Between points in a tennis tournament. It’s to take your seat in time and to learn to switch off flash in your cameras. No match is inconsequential but even the drama less early rounds are helped by the collective silence of a stadium, ready to let go any moment a player gives up his sprint to a drop shot or hits it just over the line. The gasps and exhales the second that happens, the palms coming together sometimes to applaud, to rub in nervousness at other times. It’s the Mexican wave that won’t stop in time for the umpire, that’ll go just about 3 seconds longer helped by Victor Troicki joining in, in frustration or in a way to relieve some tension being anybody’s guess.
So that’s indeed what a tennis tournament felt like. At least the glamorous and well organized ones. Sport, in any form, is a sort of illicit happiness. As Zinda, most famously said in Vetri Vizha, one loves the loser in a game. One loves the winner even more. But the guy who’s just watching the game? He’s just a lame timid nobody! But we know there is joy, there is sorrow in watching sport. There is enlightenment and contentment. And you find it in every corner of the tennis village, literal and metaphorical. The pubs and restaurants and hookah bars strewn all around the center court gates. The open tabs to go with the open air seating, watching a 20 odd minutes first game between Tipsarevic and Davydenko on the big screen, only to later learn in relief that that set finished 6-0. The amble across to a side court to watch Tomic play and purify your mind, but alas, Tomic retired with illness. The careful choosing of which side of the grandstand to watch the day’s play from, either from behind the player seats or in front of them. Ending up with watching Federer from one side and Djokovic from the other.
It is where you witness the lethal aspects of Djokovic ground strokes. The backhands down the line. The balls landing all over the legitimate areas of the court. The famed Federer forehand in all its glory, even if it is against Marcel Granollers. Well, you at last got to watch it. The Federer passes in that match were vintage. In the flesh is when you notice the ball kids more intently. When they fumble and do weird signs to signify dearth of balls for the player waiting to serve. It is when the now infamous 15 second rule comes into play with the players blaming ball kids. At least in Dubai, they are kids. The place where you observe that however well organized a tournament could be, black cats can still pose as streakers and enter a Del Potro-Baghdatis match and you wonder if it’s someone transfigured. Maradona? Totally not beyond him. It’s watching a joyous Maradona hitting a few strokes with Del Potro, calling faults and getting up the player’s chair to give his towering countryman a hug.
But for all this you can also be greedy for the front seats. That’s where you need to know how useful a sweatshirt can be. Hang it around and just leave. Or if you are a group of people, the ubiquitous dupatta or an extra long scarf is handy. Just tie it over a row of seats. And be MIA for how ever longer you want. Even if the next man in is a GOAT. The occasional grumpy face can ruin your party but it is more than worth a try. That defines the success of the event. More appropriately, that defines the state of men’s tennis now. No empty seats when a match is on.
The tournament is where you learn that Federer lets out a mildly audible exhale on first serve. Audible only when you are sitting right behind his seat. And you’ll never know if it was always the case or it is the effect of being almost 32 years old. But it is bittersweet confirmation that he is human after all. It is also where you learn How To Get Autographs 101. Only kids are allowed court side. You are not allowed even if you claim to feel like one. So you run outside as soon as they’ve shaken hands at the net and wait at the pathway leading out of the court. Only to find tens of other experienced folk cleverer than you. You don’t repeat the mistake next day. Mostly because there’s a teenage girl who’s been coming with her parent for three years now. Once he (Federer) promptly arrived in Dubai and fell sick. The next time he didn’t sign any autographs outside the courts. She was third time lucky. She became notorious for exclaiming to the whole crowd, “Federer hasn’t come out yet. The loser just walked out.”. “Loser?”, “Umm..Ok, this guy.(points to Order of Play listing)“. It was Marcel Granollers There was this couple from Lebanon who had come all the way to watch Federer and faced similar problems of getting tickets for the later rounds. Oh, our species exists after all! They had collected autographs from every single player. Like, even Troicki. And the old English woman in the free shuttle (whatay! Well, oil rich place and all that) back to the metro, who talks about everything from Pakistan-England Test series in the UAE last year to whether Djokovic looks beatable this season (short answer is No).
The tennis world for a passionate fan can get claustrophobic. It’ll still feel like community, what with Tennis channel, online streaming, Twitter and minute by minute updates on players, but it will nonetheless seem like a gated one. The popularity seldom supersedes other sports or stays in the eyeballs of mainstream audience the entire stretch of the season. That’s the reason having an ATP (or WTA) event in your city is such a prestigious thing. It’s a huge highlight that Chennai has an ATP event, no matter it is a 250 but it is hardly celebrated for it (We have a long way to go here because even Test Cricket isn’t treated all that well). But some of us do. Then we take the leap from the 250 to a dazzling 500 event. Maybe next is a Masters if we go by hierarchy or hopefully a promotion to a Grand Slam. The man may have his racquets and a wax replica of his wrist in a museum but the game will be here always ready to serve. Play.