It makes sense, somehow, to wake up in the morning in New York, blearily boot up the laptop while you make coffee, and find David Ferrer running around on your computer screen. The message: No matter what time it is, somewhere on this planet, David Ferrer is running around.
This is a tough week for tennis fans in my New York time zone. The tours are roughly 12 hours away in China and Japan. Basically, that means the first match goes on here right when we’re falling asleep, and the last match ends as we're waking up. Each morning this week, I’ll try to fill people—as well as myself—in on five things they missed overnight.
1. The Crowd
Tennis has been committed to China for a long time now, but it hasn’t always been apparent how committed the country has been to tennis. Traditionally, what you notice most during the early rounds in Beijing, and especially Shanghai, are acres of empty seats. But when the fans do appear, as they did yesterday in Beijing, when home-country hero Li Na was playing, they make the sport fun. They certainly aren’t as blasé about the experience as we Westerners have been taught to be.
Tennis, in this atmosphere, became comic theater on center court. Challenge replays were turned into moments of noisy suspense. Players who acted out were greeted with an excited hubbub—not boos or cheers, just a hubbub made for its own sake. Girls in the audience who were caught on camera between games reacted with real embarrassment. Hands were clapped over mouths, faces were buried in the coats of neighbors, phones were hastily whipped out and stared into. One girl even turned around and walked out of the building when she saw herself on the big screen.
The best part of the fan reaction, though, was the way that great shots were cheered. The audience, in their amazement, made you remember that winners hit from behind the baseline, which can look routine these days, really are pretty amazing.
2. The No. 1s
Speaking of audience participation, the Beijing fanatics were not blasé about seeing the world No. 2, and soon to be No. 1, Rafael Nadal. Rather than wait for his inevitable shirt change(s), they urged him to get on with them between virtually every game. (Here’s a picture of Rafa being asked about it in his press conference afterward.)
Nadal and the man he’s trying to pass at No. 1, Novak Djokovic, cruised through their opening-round matches. Djokovic fans probably never have to worry about their man being upset by Lukas Rosol; Nole followed up his 1 and 0 win in Miami over the Czech this year with an 0 and 3 win over him today.
Rafa is sure to pass Djokovic for No. 1 by the end of the season. If Nole can hang on this week, though, he'll (temporarily) tie Nadal for overall weeks at No. 1, with 102. Just as they’ve passed the baton back and forth in their head-to-head rivalry, they're passing the top spot back and forth. We’ll see how long Rafa’s time lasts. If they keep trading the top ranking, it will be almost impossible for either of them to approach Roger Federer’s record 302 weeks there.
3. Sloane, Ranging
For the WTA, the upside of dual-gender events is the chance to have stars like Nadal and Djokovic help them draw a crowd. The downside is that stars like Nadal and Djokovic will always take the big courts at the prime times. Today the women’s tour missed out on a chance to showcase two of its most promising and potentially popular young players. Sloane Stephens, 20, and Eugenie Bouchard, 19, who were playing for the second time in as many weeks, were shunted off to a non-televised court. So while I can’t describe any of the match, I can inform you that, as Brad Gilbert would say, Sloane Ranger beat Genie in a Bottle 6-4 in the third.
There are many more years for this rivalry to play out, but I will note that Sloane, for all of her flaws, has proven to be pretty good at getting up for her peers this year. She stopped a surging Jamie Hampton in straight sets at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; she beat Monica Puig in a tense teen grudge match at the All England Club; and she turned the tables on Bouchard last night. It seems that Sloane can get her back up, and get motivated, when she’s threatened by one of her own. I’m taking that as a good sign.
4. The Re-Rise of P3tra
That’s Petra with a three, in case you didn’t notice. I mentioned last week that the perpetually up and down Kvitova gets herself into a lot of three-setters, and she did it in vintage fashion last night, with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win over Varvara Lepchenko. Kvitova likes this part of the season, playing indoors, in controlled conditions, without Grand Slam pressure, when the top players are either weary, injured, or have let their guards down. Kvitova won the year-end championships in 2011, and she won the title last week in Tokyo. We’ll see if her ups outlast her downs in Beijing as well. It could be the start of something big. Kvitova plays Sara Errani next and might see Li Na in the quarters.
5. Kicked By the Kerb
One match I did catch this morning was Angelique Kerber’s straight-set win over a coughing Laura Robson. What’s interesting is that Robson is the better ball-striker, with more natural pace. But Kerber will do anything to get the ball back. The fact that she won with that simple tactic made me realize again that tennis is not about the swing, or the racquet, or the form—or anything in particular that a player does. It’s about the ball. More specifically, it's about where the ball lands. However you do it, if you make the ball land inside the lines one more time than your opponent, you win. Kerber, as much as any other pro, remembers that.
Oh, you also may have missed this. Serena doesn’t like to lose in singles, but I’ve always thought that she was even more competitive, for familial reasons, when she plays doubles with her sister. This hasn't made me change my mind: