A little over a decade ago, Roger Federer christened the Australian Open to be the “happiest slam” of the year. Over the years, it feels like the Open took the words very seriously and decided to outdo themselves every year. Shortly before the tournament began this year, Andy Murray gave out his own little shout out to the organisers when he said that the slam had made splendid arrangements for players and fans, alike. Well, there was only one way to find out how true these praises were, by experiencing it all first hand.
The trip Down Under to experience the happiest slam turned out to be the happiest week in the happiest city in the world, especially if you’re an Indian sports fan.
Being a fan of Roger Federer for more than 12 years, which is half my life at this moment, the Australian Open was a special one for me for several reasons. It was the first time I had watched Roger Federer play live, although a menacing Marat Safin defeated Federer in a mouth-watering semi-final clash, which was how I was converted into a tennis fan for the many years to come.
The month of January is basically a party in Australia and honestly, you don’t have to be a sports fan to have a blast. But then it really is quite the jackpot for you if you happen to have a semblance of interest in sports because, Australia really knows how to, well, turn up the heat in January. The Australian Open, as of 2019, is nothing short of the ultimate fan experience. There are trams that are specifically decorated to get the adrenaline going as you make your way to the arena. Once you are in the arena, the RF cap on our heads was basically a mark of a family, of people from all over the world. A nod of acknowledgement, a very spontaneous high five from someone who passes you by for just one second, probably never to see you again- it’s as normal as the gallons of water you have to drink (there are announcements reminding you to drink water!).
It just so happens that December and January are months of cricket extravaganza in Australia as well. And it only takes one to cross a bridge to shift from posing under the statue of Rod Laver to that of under Dennis Lillee’s.
This year, Indian tennis fans got a little too lucky.
Not only was India playing their third ODI in Melbourne in the same week as Australian Open’s first week, it also happened to be the series decider. Of course, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which is generally similar to the Rod Laver Arena in ambience, was taken over by a sea of blue jerseys, a lot of bhangra and trust me, a lot of Bollywood music. With London Thumakda belting through the grounds, a certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, probably for the last time in Australia, helped Indian fans have their bit of paisa vasool by rewarding India with a stellar innings and bringing home the series win from the brink of defeat.
As fans poured out of the MCG, Dhols and bhangra took over the streets of Melbourne and “Jitega bhai Jitega, India Jitega” chants grew louder even as the clock struck midnight. In the aftermath. Friendly Australians, seeing the Indian flags on our cheeks, stopped to wave a “Congratulations, mate”, some joined in the Bhangra sessions while some, on conversing with us, couldn’t fathom why anyone would travel all the way to Melbourne when the Great Barrier Reef and Gold Coast were in the same country. It’s not an exaggeration to call the experience overwhelmingly surreal.
Now let’s come to the Australian Open, which preceded the cricket experience.
With the advantage of being the first slam of the year, as pointed out by several tennis experts, there is an air of carefree attitude amongst the players, with injuries being at a minimum, the mood of the holiday season still in the air and the pressure of the season to come still not quite settling in. The carefree air can be felt by one and all, once one steps into the hallowed grounds of Melbourne Park. It’s basically the spirit of every festival that you’ve ever enjoyed put into one.
There are human tennis balls that will compel you to shake a leg with them to all the popular jingles and there are giant screens that are sometimes playing famous sports movies (they played Dangal on one of the days) or they are taking you down the memory lane by showing you flashbacks of some of the greatest matches. There is live music at every nook and there are people sprawled everywhere sipping a beer, munching on a burger and just generally having a good time. Occasionally, you bump into a former champion or two who seem to be having the same kind of fun that you are. Sometimes, an odd volunteer or two will come up to you and offer to spray sunscreen on you as you battle your way against the strong UV radiation. Honestly, you don’t have to be a fan of tennis to have the time of your life if you’re in Melbourne Park in the second week of January.
Once seated in the stadium, it’s pretty much the high you feel at all great stadiums. It’s just that at Rod Laver Arena, once the sun is down, Rod Laver comes out and sits in one corner of the court and watches the events unfold in the stadium named after him.
It’s also the only slam where former greats come out on court for a little on-court chit chat with the winners. Who minds an additional glimpse, of the likes John McEnroe and Jim Courier who we didn’t have the privilege to watch live? And who doesn’t mind watching Rod Laver witness Roger Federer float about with god-like precision, while the crowd stamp their feet to match the beats of We Will Rock you during the breaks or matching the tunes of Neil Diamond as Sweet Caroline keeps the crowds engaged between matches?
There is no time for boredom really. Between the day and night sessions as the arenas remain locked for maintenance, everyone troops towards the practice courts to catch a few extra glances of their favourite stars. Sometimes they’re just too human, within a few feet’s reach, simply fooling around with their team members. Once done standing in the heat, hoping to get close enough for an autograph or blurry selfie, fans make their way to the billion other options that are there. A whole area is dedicated for kids, to give parents a chance to put their feet up with a fly cocktail or two. For tennis fans who just can’t get enough, there is virtual tennis to try their hands at, all for free, you cannot find yourself short of options for having a fun time.
With the cricket saga coming to an end, and pockets becoming too shallow for tennis, the journey of the sports fan in me finally had to call it a day. Almost a month since the happiest week of my life, the memory that remains clear as day, is not of watching Roger Federer take the centre court or MS Dhoni’s boundaries. But it is the moment when we trooped out of the MCG-RLA area when all of it hit me. Australian Open may be the happiest slam, but Melbourne in January is probably the happiest city to be in.