The daily walk into Melbourne Park takes you past a particularly big shaded window. It overlooks a corner of the players’ restaurant, a brief view into their tournament life, largely off-limits from most of us.
One the first day of this Happy Slam, the view from that window is a crowded one, tables and tables of players, coaches, and support teams taking the space and time to prepare for matches, recover from matches, analyse matches, or simply have something to eat. There is an energy emanating from every corner of the room.
On the 14th, it is empty. There is almost no one left. And that is the life cycle of a Grand Slam. While tournament staff, officials, press, public, are a daily constant, the players come and then they go, leaving for the next pit-stop on their round-the-world caravan, putting losses behind them and moving onto what's next.
On that first day, a year in the planning, 256 singles players gather together in one great hustle and bustle around the corridors, courts and locker rooms. Players grab moments in between practice and matches to say animated hellos in multiple languages, coaches and physios pore over schedules, logs and techniques, journalists lurk hoping to collar someone for a quote. Officials try to keep track of it all.
The second day is the same, except louder. Added to the catch-up chat and general gossip about who lifted what in the gym and who ate what last night are the conversations and intrigue around who has lost, who has won, what other issues might be going on. How hot it was, for example. By the third, the two lots of 64 doubles players are all in town too, and their families. The buzz gets louder. Then players lose and leave, and there is more room to breathe. But the hubbub bubbles on.
By the middle Saturday, the departed seniors are replaced by juniors, 128 mini-me’s who seem to take up even more space in the corridor simply because they are always running everywhere. They are excited. They are playing at being in the big leagues, using the same facilities as their idols. Hopefully they are learning from it too.
The rooms thin out again as the draws act like a reverse half-life, cutting themselves in two, day by day. Although the second week brings a few new faces, the legends and the wheelchair players, it is a quieter restaurant, a calmer locker room. There's much less running. It’s almost eerie, actually.
Where once you had to battle for a spot on a practice court, in the physio room, at the juice bar, and woe betide you wanting your favourite sandwich, now the corridors and courts are largely still. Those still in the draw are going about their business with quiet purpose and much less chatter. At this stage, you have only yourself to blame. There are no distractions.
But outside these hidden passages, the tournament rumbles on. The crowds come, the officials assemble, the chefs cook, the corporates chat, the staff work, the media report. Each day is like the next. Just as it is for those last two players sitting in the locker room. They’ve earned their chance to do the same thing every day.
They play their final. One man celebrates, the other moves on. The tournament packs up.
And then it’s the 15th day and everyone is gone.
Until the next year comes and it starts again.
Till 2015, Melbourne Park.