A U.S. Sportswriter’s ‘Glimpse of the Future’ in Near-Normal Australia

Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur during ATP Cup play at Melbourne Park last week.

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For the many Australians who have spent the past year at home, surrounded by oceans and slammed-shut borders, the pandemic hasn’t exactly been a pleasant experience. But it is a world away from the crisis in the United States, where more than 3,000 people are still dying each day and life remains far from normal.

In fact, life is so close to normal here that we decided to host the Australian Open, and went to extraordinary, if contentious, lengths to do so. I was curious to know how it felt to land suddenly in this relatively safe alternate reality, and to cover a global event that might give us a small glimpse into a post-pandemic world.

So I called up Matthew Futterman, a veteran sports journalist for the Times who is visiting us from the U.S. to cover the tennis tournament, to ask him what he’s learned. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Hi, Matt. Welcome to Australia. Tell me, what were your first impressions when you got here?

It’s very unnatural to go into another Western democracy and be basically locked in a room with a guard outside the door. My window opened a little bit, so I could get a crack of fresh air, and I rented an exercise bike. It was really intense. You definitely feel like you were being treated like a leper, but personally, I felt like I deserved to be treated like a leper — I was on a charter plane with a bunch of players, and there were a few cases, including one of the flight attendants. I was really anxious the first week that I was going to test positive.

I also had this immediate sense of the path not taken in the U.S. and what a missed opportunity that was. When you experience it, you really come to understand what the meaning of quarantines are and why they work. That was the overwhelming sense.

And what about when you finally stepped out onto the street on day 14?

It was Friday night, and the bars were just packed with people without masks. The next morning, I went out for my first run in two and a half weeks, and at a picnic table, someone had set up a party. A number of people hugged each other and it was startling. I haven’t seen people who don’t live under the same roof hug each other in 10 months; I haven’t hugged my mother since March.

Seeing people being able to embrace and enjoy that human contact was really touching. I notice that the most when people greet each other, and at the same time, it’s clear that people are far more careful here. It still feels like we’re all going through P.T.S.D.

You’ve been writing about this: Australia flirting with a sense of normalcy through the tennis tournament.

Yeah, the most striking thing is that this isn’t like flicking a switch and everything’s OK. There were about 19,000 people total yesterday at Melbourne Park. The grounds are fairly large and usually they get about 60,000 a day, so it feels really empty.

The players call the Australian Open the “Happy Slam” because usually, it’s a big party. A lot of European players are coming from cold places into summer, and it’s the beginning of the tennis season; everyone’s starting fresh. This year, the players are just thrilled to be able to go out for dinner. So they’re hugely relieved, but they’re also lying pretty low. It’s a little tempered.

How are the players coping after being unable to train properly in quarantine?

The ones who lose say yes, it’s affected their play. The ones who are winning are saying they have been able to handle it. It’s a very imperfect experiment. They all at least had an exercise bike, weights and medicine balls. But usually, they’d be playing in another tournament, or doing all sorts of other training, getting massages and physical therapy.

I’m not comparing myself to an elite athlete, but the day I got out of quarantine, I did my usual run, which is about nine miles. I could barely walk the next day. I felt worse than after completing some marathons. Not being able to move, walk around, your muscles really atrophy.

Overall, what are your biggest takeaways about our response to the pandemic here? Has it given you any insight into what the future might hold for the U.S.?

From a sports point of view, the most striking thing, having been to the U.S. Open in September, which had no fans, I was just so overwhelmed last night by how much I had missed the interplay between the crowd and the athletes, and the way they work off each other.

There’s just no way Nick Kyrgios saves two match points and wins the fifth set against Ugo Humbert in an empty stadium without a crowd urging him on. There’s also a huge Serbian contingent that shows up at all of Novak Djokovic’s matches and sings for him, and he stops and smiles because he can’t help himself.

Seeing that energy pass back and forth is kind of heartbreaking, in the same way as seeing two people who don’t live together hug each other in a park.

From a life point of view, I’ve been seeing this as a kind of glimpse of the future, and it feels like it’s going to be a long road. It took several days to get comfortable sitting in a restaurant, or being on a crowded tram, even though I know intellectually it’s safe to do.

Even once rates go down, it’s going to be an adjustment.

What do you think of Australia’s decision to host the Australian Open? And have you also found it hard to readjust to normal habits? Tell us at [email protected].

Now, on to the stories of the week:


ImageSofia Kenin ended 2020 ranked No. 4 in the world and was named the WTA Player of the Year.
Credit…Jonathan DiMaggio/Getty Images
  • Australian Open: Sofia Kenin, the Reigning Champ, Is Knocked Out. The 22-year-old American lost in the second round to an unseeded player, Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.

  • He Calls the Tie a ‘Colonial Noose.’ Now Parliament Says It’s No Longer Mandatory. Rawiri Waititi, a Maori politician in New Zealand, was kicked out of Parliament for refusing to wear a tie, a marker of Indigenous resistance.

  • At the Australian Open, Sports Flirts With Normalcy. Fans, noise, lines for food and booze. In a country that has the coronavirus under control, a tennis championship delivers a glimpse of what sports can one day be again.

  • China Arrests Australian Journalist on Spying Charge. The case of Cheng Lei, a CGTN host who was detained in August, has added to tensions between China and Australia.

  • Players to Watch at the Australian Open. We know who’s likely to be in the spotlight at 2021’s first Grand Slam event, but here are six players who could be surprises.

  • Because of Covid-19, Even Getting to the Australian Open Is a Battle. Players not only must be quarantined upon arrival, but then they are mostly confined to their rooms.

  • Sofia Kenin: Moved to Tears, and Victory. Once the defending Australian Open champion is on the court, it’s all about “grooving in the game.”

  • Pacific Islands’ Most Important Megaphone Falls Into Discord. The future of an 18-nation group is in doubt after Palau abandoned it over a leadership dispute.


Image

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
  • House Lays Out Case Against Trump, Branding Him the ‘Inciter in Chief’. The Democratic House impeachment managers opened their case against the former president with a narrative of his monthslong effort to overturn the election and raw footage of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

  • The Vaccine Had to Be Used. He Used It. He Was Fired. Ten doses of the Covid-19 vaccine would expire within hours, so a Houston doctor gave it to people with medical conditions, including his wife. What followed was “the lowest moment in my life,” Dr. Hasan Gokal said.

  • Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’. The friends, confidants and collaborators explain why more than a decade passed between films and why Jamie Dornan is their dream co-star.

  • His Dreams Came True, Despite the Pandemic. After having a rough start to 2020, Jimir Reece Davis, a D.J. who goes by Amorphous, ended it with a bang.

  • Hear the Sound of a Seashell Horn Found in an Ancient French Cave. Music from the large conch probably hadn’t been heard by human ears for 17,000 years.


Last week, we asked which restaurants you would love to see reviewed in T Magazine. Here’s a response from one of our readers:

“Great news about T Magazine. Looking forward to seeing the first edition.

May I humbly suggest lots of fashion and arts news. Australia has such talented creatives, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. Such stories also lend themselves to lots of glossy pics which we all love in any magazine.”

— Josephine Cafagna

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It was Friday night, and the bars were just packed with people without masks. The next morning, I went out for my first run in two and a half weeks, and at a picnic table, someone had set up a party. A number of people hugged each other and it was startling. I haven’t seen people who don’t live under the same roof hug each other in 10 months; I haven’t hugged my mother since March.

Seeing people being able to embrace and enjoy that human contact was really touching. I notice that the most when people greet each other, and at the same time, it’s clear that people are far more careful here. It still feels like we’re all going through P.T.S.D.

You’ve been writing about this: Australia flirting with a sense of normalcy through the tennis tournament.

Yeah, the most striking thing is that this isn’t like flicking a switch and everything’s OK. There were about 19,000 people total yesterday at Melbourne Park. The grounds are fairly large and usually they get about 60,000 a day, so it feels really empty.

There’s just no way Nick Kyrgios saves two match points and wins the fifth set against Ugo Humbert in an empty stadium without a crowd urging him on. There’s also a huge Serbian contingent that shows up at all of Novak Djokovic’s matches and sings for him, and he stops and smiles because he can’t help himself.

Seeing that energy pass back and forth is kind of heartbreaking, in the same way as seeing two people who don’t live together hug each other in a park.

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