'Tennis offers us the communal pleasure of watching genuine heroics.'

'Tennis offers us the communal pleasure of watching genuine heroics.' Photo: Paul Rovere

We all live in our own enclave. Mine would be disparaged as ''the inner-city, latte-sipping, bleeding-heart lefty set''. I have never taken exception to the term because I do like a latte or two to start the day and have always firmly believed that a heart capable of bleeding is preferable to a stony one.

Occasionally we have the opportunity to leave our small worlds and venture into unknown territory. And so I found myself, probably the last person in the country, recently attending a sporting event. I am not a sporty person. Indeed, my partner and I fell in love over mutual memories of traumatic encounters with the pommel horse in our respective school gyms.

Despite all of the above I am an armchair tennis critic. I spend January watching the tennis in Australia at home, close-up and in high definition.

It is inspiring to watch the athleticism, focus, and precision of these twentysomethings. The psychology is equally fascinating - the mood swings over a long match, the lapses in concentration and the shocking suddenness of defeat or victory.

Individual players' idiosyncrasies are riveting: Rafa's OCD tendencies (which mother couldn't love his tidiness?), Lleyton growing up, Tomic assuring us he is too, the underpants problem of some chaps (what is the issue ''down there''?), Sam-who-chokes-Stosur, Andy's weird jaw thing, the Amazonian Williams sisters' fetish for bling, and Federer blubbing (tsk, tsk) on his loss to Nadal.

Tennis today is both Shakespearean tragedy and a long-running series titled ''who wants to be a squillionaire?'' It offers us the communal pleasure of watching genuine heroics.

Generation Y is allegedly the ''trophy'' generation - burdened by inflated expectations of parental demands that mere participation deserves a medal. But the legendary tantrums involving the seemingly therapeutic smashing of racquets are rare these days.

So what drives these superb athletes of a sport that literally requires blood, sweat and tears? No one could doubt that given the cameramen's fixation with close-ups of the players' deformed feet. Are tennis players more competitive than the rest of us? We all want to prove ourselves, but these people need to prevail.

Predictably my leisure hours are spent in cultural pursuits - in darkened cinemas on sunny days, at classical musical concerts, visiting cafes and watching HBO drama series. So it was a novel experience to attend the Kooyong Classic, foreplay to the Australian Open.

My initial, churlish reaction was to mutter about our disproportionate investment in sports, to ask why aren't the arts this well funded? But it was a sunny day; parking was easy and there was more democratic seating than corporate junkets. I stopped whingeing and marvelled at the experience instead.

The audience waited politely until a point was over before moving to sit down, helpful staff showed novices to their seats and not one mobile went off in the course of the entire day. A picturesque and uplifting scene of civil society at leisure. The stands were filled with Australians from all classes, cultures and generations. At $30 for a full day pass to watch some of the world's top tennis players it was terrific entertainment.

Much more affordable than the arts now forced to price themselves out of existence, thus earning the damning tag of elitism. This century-old club plays an important role in tennis history. But that in itself does not engender such a culture of civility.

Juan Martin del Potro was ''this close'' as we watched him go about his business, Baghdatis suffered ''tennis interruptus'' as Tipsarevic turned to his team and retired nursing an injury.

In the next section Team Hewitt, including incredibly well behaved Hewitt Juniors, cheered on their hero. And this was merely day one. I am sure the experience is just as inspiring in the Rod Laver Arena.

Tennis is obviously a big business nowadays. It is a spectacle but is also always a contest of will between opponents, a struggle over a small ball, and most profoundly a struggle with the self. Tennis is now mass-entertainment and a golden opportunity for marketing.

Despite all this, we spectators are joined quite simply in our audible empathy for the players. Xenophobic Australia even generously permits divided national loyalties as the Swiss politely wave their national flag, Cypriots chant their bloke to victory and sport commentators attempt to subdue their partisanship.

This foray into another world filled me with admiration for the operational staff who provide superb facilities, and envy of a business model that delivers such modestly accessible events.

Admiration too for the commitment of young sporting heroes, because it is unimaginable that the endurance test they routinely undertake is motivated by venality. And finally, respect for my fellow citizens of Australia who honour and indiscriminately cheer both victors and vanquished. Tennis, in January, shows us all a better version of ourselves.

Louise Adler is the chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing and president of the Australian Publishers Association.

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