After five hours and two minutes of play, Novak Djokovic sent a cross-court passing shot by Stanislaw Wawrinka to win the fifth set of their tennis match, 12 games to 10. The final game alone lasted over 10 minutes.
The crowd rose to its feet screaming in relief and ecstasy at the finish of what the local media called “one of the most thrilling contests played [at the Australian Open] in the past decade.” And we were among them.
We had long ago decided to move from Wellington to Melbourne in time for the tennis tournament, partly because we enjoy watching tennis and partly because it is one of the defining events in our new town. Four years ago, we caught some of the action during a week here, including a win by an emerging Andy Murray. This time we decided to move to Center Court, the 15,000 seat Rod Laver Arena, for four nights of what they call middle weekend action.
With this choice, we knew we would see some of the great players on the court, even though in the third or fourth round the top players often blow past their opponents. But there we were watching the best of our time.
On two evenings, we saw what made Roger Federer great, a wide repertory of shots, speeds and savvy. He easily won against an Aussie, the up and coming Bernie Tomic. Two nights later he was often pressed by the hard serving Canadian Milos Raonic, but he patiently kept defense and shot-making strong until Raonic made mistakes. We also savored the energy and ability of fourth seed David Ferrer in a one-sided, but very entertaining match against the rambunctious Marcos Baghdatis.
And there was even a bit of time left in the evenings to stop off at the grand plaza of Federation Square to close the night.
The women’s matches at Centre Court were also one-sided, but we enjoyed watching Maria Sharapova, whose screaming shots and persistence soon overcame the court presence of Venus Williams.
Two nights later, her sister Serena Williams demonstrated her huge skills as she swatted away a barely pesky Kirilenko with power and accuracy. In between, fourth seeded Agnieszka Radwanska showed steadiness, accuracy and defensive strength against the attractive, but outfoxed Ana Ivanovic. Typical middle weekend women’s matches.
More competitive were the three matches we saw during the day on Saturday using our grounds passes.
We had learned from our experience the previous day that we needed to arrive early. Friday, we had arrived in the afternoon because we had to sign our lease and arrange for mobile phone service in the morning. As a result, we found ourselves stuck in long lines trying to get into the packed side courts rather than watching matches.
So, on Saturday, we arrived by 10AM, deftly bypassing the mobbed queues to get into the stadium, then occupying seats at one court for the whole day. We sat there, with a few breaks, for 8 1/2 hours before moving over to Rod Laver for an additional two hours of Federer watching. The day was like a picnic, with lots of competitive action. We had plenty to drink; we had sandwiches and snacks. And a few feet in front of us a three set battle by former #1 Kuznetsova, a five set battle between rising star Andreas Seppi and fading Marin Cilic, and a gutsy victory by Cinderella player Sloane Stephens over crowd favorite Laura Robson. Wonderful action and great thrills.
Of course, the point of watching the less competitive matches in the main arena, or the more competitive ones for the lower ranked players, is to witness the display of great talent, even among those who get no further. You don’t have the glamor and high stakes of the last rounds, but you get a very good time for your money. And it’s very different from watching on television. Though we had great seats in the center for all the matches, you are a lot farther away than the cameras get, you miss a lot of slo-mo replays and grimaces on the large screens overhead, and you lose the occasionally learned commentary by announcers. On the other hand, you have a direct connection with the players hard at work in front of you…and a direct connection with the crowd.
The crowd can be especially raucous on the side courts, for partisan fans choose which match to watch, but it is usually a lot more restrained amid the big spenders in Rod Laver Arena. The main exception is when a local favorite, like Bernie Tomic, plays. His green- and yellow-suited fans kept exotic cheers ringing through the stadium until the very end.
The crowd at the five hour Djokovic-Wawrinka match, however, was roused early, as Wawrinka stole the first set with outstanding play. After that, it erupted often with screaming encouragements for “Stan”. With every twist and turn in the match, the energy and excitement of the crowd upped a notch, urging the players to go beyond evident tiredness. This was hardly a one-sided match like the others. A local in the seats next to us said it was just like attending an epic finals match; another said that in all his years of going to tennis matches, he had never seen anything like this. Nor had we, of course…well, maybe the epic Harvard 29-29 “victory” over Yale back in the 60s. But that was not two players digging deep and finding an ability to make amazing shots, hour after hour. That was what juiced the crowd.
In the end, by the fifth set and the fifth hour of play, most of the crowd was still present and still cheering vigorously, as much as for the champion as for the underdog. The seemingly endless final game went to innumerable ties at deuce, the crowd becoming as crazed as disturbed wasps, until that last shot by Djokovic past Wawrinka at net. The crowd went nuts; Djokovic screamed and went a bit nuts himself. Wawrinka slumped over the net. They embraced, knowing more than any of us what this match was about. At 1:45 in the morning we went home, still abuzz, and even worked until dawn because we couldn’t sleep after the experience.
How could Melbourne top this event for its new arrivals? Next up, Australia Day, the celebration of its founding. We will do parades, grill food on the barbie, party in Federation Square and watch the city light up with fireworks. Not a bad finish for our first 10 days in Melbourne.
(Also, for more pictures from Australia, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Australia 2013 itinerary page.)