Grant Bradley and Estelle Sarney reach centre court at the Australian Open.
At the Australian Open we got up close to admire the professionalism of Caroline Wozniacki, and were eternally grateful for the kindness of a stranger called Olga.
As part of a recently introduced walk-on experience we were within metres of Wozniacki as she warmed up at Rod Laver Arena.
The Danish star was emerging from the Walk of Champions as we were led by friendly guide Fil through another entrance on to the Plexicushion court (hand-painted True Blue
every year by a local firm) and into the heart of the cauldron, surrounded by more than 15,500 tennis fans. There's clearly nowhere to hide on centre court, and our admiration of the players (and umpires, and other officials) rises with this fleeting sense of how intense the scrutiny is. The music's pumping, spider cam buzzes around the players and dozens of other lenses are focused on them.
Nobody wants to blow it, including us, and all we had to do was make notes and take pictures.
We were at Wozniacki's end — out of her line of sight as instructed by Fil — as she warmed up ahead of her clash with Magdalena Rybarikova. There was little chance of her noticing much around her. She was laser-focused, calm and clearly not giving her opponent any sign of weakness. Why would she? There's
A$4 million at stake. We made our way up to our seats as "Time" was called. As part of the walk-on experience — which starts at $150 a person — you also get a good look at parts of the arena, usually seen only by the players and officials.
The seats had a surreal quality too. The Sky Boxes at the top of the arena — with their own private lifts — are hospitality meccas aimed at groups and corporates. Our hosts left us to it in this enormous space, with lounge comforts and a server who was generous with food and other refreshments. We had a bird's eye view of Wozniacki dispatching her opponent in just over an hour, then saw one of the muscular greats of the men's game, Rafael Nadal. He had to draw on deep reserves to sweat and grunt his way past Argentine Diego Schwartzman in four sets in close to four hours. We were in air-conditioned comfort, but, as is often the case at the Australian Open, it was a furnace on court. It was not quite as hot as two days earlier when the mercury hit 40C. Play can be halted when ambient heat hits that mark, but today the "wet bulb" that measures humidity was just short of the 32.5C cut-off temperature.
Close to 90,000 people a day visit Melbourne Park during the two-week tournament. This year it attracted British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and actors Will Ferrell and Will Smith. We also spotted Smith at a Big Bash cricket game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the middle weekend of the Open.
Kiwis are the biggest single group of international visitors to the tennis and growing in number every year. The tournament is widely regarded as the fun event for players on the Grand Slam. The 250-strong staff who work on it during the year (5000 make it happen during the fortnight in January) have succeeded in making it more than a tennis tournament for die-hard fans. The aim is to provide entertainment, quality food and catering for families to appeal to as broad a market as possible.
But you don't have to be a tennis tragic to have a great time.
In the sprawling Melbourne Park there's a pleasant surprise around every corner, whether it be one of the world's current great athletes playing on a back court, a perpetual great like John McEnroe in an exhibition game, or world class food outlets such as Rockpool and others in laneway style settings in keeping with the vibe of the host city. There are leafy squares, and Grand Slam host countries are showcased in themed bar and cafe areas. Giant screens keep up with the play. Kids get the AO Ballpark, a free mini-theme park where they can swing a racquet and get expert coaching, climb a rock wall, whizz down a 60m zip line and fire off Nerf guns.
It's a fantastic spot, and it was busy but not crowded when were there, in spite of the $5 ground entry charge for kids, who are charged the same price for meals.
You can spend what you want at the Australian Open. Our Sky Box was a "price on application" experience, and if you want to spend more there's the discreet Founders Club. Membership costs A$65,000 for three years, and entitles the seriously wealthy fan to a variety of viewing and entertainment experiences at the Australian Open, and priority access to other slams.
For those on a more modest budget, adult ground passes start at A$59. These entitle you to watch matches scheduled on Hisense Arena, Show Courts 2 and 3, the outside courts and on the big screens in the common areas where you can soak up the buzz.
We were about to do just that on our second day at the Open. As we looked for bean bags to plonk ourselves in the the Grand Oval, a woman with kids in tow asked if we would like to go to Rod Laver Arena to watch Roger Federer play that afternoon. She had to leave and had two seats she didn't need.
Stunned, so not nearly effusive enough in thanking her, we meekly said "yes please" and minutes later were seated end-on to the court, about 20m from where the Swiss ace was about to serve. He was magic to watch, the ball on a string as he marched towards his Open crown.
Thank you again Olga, who had a great tennis surname on her tickets. You're a champion too.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Melbourne is one of the great short (or long) break cities. For inspiration, go to visitvictoria.com. We were tennis-focused but had a good half-day at St Kilda where we ate and shopped, got to the National Gallery (NGV) where it's easy to be inspired by the art and design and loved the shopping in the CBD.
Melbourne is well-served by Virgin Australia, Qantas, Air New Zealand and, now, Singapore Airlines from Wellington.
The Australian Open is on January 13-29, and helloworld has packages with three nights accommodation ranging from first round ($485pp), quarter-finals ($549pp) and finals ($1469pp). helloworld.co.nz