Mise En Scene: Court 2

Friday, June 01, 2012 /by

ZPARIS—Today, in place of the customary Grounds Pass, I'm posting the article that I was in the process of writing when John Isner began to do his epic thing again yesterday, and all of us were called to the press box in Chatrier to bear witness. (See my Racquet Reaction on that match here.)

Here's a look at what may be my new favorite place in the world to watch tennis.

*****

Alex Ovechkin is fidgety. He crosses his arms over his black T-shirt and bounces his flip-flopped feet on the bench in front of him. He pulls his muscle-bound legs up anxiously, and moves his baseball cap from front to back and back to front every three points or so. When he claps, he bashes his hands together as hard as he can.

Ovechkin’s girlfriend, Maria Kirilenko, is playing a few feet away from him on Court 2, and she’s lost the first set. In the past, on small courts like this, the blonde Kirilenko has been the object of close attention from French teenagers, the way Ana Ivanovic was in this same spot one day ago—“Look at me, Ana, look here,” the kids called to Ivanovic on Tuesday, “I love you.” A similar pack of snickering boys has gathered in the rows just behind the player’s box. On another day, they might start calling to Kirilenko, but not with Ovie sitting a few feet away. When Ovechkin walks out for a second, a man comes in and tries to sit in his seat. A friend of Ovechkin tells him its taken. The man moves down and tries to take the spot where Ovechkin has been putting his feet. His friend again says that spot is taken as well. This might seem like a bit much, except that, as my colleague Tom Tebbutt reminds me, those feet happen to have a contract worth many, many millions with the Washington Capitals.

Court 1, the Bullring, has been described many times as one of the best places anywhere to watch a tennis match, but Court 2, its unsung—and un-nicknamed—little brother around the corner may be even better. The seats are set low and close to the court, and there are stands only at one end; the other is open and tree-lined. This is part of what is called “the country” at Roland Garros: the side courts where fans can get in for the price of a grounds pass. Or at least they can try. Once they’re there, people tend to hang out in these choice seats for a while. By noon the lines at the entrances have built to epic lengths. You could spend the better part of a day waiting in one.

It’s less corporate in the country than it is in the metropolitan areas like Chatrier and Lenglen, where fans pay for a ticket for that stadium alone—or, just as likely, get them through friends with connections. There aren’t many blazers or skinny shoes or eye-catching hats out on Court 2. Ovechkin, in his backyard BBQ wear, may have erred a little on the casual side—this may be the country, but it’s still Paris—but he’s not completely out of place. As always, there’s an overflow crowd here. Fans are allowed to stand along the top of the compact concrete stadium and sit in the aisles. You feel like you’re at a spontaneous gathering here.

As in the Bullring, the first thing you notice when you sit down in a seat near the front is how visceral tennis suddenly becomes at this range. Watching the sport on TV means following the flight of the ball from one side to the other. Watching from along one baseline, from a few feet away, means hearing and feeling each swing and, on clay, each tiny scrape of the sneaker. You’re inside the match.

Here you see the effort that the sinewy, 5-foot-9, 132-pound Kirilenko must make to stay in rallies with her more muscular opponent, Klara Zakopalova. Not only aren’t her legs as strong as Zakopalova’s, she doesn’t have the same timing on her ground strokes. Kirilenko winds up on her backhand, lets out a shriek at contact, and . . . lofts a soft topspin moonball that lands at the service line.

Still, she runs and fights and grunts fiercely enough to even things at a set all. After many winning shots, she twirls to see Ovechkin clapping his loud clap. There’s a scrapping, no-holds-barred quality to the match in general. On one long point, Kirilenko’s shrieks escalate in volume and pitch with each shot, until the final one, let out as she hits a winning overhead, reaches the bloodcurdling level. Afterward, Zakopalova looks across the court, shakes her head, and curls her upper lip. Later, Zakopalova nearly takes Kirilenko’s head off with a passing shot. She apologizes, but I briefly foresee a hockey-like scene where the two women throw down their racquets and put up their dukes from across the net. They compete without apology on the women’s side.

Zakopalova has the lower ranking—44 to Kirilenko’s 16—but today she has too much firepower. Seeing her turn on a forehand and leap backward for a tomahawk backhand from this distance is impressive. The last game feels like a death throe for Kirilenko. Her shrieks, as she scrambles and slips trying to keep the ball alive, take on a desperate quality. After one lost point, she bangs her racquet on the clay five times. At match point, she looks over at her box with a blank face—there's no fire left. Her last bashed backhand lands in the middle of the net. Ovechkin, head down, walks out; he was right to be nervous after all. As he’s leaving, one of the teenagers nearby shoves a camera toward him and asks, “Alex, will you take a picture with me?” Ovechkin keeps walking.

C2*****

The two women shake the umpire’s hand and begin packing their racquet bags. Fans stands and stretch, but most don’t get up to leave. The grounds crew, dressed in black tracksuits, walk out a little sleepily and sweep the clay and dust the lines with brooms. The slides and bumps and divots that Kirilenko and Zakopalova made for the last hour are wiped away. At the same time, the ball kids line up in formation near the net and circle the court before running off. They high-five their replacements and join a few of their friends in a bullpen at the side of the court. The next two players, Marcos Baghdatis and Nicolas Almagro, begin to warm up.

These men are both flawed talents, and their match delivers on its promise of baseline fireworks. The fact that Baghdatis has a two-handed backhand and Almagro a one-hander is enough to offer a stylistic contrast. The Spaniard and the Cypriot drive each other from corner to corner with their backhands. Baghdatis leans forward and hits flat, while Almagro comes over his circular one-hander with wicked, knuckling topspin. His shot makes a distinctive popping sound; contact is an explosion. After many of their better rallies, fans in the front rows shake their heads at the pace of the shots and how the players can still slide far enough and fast enough to get to them. Many times it appears that a point is over, and a few people begin to clap only to see the other player slide into view at the last second and pick the ball up off the clay. From up close, the mens’ shots sound like a gunfight, but their movement is a dance.

Almagro is tense, but he’s mostly quiet. A bad error, though, will elicit a babble of rapid-fire Spanish that often ends with him repeating the word “Nada!” over and over. Almagro vents, but you don’t feel like he’s using his emotion positively. A few times, he stands and screams in the direction of his coach—not at him, but toward him. If he weren’t on a court, you might mistake him for a madman.

Almagro’s flaw is his inability to resist the spectacular. When he first appeared, I thought he had as much, if not more, talent than his countryman Rafael Nadal. The difference is, Almagro is a slave to his talent. Because he can hit the big shot, he likes to try the big shot. Still, he appears, underneath his surface agitation, to believe he will win, and his game has a little more variety and flexibility to it.

Baghdatis’s problem is that he lacks belief. He’s been a Grand Slam finalist and in the Top 10, but now, at 26, he’s ranked No. 42. Today, wearing a baseball cap, he lacks his old goofy spark—it’s almost as if playing the role of the hard-working pro robs him of some of his old genius. He makes the match close; virtually every point is hard fought, and virtually every game goes at least to 30-all. But the truth comes out late in each set, when Baghdatis’s shots, which never have much margin over the net, start catching the tape. He looks over at his coach, Miles Maclagan, as if to say, “I knew it all along.”

(Aside: Watching Baghdatis dribble the ball through his legs before he serves, as he always does, I wonder whether he’ll still be doing that when he’s 80. I hope so.)

When it’s over, the ball kids line up again on the sideline. They do their own share of running during a match. As the players mull over which ball to use to serve, and which to send back to them, the kids circle the player like pigeons hoping the crumb will come their way. Now they run off and join their giggling colleagues—there are no adult ball kids at the French, as there are at the U.S. Open—in the bullpen again, to await the next match.

The crowd stands; there’s a little more excitement in the air because a Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy, is playing next. The grounds crew, again looking like they’ve just been woken up, begin their casual cleaning. One of them has a cigarette attached to his lip as he dusts the lines. The slides and bumps and divots created by Almagro and Baghdatis are covered over, all physical evidence of their battle has vanished. The clay is smooth again, ready for the next two players to be announced and take their places across from each other, to fight and dance. Life goes on in the country.

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