There’s a moment when you know you’re back in New York. It doesn’t come when you see the Empire State Building or the Verrazano-Narrows from the air. It isn’t when you realize, to your surprise and sadness, that you still miss the World Trade Center and will never consider the city complete without it.
It happens when you get into a yellow cab and the driver, after finding out where you’re going and making his way to the highway entrance, barrels off with a rush so sudden and stunning you feel like something’s just pushed you in the back and sent you flying forward. There’s fast driving, and then there’s the fury of a New York City cabbie who has a living to make and a lot of road to cover. As much as crime has dropped over the years here, it’s still a concrete jungle.
A jarring welcome, to be sure, but the upside is that once you’re on the highway, you know right away there’s no going back to the sunnier and perhaps happier place you just left. Before I forget my last 10 days in such a place, let me tie up a few loose ends about the tournament in Indian Wells.
—Favorite first line of a quote (from Rafael Nadal)
“Did you think [Andy Roddick] was better today compared to when you played him two years ago in the semis?”
Nadal: “No, I don’t know, no?”
—Most revealing quote (from Dinara Safina)
Q. Do you think you can have real friendships on the tennis tour? Do you find that some of them are also fake??
SAFINA: There is no friendship, you know. As I always say, we're colleagues. Of course we talk to each other, but for sure you cannot say to the girl how you feel, you know, that something is bothering you. Maybe today you woke up on the wrong foot. ?I don't know, maybe somebody maybe a phone call. I mean, I had in Australia before the match and they told me my grandfather died. To whom can I go and cry except my team? My brother I can go, but if I tell to one of the players, what's she going to go and talk to the opponent, you know, she's feeling bad. Her grandfather just died. ?So these things are tough, you know. But like this you always can call on the phone, call and to say like and to cry on your calls.
—On the first night, a party was held for the press at which the new BNP trophy was unveiled. I ate a mini-burger, had a beer, ate a roll of sushi, had a glass of wine, and finished with a chocolate cupcake and a coke. It was official: I was back on the road.
—From the I was right department:
Roger Federer, after being asked to talk about his tears after the Aussie Open final
Federer: What I don't like is that people think they know why it happened. It's very simple: You go out five hours and try everything you can and you spend three weeks in one city. You love tennis, and you get emotional because the fans are into it and you feel like you're so close, and all of a sudden you realize yet you're so far again.?So this is what brought out the tears, I guess. Then seeing again the old scenario of Rod Laver there, just Australian fans are so respectful and so knowledgeable of the game, that kind of created that kind of emotion. It had nothing to do with, Oh, my god, I'm never going to win this tournament again.
—The place; The bar at the Indian Wells Hyatt. I’m waiting for a friend and reading a book from the mid-70s by the aforementioned John Updike. A couple is eating—and drinking—next to me. The man in the couple is wearing a shirt with a large, neon-colored Benihana logo on the back. A repeat of the Roger Federer-Fernando Verdasco quarterfinal is playing on TV.
What I read: For all the taming clichés of tourism and frequentation that a gross and frivolous empire can impose, but a few quick steps from the beaten path, into the solitude beneath a red rock, serve to convince us that this grandeur is heedless; its breath is a dragon’s, its innumerable eyes are blind.
What I hear: “Honey, honey, no, no, look here. I have something to tell you, baby, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. When we’re playing mixed doubles sometimes, and I see John at the net, I have to say, honey, he looks like a rock star up there, he’s so skinny and he has those sunglasses. You know you don’t have anything to worry about, honey, nothing at all, I just wanted you to know that sometimes I think about . . . OHH! This is my song, baby!”—Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes over the speakers—This. Is. My. Song. Baby, let’s dance, come on, dance with me.” She gets up and starts to wiggle. I look back down.
Frankie, sitting proper across from me at the little formica table, which was snow white and ice-slick and within it a pink blur that was her face reflected, leaned forward an inch and pronounced distinctly, in that garden of a voice whose far corner was shadowed by magnolia, words of an alarming vehemence. “I don’t want to rebuild, I want to destroy.”
“Look at that! Look at that! Look at that! Did you see that, baby?” Federer has hit a crosscourt backhand winner. “That’s just like you do it, that’s just like you do it, you know you look just like Roger Federer when you swing.”
Benihana puts down his oversize margarita. “Federer, jesus, man! Even if he loses a point, he’s always ahead. Look at him, he’s doing the calculations in his head right now, he’s doing the math. He’s like a Swiss banker, man, he’s got everything in order, just right, the cards are always lined up.”
They had the same milky human kindness, the same preposterous view of the church as an adjunct of religious studies and social service, the same infuriating politics, a warmed-over McGovernism of smug lamenting: never did they think to themselves, however heavily their heads nodded, as two luxurious blooms on a stalk fibrous with capital and cops.
“Baby, that pizza looks goo-oood. Let’s get another pizza.”
—Halfway through the tournament, Kamakshi asked me if anyone missed Nikolay Davydenko, who had pulled out before it began. I was shocked to realize he wasn’t there. I never heard anyone else mention his name during the event. We may not like to hear about tennis needing “personality,” but it really does matter for our enjoyment of the sport.
—I wrote when I went out to Cali that I wanted to listen to some jazz CDs in the car, but it ended up being a rock and roll kind of week. I hadn’t realized how much I missed driving and listening to something with a beat. It’s in the blood. Heading out of Palm Springs I came to the entrance onto interstate 10. Turning left would take me to L.A. and the airport, turning right deeper into the desert, where I could drive in peace on a brilliantly sunny day. Oh, how I wished I could turn right.
Anyway, it’s lines from songs that stick in my head from the week:
The room was Mediterranean and the meaning was two-fold—"Indefinitely," Old 97s
No, I don’t have no money, but I’ve always got plenty of time—“Lazy Days,” the Byrds
Won’t you come away with me, and begin something we can understand?—Pernice Brothers
Let’s get high while the radio’s on/Just relax and sing a song/Drive your car up on the lawn—“Good Guys and Bad Guys,” Camper van Beethoven
The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick/Suburban trees, suburban speed/And it smells like heaven—“Roadrunner,” Modern Lovers
The anti-hipster stance in the words of these last two songs made special sense as I drove in the dusk past the strip malls that line the roads just outside Indian Wells. Most writers and observers in this country detest the strip mall. Maybe they’ve never spent 10 straight summer evenings hanging their legs off the hood of a car in a parking lot between a Kmart and a movie multiplex, or celebrated finishing the SATs with a trip to the Pizza Hut. To me, a strip mall is like a showboating wide receiver in the NFL—they may be detestable in the abstract, but when they’re yours, you love them, the same way an Upper East Sider loves Park Avenue. Cruising past shopping centers in late-afternoon light in the Cali desert, with rock formations jutting up alongside parking lots, you know they can be as beautiful as the hippest neighborhoods from Berkeley to Brooklyn.
—The sportswriter Jerry Magee has been covering tennis for 50-odd years in San Diego. Last week he was given a lifetime achievement award at Indian Wells, where he’s an institution in the pressroom. He has the booming, folksy voice of a country singer, and his nightly calls to his wife, Grace, are famous. He can be often be heard lamenting the decline of the newspaper and the rise of the “enemy,” the Internet.
Magee was presented with a watch on center court before one of the evening sessions, and the assembled press cheered from our balcony. Just when it seemed like Magee would be asked to make a speech, he walked off the court as quickly as he could.
As the night went on, fellow reporters continued to congratulate Jerry, until you could hear him getting a little sick of the whole thing. His response to each compliment was slowly reduced to a grunt. Everyone loved it, of course: Reporters by definition hate the phony—one of the great things about the job is that we’re paid to be skeptical.
Magee got ready to go home. “Congratulations, again, Jerry,” someone said.
He walked to the door. “Don’t forget to wind that watch, Jerry,” someone else shouted.
“Yeah, right,” he growled without looking back. The door shut behind him with a bang. He was gone.
Because I doubt you’ll read this, Jerry, let me congratulate you one more time. At a time when journalists are watching our positions disappear even as we hear about how much better the blogosphere can do our jobs, it’s good to know that the legend of the gruff sportswriter lives on.