Australian Open Diary: Contests in the crowd
Show Court 3 in Melbourne Park lies hidden in the shadow of Margaret Court Arena. But this does not seem to dwarf it in any way. Instead, the show court stands out like a bright penny under the blue skies. It is a compact stadium which seats around 3000 people.
The seating is arranged in a circular manner, looking down into the court. At the lower tiers, you feel you could reach out and almost touch the players. All this provides Show Court 3 with the feel of a gladiatorial arena. This is especially true on days like today when the crowd is expected to play as much a part in proceedings as the players.
Fantastic lineup on show court 3
Grigor Dimitrov, the tenth seed, takes on Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus here in a third round encounter of the Australian Open. It is the opening match of the day, but the court is already packed to capacity. Flags of Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria are waving in the crowd. The players begin their warm-ups, and the crowd begins theirs too. “Forehand, forehand, backhand, forehand…” they cry out in unison each time the players make contact with the ball during their warm-up rally.
The main crowd participants in the proceedings for the day then step up. This is Team Baghdatis, five rows of spectators, decked mainly in blue and white, and clearly with a Greek or Cypriot disposition. They are predominantly young, male, and intent on making themselves heard. They test out their vocal chords with a few chants, each ending with “Mar-cos Bagh-dat-is”.
To their surprise, they hear a concerted reply coming from another section of the crowd, chants that end in “Gri-gor Di-mit-rov”. This is Team Dimitrov, a smaller group of fans occupying 2 rows, decked in scarves of Bulgarian white, red and green.
Team Baghdatis vs Team Dimitrov
The teams test each other out with their chants. Each cry is full-blooded, and returned with interest. Neither team is backing down, and the match has not yet begun.
Dimitrov and Baghdatis start proceedings on court, and their respective cheerleading teams begin a contest of their own. The beginning of the first set is a cacophony of noise and cheers from the stands. Each and every point won by either player is received by a couplet of praise from their individual cheering squads.
It is soon apparent that Team Baghdatis is in a class of its own, almost professional in their approach to fan support. This is seen in all the details they have looked after. They occupy five rows, with the first row in the lowest tier of seats. This gives them access to the large advertisement banners that run around the entire periphery of the court.
The banners are, naturally, put to good use as background percussion instruments. They strike up a loud, catchy beat to accompany all their chants, which gives them a significant advantage over Team Dimitrov. They also have their most enthusiastic and voluble members in the first row, who provide continuous direction and leadership to their cheering efforts.
The repertoire of tunes with Team Baghdatis is very impressive as well. These are mostly in their native tongue, with a few English numbers tossed in. There are songs short enough to fit in between points, songs to fill in the gap between games, and even special numbers reserved for set-winning celebrations. Each is rendered with a degree of unison and clarity that makes it easy to believe that Team Baghdatis has done this routine for years.
Team Dimitros were not prepared for the fight
Team Dimitrov, on the other hand, do not appear to be that professional. They seem more like a group of spectators who decided to support their fellow Bulgarian in this match, and in the process, realized they needed to take on Team Baghdatis. They have a limited number of tunes to choose from, and tend to fall back on cries of “Gri-gor-Di-mi-trov”. But what they lack in numbers and cohesion, they make up for with their enthusiasm.
The first set is a hot contest between the two teams. Towards the end of the set, Baghdatis squeezes in a break, and points upwards to his Team. They explode in return, and drown out all possible competition for some time. When the Cypriot wins the first set, Team Baghdatis gets into a football huddle, and engages in an extended performance that lasts for more than three minutes and keeps the entire crowd entertained.
Entertainment on the court as well
Meanwhile, on the court, it is a fun match to watch as well. Both players are never shy of going for the adventurous or flashy shot, and also possess the skills for it. Dimitrov is clearly not playing at his best, but still moves like a smooth, well-oiled machine. His creativity in shot-making comes to the fore, as he makes the ball skim past the net, curve back into court, or drop gently on the other side. All this is done with the most elegant of court movement. He is truly a pleasure to watch.
Baghdatis, on the other hand, is a very different player, but equally delightful. He looks to come to the net frequently, and uses innovative approach shots to get there. He appears slightly slower than when at his peak, and he no longer adopts his pre-serve routine of dribbling the ball between his legs. But the flair and shot-making skills that saw him make a magical run to the final of the Australian Open, way back in 2006, is still very much intact.
In fact, it was in that tournament that he developed a strong and colourful fan base among the high concentration of Greeks and Cypriots that live in Melbourne. The support he received then became one of the trending topics of the 2006 tournament. Today, it is clearly apparent that Baghdatis is still a huge crowd-favourite at Melbourne.
After close to three hours, the match is tied at two sets apiece. The players return to their service positions, but the crowd gets into the act. Both the Teams set up a loud cheer, in which the entire crowd enthusiastically joins in. The cheer runs unabated for a long time, as the players wait for the noise to die down. The context for the final set has been set.
Dimitrov has come back strongly into the match, after a shaky start. In the final set, he breaks Baghdatis early to power ahead. Team Dimitrov are now getting increasingly vocal, and have been joined by other Bulgarian fans scattered across the court. Team Baghdatis do not miss a beat though, and each time the other team begins a chant, they successfully drown them out with their own.
Seeing Dimitrov on their side of the court, and obviously frustrated with his success, they now break into a chant which includes references to Maria Sharapova. This draws a murmur from the crowd, and they apologetically laugh it down. After more than three hours under the sun, their never-flagging support is an impressive testimony to their stamina levels.
Dimitrov stronger than Team Dimitrov
On the court, however, things are slightly different. Baghdatis appears to be tiring, and his unforced error count increases steeply. Serving at 3-5, he commits two double faults, to take Dimitrov to match point. When Baghdatis’ final shot hits the net, Dimitrov roars out in delight, and the Bulgarian fans go crazy. It is impossible to be heard in the melee. The entire crowd suddenly seems to be alive in red and green.
And for the first time, Team Baghdatis goes quiet for a while. Their man has been vanquished. Another edition of their quest at the Australian Open, to carry the Cypriot back to the giddy heights of 2006, has come to an end. But the moment soon passes, and they are back to their raucous self, clapping and chanting. Only this time, a note of satisfied appreciation seems to have replaced the earlier note of fanatical support.
The players embrace long and warmly at the net, in recognition of the epic match they have played. They then turn to thank their respective cheering squads for their own battle they have fought in the stands. Baghdatis gives his Team a thumbs-up and applauds them heartily. Team Baghdatis responds with a loud and final cheer, as their man makes his way out of the court.
Today, while Baghdatis lost in a close match, Team Baghdatis won by a comfortable margin.