AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – Some 6,200 miles southwest San Francisco, just south of the little known Norfolk Island, yet another dawn emerged from the vast South Pacific. So I peered out from my seat to an endless sea of puffy clouds and a breathtaking streak of orange and purple light on the horizon. Morning was breaking.
Many times I had traipsed through the Oakland airport in California. Now I would soon be going through the Auckland airport in New Zealand. Here there were many a Samoan with flowers in their hair. A guitar-toting rugby player, with a problematic limp, strolled by an Indian mother in a flowing yellow sari, who was gently coaxing her two daughters in pretty pink dresses. Kiwis in “Ripcurl” sweatshirts passed by shops with their fine (take that, Napa Valley) wines and a shop that displayed an art magazine with a lead article on the history of New Zealand cubism from 1930–1960.
All the while local papers teased us with articles about naughty nuns and coverage of the roadside sign put up by an overzealous egg farmer from Ngunguru, Northland. Its saucy message drew a grin: “Free range eggs. Yummy. Powerful Aphrodisiac. May cause unwanted pregnancy.”
Some suggest that America is in decline. But when you travel you don’t exactly get that impression. After all, this distant New Zealand airport featured coverage of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers/Seattle Seahawks playoff game. There were Japanese women sporting New York Yankee caps and Yale sweatshirts. And then, in the corridor, out by my gate, was none other than tennis great Todd Martin. The hard-to-miss 6’6″ American, who heads the International Tennis Hall of Fame some 10,000 miles away, was on my flight. I wanted to tell him my favorite Auckland tennis story from 30 years ago. It’s the one about the young Czechoslovakian star Ivan Lendl, who was struggling to learn English and almost got on a plane to Auckland, New Zealand instead of Oakland, California.
But enough about Auckland. I was headed out to embrace a new morning for tennis, the opening of the Australian Open. Every year, this is a bright affirmation that the game indeed will go on. Yes, questions loom. Will the increasingly formidable Djokovic continue his dominance? Will Serena again deliver unfiltered high drama? Could tennis’ middle-aged folk, a kind of lost generation, at last find their way? Is there a hungry young kid out there who will explode? And, of course, what about Swiss Roger Federer, the man who laughs at time?
Such is the beauty of the opening day of the first slam. The fresh light of a new season emerges. As before, ten thousand tennis stories wait be written. Sweet triumphs will inspire. Tears will fall. Rackets will be flung, the poets of center court will compose their sonnets with athletic grace. The Grand Slam season of a thousand twists begins with a single Australian serve.
Now that my plane has landed in Melbourne, I will head to Rod Laver Arena. Nowhere on the globe is tennis more user-friendly. This is organic, free-range tennis – quite yummy. But watch out, be warned. Not completely unlike those magical, organic free-range eggs in New Zealand, the Aussie Open may cause intense ecstasy.