Violence in Tranquility

Thursday, June 20, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

EASTBOURNE, England—Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”—Billie Jean King

You would think that an intimate location like this one, where you can watch the players unimpeded from two feet away, would be an ideal place to appreciate the artistry of tennis. And it is. More than anything else, what I’m reminded from a technique perspective at Eastbourne is how much better, smoother, cleaner the average pro’s swing looks like from up close. Fernando Verdasco’s lunging forehand return; Su-Wei Hsieh’s strange but mostly true two-handed forehand; Bernard Tomic’s flatter than necessary forehand: There’s a beauty, or at the very least an impressive level of skill, to virtually everything at this level. 

But artistry is only half of the dynamic that brings the sport to life, that gives it its meaning and kick. The other half is confrontation. Artistry and confrontation: These two polar opposites exist, in tension with each other, on every court. Together they make tennis, as Billie Jean King memorably put it in the quote at the top of this article, a sport whose vicious nature is masked by its tranquil surface.

“Tranquility” doesn’t get much more total than at Devonshire Park in Eastbourne, where the loudest and wildest living things are the seagulls that wheel and shriek overhead. Rather than push forward to get as close to the players as possible, fans here are content to sit back a few feet on benches and eat the local dairy ice cream. 

Yet even here, within the confines of the court, there’s a sense of barely repressed violence, both physical and emotional. The worlds of player and fan, while they exist right next to each other, never overlap. The fences around the side courts stand just knee high at Eastbourne, yet they divide one psychological universe from another. It’s impossible, while you’re standing on the sidelines casually observing, to put yourself in the desperate mindset of a player. 

Tennis in this sense is a revelation of character. A player must walk on court with his or her total self; nothing can be left behind in competition. What are the emotions that each player reveals, when there’s nowhere to hide? One thing is certain: Even in the relaxing atmosphere of a place like Eastbourne, there’s no such thing as a relaxed tennis match. Here’s a taste of the emotional violence I’ve watched from my perch of total tranquility the last three days here. It came, as it always does in tennis, in all languages.

*****

“Mon Dieu!”

This is the just the start of a long stream of unhappy French that issues from the mouth of Julien Benneteau after he loses a point to Bernard Tomic in their match on Wednesday. It’s hot, and Benneteau is sweating through his baseball cap. At 31, he's cast on this day as an aging warrior trying to hold off an opponent 10 years his junior. He uses all of his well-earned wiles to come back from a deep hole and send the match to three sets. 

You might think that a player who has been around as long as Benneteau might not be all that concerned about what happens to him in an outer-court match at Eastbourne; win or lose, the result will be forgotten in a week’s time at Wimbledon. But Benneteau cares, and you don’t have to speak French to know it. After slipping on the grass and losing a point, he gets up and begins walking toward the fans lined up on one side of the court. He raises his hands in their direction and begins shouting directly at them in French. Others crane their necks to see if his coach or a friend is standing there, but there’s no one, just paying customers, looking dumbfounded. That doesn’t stop Benneteau. He points into the crowd as his rant grows in volume and intensity. He threatens to throw his racquet on the ground, steps back to vent some more, then threatens to do it again. 

By the time it’s over and Benneteau, still grumbling, gets set to receive serve, a few fans in the crowd have started exchanging nervous smiles. But they get it. Only in tennis is it considered OK for people to talk—at length, in public, in a foaming rage—to themselves. 

*****

“Every match, you know, is difficult.”

These are the words of Feliciano Lopez a few seconds after he has beaten his friend Fernando Verdasco on a misty Centre Court. This match wasn’t easy, either, as you could see by the winner’s face in its closing moments. 

Lopez reaches match point at 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker. The Spaniard is the jumpiest of players during points, but he walks slowly and deliberately between them, as if he’s plotting with each step. Now, before match point, he takes an extra second to look up and make eye contact with his coach—they exchange quick, silent nods. 

Lopez and Verdasco rally, and Lopez slices a nervous backhand into the net. Now he whirls around and lets out a small torrent of Spanish at his coach—from what I can tell, it’s a slightly less polite version of, “I told you so.” Lopez’s coach answers with a blink.

The players change sides and Lopez reaches match point again. This time he hits another nervous shot, a forehand volley that pops up and hangs in the air. But Verdasco drills his passing shot into the net, before giving his friend a congratulatory chest bump. When that’s over, Lopez walks to the sideline and looks up at his coach one more time. He raises his eyebrows, puffs out his cheeks, and lets out a long breath of relief.

*****

“C’mon man!”

The “man” in question here is no man at all, but Jamie Hampton, Alabama native and WTA player. But this is how she addresses herself when she misses a forehand. Hampton is a jock through and through, with a fast walk and a faster forehand swing, who I’m guessing has never matched her nails to her sneakers. And let's face it, “C’mon lady!” doesn’t have the same ring.

Hampton, 23, may have turned a corner in reaching the semifinals this week. She has been winning the close sets that have traditionally gone against her in the past, and her go-for-broke swings are producing line-painting winners rather than shanks on important points.

Like most American tennis players, Jamie doesn't do anything at half speed, and she doesn’t take any chances, even when a match is over and victory is assured. Two days ago Hampton recorded the biggest win of her career, over world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska. But Hampton still wouldn't take her game face off. As she walked toward the net after the final point, she was urging herself on with little “C’mon!”s under her breath. She must have wanted to give the handshake her all.

Today, though, after her quarterfinal win over Lucie Safarova, Hampton does something shocking: She curls her lips upward into a smile. Later, of course, Ms. All-Business regretted it. "I was a little worked up today, actually," Hampton admitted, "showed a little more emotion than I like."

*****

“Eh...”

Fabio Fognini has lost the first set to Martin Klizan on side court No. 4. Along the way, he has worked through most of the repertoire of gestures that signal his disgust with a match. Fognini has batted a ball into the back fence. He’s cursed the grass. He’s turned his palms up to the sky. He’s put his thumb together with his index and middle finger and raised them toward the umpire, as if to ask the audience, “Eh, do you believe this frickin' guy?” With Fognini, though, a wink is usually mixed in with the outrage; he rarely appears willing to put himself on the line emotionally. It’s just a show, his nonchalant strut tells us, and we can all go dancing later anyway, right? 

Now Fognini walks toward the net twirling his racquet—this also means that he’s not happy. He looks into the crowd as he walks. He seems to be trying to think of something to say, some curse to utter, or new hand gesture to make, or some other way of keeping things from getting boring. But he can’t come up with anything. That seems to disgust him more than anything else. 

*****

“Code violation, warning, Pliskova”

Kristyna Pliskova, by all appearances, isn’t all that concerned about her match with Elena Baltacha. Pliskova's face is placid and expressionless after even her worst misses, and she seems at peace during changeovers.

Pliskova loses the first set and walks to the sidelines, still without betraying any emotion. When she crosses the net, though, she suddenly swings her racquet and smacks it, hard, into the side of the umpire’s chair. There's a loud thwack, as if something has been shattered. The crowd, stunned, looks up from its ice cream. Pliskova keeps walking and sits down, expressionless, as if nothing has happened. The umpire gives her a warning, as she starts to towel off.

Violence in tranquility. There’s no such thing a relaxing tennis match.

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