July 6, 2007


Ken and I had eaten the strawberries and cream, we'd seen the museum, we'd strolled the grounds, and we had sent the souvenirs. Now we wanted tennis. Lots of tennis, good tennis, great players-we wanted something that would make the Wimbledon experience complete.

My morning was not off to a stellar start. Thanks to some update work the prior evening, all of the pictures I had downloaded had led to me leaving my camera on, so when I got to the Champions Lounge, I pushed the button and saw nothing but a message admonishing me to "change the battery pack." Therefore, all pictures today were graciously taken by Ken.

The morning moved exactly the same as the previous one did, but without the wait at the Champions Lounge for our things. We had red wristbands today, new tickets, and a match program that was to feature some heavyweights.

First up would be Rafael Nadal versus Tomas Berdych, a match that, realistically, we knew was between Nadal and The Other Guy. We arrived in our seats before the warmup, so we were going to be seeing the whole thing from bell to bell.

The fans who had arrived already started to applaud as the two players walked out, Nadal's schedule had been ridiculous. Three rain delays meant that he didn't even finish his 4th round match until Wednesday. He was on his fourth straight day of play and we couldn't figure out how he still had any legs left at all. But there was no doubt that he was focused and committed.

As I'd never seen a pro tennis tournament before, I had never seen that the two payers meet at the net beforehand and speak with the umpire. The entire time that Nadal was at the net for this, he was bouncing up and down.

The other guy was still in his warmup jacket. I kept expecting to hear the umpire tell them to retreat to neutral corners following overhead returns and to touch gloves.

Modern tennis has, due to technology and preparation, become fistfighting without fists. The ball comes in hard; and the recipient has to worry about making contact. That's the biggest gap between Venus Williams and the other players on the women's tour. She serves as fast as most of the men and her return-of-serve is stronger. In this match, Nadal's overall quickness and power game was expected to be too much for Berdych.

I just wanted to see him play, having caught bits and pieces of his game on clay, knowing that he was Roger Federer's chief rival, and seeing that he was extremely quick.

The two of them began and Nadal's quickness began to separate the two. Even though the initial set score was close, it really wasn't. Among the things we saw:

1. Nadal running down a lob to return the ball between his legs

2. His serve topping out at 135 MPH, which didn't look any harder and was only indicated by the IBM speedometer directly across from us

3. Berdych serving up a few defensive volleys about a foot above Nadal's head, only to watch them get smashed into oblivion...only to see Nadal use drop shots when it became clear Berdych wasn't moving off the baseline to challenge him.

In the midst of it, we saw this.

The gentleman in the photo is a court side security guard. They're all UK Armed Forces guys here, augmented by private security (and it is very, very tight)  I don't know his regiment, but I do know that he's taller than me-probably six-five-and when we got a look at his hands, it was breathtaking. Something along the lines of, "Wow, look at the mitts on that guy." Ken said, "He could probably pick up a cantaloupe with three fingers." And I responded with, "But he's British, so you know his name is something like "Clive."

And that became worthy of mention every time we saw him. "Clive spent the break twisting open coconuts." "Clive just got back from his usual lunch: Guinness, chips and a pickpocket's face." "Federer's gonna go Clive on this guy's ass in about a moment."

And then, after about a set and a half of watching this dismantlement, the sun came out.

After the second set, we made a strategic decision. Nadal appeared to be in control; if the match got tight, since most of his were five-set affairs, we could come back and catch the end. If not, we would be done with lunch after the warmup and would be ready for the last sets of Roger Federer versus Juan Carlo Ferrero. Either way, we would get a nice relaxing lunch. We made our way out of our seats and crossed the street.

When we got back to the tent, there were slightly different entrees than yesterday, but all of about the same caliber. We got our lunch, I stopped off for a bottle of sparkling water and looked at the television by the front counter. My eyes widened.

"He's done. It's over. Nadal took the last set 6-2."

It had taken him about 15 minutes. We finished our food and stopped to speak with Amy Cook, our excellent representative with SportsWorld who set everything up for the three of us. She was even nice enough to get Julie Tube passes for all four days even though she didn't need them for the same thing we did, and a result Julie got to go all around London and check everything out. I promised her an E-mail once I got home and she'll get it, but I need to say here that she and everybody we worked with couldn't have been nicer or more helpful. Trust me, I haven't complimented them enough for everything yet.

We made our way back. The sun was now shining intermittently, and we were going to see the best player in the world.

From Wikipedia:

Federer has won eleven Grand Slam men's singles titles in 33 appearances.. In 2004, the Swiss became the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three of four Grand Slam singles tournaments in the same year: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. In 2006, he became the first and only male player to repeat this feat. He's been ranked number one in the world since October 2004.

As they used to say about Muhammad Ali, he's a baaaad man. We didn't catch the entrance. but nowadays, Federer comes in at Wimbledon not in a warmup, but rocking a cream-colored blazer.

We saw it hanging on his chair by the time we arrived. He won the delayed first set in a tiebreaker, then lost the second set 6-3. At that point you could physically see him decide, "Hell with this," and just blew Ferrero away. Ken and I were talking about higher gears, and Ken said, "It's not a higher gear, it's a gear ratio. He decided to work as hard as Ferrero did, and could just naturally go faster."

The crowd was obviously for Federer throughout the match; most of the shouts were "Come on, Roger!" And he did, winning the final two sets 6-3, 6-2 in some of the most devastating tennis I've ever seen. Hit a passing shot? Can't; he's too quick. Slug it right back at him? You're doomed. Play baseline and try not to make a mistake? He hit two drop shots that bounced less than six inches. He was a monster.

After that pasting, we were due to see Venus Williams again, and I described her style of play yesterday. When her game is on (meaning when she's interested in tennis, doesn't have some sort of weird muscle-strain related injury, and she's focused) she's one of the best player in the world, and is a head taller than the rest of the field, often literally. This was one of those days.

The irritating part of her game is the same as her sister's, and one of the reasons I'm not crazy about either of them: It's the gamesmanship. Both of them have been accused (and, from what I've seen, been guilty of) of strategic use of injury timeouts, trying to change the tempo of the match if it's going against them. In 2006 Serena took a time-out at the US Open claiming she had a dislocated rib. If we, as human beings, could dislocate our ribs during the course of a tennis match, then every time someone swung a baseball bat or a golf club they would fall to the ground like they'd been robbed of their bones. These injuries miraculously seem to disappear after the medical timeout, meaning the Grand Slams must get their trainers from Lourdes or something.

So in the match I saw against Jana Ivanovic, there were five occasions in which Venus stopped her service motion, either by bouncing the ball for a long time or catching her toss and waving as if to say she was sorry-every time after Ivanovic had scored two points. You could hear an odd sound from the crowd, sort of a clicking. Then I heard the people behind me doing it. They were actually going, "Tsk-tsk." You've done it. Press your tongue against your teeth and pull it back. If it were America, they'd boo. If it were Continental Europe, they'd whistle. But this is Wimbledon. Ten thousand people going "tsk-tsk"-like she'd picked up the wrong fork.

They did, however, burst into loud applause when Ivanovic calmly waited for Venus to restart her service motion, then turned her back and walked away.

It was another grape-stomping, though. We soaked up the last little bits of tennis and started to walk away. After Venus won, we applauded loudly-the same bunch of us who were tsk-tsking twenty minutes ago, just like she was the same person who couldn't throw a ball in the air and hit it twenty-one minutes ago.

So Ken and I prepared to make our way back for tea, because our Centre Court tickets wouldn't admit us to any of the show courts where there were still matches taking place. What we didn't realize was, something amazing was happening.

Over on Court 1, the match between Marco Baghdatis and Novak Djokovic had taken five sets, three of them tiebreakers. Andy Roddick and Richard Gasquet were still in progress.

So when we got to the bottom of the stairs, I saw the digital board on the outside of Court One read CENTER COURT - MISS J. HENIN VS. MS. M. BARTOLI.

"Ken!" I shouted. "Look!"

"TWITCHY!" we yelled, turning on a dime. Most of the people on Centre Court had programs that indicated that play would conclude after the Williams match, and they only show you the matches in progress between sets. So ten thousand people were all leaving the stadium at once, and we're trying to get back in to our seats before the match begins. We walked against an ocean of people to sit down. The only people who saw the beginning of that match were those who never left their seats, including the woman next to us, who said in a plummy accent that she was going to stay there until they kicked her out. In a sound that brought children to tears somewhere on Level 1, Clive started cracking his knuckles.

We got to our seats in time and realized that, as much fun as Marion Bartoli was to watch, giving the appearance that she's carrying enough mental baggage that they wouldn't allow it all into carryon, she was a little overmatched against Justine Henin, the top ranked-woman in the world and who everyone figured would cruise to the Wimbledon final. Bartoli lost the first set 6-1 after being down 5-0, and was down 3-1 in the second. We thought there might be a chance we could still get tea sandwiches, because it looked as if the match would be over in less than an hour. It could be over in less than 20 minutes. We'd seen this all day-steamroller tennis, where the great players ramp it up and everything changes direction. At one point Twitchy practices a forehand, then a backhand, then again in quick succession. I'm sure she just wanted to loosen up a little bit, but it looked as if she was swinging at things that weren't there.

But Marion stormed back.

We could hardly believe what we were seeing. At one point Ladbrokes, the omnipresent casino and sports book that was offering live odds on the match at their locations (and who no doubt was responsible for some of the anguished cheers for some players) had her odds of winning the match at 120-1.

She caught fire. She was forcing Henin into so many mistakes that she won the second set 7-5.

At this point I had to dive out for Kleenex and nose spray (amazing how sitting in the rain for two days gives you an extra-special souvenir Wimbledon cold) because I knew that once I got back, I wasn't leaving my seat for anything. I bought us some ice cream, got to sit down again after Bartoli made it 3-0 in the third set, and we settled in for the match.

Marion Bartoli jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the set. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. If this is fistfighting without fists, this was just like Ali-Frazier in Manila, only it wasn't hot and it was two women and they never actually hit each other and Eddie Futch wasn't going to throw in the towel here and we were in England and not the Philippines and Don King wasn't involved. But other than that, thisclose.

Marion Bartoli was leading 5-1 and serving for the match. I looked at Ken, grinning, and said, "Obviously we're going to take credit for this for the rest of our natural lives, right?" He laughed and said, "Absolutely. I don't see how she could have done it without us."

She was up 40-love serving for the match. I, and dozens of others, shouted "ALLEZ MARION!" (Go Marion!) in a language that I don't speak for someone I didn't know who was about to pull off a huge upset. An 18-seed doesn't beet the 1 in a semifinal match, particularly when the 1-seed is the world's number one as well.

Serve went in. Return from the baseline. Return back to the baseline where Henin had to try to hit a winner down the right side of the court.

The line judge called "Out!"

I screamed. So did everybody else. She'd won. She curled up into a little ball at the baseline, then jumped up to congratulate Henin, who grabbed her things and left the court. The crowd was standing and cheering. Marion Bartoli was going to the final against Venus Williams.

I threw in all those pictures because you'll notice a few things:

1. She won the point, shook hands, waved to the crowd, packed her bag, gathered up her things, waved some more, signed some autographs for little kids (something that Venus Williams didn't do, by the way) waved again, then headed to the locker room. During that whole time-about five minutes-the crowd didn't stop cheering. In the last picture you can see they're still yelling and applauding.

2. See that ball in the last picture? That's the last ball from the match. The fact that ball landed where it did made the woman with the bag about $360,000 richer. If I were Miss Bartoli, I'd want it. Wouldn't you? It stayed there until a ball boy picked it up and rolled it to the umpire's stand with the others. You could have bought that ball for three pounds on the edge of Court One in an hour or so. You wouldn't have known it was the one, though.

Anyway, we headed back across the street, where Andy Roddick was in the process of what would be a spectacular collapse. I grabbed a pint of Worthington's and sat down-after seeing what everyone said was the upset of the tournament, I wasn't ready for it all to be over yet.

Roddick had won the first two sets and lost a tiebreaker in the third. So he was a point away from going to the semifinals. He then lost the fourth set in a tiebreaker. He was tied 5-5 in the fifth set when we sat down.

My fellow guests in the Champions Lounge were mostly Americans, and were pulling hard for Roddick. They noted that he had 6s next to his name in all of the sets-that ought to count for something, hmm? Ken piped up, "He's probably going to lose 8-6."

A woman next to us mock-glared at him; we laughed. He went to go check his E-mail. And meanwhile, you can guess the rest: Roddick completed the origami finish to go down 8-6. Ken sat down for the last few points and said loudly, "We should probably get a move-on." The woman mock-shouts, "You're sitting at the back of the bus!"

As we said goodbye to the staff and made our way to the bus, we got to know a little bit more about the couple heckling us. They were a retired couple from New York.

"What's that on your hat?" they asked Ken.

"It's a Cubs hat with a logo from 1914."

The husband rolled his eyes, "Yeah, you're a regular good-luck charm." Ken asked if he was a Yankees or Mets fan. Upon his response of "Yankees," Ken breathed a sigh of relief. The man went on to shake his head and say, "We're probably not going to make the playoffs this year."

Ken ground his teeth in disgust. I was on the verge of saying something like, "And it's a shame, because the Yankees' troubles have been so under-reported," but I thought better of it. The van took us back.

We got on the Tube and I realized I had gotten a lot of sun; but at that point, who cared? It was drizzling a little during the Nadal match; we'd even seen the tarp crew in the area near the TV cameras. I'd worn my sunglasses in Europe for all of 10 minutes. Who needed sunscreen?

Two stops in a woman sits down next to me with fishnet stockings, a miniskirt covering those, pink hair and a lip piercing. I look at Ken to see if he's going to burst out laughing. She's listening to some decidedly un-punk music on her Ipod; judging from the sound bleeding out I think it was Tracy Chapman, who did not, last I checked, have pink hair and a lip piercing.

She jumps off and another redhead jumps on, but she was different. She looked flustered. She'd made her dress herself-I could tell by the stitching and fabric. She had a small cut on her knee. She checked her makeup about four times in six minutes and kept checking her phone for a message that it seemed she wasn't sure was coming. She seemed extraordinarily nervous.

And I'd already had a really great day, and I thought about saying something. Ultimately it would have been, "Look, I know you don't know me, and in two minutes you're never going to see me again for the rest of your life. I just wanted to say I think you look very nice." I would hand her one of my completely arrogant traveling cards without another word and bolt from the train.

The card-holder was in my jacket; I palmed one in my right hand. But she got up to transfer at the same station I did, and I didn't want to follow her to tell her this, or have her follow me, or anything. So I made the right call for the situation and never said anything.

"TWO redheads?" Ken said as we alighted at Earls Court.

"Yeah, but the second one was real," I nodded. I spent two blocks bitching about the card, getting it out of my system. As Keith Richards sang it, Ken will find his way to heaven, because he's done his time in hell.

We got back to the hotel room around 9:30, and the sun wasn't down yet. We ordered room service and went over everything we'd seen. Julie knew when we were running late when she saw the Bartoli match was on Center Court. We went down to the bar for drinks. Tomorrow would be another one of Those Days.

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