Melbourne Park is a large and sprawling campus, with a number of entry points. Sometimes, it can even be confusing to find the right entrance. But today, there is no such problem. You just need to follow the crowd. A swarm of people make their winding way to the Melbourne Park entrance. It is a dense crowd, but there is no apparent rush. People walk slowly, share a joke, help carry picnic hampers. Everyone is relaxed, and looking forward to a full day of tennis – the opening day of the Australian Open.
While the crowds mill about on the outside courts, Rod Laver Arena is less than half full for the beginning of the opening match. Simona Halep and Karin Knapp begin proceedings on centre court. Perhaps the lack of energy in the stadium is contagious, but both players begin sluggishly, with some scratchy play. Early service breaks are exchanged and unforced errors abound. A couple of Italian journalists nearby are voluble in their description of Knapp’s hits and misses. They know the Italian has an opportunity here, before the third seed gets into her groove. But the momentum gradually fades. Halep’s grunts become more intense, and her strokes more penetrative. Soon, she claims the first set, and the journalists’ Italian dialogue now feels tinged with resignation.
Seated inside the Hisense Arena, the building has an ‘industrial’ feel compared to the Rod Laver Arena, with its steel structures and steep seating incline. Belinda Bencic, one of the bright young stars of the WTA, is playing her opening match here. Bencic has squeezed in as the last of the 32 seeds, but has still been unlucky in drawing the dangerous Julia Georges as her first round opponent. Things are not going well for the youngster, as she is down a set and a break. After missing a serve, she receives a ball from the ballkid and angrily throws it back. She gazes up in frustration at her team in the front row, which includes the original Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis. They stare back without emotion at her.
Yuki Bhambri is on Margaret Court Arena, and has just commenced his first ever appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam. He is playing against the sixth seed, Andy Murray, who is looking a little unsure of himself. Bhambri finds his opening service game going to deuce, but manages to hold on. After winning his first game, he shares an almost sly grin with his team in the crowd. Perhaps, this might be fun after all.
As Bhambri’s match progresses, score updates from other courts are flashed on the big screen. Ana Ivanovic has lost in her opener. Caroline Garcia has taken out Svetlana Kuznetsova. Despite the best planned schedule, it is impossible to catch a piece of all the action that happens on the day. The perils of opening day viewing.
Bhambri hits a final forehand long, and Murray is relieved to have won in straight sets, the third in a tie-breaker. Bhambri ends with a predictable loss, but he has challenged Murray and acquitted himself well. He leaves the stadium to a warm round of applause from the crowd. Murray has words of appreciation for his opponent. He says Bhambri pushed him hard across all three sets, and that he doesn’t think Bhambri’s current ranking is a true measure of his talent.
Rafael Nadal, in a pink and fluorescent green outfit, is bounding across centre court. He returns Mikhael Youzhny’s single-handed backhand with a trademark tomahawk forehand, and follows it up with a trademark fist-pump. Nadal is looking fit and solid, and shows no signs of rustiness or injury. The match-up brings back memories of a Chennai Open final many years ago, when a listless Nadal lost to Youzhny. Today, the roles are reversed, as they have been for quite sometime, and Youzhny does not stand a chance. Towards the end of the third set, he faults on his serve. “One more”, comes a cry from the crowd. Youzhny stops in his service motion, throws his arms wide at the crowd and calls out in mock-exasperation, “Why?” The crowd laughs. Everyone knows where this match is headed.
The night session is underway on Rod Laver Arena, and who else but Roger Federer to welcome the lights for the tournament. Yen-Hsun Lu pushes Federer outside the court with a stinging forehand, but the Swiss master curls a return past the side of the net for an incredible winner. The crowd gasps, and roars in approval. This is what they have come to see. Some Federer magic. Maybe a drop shot from the back of the court with huge backspin, maybe an overhead winner while running backwards. It is almost as if people expect these strokes of genius from Federer on demand.
An opening-round epic is winding to its conclusion on one of the outside show courts. Thanasi Kokkinakis, of the young Aussie brigade, and fiery Ernests Gulbis, have been engaged in an up-and-down battle, and are now deep into the fifth set. The court is jam-packed and buzzing with energy, the giant screen outside has people milling in front of it, each point is greeted with a roar or a groan. Serving 6-7 down, Gulbis sends down a couple of double faults and an errant forehand to surrender the match. Kokkinakis falls flat on his back in victory, and almost ends up doing a head stand. Amid the ensuing din, the young Aussie does a brief victory lap around the court, slapping hands, accepting pats and hugs, and getting mobbed in general. The scene of exuberance seems a fitting way to end an eventful opening day at the Australian Open.Published 19 Jan 2015, 20:55 IST