Monday, November 10, 2008

Federer Live

Let's see:  The U.S. elected a super cool president. China has stimulated itself with a big 4 trillion yuan package. Things are looking up. I know I made a big deal about going to the Shanghai Masters Cup to see Rafael Nadal play. But even #1s get exhausted and withdraw from year end tournaments. And gosh did I luck out tonight at the Qizhong Tennis Stadium.

I got to see Roger Federer play live.

Sure many of us have seen his magic on TV--the precision, the elegance, the surges, the legerdemain...the full wing-spanned back hand, the spin and pace, the second serve ace, the perfect overhead, the forehand grace--but to see it live reminds me of everything I love about theater.  

First, when you are in the room with unimpeachable, multifaceted talent, that in and of itself is breathtaking. Like when I saw John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, where the actors would emote with the instruments they played and sung with--to see human potential actualized is a primal force. Federer just has it, constantly stoked on his core of gravity. The beauty is when he is controlled, yes, the shots are executed as if in ether; but he is loose enough to enquicken a reach that renders him a ragdoll that contracts back into precision. You just can't quite see this on TV. He is an energy field unto himself, intense and seeming to conjur natural laws of his own. You really can't believe your live eyes.

Second, the one live viewership privilege you have over screen is that you get to look where you want. So much of the incidentals get seen. Like when a let serve is called out and Federer gives the exact precise angle and energy on the ball to hit and deliver it to the ball girl at the net, so that she needs not move one iota more than necessary. Or when Federer's opponent, the Frenchman Gilles Simon (who replaced Nadal) asks the ball that Federer hit out of bounds from the ball boy who has caught it, so that he can hit it to the other side of the court, to the other ball boy, who feeds Federer his serves, just to know that that out-of-bounds ball is in Federer's serve mix. Little player quirks and superstitions. You just don't get to see how they obsess about which ball they choose to serve up after examining 3, 6 at a time.

Finally, the audience. 
That organism. That oohs and ahhs and awws. (And in China, like everything, it's particularly loud.) That kinetic response. That reaction to shots, to form, to athletics, to superpowers. At one point, Federer and Simon were in a rally that lulled the audience into giddiness: it was as if each were daring the other to shatter the ballet of loft and softness. It continued for longer than comfortable, and the audience giggled in ripples, like drunken schoolgirls. It matched like good dialogue.

The Europeans are more publicly vocal: 'Allez, allez!' the French would shout to their countryman. "Piao lian, piao lian (pretty, pretty)" the Chinese man next to me would say quietly about an angle, a volley, a get.  "OOOOwahhhh" in singsong, the Japanese man beside me would marvel at the landing of a shot. And when Roger, the Switzerland Man, would finish off a game, you could here the cowbell, that distinct tinny drone like a slow old telephone, ringing from section Helvetica.

Even Sade has a line for Federer:  'He moves in space with minimum waste, and maximum buoy.'

Getting to the stadium is another deal. The usual stress of moving through Chinese society. Get on this bus, get off at Che Dun, look for a taxi, make sure you seem like a local, they'll know where it is, it should be x amount of yuan, if it isn't, well you brought extra right?
The Qizhong Tennis Stadium prides itself on having a roof that opens like a lotus flower. The Chinese love them some nature object architecture, yes? Bird Nest, Lotus Flower, Water Cube. And yes, here is the decor that, I guess, is patriotic, but somehow violates the usual tennis aesthetic.
Here is the roof. I don't know if it opens, but the Master's Cup graphic keeps showing the trophy emerging from the very smooth opening, blooming if you will, of the roof. For now, it is just an indoor stadium and treated as such--all the concert lighting, the rock and roll music, massive snacking--it feels more like a baseball game than a tennis match. (Or maybe this is how the U.S. Open is, but I just don't think of Wimbledon or the French Open this way). It's weird to see Federer and Simon treated like the LA Lakers with a championship entrance: dimmed house lights, searchlight, spotlight, purple neon, 'smoke', high-angle shot on the monitor of player awaiting entrance. (Could Nadal's knee not take all of this kitsch?)
The coin toss is still done in dramatic lighting.
Here is section Helvtica, but let me tell you there were other sections with such flag-waving from adoring Chinese fans. Absolutely in awe of the Tennis Master.
Who in the 6th game of the 2nd set, trailing 2-3, was down 3 break points, yup, love-40, and then won 5 points in a row to take the game (cue: cowbell). But this Rafa replacement, Gilles Simon, is no pushover. In fact his two-handed backhand is fierce although, as seen in the first set, tamed when inaccurate. (Strangely, it seems, playing with Federer, you actually are forced into a realm of precision.) Simon is no rookie--he's young but he is not intimidated by the Tennis Master. In fact he beat Federer the last time they met in Canada. 

So Federer saves three break points and ties up the second set (after taking the first), and freaks Simon out by taking away his three chances to take a huge lead. Simon himself goes down three break points himself (cowbell is very vocal). Allez, allez! (You (formal) go!) Lo and behold, Simon wins the next 5 points and keeps his advantage. He goes on to beat Federer and take the match.

By the 3rd set, Federer is making lots of mistakes. I'm feeling him, cuz one more 80's rock and roll hit at the break, one more look at your own Rolex commercial showing your crowning win (of last year) at Wimbledon, one more ring of that cowbell, one more damned flash while you are serving, one more cellphone ring--he just seems annoyed. He's not putting his championship fight in. Especially cuz it's round robin and he has to play again Wednesday and Friday. Only the top 8 men's players are invited to this tournament--no one is eliminated until the semi-finals (which I will see live this Saturday). Though he did get beat by #8, Rafa's replacement. Game, set, match. Roger's already got his rackets and bag and he's headed for the vom, cursorily waving.
Gilles Simon walks slowly to his seat. He has yet to be interviewed by a super-energetic bilingual host, waiting for him in the spotlight.

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Blogger Clifford said...

This post makes me want to pay more attention to tennis. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

November 21, 2008 at 11:03 AM  

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