Being There

Monday, February 08, 2010 /by

Rf-jmdp It’s that time of year again: February. For a tennis fan, the word rolls off the tongue and lands with a thud. It’s the sound of winter returning after all that Aussie sun. What seems like a soothing lull in the action at first begins to get a little worrying by month’s end. Where does the sport go, you might find yourself asking. To South America, to Holland, to Dubai, to Zagreb and Johannesburg and Marseilles; tennis is everywhere and nowhere at once.

By February’s end, after the guarantees have been paid and the results have been totaled up, nothing historic or memorable will have happened. But if it doesn’t mean much for the Nadals and Henins of the world—neither of whom are going to play until March—February isn’t a complete waste. It has already allowed Marin Cilic, who won in Zagreb, to consolidate his Melbourne gains, and given Melanie Oudin, who won two Fed Cup matches this weekend, some much-needed positive energy. It has also, naturally, left Gael Monfils injured again.

Before February wreaks any more havoc, I’m going to spend this week writing about a subject that preoccupied me last month while watching the Australian Open men’s final: the varying perceptions and points of view that are possible while watching a tennis match. I’ll start with that fundamental question summed up in the old (yes, very old) blank cassette ad: Is it live, or is it Memorex? For me, as a professional observer of the sport, it can be rephrased as: Which gives you more insight into a Grand Slam final, watching it live in the arena, or on TV?

I asked myself that question as I watched Roger Federer beat Andy Murray on the television in my living room, on the other side of the world from Melbourne. This was a drastic contrast from the previous Slam, the U.S. Open, where I’d been a few feet from the court as Juan Martin del Potro upset Federer. Which was the better view?

The logical answer, and the consensus wisdom of all media outlets, is the front-row seat. You are there—how can you beat that? But, as every reporter who covers an event that's aimed primarily at a TV audience can tell you, there are major trade-offs involved. Last year the New Yorker sent one of its columnists, Hendrik Hertzberg, to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Barack Obama was going to be named the party’s presidential nominee. Hertzberg said afterward that, being on site, he couldn’t really cover the event properly because he didn't see it on TV.

The 2009 U.S. Open final offered a perfect example of why that seemingly farcical statement is true. From the press seats near the south baseline in Ashe Stadium, I could see Federer and the chair umpire jawing at each other at certain points. But I couldn’t hear anything that was said. Neither could the reporters around me. It turned out, of course, that Federer was cursing at the ump. This is not something you see every day, and was deservedly a major topic of conversation among fans afterward. But the only reporter who asked Federer anything about it in his press conference was a guy who had been watching the match on the TV monitor at his desk. Most likely, he’d been unable to secure a seat in the lower media section and decided that he’d see more on the tube than he would from the upper media seats, which are halfway up the stadium in Ashe. He wasn't wrong. (In the bottom right corner of the photo above, you can see another U.S. reporter, Bill Simons, straining to hear the conversation between the players and the chair umpire.)

By contrast, I didn’t have to worry about missing much of anything from Melbourne. ESPN had the score on its screen at all times, which comes in handy when you're trying to record the precise moment when an important shot was hit or crucial point played. The network periodically flashed the number of break points won and saved by each player, and their first-serve percentages—also handy. The commentators framed the match in a way that I thought was generally accurate—Murray's timidity vs. Federer's opportunism—and I noted some of their thoughts for my own analysis later. They also framed the off-court battle of quotes, in which Federer said that Murray “needed” the match more than he did. If I'd been at the tournament, I would likely have heard Federer say them, but I might not have heard how the network and the press used those quotes later to stoke a few flames between the players. Most important, on television I watched the points through a camera set up behind the court. This is the best angle for seeing rallies and tactics develop, and it’s one you never get from the press seats, which are invariably off to one side at the Slams.

I missed all of this at Flushing Meadows. Despite taking notes throughout, afterward I had trouble deciphering when exactly certain breaks of serve had happened, and in which game Federer had been two points from the match. I had no idea until later that Federer’s first-serve percentage was around 50, or that he was in double digits in double faults. I also didn’t realize that del Potro was taking pace off his first serve as the match progressed. Theoretically I could have found this out by observing the radar gun after every delivery, but I’ve never gotten into that habit. It’s much easier to have John McEnroe or Brad Gilbert feed you this information. Worse, I was more easily distracted in the arena, and I couldn't pause the action with a remote. A fellow writer would sit down and we’d have a conversation over the course of a couple games. Or I’d notice an expensively dressed man who was sitting with his wife a few rows in front of me and have to ask my friend Tom Perrotta, “Wasn't he with a much younger woman last week?”

As far as seeing how the rallies and tactics developed live, I understood that Federer was going to del Potro’s forehand too often, the same way I could see that he successfully changed this tactic over the course of the first set against Murray in Melbourne. At the same time, though, games seem to go by much more quickly when you’re watching live. There’s no commentator breaking things up with between-point talk, or a score resetting itself on the screen in front of you. There’s also a stronger sense of inevitability in an arena. From close range, you can read each player’s body language and get a sense of when one of them is going to throw away a point, go for broke, or dig in for a battle. This tends, once a game gets to 40-15 or 40-0, to make me relax my attention slightly. If I can sense that a game is going to be over, I don’t analyze what happens on the next point quite as closely.

This brings me to the one very real advantage of being there. You feel the truth of a match, your own truth. At the U.S. Open, you can rent headphones that allow you to hear what's being said in the CBS booth. You would think this would add to the experience of a match, the way it does when you’re in your living room. But the one time I tried it, I found that it came between me and the action. With Johnny Mac narrating, I couldn’t keep my own thoughts about the match in my head. I was watching it rather than feeling it.

What did I sense while watching del Potro and Federer? That the Argentine was going to win, not because, as others told me afterward, Federer was being too casual, or that he was being too stubborn strategically. While my sideline vantage didn’t allow me to see how rallies were being structured very easily, my proximity to the court did allow me to see, hear, feel something just as valuable—the depth and velocity of each player’s shots, and the positions from which they were hitting them. Once del Potro won the second set, his coach, Franco Davin, said that he “knew Juan would win.” I had virtually the same view as Davin, from the other side of the court, and I thought the same thing. His shots were knocking Federer backward and off balance, something I’d never seen before, not even when he’d played Nadal. The tide was with the taller man, and nothing else mattered. You might think that Federer’s first-serve percentage and double-fault count caused his defeat, but I would say it’s just as likely that they, along with whatever other match stats you might want to throw out there, were the effect of this basic fact. The same way that a football game is won in the yard between the offensive line and the defensive line, last year’s U.S. Open final was won in the few inches that Federer was forced to lean backward, both mentally and physically, by the pace of del Potro’s ground strokes.

To paraphrase a philosophical cliché, the reporter watching on TV with the rest of the world is the fox, who knows many things, while the guy stranded in his press seat with only his eyes and ears to help him is the hedgehog, who has a chance to know one big thing. If I see a match on TV, I tend to see it and write about the way the rest of the world sees it; I don’t miss much, but the analysis can be conventional (this is one reason I'll occasionally watch with the sound off). In person, I miss many elements and pieces of information that have been gathered by the TV network and which could deepen the way I see a match. But I also get to find my own version of what happened—I can feel it, in the body language of the players, in the sound of their shots, in the stadium’s air.

Which is the better, truer vantage point? Neither, in my opinion. But while I enjoy watching tennis on TV, the chance to sit by myself, with a notebook and pen, a few feet from the court, somewhere far from my living room (the farther the better), and think about what’s happening, with no help from anyone else, so I can put it into words later is one of the most satisfying experiences I can imagine having. My analysis might be limited, it might not be fully informed by all the latest quotes and numbers, it might even be proven wrong eventually. But I wouldn’t want to write about tennis if I couldn’t use it to find the limits of my own thoughts and senses. I wouldn't want to write about tennis if I couldn't, every now and then, be there.

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