Sunday, January 15, 2006

Melbourne Summer Sunday

It was over 30C at 9am on Sunday morning, having not dropped into the twenties for at least 48 hours. Factor 30 sunscreen already applied, I dressed in white linen head to toe, and added a narrow-brimmed straw hat before braving the outdoors. I stood for over half an hour in already searing heat waiting for the bus to take me to the city. People drove past in air-conditioned cars, the windows sealed shut. One woman rollerbladed down the middle of the road at speed, her orange Thai fisherman’s pants billowing.

The tram to the Australian Open was full (public transport is included in your ticket to the Open and many other sporting events in Melbourne). As we disembarked, a staff member announced by loudhailer that due to the “extreme weather” (now over 40C just before noon) all play was suspended in the outside courts. Undeterred, I brandished my Gold Enclosure ticket and strolled past picnickers and merchandising sellers to the Rod Laver Arena – the “centre court” of the Australian grand slam event.

Being a temp has some advantages: the company I have been working for since December has a big corporate entertainment budget for the Australian Open, and this was one of the things I had been administering during my time with them.

A few days ago the whole of the Sunday afternoon’s allocation pulled out, and the General Manager decided staff would go in their place. Delighted, I joined five other women for a girl’s day out at one of the most prestigious tennis events in the world. Marvellous.

My seat was only five rows from the baseline, and would have been in the shade except, mercifully, they had closed the roof. As the temperature wandered way past 40C outside, I sat with my colleagues in beautiful air-conditioned comfort with an ice-cold bottle of water in hand.
We caught the last set of a men’s doubles match, cheering the US’ Bryan twins to victory. I was just as entertained by the stylised movements of the young ballboys and ballgirls though. The girls borrowed my binoculars to celebrity-hunt in the crowd while I got a text message from one of the very few people I know in Melbourne – I had been spotted on TV!

We broke early to grab a bite to eat in the corporate entertainment area, washed down by a glass or two of chilled champagne of course. Back at our seats we enjoyed the last half of a women’s game between Lindsay Davenport and Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova: Davenport won in two fairly easy sets.

Next up was the fourth-round meet between number two seed Andy Roddick (opposite) and the 20-year-old Cypriot unseeded player, Marcos Baghdatis. Roddick was all set to win, of course; he has almost always got at least as far as the quarter-finals in Melbourne. But the young Cypriot had other plans. Sparred on by a small but amazingly vocal blue-and-white army of fans in the gods, he gave as good as he got, breaking Roddick’s serve more than once, and delivering quite a few lengthy volleys not usually seen outside women’s tennis. Hugely entertaining tennis. The underdog won the first set with relative ease, Roddick fighting back in the second.

By the beginning of the third set the atmosphere was electric: many people in the crowd were shouting support for Roddick but nothing could compare to the onslaught of shouting and chanting from Baghdatis’ fans in blue after every point was scored.

I wondered about this: in a city with the biggest Greek population outside Greece, why were they supporting the American? My colleague finaly explained: they were supporting him because he was losing. Australians traditionally support the little guy, it seems, although nobody would have expected world number three Roddick to be cast in that role today.

We were at the edge of our seats as Baghdatis fought back again and again. Each game was hard won, stuck at advantage/deuce for three, four, five plays. Before we knew it we were at the last few games of the fourth set, and Baghdatis had a serious chance. He hit almost as many aces as Rodddick, both men hitting comfortably above 220km/hr most of the time. He ran Rodddick (and himself) ragged, and found himself at two match points.

The crowd held its breath as he won the second last point with a confident play, and then against all the odds he played his last shot (opposite), confounding the number 2 by defeating him. The whole arena was on their feet applauding both men: what a match. I couldn’t have picked a better day to go to the Open.

Back in the Champions Lounge we sipped some more champagne before braving the heat outside. It was almost 6pm and still way over 40C. At home I sat quietly mopping my face (our house has a tin roof which means it positively attracts the heat) until Orlando was ready to go out.

We headed down to the sea at Williamstown listening to the emergency broadcast on the radio: Victoria is fighting bush fires east and west, and a few homes and lives have already been lost. We listened to people giving eye-witness accounts of the fire lines approaching their towns, of volunteer fire fighters working at one end of a fire only to hear the wind had driven the fire to their own home at the other end of town.

Every 15 minutes the announcers gave a formal emergency warning accompanied by sirens: a wild fire is burning in the following areas. Evacuate or activate your bush fire plan. Meanwhile my sister Mena was at home (a little further west than us) with all the windows and doors closed against the thick smoke blowing east from the fires.

Meanwhile in town a cool change was descending: a weird vagary of Melbourne weather, where the wind changes and the temperature drops like a stone without warning. We watched as the car thermostat fell 0.1C every few seconds, down from almost 41C when we left the house to less than 36C when we got out of the car at the beach a few minutes later. Even at 8pm hordes of people were crowded on the beach, in the water, playing ball, hanging out in the picnic areas or on huge rugs. We strolled along, stopping to buy icecream: it was still beautfully warm but with a fresher breeze. A moment later the wind got a little stronger, and the sea a little choppier.

We turned back towards the car as parents started wrapping towels around children and packing their coolboxes. The wind gusted stronger and stronger in seconds, blowing sand, boogie boards and beach towels right across the street as we struggled along. My icecream was blown off my cone and down my back in the confusion. Within about three minutes the thronged beach was almost deserted, the cars were filling up and a traffic jam was starting along the beach road. It got noticeably cooler every few seconds.

By the time we reached the car it was 27C and by the time we got home it was stable at 26.5C. It had dropped over 14C in less than 45 minutes.