It is several weeks shy of one year since I was last in this situation, mind murmuring in torpid contemplation of the tennis season just past. The fifty intervening weeks have wrought change on my life, such that I’m now sitting in a different café in a different part of Melbourne, watching a slightly different version of the world swirl and eddy through the pollen-choked air. This edition of Spring hasn’t sprung so much as enveloped, a vast pulviscular blanket that first clogs your nose and eyes, then before long your brain. The wind is a slight northerly, although for a rarity it carries no threat of heat. My coffee is a shade too strong, and I am well past the age when I believed a taste for strong coffee (or high chili-tolerance) proved anything of worth to anyone that matters. But I know that I’ll order another when this one is done, and that I won’t ask for it to be weakened. If I wanted things prepared just so, I’d stay at home. Nevertheless, thanks to the twin miracles of pollen and caffeine, my mind murmurs at a higher and less useful pitch than usual. The café is playing an Italian version of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ – ‘La la, come la vita va avanti!’ – which isn’t helping. But that’s the soundtrack we have, so try to keep it in mind while you read.
The end of the tennis season marks the point at which professional tennis players and those who enjoy talking about professional tennis mostly part ways for a time.† Some players are clearly addicted to the attention, however, and haven’t been able to endure a week without resorting to social media. Their messages, almost without exception, are dull beyond belief. Astoundingly, it turns out lots of them are training. David Ferrer may or not be in Istanbul. Radek Stepanek might finally have retired to bed. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has hopefully been in touch with Gael Monfils to ask if the latter ever hit upon a reliable method of translating Roger Rasheed into English. Monfils, according to Twitter, is in Paris, again. Nadal has returned to the practice court, which is news.
Still others are using their off-season to partake in exhibitions, including some who’d lobbied tirelessly to have their break extended. Last time round I called these events ‘low-brow vaudeville for very good causes’, and right this moment I can’t think of a better description. As with so much in tennis, exhibitions remind me that finding professional tennis players even remotely funny requires one selectively to forget that professional funny people are doing far more amusing things elsewhere. Mostly it merits a bemused smile. Andy Roddick doing impressions of other players in Toronto the other night was held to be a comedic coup, but I couldn’t see that it held a candle to either Billy Connolly or Tim Minchin performing live at the Royal Albert Hall. Readers will doubtless come up with other comedians they prefer. But if Roddick or Djokovic number among your favourites I’ll hazard you need to watch less tennis.
Tennis in this sense is something of a sealed microcosm, and cloyingly self-referential, but it’s far from the worst offender. It does better than Classical music, a field in which Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß gets them rolling in the aisle, or in which people believe adapting bawdy verse to a symphonic masterpiece constitutes a fabulous gag. (I doubt whether many orchestral musicians can hear the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth without humming ‘Once I was a virgin, now I am a whore . . .’) But the point is the same. When one spends too much time focussing tightly on one thing, a realistic perspective is the first thing to go. The tennis off-season grants everyone who needs it a good month in which to regain a sense of proportion. It is an invitation that many of us nonetheless refuse to take.
After all, for those who presume to write about tennis the busy season has now arrived. We now have a clear month in which to look searchingly back on the last eleven. Only here in the southern hemisphere is the summary season especially summery, but no one is immune to this urge towards retrospective. Who can resist the temptation to repackage the season just ended into a seemingly endless torrent of self-generating list-based articles? Not me.
The helpful poltergeist trapped in my iPhone informs me that the air outside is 20.1C, which to a Cayman Islander is approximately 68.2F. I’ve now finished my second coffee, which was if anything stronger than the first, and produced an effect on my brain not unlike that which the US Air Force once visited upon the forests of northern Laos: my mind feels comprehensively defoliated, and unfit for human habitation. The café’s sound system has exhausted its impressive repertoire of Beatles covers.
It launches into an Italian bossa nova version of ‘What’s New, Pussycat’, which is conceivably an improvement over the original. Suddenly energised, I start to compile a list of the top ten matches played this year. And did you see that Novak Djokovic took to the court against Gustavo Kuerten while wearing a curly wig? Priceless. Let the summary season commence.
† Of course, there are plenty of Challenger players for whom the season hasn’t ended at all. I encourage anyone interested in their continuing toils to read about them at Foot Soldiers of Tennis.