By Jesse Pentecost
Being essentially a radioactive substance, a tournament draw at a tennis event conforms to a fixed and exponential rate of decay. At Grand Slam level, each event discards precisely half its mass as charged particles every two days, although inevitably some of the particles are more charged than others. Some are less so: Gilles Simon was an almost-inert particle. Janko Tipsarevic discarded himself. Four half-life cycles are complete, and the original 128 participants have been reduced to just eight. Nuclear scientists usually refer to this point as the ‘quarterfinals’, which has recently passed over into the common vernacular, whereupon it was adopted by tennis. To those watching on television, the ‘quarterfinals’ represents the point at which a Major really slides into gear. For those still roaming the grounds, the opposite is true.
To attend a Major tournament in its first few days is to be immersed utterly in tennis. You learn to breath it or you suffocate. There are singles matches happening on every court, even those so remote from the center that they boast radically different atmospheric conditions. However, the rate at which tournament draws decay means that by the first weekend even the showcourts are hosting farcical ‘Legends’ doubles matches featuring Mansour Bahrami or Henri Leconte slipping racquets down their trousers, in the probably justified hope that the capacity crowd will watch anything. It certainly doesn’t hurt attendance. (At the US Open they were so worried that top-class tennis would bore the crowd that they finagled in Adam Sandler and Kevin James to contest a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.)
Even by the second round, the remote courts are repurposed for doubles, then after that to mixed doubles, and then to the juniors. By the second week they’re exclusively the province of wind and ghosts. Today, out by Court 15, I idled with the charmless phantasms and listened to the faint roar of human voices emanating from Rod Laver Arena. But then, what do you expect? That’s the way it works.
Some clearly expect more. Judging from those I talked to, no few of the grounds pass holders were suffering acute disappointment at the discovery that they wouldn’t be able to see Roger Federer or Serena Williams play, except on the big screen in Garden Square – which is like paying to watch television in the sun – or on the practice court, which is about as perilous as venturing into a mosh pit. Still, many do venture in, willingly. Regardless of age, an elbow to the face is a small price to pay for the chance to stare at Maria Sharapova as she confers with her coach.
One of the fans I spoke to must have been in her fifties. I’d earlier encountered her as she waved her flag at Sara Tomic, and she proudly showed me her autograph haul. Her pride was later surpassed by disappointment when the announcement came through that Federer’s practice session had been moved indoors, away from adoring eyes. She clearly had a mental check-list of players she simply had to see – perhaps she had a real list secreted about her person – and now at least one name would have to remain unchecked. Alas, she didn’t have tickets to Rod Laver Arena – no one told her they’d be necessary – but resolved to watch Federer play the ‘Canadian boy’ tonight from Garden Square, which is actually circular.
Then again, another man I spoke to said he preferred to watch the matches on the big screen. According to him, you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the main arenas; you’d be shushed by snooty patrons for opening a packet of crisps, or sipping your beer. There was always the possibility that I’d discovered the world’s noisiest eater, but it’s unlikely. Somehow he’d confused Rod Laver Arena with an art-house cinema in a Cistercian monastery. For the record, eating is permitted, not to say encouraged. The lines of RLA ticket-holders bearing trays of Heinekens and nachos provided overwhelming visual evidence of this. Still, he too would watch Serena and Roger from Garden Square. At least it was a gorgeous evening.
Anyway, my point is that plenty of people don’t quite realise what they’re getting themselves in for when they buy a grounds pass in the second week. They expect to see big name players plying their trade. I suspect this partly reflects the distortion inherent in televised sports. On television the second week of a Major appears to have as much tennis as the first, except it is better quality and more exciting. After four rounds of build-up, suddenly the top players are playing each other.
An astute fan might notice that the coverage is increasingly confined to the main court, but to the casual viewer all the courts look the same anyway, and they have no interest in knowing where anything is occurring. Hisense Arena, Rod Laver Arena – on television they’re all just confusing names for an identical swatch of cobalt across which exceedingly fit young men and women scamper. But when you’re on the grounds, and all you have is a grounds pass, they’re impenetrable zones of privilege from which the unwashed masses are excluded. I should stress that this isn’t true for everyone. There were plenty of people watching doubles on Showcourt Two because it was preferable to watching Andy Murray and Simon on Hisense.
In any case, the broadcaster works hard to convey the impression that the grounds remain frenziedly active, even as the last weekend draws near. But anyone visiting the grounds on the second Monday will encounter a strikingly different event than they would have on the first Monday (and I can barely imagine what it’s like at the US Open, where there’s a third Monday). So, while the Australian Open gathers pace and surges towards the finals, spare a thought for those still flooding the grounds, who might feel like the tournament is already over, and that they missed it.