By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Waking up to a text message from Australia is always an interesting experience, given that their version of “today” has already ended by the time ours (at least on the West Coast) is properly beginning.
“Hey pal,” read the first correspondence of my Wednesday morning, from close friend Matt Futterman, a New York Times journalist covering the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. “Spend a little time this morning reading about the Kyrgios-Humbert match that unfolded while you were sleeping. Beautiful.
We don’t write about a ton of tennis on here, and unless my memory is malfunctioning, it’s the first time Australia’s Nick Kyrgios (ranked 47th) or France’s Ugo Humbert (34th) has graced this column.
But good friends give good advice, and Futterman, author of the classic endurance athletics book “Running to the Edge,” was right. Not only was the match worth reading about, but it was also, as the most thrilling and incident-packed clash of 2021’s first Grand Slam, worth tracking down a replay of.
High-level sports, conducted with ferocity and desire by two evenly matched opponents, is something few of us can resist, but this was something more. The way it went down and the setting in which it did so were a peek into our sporting past.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia nowhere near what it is in the United States (27.2 million in America/28.8K in Australia), and thus, with Australia able to host the first major global sports event with only limited COVID restrictions, John Cain Arena (at 50% capacity) resonated with sound, virtually all of it in support of Kyrgios, the hometown favorite and a compelling anti-hero.
As Kyrgios cheekily served underarm as a surprise ploy – he does that sometimes – the locals screamed with delight. When he brought the drama with a heated interaction with the umpire over what he believed to be a faulty net cord machine, they hung on every word.
As he exhorted them for even more noise, the fans roared. For a while, they grew nervous as it looked like Kyrgios, having received two code violations, might let his temper get the best of him.
Finally, as he saved a pair of Humbert match points in the fourth set to ultimately prevail in five, they bellowed their approval. By the end, there was only one way to describe it: a party.
“I don’t know how I did that,” Kyrgios said afterward. “That was one of the craziest matches I’ve ever played.”
I remember what it feels like to be in arenas such as that, with a mostly mask-free audience that doesn’t have to feel guilty about what they’re doing, leaving them free to get so involved in the action they make the place rattle and shake. I’ve spent most of my working life grateful to be writing from such spots, the highlights being soccer World Cups, Olympics venues, NBA Finals and Super Bowls.
I don’t know when I’ll feel it again. Sometimes it’s like it almost happened to a different person.
It is a small loss, and it’s a jealous one. Not being able to go to games or tournaments or events is truly trivial compared to the destruction so many have suffered, but it was less painful when no one else got to do it either. It is a little tougher when I see it elsewhere (albeit 19 hours of time difference and a 14-hour flight away) and while life under the enduring COVID grip is so darn pressurized.
Australia feels a long way removed because it is such a geographical outlier, but this might as well have been taking place in a different era. It would be sweet to think this was a glimpse into our upcoming sports future, the old familiarity of bustling crowds and only marginal adjustments made for distancing.
Maybe. Hopefully. But maybe it is too far gone for that. Maybe we’ve necessarily rejected human closeness for so long that we no longer want it.
For the players in Australia, there were sacrifices that had to be made. Former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens was one of many who spent a full two weeks in her hotel room, not allowed out even to practice, upon landing Down Under.
On Monday, she lost to 26th seed Yulia Putintseva in a competitive first-round three-setter, a fine effort given the circumstances. Stephens, who recently invested in nutritional product Quantum Energy Squares, told me via email that “seeing how things are in Australia gives me hope there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.”
Over the past week, eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has been involved in a public war of words with Kyrgios over various topics, but they agreed on one thing. Playing in front of a crowd, once taken for granted, is magical.
“That’s one of the biggest motivations that we have, the source where we draw our energy and strength and motivation,” Djokovic told reporters. “At my age and stage of my career, I’m looking to feed off that energy from the crowd.”
Of course, there have been people in attendance at American sports. The just finished NFL season and ongoing NBA campaign have had limited numbers in certain spots. The Super Bowl had 22,000 spectators, mixed with cardboard figures stationed at the empty seats.
In Melbourne, it was different. The fans spilled into the aisles. They high-fived. They were a crowd — and they were together.
The text message was right. It was beautiful. And, in the most selfish of ways, heartbreaking.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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