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Watching Nishikori Down Under

by Amy Chavez

All Japan was watching as Kei Nishikori, the first Japanese tennis player to make it to the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam since Shuzo Matsuoka at Wimbledon in 1995, took on the No. 4 seeded Brit, Andy Murray, at the Australian Open Wednesday night. Nishikori, ranked 24th in the world, knew he was up for a tough match but went in optimistic.

I watched the match on the Australian Prime Network, which was a real eye-opener as to what really goes on in Australian sports.

The first shocker was an advertisement for the “McOz burger” from “Mackers” (the Australian term for McDonald’s and pronounced “Macka’s”). What’s a McOz burger? A 100 percent Australian beef burger with beetroot and “classic ketchup” (treading carefully on the use of the word ketchup since the Australians use “tomato sauce.”) A quick search on the Internet to find out why Australians call McDonald’s “Mackers” reveals an answer on au.answers.yahoo.com, where the “Top answer” is: “Because it’s easier for Aussies to speak in two syllables or less, and anything longer requires a beer, which would mean walking to the fridge.” A very good point.

The second shocker was that just before the Murray vs. Nishikori game, a notice came up that said “Murray $1.07, Nishikori $9.00.” These were the odds for betting on them! Just like horse racing. And why not? As the saying goes, “Australians would bet on two flies crawling up a wall.” Thus the flourishing online gambling site called Sportsbet (“Aussie Open special — Money back if your player loses in five sets!”). You can even bet on who will win the first set. Or if a player wins a set at all. Now we’re chinwagging.

OK, I’ve just started eating my virtual OzBurger (very delicious) and have bet a virtual 1,000 Australian dollars on Nishikori. I’m barracking for the 22-year-old player with a small Uniqlo logo on the front of his red shirt and a Cup Noodles one on his left sleeve cap.

All I have to do now is settle into the game. Ooooh yeaaah, bring it on! Murray is known for his fast serves that come across the net at over 200 kph (faster than the average baseball pitch), and at the beginning Nishikori looks a bit stunned.

No worries, though. He quickly gets into action and starts moving.

That Nishikori is no match for Murray is fair dinkum, but Nishikori still does a great job of holding his own. Especially when you consider these world class tennis players, the elite who have qualified for this Grand Slam here in Melbourne, not only have to be in the top physical shape and play their absolute best, but they also run the risk of having a cricket waltz out onto the court during play. Yes, really! Blood oath, dinkie-die, stick a needle in my eye, Rod Laver Arena has been plagued with crickets this year. One cricket’s on-court appearance was so distracting to the players, the lawless insect was removed by one of the ball girls. Don’t those crickets realize? They’ve got the wrong sport!

But no crickets for Nishikori so far. Then, just after the second game in the first set, a grueling 42-shot rally, the electricity goes out in my house. The TV clicks off and Nishikori vanishes into darkness.

Damn, I was only halfway through my McOz burger too.

Thinking that surely the electricity will come on in another 10 minutes or so, I turn on my battery-powered laptop, and hook up to the 3G mobile Internet connection and go to Twitter. Suddenly, the hand of God came over Twitter in the form of a tweet from Steve Busfield, Guardian Sports Blog Editor in New York City: @Busfield: “Andy Murray vs. Kei Nishikori — live!” He was liveblogging the whole bloody game!

It was my first liveblogging experience and it didn’t take long to get hooked. Busfield’s play-by-play reporting was straight to the point and far better than listening to some of the banter of the TV announcers (Announcer A: We have two pairs of Czech players at the Australian Open who have younger boyfriends. Do you think this age discrepancy is a Czech thing? Announcer B: No, I don’t think it’s limited to Czechs.) And so what if I can’t actually see Nishikori and I have to provide my own antics for him: fist-pumping, grunting and sweating bullets. As a matter of fact, I found that liveblogging allowed me to get right into the head of Nishikori, enough to fulfill one of my life-long dreams: to become a professional tennis player!

I tossed aside the rest of my McOz because I am a real athlete now, I am Nishikori! I stand, racket poised, and wait for Busfield to call the shots. Forced and unforced errors, dodgy first serves, driving returns, some through the legs, it’s not easy! I play a 55-minute set.

Australians love to support the underdog, and in the second set, according to Busfield, the crowd starts chanting “Nishi-Kori, Nishi-Kori, Nishi-Kori!” Gosh, I didn’t even hear them.

Finally got the first serve in and win that game! But Murray’s forehand can be a killer, so fast. Sometimes my legs stretch so far when I reach for the ball, I can feel my thigh and knee disconnect for a brief moment before snapping back into place. I bet the TV is replaying that shot now, showing in super slow-mo the breadth of my leg stretch, as if I were a racehorse coming over the finish line.

Third set and I’m needing more energy. The balls are flying by me. Some shots I have to reach up so far to return that my shirt slides up revealing to viewers my iron abs. At least if I lose this match, I can make a living doing late-night Japanese commercials selling the latest abdominal crunch machine.

I’m not the only thing lagging, though. My laptop is out of power now too. The screen blinks and goes dark.

Just then, the electricity returns from its walkabout. I’m surprised to find Murray and Nishikori playing the very last game in the third set. And the rest of my McOz burger is still sitting on the table.

Nishikori loses the third set, for a final score of 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. He may have lost, but he won a lot of Ozzie fans with his fighting spirit. And all I lost was a virtual AU$1,000.

I’m exhausted and my legs really sore. It’s time to go to bed. I have to get up early tomorrow because I’m the cockatoo for a 2-up game.