As James Duckworth sat down with a generous serving of salad and freshly-cooked chook at a window table in Melbourne Park’s impressive player pod before the rain set in on Monday, Team Federer and a Williams or two were among those in higher-profile attendance nearby.
This is the pointy end of tennis, where the names are big, the facilities outstanding, the prize pool so vast that the minimum cheque for a main draw appearance is $90,000, and a fleet of courtesy cars ferries players to and from five-star hotels.
Duckworth has been here before, as a veteran of seven previous Australian Open singles campaigns that included winning a round on debut in 2012.
In between, though, experiences at the lower levels of the sport have included encounters with a less accommodating type of fowl than the man known fondly as “Ducks” prefers to see on his plate.
After five surgeries from 2017 onwards, during which he dug into his rainy-day fund while tennis income dried up completely, Duckworth is now back inside the sanctuary of the top 100.
That gains him direct grand slam entry and, specifically, an appointment with Slovenian world No.55 Aljaz Bedene in the first round of this one.
Weather permitting, it will take place on Tuesday, his 28th birthday.
Yet it was as recently as mid-2018 that Duckworth went directly from the privileged surrounds of centre court at Roland Garros – his entry facilitated by a protected ranking when his own was 1072 – to a humble Futures event in Antalya, Turkey.
No line judges, ball kids, or new practice balls there; only a loud audience of squawking wild chickens and roosters circling the court.
“Yeah, it’s much nicer being at grand slams rather than Futures, where I was a couple of years ago,’’ says Duckworth, smiling when reminded of the memory.
“As you can see, the food here is a little bit nicer, and the whole set up, especially here at the Australian Open, is incredible. It keeps getting better every year.’’
While Melbourne Park keeps improving with the help of hundreds of state government millions, Duckworth’s trajectory has been bumpier.
Indeed, the Sydney-born surgeon’s son has spent far more of his time in operating theatres than desired, even with the medical discounts that he has admitted come through family connections.
Still, 2019 ended with two Challenger titles, the last in India, and it’s back to Pune that the world No.94 will return once his Open is done.
That, he hopes, will not be for a few rounds yet, but his bank account will get a nice boost, regardless.
Duckworth is here working with a National Academy (Brisbane) coach in former Davis Cup star Wayne Arthurs, but travelling and other expenses are high, and every little bit helps.
“My year was still up and down, but I managed to finish reasonably well,’’ said Duckworth, who peaked at No.82 in 2015.
There’s still quite a few things I’d like to improve in my game; I think there’s a bit of improvement left, but starting main draw here is nice and hopefully I can continue to build.
“Tough first round. Played (Bedene) a few times before. Good serve, good forehand, but looking forward to come out and playing in front of a home crowd again.
“It’s my favourite time of the year. The crowd support is awesome. The whole country is behind all the Aussies, and you get a lot of great chants and cheering and that sort of thing. It’s really really cool, especially being Australian.’’
If not quite Federeresque, Duckworth’s is still a healthy-sized entourage, with his brother, sister and girlfriend credentialled as player guests, but family friends in the overflow category requiring tickets.
His dad is there, too.
“Yeah. It’s a tough gig, unfortunately,’’ smiled the man in demand.
While Nick Kyrgios and the absent Alex de Minaur are the current headliners of Australian men’s tennis, Duckworth and John Millman are senior members of the group below.
That includes day one losers Andrew Harris (wildcard) and Max Purcell (qualifier), with big improver Chris O’Connell, Alex Bolt and the fast-emerging Alexei Popyrin among those in Duckworth’s top half of the draw.
“It’s always nice travelling with other Aussies,’’ Duckworth said.
“We’re all pretty good mates and pushing each other along as a group, and hopefully we can all continue to push close to and inside that top 100 as well.’’
Unfortunately for Harris, son of former world No.23 and Australian Open quarter-finalist Anne Minter, his main-draw debut ended with a 6-3 6-1 6-3 loss to eighth seed Matteo Berrettini on the Open’s second-biggest court, Melbourne Arena.
Occasion: Enormous. Lessons: Learnt. Prizemoney: Very helpful, which Harris will reinvest in himself via the greater presence on the road of his private coach, Jarryd Maher, who attended just three tournaments in 2019.
“You train your whole life for a moment like this and an experience like this,’’ said Harris, the 2012 Wimbledon junior doubles champion, aged 25, and ranked No.162.
“It was really cool that I could have all my family and friends and a lot of people who are important to me who were able to come out and watch.
“I’ve had my fair share of experiences like ‘Ducks’ on the Challenger Tour – where you’re playing in some horrible spots, with literally maybe one person watching, and that’s what makes this experience much more rewarding, knowing that you’ve done the hard yards.
“From now I just want to get top 100 and get in on my own ranking.’’