Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hot Tennis Down Under

I don’t have a writing-related blog article this week because for the past two weeks I haven’t been writing. In fact, I haven’t even thought about writing. I haven’t done much of anything except eat, sleep, and watch tennis. That’s because my husband and I are in Melbourne (pronounced Mel Bin), Australia for the Aussie grand slam tennis tournament.
Australia isn’t on the top of my list of places to visit because it reminds me so much of California, albeit a poorer, less-sophisticated substitute. Sydney is much like my hometown of San Francisco (with better beaches) and Melbourne is much like parts of L.A. (without the Hollywood glitz). Australia has always held two major attractions for me: scuba-diving the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. We haven’t done much diving recently, but every few years, Herman and I fly down to check out the tennis.

This year turned out to have some unexpected bonuses. Within the two week tournament time span, there was also the Midsumma festival (Melbourne’s three-week-long gay pride celebration), the Australia Day revelry (Australia’s 4th of July), the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, and a week of the hottest weather in over 100 years with temperatures in the 115-120 degree range. Needless to say, things were HOT down under.

Herman and I love gay celebrations, playing and watching tennis, anything Chinese, and watching shirtless, hunky eye-candy trying to say cool in sweltering weather. So for us, this two-week visit was the perfect storm for enjoyment.

This year, we had tickets for seats in the main stadium that were in the blazing sun, but were also in the second row. So even thought we melted, we had one of the best views in the house. And being in Rod Laver Arena, we were able to see many of the marquee matches. And day after day we did see some of the most exciting tennis matches we’ve ever seen. Especially with the men’s draw; the level of play of the top players has skyrocketed in the last few years.

Of course not everything was up-to-snuff at this year’s event. The first week the organizers sold way too many grounds passes, and the outer courts were like a zoo. It was almost impossible to see any of the better matches on the outer courts. People fought over seats. Another place the organizers dropped the ball was the scheduling of night matches. Several times the day matches went long, and the men’s night match didn’t start until after 11 p.m., which meant the matches sometimes finished well into the wee hours of the morning, and the players didn’t get to bed until well after 5 a.m. That didn’t leave them much recovery time before their next match. It was VERY unfair and was the key reason Novak Djokovich was beaten by Andy Roddick, and also why Jo Wilfried Tsonga did so poorly against Fernando Verdasco. Another sore point with the players and spectators was the use of the heat rule. In years past, any time the temperature climbed over 35 c., they closed the roofs on the two main stadiums and suspended play on the outer courts. This year, the temperature rose over 40 c. on several days and they still refused to close the roof and suspend play. It was only when Serena Williams dropped the first set in her quarterfinal match and was clearly about to loose the match, that the organizers closed the roof, which allowed her to recover and eventually win the match. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that it did help Serena win. Also, when it was clear that the heat was affecting Roger Federer’s level of play, they moved all his remaining matches to night matches. The organizers were clearly playing favorites.

So there were a few things to bitch about, but as the Aussies say, “No worries, mate,” because there were numerous, more pleasant surprises in this year’s matches. The first was Serena Williams, who started the tournament looking sluggish and struggled through her matches. But every time she needed to pick up her game to win, she did so with tenacity. While other top players crumbled under the pressure of important points, Serena became more focused and lifted her game. In my book, she demonstrated what a true champion she is and why she deserves to be #1.

Andy Roddick had shed 15 lbs in the off season and both looked and moved better. He had a fine run into the semifinals until the Fed Express took him down in straight sets.
Tomas Berdych played superb tennis to fight his way into a quarter-final match against Roger Federer. Then he trounced Roger for two and a half sets, and was on the threshold of taking out the world #2, but then the reality of how well he was playing and what he was about to do crept into his head, and he visibly became nervous and started making errors. That’s all it took for Roger to take command and eventually win the match in five sets. But Berdych had played flawless tennis and showed he will surely be a future champion, if only he could manage to get his head together.
The best surprise of the tournament was how well Fernando Verdasco played, downing some big guns like Jo Wilfried Tsonga for a semi-final showdown against Rafael Nadal. That match turned out to be the most exciting of the entire tournament. Despite smashing over 60 winners against Rafa (an almost unheard of stat), Verdasco lost the match deep in the fifth set with a double fault on match point. It was heartbreaking way for him to loose such a hard-fought match, but Verdasco had played the match of his life and refused to hang his head about it, which is why he’s my MVP pick for the tournament.
The other interesting thing about Verdasco was that the TV camera kept zeroing in on his players box to show his most ardent fan (that the announcers kept referring to as his “close friend”). Hmmmm. I wonder what that means?

So as I write this, all is well in the world of tennis. Tonight Serena takes on Safina, and tomorrow we get to see another Federer/Nadal clash. My picks are Serena and Federer, however, I would dearly love to see Safina win.

Taking a break from the tennis, we found time to take in some of the gay pride celebrations. The festivities kicked-off with a massive carnival, which is the single largest event of the multi-week pride celebration. It was held in Alexandra Garden Park beside the Yarra River, just a few minutes walk from downtown Melbourne. There was plenty of lamb on the barbie, live bands, dancing, browsing amongst the community and commercial stall traders, picnics with family and friends under shade trees, shirtless eye-candy showing off tan muscles, and a sea of ice-cold beer to keep things cool. And it seemed to me that, as the Aussies say, everybody and his dog showed up. I say “and his dog” because one of the activities was a dog show in which owners and dogs dressed up and were judged on the uniqueness of their combined outfits. There were a number of dogs sporting rainbow colored coats that were only outdone by the numerous and outrageous drag queens. It was all very creative and tons of fun.

That’s about all from down under. Tomorrow is our last day here before flying back to Thailand, and the day’s events are: the Men’s tennis final, the gay pride parade, and the Chinese New Year’s fair and parade. So we’re going out with a bang!

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