Coming Up Aces
One thing you can say for the slightly longer tennis off-season: It gives us more time to make our year-end lists. We’re already knee deep in best and worst players, matches, shots, points, breakdowns, hairstyles, and hissy-fits of the season.
At Tennis Magazine, the editors traditionally wrap these season-ending reflections up in a feature called Aces and Faults. I’m going to do something along those lines over the next two days—the Aces today, the Faults on Friday. But keeping with the personal nature of this column, I’m going to look back at the tennis-viewing experiences that were most memorable to me in 2012. Together I think they give an idea of the range of moments and stories and emotions, for the most famous players and the most casual fans alike, that tennis can produce in a single year.
Rust Finally Sleeps
Laver Arena was full, the legends of Australian tennis gathered, the "Top Shot" pennants ready to be be unfurled, and a crowd of young men with their faces painted yellow were chanting Lleyton Hewitt’s name. It was time for the country’s 31-year-old tennis anti-hero, his hat still backwards, his face still red with determination, his backhand still as straight as an arrow, to take on the young, gunslinging Milos Raonic in a prime-time, third-round night match at the Aussie Open.
The man known as Rusty, who had never won his home championship, was in the midst of another last hurrah. He had beaten Andy Roddick in the previous round, and after getting blown off the court in the first set, he would come back to beat Raonic with one of the craftiest performances of the year. Like an aging baseball pitcher who has lost his heater, Hewitt kept the ball low to the 6-foot-5 Canadian and forced him, essentially, into a four-set ground out.
Before this tournament, Hewitt's place in the great Aussie tennis tradition had always seemed tenuous to me. He had won two majors, yes, but where his predecessors had been sporting gentleman of the highest order, and masters of the attacking game, Rusty had been a conservative player and an ornery guy, someone who would celebrate a winning point by sticking his his fingers in his own eye or punching the ground. He had also never been beloved by the locals. As one Melbourne columnist put it during the tournament, Hewitt had committed the fatal Aussie sin of taking himself too seriously.
You wouldn’t have known it from the night crowds and big TV audiences who watched him through the first week in Melbourne—Hewitt, to them, must have seemed like a more reliable hero than the next in line, Bernie Tomic. In that atmosphere, I understood that Rusty, despite his rough edges and utilitarian game, has the Aussie sportsman’s core. He knew that it was a game, a game you did your best to win, and when you didn’t, you took off your hat knowing you had tried everything. When his run came to an end against the world’s best, Novak Djokovic, in the fourth round, Hewitt wrapped it up with a simple handshake, a nod of respect for Nole, and a wave to the crowd that was appreciative but not overdone or self-indulgent. Just how, in other words, an Aussie sportsman should walk off.
Indian Wells isn’t the first tournament of the season; it doesn’t even take place in the first two months of the year. Still, going to Palm Springs in March feels like going to see tennis’s version of spring training. There’s sun, there’s blue sky, there are palm trees, there are desert hills in the background. The players, when they aren’t golfing, spend their days kicking a soccer ball around a big field, half-heartedly doing their pre-practice stretches, and generally keeping an eye on each other. (Maybe, now that I think about it, it’s more like a visit to a prep school that's really good at sports than it is to spring training.)
The tournament, under Larry Ellison, may get slicker and more deluxe. But for now the two main side arenas, Courts 2 and 3, maintain their vacation vibe. The best seats are above, behind the courts, where you can get a good look at the surrounding scenery and the sun’s long descent, from deep midday heat to cool breeze at night. There, among the most casual of casual tennis fans, you can find room to lean back against the bench behind you and stretch your arms out to your sides—not a bad way to work.
This year I watched the last two sets of Christina McHale’s second-round upset of Petra Kvitova from there. The stands were nearly full as the young American served her way toward what was then still considered a fairly stunning upset. A well-tanned married couple in front of me were drinking beers from a cooler. They watched with rising enthusiasm as McHale kept her nerve down the stretch. When she set up to serve it out, the crowd roared. The woman turned to her husband and pointed down at the scene below.
“This,” she said, her finger tracing the rectangle of the court. “I love this.”
A minute or so later, McHale made the crowd roar again by closing the match out with an uncharacteristic bit of reckless flair, a drop shot winner. Tennis, the sport, the show, the setting, had delivered.
Among the side courts that make up what they call the “country” at Roland Garros—Chatrier and Lenglen are the sites’ capital cities—I had always favored Court 1, the soon-to-be-demolished Bullring. The past two years, though, I have switched my allegiance over to Court 2. It’s smaller and less symmetrical than the Bullring, the seats are lower and closer to the players, and there’s a walkway above where people can stand and look down. The place it tiny enough that it is virtually always full. The close quarters are exciting and visceral, in a slightly stifling, overcrowded way. It must be a pressure cooker for the players.
That’s especially true on Kids Day, when the place takes on a slightly disturbing hothouse vibe. Last year giggling teenage girls lined the front row for a match featuring Frenchman Nicolas Mahut and Martin Klizan of Slovakia—do either of them qualify as a heartthrob? Later, the boys arrived, noisily, for Ana Ivanovic.
The best singles match I saw on Court 2 this spring was the last one, a five-set third-round encounter between Raonic and Juan Monaco. It came, luckily for me, at the end of the day, when my work was done. It was a rare chance to join a few journalist friends, some working, some not, and sit down and watch some quality tennis at length, just for the pleasure of it. Monaco and Raonic didn’t disappoint. They traded corner-to-corner topspin bombs for the better part of three hours. Each player was routinely pushed up against the back wall of this small court; the line judges had to do their jobs while trying to avoid getting decapitated. It finally ended, around sunset, with people sitting in the aisles and bunched together on the walkway above. When the last point was over and Monaco had won, he dropped to his knees, dropped his racquet, and let out a yell—it felt like a yell worthy of five sets of effort.
Each of us, as we made our way back to the press room one by one, repeated the same two words to each other: “Great match.” Then we saw that Caroline Wozniacki was about to lose, and we got back to work.
Just a Game(s)
The Olympics is my choice for tournament of the year. It was the culmination of 12 years of rising interest in, and respect for, the Games among the pros. You could feel the importance of it in the way Serena Williams went about her business (of destruction), the pain that Novak Djokovic felt in not grabbing a medal for his country, and in the leap of joyous relief that Andy Murray made when he brought home gold for his.
But my favorite two minutes of the tennis Games came later on the final Saturday, when the men’s doubles gold-medal match, eventually won by the Bryan brothers, was going on at the same time that Murray and Laura Robson were playing their mixed semifinal. At home in New York, I watched one match on the TV and the other on the computer. This made for busy viewing, since they ended at virtually the same moment. Murray and Robson clinched a medal after an exciting, scrambling final point, while the Bryans did the same when Bob threw up a miracle lob over his shoulder, from the far corner of Centre Court.
That was cool, and sweet, enough. Even better were the sporting smiles and handshakes from the losing teams, and the appreciation of the fans, who were more colorful and vocal than Wimbledon’s stuffier set. The players had said throughout the Games that it was a new feeling for them to be a small part of something bigger. Now, with cheers from both courts in the air, you could feel what that meant. It still mattered whether you won or lost, as well as how you played the game. What mattered more, though, was that you played a sport in the first place, that you joined in the Games, that you were part of the action.
When it comes to tense tennis scenes, I have trouble remembering any that can hold a candle to the feeling that used to accompany Venus and Serena Williams when they walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium from 1999 to around 2002. The sisters had their supporters back then, but it was difficult to find them when one of them went up against a fellow American like Jennifer Capriati or Lindsay Davenport. The crowd was not on their side.
I had largely forgotten about those days, until Venus appeared again inside Ashe for her third-round night match against Angelique Kerber this year. But they came back to me quickly, not because the scene was the same a decade later, but because it was so different.
First, as Venus struggled through a losing, error-filled first set, there were cries of support: “Don’t give up!” “We love you, Venus!” “Keep your head up!”
As Venus rallied to win the second set and lead 4-2 in the third, the cheers turned from the practical to the patriotic. Chants of “Let’s go Venus!” alternated with “U!S!A!” I wondered whether the Open crowd had ever done that one before for the Williamses.
Venus seemed to wonder as well. Asked about the crowd afterward, she said,
“There were a lot of people shouting out. I know it’s not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time I’ve ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the U.S. Open. So I’ve waited my whole career to have this moment and here it is...It was great. It was awesome. It was like winning gold.”
Most tennis champions, no matter how they were received at the start their careers, earn the audience’s love as they begin to fight the aging process. It humanizes them; their frailty is something, finally, that we can relate to about them. And Venus’s ongoing bout with Sjogren’s syndrome makes her even more of a sympathetic figure. For someone who remembers those early U.S. Open battles against more popular American players, having “USA!” chanted for her in New York, even if it took 15 years, must have been a golden moment.
The next night Venus and her sister played a doubles match in front of a big, buzzing evening audience in Armstrong Stadium. The fans were primed to cheer their gold medalists to another win. Instead, the Williamses, as aging players sometimes will, didn’t have their best and lost. As Venus struggled, the silence of the New York crowd said it all.