INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Yesterday I wrote about a tournament publication that comes to us daily, the Order of Play. Today I’ll move on to one that, if you’re on site as a member of the media, you receive at least a dozen times each day: the interview transcript.
Each player’s post-match press conference, if it’s done in the main interview room, is transcribed; there are two transcribers, both women, who follow the tour. One of them watches the player intently and, as his or her words spew forth in varying degrees of comprehensibility, lifts her hands and fingers on a silent machine, kind of like a church organist without the music. It will always be miraculous to me that they can keep up with, and get down on paper, every word of every run-on sentence of James Blake or Kim Clijsters or Ana Ivanovic. Those are fast fingers.
Mistakes, naturally, get made now and then. Yesterday Ivanovic said that her forehand was her “best” shot, but it came out in print as her “bad” shot (the error was later corrected). After the 2009 U.S. Open final, Roger Federer said that he was impressed that the man who had just upset him, Juan Martin del Potro, had been able to keep a “still” racquet in the tight moments. “Still” was transcribed as the more poetic “steel,” and used in stories on the match the next day.
Once it’s done and typed, the interview is printed and stacked at the front of the press room, and just in case we don’t feel like walking all the way up there, it’s emailed to us. Writers with daily stories to do look for their relevant quotes, while others scroll through them searching for something of interest to tweet or blog or maybe even just think about.
It’s the best-known players, of course, whose transcripts get perused the most. If you read enough of them over the course of the year, you can get as much of a sense of a person—his or her quirks and sensitivities—as you’re going to get without hanging out with him all the time. Yesterday I took a moment to catch up on a little of what the ATP’s Top 3 have been saying this week in Indian Wells. The fact that they’re who they are makes pretty much anything that comes out of their mouths of interest. I’ll give you an instance from each, none of which, as far as I know, have been remarked on in the media.
After his win over Milos Raonic: “It was more just about trying to come through somehow, because I didn’t know how good Milos was or not. I got the answer early on that he was very good, and it’s kind of what I expected. You hope maybe he’s not that good (smiles).”
It’s interesting and surprising to me to hear that Federer, even after all of his accomplishments, still goes into a match hoping that his opponent isn’t as good as adverstised—the immortal player is still human, in other words. You might chalk some of his uncertainty up to his illness this week, but the comment reminded me of something he said here either last year or two years ago, about riding over to his first-round match and feeling good about things, but then not wanting to trust that feeling.
Any tennis player at any level will recognize both of those emotions. The superstitious suspicion of anything that might make you feel too relaxed and good before a match; and the admission that, as much as you would love to play great and win, you’d also be fine if the other guy played poorly and lost. When I was a kid traveling to tournaments, I would spend most of the ride thinking about what I was going to do and how I was going to play, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot at the racquet club, I would cave from nerves and just start praying, “God, I hope I play a bum.”
Not that Federer does anything like that, exactly, but it’s good to know that even after 16 majors, he’s still a tennis player. Even when you may make it look like a walk in the park on the outside, it never gets easier on the inside.
On how he got started playing tennis: “I remember I fell in love at first sight. They were making three tennis courts in front of our restaurant. It was probably for a reason. It was kind of a destiny . . . In all my family nobody played tennis. They were professional skiers or soccer players or something else. So that’s how it started. I’m spending a lot of time hitting balls and I was watching—whenever I wasn’t on court I was outside and watching somebody playing. I was really obsessed with the sport, and I guess that desire is still present.”
The courts in front of his family’s pizza and pancake restaurant in Serbia are a well-known part of the Djoker legend. But hearing him say that part of his learning process was simply standing and watching and learning the movements of the game from an early age, before he got much instruction, reminded me of another tennis great from that part of the world: Ilie Nastase.
In my book, High Strung, I write about Nasty’s early tennis development in Romania, which was not unlike Djokovic’s. Nobody in Nastase’s family played the sport, but his father was the groundskeeper at the famous Progresul National Tennis Club in Bucharest, where the country’s Davis Cup team practiced. Nastase was surrounded by the sport from birth—racquets were strewn on the floor, a stringing machine was in the corner, balls rolled over the carpets. As a little kid, he played in the bleachers as the Cup team worked out, and from before he can remember he would watch the players and imitate their movements.
Nastase would eventually play an instinctive brand of tennis; it was as if he had internalized the game. Djokovic, as we know, is a master of mimicry, and he must have internalized its motions as well. Each player probably had something that couldn’t be taught, because they had already learned it.
On his favorite memory of playing at Roland Garros: “I remember 2005 [his first French title], I remember how beautiful it was for me to have this fantastic season. But if I have to say means more to me to win 2005 than 2011? 2005 was the first one. That’s always special. But my answer will be not, because when you have troubles, when you have injuries, when you have tough losses, hard times, good times, you really know how tough it is to win another time, how tough it is to win a tournament. When I won in 2010 Roland Garros, when I won in 2011 Roland Garros, the emotions are very high, because you really don’t know if you will be able to win another time never.”
Like Federer's, this comment reveals the underrated difficulty that goes into something that's seemingly routine. Sometimes people talk about Nadal winning the French Open as if it’s automatic for him, as if he has a built-in, unfair advantage on clay just because of his speed and spin. Because of this, over time, as he keeps winning the tournament, his achievement ends up being devalued a little—“he could win it blindfolded” is the general sentiment. Nadal’s answer above is enough to let you know that all six of his titles in Paris have been hard earned, and, in his mind, in doubt until the last ball.
It isn’t just his body’s strength that has kept him going in France, but his mind’s as well. Winning what you’re supposed to win: Is there anything more psychologically stressful? As with Federer, what Nadal makes look like a jog through the Bois de Bologne is anything but to him. You might even say that the easier something looks, the more work you can bet went into it.
The top players: Like us in their worries and doubts; unlike us in their will and ability to make those worries and doubts serve their skills. Like us on the inside; very different from the outside.