Thursday, August 18, 2011

Name Dropping

So I was hanging out with my tennis hero, Roger Federer, the other day and he said something funny.

Well, I imagine it was something funny. He didn't actually say it to me, but to Stanislas Wawrinka, his countryman and practice partner. They were sitting next to each other during a break in their hitting session. I was about 20 yards away from them and I couldn't actually hear them, so I don't even know what language they were speaking. Was it Swiss German? French? English?

Actual photo of me watching Roger by my friend Laura. I am just out of the picture, to the left and behind that throng of people. See me?


Roger wasn't the only tennis superstar that I was within water-cannon-range of last weekend. Even if you don't follow tennis, you've maybe heard of Rafa Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick, and James Blake.

Sharapova. All photos by Laura.

Tennis fans might also recognize the names John Isner, Andy Murray, Francesca Schiavone, Nikolay Davydenko, Juergen Melzer, Mikhail Youzhny, Ana Ivanovic, David Ferrer, Caroline Wozniacki, Juan Martin del Potro, Fernando Verdasco, Li Na, Marcos Baghdatis, Jie Zheng.

I saw all of these people in person and "larger than life," at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. It had almost all the best players in the world. It's like a mini U.S. Open, but at a more convenient location that's less crowded. The tournament press said that nine individual grand slam champions were there. There were so many famous names in the draw, I didn't even get to see all the people I wanted to.

Francesca Schiavone: French Open champion

I say the players were "larger than life" because, even though I saw them live, the only experience I'd had with these people up to then had been on TV. And in person, these people are huge. They're taller, leaner, and more built than they look on the small screen. Andy Roddick, for example, was like a walking mountain of lean muscle.

When you think about it, it makes sense that they would be taller in person. When you see them on TV, 95% of the time the camera is looking down at them on the court. But when I walked past them, they were life-sized and I was looking up at them.


The way I was able to get so close to so many of them was on the practice courts. They each had an hour or so scheduled on any of a dozen different practice courts. Some of them, like Nadal and Sharapova, even had practice time scheduled on one of the big stadium courts. (While we were waiting for Nadal to show up for his practice time, I went to the bathroom. On my way back, I almost ran into Nadal's entourage walking toward the court. It took me a while to figure out that in the middle of that pack that almost ran me over was one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.)

Nadal practicing on the Grandstand court.

On the practice courts, you can sit 20 feet away from them as they hit with their coach, hitting partner, or another famous player. Federer practiced with his friend and countryman Wawrinka, but it was also weird to see people like Andy Murray (of Great Britain) playing practice points against David Ferrer (of Spain.) Just two top ten players in the world hitting the ball around. No big thang.

Nikolay Davydenko, once ranked as high as 3rd in the world, practiced with his coach and his wife (not the same person.) His wife tried to feed him balls but kept mis-hitting them. I got the impression he was teasing her for this, but my Russian is limited to "goodbye," "please," and "kiss me," so I don't know what he actually said.

Davydenko. Great action shot by Laura. And hey! He's balder than me!

Federer was scheduled to be on court #8 at noon, so at about 11:45 the modest metal stands next to the court were packed with people. It was standing room only. I waited with intense anticipation, under a hot sun surrounded by annoying other people, as the clock ticked by. 12:05, no Federer. 12:10... 12:15... no Federer. Metal bleachers full of people staring at an empty practice court. People made jokes: "Those are some really impressive lines on that court."

12:20... 12:30... no Federer. People complained about how unprofessional and disrespectful Roger was being. How could he make us wait like that? Although I was profoundly annoyed, impatient, and disappointed, I didn't blame Federer.

These guys are world-class athletes, and in the end, when they step out onto the court, they're just entertainers. But can we expect them to entertain us during their practices? Do they owe us fans practice time? We didn't buy a ticket to the practice. For all we know Federer signed up for the practice court, or it was assigned to him, but that doesn't mean he has to use the whole time.

It is an interesting study in celebrity. He's basically going to work, doing those mundane menial tasks that we all do at work, and throngs of people wait for hours to watch him do it. Other, real matches were going on at the same time, but we missed those for a possible chance to watch the great Roger Federer warm up his forehand. It was a little ridiculous, actually. It would be like me arriving for work and having my Reference Desk surrounded by people who couldn't wait to admire me looking stuff up in a library database. Who are these people?

Well, I was one of those people. After waiting an hour, I was restless and starving, so I took a walk to check out the real match on the main court, and then got some ice cream. As I made my way back to practice court #8, I noticed that the crowd has swelled to its largest size yet. There was a buzz.

I went back to where my friend sat, but there was no room anymore. Roger and Stan were warming up. And the frustrating thing was, everyone was standing up. So I couldn't see over people.

This was a study in selfishness. If the people in the front row would have sat down, the people behind them could have sat down, and so on and so on, until the people standing in the back could have seen. Instead, the selfish people in the front row insisted on standing up, and therefore, even though I was 30 feet away, I could only see snippets of Roger. People suck.

The other interesting thing was that Roger practiced with Stan Wawrinka, the 14th-best singles player in the world. He's an Olympic champion, having won the Gold in doubles with Roger in 2008. And not a single eye was on poor Stan. He might was well have been the water boy. I guess fame is relative.


There were also actual matches going on at this tennis tournament. We saw parts of about eight matches, but because there was so much going on at once, there were only two matches we saw from start to finish. One was a doubles match with John Isner and James Blake playing two other Americans I didn't know. (They lost.) It was a good match, but the most amazing thing was seeing Isner in person. He's huge, 6'9", I believe, and when he stands next to the net, it only comes up to his thigh. Imagine playing tennis on a net as high as your thigh. (True fact: Isner grew up in Greensboro, NC, and went to Page High School, the big rival of my high school, Grimsley.)

Isner and Blake at the net

The very last match we saw was a women's singles contest late in the day between two unseeded young ladies on a side court. A 19-year-old American, Christina McHale, was playing Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria. These are both women I've seen playing on TV, but they're not exactly household names.

In fact, they are so much not household names that we were able to sit in the second row court-side. It wasn't after we sat down that I realized that we were in the "player's box." That is to say, I think McHale's mom and sister were right next to me.

I base this on the fact that after every big point, she would look right over to them, like many of the players do with their coaches and families. Also, the ladies next to me would call her nicknames like "Chris" and hugged after the match was over. They obviously knew her. So that was pretty cool.

View of McHale from her player's box. I like her skirt.

McHale won a really long and exciting three-set match.

Later, after we got home, I found out that McHale upset the #1 player in the world, Caroline Wozniacki, in the next round. She's going to be the Next Big Thing! And we were close enough to catch her sweat!

No comments: