As the Games begin, sportswriters kill me for skipping the opening ceremonies. But I’m not in Atlanta for opening ceremonies, I’m here for gold, and I need to hoard what little concentation and energy I can muster these days. The tennis is being played in Stone Mountain, an hour’s drive from the opening ceremonies downtown. Stand around in Georgia heat and humidity, wearing a coat and tie, waiting for hours to walk around the tack, then drive to Stone Mountain and give my best? No. I can’t. I’d love to experience the pageantry, to savor the spectacle of Olympics, but not before my first match. This, I tell myself is focus. This is what it means to put substance above image.
With a good night’s sleep under my belt I win my first-rounder against Jonas Bjorkman, from Sweden. In the second round I cruise past Karol Kucera, from Slovakia. In the thris ound I face a stiffer test from Andrea Gaudenzi, from Italy. He has a muscle-bound game. He likes to trade body blows, and if you respect him too much he gets more macho.
I don’t show him any respect. But the ball doesn’t respect me. I’m making all sorts of unforced errors. Before I know what’s happening, I’m down a set and a break? I look to Brad. What should I do? He yells: Stop missing!
Oh. Right. Sage advice. I stop missing, stop trying to hit winners, put the pressue back on Gaudenzi. It’s really that simple, and I scrape out an ugly, satisfying win.
In the quarters I’m on the verge on the elimination against Ferreira. He’s up 5-4 in the third, serving for the match. But he’s never beaten me before, and I know exactly what’s going on inside his body. Something my father used to say comes back to me: If you stick a piece of charcoal up his ass, you’ll pull out a diamond? (Round, Tiffany cut). I know Ferreira’s sphincter is squeezing shut, and this makes me confident. I rally, break him, win the match.
In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs – he’s the Brad of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly – and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I’m prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3.
In the final I play Sergi Bruguera, from Spain. […]
From the opening serve, I’m pounding Bruguera, moving him from corner to corner, making him cover a parcel of real estate the size of Barcelona. Every point is a blow to his midsection. In the middle of the second set set we have a titanic rally. He wins the point to get back to deuce. […]
Even though Bruguera has won the point, Gil sees, and I see, that winning the point cost him the next six games.
As I mount the review stand, I think: What will this feel like? I’ve watched this on TV so many times, can it possibly live up to my expectations? Or, like so many things, will it fall short?
I look left and right. Paes, the bronze winner, is on one side. Bruguera, the silver winner, is on the other. My platform is a foot higher – one of the few times I’m taller than my opponents. But I’d feel ten feet tall on any surface. A man drapes the gold medal around my neck. The national anthem starts. I feel my heart swell, and it has nothing to do with tennis, or me, and thus it exceeds all my expectations.
By Jon Wertheim, Tennis Magazine, June 2004
The working conditions were awful and the hours were worse. My subterranean workspace was a dimly lit room that reeked of the confluence of Bengay, sweaty socks, cheap cologne, and “eau de body.” I think I was paid $300; even for a college kid with economic needs that didn’t extend much beyond pizza and the occasional CD, that amounted to bupkis. And for 10 days it was a dream job.
While in college at Yale, I taught tennis in Connecticut elementary schools as part of a grass-roots program sponsored by the Volvo International, a U.S. Open tuneup event held on the Yale campus in New Haven. In August of 1992, a few weeks before my senior year began, my boss called with a frantic request. The man who was going to manage the locker room during the Volvo event had backed out of the job. Would I be willing–please!–to fill in?
I had been planning to while away the final days of my last college summer with friends on Cape Cod. Instead, I was being offered a chance to spend that time picking up the sweaty towels of Ivan Lendl and a hundred or so of his colleagues. Naturally, I accepted.
Although I received a 30-minute tutorial on ‘locker room etiquette’ from an ATP official before the tournament–just to make sure I wouldn’t do something as gauche as toss a towel at a player, but instead offer it, palms up–my real training came during the qualifying tournament. Many of the players were my age, so there was something demeaning about tending to their lavatorial needs. But I did my job dutifully.
On the final day of the qualies, a shy, skinny Russian teenager with a terminally uncool bowl cut and a halting command of English offered me a “tall five” after he made it into the main draw. In ensuing years, I’d see a lot of Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
On Monday, the main-draw players arrived and my job began in earnest. In addition to dispensing towels–palms up–I cleaned the benches, vacuumed the floor, and threw out used grip tape, Gatorade bottles, Odor-Eaters, and other tennis detritus.
But the work was far from tedious. I delivered what might euphemistically be called a ‘mash note’ from a female admirer to a young American doubles player. He read it, laughed, and crumpled it up, as though having women offer to prostrate themselves before him was a common occurrence.
I also helped Leander Paes stretch his arms before a match and Pat McEnroe find dinner when, after losing a night match, he wanted to eat away his sorrows with several slices of New Haven’s famous pizza. Now this was something I knew about. And as Pat had forgotten the name of the place recommended by his brother John, I commandeered a courtesy car and dropped him off at Sally’s on Wooster Street.
I was surprised by how little correlation existed between the players’ rankings and their dispositions. At once regal and casual, Stefan Edberg walked into the locker room on the first day of play and plopped down his duffel near my spot on the bench. Instinctively, I snapped to attention, much like when I passed one of my professors on the quad. Edberg just looked at me, extended his hand, and said, warmly, ‘I’m Stefan’–as if I needed an introduction to the best player in the world.
I was awestruck, so Edberg picked up the conversational slack. He asked, “You go to school here?” I nodded. He added, “I’ll try not to make too much work for you,” and then patted me on the back.
On the other hand, a curly haired Californian who was, at best, ATP marginalia, lit into me when I committed the sin of handing him an insufficiently fluffy towel. “If you’re going to give me crappy towels,” he barked, “at least give me two.” Because I am large-souled and don’t hold grudges, I won’t reveal that it was Jeff Tarango.
As a writer at Sports Illustrated, I frequently get asked, “What is so-and-so really like?” Invariably, I serve up a lame answer–“Andy is a cool kid” or “Venus is nice but can be distant”–while the unvarnished truth is that we in the sports media often have no real idea. Our access is limited, and our subjects have control over every aspect of how we perceive them. British novelist Martin Amis was once assigned to go ‘behind the scenes’ at a tennis tournament. He later remarked with frustration, “All you get when you go behind the scenes is another scene.”
But my stint in New Haven was different. I was a fly on the bench, so to speak. Some players interacted with me, others didn’t. But no one bothered to adjust his behavior on account of my presence.
Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who was disappointed when she peeked behind the curtain and discovered that the wizard was really a pitiable old man, my own backstage experience fueled my passion for tennis. It also served as a catalytic event in my decision to write about sports for a living.
I saw firsthand the intense individualism of tennis. The players were superficially collegial, but ultimately they sat alone, tackling their thoughts and fears in isolation. I also saw just how international the sport is: With no trace of irony, players spoke of meeting up or having dinner in Madrid or Tokyo. I saw just how physically grueling the pro game can be: After 90 minutes on the tennis court, these world-class athletes required lengthy rubdowns.
And I saw that the glamorous cast of the ATP tour is not so different from most work forces, an omnium-gatherum of wallflowers and social animals, eager rookies and jaded veterans, jerks and gentlemen.
Indeed, on my last day of work, Edberg beat MaliVai Washington in the final. As I scoured the locker room one last time, I came across an Adidas bag near Edberg’s locker–strange, since he had already taken his check and trophy and skipped town. I looked closer.
The bag was stuffed with new shoes, an Adidas sweatshirt, and a racquet. On it was a note: ‘Jon, thanks for everything. Good luck at school. Stefan.’
I never had a chance to thank Edberg (who, incidentally, went on to win the U.S. Open a month later). And by the time I started covering the sport for SI, he had retired. But if our paths ever cross, I’ll make it a point to express my gratitude and explain how meaningful I found his gesture.
And then I’ll extend my hand to shake–palm up, of course.
I spent a few days in Paris last week for the BNP Paribas Masters, the ninth and final Masters 1000 event of the season. Novak Djokovic captured the title, dispatching Andy Murray 6-2 6-4 in the final. Enjoy my pictures and recaps of day 1 to day 4.
Rafaael Nadal teamed up with veteran Leander Paes to play doubles in Bercy this week. They lost in straight to Dominic Inglot and Robert Lindstedt in the first round. Rafa seemed to have trouble finding his rythm and missed lots of volleys. He’ll play his second round singles match against Lukas Rosol tomorrow.
David Ferrer defeats Alexandr Dolgopolov
All players play three round-robin matches against rivals in their group to determine a winner and runner-up from each group, who advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.
In the semi-finals the winner of Group A plays the runner-up of Group B and the winner of Group B plays the runner-up of Group A. Semi-final winners advance to the final.
–Group A: Bob and Mike Bryan (1), Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek (3), Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez (6), Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Jean-Julien Rojer (7)
–Group B: Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor (2), Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau (4), Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna (5), Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen (8)