That's the very beautiful Ana Ivanovic above serving during her first round match in 2007. I was reminded of this picture when I was watching her today play against Serena Williams on her Round of 16 match at the 2014 Australian Open. How I wish I was back there again. The energy and the atmosphere of the Rod Laver Arena during a great match could not be felt if you're just watching on TV.
How did I become a tennis fan?
Well, I actually started as a tennis player. On weekends, that is.
Back when I was still living in Manila, during weekends, I'd go to the Culture Center of the Philippines complex, where they converted the parking lot behind the CCP into tennis courts with uneven surface, ugly lines and old nets that had seen better days, or in their case, better matches. I'd pay a few hundred pesos back then to some so-called tennis instructors, who half-heartedly taught me to serve, volley and hit a decent forehand. Luckily, there was a wall next to the CCP where I actually improved my hand-eye coordination and reflex by hitting balls against the wall using double-handed forehands and backhands.
(Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet)
And over the years, I developed my own double-handed backhand when I started playing at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, which had the best tennis courts in Manila. Playing there was a bit more expensive though and the courts were usually full on weekends.
I'd usually play against friends; sometimes against strangers. I sometimes won and sometimes didn't. But it was the fun, the exercise and the goal to improve my game that dragged me to the courts over the years.
(My favorite male player, Rafael Nadal practicing
his serve with his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal)
And then I came to Korea.
Over the years, playing against friends on the clay courts of Hannam-dong and the hard courts of Jangchung have enormously improved my tennis. I remember I joined my first tournament organized by the office tennis club in the summer of 2005. My doubles partner Jaesun and I lost...all of our matches. Ha-ha-ha! It was held on a Saturday morning and I remember I left the tennis courts limping all the way to my Korean class at YBM Sisa in Jongno that afternoon. But it was fun and a realization for me that I needed to improve a lot of aspects of my game before I competed again.
And then I met Lynette and Rene, a couple from Australia who are both very good doubles players. I played a few times with them and learned a lot of techniques, especially on clay. (Thanks, Lynette and Rene!) And in the winter of 2005, I competed again in another tournament, this time with another very good partner, Woojae.
This time, I could not believe it -- we won all our matches! I was a doubles champion in just six months! Finally! This is how hard work pays off.
(The tennis crowd at the Rod Laver Arena)
(Martina Hingis serving. I actually had a placard made for Martina which I displayed during her match)(Ball boys)
Before Lynette and Rene left Seoul to go back to Australia, they invited me to visit them in Melbourne. Of course, who would want to decline such an invitation? That's the home of the Australian Open!
So, in January 2007, I flew to Melbourne onboard Singapore Airlines, which have fabulous service and in-flight entertainment, by the way. Upon landing, I already tried to copy the Aussie accent that when my turn came up at the immigration line, I greeted the officer, "Good-dye-might!". I sounded like a local. Ha-ha-ha!
(A younger Andy Murray, whom I asked for a photo.
He was very nice.)
(Sir Richard Branson was also very nice.
I also had a photo with him.)
Having bought tickets for first round matches months ahead, Lynette, Elizabeth, another friend from England, and I took the train from Mount Eliza and headed to Melbourne Park.
I remember the excitement, the atmosphere and the thrill of just sitting there amidst thousands of tennis fans filling up the Rod Laver Arena. As I sat there shaded from the mean Australian summer sun, I realized my dream of attending a grand slam event just came true. The years of playing tennis at CCP and at Rizal Memorial Stadium, and watching the sport on TV all came down to this: sitting, clapping and cheering live and in person for the world's best tennis players in one of the world's best tennis arenas.
(Roger Federer changing shirt)
And the dream didn't stop there at the Rod Laver Arena. It just went crazier.
Thanks to 'someone' who was a former professional player at the women's tour, I was given a player's pass! It was like I was part of a tennis player's entourage or team and could get into any match I wanted to see, be it at the Rod Laver Arena, Hi-Sense Arena or at the Margaret Court Arena!
But the best part was....I had access to the players' lounge! Waaah!
On the moment I stepped into the players' lounge deep inside the labyrinth of the Australian Open arena, I almost went crazy!
On the table afar were Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and their teams. To my right were Martina Hingis and a few European tennis players, and while I was waiting in line for a free cup of coffee was the Spaniard Feliciano Lopez! And I almost bumped and spilled Ai Sugiyama's coffee! I actually had a photo with Ai before entering the lounge. Taking photographs inside the inner sanctum was not allowed, but thanks to that dear friend who introduced me to Ai, I had one photo with her after a short chat.
Every where I turned at the players' lounge was a tennis star who I only saw on TV and on magazines. These are the players whose forehand angles and dropshots I copied, and who gave me confidence to do my own topspin lobs and backhand slices. As I said, I almost went crazy inside the players' lounge. But I had to subdue my excitement, knowing inside my head this was too much for me to handle. It was like a tennis fan overload! Ha-ha-ha! Otherwise, those big AO security personnel in yellow shirts would kick me out.
(The crowds are the Margaret Court Arena)
(Win a few grand slams and you'd also get a court
named after you)
Elizabeth and I didn't waste any moment with our player's passes. We went to see Roger Federer vs. Mikhail Youzny, and the Richard Gasquet vs. Gael Monfils matches for free! We just headed to the 'players box' area and just enjoyed the atmosphere and the thrill again. After the Monfils vs. Gasquet match I spotted the retired French tennis player Guy Forget, who was also the French team captain. I stopped him and said, "Monsieur Forget, une moment s'il vous plait", and snapped a selfie with him! My two years of studying French at Alliance Francaise de Manille paid off! Ha-ha-ha! Of course, I didn't forget to say, "Merci."
The other match we saw was Serena Williams vs. Nadia Petrova. Serena and Federer, by the way, were that year's champions.
(A peace offering from the Australian Open organization: an AO shirt signed by 20 female tennis players
including Martina Hingis and Serena Williams)Before we ended our day with our player's pass, Elizabeth and I ate dinner inside the players' lounge. I think I had pasta-something. While I was munching down the calories, Dinara Safina came in and joined Elena Dementieva's table. Dinara was very tall and was always smiling. Maybe she won that night. On the other table was Fernando Gonzalez also munching down his dinner after a win; he was being congratulated by other players.
As tennis player and a fan, it was indeed a trip of a lifetime to the Australian Open. Not only did I bring back with me a few AO towels and keychains (for which I wasn't given discounts by the AO and for which I had to officially complain and got a peace offering of a signed AO t-shirt in return) as souvenirs, I also brought back fabulous memories, a ton of bragging rights and a dozenTim Tams! Ha-ha-ha!
So, thanks a million to my dear friends Lynette, Rene, Dale and Louise, for hosting me and making my tennis dream come true!
And these days, as I watch the live matches at the Australian Open, I could only watch with envy as the crowds sitting at the arena cheer, clap, whistle and gasp at every point. But at least, I could say 'been there, done that', as my own tennis dream already came true at The Australian Open.
Game, set, match!