Laver Arena is brilliantly laid out. There is not a bad seat in the house.”
That is well said. I must add, though, that the atmosphere in Laver is astronomically improved when the roof is not needed. The vividness of the blue backdrop to the court is enriched ineffably, and the natural light flooding through the arena is crucial. When the roof is closed, the place seems too dark despite some bright lighting from high above both sides of the court. That can dampen the feelings among the audience in Laver Arena. At Wimbledon, the Centre Court remains bright when the roof is closed, and the players and fans benefit considerably from that. The lighting is different there, and much better than it is in Melbourne.
In any case, I spent some time today surveying the two other Australian Open show courts with roofs: Margaret Court Arena and Hisense Arena. At the former, I observed Milos Raonic combating Viktor Troicki. The intimacy of that arena is extraordinary. It is a treasure and the place to be during the first week of the tournament, the best value for money.. Raonic performed with clinical efficiency in the sunlight, displaying the wider range of his recent talent, the growing diversity and subtlety of his game and his quiet yet unmistakable belief in himself.
Raonic cut down Troicki methodically 6-2, 6-3 6-4. Over on Hisense, John Isner did battle with Feliciano Lopez, with the American coming from behind gallantly to oust the left-handed Spaniard in four sets. I watched a good chunk of the first two sets with great pleasure from the media seats behind the court. Hisense is designed beautifully and it is another spectator’s paradise. Hisense actually has a larger capacity with10,000 seats, 2500 more than Court. For the fans, these two courts are a crucial part of the enterprise. Margaret Court Arena is right next to Laver and very accommodating for spectators, who can wander from one to the other under cover. Hisense is not far away and still easy to access.
So there you have it. Perhaps some of my views on the Australian Open in general and Rod Laver Arena in particular are colored by the fact that this is a brand new experience for me. Covering a tournament of this magnitude for the first time always makes it seem all the more remarkable. But that is simply not the whole story. Tom Tebbutt puts it succinctly with his remarks about Rod Laver Arena, which largely represent his outlook on the entire event— and mine as well.
” There are no luxury suites like the U.S. Open, “he says. ” It is a very democratic arena. To me there is nothing nicer than a night match in Laver with the roof open, the birds chirping and that festive feeling of summer in the air.”
I could not agree more.