I first met my best friend and writing/directing partner, David Levien, in 1982, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. This was also the summer I began working at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, slinging clothes for Ellesse and sneaking onto the outer courts to hit with the guys working the food concessions whenever we thought we could get away with it.
Levien came and hung out at the Open a bunch that year. Security was lax back then, so I would get one of my coworkers to loan me a badge, and I’d palm it to Dave within three feet of the gate guards before we both strolled right through.
The weirdest thing about this year’s Wimbledon is that the tournament isn’t like this more often. Yes, nine of the 10 top women’s seeds lost before the semifinals. Yes, Nadal, Federer, Serena, Azarenka, Sharapova, etc. Yes, the women’s winner didn’t have to face a single player ranked higher than her. Yes, Andy Murray. Yes, I’m crazy. And yet, it’s unbelievable that there aren’t upsets more often. How many matches hinge on a net cord here, a few millimeters there? It’s crazy that the top players always win the close ones. This time, of course, things were different. Serena Williams won three more total points than Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round — and lost. Roger Federer won one fewer point than Sergiy Stakhovsky’s total in the second round — and lost. Li Na chose not to challenge a bad call on set point in the first set against Agnieszka Radwanska, went on to lose the set, and then lost the match in three. Let’s say she’d challenged that call: It’s possible that she would have won the match, moved through the open draw, and won the title. That wouldn’t have been so strange. Instead, we got Marion Bartoli, which was.
So there we all were, seated in Court Philippe Chatrier, already in a mild state of alert. Would David Ferrer figure out a way to mount a real challenge to Rafael Nadal, after losing to him 16 consecutive times on clay? Would the overcast sky have mercy on the afternoon and keep the rain to itself? Would Nadal be penalized yet again for the duration of his baseball-pitch-signal service-line ritual? The concern about Ferrer was answered decisively enough when he managed to break Nadal early in the first set only to lose his advantage and then the set. It was more of the same in the second. But Ferrer is a fighter, and in the fifth game he fought. The result was a splendid 29-stroke rally that ended with Nadal being drawn to the net and hitting a winner and the crowd erupting with cheers.
This is important to mention for two reasons. The first is that it was a spectacular and aggressive point. It ended with both men moaning and grunting as if every shot were a 400-pound bench press. When it was over, Ferrer did some pacing at the back of the court, then stood at the service line to receive from Nadal. He was still panting. Nadal performed his ball-bouncing, pants-tugging, brow-wiping ritual with no apparent loss of breath. The other reason to mention that point is that it was all downhill from there. Ferrer put his next return into the net and proceeded to lose the next four points.
But with Nadal serving for the set, a noise arose from the tippy-top of the stadium. Two banners, in blue, white, and red, were being waved, one in French, the other in English. Without looking up, it was natural to assume that these were just fans who'd missed the deadline for shutting up before a player serves. But their shouts of protest complemented their banners: "Help! France tramples on children's rights." They were young, well-dressed (scarves, leather jackets, nice glasses), and went on for an uncomfortably long time. Before security could get to them, some spectators had taken it upon themselves to try to quell the noise — one going so far as to snatch one of the banners and toss it over the stadium wall in a comical fit of aggravation.
Two of the protesters were escorted out to the sound of jeers. Amazingly, their mates took their seats, endured some minor harassment from their neighbors, and watched as play resumed. It's inconceivable that, after disrupting the world's biggest clay-court tennis tournament with a political protest, they could sit there and continue to be spectators. But that's just what they did. Ferrer failed to hold his serve. Shortly thereafter, there was another shout, this time from behind the players' chairs, and onto the court leaped a shirtless man (torse nu in French) with a lit flare, a white plastic mask, and the words "kids right" Sharpied, wrong, across his abdomen.
It wasn't unthinkable that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could beat Roger Federer. On clay. In Paris. At Roland Garros. Maybe it was even likely. Tsonga is one of a handful of men who knows how to play Federer on any surface, how to stand strong under his relentlessness. But Federer relented quite a bit on Tuesday. He doesn't express much when he's losing badly, but when he does he makes the face old Parisian women make upon discovering that they've carelessly boarded the metro car with the busking accordionist. Tsonga wasn't electric against Federer. He didn't have to be: Federer was simply ordinary. They've called him FedEx for years. But Tuesday, he was FedUSPS.
In any case, now that he's gone, France is starting to believe that on the 30th anniversary of Yannick Noah's being the last of their countrymen to win the championship, Tsonga could be the next. (We'll see. If Andy Murray's Wimbledon frustrations indicate anything, it might just mean Tsonga will be the first Frenchperson to win the U.S. Open in August.) For three days, the sports shows and newspapers have quietly conjoined commemoration and speculation. Will Noah be there Friday to root Tsonga on against David Ferrer? Will Tsonga, who's seeded sixth, find the right game plan to stop Ferrer? Is the country even doing all it can to support and encourage its native son?
The color of the clay at Roland Garros is spray-tan orange. In French, it's "terre-battue," as in "beaten earth." But after the court's been combed and brushed, it's basically a glorious patch of suede. When it rains, the suede turns to mud. And off and on for the opening two rounds of this year's tournament it's been raining — enough to interrupt play, enough to create some near misses between umbrellas and eyes, enough to make you very sad for the people in open-toe shoes. Their feet got an uneven tan.
On Tuesday, play didn't start until well after one, which guaranteed backups on Wednesday. On Thursday, it barely got under way, which guaranteed backups on Friday. In the U.S., when there's a rain delay at the French Open, you probably go back to sleep. Here, whether you're the BBC broadcast team or one of the linespeople, you wait. If you're a spectator, you pray. Those people you always see on television, huddled in the stands beneath an umbrella or slumped in a plastic poncho? Those people once seemed silly to me, but they're fervent optimists. And eventually, their optimism produced a match in Court Philippe Chatrier, the tournament's intimately scaled main theater, between Marion Bartoli and Olga Govortsova.
At this very moment, there are no matches being played at the Australian Open. This is true for two reasons: (1) Everyone's asleep, because it's early in the morning, and (2) we, the East Coast liberal media elite, need time to write about what happened the day before without the distraction of amazing tennis matches.
The creators of the Australian Open, which is now more than 100 years old, knew that it was hard for American bloggers to write about tennis while tennis was taking place. Sure, writing about tennis is great, but at the end of the day, you'd rather be watching tennis.
Which is why, when the Internet gets ready for bed in the early evening, around 9 p.m. EST, the Australian Open wakes up.
It's perfect. Sure, you're kind of always between rounds, never really knowing who is at what stage, but that's fine. That's a completely manageable sacrifice to make for writing time, watching time, and (most importantly) no sleeping time.
Even if Wimbledon, as Brian Phillips proved, weren’t a dream inside of a big skull, then Lukas Rosol would still be the man of my dreams, or the man in my dreams, or whatever preposition dream grammar requires. I watched his match against Rafael Nadal after 40 hours without sleep; after taking a seven-hour train ride across northern Europe and spending the night outside an airport McDonald’s; after riding a plane from Amsterdam to fevered California; after he had already won, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, on Thursday. I could see from the start, therefore, that Rosol was a tall and dashing slayer, and not simply Nadal’s second-round opponent, more gristle than meat, with cheap advertising patches on his shirt that hadn’t been properly attached. I could also see from the start that Nadal was toast.