No one actually asked me that as I walked into the media room at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. It was me asking myself the question.
Breaching the line between fan and ‘journalist’ – I use the term loosely – was something on the check list for sometime. When the opportunity presented itself a few weeks ago it only made sense. Now or never.
And yet it was with a feeling of trepidation and cat calls of ‘coward!’ echoing out in my head that I began a day chock-full of watching, evading and listening at the Rexall Centre. I know. What a coward.
The buzz among the scribes hovering over a struggling coffee machine centered on the presence of Monica Seles on York University’s hallowed grounds. She, along with Canadian Eugenie Bouchard would take on the Williams sisters in a exhibition match during the night session.
While Seles, Venus and Serena are enough to draw a crowd, the sense was this exhibition was for Bouchard. Canada’s next big thing was going to be the breakout star of this tournament. Based on the questions directed at the top players in Toronto, that was the hope at least. More on that a bit later.
With gates opening at 10 and play beginning at 11 there were a lot of people aimlessly walking around the grounds, looking at the attractions.
A fastest serve meter, clearly inaccurate based on its reading of a serve once called dominant by some guy in Richmond Hill, a beer tent sponsored by a local brewing darling and a music stage stood out. That and the massive amount of gear on sale. There’s nothing like watching a professional ply their trade and believe that you, like them, could be just as good with the latest technology.
Easily the most interesting place was the Cynamon Family Practice Courts. Intrepid guide, and a must follow for tennis fans @MindTheRacket pointed out players that walked by in anonymity while spectators jammed against the barrier to watch Jelena Jankovic practice.
I’m sure some of the unrecognizable appreciated the normalcy of it all.
Centre Court – a ragtag bunch of moderates brought together by feelings of nothingness – saw Urszula Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta do battle in front of a decent crowd. Two men seated two rows in front of me were living and dying on every point. The assumption was they were Pennetta’s relatives.
Watching the best players in the world mash feet away is humbling. The amount of work that’s put in on every point. The footwork that precedes every violent stroke. In the heat, and wind and everything else. Watching it happen in person is jarring.
Radwanksa went up 2-0 early. The Pennetta cheering section was reduced to a whimper.
To the right, about three rows up, was a group of children who couldn’t keep their eyes on the court. Maybe their parents thought this would be a fun family outing. The cynical non-tennis star in me believes it was an early attempt at indoctrinating them. There was gear available for everyone. Nobody’s head is too small for a swoosh headband.
Pennetta took the next five games and later, the set. The break in action allowed a glimpse into madness personified. Ace, the Rogers Cup Mascot slash human turned giant tennis ball, organized a Dial towel giveaway. If those children didn’t like tennis before the sight of Ace, hurling cotton laden incendiaries into the stands, this ruined the game forever.
Interview requests for Ace were denied.*
Radwanska didn’t capitulate in the second. Before the third set could be witnessed a bludgeoning on Court 1 beckoned. You ever seen a tennis ball get murdered?
If Radwanska and Pennetta was killing me softly (with their serves), a little harsh, but it wasn’t great, then Sorana Cirstea v. Olga Savchuk was Bombs Over Baghdad. Roughly 1/56th the size of Centre Court, a front row seat on Court 1 leaves you aghast. Those tennis balls never stood a chance.
In front of us sat Darren Cahill, commentator extraordinaire and part time coach. His charge, Cirstea, has all the tools to be one of the top players in women’s tennis. What’s holding her back, like most young players that can crush groundstrokes at will, is her head. A couple of line calls don’t go her way and the wheels are off. Up a set, but down a break in the second, Cahill intervenes during a changeover. We don’t know what’s said, but Cirstea reverts back to the player she was in the first set soon after.
The match was reaching its logical conclusion – a Cirstea win in straight sets – when Caroline Wozniacki showed up. She would play the winner of this match in the next round. Children swarmed her for an autograph. Older gentlemen tried to clumsily sneak a photo in. While all this was going on, her dad, Piotr, called on her from the stands. Something in Polish he said. Caroline brushed him off. Father knows best or something.
For the most part I was doing well. No clapping in the stands, no hooting or general hollering. Cahill was rocking a strange double hat combination that begged questioning but I refrained.
Over at the Buick dining hall, all-access was set to begin. The top seven players at the tournament would sit down for a round table discussion with the media. There were two choices. Sit down at the table or stand idly by. I, being the coward I am, opted to stand and take notes.
Li Na is disconcertingly comfortable with herself, who she is and what she’s accomplished as a player and person. A finalist last year in Montreal, Li is a strong favorite to make it deep this year. She feels better than 100% – come on, Li (Chris Tucker voice) – but she doesn’t want to play much longer.
The Chinese star proceeded to conduct another round of interviews with a large group of Chinese media. Carrying a nation on your back is bound to get tiring. Li Na keeps on going.
Sara Errani is firm, straightforward and doesn’t have time for dumb questions. Why does she play doubles so much? Because it helps her singles game. Why are power players dominating the game? Because they hit hard. Errani the best.
Marion Batoli is impossible to dislike. Incredibly charming, self deprecating and honest (admittedly an assumed trait considering we, the public, will never know everything), Bartoli can do no wrong. When asked about her triumph at Wimbledon, all the players had the same answer. She deserved it. We’re so happy for her.
Being a public figure. Not having much time to yourself. Always practicing, trying to get better. One would imagine it’s an incredibly fine balance. Bartoli makes it look easy.
I took a seat at the table.
Serena Williams fielded a question on Bouchard, like all the other players before her. The canned question that became humorous once you heard it the seventh time was straightforward. How good can she be? Unlike the others, Serena went a little deeper though. It’s going to take time. Probably not a year, or maybe even two. But Bouchard has all the tools required to be great.
Serena says she’s having more fun than ever, loves hanging with newly un-retired Martina Hingis and doesn’t know when she’ll stop playing. And that was it.
Sitting across from one of the most dominant players of all time with a pen in my hand wasn’t on the bucket list.
Sometimes life is pretty cool.
*Ace seems like a good guy. Really.