The Far Side Of The World

Winston-Salem, Final

(3) Isner d. (2) Berdych, 3/6 6/4 7/6

John Isner yesterday spent almost two and a half hours defeating Tomas Berdych in the final at Winston-Salem, eventually saving three match points in the third set tiebreaker. The American has therefore defended his second title of the year, but he wasn’t permitted long to wallow about in glory. Owing to previous commitments, the subsequent trophy ceremony had to be cut short. Both Isner and Berdych were immediately hustled aboard a chartered Learjet to New York, where they were scheduled to deliver the first in a series of public lectures entitled ‘How to Prepare for a Slam’. They will be joined by Nicolas Almagro, whose work in this field is unparalleled. One presumes that Isner has grown so accustomed to early-round exhaustion at majors that he figures he might as well arrive in that state. We could say that this saves time, but time is exactly what it doesn’t save.

If the final wasn’t the most exciting match played in Winston-Salem this week, it was certainly the most exciting one I saw. Admittedly I only watched four, and most of those would have been objectively dull even if the coverage hadn’t conspired to make them almost unwatchable. One of the outside courts apparently didn’t have a camera installed, and so instead relayed the feed from a geosynchronous satellite orbiting some 200 miles directly above. Ernests Gulbis’ inevitable implosion against Marcel Granollers proved far less enthralling from this remote perspective. I couldn’t even get worked up about his extravagant racquet smash in the third set, a tactic that otherwise throws me into a frenzy.

It’s true that the full excitement of a live sporting event is never entirely captured by a telecast, especially an event as exuberant as Winston-Salem undeniably was, where as many as twenty locals at a time turned out to watch the early round matches. But if I’m going to be awake in the middle of the night – the usual window in which Australian tennis aficionados operate – I’d prefer it to capture some of what it is like to be there. For those of us at the far end of the earth, the coverage provides the medium in which live tennis unfolds. Even it if can’t be unforgettable, I’d like it to be watchable. But I’d prefer unforgettable.

The first tennis tournament I ever watched was Wimbledon in 1986, when an eighteen-year-old Boris Becker became the first teenager to win the title since he’d won it the year before. I myself was only ten, and so wouldn’t have my shot at winning it as a teenager for another few years. My mother, who has always been a mad sports fan, was working late nights as a waitress at the time, and she asked me to watch the tennis for her each night. I was happy to oblige, since it meant I got to stay up late. (If she had to work the day-shift, then I was instead obliged to watch Days of Our Lives, which I enjoyed less, although I don’t think it had any lasting ill-effects. It certainly doesn’t explain why I’m mainly attracted to women who turn out to be their own long-lost twin sister, with amnesia.)

Anyway, following Becker’s progress through the draw proved entrancing. That shock of red hair, that strange swaying service motion, those pale trunk-like thighs emerging from scandalously brief shorts, the diving. He was exciting, which may come as a surprise to those who came to tennis later, and mainly know him for his tireless contributions towards the sum total of Twitter’s inanity. His Wimbledon title the year before had been audacious and accomplished, especially for one so young (although he didn’t seem so young to a ten-year-old, even one whose yearnings had been darkened by daytime soap operas), but the second time round he tore into the tournament with breathtaking vigour.

Meanwhile Ivan Lendl, the uncontested world No.1, ground his way mercilessly through strong opposition in the draw’s top half. To a lad growing up in the eighties, with the cloying threat of nuclear holocaust overlaying everything, the idea that Lendl was really a terrifying robot from beyond the Iron Curtain found a ready recipient. He’s since proved otherwise, but at the time he combined the on-court panache of Berdych with the sartorial elegance of Radek Stepanek. I couldn’t bear the thought of him winning. He and Becker, the plucky young West German – remember this was pre-Unification – were destined to meet in the final. Mum and I watched it together, late at night, and Becker won. We danced about the room. I was hooked, and have never stopped associating the sport with exhaustion and elation and darkness pressing against the windows. A year later, this time in Sydney, Mum and I watched as Pat Cash defeated Lendl in the final, and inaugurated that modern practice of bounding joyfully into the stands. My mother wept openly.

Years later, I was in Vietnam when Gustavo Kuerten defeated Magnus Norman in the 2000 Roland Garros final, watching on rapt in a jazz bar in Hanoi’s French Quarter. I’d been backpacking just long enough that my sense of value was skewed, and so the Long Island Iced Teas we were drinking felt like an extravagance, for all that they only cost 45,000 dong, which was about three dollars. It was the first tennis match I’d watched since the Miami final some months earlier (a wonderful encounter between Sampras and Kuerten), and it produced the strongest urge to be home in Australia, which isn’t quite the expected effect of observing a Brazilian and Swede battle it out under a dreary sky in Paris. I felt dislocated. And, admittedly, pretty drunk. I liked Kuerten, and was thrilled when he won. I celebrated with another drink.

The following year’s French Open final was horribly marred by strong winds, although this helped Alex Corretja make it close against Kuerten, who was now the beloved world No.1. I was 25, and had arrived in the Far North Queensland rainforest that very afternoon. It was now late at night, and my father was snoring at his typically nightmarish intensity. It almost competed with the volume of the jungle at night, which anyone who has experienced it will tell you is the most unholy racket imaginable: squawks, crackles, cackles, grunts, crashings, flappings, growls, gurgles, screeches and thuds. There’s no cacophony like a jungle in the dark. I tried to ignore it as Kuerten defended his title. I was very happy. He was now my favourite player.

The 2001 US Open quarterfinal between Sampras and Andre Agassi was considered by some at the time to be the greatest match ever played, and certainly it felt like it as it happened. It was an evening match in New York, one of those late night classics the tournament is justly famous for, which meant it was late-morning in Melbourne, where I was now living. If Kuerten was my favourite player, Sampras wasn’t far behind in my regard, and my unlikely affection was only heightened by a natural antipathy towards Agassi and the fact that Pistol Pete’s decline was by now well-progressed. He hadn’t beaten Agassi in almost two years. Indeed, Sampras hadn’t even won a title since Wimbledon the year before, and his task in New York was monumental. In order to reach the final, he would have to defeat every US Open champion besides himself from the last nine years. I wasn’t moving from my television for anything. Then, three games in, the power went out in my suburb. Disaster.

This was an era when the internet was largely pornography – unlike now, when it’s mainly cats and whatever the hell Pinterest is supposed to be – and even that couldn’t be streamed live (I’m told). Presumably there were smartphone apps, but there were no smartphones upon which to run them. Thinking fast, I pedalled maniacally to the University, where they had a small 51cm television in the foyer of the Sports Centre. There were already three or four people lingering there, and I grabbed the last remaining white plastic chair and planted myself. By the time the fourth set tiebreaker came round and the Flushing crowd spontaneously interrupted play with a sustained standing ovation, that foyer was packed. There had been no breaks of serve, and the standard of play was otherworldly. Students and staff had happened by for any number of reasons – to book a squash court or go to the gym – had glanced at the screen, and then hadn’t left. No one had left. As Sampras took the final point, and the Steadycam swooped in and circled his exultant figure, a spontaneous cheer went up on the far side of the world, in the Melbourne University Sports Centre foyer.

It didn’t last. It was now early afternoon, and everyone had somewhere else to be, somewhere they should have been hours earlier. The excitement leaked away, and the crowd broke apart. I remained in my plastic seat, savouring the fleeting moment, which is all an anxious tennis fan can afford. After all, Sampras had Safin up next. It was no time to relax.

On that note, I think I’m ready. Bring on the US Open.

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