Rainy Day Journal

Monday, August 09, 2010 /by

Rg To an American, there’s something about Canada. If you’re walking down the street and you stop in mid-stride, you probably won't hear three people sighing and grunting in frustration behind you. If your meal is late, you might find yourself laughing about it with the waiter instead of raising your collective voices until someone is threatening a lawsuit. If the subway isn’t working, you could very well see a handwritten note on the wall that reads, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience." I don’t know what all of this says about the country, except that it ain't New York.

And the Rogers Cup isn’t the U.S. Open, for better or worse. There was a calmness around the site as the event's opening day quietly and humidly—and eventually rainily—got itself off the ground. In the time-honored tradition of this blog, I’ll give you a glimpse around the grounds for as long as it lasted.

***

11:00 A.M.

“To the site, yeah, to the site.”

These are the words of a player—I don't know who he is—as he gets into the transport car that will take us from our downtown hotel to the tournament. Ahead of us, getting in another, bigger car, is Fernando Gonzalez. He’s already dressed in his blindingly white dry-fit tennis clothes, and has a monster racquet bag flung over his shoulder. I guess the pros get used to it, but I don't think I would enjoy spending half my life or more dressed in ultra-bright, sponsor-designed polyester gym wear, with shoes that look, as John McEnroe once said, like model airplanes.

The player in my car, very tall and tan, sits up front, puts in his earphones, and plays solitaire on his IPhone. I think of British tennis journalist Richard Evans' line about how much the tour changed with the advent of the Walkman in the early 1980s. He said that, with that one little invention, something of the camaraderie went out of the game. Meanwhile, our driver, all business in her Rogers Cup uniform, puts on her shades and barrels out of the city, past condo towers and scattered low-lying warehouses and not much else. We ride in silence for 45 minutes. When we get there, the player takes out his earphones and says in a surprisingly cheerful and friendly voice, “Thank you very much!”

***

12:00

“C’mon Richie!”

This is the sentiment of a young man in the center court audience, and for the moment his support seems to help. “Richie” is Canadian-ese for Richard Gasquet, and right now everything appears to be fine in this sometimes troubled young man’s world. At 4-4 in the first set against Sergiy Stakhovsky, he hits an ace for 40-0 and a vintage backhand winner up the line for the game. Then, for no obvious reason, it all falls apart. Gasquet flips a couple of forehands out, is broken, and then flips a couple more forehands even farther out to lose the set. Twenty minutes later, already down a break in the second, he pushes a drop shot that doesn’t reach the net, and then miss virtually every ball he hits until the match is over. I’ve seen Gasquet choke, I’ve seen him come up soft, I’ve heard him lamely back out of matches. But I’ve never seen him cave so transparently. We may hear about an injury, but, like I said, all was well in Gasquet’s world, until it wasn’t.

***

1:00

“Maybe we should go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, these two aren’t very good anyway.”

These are the words of an older couple sitting in the Grandstand. The two players who they’ve decided “aren’t very good anyway” are Tommy Robredo and Jarkko Nieminen. 

Nieminen, who is getting blown out, and quietly enraged in the process, throws the ball up for a second serve. In the distance, the stadium court PA is playing Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” It drifts loudly into the Grandstand. Niemenin hears it, catches his toss, thinks about saying something, thinks better of it, breathes deeply, and double faults.

***

1:10

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, I can’t sign, I can’t sign, can’t sign. I’ve got to go on court in five minutes.”

This is the voice of Gilles Simon speaking to a small army of autograph seekers as he leaves the practice courts. He's friendly and calm, but his manner is tense. He really does have to get to center court in five minutes. Behind him is Sam Querrey, who has just been practicing with Simon. Throughout their session, Querrey has been loose and smiling, while Simon has looked grim and a little anxious. This may be the difference between a guy who is playing in five minutes, and someone who is scheduled to play later in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s just the Querrey way at the moment. After a few days off, he practiced for something like five hours on Saturday, and he looks disappointed having to leave the court after 45 minutes today.

Watching Simon, I can see another element of the professional game that I would have trouble handling: the 24/7 tension. Yes, these guys are well paid and well adored, and they spend time playing video games and lying around expensive hotel rooms and chasing women. But for any real professional, there’s no escaping the tension. When you’re in season, and especially when you’re at a tournament, your life, your sleep, your food, your thoughts, your energy are all orchestrated around your next match. You even have to avoid serious mental stimulation, because it will drain you—the “dumb jock” is an unfortunate but necessary creation. That’s a lot to give to a sport. Like Marat Safin said in his last U.S. Open press conference, “It’s a great life, but you have to pay for it.” Like Simon, his eyes narrowed, says to the fans today, the fans he couldn’t engage even if he had wanted to: “I have a match to play.”

*** 

1:20

Squeak squeak, squeak squeak.

These are the sneakers of Max Mirnyi, the most intense and impressive player on the practice courts. The seemingly ageless doubles master turned 33 a month ago (it seems like he’s been around much longer), but his footwork is stunning as he rushes the net after a serve. He makes innumerable and uncountable tiny adjustment moves while covering just a few feet of ground. There’s an awesome sharpness to the way he gets around a court. Consider it reason three why I, along with most of us, could never be a pro—we simply could not do that.

*** 

1:30

“It’s Star Wars!”

The young fan is right, the theme from Star Wars is playing over the loudspeaker in the main stadium. It's the same music that was played when Pete Sampras and Roger Federer entered Madison Square Garden for their exhibition a couple of years ago. Bombastic as it was, it made sense there. I hate to say it, but it kind of feels like overkill as Mikhail Youzhny and Simon enter the court today.

That might be because Youzhny and Simon are wearing exactly the same brown and white Adidas outfit, right down to their shoes. I’ll repeat an old request here: In these cases, the lower-ranked player should change clothes. In this case, the uniformity doesn't do justice to a stylish match-up. There’s something uncanny about each of their backhands in particular. They seem to make time slow down just before they strike the ball. No matter hard-hit their opponent’s shot, they always look like they have plenty of time.

Simon hits his backhand straight-armed, very deliberately, and with no more knee bend—or motion of any kind—than is absolutely necessary. All of that makes for a deceptive and unusually versatile two-hander. Youzhny’s backhand is a two-hander that has been converted into a one-hander. He still brings his left hand along for the ride. Like Simon, he can do anything with the shot, change speeds, change directions, change spins.

Youzhny wins the first set; Simon goes up 4-1 in the second. The Russian, as always, plays as if he’s on the verge of bursting a blood vessel. His anger seems to lodge itself in his neck, until he lets it all go and punctures the silence in the stadium with a scream. For his part, Simon is still as tense as he was on the practice court, though you wouldn’t know it from his body. His intensity is always gathered around his eyes.

A nice contrast in styles, and all the more reason they should be wearing different clothes. As Youzhny and Simon walk off the court together in the rain, you might think they were brothers, or clones, or video-game avatars, or Star Wars storm troopers on summer vacation. Anything but highly individual and, in their own ways, artistic tennis players.

More later, I hope. 

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