Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Ringside
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Ringside 05/27/2010 - 9:33 AM

Am Andy Murray is running straight toward you. He's running so fast you begin to think that, to avoid the low wall that's the only thing standing between the two of you, he might have to do a flying leap in the general direction of your skull. Murray starts sliding at the doubles sideline. He keeps sliding until he’s threatening to take your front row seat. You realize something else at this moment, now that you’re at court level, that you never realized quite so viscerally before: Andy Murray is not small. A collision would probably work out better for him than it would for you. At the last second he tries to flick a backhand down the line, but he can’t bring the ball back into the court. Murray ends his slide just in time to stand straight up and avoid falling over the wall. He looks down the court, into the stands on the other side of the net, where a group of his opponent Juan Ignacio Chela’s fans are sitting next to Murray’s entourage. It’s not clear which of these groups he’s referring to when he points his racquet in their direction and mutters, in a tone of downbeat exasperation, “Oh, shut up.” 

It seems that at each Grand Slam I write about the “best court in the world to watch tennis.” I’ve claimed the title for the Grandstand at Flushing Meadows, the old Court 2 at Wimbledon, and, at the start of this week, Court Suzanne Lenglen here at Roland Garros. I guess when I find a court I like, I suddenly can’t imagine watching a match anywhere else.

But my first love, my first favorite, was the Bullring, where I saw Murray yesterday. I loved the courtside seats because they could make a match seem unforgettable even when it wasn’t a classic in the broad scheme of things. You almost certainly remember Marat Safin dropping his pants against Felix Mantilla on this court in 2004, but what are the chances you ever heard about the five-set, third-round throwdown between Albert Costa and Xavier Malisse that same year, in which Malisse, against every odd, came back from two sets to one down to win. It was incredible to me then, watching the length and quality and variety and competitiveness of their rallies, the amount of talent required and energy expended on each side, that this was really just another match among thousands, and that each player would have to forget it as soon as possible. One shot would inspire a whispered “Holy ----,” the next get would elicit a mumbled “Jesus Christ.” Afterward, it almost seemed like it had all been a waste, that these guys were too good at what they did, that the skills of the pros weren’t impressive in the ordinary sense of the word—they were bizarre. This isn’t a reaction I’ve had anywhere else.

More than most tennis courts, the Bullring feels like an arena, where athletes stage contests for the fans. We’re close enough to feel like we’re not just observing from the outside, but have broken down the barrier between actor and spectator. To the degree that it’s possible, we’ve entered the match. Nowhere else can you get a sense—as in seeing, hearing, feeling—of the force that two professional tennis players throw at each other on every point.

Maybe this is only true from the press seats, I don't know. They’re up close, along one of the baselines. You can hear the players breathe as they wait to receive serve in the ad court. You can also hear what they say under their breath, which, in Murray’s case, is virtually impossible for this American to understand. That may be a good thing.

I watched two matches in the Bullring on Wednesday. The first was between Svetlana Kuznetsova, the defending champion, and Andrea Petkovic, a 22-year-old Bosnian native and German citizen who has carved out a persona as the WTA’s resident Goethe-reading hipster (she says she eats at McDonald’s, too). There’s a lot to like about her game. She’s tall and lean, with short, sharp strokes that she has no trouble landing a few inches from the baseline, and a service motion with the virtue of simplicity. By the time I get to the Bullring at the start of the third set, though, Petkovic has held, and lost, four match points. I don’t expect much resistance from her from here on.

ApI’m happy to be wrong. While she goes down 4-1, there’s nothing in Petkovic’s demeanor to indicate that she has caved mentally. She takes her cuts, pumps her fist, and accepts Kuznetsova’s winners without acting like the world is against her. She saves a match point at both 2-5 and 3-5 before finally bowing to Kuzzie’s superior force, 6-4. Petkovic also, from what I can tell, grunts in German. She’s a pleasure to watch.

But it’s her opponent who’s the revelation. Kuznetsova’s level of motivation has never been clear to me; she can zone out for entire matches. From here, you can see that, for today at least, she’s a whirlwind of emotion and desire. She exhorts herself after every point, hits and moves with abandon. By the end, she isn’t grunting, she’s yelling as she makes contact. You can see her open her mouth as she starts her swing. Kuznetsova finally ends it by thumping—walloping, crushing, obliterating, leveling, pick your adjective—a crosscourt backhand that has a thunderous ring to it (it really does). It’s not hit particularly close to the sideline, but  there’s no way Petkovic is getting anywhere near it. The match is over a minute later.

What was the difference watching this match from here instead of on TV? From my pressroom monitor, errors appeared to have been produced by mental lapses or stupid risks. “How could Petkovic hit that into the net? She must be choking. Kuzzie, will you ever learn?” But when you get on the court, you can see that while there are pointless misses, the majority of them come because each player feels that she must live with a certain amount risk in her game—Petkovic aims for the baseline; Kuznetsova swings from the heels—because if they play it safe, they’re going to get killed on the next ball. Women’s tennis 2010: Don’t call it a bash fest; call it an arms race. For better and worse, hitting the hell out of the ball is playing percentage tennis. Only seeing it up close, closing the distance between yourself and the players, will let you appreciate this. Stylistic variety? That's an aesthetic element of the sport which is emphasized by the colder, distanced view of the TV camera. Here you feel the sparks of the athletic combat that goes on beneath.

Next up were Murray and Chela, and right away my perspectives on these guys were upended. I think of Chela as a pro and little more, a guy who does his job without a whole lot of passion or anger. I was wrong. Every lost point, every Murray winner, elicits a grimace of agitation from the Argentine. I also think of Chela as a dull and steady baseline par excellence. Also not true—by any reasonable standard, he pummels the ball. There’s an unpolished quality to his strokes, especially his serve, but that doesn’t rob them of their pop, or their powerful sound.

Murray I knew was good. But like I said, you forget how big the guy is, how physical his game is. Do you wonder sometimes when you see him on TV what he’s doing out there? He looks like he’s just flipping the ball back into the court and gliding from side to side. Not true. There's an explosive effort involved in even the easiest-looking slide along the baseline. Murray isn’t flipping the ball back; he’s fighting the ball off. His serve, which has never been noted for its blistering pace, rattles the entire net when it catches the tape.

From an emotional standpoint, you might see Murray as a whiner, a guy who’s always got some niggling complaint about something. Up close you can hear him mumble to himself, take deep breaths, get annoyed at an invisible person in the audience. Taken together, these little tics and gestures begin to seem like Murray’s method of competing, of bracing himself, bit by bit, moment by moment, for the psychological strains of a match. It’s the pep talk of a fundamentally pessimistic person, and it doesn’t look like an easy act to pull off. When Murray tells the crowd to shut up a few inches from me, it isn’t anger that I see in his face. It’s embarrassment over his missed shot, over his small failure. Every tennis match is a performance where flubbed lines are a given. But that doesn't make flubbing a shot in public any easier.

There are many more moments I could describe from the Bullring that you won’t get anywhere else. Let me finish with a tiny snapshot of one rally. Murray began it by moving Chela wide to his forehand side, so far wide that Chela had to execute a long slide into the corner of the court. You could hear the clay crunch under his feet. He got there just in time to reach out and throw up a towering lob. From my seat, it arced straight upward, toward the sky, much higher than lobs normally appear to go on TV. Finally it came down, with a solid thud, an inch from the baseline. What a shot! Murray, blinking no eye, calmly set up and drilled a perfect bounce overhead into the other corner ("Wow"). Chela slid there, clay crunching under his feet again, and buzzed a ridiculous slice crosscourt ("Jesus Christ"). Murray was on it in a flash and . . . 

You get the picture, I hope. That’s tennis in the Bullring.


 
42
Comments
 

Posted by Theonus 05/27/2010 at 10:03 AM

Great post! Makes me feel like I'm there.

Posted by Dan 05/27/2010 at 10:11 AM

Steve,

I read your articles all the time but this my first time commenting. Thank you for writing so eloquently about your experience. I really felt like I was there with you watching Sveta and Andy compete.

Posted by Cheshire Cat 05/27/2010 at 11:06 AM

Good writing, Steve. It can't be easy being a tennis journalist, and having to write about the same darned thing over and over again, but you keep finding ways of making it fresh.

Posted by cami 05/27/2010 at 11:19 AM

brilliant.
so, from tv, i thought petkovic choked. not exactly, you say.

Posted by Abhijith Madhav 05/27/2010 at 11:24 AM

> Andy Murray is not small. A collision would probably work out better for him than it
> would for you

Ha ha... Nice description

Posted by Voltaire 05/27/2010 at 11:27 AM

Steve- You just earned your keep! Truly inspired writing and the combat that actually tennis is. The difference between being close to action v/s what's manufactured on TV couldn't be anymore starker as much as they seem different a sport. Hope you will have plenty more opportunities to provide a bullring eye's view of gladiatorial contests....you know who we mean in particular;-)

Posted by ata08 05/27/2010 at 11:42 AM

picture, most perfect...

Posted by Alain 05/27/2010 at 12:57 PM

Awesome piece of writing, Steve. Lots of "substance" there...

Posted by Vie 05/27/2010 at 12:58 PM

Steve - is there a a story to this court, the Bullring? I haven't seen a match close range.

Posted by SimonSays 05/27/2010 at 12:58 PM

perfection....

Posted by Pspace (Hopp Fed and Ajde Glitter Queen!) 05/27/2010 at 01:05 PM

What a great piece! As a Murray follower, I really enjoyed it. Haven't had the chance to see him live yet. Need to get on it asap.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 05/27/2010 at 01:17 PM

Fabulousness all round! Especially this:

"From my pressroom monitor, errors appeared to have been produced by mental lapses or stupid risks. “How could Petkovic hit that into the net? She must be choking. Kuzzie, will you ever learn?” But when you get on the court, you can see that while there are pointless misses, the majority of them come because each player feels that she must live with a certain amount risk in her game—Petkovic aims for the baseline; Kuznetsova swings from the heels—because if they play it safe, they’re going to get killed on the next ball. Women’s tennis 2010: Don’t call it a bash fest; call it an arms race. For better and worse, hitting the hell out of the ball is playing percentage tennis. Only seeing it up close, closing the distance between yourself and the players, will let you appreciate this. Stylistic variety? That's an aesthetic element of the sport which is emphasized by the colder, distanced view of the TV camera. Here you feel the sparks of the athletic combat that goes on beneath."

Posted by FM (Vamos Rafa!!!!) 05/27/2010 at 01:26 PM

Excellent piece! I felt I was in the court experiencing the fight. Thanks Steve!!

Posted by Nam1 05/27/2010 at 01:30 PM

another winner, Steve, can you please give Bodo over there some lessons..

Murray seems to be a nice guy but one of the commies yesterday said he "looked permanently tired"... I think I see that in him, he hangs his shoulders the minute something goes off plan....I think once he learns to leave the negative moment and move on, he will improve his overall mental strength.

Posted by Euphemism 05/27/2010 at 01:35 PM

Ages ago (1994), I bought a bullring ticket from a scalper; it ended up being in the press section, a couple of rows off the court. The match I remember was Rafter v Muster. It was a super-competitive, very testy match. Muster kept complaining about missed calls, and repeatedly ordered the ump to get down to check the mark. At one point the ump indicated that he wasn't going to get down from the chair because the mark in question was clearly out. Voice dripping with sarcasm, Muster's like, "Just because I've been right the last three times, now you think my luck run out?" Through it all Rafter was getting more and more annoyed, because Muster's bluster kept delaying the games. When, finally, Rafter won a set on an ace, he leapt over the net to Muster's side of the court and outlined on the clay where his ace had hit. It was pure theatre - the dashing muskateer vs. the cartoon villain - so the crowd was loud and intense, and being close enough to the court to hear Muster muttering to himself and see Rafter's raised eyebrows at every tantrum made it that much more fun.

In other words, I love the bullring too...

Posted by Ramana 05/27/2010 at 01:38 PM

Felt like I was watching live, great work, write some more of these "real and close encounters" variety rather than some theoretical stuff about Roger and Rafa

Posted by skip1515 05/27/2010 at 02:24 PM

Great write-up. Thanks.

Posted by tennis101 05/27/2010 at 02:33 PM

Great writing steve!

Make me feel like im there , please continue with this articles.

Posted by Kate 05/27/2010 at 02:34 PM

Hi, Dan. Welcome.

Posted by felizjulianidad 05/27/2010 at 04:01 PM

This happens with certain sports. If you get a panorama view of a sport, you take too much of the "execution" for granted and you view it with a certain blasé detachment. This is true of tennis, of soccer, and I imagine so for sprinting and other track meets. When you're there in the thick of things, the chaos, the anarchy, the struggle, become so much more palpable, and you realize that the fact that players can exude some semblance of strategy amidst all that violence is indicative of a skill simply beyond that of the rest of us mortals.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeee!/We gonna see, no?) 05/27/2010 at 04:13 PM

Wow, Steve. That was great. You really captured the sights and sounds of the matches. What I enjoyed about this piece (actually, all of your work) is that it reads like a love letter to the sport. No matter how much tennis I watch (and these days, it's quite a lot!) or how much I -think- I know about the game, the players, and their quirks, I read your work and it makes me excited about watching matches all over again, if only to try and catch a glimpse of the moments like the ones you describe here.

Posted by fedfan 05/27/2010 at 05:26 PM

Great post. Yes, we do get the idea. I wonder if they will ever develop the technology to allow television viewers to get some of the feel of the action you have described here. However, it is good to be reminded that the skillful use of the written word can convey experience very well, too. Tennis reminds me of the Medieval sport of jousting. Your post shows some of the reasons why.

Posted by Geellis 05/27/2010 at 06:21 PM

To add my two cents, great article.

I would have been interested to hear your take on the Monfils match. I hear the crowd booed Fognini when he came on court. Seriously now. Someone needs to educate the French crowds on proper eticut at a GS tennis match.

Posted by greenhopper 05/27/2010 at 06:23 PM

Great writing, Steve. Completely agree about Sveta's ground-strokes. I don't know if it's power or pace or what, but when she was on yesterday, I had a feeling Andrea had no chance. "Thunderous ring" is a wonderful expression. Sometimes I watch Sveta just to "hear" her shots, the sound really is amazing. They both take a ton of risks which made for an excellent match viewing experience despite Andrea's apparent "collapse".

Love your reports, Steve, as always. Thank you.

Posted by Pat 05/27/2010 at 06:40 PM

Steve, reading your impressions from Roland Garros is the next best thing to being there. I can't thank you enough.

Posted by zolarafa 05/27/2010 at 07:21 PM

Steve,

Thanks so much for these great reports. Great observations and great writing style. What else can we want?

Posted by pov 05/27/2010 at 07:31 PM

Tignor,
Again kudos! Your writing continues to be engaging and superb.

Posted by C Note 05/27/2010 at 08:23 PM

Awesome stuff, Steve. Makes me want to sell all my stuff an book a flight to Paris ASAP. Particularly loved your observations on Petkovic and Murray. Great food for thought.

Posted by Codge 05/27/2010 at 08:54 PM

Steve, it's all been said :)

You're a terrific writer who happens to write about the sport I love.

Posted by Rachel 05/27/2010 at 10:50 PM

The quality of this writing is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace's piece on Roger Federer--so brilliant it gave me chills.

HOW THE HELL DO YOU GET THIS GOOD?

Posted by eric 05/27/2010 at 11:02 PM

goddam steve, i love reading your stuff. only writer that really gives me the feeling of being there.

Posted by marcus 05/27/2010 at 11:08 PM

Senor Tignor,

You have an excellent writing style. Keep writing, and I'll keep reading.

Posted by Charles 05/27/2010 at 11:40 PM

beautifully written, Steve!

Posted by MsChoy 05/28/2010 at 12:55 AM

Great article! Love it. Wish I could get seats that close to the players :)

Posted by Jon Reiss 05/28/2010 at 01:02 AM

Amazing Steve. This is your best piece of writing yet. To echo someone else, reminds me of DFW. Keep the good stuff coming.

Posted by Ant 05/28/2010 at 01:19 AM

Felt like I was ther...Excellent piece of writing...Inspired me to comment for ur article for the first time!

Posted by Azhdaja 05/28/2010 at 01:25 AM

you didn't write anything about Monfils vs Fognini match?
Fognini won, you know, Steve?!
Yes, last night booed Fognini finally beat Monfils.

Posted by Azhdaja 05/28/2010 at 01:27 AM

Great article, Steve! Details, details...the tennis Rembrandt at work!
I want you to go even deeper in details.
You can do it.
You know you can!

Save your best for the semi/finals.

Posted by Serhan 05/28/2010 at 02:55 AM

i am curious what would you write if you have watched fed's or nadal's match:)

Posted by Fern 05/28/2010 at 03:37 AM

Lovely writing, Steve.

Posted by hugecost 05/28/2010 at 05:32 AM

Marvellous sportswriting. Right with you there in the front row.

Posted by Tennis Observer 05/28/2010 at 10:36 AM

"Don’t call it a bash fest"

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

"Stylistic variety?"

We can't have it 'coz the 95% of WTA too dumb so we better don't want it, huh?


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