Overture in Carolina

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The breeze blows, and the air is tinged with salt. You can just taste it, stinging the tongue, the balmy off-gas of mud and silt, which run in rich brown striations across the brackish waters of the Cooper River, tidal feeder to Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic out and beyond. The breeze pushes north in saline currents, hopping up above the shore, skipping against auto windshields and along the rainbow bends of I-526, now finding its way toward these very confines, here, on Daniel Island, flowing above mazes of parked cars and clustered sponsor demos, tussling with flaps and sleeves and masses of hair, swirling lazily around the madeleine-shaped tops of corporate entertainment tents, and right now cascading over the stadium's tiers, permeating Billie Jean King Court, where it undulates in soft sighs the skirt of Serena Williams, defending champion, who’s just walked through the stadium’s tunnel into the applause of 7,000-odd people. She’s standing on the court’s periphery, along with Jelena Jankovic, her Serbian opponent, waiting for ESPN’s signal to crunch across the ground’s pulverized, green-marine stone toward her chair, to contest the final of South Carolina’s premier WTA tournament, the Family Circle Cup.

Look up, and the sun is beating down in the mid 70s, through a bright blue sky that’s just barely smudged, here and there, by a few wispy, cotton-lint clouds. The temperature isn't disagreeable, but the sun is patently Southern, the light like someone’s turned the contrast knob way up, taken the grey monochromatism of the Northeast winter and bathed it in a palette of glistering orange. The light’s so incredibly bright practically everyone in the stadium, excepting the players, has given up trying to see it. Its solar intensity, unmediated, wastes unprotected ciliary muscles and sends eyelids into squint-induced seizures.

I’m sitting down courtside—in Box 39, in front of a small placard, named for the presently absent “Pink Panthers”—just completely immersed in a sea of white folk, hats everywhere. There are caps that say Gamecocks and Prudential and College of Charleston—the patrons’ tickets stuck to the brims—visors in green camouflage embroidered with Bass Pro Shop, up-side-down baskets with big straw brims fit for golfing at Augusta National, and women in sun hats all over. They expand into geriatric fields, these sun hats, their circumference and floppiness seeming to correlate positively with the wearers’ age and lowcountry allegiance.

It’s just now past 1 p.m. Back on the rubico court, the contenders are still standing by the player tunnel, taking turns telling an ESPN anchorwoman that she plans to “just go out there and play my game.” Both stand very still. They stare out at nothing, stoic, like veteran runners before a long race, anticipating trial and pain. Finally, the TV people give the signal, and the players receive another loud but polite applause as they start the march toward their chairs—actually, plush sky-blue couches—built from a sturdy-looking,  mahogany-colored wood.

Upon each step, the players' quads contract into taut, thewy rectangles. Alongside them walks a hairy man of average height, shouldering a camera and trailing an assistant with lengths of cord. The man films mere feet from the faces of Williams and Jankovic, which remain natural and expressionless and afford these men the gravity of gnats. Photographers, facing the players from the chair’s far side, snap shutters through lens attachments the size of traffic lights, generally forming what looks to be a series of ginormous periods, as we all shift glutes in our seats and reach into pockets for camera phones.

The players finally arrive at their chairs, then drape towels over and sink back into their cushions. They root through their bags with a kind of efficient nonchalance, futzing with waters and plastic bags and racquets wrapped in plastic bags, putting straw around their little courtside nests. Another set of cameramen, their long, telescopic Canon DigiSupers not shoulder but swivel-mounted, work on the outer wings of each player’s nest, filming the futzing. These men sit in black-leather office chairs, typical fare from Staples, which they kick around in tight semi-circles like a 10-year-old kid in daddy’s office. The one closest to me, a white-bearded Jerry Garcia look-alike, wears call-center headphones and one those safari, neck-flap hats, color tan. He looks Cyborgian, hands and eyes conjoined to the machine. He never steals a glance outside its view.

Jankovic and Williams now meet across the net for proceedings with Kader Nouni, today’s chair umpire. A coin flips. Williams wins the toss, elects to serve. They about face toward the baseline, handbags at dawn, and begin the warm-up. It’s striking, Serena’s expression: It’s somewhere between indifference and boredom, formed downstream of zen-like concentration, or perhaps calculated intimidation, or maybe even a certain competitive hatred. I can only guess. She wears a neon orange top with elbow-length sleeves that pops in the sun and clings tight to her chest and bra, as well as a dark blue skirt that covers most of her bum, while still. Her brown hair, headband-secured, frizzes out toward her shoulders like overhanging Spanish moss. Jelena is in a peony pink dress, her own hair drawn back ghastly tight into a ponytail. It's like her hair’s painted onto her forehead, it’s so tight, exacerbating the atypical longness of her face. In between rallies, she fiddles her strings and exhales from little mashed-potato cheeks.

Ball girls become mechanical pitching arms, bouncing balls to the players, and soon they’re rallying, jumping rope with their feet. Their shots’ speed and trajectory are similar, but not their strokes. Serena’s groundies proceed in stages—her racquet, a Wilson Blade 104, prepares early and pauses a moment at the motion’s apex, before sweeping through the ball—while Jelena’s, while not exactly more fluid, are more continuous; her Prince, in blacked-out cosmetics, traces uninterrupted circles through the air. Both hold their racquets with Western forehand grips and employ two-handed backhands, the present custom on tour, but Serena’s strings ping a few decibels higher on impact than J.J.’s, marking differences in tension.

Nouni, donning 80s-style stunner shades and a short-cut Afro, sits up in the chair—a kind of children’s car seat, made from white plastic—and calls “time.” His voice is deep and gravid with occasion; it’s James Earl Jones with a French accent, that’s his timbre. The players thump the backstop with a few more serves, and then futz around some more with various implements at the chair. Soon after, they’re back out on court, ready to “play.”

Wizened ushers rush to rope off entrances, as Jankovic positions herself behind the baseline, smoothing out the clay like an infielder before the first pitch. Williams receives balls from various feeders and sashays back to the line. The crowd grows susurrus. Jankovic bounces in place, her hair swinging back and forth like a clock pendulum on speed. Williams, palm down, now dribbles the ball with her racquet, loses it, and then starts dribbling another.

It’s 1:13 p.m. Jankovic is crouching forward, Williams too, tights exposed. Williams sets herself to serve, waits a moment, and then lifts the ball in the air, a spin-less yellow glob. A heartbeat later, and the ball's gone, at its peak velocity this point, smacked into play. In its place appears a poof of stone, which soon dissolves from view, scattered by the wind until settling back into the grit below.

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