[I'm happy to introduce an exciting new voice at TW, that of the comment poster many of you know as Gauloises. This is a wonderful piece of writing, and I'm hoping to get more of the same as as the week goes on -- Pete]
by Gauloises, Contributing Writer
It’s Monday at the BNP Paribas Masters, and I have just been gloomily informed by a journalist that nothing is really happening today. He has a point; the dominant storyline here is the final three players sealing their qualification for the World Tour Finals, with a sideline in what kind of shape the elite eight will be in when their time comes to cross the Channel.
Whatever the ultimate narrative, none of the players playing singles today are expected to be involved in its denouement. Still, they’re here, and not just to make up the numbers. The question is, who’s had enough of the 2010 season, and who wants more out of it?
I arrive to see Jarkko Nieminen break for the first set against Xavier Malisse. Nieminen, the wiriest human being I’ve ever seen, has been working his way back from injury and qualified into the draw despite a strong run of form in recent weeks. He looks lean and hungry, showing his teeth in a grimace of frustration when he misses.
Malisse, on the other hand, seems more than ready for 2010 to be over. Even when he squanders opportunities, he can’t muster much emotion. When Nieminen fends off a strong challenge and holds to go up 4-2, Malisse bends his racquet into a sort of Mobius strip and sits blankly contemplating it, like a piece of modern art.
It’s over pretty quickly, and the Finn advances to face Andy Roddick in the second round.
Nieminen’s will to win is about the only intense thing in evidence at the Palais Omnisports. The corporate seats are empty—but then so are most of the others. Without the softening of spectators in the seats, the overwhelming impression is of shiny plastic, burningly bright lights, and tessellated girders; it’s a Lego building, an impression not alleviated by the red and white geraniums that line the court, too bright to be real.
The sparse crowd is overwhelmed by the space and the hum of the air-conditioning, louder than any sound the players might make, and the dramatic laser show that opens the next match is incongruous against the general early-afternoon sleepiness of the atmosphere. In fact, when Lopez and Clement stand at the net in separate spotlights, stretching rhythmically, it’s hard to tell whether they’re limbering up for a tennis match or a dance-off in the increasingly freezing air.
My friend chooses this moment to tell me that the Palais Omnisport is usually used for ice-hockey, and although Clement’s sharply-delivered volleys are drawing the first real spontaneous outbreaks of applause from the crowd, I decide to jump ship. There’s only so many times you can watch a stewardess in a faux-60s outfit pick a tennis ball out of the topiary with manicured fingernails, and if I’m going to have a cold and miserable experience, I at least want it to be a connoisseur’s cold and miserable experience.
Which is how I find myself one of maybe twenty people watching Stakhovsky and Youzhny against Aspelin and Hanley on the miniature court two. It couldn’t be a greater contrast to the main stadium; down a precipitous flight of stairs to narrow corridors of brushed concrete, no event signage, and when we walk in to take seats during a changeover, all four of the players glare at us suspiciously, as if wondering what we’re doing there.
It’s a good question.
I thought I was on the lookout for potential storylines, and here I am on the littoral of the doubles draw. But it’s fun, at least on one side of the net; Stakhovsky and Youzhny take the first set 6-3, attacking the net with gusto, chattering away cheerfully between points. Aspelin and Hanley seem a bit more somber; this is how their season will end, on a tiny court in front of a tiny audience, losing at their specialist discipline to a pair of dilettantes, barely a footnote to the tournament.
I’m wondering how they feel about being so marginalized, but with the exception of one racquet tossed so gently that one suspects Aspelin is afraid to break it, all I see is weary professionalism; it’s not glamorous, their faces imply, but someone’s got to do it. This isn’t show business; it’s just work. It’s hard to imagine Isner and Querrey being relegated to an outside court during an American Masters, but that’s where they’re scheduled against Brazilians Thomaz Bellucci and Marcelo Melo.
Indeed, the elderly French gentleman next to me leans over to ask what nationality they are, and upon hearing ’American’, promptly exits at the next changeover. It doesn’t bother Isner and Querrey; if it’s possible for a tennis match to be cheerfully brutal, this one is. Early in the first set, Melo takes a dramatic tumble across the barrier and on to the feet of the spectators, coming up grinning and joking with the umpire; later, a Querrey serve deflects off Bellucci’s racquet and strikes him in the mouth. By the time the third framed return off Isner’s serve shoots past my nose, there isn’t a spectator on court 2 who isn’t fearing for their lives; the tiny space seems too small to contain the big players and bigger shots, the explosive sound of racquet striking ball and the squealing of tennis shoes on the court.
It’s wonderfully claustrophic; every iota of the competitive intensity of the match is transmitted directly to the growing crowd. How can a doubles match in which three of the players are singles specialists be so thrilling when, come the weekend, no-one will even remember it happened? It’s competition; it’s why the game is played. It’s the best match I see all day.
The inconveniences of the venue begin to tell; in order to get a coffee, smoke or reach the press area, we have to leave by the main entrance and walk around the outside of the building. “For you, no problem!” the security guard tells us each time, his cheerfulness undiminished by repetition, even when we wander across the road for pizza and back before Nicolas Mahut and Richard Gasquet are introduced with a funked-up and spectacularly inappropriate version of the James Bond theme.
Mahut and Gasquet share more than a common nationality and one-handed backhands; if you were telling the story of either, it’s a fair bet you would begin with ‘do you remember…?’. Mahut will forever be branded with that magical 70-68, which earns him a huge round of applause on his entrance and (on my part at least) a vestigial desire to get him a comfy chair, a cold towel, and possibly a hug.
As for Gasquet, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll ever establish himself as anything other than a future for French tennis that never came to pass. Whether it’s the weight of the past or the pressure of playing at home, most of the first set is a mess of unreturned serves and unforced errors, leaving the crowd nothing to get their teeth into. I’m giving up hope in the magic powers of the night session when the match suddenly catches fire on Mahut’s serve at 4-5 and the air is filled with competing shouts of “Allez!”.
The place might be more than half empty, but those spectators who have come have come to be entertained; they want to be shown something, and they’re willing to make noise enough for three times their number. They in turn fire up the players, eliciting sensational passing shots, audacious volleys, demanding and getting a third set. Mahut scrubs his hand through his spiky hair hard enough to hurt, reddens, grimaces; Gasquet’s reactions are almost pantomime-worthy as he smacks his palm into his face.
The set wears on, with neither player able to break serve. The tiebreak looms. My friend is a Gasquet fan, and she sees a familiar narrative unfolding inexorably; the high-quality match in which he comes so close, only to falter when courage is most required. I, on the other hand, don’t think I can bear to see Mahut falter at the final hurdle again, a resonance that only becomes clearer when Mahut slips and falls to go 0-2 down in the tiebreak.
The subsequent match point is squandered on an unforced error; another is saved by a Mahut ace, and it looks as if we’ll once again be talking about Gasquet’s lack of killer instinct—until a Mahut volley flies wide, and some fantastic, frantic defense by Gasquet draws another volley error. He’s won, and he looks like he can’t believe it.
Mahut is on his knees before getting up to accept a narrow defeat graciously—again. The same old story for one; a twist in the tale for the other—who is now required to defy a far bigger narrative imperative, that of his record against Roger Federer, who waits in the second round.
By the time we exit into the freezing November night, it’s been twelve solid hours of tennis. Nine singles players and four doubles teams have put their 2010 beyond redemption; their opponents have stayed alive, kept open the possibility of one more big win. I’d be the first to admit that I prize drama over aesthetics, a good story over technically flawless tennis; but if this was a day where nothing happened, I don’t know how I’ll survive tomorrow.