The Mere Weather


On Sports


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.