One of the endless things I love about attending the Australian Open at Melbourne Park is the way that while every court’s surface is but a replica of its peers, the atmosphere evoked by the surroundings of each court is beautifully unique.
Last Tuesday, I began Day 2 of the Open at Court 13. On the far Western edge of Melbourne Park, Court 13 has relatively deep stands for an outside court behind the players’ and umpire’s chairs, but on the side of the court with the better views, there are only two rows of seats. From there, one not only has a courtside seat, but as the court is in close proximity to the edge of the complex, one also gains a beautiful backdrop to proceedings with the Melbourne skyline casually surrounding the majority of the view. Almost as far away from Rod Laver, let alone Hisense Arena, as one can be, Court 13 is one of the few places from where you are unlikely to hear the cheers of those inside the more prestigious courts. Instead, the soundtrack is provided by the romantic, more “grass-roots” sounds of the other players and fans of the outside courts, including the conversations of those people who pause behind the couple of rows of seats to take in part of the action on their way to somewhere else.
Only 48 hours earlier, I had returned to Australia from a month of travelling in the USA. While having an incredible time seeing places I’d always wanted to see, the journey also succeeded in doing what travel always seems to do: enforcing some level of self-reflection.
For me, it wasn’t the traditional realisation of just how insignificant I am in comparison to the millions of folk in downtown Manhattan around New Year’s Eve, but rather it was the unmistakable feeling of just how little I know about so many issues, institutions and moments of great import.
Sure, I could answer questions from my travelling companions – Mrs EPO and her sister – about various players or rules when we were attending the NBA and NHL, but come the Holocaust Museum, I was completely out of my depth. My knowledge of the career arc of Shaquille O’Neal, to name but one random example, is far greater than my knowledge of the arc of World War II.
Throughout our travels, I felt that irrepressible desire and responsibility to know more: “When I get home,” I regularly thought, “I’ll need to invest time in actually comprehending this important modern history.” Genocides, both past and present; key moments and figures in American political history; the Civil Rights movement; the work of the United Nations, an organisation that according to a previous Secretary-General “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
This lack of knowledge and understanding, of course, makes one’s love of all things sport and the investment of time in and enjoyment of a frivolous blog – a pastime enjoyed in part because it “doesn’t matter” – just seem utterly pathetic.
Which brings us back to Tuesday morning, Court 13, a first round match between 10th seeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny and unseeded Turk Marsel Ilhan.
Within minutes of the match starting, every seat was taken and the crowd standing behind me was consistently three deep. Behind Ilhan’s chair was one of those wonderfully patriotic groups of fans that magically appear every year at the tennis: Turkish teenagers and young adults clad in the jerseys of the Turkish national soccer team and Galatasaray, scarves and jackets emblazoned with “Turkiye” and flags aplenty. While some groups of Eastern European fans can at times be disrespectful by bringing their soccer behaviour to the tennis (just last year, Mrs EPO and I witnessed a group of Bulgarian supporters being ejected for baiting their charge’s American opponent and letting off fire-crackers at the first match of qualifying days before the tournament proper was to start), most add a brilliantly joyous atmosphere as was certainly the case with the Turks.
Each time Ilhan won a good point or there was a break in play, the leader of the Turks would select one of their few chants and his colleagues would join in. It was hardly to any avail, though, with Ilhan losing the first two sets and going down a break in the third.
With Youzhny serving for the match in the third set, Ilhan finally found some consistency on his return and broke back, taking a couple of games in a row and sitting down for the change of ends with the score at 6-5. The Turks went off.
It was no longer an organised chant, but rather one of those unorganised, beautiful, raucous harmonies of cheering that fans from some cultures seem to be able to effortlessly achieve. Numerous voices all following different rhythms and peaking at different pitches, yet all knowing that they were perfectly synchronised as one collective tune.
Marsel Ilhan, ranked 87th in the world, couldn’t help himself. As he stood to return to the court, he turned slightly as if he needed to rummage for something courtside so that he could take a glimpse of what he knew was there supporting him: a sea of red and white flags, scarves and outfits moving rhythmically to a chant with a surprisingly loud volume for anyone who hasn’t been to the tennis in Melbourne before. As he walked onto court, diagonally away from his fans, Ilhan was walking towards me and the Aussies, Americans and Russians in my section of the crowd. Once again, he couldn’t help himself. The corners of the mouth started to twitch for a moment before he let it all go: a beaming smile of disbelief, excitement, honour and almost embarrassment. He composed himself before he turned to face Youzhny and his fans for one last time – his break of serve was but prolonging the agony as the third-set tie-break felt like a foregone conclusion – but the impact his supporters had had on him was undeniable. If he doesn’t achieve more in tennis than losing in the early rounds of Grand Slam tournaments on courts as far away from the cameras as this one, he’ll still remember this moment and this crowd for the rest of his life.
For the time it took for Youzhny to win a match that would not be mentioned in other than a passing sentence in the next morning’s paper, those of us in the crowd came together for the experience. For those couple of hours, nothing else mattered. People could be openly proud of their heritage, excited to watch amazingly talented athletes, and willing to embrace the opportunity to leave their troubles behind to enjoy the beauty and purity of sport for a while, regardless of the result. Everyone present, including the losing player, seemed so happy to be alive.
At times of tragedy and personal upheaval, it’s often reasonably said that life puts sport back into perspective. But just occasionally, often when you least expect it, it feels as if sport does its part to help put life into some perspective too.
Now, back to my newfound responsibility to work out just how many more hours I can reasonably invest in the task of leaving the troubles of the world behind…