Noting Toronto

by: Steve Tignor | August 12, 2010

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TENNIS.com

Pa-rf "Ooot!" 

That’s Canadian for “Out!” of course. I expected to hear it screamed all week here, but I’ve only gotten one good one so far, on a deep outer court. Which is a little disappointing considering that we’ve reached the halfway point, time-wise if not excitement-wise, in Toronto. This is hard to believe mostly because as I write this Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played just one match apiece. Before I head out of the press room and back upstairs to watch them, as well as another match I’m looking forward to, Murray-Monfils—I wish it had been scheduled for the evening, but you can’t argue with Rafa and Rog, who sold virtually every seat for the first two nights—let me engage in another ritual of this column, the Emptying of the Notebook. Here’s some Rogers Cup marginalia, day one through four.

***

Whose pink side are you on? Nadal’s or Federer’s? I’ll take Federer’s shirt—not really take it, I couldn’t wear it—but I’m not sure about the beige pants. They seem like something he might put on for a trip to the backyard.

*** 

Has Federer reached "beloved" status with tennis fans? The typical trajectory for a champion, or at least an American champion—see Connors Agassi, McEnroe—is to begin as the resented upstart who must slay the fans’ favorite veteran, and then, after a long breaking in and (slight) mellowing process, to become that veteran favorite himself. Federer has never been resented, but seeing the titanic sell-out crowd show up to see him Tuesday night here made me think that, as he become a little less dominant, appreciation for him will only increase. What’s funny is to hear casual—i.e., virtual no-nothing—fans’ reactions to the Maestro. After one shanked backhand pass against Chela, a prolonged “Ooooohhhh” went through the audience. It was as if an actor had just flubbed a line in a play, or Kobe Bryant had missed a breakaway dunk. They’d seen something they could tell their grandkids about—the great one had missed.

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Every tournament comes with its own set of between-game commercials broadcast over the stadium loudspeakers. After a day or two, they typically melt into sonic wallpaper, but one in Toronto has stuck in my head. A woman with a breathy TV voice advises us, with an Orwellian subliminality:

“Stay active, eat well, get enough milk products.”

*** 

For various reasons, the practice courts seem to be a bigger deal on tour each year. Maybe it’s the overweening popularity of Federer and Nadal, who people will run to see do anything at all, or maybe it’s stronger promotion. The Rogers Cup posts practice times for each player near the courts, and is now tweeting pics from those practices. I was in the stadium yesterday when the woman behind me received a text that Rog was out hitting practice balls. She didn’t even wait for the changeover to leave. Earlier that day, Nadal had been hitting at full speed for the better part of three hours. It’s amazing how quickly he moves between points in practice.

Unfortunately, the potential for starpower also creates the potential for disappointment. A couple of days ago, a father pushed his son forward, saying, “I think Federer is supposed to be on, go see if he’s out there.” The kid came back frowning. “It’s Davydenko,” he mumbled.

*** 

I saw a mime. I walked in the other direction.

*** 

Yesterday, drifting out of a loudspeaker from a sponsor tent where players come to do autograph signings, I heard a sentence I don’t often hear: “Hey everybody, can you feel the excitement, Robin Soderling is in the house!”

*** 

The most pleasant and expansive area at the Rogers Cup is in the back, where the Grandstand and Court I are situated in a park-like setting, and where a late-afternoon match during a sunset will turn picturesque. At its center, though, the place can appear to be one extended white merchandise tent. In the middle of these tents is a mini-tennis court, where kids hit foam balls back and forth. The first day I saw one teenager who looked pretty skilled. I was impressed, but at the same time all I could think was that someone should warn him: “Look, kid, you’re pretty good. Maybe you’re really good. But you’ll probably never make it.”

*** 

Sponsor logos cited in the main stadium: Bailey’s, Rexall, California Wines, Haägen-Dazs, Sun Life. What if you followed along with this recipe? You’d get drunk and fat on booze and ice cream, take prescription drugs to feel better, and then insure yourself against disaster. Call it the circle of consumer life.

***

Musical memories of Toronto so far? My most vivid, and embarrassing, came in the press van back to my hotel the other night. I was talking to the driver while Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You” played on the radio. As I chatted with him about vaious subjects, I couldn’t stop listening to the song. Worse, I couldn’t stop liking it. Why oh why did lines as idiotic as, “I can promise you tomorrow/But I can’t buy back yesterday,” and “Baby you know my hands are dirty/But I wanted to be your valentine” seem so . . . moving? And why did the song’s emotional pinnacle, when Mr. Bongiovi bursts out guiltily, if randomly, “I didn’t mean to miss your birthday, baby!/I wish I’d seen you blow those candles out,” sound like one of the great desperate moments of rock and roll, right up there with the long first note of Bob Stinson’s guitar solo in the Replacements' “Sixteen Blue.” OK, it’s not quite like that; Stinson’s solo leaves you hanging your head in wonder at how a single, stupidly simple guitar solo can seem to hold half the emotion and angst that’s otherwise left unexpressed in the world. Bon Jovi’s song makes you laugh at that emotion instead. Even bad music has its unique power.

*** 

My transport driver on another night was named Hans. He’s planning a trip to New York City soon. I gave him a few tips, and he talked about his job as a teacher. He impressed me with his positivity and general helpfulness. He teaches school, he teaches snowboarding, he helps kids with tennis. When we got around to talking, as two men will, about the NFL, he said he’d always liked the good guy teams, like the 49ers, and disliked the bad guys, like the Cowboys. I got out of the car thinking that his attitude was so much better than mine, that he was doing so much more for other people than I ever had.

The next morning I got up, went downstairs, started through the revolving door of the hotel on my way to breakfast, and thought: “I’ve got to be more like Hans.” Not Mick Jagger, not Barack Obama, not Roger Federer, not John Updike: Hans, the Rogers Cup press-van driver. I’m happy to take my inspiration where I can find it.

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