It does feel a little strange not to be watching the Australian Open in my usual manner: waking up bleary-eyed in the middle of the night at home, doing my best to be part of the #SleepIsForTheWeak gang. When I think of the Australian Open, this routine is what comes to mind. I've been doing it for all my years as a tennis fan as I described it here. It’s a gruelling way to spend a fortnight, but gratifying when you find solidarity with people on Twitter who are doing exactly the same thing.
My experience of the Australian Open this year, however, could barely be more different. The only similarity will be the lack of sleep. That’s because, for the first time in my life, I’m in Melbourne! And I’m representing The Tennis Podcast.
So how did I get here? Well, it all began in 2015 with a tentative tweet to David; did he and Catherine by any chance need some help with the podcast? Luck was on my side. With the podcast growing, they were struggling to keep up with the snowballing demands. And so began my stint as Student Matt. In between my university lectures (and sometimes instead of them), I would help out in any way I could. I’d take over social media duties, I’d come up with content ideas for the show, I’d live-tweet Grand Slam draws. My role was small, but it at least took some of the workload off of David and Catherine. Besides, it was nice to play a part in a podcast I’d been listening to since it started in 2012.
With time, my responsibilities grew. I began helping with the organisation behind the scenes, coming up with more detailed agendas, uploading the show, and writing articles for The Telegraph website as a way of promoting each episode. After I graduated last June, David and Catherine hired me to work for them part-time until the end of the year. I became Grad Matt. During this period we were able to produce daily podcasts at the ATP Finals for the first time. I then had the opportunity to go to Lille to report on the Davis Cup final. Then came our successful 2019 Kickstarter.
All of this has led me to where I am now, sitting in the Australian Open media centre, with an accreditation pass around my neck, beginning my first week of work as a full-time member of The Tennis Podcast team. The last thing I want to be is an intruder – David and Catherine are The Tennis Podcast. They’ve built it from scratch, nurtured it, and made it what it is. But I’m extremely thankful to them – and all the Kickstarter backers – for allowing me to have a role.
Over the next fortnight I’ll do my best to add what I can to our coverage, with some contributions on the pod and observations in my daily blog. I’m not quite sure what form these posts will take, it’s an experiment really. But I’m aiming to speak to some players, report on some matches, and generally give my impressions as an Australian Open first-timer.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that, during every Grand Slam tournament, lots of the best action over the first few days is to be found away from the show courts. So, while there are some great storylines and some eye-catching matches involving the big names this week – Andy Murray vs Roberto Bautista Agut and Simona Halep vs Kaia Kanepi spring immediately to mind – I’ll be sure to roam the outside courts too. This is something I love to do. These courts don’t always transfer well to television – whether bird-eye or ant-eye, the camera angle tends to be unsatisfactory – but there’s not much better in this world than rows and rows of courts, with world-class tennis going on as far as one can see.
Travelling to tournaments, talking about tennis, writing about tennis… that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But living your dreams is as risky as it is exciting. What if they don’t meet your expectations? What if you let yourself down? How will you find satisfaction afterwards? I grappled with these questions on the 24-hour flight to Melbourne, wondering what the next two weeks would bring, and what my place would be. I’m still figuring that out, but I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.
Here are some quick thoughts from my first day:
Alex de Minaur and Ash Barty are the poster players of this tournament. The Aussies adore them. And why wouldn’t they? De Minaur has the never-say-die attitude they crave, Barty has the style they love. The local press is bigging them up to anyone and everyone who will listen. But, on today’s evidence, they won’t be the players receiving the most fervent support in Melbourne…
…that will be for Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari of Greece. Melbourne is the city with the largest population of Greek people outside of Greece, and they came out in force to support their players today. And boy were they noisy. I first heard them during the Tsitsipas-Berrettini warm-up, and I could still hear them as I watched Boulter vs Makarova on a different court. A little later, after seeing on my monitor that Tsitsipas had clinched match point, I rushed over to Court 3 in the hope of getting a picture of the 30-strong army of Greek fans huddled together in celebration. I didn’t get the picture, but I did get to witness their extraordinary march from one side of Melbourne Park to the other, chanting and singing as they went. Their destination? Melbourne Arena where Maria Sakkari was playing. They willed her to victory too. This place has had a taste of this Graeco passion before, with Marcos Baghdatis’ run to the final in 2006 inspiring support from the Greek Cypriots in town. If either Tsitsipas or Sakkari can make a deep run this fortnight, it’s going to be one very loud joyride.
Speaking of The Melbourne Arena, it must be in a different post code to the rest of the courts. It’s miles away from anywhere else! David even admitted to me earlier in the week that, in his 15 years of coming to the Australian Open, he’s never been there!
The best thing at Melbourne Park actually has nothing to do with tennis. It has to do with keeping cool. It’s a 10-metre long tunnel which sprays water as you go through. After spending the best part of an hour out in the heat for Boulter vs Makarova (the kind of conditions that caused my iPhone to bring up a message saying it needed to cool down before I could continue using it), I made my way back to the press centre by walking through this tunnel, doing a u-turn, and walking through it again. Heaven.
Continuing today’s theme of tennis players not knowing the rules (see Katie Boulter and 10-point tie-breaks), Sloane Stephens has some brushing up to do regarding the heat policy. I enjoyed this exchange in her press conference:
Q. It wasn't quite needed today but it was still pretty hot out there.
What do you make of the new heat policy here at the Open?
SLOANE STEPHENS: And what is that?
Q. So you weren't aware of the new heat policy?
It's complicated to explain.
SS: Okay. Well, can you like sum it up?
Q. So there is a scale now, rate the heat on 1 to 5, 5 being extreme where the roof is closed, lower on the scale potentially you get a longer break at the end of the second set.
SS: Like the 10-minute break rule?
SS: Someone was actually talking about that so I didn't understand what was going on. Someone says if it gets to 4 and the heat rule is in? I had no idea what they were talking about. That makes sense. I can't comment because I have no idea what it all means or how it works. Sorry.
The Margaret Court Arena has the most gorgeous red brick roof. It wouldn’t look out of place in Lisbon.
Garden Square is not a square at all.
Jessika Ponchet – a qualifier from France - only lasted 1h 17m as she lost in straight sets against Caroline Garcia. But she made an impression on me: she has some of the wackiest, most unorthodox groundstrokes imaginable, including a rarely-seen-in-the-women’s-game-single-handed-backhand. It’s a bit like Naomi Broady’s in that she never looks quite ready for it. And her forehand is out there too. Her quirkiness might end up holding her back, but in this era of homogenous game-styles, hers is an outlier. That’s something to celebrate.
Feliciano Lopez took to the court today, as he has done in every Grand Slam since the 2002 French Open. That’s 68 consecutive Grand Slam appearances. An all-time record.