A Personal Grand Slam

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BARRY HAVENGA finally completed a 16-year globe-trotting journey to get courtside for all four tennis majors

New York, Paris, London and Melbourne: the four cities that annually host a tennis major comprising the sport’s Grand Slam, upon which a player’s career record is ultimately judged. Each is a necessity for any global traveller – and if you get the timing right, you can also take in the tennis for a sporting and cultural delight.

As a golf writer for 20 years, I naturally expected to achieve a personal grand slam of witnessing the game’s own four majors before I did tennis’s, but in June 2018 I arrived at Roland Garros late on a Tuesday afternoon to complete my final side of the square. Attending the first three slams happened by chance and convenience, but I planned for Paris.

I set off on my travels at the end of 2001, a six-week stint in Australia before securing a two-year working holiday visa for the United Kingdom. Melbourne can legitimately claim to be the sporting capital of the world, with several codes choosing to stage their biggest events in what is also Australia’s culinary capital. I saw a Boxing Day Test Match (at the Melbourne Cricket Ground) against South Africa, a World Golf Championship event, and the Aussie Formula 1 Grand Prix.

For all four of the Slams, I chose to purchase a simple day-entry ticket that allows you to wander around the vast precincts without access to the show courts (the prices for which are prohibitively expensive on our beleaguered rand). I stumbled upon 16th seed Thomas Johansson during a second-round match on a far-flung Melbourne Park court, and was flabbergasted to see him triumph over highly fancied Marat Safin in the final on TV a week later. He never won another tournament and remains the last Swede to win a Grand Slam in men’s singles.

The Brits love to queue, but if you arrive at Wimbledon in the late afternoon during the first week of the championship, access is quick and the long days have games well into the evening. In 2003, I snuck onto an empty Centre Court after play had finished and marvelled at the storied history of one of sport’s great arenas, where Roger Federer would win the first of his 20 Grand Slam titles a week later. Manicured greenery, crisp white outfits, Champagne, strawberries and cream, and bad weather interruptions – guaranteed every year at SW19.

After a coast-to-coast road trip across America in 2014 (New York to San Francisco), I was flying home out of JFK, so I headed briefly to Flushing Meadows for the US Open. While Wimbledon has the heritage, the final Slam of the year is more of a festival, as I learnt from the 30-minute subway ride from central Manhattan with boisterous fans, and the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers drifting over the outer courts. Attend the rowdy night session and also check out a baseball game right next door at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

It was therefore with much anticipation that I made my way from central Paris to the tree-lined suburb that surrounds the physically demanding red clay courts of Roland-Garros. Named after a World War I aviator and tennis enthusiast, the French Open venue is the smallest of the four majors, offering a terrifically intimate atmosphere for spectators. You can get really close to action – longer points on the slower surface, players getting dirty and dusty with clay-filled socks and shoes, and knowledgeable crowds cheering or jeering.

Deciding which European city to visit after a wedding in Copenhagen at the end of May was no contest: Paris in the springtime, and the opportunity to complete a unique sporting spectating feat. Now, about those tickets for the Masters to complete a golfing Grand Slam…

 

Barry Havenga is a Cape Town-based editor who has been a contributing writer for magazine for 19 years.

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