1 August 2012

Wimbledon Diary

The giant stadium screens you see at sports venues are another of the omnipresent, light-emitting diode displays that now accompany us on our walks and escalator rides; that keep us company as we loiter around bus stops, hotel lobbies, subway cars, and at home; that warm our ears as we speak on phones. Although LED-based video, with its hyperreal colors, is pretty new, it uses the same trichromatic system as a tube TV, a Kodachrome snapshot, and Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s 1908 color photo of Leo Tolstoy: a red, a green and a blue image are superimposed to create the full spectrum. Unlike all previous color systems, stadium screens designed for sports have a curious genetic modification: their pixels are made up of one red, one blue, and two green LEDs. Why two green ones? Because grass is green.

Three weeks ago, the first Wednesday of Wimbledon, the specialty pixels combined to display the familiar, near-fluorescent hue of ryegrass, expertly clipped and rolled. Until 2001, the tournament’s tennis lawns contained only 70 percent rye; the remaining 30 percent was the gothically named, but less resilient, creeping red fescue. But throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a phalanx of serve-and-volley players left the grass courts worn down to a T-shaped pattern of bald, baseball diamond-like dirt. This created a vicious cycle in which the more worn down the grass became, the faster players had to get to the net and keep the ball from bouncing erratically off the footprint-scalloped dirt. The exile of creeping red fescue was also part of a sport-wide attempt to slow down play on all surfaces in the wake of huge serversBoris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, and above all, the metronomical Pete Samprasalong with heavier balls and more sand mixed into hardcourts’ green paint. One way you know someone hasn’t been watching much tennis is if they trot out the old saw about the sport having become a serving contest. Since the switch to 100 percent ryegrass, no player who serves and volleys has won Wimbledon.


Back on the big screen, sparkling two-subpixel green was the backdrop for the image of Roger Federer, sweeping his right hand through his princely hair, as he waited to return serve against the sixty-eighth ranked player in the world, Fabio Fognini. On the hillside, several hundred people with tickets to the grounds, but not this match, had assembled to watch him. The apparent paradox of standing in line for several hours for tickets to watch an oversized TV doesn’t seem to bother anyone, and on the hillside, a contented atmosphere prevailed. It felt like an enormous family watching a favorite nephew. An Indian man was beaming at Federer, or maybe the spectacle of gold watch-wearing winning that he represents, and mothers rubbed their children’s shoulders contentedly. It can’t be denied that many core fans of tennis today tend to be from former British colonies; this might be true about my own love of tennis, inherited from my Pakistani father. Television’s constant close-ups are the formal device that produce a one-way intimacy between millions and the affable Swiss genius. For this crowd, Federer is also the classy champion, the one who represents Rolex and Mercedes-Benz and other totems of the upwardly mobile. Six-inch polo horses decorated fans’ chests and swooping, understated RF monograms festooned their baseball caps. 

Wimbledon this year was in the strange position of being a warm-up tournamentthe London Olympics tennis tournament will be held at the same site, the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club. It isnt clear which is more important. (For the fans, that is. For the players, who have professional spirits, Wimbledon is the more prestigious, more meaningful, and better paid of the two.) Still, a certain tension seemed to be missing from the crowd this year. On court, Federer bent into his serve, sapling-like, and made a collage of four groundstrokes with a micro-variety of spins; he finished points with forehands and backhands exactly where Fognini wasn’t expecting. Federer’s face, older and slightly bulkier in the final years of his career, showed a concentrated blankness as he considered each serve. His trade, which he plys in a semi-trance, is to create rhythms of expectation, and then defy them. When nervous or pressed, he starts to shank easy balls fifteen feet out or into the bottom of the net. When relaxed, his uncanny anticipation always strikes me as an empathetic talent: an ability to predict his opponent’s impulses from moment to moment. He won the tournament.


Major tennis tournaments are like music festivals with many stages. On outer courts all around the grounds, the extended rallies of the sport’s slowed-down last decade are in evidence. The bang-bang firefights of the 90s is are gone; only a couple of serving-and-volleying relics, mainly doubles specialists, remain. The current generation, led by the relentless Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, engages in baseline wars of attrition that can resemble Olympian practice drills. Complete arsenals of groundstrokes, the ability to retrieve nearly any ball, and total fitness are the criteria for winning. These grueling marathons favor the workhorse. If motivation drops, you drop. The ruthlessness of the tour means that players quickly fall far off the radar: on Court Six that Wednesday, the former star Shahar Peer went down 62, 62. On bleacherless Court Eleven, James Blake was beaten in a doubles match watched by maybe forty people. Na Li, who won the singles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and ignited a Chinese tennis boom, was seen out on Court Four by a Romanian player, Sorana Cirstea, who’s never won a professional tournament. 

Tennis’s 99 percent, the marginally ranked players, who might be winning a hundred thousand dollars a year but spending it all on flights, hotels, and the all-important retinue of coaches and fitness trainers, exhibit levels of anxiety reminiscent of a youthful John McEnroe. On the outer courts, where you sit or stand about twenty feet from the players, proximity exposes their nervousness.  A perfect, parabolic lob hit over the head of a Pakistani-Dutch doubles team made both smile and noda brief, exceptional reminder that this game, even when you are beat, can be fun.  A young woman waiting to serve tapped her feet with methamphetaminic intensity. Her parents sat courtside and grimly egged her on with meaningful looks and pecking motions of their heads, jaws clenched. It reminded me of a child beauty pageant or winner-takes-all violin recital, except the purse was £16 million. Things for the 1 percent are not much different: Rafael Nadal, who until this year hadn’t lost before the final since 2007, spent his changeovers obsessively sipping from three plastic bottles and then arranging them in rows. In a throwback to the upsets of more random, big-hitting times, he was sent home by one Lukas Rosol. Meanwhile Djokovic, the best player in the world today, was going through an annual phase of self-doubt accompanied by panic and breathing problems. He went on to lose a semifinal to Federer in strangely calm and quiet fashion, almost as though he couldnt bring himself to re-enter the Oedipal psychodrama with the older champion.

Not all players suffer abnormal anxiety; some suffer from an anxiety about not having enough anxiety. Untelevised, and watched by perhaps three dozen fans, was Ernests Gulbis, the son of a Latvian oligarch. Possessed of astounding powerthe ball explodes off his racquethe has beaten Nadal on clay and taken Federer to the brink, been arrested for soliciting prostitutes in Sweden, and currently is ranked number eighty-seven. A couple of years ago, he diagnosed himself with the clarity of youth:

Because I come from a wealthy family, its more normal for me to have this money as a tennis player. Its OK if its there, its OK if its not there. Its not a big issue for me. If you come from a poor family, you want to pull yourself up, you have a goal to earn money. I dont have that goal. The fire in me is that I want to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can be at the top. I dont care about money, I dont care about fame. I dont like money and fame, I dont need them and Im not living for them. I dont know if I like or love the game so much. I enjoy competing. I dont like practicing. When Im on court and its a competition, I enjoy it. I enjoy having a goal. When you reach a goal, its OK, but also an empty feeling. When I won my first ATP tournament this year, I was happy for maybe ten minutes, and that was it. Then I had an empty feeling.

At Wimbledon Gulbis lost in the second round. 

Post-match press conferences are mandatory after every match, which might be part of the reason the players tend to talk blandly about their respect for all opponents and their fear of each one another’s games. Frighteningly, they seem to mean it. There are few players who threaten any proportion of the viewing public the way, say, Martina Navratilova coming out of the closet did. Maybe a gay male number one would do the trick. There are a couple of exceptions. Serena Williams, now 30 and returning from a year of life-threatening health problems, predates the current bland style. Before she won the tournament, the five-time champion was relegated to Court Two a few times, where fans mobbed her on her way off of court. Afterwards, she remarked, ‘I wasn’t scared. Nobody is going to knock me over for real. I’d like to see that happen.’ 

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