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Posts Tagged ‘Kim Clijsters’

An Honor to Watch

September 14, 2010 | by

Last night, Rafael Nadal became the seventh man to win a career grand slam. He's 24. Photography by Michelle V. Agins.

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.


A Win is Just a Win. A Loss…

September 11, 2010 | by

Everyone will be watching Vera Zvonareva. Photograph by Christian Mesiano.

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.