THE ROAR AND AWE OF THE SPORTS FAN
No distance is too great, no time slot too brief, writes Miriyana Alexander.
My boss went to England for the weekend to watch the All Blacks win the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He says he was on the ground for so little time there wasn’t much point sleeping.
Another workmate made the 36,000km round trip to the UK to watch his much-loved fifth-tier football team lose the match that would have seen them promoted. He was on the ground for about 55 hours — the same time he spent in the air. He swears it was worth it.
Fans have been packing their face paint and flags and crossing items off their sporting wish lists since forever. An Ashes test at Lords, Wimbledon, the Melbourne Cup and the All Blacks taking on England at Twickenham all featured heavily in an informal straw poll of friends’ favourites.
I love sport, but I’m more likely to travel for concerts (Sting and Van Morrison in the UK, George Michael in Sydney). But every January, watching the Australian Open on TV, I’d vow to get to Melbourne before Roger Federer retired.
This year, my chance came.
Melbourne Park is a fabulous venue, an easy walk from the central city. Myriad courts and arenas, and even more bars, cafes and restaurants, means many ways to spend the day.
Families unpacked picnics in the various green spaces where big screens showed the action, the frozen rose flowed in the garden bar, and fans hung around the practice courts to watch the stars warm up.
The nature of tennis means you never know if you’ll see a lowly-ranked unknown or a superstar until the order of play is revealed the previous night. Although if you’re centrecourt at Rod Laver Arena you’re almost guaranteed a big name each session.
This was a stellar field — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, the Williams sisters — and we were in luck, seeing a top seed tumble and a rock star of the game on his way to recordbreaking glory.
The lowly-ranked unknown (No. 117) turned out to be the very cool lime-green-bespectacled Denis Istomin from Uzbekistan. The superstar was world
No. 2 and two-time defending champ Novak Djokovic, the hot favourite to bank the $A3.7 million (NZ$4m) winner’s cheque. Three hours in, Istomin was two sets down and suffering from cramp. He might have had sore legs, but high in the Rod Laver Arena, we had sore bums — although no one was complaining. Almost two hours later, Istomin sent the Serb packing, the crowd into a frenzy and the statisticians to the record books to discover it was Djokovic’s earliest Aussie Open exit in 11 years.
It was exhilarating, something special, and illustrates perfectly why sport resonates. The unpredictability, the drama, the rivalry, passion, talent — and love. In Istomin’s case for his mum, Klaudiya, also his coach, who kept him focused on his dreams as a teen when a serious accident almost saw him give the game away. Real life. It’s always better than fiction.
Later I almost broke my iPhone, impatiently refreshing the Aussie Open app for the next day’s draw. Then there it was: R Federer v T Berdych. I blew Lady Luck a kiss.
And then, there he was. The Fed Express in the flesh. It seemed a shiver went through the crowd and we sat straighter in our seats. The star of the show tucked his hair behind his ear, and raised his arm to the crowd. We all roared our adulation. I wonder if he ever gets sick if it.
In the end it was over too soon. The GOAT* was too good. For someone supposedly past his best, it took him just 90 minutes to destroy the Czech. We could only shake our heads in wonder and awe.
A week later, watching in my living room as Federer beat Nadal in a five-set final, it felt written in the stars.
* I’m not being rude. This means Greatest of All Time.
Spectacles abound at the Aussie Open.