Thursday, January 28, 2010

small victories

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this whole tennis scene. I spent the 26th, Australia Day, at the Australian Open. Halfway through Andy Roddick's swan song, on a whim, I got a ticket for the next day as well. Sitting in 80 degree heat, wrapped in a towel, hat, and sunglasses, and doing lateral neck exercises all day is more exciting than one might initially think. Besides, Federer was playing.

His match against Davydenko was the hi-light of my two days at Rod Laver, but I also got to see Marin Cilic take down Roddick, Justin Henin defeat Nadia Petrova, Venus Williams lose to Li Na (quick Guinness check on world's simplest name?) and Serena steal a match from Victoria Azarenka.

Tennis is, over all else, a game of contradiction. For one, the players are noisier (and more vulgar) than the fans. Fans aren't allowed to cheer during play, make any kind of derogatory comment, or even leave their seats between games. I swear, there were moments I was afraid to cut a fart loose. This is a far cry from football, baseball, and basketball fans who regularly belittle players' names, physical appearances, personal lives, pets, and female family members. Tennis players, on the other hand, curse, whine, shout, whine, grunt, cry, whine, and in Andy Roddick's case, act like an absolute turd towards the official. Then in their post-match interviews, the winners smile, laugh, joke with Jim Courier as if they just finished watching a bad movie, and never fail to compliment themselves. I say this sport needs some hecklers, if only to instill some humility.

One thing I admire about tennis is how it is rooted in sportsmanship and respect. Players actually apologize if they win a point after hitting the net, or wind up to serve and stop. They shake hands with each other and the official after every match (which is something American sports could take a cue from). But these acts of good faith are really just for show. So let's look at sportsmanship in tennis. Did you see the Nadal/Murray hi-lights? Murray was mopping the court with Nadal. It really wasn't a contest. Nadal had a few good shots in there that he got pretty excited about, but his success was short lived. When he was down two sets, and it was clear he would lose the third, he suddenly succumbed to a knee injury. It was vintage Dangerfield, "Oh, my arm! I think it's broken!" For Nadal, it looked much better to lose because of an injury than to get swept in straight sets. Sportsmanship indeed.

Roddick seemed ready to employ the same strategy in his match before he started gaining ground. When it was clear he would lose the second set, he called the trainer out for a shoulder injury, and only returned after a lengthy massage. He won the next two sets, balky shoulder and all, but not without several patented Happy Gilmore "rotate your shoulder while grimacing" displays. So he set the stage for a bow out, but decided to keep going while he was winning.

This made me realize something unique to tennis, and other net sports, which is that your successes or failures aren't necessarily cumulative. You could hit the four most spectacular shots in your life and still lose a game. You could spend the first 2 sets at the hot dog stand and come back to win match. I could have subbed in for Federer for the first half-hour of play, and it wouldn't have had an impact on the outcome of the match. It's so much different than baseball, or football, where one play can end up winning or losing a game. So in a sport where every point doesn't count, especially when it's obvious a player will easily win or lose a set, it's pretty funny to watch both players essentially throw in the towel and go through the motions until the set is over. I've never seen anything like it in professional sports.

Just one more observation before moving on. Tennis is known as a gentleman's game, as most sports of British origin are considered to be. That's fine. It's rather civil and tame, a game of strategy and good manners, play for your country and whatnot. But let's spend an afternoon with an Australian Open ballboy. A coveted position, to be sure, but one that is not all privilege and glory. You spend an entire match standing behind the court, waiting for a nearly imperceptible head-nod or finger twitch before you pass on a tennis ball. The player asks for as many balls as he likes, keeps two, and with his back turned to you, slings the remainder in your general direction while you scramble to collect them before he is ready to serve. If you attempt to speak to a player, you will most likely be fired before the next match and disgraced within the ballboy community. Also, eye contact is right out. God help you if you look a player in the eyes.

But delivering tennis balls is a walk in the park compared to the kid who relays a player's towel to and from the court. Once again, looking for the nearly imperceptible hand signal, no eye contact, deliver the towel, wait while he dries himself and throws the towel in your hand, at your feet, or on the ground. If he hits you in the face with the towel, don't panic. Run back to your post before wiping his sweat and spit off your face. And of course, above all else, pray for a cool day.

OK, that's enough for now. I just realized I spent pretty much this whole post ripping on tennis, which isn't really fair because I don't know the sport all that well and I really did have a great time. Definitely the most memorable time I had in Melbourne. Maybe I just needed to vent a bit because Peyton is in the Super Bowl again, or because the Jets made it farther in the playoffs than the Pats, or because Ted Kennedy's seat was taken over by someone who is against his health care bill, or any other number of things that I would be more worked up about if I was back home, but seem so distantly trivial down here.

On the plus side, I filled up my car yesterday with the cheapest fuel I've seen so far in Australia, and I finally found a beer that reminds me of PBR. Things are looking up.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

recharging the batteries

It's always depressing when your team loses in the playoffs, but when you have to suffer through a near-apocalyptic first quarter while already feeling queasy from waking up at 4am to a horrid McDonalds breakfast and power-walking to the casino to catch the opening kickoff, it adds immeasurable misery to the experience. What's equally as torturous is that next week I may have to root for the Jets. At least I picked the right year to leave the country.

Melbourne has been a welcome resting place after a week of constant travel and a tiring stay in Sydney. It's a big city, but laid back. Not in as much of a rush as Sydney is. Apparently Melbourne and Sydney are engaged in a sort of sibling rivalry for the reputation of Australia's most prominent city. While it lacks the animosity of the Boston/NY rivalry, much more is at stake than mere athletic championships. After staying in both cities for over a week, I will say this of Melbourne: while it's nice to be in a relaxed metropolitan setting, it lacks the star power of Sydney. As you walk around the city limits, there are no monuments, landmarks, or buildings that make you draw in your breath and remark, "Wow, I'm in Melbourne!" (Not that any self-respecting traveler would allow himself such an outburst, but you know what I mean). Melbourne is a place to shop, eat (or dine as the guidebooks say), and catch a sporting event. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but I didn't travel halfway around the world for a nice steak and a new pair of aviators. I'm looking forward to the Australian Open though. I have tickets for the quarterfinals on the 26th.

One of the nicest things about being in Melbourne after Sydney is that crossing the street is no longer a life-threatening experience. Drivers in Sydney seem to think a red light is more of a suggestion than a traffic law, so if you don't walk around with your head on a swivel you may end up being pried loose from the pavement with a spatula. Melbourne drivers, on the other hand, occasionally even stop for jaywalkers. Anyway, it's nice to walk a city block without being reminded of my own mortality.

I really haven't done a whole lot here. Pretty much just walking around and recharging all my electronic equipment. I've done laundry, downloaded some ESPN podcasts in the local library for the upcoming drive to Perth (which is exciting since this is the second place in all of Australia with an internet connection strong enough to access iTunes), checked out several museums, caught some of the qualifying matches for the Australian Open, and found a place to get my car serviced and inspected. Gotta keep Pearl happy.

I'll be leaving Melbourne on the 27th and will try to check in before that. Until then, go.... Saints?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

a clean, good-natured place

I'm on a beach in Mallacoota right now, trying to finish this before the sun goes down. Mallacoota is on the Southeast tip of Victoria, about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. I've been driving now for the past few days, stopping only at National Parks, beaches, supermarkets and gas stations. I'm planning on getting to Melbourne sometime on the 6th, which is probably around the time I'll post this.

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday break. I spent both Christmas and New Year's Day on Bondi Beach. As I mentioned earlier, there's nothing like a dip in the ocean to clear the head.

As you might guess, NYE was the purpose of my trip to Sydney, as it was for every other backpacker in the free world. For good reason, though. Here are a few fast facts on Sydney's NYE celebration:
-- 1.5 million people surrounded Sydney Harbour to take in the fireworks
-- The fireworks lasted 12 minutes and cost $5 million dollars
-- The fireworks were launched from the Harbour Bridge, six barges, and nine city buildings
-- It cost $160 thousand dollars to clean up the mess everyone left behind
-- 130 people were arrested

(Rest assured, I was among the 1,499,870 souls with the good fortune of waking up unshackled.)

I thought it would be a good idea to watch the fireworks from a park called Observatory Hill. It was close to the bridge and provided an elevated view of the harbour. Also, it was one of the few vantage points that allowed alcohol. Minor detail, really. When I arrived early in the afternoon, I found the hill swarming with thousands of people, drinking, dancing, cheering, chanting, some dressed in costumes that would barely pass as normal on Halloween. Yes... minor detail, indeed. Lucky for me a group of friends had already staked claim to some prime real estate and fortunately they were happy to let me crash their party.

NYE on Observatory Hill is like spring break for twenty-somethings out of college. It's one big party, but the Wild 'n' Crazy element isn't turned up to 11. You can't rev your engine full throttle all day and expect to see the fireworks. In the end, that's was the day was all about.

They were worth every second of sitting atop that hill. It was a spectacle. I recorded the first two minutes, but my camera ran out of batteries. Poor foresight on my part. In any event, I'll post the video on facebook soon. Anyone with a flip comment on my video-recording skills should try steadying a camera on NYE at midnight.

My stay in the city itself was an unexpected highlight. Sydney has a wealth of neighborhoods, each with their own personality. Much like the New York boroughs, except without the attitude. Actually, with a good attitude. You'd find it hard to frown too if you lived on a world-famous harbour where it's never too hot or cold, and the sun never goes on vacation. I'm no city slicker, but I definitely could have spent more than ten days there.

Some of the standout moments for me were: walking through Olympic Park and exploring the massive grounds of the 2000 summer games; spending a rainy day in the Australian Museum and Queen Victoria Building; buying a discount-Tuesday ticket to Sherlock Holmes, bringing in 16 chocolate chip cookies and a litre of milk, and theatre-hopping to Where the Wild Things Are and Avatar; and aimlessly walking through the city with a big, stupid grin on my face until my legs got tired. I've gotten quite good at that. A walk around the Opera House and across the Harbour Bridge was a perfect way to spend my last night.

My stay in Sydney not only represented the halfway point of my time in Australia, but also the last of my scheduled stops. I can pick up and go wherever I want. It's a good feeling, like stepping off the school bus in late June and having the whole summer in front of you.

I can't help but think, as the Tasman Tide creeps up to my toes, and a long highway waits through miles of the green Victoria bush, that my trip has only begun.

Friday, January 1, 2010

happy festivus

it's been a couple weeks since i last checked in, and it's taken some effort to retrace my steps all the way back to brisbane. i really should update this more often, and go for shorter posts. never been on-the-ball with that sort of thing though.

first i stopped at surfer's paradise for two nights. it was an impressive place. the beach is gorgeous. miles of postcard-worthy coastline. but inland the scene really is atrocious. it's all skyscrapers, mega-malls, ritzy hotels, and nightclubs with dresscodes designed to keep people like me out. this place would be so much nicer if it never got discovered. it's a beautiful woman with too much make-up and jewelry.

after surfer's i make a few stops at coff's harbour, southwest rocks, and crescent head. these were easily my favorite places in australia, probably because they were a few paces off the beaten track. they had their share of tourists, but i got the feeling that there were more australians visiting than foreigners (like me). they seemed to be australia's marthas vineyard and cape rod, as opposed to orlando or las vegas. i wish i had spent more time there. especially crescent head. but my hostel in sydney was booked for the next day. pictures on those places coming shortly.

now sydney. that's a different story all together. i've been here 10 days now and im about to leave and check out the blue mountains, then it's on to melbourne. i posted a few picutes on facebook from a couple weeks back. i'll have an xmas/nye post coming in a couple days. until then, i hope everyone is laying around watching bowl games and recovering from last night. i've found there's nothing better than a dip in the ocean. let me know how that works out for you.