Great blog !
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.
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.http://tennisworld.typepad.com/thewrap/2010/05/ringside.html