Change of venue
Aussie fans, players give new arena a Vode of approval
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
MELBOURNE, Australia -- They built it and the fans came. More than a decade ago, the Australian Open went big-time when it was moved from late December to January and from the grass courts of suburban Kooyong to the state-of-the-art tennis center at Flinders Park. Now the year's first slam has completed its gestation period as a major major with the addition of a second "showcourt."
Constructed for the low, low price of $35 million, Vodafone Arena seats 10,000 spectators and is singlehandedly responsible for the record crowds at this year's Open . Fans with an $11 day pass are free to come and go from the arena as they please, though many seemed to camp out there all day. 100 eager viewers waited to catch a peek of Marat Safin and Michal Tabara Friday. by the time Patrick Rafter followed, the lines were out the door.
Vodafone is a cute little sibling to Rod Laver Arena, which is just 200 or so meters away. The companion piece is replete with the same space-age retractable roof, stately white exterior and carpeted walkways. However, it is small enough to be intimate and yet big enough to accommodate players like Andre Agassi, Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova. And, like most secondary courts at tennis venues, it already evinces more juice -- more soul -- than the main stadium. Though it seats fewer than the Rod, Vodafone is louder, more cramped and boasts more shirtless, face-painted fans. "Maybe we're like your bleacher bums here," says Michael Jenkins of Melbourne, who came to Rafter's match Friday with his visage painted green and the words "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" scrawled on his bare chest. "We like tennis and we also like having a good time when we watch it."
As the corporate-sponsored name suggests, The Vode -- no one actually calls it that, but there is an unwritten edict that Americans can't refer to stadia without invoking a cheesy nickname -- still has a long way to go before it achieves some of the history of its counterparts. (Give it a few years before it replicates the lore of Court One at Wimbledon, Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York or Court Suzanne Lenglen in Paris.) If anything, the first match played on the court augured poorly for its future. The arena was christened the other day with a first-round encounter between Monica Seles and 20-year-old American Brie Rippner. Five minutes into the match, Rippner attempted to chase a ball, but her feet stuck to the Rebound Ace surface like a bug to flypaper. Her body, meanwhile, lurched forward. She was forced to retire from the match with a sprained ankle. "The court hasn't been played on yet so it's still tacky," observed Seles, who, saint that she is, applied a damp towel to Rippner's ankle while they awaited medical assistance. "Right now it's like glue."
Glue, however, dries -- and so does Rebound Ace. Friday, there were no problems with players losing their footing. On the contrary, while Pete Sampras was struggling to get by Juan Igancio Chela in straight sets, Safin and Rafter were in the Vode playing superior tennis. "I like it a lot," shrugged Safin after a ho-hum straight-set win. "It's bigger than the main court at most tournaments but the fans seem like they're right on top of you."
Like so many tennis arenas worldwide, the biggest impediment to enjoying a match at Vodafone, which will change into a velodrome when the tournament is over, is the constant chirping of cell phones. The umpire's pre-match plea to "turn off your mobile phones" is taken as seriously as a Damir Dokic rant. In her match against Venus Williams yesterday, Meghann Shaughnessy was about to hit a toss when a rendition of The Lone Ranger theme emanated from the mobile of a boorish fan. "Turn the bloody thing off!" an irate voice in the crowd yelled. Most of his 10,000 comrades at Vodafone Arena cheered. Of course, given the fact that Vodefone manufactures the "bloody things," it was tantamount to telling a fan at Wrigley Field to spit out his gum or banning beer at Busch Stadium. But in this case, not many minded the irony.
Top-seeded Gustavo Kuerten may have lost early at a Grand Slam for the third straight time, but here's a reason to respect him: At 5-5 in the fifth set, Guga looked at opponent Greg Rusedski and clapped his racket in acknowledgement of Rusedski's forehand winner. ... Granted, we're all sick of the guy, but here's the latest bizarre twist in the Damir Dokic saga: He allegedly told a reporter from Australia's Channel 7 that he would grant her an interview only on the condition that she agreed to appear naked. ... After a successful run with Martina Hingis that included winning the French Open title, Mary Pierce is now playing doubles with Sandrine Testud. ... What are the odds of this? Agassi was down 6-2 in a first-set tie-breaker to David Prinosil and didn't lose another game the rest of the day? ... Lindsay Davenport claims to have won $500 betting red at the roulette wheel at Melbourne's Crown Casino. ... Speaking of betting, Justine Henin was a 2:1 favorite to "upset" the 14th-seeded Testud. ... Memo to the USTA: the cost of parking at the Australian Open is $3 per day.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.