After hacking my way through 72 holes of embarrassingly amateurish golf en route to Melbourne a fortnight ago, this author was more than prepared to indulge in some world class sport in the Victorian capital. Fortunately the tennis roadshow had also rolled in to town and tickets that cost a small African GDP were in our pockets.
The first men’s semi-final was top seed Novak Djokovic against El Conejo de Duracell David Ferrer, a match that a friend scalped $250 for the privilege of witnessing. One hour and 29 minutes later, as he watched Jim Courier banter with Djokovic after the rampant Serb steamrolled his adversario español in straight sets, he might have been regretting his decision. Easing the crowd’s palpable sense of disappointment, the legends doubles between French duo Henri Leconte and Guy Forget and Australian-Croat pair Pat Cash and Goran Ivanišević (who received a smattering of boos, either from locals with a chip on their shoulder after vanquishing Pat Rafter in the epic 2001 Wimbledon final, or the pockets of Serbian fans there for Djokovic) turned on a more than entertaining match that lasted much longer than its curtain-raiser. The highlight was undoubtedly Djokovic returning to centre court to ‘treat’ Leconte, almost conscious that his 89-minute shift against Ferrer hadn’t given the gallery value for money.
Old mate would have been better off saving his pennies for Friday night’s clash between Andy Murray – backed by a small army of Union Flag-carrying Rangers supporters despite being a Hibee – and Roger Federer, the human Rolls Royce. The match was enthralling, especially the fourth set, when Murray spurned his opportunity to serve for the match before losing a tie-breaker that sent the contest into a fifth set (which Murray won easily). It was sad to see the silky Federer work so doggedly but ultimately be outmuscled, often outserved, and generally outplayed by Murray, a tradesman of the highest order but lacking the Swiss’ elegance.
The striking quality of Murray’s game – and Djokovic’s, for that matter – is his ferocious intensity. In such a small stadium (14,820 seats, about 8,000 less than Leichhardt on a good day) the entire audience is treated to an intimate view of world-class athletes at work. And that’s not to mention the celebrities: Shane Warne (and his sharp pair of hands), Andy Lee, Paul Chapman and the bloke that played Dennis Lillee in ‘Howzat’ were all spotted. And the sense of occassion is enhanced by the silence that descends on Rod Laver Arena during every point, with the exception of the hushed gasps when a rally is teased out by a string of unlikely returns, the clowns that yell out “show us your bagpipes” the moment Murray enters his serving action, and the earnest members of the congregation that proceed to shush them (I swear the silver-haired pensioner sitting immediately in front of us spent more time craning her neck to offer disapproving glances than actually watching the tennis).
The most noteworthy septuagenarian we bumped into in Melbourne was John Lord, a four-time premiership winner with the Dees who is now an incredibly colourful MCG tour guide (after all, you don’t get many guys who know what it’s like to lift a premiership cup in front of 100,000 people). The tour included entry to the National Sports Museum and the Melbourne Cricket Club collection, featuring the world’s first depiction of cricket on ceramics and one of ‘Big Ship’ Warwick Armstrong‘s old cricket shirts, which looks like a folded up table cloth, or a small bed sheet; the affable old man at the door was quick to show us that item when he noticed one member of our party measured an Armstrong-esque 6’10”.
Saturday’s event – the A-League’s premier fixture, Sydney vs. Melbourne at a pulsating AAMI Park – was about the furthest thing you could find from the MCC’s antique ceramics. The singing, the smokies, the vitriol directed at referee Chris Beath after he dismissed two Sydney players, the pantomime carry-on between the two sets of supporters. The whole occasion would be enough to turn even the firmest of AFL Luddites who continue to mischaracterise the roundball code in the media. It’s barely worth analysing the game from a Sydney perspective, except to say Melbourne now look like good things to lift the toilet bowl at season’s end, and Cranky Franky’s Sky Blues can’t expect to lob seven goals past opponents too often.
At least Sunday provided the sweet taste of consolation, as sheer coincidence saw Melbourne again host Sydney at the Bubble Dome, this time in the W-League grand final. A crowd of 4181 – not to be sneezed at when you look at Heart’s attendances this campaign – contributed to a fantastic atmosphere, with plenty of banter between a strong North Terrace and about 300-or-so away fans who stuck around after the men’s fixture. The travelling Cove – a mixture of players’ friends and families, bay 23 regulars and some Victorian-based Sydney siders – was in good voice, balancing serious support (there were few lulls throughout 90 minutes of singing) and taking the mickey (although in light of the previous day’s defeat, it was hard to tell if the ‘Franky, sign her up’ chants were entirely tongue-in-cheek).
The strong support in the stands suited the calibre of play on the pitch. The technical quality and defensive organisation was impressive (it was refreshing to see a side wearing sky blue be able to string two passes together) and the goals – notably Petra Larsson’s dead ball strike for Melbourne and Kyah Simon’s inch perfect pass to set up Sam Kerr’s diving header (and celebration to match) – were gilt-edged. And while Kyah Simon won plenty of fans by giving the Victory fans the old-lady-at-the-tennis treatment after netting the match-sealing third goal (which also equalised the Sydney-Melbourne weekend aggregate 4-all, in the minds of Sydney fans at least), women’s football earned plenty of admirers with a terrific grand final that showcased the quality of the code. It’s a shame the W-League season isn’t longer than 12 games, or co-ordinated better with the Youth League, because double-headers on a Saturday afternoon would drag plenty of crusted-on football people into the women’s game.
Novak Djokovic. Marco Rojas. Kyah Simon. Shushy old lady at the tennis. The stars of an A-grade Australia Day long weekend.