FOR MOST SPORTS fans around the world, travelling to a FIFA World Cup is considered the ultimate pilgrimage. In 2014, I too made the journey to the holy land; the holiest, in fact, in terms of football countries: Brazil. While the country, its people and the football lived up to the hype, for me, personally, Brazil was a hindrance (a beautiful obstacle, if you may) that put the brakes on my real travel dream—that of watching live Grand Slam tennis.
The 50-something-days stay in Brazil, from end-May to mid-July that year spanned both the French Open and Wimbledon. And I was too cash-strapped before and after the World Cup to bother about travelling to either the Australian Open in January or the US Open in September. Which made 2014 a break year—the only one since I began my annual pilgrimage to one of the four Slam venues— in terms of paying obeisance to the gods of tennis.
We Grand Slam travellers are a bizarre lot. We plot and plan and scheme and invest incredible sums of energy, time and money to achieve what could just as easily be achieved, minus the trials and tribulations, in our living rooms. Three out of the four Slams are held in the greatest metropolises in the world—Paris, London and New York. Yet, when we reach those destinations, we travel to obscure suburbs by buses and trains to lock ourselves into stadiums all day long, every day. Sightseeing, if we have any energy left, can be done by night. Why? The answer lies in the most quoted line from the most widely loved article on tennis in the 21st century, authored by the late David Foster Wallace. ‘The truth is,’ he wrote in the New York Times during his first visit to Wimbledon in 2006, ‘that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.’
Sometimes our sincerest efforts of plotting and planning to be witnesses to genius aren’t enough. The tickets, even to the nosebleed sections, are limited, and the demand, in an era glutted with greats, is plentiful. Being ticketless, however, seldom rains on our parade; a ground pass (purchased at an overhead cost of an expensive diner breakfast) gives us access to grassy mounds and garden squares with giant screens. And there we sit among fellow rejects, all of us smug with knowledge of the fact that the venerated are in the vicinity.
Making a Grand Slam the centrepiece of your travel plan is fraught with uncertainty. The fundamental variables revolve around passes and players. Should we book tickets for the early rounds and watch our favourites breeze past mid-level talents? Or, should we hedge our funds on the semis and the final and spend two excruciating weeks praying that the cream rises to the top?
And there’s the uncertainty of weather too. What if rain pushes the schedule, and along with it the men’s final, beyond the second Sunday? As a rule, I stay back in the city hosting the Slam till the Monday after the championship ends. These days, with million-dollar roofs crowning most show-courts, tennis majors tend to end within the stipulated time. Still, a vacant post-Slam Monday is a must. Apart from being a safety net, it becomes a day of quiet reflection and assessing dejections or achievements. Also, it is the only day we Grand Slam travellers get to see the darned city in broad daylight.
MY FIRST TRYST with the majors was at the first Slam of any given calendar year, the Australian Open. In 2012, even before my flight landed in Melbourne, the most sporty city in the world, fate had conspired to make my maiden Slam experience an exceptional one. While my aircraft soared somewhere over the South China Sea, Roger Federer had defeated Juan Martin Del Potro in the men’s quarterfinals to set up a semi-final clash with his breathtaking rival, Rafa Nadal. The greatest sports rivalry in the 21st century, then, would be initiation into live Slam tennis. Only now did I understand why this major is referred to as the Happy Slam.
Unlike any other Slam city, the venue of the Australian Open occupies prime land in the heart of Melbourne. A short tram ride away from the bustle of Flinders Street, Melbourne Park lies wrapped within the coils of the river Yarra, its waters black as ink, and under the heavy shadow cast by the Melbourne Cricket Ground. For the ticketless, there’s Garden Square, a large-screen viewing area bracketed by stone busts of former Australian tennis legends, filled to the brim with sun-kissed bodies on beach chairs. Although just a few metres away from the leafy and cobbled garden, the Rod Laver Arena seems a claustrophobic world apart.
Fifteen thousand spectators are magically crammed into the smallest show-court in the Slam world, a stadium so tiny it has no bad seats. The sky-blue surface and the lawn green seats give the Rod Laver Arena the look and feel of an inverted bullring, which a certain Spaniard took full advantage of in the first semi-final. So loud are Nadal’s grunts on that night that a seagull poops on court from the rafters above and play is temporarily stopped. Apart from that, Federer’s thrashing goes uninterrupted.
In the second semi-final, Novak Djokovic beats Andy Murray in five sets over five hours and it is widely considered the match of the tournament, until it is put to shame the following night. For a shade under six hours, Nadal and Djokovic yank each other from side to side in the final, bruising their bodies, destroying our collective sense of belief. When Djokovic wins the final point and both men collapse on buckled knees, it marks the conclusion of the longest-ever final in tennis history. Seated beside me in the arena is Rohit Brijnath, the Roger Federer of sports writers. Brijnath throws a sympathetic arm around my shoulder and says: “This was your first Slam final? Poor bastard. What a ridiculous yardstick to live with.”
GETTING TO WIMBLEDON is easy—take the District Line on the Tube and disembark at Southfields station. Getting inside Wimbledon is hard, very hard—barricaded by 150 years worth of self-love and tradition. On my first attempt, in the first week of The Championships in 2013, I was turned around at the tube station itself. “There are over 5,000 queuers waiting for on-day tickets who may or may not gain entry into the grounds. This is a waste of your time,” a Wimbledon groundstaff says into her megaphone.
Wimbledon is often referred to as the Mecca of tennis and there are only three legit methods of ensuring this ultimate pilgrimage leads beyond the wrought- iron gates of the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC). One: become a Debenture Ticket Holder— that is, pay £50,000 to get two Centre Court tickets for each day of Wimbledon for a period of five years. Two: enter the annual Ballot and hope with crossed fingers that your name-card is picked in the lottery. And three: get physically into a line known simply as The Queue.
AELTC allows a maximum of 5,000 queuers to enter its premises daily. If your queue card reads ‘No. 5001’, it’s highly likely you won’t get in; unless at least one person ahead of you retires from the line. But even entry into AELTC doesn’t give you access to the show-courts—Centre Court, Court No 1 and Court No 2. For that, one must be within the first 1,500. And if you are hell bent on getting into Centre Court, like I am, you have to be within the first 500 and, hence, are advised to queue up at least 24 hours earlier, with a tent in tow. To gain entry for People’s Saturday, I queue up on Thursday night. My queue card number for Saturday is 274—access to Centre Court, the cathedral of tennis, is now a guarantee.
The camp-site, located just beyond Wimbledon’s golf course, has a total of two porta-loos and nothing else. Yet, this frugal pasture is the closest thing to tennis paradise. The air is rich with rain and anticipation and fellow pilgrims exchanging heart-warming stories. My neighbours for the next 36 hours are a father-daughter duo from Poland who occupy two leaky tents. They are drenched and ecstatic. “The last time we were here, it was raining like today and we arrived with two sleeping bags and an umbrella,” says the father. “It wasn’t pleasant.”
At 6 am on Saturday, a steward wakes us up to start the day’s queue. Two hours later, I get my first view of the sacred bed of grass, framed by pristine white lines. My Centre Court seat is directly besides the green commentary booth. Minutes before the first match on schedule begins, the legendary John McEnroe— three-time Wimbledon champion and The Championships’ official commentator since he hung up his racquet—steps out of the booth and folds his arms across his chest. “Gorgeous,” he says, without taking his eyes off the court, and pops back in.
THE 7 TRAIN ploughs its way, overground, deep into Queens, the grimiest borough of New York City. But even as Manhattan’s skyline flattens in the distance, a space-age structure appears high over the rows of abandoned warehouses, half-filled parking lots and brimming tenements. On view, passengers in baseball caps and khaki shorts make their way to the train’s door, for their destination, the US Open, cannot be far away. The structure, Arthur Ashe Stadium, is the largest tennis arena in the world, seating close to 25,000 spectators at a go. And none of those spectators are ever told that tennis is a game observed in silence.
The US Open is everything Wimbledon isn’t. It doesn’t care for tradition, doesn’t take itself too seriously and like everything else American, is larger than life. Between games, thunderous music reverberates through the stadium as fans dance on their seats even as the in- stadia camera captures visiting celebrities on their four large screens. And during games, ticket-holders loiter in and out of Ashe to replenish beer glasses the size of small buckets. Munching jaws and gulping throats mix effortlessly with the overall chatter and there’s a constant low-frequency buzz in the players’ eardrums.
In 2015, the year I first visit the loudest Slam, something incredible happens—a wizard makes all of NYC fall silent. During his march to the final, Roger Federer has introduced a trick-shot called the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger) and round after round, 25,000 spectators watch in awe. Gaping mouths, after all, cannot talk. NYC finds its voice post-match during his on-court interviews where fans interrupt his speech and scream “WeloooooveyouuuuRoger” and he replies, “I love you too.”
For two weeks, noise is replaced by love and love carries an old man who many believed to be past his prime into the second Sunday, where he meets Djokovic, then in the prime of his career. Djokovic wins. The spell is broken. New York has its ambient sounds back again.
TO WATCH RAFA Nadal play in Paris is akin to spotting a tiger in the jungles of Kanha. The red clay is his natural habitat. No other tennis player has dominated a surface in the history of the sport quite like Nadal has owned the one made of crushed brick. In 2014, when he won yet another Slam on clay, he had in fact won his ninth French Open in 10 years of participation. But three years later, in 2017, when I decide to make Nadal and Roland Garros the fulcrum of my first travel to mainland Europe, I am nervous. In the past two years, the Spaniard’s kingdom has vastly receded; territory snatched away by arrivistes. Not just that: in the past two years, Nadal has failed to cross the quarterfinal stage of his ‘home’ Slam.
Still, bookings on Court Philippe Chatrier—Paris’ show-court—are made once my Rafa-mad spouse presents a compelling case: “To watch Nadal hit one ball on clay will make the entire trip worthwhile.” Not too different from sighting a tiger’s upright earlobe through the thickets and feeling satisfied following six hours of driving in vain, I think, and to France we go.
Roland Garros is located in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, well into the western outskirts of the city. But if someone is to take you there blindfolded past Belleville and Notre Dame and Montmartre and the Louvre and untie the fold only when you reach Chatrier with Nadal on court, you can still boast of having witnessed the best Paris has to offer.
Chatrier’s four stands are named after France’s four greatest tennis players—Lacoste, Borotra, Brugnon and Cochet. From each of their laps, we watch four different rounds involving Nadal, the pre-quarters, quarters, semis and final. But the best view is from Tribune Cochet, located directly behind the court’s left tramline. From here, one can see the spin imparted on the ball by Nadal’s whipping racquet and the height at which it climbs over the net and spits up at the opponent, deep into the baseline.
One such sledgehammer stroke clips the frame of Stan Wawrinka’s racquet and no return is made. Instantly, Nadal’s falls on his back and cries into the dry soil. He has won his historic tenth French Open title. The party shifts to the banks of the river Seine, where late into the Paris night, men and women drunk on cheap wine scream ‘Vamos Rafa’ at passing cruise boats.