With Paris being the current showcase of world tennis, and to fill the void between now and Muzzah's next (fingers crossed) big comeback success, I hope this provides some insight for any interested in the life of an ATP pro...
Now, different thoughts were flying through his head. He thought about his game plan, focused on breathing in order to relax. Up ahead in the underground corridor he saw the swinging doors to the men’s locker room. Plastered across the two doors, a poster showcasing various themes, advertising campaigns and events of the ATP: ‘Planet Tennis’, the main motif for the year, combined a tennis ball with planet earth; then, there were smaller features for New-Gen, the Paris Masters and the year-end World-Tour Finals. (WTF)
The swinging door opened in his face and Alex jerked back. It had almost hit him on the nose. The guy coming through was a Finnish player Alex recognized but did not personally know.
“Sorry.” The other apologized.
“It’s all good.”
The Finn passed and Alex pushed through the doors.
He wondered if he would run into anyone he knew. He’d met a Lithuanian who spoke very clear Russian, and had also chatted with Medvedev on the practice court. At this point, he was more familiar with the top American players – they’d all visited a fairground museum in Bercy Park and gotten a bite on Saturday – but none of them were playing in the evening session tonight. His thoughts wandered around the idea of how filled the stadium would be for the match.
Ugh, come on. He banished the last thought. Relax. Just find a spot and lay back.
Ahead in the room, a metal locker hinge creaked. Then, a PA speaker crackled and Alex stopped. The call came in French. He moved on. Sat down on a bench in the first aisle. It seemed so quiet now – Alex couldn’t believe at first that there was no one else in the locker room, but he soon accepted it as a blessing. He would be free from distractions.
He took a stick of deodorant from his bag and reached under his shirt to apply it. Put it back. Some tunes will help, he thought. He popped the connector into his phone jack and put a bud in one ear. Then he spotted a sofa in the middle of the last aisle. It looked like a better placed to relax, so he inhaled, got up, walked over, sat down, and turned to lay ba-
A large black form burst out at him from a nearby hiding place.
The Kid fell back onto the cushioned edge of the sofa and slipped onto the ground, raising his elbows from there up into defensive points. The form danced and flailed above him, raising its arms up and then dropping them akimbo. When it stopped moving, Alex, still dazed, perceived a totally naked black man standing above him, and as he shook his head to recover, he saw it was a 95% naked black man – Gael Monfils – in black thong underwear and a ball gag in his hand.
“Pardon, pardon!!! Uhh… gais…this is not him.”
Another locker a few aisles down somewhere closed shut, and feet hurried to the scene at the couch. Gael “La Monf” Monfils reached his hand down to Alex and helped pull him up, while Alex brushed back the hair that had tumbled into his face and saw they had been joined by two other players – Aussies Thanasi “Nasty” Kokkinakis and Nicholas “Kyrgystanios” Kyrgios. In Kyrgios’ hand, something like a circus whip dangled, and he finished jogging to Alex with a concerned look on his face.
“Terrible mistake, mate. Really. You gotta forgive us. We thought you were the knob you’re playing.”
“Who? Compagnon?” Alex said, referring to his impending opponent, the world #48.
“Players call him Fish-man. Or Mr. Touchy,” Kyrgios answered. “Everybody hates him, ‘cause he hits on everything. Straight, gay, married, in a relationship, it doesn’t matter to him, bro. We’ve all been victims.”
“Please, do us all a favor and take him out of the tournament,” Kokkinakis pleaded.
“I… I’m gonna try to win,” stuttered Alex, confused and growingly concerned. He saw the objects in their hands and wondered how dangerous Compagnon could be. Monfils didn’t find it necessary to further clothe his body or dangling man-piece, but he tossed the unemployed gag into the opened locker.
“What were you going to do with those?” Alex asked. Kyrgios considered the whip.
“We had to do something.”
“But couldn’t that get you fined, or suspended? Or arrested?”
“Mate, that’s never stopped him before,” said Kokkinakis.
Monfils raised a fist to his chest and beat it lightly.
“We protect you here until they call out,” he said to Alex, and the Aussies agreed.
“Your name’s Alex, right? Alex Korolev?” Kyrgios said as Alex sat down on the couch.
“You’re one of us, man. What do folks call you?”
“Not AK? Like AK-47. That would be tight,” Kokkinakis suggested.
“Yeah, mate, whaddya think?’
Suddenly Monfils stood up straight.
“Shhh! Gais! He’s coming.”
The way the three men shoo’d him and shifted together into the locker alcove, out of view from the aisle, worried Alex more. They shut up, and a whistled tune floated out over the locker room. All four huddled together closely, quietly listening.
The whistling continued, in a fairly high register. Came closer. With footsteps.
A locker only two or three aisles down cracked open.
Kokkinakis’ nose twitched and he inhaled sharply. Kyrgios clasped a hand over his mouth and the four heard Kokkinakis swallow his nascent sneeze.
The whistling stopped. Barely out of view of the aisle, Kyrgios stood up, readying his fist for a pop.
Instead of footsteps or the resumption of whistling, an “Ahhh” came from over the lockers, as if a drink from a refreshing beverage had been taken. THEN the steps resumed. The four men inhaled slowly in unison.
Cha. Cha. Cha.
The footsteps moved away and out of the aisle. A door creaked, different to that of the lockers, and then a lid slapped down.
“Alex Korolev. Please approach the court tunnel within five minutes. Thank you,” the PA speaker announced. Kyrgios leaned over to Alex and whispered urgently:
“He’s on the dunny, you should go! Come on!”
Less cautiously, the three older players escorted Alex through the aisle, and saw him off.
Alex came to an official towards the end of the main corridor, where it started to darken.
“Julienne Compagnon. Please approach the court tunnel within five minutes. Thank you.”
Alex didn’t look behind him.
5…4…3…2…1… Ready go. The official signaled Alex out, and the Kid walked out into a spotlight amidst the dark.
Acoustics from all the spectators, big or small, seemed to funnel into the players’ passage cut between the stands. Only a few dozen fans were to be seen along the side rail, obscenely bright, as Alex walked. In two seconds he heard an old voice croak ‘Impressive!’ and saw horned French girls – early Halloweeners dressed in the style of the devil – jumping and cheering – before everything was blown away and his eardrums nearly blown in by the WUB-WUB-WUB of an EDM track.
He lowered his head in the passage out to the court, eyes in front, remembering to relax, forgetting to even subtly address the crowd. On an electronic screen above mid-court a giant image of him appeared – the image taken in Shanghai – while the speakers all around the cavernous space related his profile info. An official directed him to the near player bench courtside.
The EDM music faded down. Alex affixed his white Ying-Jun cap, tightened his laces, pulled out his racquet. He checked his bag superfluously for the next minute while nothing happened, stole a few glances into the stands – it was still mostly dark except where several smaller spotlights roamed, and wherever they roamed, it was packed with spectators.
Not highly enthusiastic spectators – they seemed on the whole rather reserved now, and cool, without the music. But after the few minutes of waiting, something started to well in them. A potential, an energy, ready to turn the place on.
“Et maintenant, votre homme, de Paris…” the male announcer built up. The spectators all fell silent, letting the speaker create art with his tongue.
“Le flamboyant, le fantastique, le favori…”
The big spotlight turned on above the passage.
“BOOM!” Smashed a drum once, together with a bass drop. Sparklers lit up from the railing and overhead lights danced around. Saxophone. Vocal power. Passion. People all on their feet.
“Talk about h’love! Talk about trust! Talkin’ ‘bout foreeever, babeh, when ya talk about uuus.”
Ceiling-attached disco balls joined the light show, twisting and orbiting the arena. Compagnon’s profile picture flashed on the big-screen – a full-body shot of him leaning on his racquet like an umbrella or cane. The volume increased. Alex recalled Tiafoe’s words about energy as Compagnon entered in full view for the arena-goers, waving.
The Frenchman’s firm chicken legs and bubble butt supported an even lighter upper body clad in an unusually thin, white shirt. On his face, dreamy eyes, sensuous lips, a regal mole like a tear – and the headband over his hairline looking less a headband than a woman’s hairband.
“I give you mah wooord…” Michael Bolton’s ‘Soul Provider’ grooved on, amplified by the 10,000-Watt sound system.
Compagnon observed Alex, catching a glance, and the Kid thought he saw sadness for an instant on the face, but then the lips pursed and twisted in a grin, eyes smoldering, before he gave his bicep a kiss in passing, still looking over it at Alex.
“Stick to mah gu-hunnns, believe me when I tell ya babeh, that we’ve just beguuun…”
The complete lighting array now came on.
Compangnon prepared and did a butterfly stretch on the ground, leaning back on his wrists, as Alex stood up and looked at his player box, trying to ignore his opponent. Coach Christie was there, head turned to side in conversation with a couple people Alex didn’t know.
The chair umpire, an Italian with accented English, called the players to the net. The Frenchman’s fragrance made Alex realize he probably spent too much time grooming himself, and the white shirt made him realize Compagnon had no chest hair, except for large clumps around his nipples. Alex focused back on the umpire.
“Gentlemen. This is a hard court. Best of three tie-break set. Mister Compagnon,” he said, preparing to flip the coin. “Head or tail.”
“I think maybe we should date first.” Compagnon said, with a slightly clearer accent than the umpire, to Alex. The Kid rolled his eyes away. Both players broke to their sides, and with the attention of nearly all 15,600 capacity-seated fans, the match soon began.
Now, as a relevant aside, tennis fans in different parts of the world have noticeably different characteristics, which can have different effects on the players. South American fans are known as the most boisterous and lawless. U.S. American fans are either so casual they have no idea what’s going on, or so well-informed they won’t deign speak to any other fans around them. Australians are overall the most decent, normal people, and fun drunks, and the Europeans vary from place to place, although there is a much higher chance that in a European crowd there will be an absolute lunatic, i.e. someone who runs onto the court as a side show, or tries to approach one of the players before being manhandled and annoyedly dragged off by the security guards who trusted them to maintain their superior degree of civilization and respectability. French fans, of course, fall squarely within the European model, but as a virtue, they are sound critics, capable of the deepest appreciation of the sport. If a foreign player wishes to get into the good graces of a French crowd, it is actually more possible to do so than with other crowds, provided he or she understands these three rules:
Rule Number One: Accept occurrences in a match that are out of one’s control
Alex got off to a good start according to the rules, (but not the score) although he didn’t consider at the time that sometimes it not what you do, but what you don’t do, that makes a difference.
The third point of the match. Monsieur Julienne went through his pre-service routine: cradling the two balls in his hand like bao-ding, tucking one into his pocket and serving into a flamingo finish. Alex hit a great return up the line, nicking the outer half of the white paint, and his opponent took two steps before giving up on it. However, the linesperson called Alex’s shot out.
Immediately the chair umpire overruled the call.
“Correction – the ball was good.”
What the umpire could have done next was award Alex the point, since the ball was ultimately within bounds, and a winner which Compagnon would have had no chance of reaching if he’d been Usain Bolt. What happened instead was, the umpire, regarding the ‘out’ call by the linesperson as a distraction, and having seen the Frenchman stepping towards the ball, ordered the point to be replayed.
Many players in Alex’s position would have held up the match to contest the umpire’s decision. Perhaps because of Alex’s reverence for the top-echelon event, his newness to the tour, or his personality, though, he did not do this. This act, or non-act, didn’t win him support at the expense of the home favorite, but it didn’t turn the crowd against him, and earned him the respect of the savvier fans.
Rule Number Two: Play with style
The French will more readily forgive one of their own losing a match than playing without what they call ‘panache.’ It is indispensable. Modern French players Monfils, Gasquet, Paire and Tsonga are the best exemplars, and Compagnon had it as well. Though an uncultured American, a barbarian, if Alex could attempt some style, he would be cheered.
Down two games to three, the Kid served. Slice return. He took charge of the rally, whipping the ball from corner to corner, keeping his opponent on the move.
“Si forte!” The Frenchman admired Alex’s shot while sliding into a forehand.
“Si vite!” He exclaimed, after a backhand on the other side.
“Ahhhhh, si allongé!”
Alex hit an approach shot off a short groundstroke, and Compagnon sprinted to the side with another exclamation, sliding again into his shot, like they were on the terre battue of Roland Garros, and sinking into the splits. Alex split-stepped at the net, but the shot, a desperate lob, floated high, well-placed, over his right shoulder.
He knew the shot to hit. He didn’t need to change grips. But it was a low percentage shot – that was the fallacy of panache. It more often than not meant that one lost the point, unless he had an uncanny talent for shot-making or was named Roger Federer.
Upwards Alex jumped. He didn’t have the strength or practice for the snap backhand smash. Instead, looked over his left shoulder and swung, chipping the ball delicately around the side, sending it spinning towards the net. Landing, he turned over the opposite shoulder to start preparing for the next ball.
No need. He watched the result – a backhand overhead-to-dropshot winner.
Clapping poured forth from the stands.
Compagnon himself, now extricated from the splits, gushed not only at the artistry of the shot, but at the view of the Kid’s athletic glutes as he walked away to the baseline.
Rule Number Three: Follow proper tennis etiquette
Players will be boo’d in France for neglecting tennis etiquette. Most frequently, etiquette means apologizing for lets (sorry not sorry), errant tosses while serving or other minor delays, but it can also be extended to things like showing new balls to the opponent before serving, not spitting on court, not dropping the towels at the ball-kids’ feet, and the like. Virtually all professional players pay heed to these unwritten laws, especially the let-apology.
After streaking to the first set 6-3, Alex went up 5-2, 0-30 in the second set. His next return hit the tape and bounced over for 0-40.
“Ohhhhhh.” The pained cry escaped out of the home spectators’ mouths. Alex reactively took a couple steps forward with his racquet raised in front. It was a wizard’s charm. Balm for the wound. Sadness sped to acceptance in the French men’s, women’s and children’s journey of loss.
Triple match point. Alex needed only one. He sealed it with a forehand into a forced error. There was only one sequence of etiquette left to complete the match sans faux pas.
In this case it would also be the most challenging.
Alex made for the net as respectful applause filled the arena. He reached it first. Stuck out his hand.
He felt Compagnon take it in his, and pull him in close, tilting his head.
Oh, it’s just that European cheek-kissing thing, Alex thought. Let’s get this over with.
He leaned in, but it had been a clever ploy by the Frenchman, who changed to lean the same way, going in to plant a kiss on his lips. Alex dodged back, close enough to see exactly why Compagnon had been called the ‘Fish-man.’ The lips hung in mid-air.
“Alex… tenez moi!” they said, forming a final pucker with the ‘moi.’
Tennis etiquette also proscribes that players shake hands with the umpire, and this is typically done first by the losing player, but it wasn’t tonight.
After 55 minutes of play, final score: A. Korolev def. J. Compagnon, 6-3, 6-2