Garden Party

Sunday, March 10, 2013 /by

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—It’s a tradition here to wander the grounds over the course of the first weekend at the BNP Paribas Open, taking in whatever sights and sounds that present themselves. The starkness of the surrounding landscape makes the site itself—known with surprising appropriateness as the Indian Wells Tennis Garden—seem more colorful than it would be if it were in a more urban setting. 

Here’s a look, without a whole lot of regard for news value, at some of what caught my eye here over the last two days.

*****

“Which one is Mardy, again?”

These are my words to a colleague as we sit down to watch Mardy Fish play his first match since September. It isn’t that his opponent, Bobby Reynolds, looks anything like Fish. But it’s hard to tell that the skinny guy under the baseball hat is indeed the former U.S. No. 1. I’m still not completely used to his 30-pounds-lighter self, I guess, and it's been a while since I saw even that version.

Everything becomes clear when Fish throws the ball up for his first serve. There’s the trademark deep knee bend and forward-stretched tossing arm, performed with the symmetrical nonchalance of the born athlete. A day after another American, John Isner, has crumbled, and a few days before there may be no U.S. men left in the Top 20 for the first time in 40 years, it’s nice to see Fish’s smooth serve flowing again. He has always had the most natural game of this generation of Americans. 

The wins and losses, the hopes and doubts, will come, and retirement may happen sooner rather than later. But after the health problems Fish has endured over the last year, just seeing, and recognizing, that flowing game again is enough.

*****

“That’s it, Klara!”

Klara Zakopalova is not someone I'd think would be a fan favorite in Southern California. The 31-year-old Czech, currently ranked No. 22, isn’t especially famous or infamous. Maybe her anonymity has something to do with her on-court disposition—she's a bit of a frowner. But she has her supporters today out on Court 7 against her better-known and higher-ranked Slovak opponent, Dominika Cibulkova. Maybe they like the fact that Zakopalova doesn’t make a sound when she hits the ball, and is the most reluctant of fist-pumpers. After winning one big point today, she turns her back to the net and, very slowly, almost half-heartedly, raises her arm and gets her fingers into something loosely resembling a clench. 

Zakopalova wins the first set and goes up 4-2 in the second. But it never looks easy, and it’s even less easy for her to finish. She wastes a match point at 5-4, greeting her shanked return with an unhappy eye roll and shake of the head.

At 5-6, though, after a long game, Zakopalova reaches match point again. This time Cibulkova sends a backhand toward the baseline. When Zakopalova sees that it’s going to go long, she raises her arms and smiles with a simple spontaneity. There’s no shriek, and still no fist-pump. She keeps smiling all the way to the net, through the handshake, as she picks up her bags, and while she walks off court. When she reaches the service line on her way off, someone in the crowd behind her yells, “Way to go, Klara!” It’s clear she doesn’t know this person, but Zakopalova turns in the direction of his voice and grins a little wider. That’s the look, and the feeling, we all play for.

*****

“Should have gone at him.”

The Aussie way is to support your mates. Thus it’s only a slight surprise to see the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Darren Cahill in the stands on Court 3 to watch their fellow Australian Marinko Matosevic’s second-round match against Juan Monaco. The sight of Hewitt’s blazing pink skin, wraparound shades, and black hat with “Rusty” stenciled in back seems to inspire Matosevic, because he immediately breaks Monaco, wins the first set, and breaks early in the second. 

On one point, Matosevic and Monaco each approach the net. Matosevic has a look at a sitter passing shot, but there’s no obvious place to hit the ball. He tries to go crosscourt, but Monaco is there for the putaway volley. Cahill and Hewitt look at each other and nod. 

“Should have gone at him,” I think I hear Rusty say. If he does, he's right.

*****

“Polska!

You hear this word chanted a lot when Polish hothead Jerzy Janowicz is playing. Today on Court 2 a lively contingent of fans makes a similar level of noise for his gentle countrywoman Agniezska Radwanska.

Aga up close is a marvel, but a more homespun marvel than the one you see on TV. At a macro level, she’s one of the most natural tennis players you'll see—if anyone has the sport’s DNA in her system, it’s her. But at a micro level, when you isolate on her strokes from a few feet away, you can see that the finished product, so creative and varied, is cobbled together from some of the least conventional and most truncated strokes imaginable at the pro level. Aga's opponent today, Sorana Cirstea, who is ranked 25 spots beneath her, takes much smoother and longer swings.

By comparison, Radwanska takes a half-cut on each side. She brings the racquet straight back, not too far back, and generates her power by accelerating it up and through at the last possible moment. It doesn’t look like it should work, especially not over and over and over again, but it obviously does. Aga’s world-class, near-Wimbledon-winning game is constructed from the humblest rudiments. Everything seems to be an improvisation for Radwanska. 

Today in her three-set win over Cirstea, Aga leaps awkwardly in the air on one point to fend off an overhead. Radwanska hits the ball virtually between her legs, with both of her feet off the ground. Naturally, the ball floats high and just beyond Cirstea’s reach—you can see her annoyance grow as she realizes she can’t get it—and lands a couple of inches inside the baseline. 

I'm sure you know what her fans say to that little piece of magic—"Polska!!!"

*****

“Wow.”

“Oh my God.”

“Jesus.”

These are words that the spectators around me spontaneously blurt as Alexandr Dolgopolov and Carlos Berlocq trade serves, returns, and ground strokes on Court 7. It’s understandable—from the second row, every shot sounds like a bomb.

It's the simple, visceral, circus-like elements of the sport that constitute its rawest appeal. Elegance has its place, but so does plain old speed and sound, which can make people gasp involuntarily. The pros hit the ball harder than most normal people think is possible, until they see and hear it for themselves.

Sometimes I think I’m immune to this reaction. Then I find myself watching Dolgopolov do little more than shrug his shoulders and detonate a sonic boom of a serve into the corner of the box for an ace. I can’t help joining in with the neophytes around me: “Jesus.”

*****

Jerzy Janowicz is about to serve to David Nalbandian on Court 2. As he begins his motion, a crow sitting on a light fixture above the court begins to caw and squawk. On the next point, the same thing happens. And again a few minutes later. The bird is clearly unhappy with something Janowicz is doing, though Jerzy himself doesn’t seem to notice.

Crows can commit human faces to memory, and they’ll caw at someone they recognize. Listening to this one, I wonder if it recognizes Janowicz from another time and place. I wonder if it happened to be in Melbourne about six weeks ago. I think I can hear words, English words, in its squawk. They seem to go like this:

“How many times? How many times?"

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