Melbourne – life and love

Day 15 – Thursday, January 29

Two of the enduring passions of my long life have been sport and travel. I’ve fallen painfully out of love with some things and a few people, but those two addictions have remained remarkably constant.

To be in Melbourne today to see the Australian Open mens’ semi final between Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych  combines both sport and travel in an intoxicating alchemy. Walking from the city along the Yarra river, leaving the shiny skyscrapers behind and approaching one of the world’s greatest sporting arenas is a rare privilege.

Thanks to our Sportsnet package, we’ve got excellent seats about 12 rows from the front, on one corner of the court. We’re in position about half an hour before the 7:30 pm start, chatting to the elderly US couple next to us…he’s surprised her with a trip to Australia and to the Open, and then on to New Zealand, to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Passion.

The Rod Laver Arena is gladiatorial. The retractable roof slides effortlessly closed as the appointed hour approaches, presumably to accentuate the drama through lighting and music…because as the players warm up, they open it up again to reveal the still bright Melbourne sunshine, and to let in the surprisingly lively and cool wind.

Andy starts the first set as though he doesn’t want to be there. Tomas is hitting the ball much more cleanly, and producing searing winners. Andy is fiddling with a dodgy left ankle, and then a right thigh or knee, casting anxious glances towards his entourage and struggling to stay in the set.

Slowly, alongside his renowned defensive qualities, his confidence and momentum seem to improve. But not enough to save the first set, which he does well to take to a tie-break.

But thereafter he’s in the ascendancy, taking the next two sets 6-0 and 6-3. He’s in control of more rallies, moving his opponent around the baseline like a marionette and his puppets. Berdych’s energy is being sapped.

As with all sporting occasions, it’s as much about the peripheral incidents, people and smells around you that create a compelling occasion.

The 4 Andy Murrays stand up during end changes to belt out eulogies to their man, clearly well rehearsed over a few beers in one of their Scottish living rooms during the dark days of winter. A few other Brits closer to us chug pint after pint, are less rehearsed and become more and more abusive. The corporate suits immediately behind us discuss telecoms deals. Seagulls inhabit the night sky and float around the open roof, illuminated like dancers in a ballet. The smell of an Asian noodle dish tickles the nostrils.

The 4th set is closer but Andy takes it 7-5 and is into his 4th AO final…having lost the other three. In the immediate on-court interview, he pays tribute to his female coach Amelie Mauresmo and hints at the tension in the first set being due to his ex-trainer now coaching Tomas.

A great night. A great sporting – and travel – occasion. A great result.

And the perfect conclusion to a day in which we had earlier dub beneath Melbourne’s skin, after the previous day’s circular orientation tour.

We had enjoyed a brilliant brunch at Sally’s Kitchen,  spontaneously bought tockets for Baz Luhrmann’s musical production of Strictly Ballroom on Sunday afternoon, admired the architecture of the Royal Exhibition and Melbourne Museum in Carlton Gardens, stood in Ned Kelly’s cell during the moving tour of Melbourne Gaol, whizzed through the free Bohemia exhibition at the Melbourne Library, and enjoyed sundowner beers on the remarkable Ponyfish Island in the middle of the Yarra.

And then enjoyed a satisfying pre-tennis tapas supper at La Citta in the dingy Degraves Laneway, off Flinders Street. Crumbed eggplant chips with chipotle mayonnaise. Pork & beef meatballs with Napoli sauce. Lamb shank arancini. Smoked confit duck with croutons and cournichons.

Travel. Sport. Food. Beer. Wine.

So many passions in one short day.

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