From the perspective of a rapacious media obliged to shovel grist in the 24-hour news-mill, a Grand Slam tournament is something of a free ride. Two weeks of constantly self-generating content, with another few days of follow up afterwards (assuming the winner isn’t a complete bastard). Each major is consequently serviced by a legion of journalists, photographers and sundry types, although ‘legion’ implies rather more unity than is the case. The vibe is more mercenary than that. Still, as long as things are humming along nicely – favourites progressing, the odd upset, some epic matches, a steady trickle of recyclable sound bites – everyone seems satisfied.
The problem, inevitably, is that it becomes a very closed environment, and that its denizens sink readily into the relativism wrought by an abbreviated perspective. In much the same way that the best looking woman in a workplace will invariably be cast as the ‘good-looking’ one, or the least unfunny guy will be the office wag, tennis players are summarily relegated to assigned roles by the professional onlookers. Thus we learn that Novak Djokovic is the ‘funny’ one, although for all that he seems like an affable fellow, I would hardly rank him alongside, say, Billy Connolly. Robin Soderling, on the other hand, has been traditionally cast as the ‘villain’ – there has to be one – although I suspect bigger sinners are growing old elsewhere in the world. Once the role has been decided upon, it is repeated so often that it becomes self-referencing, and thus true. Remembering back, part of the joy of leaving high school was the weightlessness wrought by the realisation that the labels we had all laboured under for years were suddenly meaningless. Sadly, life for many grows into a succession of similarly peopled milieus, even if the mechanisms by which they cohere grow more sophisticated, suggesting that the assigning of roles is as fundamental to human nature as narrative, which is to say that it is constructed, but not less essential for that.
As I say, so long as things are happening at a Grand Slam, and the media-types are sufficiently engaged, it all goes swimmingly. The problem arose when it started to rain, the tennis stopped, and the news cycle didn’t. Whither might we turn for copy? Ample mileage had already been extracted from Nadal cramping in his press conference, Mardy Fish was out, and Andy Roddick has evolved from upbraiding commentators to declaring his adoration for the common people. (There followed some strained attempts to yoke this turnabout to the fatally fatuous discourse that purports to decouple the common people from the so-called experts atop their ivory towers. But as impressed as we all are that Roddick has reached what is meaninglessly called the ‘second week’, it’s hard to forget that he hasn’t yet faced anyone in the top 80, and that the more astute analysts have a point: by manufacturing a game that ensures he won’t lose to those ranked below him (an ever-shrinking group), Roddick has guaranteed that he can hardly beat anyone above him. To the contention that he cannot realistically be expected to change his spots, the more dogged respond that Roddick was at one time a veritable excitement-machine, and that big hitting off the ground propelled his initial ascent in close lockstep with his serve. I recall his response before the 2004 Wimbledon final, when asked how he thought the match would play out, and his response that Federer would display an amazing range of strokes and consummate artistry, while he (Roddick) would simply try to belt the crap out of the ball. I’m paraphrasing, put the point stands. Belting the crap out of the ball was once Roddick’s thing, and the calls for him to do the same again are not calls for anything unprecedented. We know he can do it. Jim Courier made the point during the Australian Open that he suspects Roddick isn’t actually aware how not-hard he does in fact rally. Firstly, I wonder how this could possibly be true. Surely he has noticed how even the most pedestrian opponents easily run down all of his drives. Secondly, I wonder how diplomatically Courier put this to Roddick when the Davis Cup squad gathered. Whatever its other considerable shortcomings, Patrick McEnroe’s Hardcourt Confidential was very good on how lightly the US team captain has to tread around the star player’s egos, and Roddick’s is a monster. Anyway, I digress.)
Caroline Wozniacki sought to liven things up by recreating Nadal’s collapse in her own press conference for a lark. From the media reaction, you’d think she was belittling juvenile cancer, as opposed to a fellow athlete falling off his chair. This provoked a number of commentators to compile outraged lists of the various pranks Wozniacki has indulged herself in this year, such as her one about being bitten by a kangaroo in Melbourne, or crashing Djokovic’s presser at Wimbledon. Thereafter each article or comment grew patronising, and waxed paternal about how young the world No.1 is, and how much growing up she has still to do. Now, I don’t find Wozniacki particularly funny, but I’m pleased enough she’s trying. She’s no less amusing than Djokovic’s impressions, or Roddick haranguing the officials. Reading down her list of transgressions, the only unifying element seems to be the disdain she feels for the press. Therein, I suspect, lies the real issue. Perhaps there is greater unity than I thought, and the legion will close ranks against a common foe.
Since this is the US Open, and it is raining, the topic du jour is scheduling. It isn’t news that the US Open has the most idiotic schedule of any of the majors, and that for a roofless event to spread the first round over three days is a disaster begging to happen, since it pushes everything back a day, and leaves little room to manoeuvre if and when the weather arrives. Well, the weather has arrived, and matches are backing up all over the place: the bottom half of the men’s draw has yet to dent its fourth round. With more rain forecast for Thursday, there is little chance the tournament will be concluded on Sunday. The New York Times put this to the tournament supervisor Jim Curley, and revealed with a tabloid flourish that should be beneath them that he ‘did not rule out having either the men or women play twice in the same day’. With outrage in the air, and idle hands galore, the news that Nadal, Murray and Roddick marched balefully into the tournament referee’s office was snapped up in a flash – which was understandable – and then sustained interminably – which was depressingly inevitable. The three players have been recast as instruments of righteous judgement. It’s precisely the kind of event that feels important at the time, but will be forgotten once play has resumed. Pray it resumes tomorrow.