Tuesday 25 January – Out for the Count
Today was Australia Day. A national holiday. A day when Australians celebrate being Australian. Which means parades, fireworks, Triple JJJ (trendy radio station)’s Top 100 songs of the previous year, cricket, BBQs and beer. Well, any kind of alcohol really. This affects the tennis in a number of ways:
1. It makes it bloody hard to get there due to the parade that goes though the centre of Melbourne. Annoying, because they don’t warn you about it.
2. Despite the fact that the last remaining Australians in the singles draws (Stosur and Hewitt) both got knocked out yesterday, every other person at Melbourne Park is covered head to toe in Australian colours / flags / facepaint, etc. Fair go, good on yer mate.
3. There’s a 21 gun salute that’s so loud it sounds like 21 bombs going off, and makes Thomas Muster drop his racket and put his hands up in the air, ready to surrender. Funny guy.
4. There are fighter jets zooming over head performing complicated manoevures. Exciting, but distracting.
5. The men’s singles quarter final (yes, that one) get’s delayed for ten minutes for a firework display. A bonus for spectators, but neither Rafa or Andy looked up, as they sat first patiently, then impatiently, then Rafa gave up, jumped off his bench and started bouncing up and down, to be followed very shortly by Murray. Then they both got tired of that and sprinted off for a bathroom break together. To their credit, the authorities in Melbourne co-ordinate this with the organisers of the Australian Open so that they wait until they end of a game before letting off the fireworks. I expect none of you want to read Murray’s interviews at the moment(!) but he did comment afterwards that “It was a bit strange. It was probably one of the only times that will ever happen during my career, I guess.”
Today was also the second day in a row that I saw every player I was supporting (in the matches I watched) knocked out of the tournnament.
Two by retirement, including Rafa. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it sucked to actually be there for that match. It was the match that I’d been waiting for with both excitement and trepidation all week. I fully expected it to go to five sets. Of all the ways I was prepared for it to end, retirement was the one thing I hadn’t even considered.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
11am Margaret Court Arena – Men’s Legends & Men’s Doubles Quarter Finals
I had tickets for Rod Laver Arena, day and night sessions today, and had fully intended to watch all the women’s Quarter Final matches, but when I looked at the schedule for the day, realised that Margaret Court Arena promised some sparkling doubles action. xta agreed, so we decided to head there instead. Of course I didn’t know about the Australia Day parade so got there about 20 minutes late. Purely by fluke, she was in the first section I looked in, and had secured us front row seats. Fantastic. You can’t actually get any closer to the players unless you’re actually on court with them.
First up: Legends Doubles. Cedric Pioline (FRA) and Guy Forget (FRA) v Todd Martin (USA) and Thomas Muster (AUT). Todd Martin was one of my favourite players in the mid-late 1990s and I’ll never forget a couple of outstanding matches with Tim Henman at Wimbledon. Great player. Lovely bloke. Very funny. What with flybys and gun salutes it was an entertaining match, and a treat to see these legends in action. I scrambled over a few rows of seats at the end and managed to get myself my first (and probably only) autograph of the tournament from Todd, probably because none of the more agile kids around had ever heard of him! He’s coaching Novak, folks. I think with their personalities that’s probably a fun combination.
Next up: Men’s Doubles Quarter Finals. Fernando Gonzalez (CHI) and Ivan Ljubicic (CRO) v Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) and Kuhlmann ????? no guesses as to why I wanted to watch this match. Sadly, no crazy Chilean fans in the audience today. Not a single chant of “Chi Chi Chi, Le Le Le, VIVA Chile” (I stand corrected by a Chilean friend). So, when the Finnish fans got going with their chant, and then the Aussies got going with “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!” (for no other reason than it was Australia Day) I followed with “Chi Chi Chi, Le Le Le…” and got a beam of approval from Feña. Be still my heart… if Verdasco doesn’t get his shit together pretty soon, I’m leaving him for Feña. xta and I got behind out boys and cheered them on loudly, managing to attract another (my third!) smile from Feña… seriously Fer, are you listening? Unfortunately things started to go wrong in the second set, first with Feña and then with Ljubicic (I like Ljubi by the way, he’s gutsy, and the way they touched hands after virtually every point was too cute for words) and they lost the second set. Then, in the third, Ljubicic suffered a groin strain or something and called for a trainer. And that was the end of that. Farewell Feña. You’ve been an absolute JOY to watch, and I’m not going to forget those smiles in a hurry :D I didn’t manage to get an autograph – just not quick enough to get past all the kids – but no matter. Smiles are better than ink.
After the first retirement of the day, xta and I retired for lunch. I’ve been eating junk all week, for want of any alternative, but finally located the one decent café/restaurant, Café Arena which turned out to be not half bad and a pleasant change. Good food, good company. Feeling pretty good.
3:30ish Rod Laver Arena – Andy Roddick v Marin Cilic
Sadly, after the events of this evening, I can’t remember a whole lot about this match now. Almost the entire arena, including me, started out firmly behind Roddick, but I wasn’t totally convinced he was going to get past Cilic (after watching him dispose of Del Potro). Neither of them played consistently superb tennis, and at times there were errors firing all over the place, but Cilic was playing smart, if high-risk tennis, and it made for entertaining viewing. It was a messy, yet somehow tight, affair, and ended in another difficult loss for Roddick. There was some great shot-making and in the last set, the crowd really began to get behind Cilic (Aussies love to back the underdog) and everyone began applauding great shots from both players. It was a truly fantastic atmosphere. Sorry Andy, but Iike dear Feña, I sense you’re destined never to win that elusive Grand Slam. Not because you’re not capable of it, but because I sense the luck is never quite going to go your way. I hope it does. You’re not one of my favourite players, but you deserve it after that loss at Wimbledon.
7:30 Rod Laver Arena – Rafa v Murray
xta and I had seats in adjacent sections for this one, so we met between our doors before the match, hoping to meet up with Atch as well, who timed a holiday in Oz to coincide with the Quarter Finals. Tip to future tournament goers – it’s not a good idea to meet at the door because it’s way too crowded. Much better to agree a place outside. Anyway, eventually we all found even other and managed a brief hello. Atch – lovely to meet you, even if very very briefly!
And then it was on. I’ll be honest, I was shaking again for this one. I felt pretty confident and optimistic going in about the way Rafa’s been playing, the changes he’s been making, and was confident he could pull it out against Andy. I fully expected it to go five sets though, because an in-form Murray is a tough challenge, and he’s been playing very well lately, apart from the loss to Tommy in the Hopman Cup (I haven’t managed to watch that match yet, still on the DVR at home though but will be a nice way to cheer myself up – still pissed I didn’t get to see Robredo play). I was hoping the umpire for the match might be Mohammed Lahyani, but haven’t seen him at all this tourney.
And so it was on. I know you all watched the match. So I guess I don’t need to tell you what happen, but here’s my experience of it.
Rafa was playing great tennis, perhaps not his 100% best, but at least 95%, but Andy was one step ahead. Soooo tight that first set. Some great tennis from both of them. Crowd electric from the start – loads of ex-pat Murray supporters – but plenty of support from Rafa too. Loved the people sitting behind me. Swiss / German (?) guy next to me claimed to be neutral, but was muttering under his breath about Rafa and clapping him more than Andy. I lent some card and markers to the people behind me so they could make Love Rafa signs, and because I was only one row back from the front of the upper tier, and the people in front were also Rafa supporters, was able to tie my big Spanish flag underneath the Australian Open signage. Having got past my initial “Oh my God I’m watching Rafa for the first time fog” I was able to pay a lot more attention to the match and the way he was playing. I was pleased to see him come in several times, but he wasn’t doing enough with his drop volleys. This is Murray you’re playing Rafa, I muttered under my breath, if you let him come in he’s going to kill you. If you’re going to play it short against him, you have to make sure it’s a winner. Mr. Neutral was nodding in agreement. After several such mistakes, I’m happy to say he did start to figure it out. His down the line shots seemed to be troubling him a bit, just not quite making the lines and the corners, shots going wide, etc not bad errors, but errors none the less he couldn’t affford against Murray. I saw him studying his racket, looking at the strings. You can look at the strings all you like Rafa, but you decided to change them ;-)
Then there was Murray’s serve… when the hell did Muzza learn to serve like that?! Only weeks ago, you guys were jumping on me when I said he serves and volleys well (serves-and-volleys is what I meant, his serve is not usually one of his strengths) but in this match Murray was serving well by anyone’s standards, very well for him. And it made a difference. Had he fluffed his serve more often, Rafa would have a lot more chances. Towards the end of the first set I began to get a sinking feeling. Murray was 100% on, and Rafa just not quite at his best. But the second set was still pretty tight, until that fall. I didn’t see how it happened. The guy next to me thought he slipped on the line. Slipped on the line? What the….? xta, who was not too far from Rafa’s box, overhead him say something to Uncle Toni about his shoes. Maybe they weren’t gripping properly – he did seem to be slipping a bit during the match, and there was just one or two points (only a couple mind) where both Mr. Neutral and I were like “Why didn’t he run that down”? But still, it came as a complete shock when he walked off court, mid game, and called for a trainer. Mid game! This is Rafa we’re talking about. The old Rafa would play until he could no longer stand to give his opponent the opportunity to beat him, rather than walk away from the fight, so something serious had to be up, no?
I have my face in my hands at this point, wishing my flag wasn’t tied to the stand so I couldn’t hide behind it. Our little Rafa-corner is muttering amongst ourselves, shaking our heads, murmuring “This can’t be good, this can’t be good”. There is no pleasure from seeing the trainer rubbing his thigh, no exclamations from the girl behind me about wishing she could be doing that. We know this isn’t good.
But Rafa gets up and is back on court to great applause. He keeps fighting. But what you probably didn’t catch in the TV coverage a short while later, because the camera was on Murray, was Rafa turning to Toni and shaking his head as if to say I can’t do this, and Toni half nodding as if to say, okay. That was the moment I knew it was all over, it was only a matter of when. And shortly after that Rafa walks over to the umpire, apologises to Andy, and that’s the end of it. I couldn’t believe it. The whole arena was in a state of disbelief. I may have been too wrapped up in my own disappointment and concern to notice, but I’m fairly sure even the vocal Murray supporters kept quiet until a more appropriate moment for celebration. I grabbed my stuff, left my seat and met xta at the exit but stopped to hear what Murray had to say. I had a text message from a Spanish friend asking if I was at the match, and because he was in Queensland and therefore watching the match on a hour’s delay, didn’t know what had happened. I replied yes, but he’s injured, he’s just retired. And he immediately me phoned me to say, what the…?! So I left the arena to talk to him and missed the end of Murray’s interview.
xta and I decided we needed to go and drown our sorrows. I don’t normally drink, but felt the situation required some consolation. So we walked into the city and found a bar where we sat in shock and commiserated. Thank you xta – it was good to have someone to share the pain with, and lovely to meet you and hang out at the doubles matches too. It helped to take the edge off Rafa’s retirement. I managed to keep it together until I got back to my hostel, logged onto NN, saw the close-up photos from the match of Rafa and Andy’s interaction when he retired, and shed a few tears. I’m writing this a couple of days later because I really couldn’t hack trying to write about it then.