I arrived at Melbourne at Monday morning for four days of what was to be an exhilarating display of athleticism, talent and passion from the world’s best tennis players.
The first two players I saw when I entered Melbourne Park were Stan and Nishikori practising together. Most of the Swiss and Japanese fans had taken up seats in the grandstand, but I spotted a gap right next to the side fence and hastily claimed it immediately, getting the best view of Stan’s awesome one-handed backhand! Undeniably the best one hander on the tour currently and the power he was generating was unbelievable! When the practice session was over, Stan stayed to sign autographs and thankfully, he signed for all the people waiting patiently at the behind the side fence! Usually a lot of the pros only sign half of the row, but I guess Stan must have had plenty of time to spare as he did the entire row. I have a great poster of Roger and Stan preparing for a smash shot in synchrony at the Davis Cup final last year and Stan flashed a little smile when he saw it! Now I only needed Roger to sign the other half of the poster and it wasn't really mission impossible, I still had three full days to get his autograph!
I caught 5 minutes of Milos Raonic practising his bullet serves on the practice court adjacent to Stan and Kei’s court (Court 16), then to avoid the blazing Australian sun, I moved to Hisense Arena to watch the opening set of Jonathan’s dream girl Sabine Lisicki vs Kristina Mladenovic.
I had bought a 4 day session series package for Rod Laver Arena, but I knew I was only going to be watching half of the matches scheduled on RLA over the week. My prime objective was to catch all of Roger’s practice sessions, plus watch all his matches. Unfortunately Roger was scheduled on RLA on Monday night, but the great thing about the Australian Open is that there is an online Ticket Marketplace for fans that want to sell or buy tickets. If you wanted to cancel your ticket for any day, all you need to do is list your ticket the marketplace and hope another fan would purchase it. Turns out the demand was extremely high, as the moment my RLA day session ticket was listed, a notification popped up on my phone saying it was purchased. I would have missed the opportunity to see Halep, Ivanovic and Nadal play, but 10 times out of 10, I would rather see Roger play over them!
I managed to snag a single ticket for the night session and was overcome with excitement that I would get to see the GOAT play live for the 3rd time in my life! So after a quick stop for dinner in the city, I hurried back to Melbourne Park just in time when Roger and Yen-Hsun Lu entered the arena. It was a typical Federer first round masterclass with some sweet points such as a dazzling drop-shot with wicked backspin and a sick backhand down-the-line around the net post which was a reincarnation of the same shot Roger executed against Lu in the opening round of Wimbledon back in 2009! It was just a joy to watch Roger play as he hits the ball so effortlessly, flowing and floating but somehow the shots off his Wilson wand are just as powerful and precise as a solid baseline player like Lu, who was exerting a lot more effort physically, but still unable to topple the Swiss Maestro.
To make the most value of my RLA ticket I decided to watch Sharapova’s match directly after Federer’s, even though it was about 9pm. It was the first Sharapova match I’ve ever watched and I must say, either the TV broadcasters amplify her scream or she has just tuned down the volume of her shriek recently because it really wasn’t much of a nuisance watching her. Her screaming is almost reasonably justified by her heavy groundstrokes. Excluding Serena Williams, she probably hits the hardest, flattest shots on the WTA. Sharapova finished her match in just over an hour and that was Day One at the Australian Open!
When I woke up early next morning, I checked the practice schedule on my phone and saw Federer was going to be practising for an hour on Court 16 at 1pm. Unfortunately, all the players that were scheduled before him were high profile – Verdasco, Kvitova and Sharapova! Aspiring to grab a front row view of the Swiss Maestro, I lined up at the front gate queue at 9am (gates open at 10am). Even though I was among the first 30 people lining up at the gates, I could tell there were many Federer fans just like me that were going to camp at the fence for three hours! When the gates were finally unlocked, it was chaos. There were fans sprinting to the practice courts section as soon as their tickets were scanned at the electronic gates, and I knew my chances of securing a good spot would disappear in a flash if I didn't run as well. So I ran as fast as I could, and what a relief it was when I got to Court 16 and there was still some room left on the fence!
For the next three hours, I preserved through the 30 degree heatwave that plagued Melbourne Park, having watched Fernando Fiasco practice his flashy forehand, Petra Kvitova revving up her heavy topspin serves and Sharapova bashing backhands with high intensity. Once Sharapova had signed autographs, it was at least a ten minute wait for Roger to enter the court. He was usually late to practice, but this time he was later than usual and along with hundreds of other Fed fans, I began to worry whether he would turn up at all. A couple of minutes later, under the blue covered fences, I spotted some neon yellow shoes pacing towards the court along with a few others. The fans on the viewing deck bridge over the court began cheering and clapping and that was the confirmation the GOAT was about to make his entry! First his hitting partner came through the gate, then Severin Luthi and Edberg, then at last Roger appeared and the crowd were erupted! There were even loud groans from the fans around me when Roger decided to practise from the other side of the court. How desperate are some people just to witness a direct side view of the Swiss Maestro!
As usual, Roger rallied with immense power on his shots, despite swinging with such casual motions. His footwork was swift and the flow of his groundstrokes were just poetry in motion. Roger is just so relaxed in his practice sessions and you get a total sense of that when he starts hitting two handed backhands for fun or even throwing in a tweener volley. You wonder why he shouldn’t be more focused, but it just seems to work out for him, having won a record 17 majors you can’t fault him really. And it’s just crazy to consider Nadal puts in 110% effort in his own practice sessions and doesn’t achieve success anywhere as impressive as Federer’s accomplishments.
When the hour was over, Roger began signing autographs and taking selfies, but unfortunately he picked the other half of the court. There was no panic yet, because I knew I still had two more chances over the following couple of days. I decided to stay at the court for an extra hour to watch rising star Eugenie Bouchard. A really committed player that does possess a somewhat arrogant mentality with big ambitions, but I do support Genie because I’ve watched a lot of her matches last year and there is high potential in her abilities, particularly after her spectacular results at the Grand Slams having been the most consistent player.
I missed all the day matches on RLA, defending champ Stan was playing his opening round, but unfortunately that was played during Federer’s practice session. Djokovic was on straight after, but with utmost generosity I had given my ticket to my Serbian friend. Since I had no night session RLA ticket, I decided to walk around the other show courts to see the live matches. I saw the last few games of a marathon 5 set match won by Sergiy Stakhovsky against Dusan Lajovic.
At 6pm I decided to reserve a good front row seat at Radwanska’s first round match against Kurumi Nara. I like Aga, probably my favourite WTA player to watch with her variety and stunning improvisations and touch. Always makes the hot shot highlight reels every tournament. It was a straightforward, one sided affair as it usually was for Radwanska.
Along with my friend, we decided to catch the Querrey vs Pospisil match at Hisense Arena for the night and got great courtside seats as we knew there wouldn’t be many locals turning up. I wasn’t expecting it to go to 5 sets, Querrey looked in control for the first couple of hours. It all unraveled when some bird faeces landed on his side of court, irritating him, which led to a complaint to umpire Mohammed Layhani, who then ordered a ballboy to mop the mess with a towel. This drew jeers from the crowd and several calls of Sam being a ‘pussy’ which pissed him off for the rest of match. The vocal supporters became pro-Pospisil as the match wore on, which really got under Querrey’s skin and he even flipped up the bird at the crowd when he was broken in the deciding set. An entertaining way to end my second night at Melbourne!
The next day, once again I lined up the front queue at 9am as Federer was scheduled to practise on Court 16 for an hour before he played the third day match at RLA. To everyone’s surprise he practised with Edberg for the whole session! It was great to see Stefan’s famous one-handed backhand still in good shape and his deft touch at the net, but surely Roger should have practised with another professional that was capable of playing competitive points as it was only a few hours before his 2nd round encounter. Not often you see Fed this relaxed directly before a Grand Slam match. Having to witness a small panic attack on RLA a few hours later, you do wonder if he had made the right decision.
As Roger left slightly earlier to have lunch, I took my seat in Rod Laver Arena for Sharapova’s match against fellow Russian Panova. The match was on course for a major upset with Panova broke Sharapova in the opening game of the third set. Maria was clearly getting more and more agitated with every unforced error she made and the more she hit, the more uncharacteristic they were. Some games later, Panova had the entire match on her racquet as she served for the match. She had two match points, but with unbelievable clutch mentality, Sharapova saved them both with high-risk forehand winners. From then, the tables turned quite dramatically like the Federer v Djokovic US Open 2011 semi. Panova didn’t win a single game afterwards and it was game, set match to Sharapova in 10 minutes.
When Sharapova left the arena, at least half a thousand more fans piled in, making it a full house in Rod Laver Arena. The crowd was deafening when Federer entered the arena. There never is a single empty seat in the stadium when Roger Federer is playing, you can just tell by glancing left and right, up and down, you won’t find a seat that hasn’t been filled. That’s how engaging the Swiss Maestro’s style of play is. When play started, Roger played very passively in the first few games, allowing Bolelli to control the rallies with his aggressive forehand. I thought Roger was moving okay, but he didn’t seem to defend well enough to counter any of Bolelli’s heavy shots. Roger was instantly broken, no panic signs yet as this was pretty common in the past few years. But it was concerning to see he wasn’t really pilling any pressure into any service games yet. The rest of the set went on, with the same first strike tennis from Bolelli, then a forced error from Federer in the majority of rallies. The crowd was silent, almost stunned. I still wasn’t entirely sure what was wrong with Roger, until the trainer came out. Sitting so far up, there was no chance I see what was going on but from the talk around me, I’d assumed he had a blister on his hand or something.
The opening games of the second were no different to the first, but at least Roger seemed to be more comfortable in long rallies now and he was starting to dig deeper in Bolelli’s service games. Visibly there was more confidence and increasing pop on his groundstrokes. Bolelli began to fold up and backed off, allowing Roger to find multiple break points late in the set. When Roger finally broke, he yelled a massive ‘Komm Jetzt!’ which got everyone going! From then now I knew where the momentum was going and the tables had turned. Another couple of ‘Come on!’s in the next couple of games before Roger served it out really fired up the atmosphere in the arena. You get a real sense of excitement and an overdose of exhilaration when the GOAT yells a ‘Come On, Allez or Komm Jetzt!’. There is no other tennis player who rouses a whole tennis stadium better than Roger Federer!
There was still no real rhythm in the rallies, often consisting of forced errors from either player, and I must admit, it was one of the most boring Federer matches I’ve every seen. Until Roger finally revealed a few tricks up his sleeve and delivered another magical down-the-line drop shot again. A couple of successful serve and volley points from Roger redeemed his confidence and he was able to win the next three sets comfortably. It was a big sign of relief, however I thought Roger’s chances of winning the slam were slim now.
After the match, I got the opportunity to meet and chat with high profile Chinese tennis journalist Bendou Zhang, who won a major award as the top reporter in China recently. He also is the ATP website editor for the Chinese version. He got the awesome privilege of doing a private interview with Federer last year in Shanghai. It was only a 20 minute chat because of Ben’s overloaded schedule, but it was highly intriguing to find out the busy life of a typical top journalist in the sport of tennis. Being a tennis reporter is never a boring job, but due to the volume of matches each day during a tournament, it is a constant rush of scribbling notes and asking questions in the media rooms. It’s not like during the World Cup where there were only a few matches each day. In tennis, a normal reporter spends at least 14 hours at the tournament site!
I walked around Melbourne Park till the first night match started which was Nadal vs Tim Smyczek. I was in the circular corridor outside Rod Laver Arena when I saw Smyczek outclassing Nadal constantly with jaw-dropping shots. Nadal looked out of form, lacking consistency and power. When I saw Nadal had dropped the third set tiebreaker to Smyczek, everyone watching on the big screen was celebrating already! Nadal didn’t look his usual self, but I knew his mentality is rock solid and he’d probably find a way to win the match in 5 and unfortunately, he did. It was a weird day of tennis for the top seeds with Sharapova inches away from elimination, Federer having some problems with his finger and Nadal barely scraping through an epic marathon match against Smyczek.
For the final day in Melbourne, once again I arrived an hour before the gates opened to watch Federer’s midday practice session. If there was time afterwards, I planned to watch Djokovic’s match in RLA. It wasn’t a great schedule as Djokovic’s practice was on just before Federer’s, therefore I had to sprint to court 16 along with Federer and Djokovic fans to snatch another front row view. I did just in time once again, and watched through Serena Williams’ brutal groundstrokes for an hour, then the defending champion and World No.1 player Djokovic arrived. He didn’t seem to be too pleased to see a couple of Swiss flags tied to the fence, because there were no Serbian flags to outnumber the Swiss ones! Shows you how sky high Federer’s popularity is, wherever he goes. Djokovic is a really slim player, but his flexibility and movement is pretty incredible, which explains his strong defence on the court. Maybe even better than Nadal at times. I feel Djokovic is a more complete player than Nadal, but he just cannot outlast him on clay. Djokovic was striking the ball very cleanly on both wings, particularly on his backhand, such a reliable and destructive weapon.
Roger was late, as usual. And this time he practised with a junior player who I cannot identify, but he was pretty solid and able to sustain consistency in the rallies. I did think Fed wasn’t testing himself enough though. Maybe was it the super high confidence he carried in from winning Brisbane? First practising with Edberg and now this relatively unknown junior player? Overly relaxed? Those were the thoughts that I pondered, but I decided to just enjoy the practice without questioning Roger’s choices.
When the session was over, Roger went to sign autographs as usual, but once again he didn’t choose my half of the court! For a split second I was devastated, I had come all the way to Melbourne, lined up every morning an hour before the gates opened to get the best view of the court and watched every one of Federer’s practice sessions, only to miss out on his signature? I knew I had to act instantly. The fans beside me didn’t budge, hoping he would come over, but based on my past experiences I knew it wouldn't happen. Roger was halfway through the other side. It was now or never. I left my bag next to the fence, and shoved my way through the back of the group behind the fence, until I reached the baseline on the other side of the court. There was still a slight opening and I knew I had a chance! I still had to literally stretch my hand forward and lean myself onto the person in front so Roger could see the poster. When you queue on the fence, you should be prepared to be crushed and shoved around by the frantic fans! When Roger arrived where I was, my poster was the only item that was in plain sight, so I knew there was absolutely no chance he would miss it! He even took hold of it for a second to write a smoother signature, and I received it back, overwhelmed with happiness and delight!!! Mission accomplished!
I wandered over to the cosy RLA for the final day match. Djokovic was playing Kuznetsov. It was very one-sided and clinical for the Serbian, all he needed to do was defend well with some stretched shots on the run and Kuznetsov would make an error. Too easy.
During the last stage of my Australian Open 2015 experience, whilst walking near the practice courts section, I noticed on the electronic practice schedule board that Martina Hingis was practising nearby. Having never seen Hingis play in my life, I hurried over to the court she was practising doubles on. She seemed in good spirits with the fixed smile on her face at all times. She was playing a practice match with her mixed doubles partner against Flavia Pennetta and it was good fun to watch. I decided to watch the rest of the session, and then I had to catch my plane home, leaving the grounds before any of the night session matches started.
So I had a fantastic time in Melbourne and this was my second time going there (first in 2013). It’s definitely the most fan friendly Grand Slam on the calendar, boasts the most modern and top facilities. Now there are three show courts with retractable roofs. There are multiple practice courts and a handy schedule to watch the pros up close anytime. It’s quite a substantial sized park so at every corner, there’s always something to watch or experience whether it be practice sessions, attractions, or even musical performances.
Another awesome thing about the Australian Open is, that the Melbourne Park venue is directly next to Melbourne CBD. There is a free tram service provided, that runs from the heart of the city to the front entrance of the park which takes less than 5 minutes! So it is highly recommended to book accommodation in the CBD, then walk down the nearest tram stop and so you arrive at Melbourne Park in the space of 5 minutes! There are a wide variety of shops and restaurants situated on every street, so you will always feel at home.
Well, it was not the ideal result for Roger this year, but there is still a long way to go with plenty of more opportunities to add to his Grand Slam tally count! [Remember, this is the year of the GOAT!] 😉 Allez!
I hope you enjoyed reading my fan story!