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Serena Williams on Rod Laver Area, January 2017. photo by Jasmin Mohamed

Stories

Going Courtside: Traveling the World for Tennis

How my tennis fandom pushed me to travel more.

I was only 10 years old when my first two loves became inextricably bound to one another after watching (on tape delay) my favorite tennis player, Andre Agassi, win the Australian Open. It was 1995, and my obsession with that tournament and Oz itself planted a travel seed in me, and I knew I’d have to get over there to see it for myself. I loved tennis first because my mother was a passionate fan and second because as an only child, I could relate to the individual nature of the sport and its “me-against-the-world” vibe. Two decades later I was finally sitting in the stands at the Australian Open like the millions of fans I’d watched on TV for years before.

I knew if I wanted to see big names—and women’s matches—and the greatest athlete of all time, Serena Williams, I’d need to travel to bigger tournaments.

The men’s and women’s tennis tours have 11-month seasons and travel all over the world. Since 2010, I’d been to the local tournament in Houston, Texas several times. I have even been to Austin to catch the biggest team tournament in men’s tennis, the Davis Cup. These events brought top-10 players, but not my favorites like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. I knew if I wanted to see big names—and women’s matches—and the greatest athlete of all time, Serena Williams, I’d need to travel to bigger tournaments.

Singapore Indoor Stadium, WTA Year End Championships.
photo by Jasmin Mohamed

The 2015 Women’s Tennis Association’s Year-End Championships in Singapore seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch Serena and the rest of the top-eight female players in the world. But after I’d booked all of my travel logistics, Serena suffered an injury at that year’s US Open and ended up withdrawing from all tournaments for the rest of the year. I was upset that I’d miss seeing her, but what could I do? My travel was nonrefundable, so to Singapore I went.

I was off on my first solo trip for nine days, 10,000 miles away from home. I got to see a lot in Singapore, including the light show at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Supertree Grove in the Gardens by the Bay, and Singapore Zoo’s famous Night Safari. I even spent a day on Sentosa Island where I went zip-lining for the first time. Planning the entire trip around the WTA Year-End Championship provided a sense of stability that really helped me pull the trigger on the whole excursion. If I’d decided I hated being alone, I could have just spent more time at the tournament. I got over my initial disappointment of not being able to see Serena rather quickly and still enjoyed so many new things.

As a Black woman watching Venus Williams in a stadium named after a prominent Black male tennis player, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and awe that underscored Venus’s hard-won first-round match.

In an effort to catch Serena a year later, I tried to get tickets for her session at the 2016 US Open in New York City. The tricky thing about attending tennis matches is that the draw and order of play are not released until two days before play begins. This makes it difficult to really plan on being able to see your favorites—and this time was no different because I wasn’t able to get the much-coveted tickets to Serena’s first-round match. But it wasn’t a total wash because I did spend time with a couple of tennis friends and saw Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams, ticking two more players off my bucket list.

The Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens is a behemoth and the largest stadium in all of tennis, seating over 23,000. The nosebleed seats don’t make for good tennis viewing, but they offer spectacular bird’s-eye views of the rest of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds and that unmistakable New York City skyline. As a Black woman watching Venus Williams in a stadium named after a prominent Black male tennis player, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and awe that underscored Venus’s hard-won first-round match. I got to know the people sitting near me, and each one of them had a Venus story to tell. They weren’t at this match by chance; it took a lot of effort to be sure they’d get to see her play. I knew then that these were my kind of people.

The Razorback, Great Ocean Road, Australia.
photo by Jasmin Mohamed

Traveling for tennis slowly became second nature. I couldn’t click “purchase” fast enough when it came time to book my three-week jaunt through New Zealand and Australia in January 2017. My week in New Zealand began with the ASB Classic Tennis Tournament in Auckland. While I spent much of my time in that city watching tennis, I did manage to go on a winery tour of Waiheke Island and enjoy a day lounging on Mission Bay Beach. I topped off New Zealand with a couple of days in Wellington and Christchurch before I crossed the Tasman Sea for Melbourne.

I was waiting to board my flight at the Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand when the Australian Open draw was released. I frantically bought a ticket on my phone because I refused to miss Serena for a third time. It was in Rod Laver Arena that I finally saw Serena Williams and Roger Federer play, who both went on to win the two-week major. I barely made it in time to see Roger on opening night due to a bout of food poisoning, but dragging myself across the city to see his beautiful backhand and graceful footwork in person was well worth it. Serena played the next day and I remember giddily bouncing in my seat at seeing her powerful serve and hearing the echoes of those ground strokes in person. While these first-round matches were not filled with dramatics, the crowds still roared in support of these two legends.

Though I sat alone for most events, being at these tournaments never felt lonely.

When I wasn’t at tennis matches or watching tennis at a local bar, I was enjoying Melbourne and the surrounding areas. Taking a drive down the famous Great Ocean Road and walking Pit Lane of the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix were two other highlights that stand out. Never too far removed from tennis, however, I spent time with new friends having drinks and talking about tennis while enjoying some city sightseeing. After leaving Melbourne, I spent a week in Sydney, tennis-free, to wrap up my journey to the other side of the world. Tennis was my foundation, and I came home with new friendships and a new bond with Melbourne, the city that stole my 10-year-old heart all those years ago.

Though I sat alone for most events, being at these tournaments never felt lonely. All I could feel was the palpable excitement about the tournament itself and for the players on the court. Sports fandom breeds a certain type of instant comradery that is hard to find anywhere else. Following the sport I love has helped me to commune with other fans, and I get to see the world in the process. I can’t wait to see where tennis takes me next.

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