September 14, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
Sunday mornings can be such a bummer, time for reflection and for regret. So it was the morning after Roger Federer’s loss to Novak Djokovic in the men’s semifinal. New York was chilly and soaking—weather for brooding, not for tennis. Who was in the mood for tennis, anyway? There would be no Federer-Nadal final. The match so much desired, so long expected, would not happen.
Djokovic had outplayed Federer. And it was thrilling. I couldn’t help it, at times I was thrilled. Facing two match points in the fifth set, Djokovic saved the first with a gutsy swinging volley. He saved the second with a forehand walloped into the corner—an astonishing shot. Reader, I gasped with joy. I didn’t mean to cheer for Djokovic, a man who smashes his racket against his head to pump himself up. I didn’t want to cheer against Federer. Federer is the player I enjoy watching more than any other, the most beautiful player of the most beautiful game. After the match, I felt empty and a little guilty. On Sunday, I felt even worse. (That the women’s final was so lame didn’t help—hadn’t I, on some level, asked for Vera Zvonareva’s mental collapse? Forgive! And congrats to Kim Clijsters!)
On Monday, though, things looked up. The sun was out and Nadal still playing. Rafa, always reason for cheer! Against Djokovic, Nadal easily won the first set. But during the second, Djokovic came to life, zooming around the court, skinny limbs flying. He went for the lines and hit the corners. Djokovic is not a man who immediately inspires. His haircut is bad, his temper idiotic, his style slightly spasmodic. But he’s daring and quick, gentle at net and fierce in the backcourt, and his defensive play is unreal. When he broke Nadal’s serve twice in the second set, I felt, again, spontaneous pleasure. It would have been impossible to suppress it. Not just impossible: I think it would have been wrong to try.
But he couldn't keep it up, and Nadal ... Nadal is something else. Even when he stumbles, as he did a few times last night. He sprinted to every ungettable shot and moved the ball in unbelievable ways, knifing his volleys and spinning those forehands. Until the last set, when Djokovic simply faded, the Serb gave Nadal a good match. But I wanted Nadal to beat him. I wanted to see him yank Djokovic like a yoyo with his magnificent groundstrokes; I wanted to see him rip up the ball. I wanted him to win so badly that I felt slightly sick. And Nadal did. When he won the 2010 U.S. Open, he became the seventh man to win the career grand slam. He’s 24 years old. He is as great as can be imagined. Greater, maybe.
It's tempting to call tennis an art, and a lot of people do. It’s graceful and intuitive, and one responds to it as one responds to something beautiful, with the desire to describe it and remember it, and to applaud those who made it. But its value is not symbolic, though it lends itself to metaphor. It works in other ways. A single shot is so fast, the physics so complex, that it’s hard to picture, even when you’re watching it live. It can't be aestheticized or really captured. Instead it captures you, the watcher, in wonder. At least, it captures me.
There's something incredible about all those straight lines and arcs and angles, the speed and the spins, the strength, and the drama of two people, alone, facing each other. I don't know what it all adds up to, exactly, or why I care so much. It should be silly, a game with a bouncy, fuzzy yellow ball. But it isn't. It's awesome, and sometimes it's an honor to watch. It was an honor to watch Nadal last night.
September 11, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
A win is just a win. But a loss—a loss can be pain. When Vera Zvonareva was defeated by Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round of the Open last year, she suffered, and it was real suffering. She had six match points in the second set and converted none. That’s when the fear set in, and the doubt. She cried on the court. She pulled off the tape wrapped around her knees. She begged the chair umpire for scissors to cut the tape and then cursed at him when he denied her. She cursed and screamed, she fell, she beat her bleeding legs. Her grunts were howls. She smashed her racket into the net post. She paced and paced. When she sat in her chair during the changeover, she put a towel over her head. She wanted to disappear. She wanted not to lose. She lost the third set 6-0.
Now, Vera Zvonareva is about to face Kim Clijsters in the final of this year’s U.S. Open. So far, Zvonareva has been the picture of poise. The wind? No problem. The no. 1 seed, Caroline Wozniacki? An easy victory, in a quick 85 minutes. While the stars have showed off their florescent hotpants and specially-designed dresses, Zvonareva has been wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, as if the matches were no big deal, only warm ups. She’s letting opponents beat themselves, playing high-percentage shots while they rack up errors. “I know I’m not going to play perfect tennis all the time,” she said after her win yesterday. She just wants to play well enough to win.
This is admirable maturity. And yet, in my little warped heart, I can’t help but hope to see some flicker of fear in her eyes tonight. Not because I want her to lose—I want her to win. And not because she doesn’t belong out there, because she does. She was a finalist at Wimbledon; she's a big hitter and an extraordinary physical specimen. I want to see the fear because that fear is honest. She is afraid, no matter what she says in those post-game press conferences. She has to be. She is facing the defending champion. Everyone will be watching her for some sign of cracking. It's human, that fear. One second, everything is going right. The next, you’re in tears. And there’s nowhere to hide from your failure.
I'll be cheering for her.
September 9, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
I’m on my way to the Open! It will be, I’m embarrassed to say, my first time inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. During previous years, I’ve been out of town or out of money. Decent seats during the second week were beyond my reach, and if David Foster Wallace is right that “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love,” then I figured that the promenade—the more-affordable upper deck—meant the disappointment of an unrequited crush.
Excuses, excuses. This year, I’ve sprung for Loge level tickets. Stanislas Wawrinka, the 25th seed best known as the Swiss player who’s not Roger Federer, is facing the 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny. An improbable quarterfinal matchup, but I’m looking forward to it. Wawrinka and Youzhny have two of the best one-handed backhands in the game. Neither man, though, will probably move the ball as well as the wind will.
I’ve avoided talking about the weather, since you’ll have heard about the weather. Every story about the Open has discussed it; every TV commentator has obsessed over “the conditions.” First, it was very, very hot. Then there was talk of hurricanes. Finally, came the devastating winds.
But the weather cannot be avoided. Nor should it. “We are physical beings in a physical world,” the poet Wallace Stevens once wrote to a critic. He also said, “The state of the weather soon becomes a state of mind.” The wind has turned the tennis ugly. Letting blown tosses fall, servers can’t find a rhythm. Topspin shots that should arc inside the lines fly long. Routine groundstrokes become hard to handle. Any ball that floats begins to flutter. Last night, Robin Soderling netted an overhead hit from a squat. Against the third-seeded Novak Djokovic, the Frenchman Gael Monfils became so rattled by the swirling air that he tried trick shots when regular strokes would do, swinging through his legs instead of hitting a normal forehand. “I was completely lost,” he said afterward. “Can’t serve. Can’t really use my forehand. You run for what?”
You run for what? And yet, the winners run. They adjust their angles, shorten their toss, and smile when the wind redirects a crosscourt shot down the line. Yesterday, the 7th-seeded Vera Zvonavera and the top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki hit fewer than half as many unforced errors as their opponents. While Wozniacki’s opponent, Dominika Cibulkova, smashed and slashed her racket, as if she could cut the wind, Wozniaki calmly braided her errant hair.
But no one has been immune to the wind like Roger Federer. Last night, he struck his shots so cleanly, his serves so sharply, that I wondered if he inhabited a different atmosphere. “The conditions” did not apply to him. Federer had 16 more aces and 20 more winners than Soderling. Even more arresting, though, than his play was his look of calm. “By now, I see playing in the wind as a challenge—an opportunity to play differently,” Federer said after the match. “It's not easy, you know…. I used to dislike it so much that I've been able to turn it around, and now I actually enjoy it."
Reading Federer’s words, I thought of Stevens’s masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:
The weather and the giant of the weather,
Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:
An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought.
September 6, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
There are doubles matches being played in the U.S. Open. By good players. A trophy will be awarded. And no one seems to care.
On The New York Times tennis blog, Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati asked the art critic Michael Kimmelman why that is. Kimmelman suggested that tennis is “aspirational.” Many tennis fans—recreational doubles players themselves—are the kind of people who live in “modest homes and cook modest meals” but read Architectural Digest and study sous vide cuisine. They grew up dreaming of being the best, and the best play singles. “Doubles reminds them that they’re no longer young, that life can be disappointing, that not all dreams come true, and that not anything is possible,” Kimmelman wrote. “Well, maybe that’s a little too Dostoeyevskian, but you get the point.”
Well. Of course tennis is aspirational; most sports are. But the “modest home” theory seems a little weak (especially considering the stratospheric prices of Open tickets!). I suspect that the real answer is simple: doubles is ridiculous. It’s fine to play—if you have four people, only one court, and bad knees. But let's not pretend that it's something more exalted.
I’m told that true tennis fans love doubles. The intensity, the strategy, the quick hands! The all-around quality of the game! So it may be that I’m discrediting myself. It may be that you will no longer take me seriously. To you serious people, I say: I’ve tried, I really have. I’m still trying. Yesterday, even though Rafael Nadal was playing and Andy Murray was down, I watched Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova, the Wimbledon champions, take on Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Iveta Benesova. The match, won by King and Shvedova in a third-set tiebreak, was as good and thrilling as doubles gets. Watching the players demonstrate their shifting formations, deft adjustments, and quick reflexes was exciting, like watching President Obama swat a fly. But how many times do you really want to watch Obama swat a fly?
What really bothers me about doubles, though, is not boredom. It's more fundamental. The problem is that doubles is played by partners. Two people simply should not stand on the same side of the net. Part of the reason tennis is so compelling is that a player has to confront the fact that she's out there by herself. A doubles player does not. Consider the Bryan brothers, the best doubles team playing, one of the best teams ever. One is left handed, one right; one is Bob and one is Mike. Otherwise, they pretty much share a life. The zygote did not fully split. They always have each other. They are never, ever alone.
Playing singles, you cannot seek advice from a teammate or a coach; you cannot punch or taunt or chase your opponent. You can only hit the ball. Sometimes, your greatest competition is yourself. Tennis, to me, is Jelena Jankovic, shrieking in desperation as the wind whipped her ponytail and her shots. It's Ana Ivanovic—talented, sweet, pretty, a former No. 1—chasing bad service tosses under pressure. It's Rafael Nadal, touching his face and plucking his shirt, the tennis player's way of crossing himself. Even when the stakes are nonexistence, the isolation can be hard. I like to play with the sun to my back, and not only because it’s easier to see the ball. I want to watch my shadow. It keeps me company. Overcoming loneliness can be the greatest challenge, and the most important one.
September 3, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
James Blake doesn’t like to make it easy. Not even to cheer for him. One fears association with the odious J-Block, the fans who wear Blake T-shirts and chant Blake’s name and act like asses. It’s hard, too, to embrace a guy who shouts “my house,” as Blake did yesterday after defeating the Canadian Peter Polansky in the second round. Plus, he’s been canonized as an “inspirational figure,” honored on opening night in a ceremony called “Reach & Dream” for being a biracial kid from Yonkers who endured scoliosis, career-threatening injuries and illness, etc. It’s best to avoid athletes who are considered heroes.
Still, I was pulling for him yesterday, and I’ll be pulling for him when he takes on the third seed, Novak Djokovic. Blake is a former top-five player, but he is old and aching, and he needed a wild card to play here. He’s one of the most stubborn players on the tour and one of the most fragile, and therefore one of the most interesting to watch. Blake's flurry of forehand errors during the first-set tiebreak yesterday, including one total mishit, was self-doubt made manifest. He has a propensity to over-hit and to mope, “woe-is-meing around the court,” as commentator Pam Shriver put it during Wimbledon. As someone who over-hits and woe-is-mes around the court, I feel a certain kinship. And, as it happens, Blake once inspired me, though not because of his dramatic story.
I first saw Blake play when he was a Harvard sophomore and I was a high school junior visiting the college. I had heard of Harvard’s dreadlocked wonder and wanted to see him for myself. There were a couple of highly-ranked juniors on my high school team, but I’d never watched any player like Blake. When the ball came off his racket, the laws of physics were suspended. At one point, his opponent hit a deep backhand, forcing Blake onto his back foot and out of position, and then unleashed a sharp cross-court forehand. Blake, who had been scrambling to regain his footing, reversed directions at the moment of content, broke into a flat sprint, and—impossibly!—reached the ball inside the service line of the adjacent court, where he ripped a forehand that sent the ball along a bending and dipping path. It seems silly now—Rafa Nadal hits that forehand practically every match—but I really thought I’d witnessed a miracle. All my efforts to be cool were abandoned. I was on my feet, shrieking, hopping, fluttering my hands.
It was the most memorable moment of the weekend. I sometimes think that it was one of the most memorable moments of my teenage years. What has stuck with me even more vividly than incredibility of the shot was the way Blake looked up into stands after he hit it, a stupid grin on his face. It was clear that he wasn’t looking to the tiny crowd of parents and friends to ratify how awesome he was. Something special had just happened, and he wanted us to be a part of it. And we were.
Blake went pro that summer. He had some early success, but after struggling with grief, illness, and injuries (including a broken neck, suffered when he collided with a net-post), he fell out of the top 200 and found himself playing Challenger matches, the minor leagues. Methodically he worked his way back, and then at the 2005 U.S. Open, he made it to the semis, where he lost to Andre Agassi in a fifth-set tiebreak, in what was one of the best U.S. Open matches ever played.
Blake has always been able to take anyone to five sets, even now. At the Australian Open this year, he lost to last year’s U.S. Open champion, Juan Martin del Potro, in five. It’s a particular talent, losing matches so consistently in that way, and it’s not clear whether he wants to win too much or not enough. He plays an uncompromisingly aggressive, all-or-nothing style. “It’s almost like being a bully out there,” an espn3.com commentator described Blake’s game yesterday afternoon. “If he’s on, he’s a good bully.” I’m not totally sure what that means, but it sounds right. I have my own unjustifiable, sentimental theory for why Blake finds himself in so many epic matches: he plays to be remembered, to be part of something special, more than he plays to win.
September 1, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
There’s a T-shirt favored by a certain kind of tennis player that says, “Love means nothing to a tennis player.” It’s a pun that no one, it seems, can resist. The 2010 U.S. Open’s slogan is “It must be love.” Please.
But watching Rafael Nadal beat Teymurez Gabashvili last night, I couldn’t help but think about tennis-love. It’s has been on my mind since I read Andre Agassi’s excellent memoir, Open. Every five pages, Agassi declares that he hates tennis. Predictably, he comes to embrace the sport. (Open is a bestselling memoir, after all.) More interestingly, that it’s clear that, on a deep (and sometimes inaccessible) level, Agassi has always loved tennis. He calls the court a prison. But he also talks about the game the way one might talk about love. It is a long rally between loneliness and intense intimacy. And if nothing else, in Agassi’s book tennis has the subtext of sex, or something like it. He wins the French Open going commando. He falls for Steffi Graf not only for her perfect legs but for her backhand slice.
Tennis players are professional athletes: they play to win. But the U.S. Open is a tournament, and a tournament is courtship as well as war. Take the inescapable rivalry: Federer v. Nadal. Roger Federer: intelligent, elegant, and powerful. He moves like liquid, anticipates the angle, monograms his clothes, and has great hands. The blogs went bonkers over his between-the-legs winner against a shrugging Brian Dabul in the first round, but I’d trade all the trick shots in the world for the sight of one forehand. It is grace made real. At his best, Federer plays just beyond the possible. He captures something out of reach.
Rafael Nadal is the warrior to Federer’s priest. He’s quick, plays low, swings his racket like a lash, grunts like a moron, explodes into shots, wears neon, and hits blistering winners off his back foot. His ground strokes plummet toward the baseline, weighted with spin. His style is physical, his manner humble, his serve en fuego and oh, those arms! Last night, Gabashvili played the tennis of his dreams, of anyone’s dreams (except—poor Gabashvili!—Nadal’s)—and still, it didn’t matter. Nadal is another kind of player, another beast. Every time his racket whips skyward, creating that incredible topspin, my heart leaps. There is strength and joy in every shot, and desire.
Some people will tell you that you have to choose, that it’s one or the other, Federer or Nadal. Do not listen to these people. Others will favor Andy Murray or, say, Mardy Fish. These people are contrarian, or Scottish, or confused. Who doesn't want Federer and Nadal play for as long as possible? Pull for the underdog if you must, but choose wisely. Let it be love!