Choose Your Own Adventure at the Australian Open

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In the second half of January, the place to be in Australian sport is Melbourne Park. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament for the year, is an event that keeps growing every year. Again on Monday, in warm and sunny conditions, the masses flocked to the first day of the tournament.

The prime venue is Rod Laver Arena, a 15,000 seat venue with a retractable roof and plenty of undercover seating. Tickets aren’t cheap, but will give you access to the matches involving the biggest names in the sport.

A second venue, smaller at 10,000 and also with a retractable roof, is Hisense Arena. There are three open-air stadium courts. Margaret Court Arena holds about 4,000, with Show Court 2 and Show Court 3 holding about 2,000 each. Then there are a string of courts with just a few rows of seating on each side.

Rod Laver Arena is all reserved seating. Until a few years ago, there were general admission seats at Hisense, but that court is now all reserved seating as well. But the outside courts are unreserved. There are general admission tickets, known as Ground Passes, that admit to all courts except Rod Laver and Hisense; first in best dressed.

Between the courts there are outrageously priced merchandise stands, even more extortionate food and drink outlets, and all sorts of sponsor displays and sideshows, interactive zones, stages with bands and performers, autograph and photo sessions, and coaching clinics. I’ve never tried it, but you could probably have a good day at the Open without seeing a ball being hit.

Looking through the day’s match schedule, spectators will often plan which matches they want to see, but the day rarely goes to plan. With the length of matches being so variable, there can be hours of difference between the day’s schedule for each court. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, every choice of court and match may affect where you end up next.

Attending the opening day with my parents, despite having reserved seats in Hisense, we decided to start the day at Margaret Court Arena, where Australia’s Casey Dellacqua was making a comeback after a long injury absence, taking on Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski.

Supporting the local girl, the Australian fans were out in force. A group in body stockings would have been feeling the heat, while others wore footy jumpers and big hats, or were draped in Aussie flags. Although respectfully quiet during the points, they made plenty of noise during breaks in play. From the standard “Oi oi oi” and “Let’s go Casey let’s go” to the more elaborate chants, like each side of the stadium identifying themselves in turn, to the Duck Sauce tune.

And the fans liked what they saw, Dellacqua becoming more dominant as the game progressed, cruising to a straight sets win.

After Dellacqua and Jovanovski shook hands and left the court, we took up our seats in Hisense Arena. The opening match of the day was still going there, one set all between seeded Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro and France’s Adrian Mannarino. A battle fought on the baselines, both players hitting too hard to tempt the other into the net, until Del Potro got a late break in the third and fourth sets to take the match.

As we were watching Del Potro’s match, word was getting around that Aussie teen sensation Bernard Tomic was in trouble on Rod Laver Arena. Our tickets didn’t admit to that court, but looking up The Roar’s blog on my phone during the sit-downs, Fernando Verdasco had taken the first two sets.

A time-out at the food court for lunch, and then it was time to look for some more action. Wandering around the courts, we decided to watch a set of America’s Mardy Fish. The eighth seed was challenged during the set by Luxemborg’s Gilles Muller, but did enough to take the set, and subsequently the match.

But there was another Aussie about to take the court, so it was back to Margaret Court Arena. Few gave Australian wildcard Greg Jones much change of beating Ukraine’s thirteenth seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov. But soon it appeared an upset was brewing.

Jones may barely have a ranking, but was high on confidence, and rising to the occasion that the crowd was creating. He may have been green in experience and outfit, but was red-hot in his shot selection, attacking the net when the opportunity arose and timing his winning shots to perfection.

Dolgopolov wouldn’t have expected a challenge from this match, and his frustration began to boil over in the second set. Warned for racket abuse already, he engaged in a battle of words with the chair umpire after she ruled that Dolgopolov had left it too late to challenge a call, and dropped his head through a series of unforced errors as Jones found himself two sets ahead.

Meanwhile, on Rod Laver Arena, Bernard Tomic had fought back to take the third and fourth sets, and was locked in an epic battle in the fifth. Just moments after Jones had taken the second set, a roar could be heard coming from the open roof at Rod Laver Arena and from the big screen outside. Tomic had completed a remarkable win.

Margaret Court Arena was filling up, as word spread around Melbourne Park that a possible upset was on. But the third set saw Jones’ concentration waver, and Dolgopolov began to lift. The class of the seed began to rise to the top with a 6-1 result for the set. More worrying for Jones was a twinge in his leg. The trainer was called after the third set and Jones received treatment, but although he was able to complete the match, his momentum was gone.

The same body stocking group that had been at Dellacqua’s match had returned, and began to get the crowd involved. “Aussie fans in the stands, if you hear us, clap your hands,” they chanted, and during the injury time-out began a normal, a super-slow and a sped-up Mexican wave.

But although they tried to lift Jones, the momentum had swung against him. A match that had promised so much after the second set quickly turned sour, with Jones able to win only four more games during the final three sets.

By then, plenty of noise could be heard from Show Court 2, as the Greek and Cypriot fans were cheering on Marcos Baghdatis. His appearance in the final was seven years ago, and Baghdatis is no longer seeded, but he still attracts plenty of support at the Australian Open. The court was full and noisy as Baghdatis cruised to a straight-sets win over Germany’s Benjamin Becker.

It was getting late, the shadows drifting across the court by the time that match was finished. But the day’s action was far from over; as next up on that court, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty was in action. After winning junior Wimbledon, Barty was given a run in the seniors, drawn to play Georgia’s Anna Tatishvilli. But, over-awed by the experience, Barty was never in the contest in the first set as Tatishvilli broke twice to take the set 6-2.

It was a different story in the second set, as although Tatishvilli twice broke Barty’s serve, the young Aussie immediately broke back both times, taking the match to a tie-breaker. But there would be no fairytale for the youngster, not even a third set, as Tatishvilli took out the tie-breaker to wrap up the match.

And so a big day at the Open came to an end, a great day of watching the top echelon with the racquet showcasing their skills. Of the tens of thousands who attended, there will be many tales of the combination of matches they watched and the quality of tennis they saw. And there’ll be plenty more to come over the next two weeks, as more fans will choose their own adventures of matches seen.

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