Melbourne, Australia. Once the capital before it was moved to Canberra, Melbourne is a world city in its own right. No, it’s not as pretty as Sydney, it’s not as hot as Cairns, it’s not as industrial as Brisbaine, and it doesn’t have beaches like the Gold Coast or the Reef, but Melbourne is most definitely the coolest of them all. Different for having four seasons, it has an underground vibe, an air of chic, and a penchant for the arts. It’s multicultural—everywhere else in Australia (that I’ve seen) is very white—with an intense appreciation for art, literature, architecture, and music. Boasting great universities in a cultural playground, the palate is world-inspired, the fashion sense is trendsetting, and the quality of life makes it all affordable. In a constant fight for bragging rights as Australia’s best metropolis, Melbourne wins.
While not immediately coastal, the Yarra River, which cuts right through the center of the city, gives Melbourne charming tranquility. The city is most active along the riverbank; there’s great people-watching near the promenade on Southbank and the up-and-coming Docklands or in Federation Square—a Melbourne hub across from the Flinders Street Station (with it’s recognizable clock façade) boasting restaurants, pubs, museums, and various outdoor spaces to watch the big screen broadcast of whatever major sporting event has the population of Melbourne momentarily transfixed. I spent the entire weekend in central Melbourne, getting to know the city a bit, riding the trams, walking the side streets. The center is an easy grid: Collins, Bourke, Flinders (Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the coast of Australia, so there’s a Flinders street in every city), backed by the winding alleys off of Little Collins, Little Bourke, et al. While the center is fantastic and kept me thoroughly busy, it’s really the suburbs (meaning city neighborhoods – like our Chelsea and East Village versus our Westchester and Long Island “suburbs”) that pulse. I met Ben one night in Collingwood, which is a grungy little suburb with rows of bars along Smith Street, a very different feel than the fancier Southbank or the laidback ease of waterside St. Kilda.
The weekend in Melbourne was a quick trip, a tennis diversion, if you will. Being that I’m annually obsessed with the US Open each year (similar to my love of all things Yankee at playoff time…), I decided to further my fan-dom and make a real go at becoming a year-round aficionado. So, onto Rod Laver Arena I went. Tickets for two sessions (a day and a night) purchased on Ticket-Tek, Australia’s answer to Ticketmaster. For all the cringing that goes on when I see camera-toting tourists at the U.S. Open, I WAS that girl. The foreign fan, camera at the ready, buying souvenir towels. here in Australia. Yep, I admit it. That was me. I was snapping pictures of players on warm-up courts that I wouldn’t have given a second look in the States. Ooooh, Tommy Robredo, shirtless on Court 6. Run, snap, snap! Ooooh, Federer in a night match. Run, snap, snap! Look, it’s Fernando Gonazlez, the new hot Chilean. Run, snap, snap! I even found myself, true to my love of ALL things South American, mumbling along with the Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Vi-va! Chi-le! Every time Gonzalez took center court. (I’m thinking of getting myself a poster of him for my apartment, he’s THAT dreamy…) I was giddy with tennis fever, a giggling sidecourt fan. Who AM I? Appalled with myself, that’s what I am. I’ve seen these players play hundreds of matches and yet, here, in Oz, I’m a “Yankee” loser with a wild cheer and a Canon Elph.
Rod Laver Arena, with it’s retractable roof for rain (WHY don’t we have this?), is intimate, likely ½ the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium. I sat in the last row for one of my matches (the aforementioned Federer night match) and I might as well have been in Ashe, tier two, front row. It was fantastic, every seat felt close to the action. I asked an usher on the outside who was chatting me up (because I guess US Open tradition had to be tested) if I could pay to lower oneself down. Shocked, he responded politely: “This isn’t America. You can’t just buy your way through.” Ahem. Got it. The matches themselves were great. The protocol is the same, the antics are intact – the wave, the country chants, the overpriced food court, the corporate sponsor boxes. The only thing missing was the Ralph Lauren polo outfits on the ballboys. I didn’t miss them…at all.
In addition to Ben in the world, I met Caitlin & Vanessa in Melbourne, courtesy of Sarah. It’s amazing how keen everyone is to be out and about. It’s almost an effort to keep up. We went for divine Chinese in thriving Chinatown (you kinda forget that Australia is part of Asia), where we killed two bottles of fabulous NZ white before the matches after which we headed to Richmond (another suburb). But being a Sunday night, it was quiet. Plan B: onto Fed Square, where we met a whole new rolling posse. Gotta love the collective spirit of the Aussies; they’re ready to go out for allnighters with absolute strangers in their own town. Like we would ever do that in New York! (Sad…) Two guys in our new contingent were New Yorkers, but upon hearing I was from New York “City” dropped their smiles. When the girls inquired where exactly they were from, in a whisper, not meeting my glance, they replied, “Poughkeepsie.” “Where’s THAT?” Caitlin asked. “Pou-what?” asked Vanessa. “It’s upstate,” I offered. The pair just shook their heads, kicking the dirt at their feet, hands stuffed in chino pockets. “We hate it when we meet real New Yorkers,” they muttered. “Blows the ‘Poughkeepsie New Yorker’ right out of the water.” Ha.
Back to the tennis for Day 2. Man, was I lucky. For all of the first week’s issues, Sharapova’s meltdown, the challenging of the weather policy, the race riots, and a sex offender preying on kids in the bathrooms, it was uneventfully gorgeous during my time in Melbourne. 70 degrees, cloudless, breezy, the optimum conditions for some sport. I watched Hingis steamroll Li, Clijsters clobber Hantuchova, and Blake get his ass-whupped by my new love, Fernando Gonzalez. Stopping for dinner in Southbank, where I indulged in some Australian cuisine – kangaroo, which was delicious – I hit The Crown, a massive casino complex in Southbank, filled with high-end shops, restaurants, and a swanky hotel. Of course, it was packed. (I’m told there a bit of a gambling issue here in Oz, especially at “pokie” machines, or slots, which are everywhere.) I wound up next to a guy from Brooklyn, and wouldn’t you know it, he was with the Blake party. Soon after, the dred-locked brother Thomas showed up, then Blake for a quick spin at the tables before retiring back upstairs after too much unwanted attention on the day’s loss. Sucks you can’t take photos in casinos, otherwise my inner-tennis-tourist would’ve been back on display…
Overall, a blast. Can’t wait to return to Melbourne without the tennis distraction. A winner in my book, for sure.