Notes from the Dinner Line and Nadal at Night
There is a cafeteria for the media and sometimes, well most times, there are some quite bizarre encounters waiting in line for my dinner. There are interactions that make me want to scream and there are ones at which I’m compelled to laugh. Here are two.
Random woman, definitely American, speaking to server:
“Yeah, hi, can I get the Philly…what is it…uh, steak. What kinds of cheese can I put on it? Actually, wait do peppers come on that?”
“They do? Um…can I actually just have it with the steak…wait, onions are also in it?”
-“Yes onions come with it”
“Hmmm…you know, what, sir…sir, I think I’ll get something else.”
Random woman, definitely from a foreign country, speaking to server:
“Hi, Burger. “
-“Would you like fries with that?”
Hands over burger
“Could I get French Fries?”
You can decide which encounter made me scream and made me chuckle (Spoiler: the second conversation made me laugh). But that laugh was really one of humility and awe because so many photographers and writers and reporters are weaving through the Arthur Ashe labyrinth using English as their second, maybe third language. It’s of high importance to learn this language, which I have so luckily been born with, to communicate with players and media members, considerably higher to order the right food. 3 out of 4 majors are in English speaking countries. So tennis at the US Open, especially being in New York, feels like a miniature United Nations. In the media center summit, a French reporter is busy reciting scores and analysis (I know because of intermittent name drops of Hewitt or Gasquet). A Korean photographer and Japanese photographer are debating education in their countries. A radio representative from Belgrade tells me he came to New York in the 1970s as a professional figure skater to get through customs.
This week I cover two night matches and this week I happen to see Rafael Nadal play twice. The way I get to Flushing is by Metro North Railroad, followed by a shuttle bus from Grand Central Station. Sometimes I catch the bus right on time, and other times, I miss it and must wait another half hour, which means a chat with the bus dispatcher, a friendly African-American man whose job is to sit outside the station all day on a small stool and communicate with bus drivers. These train and bus rides are precious moments for me because I am a student, which means that I have class reading to do on a daily basis and I will certainly not be reading during a Nadal match. I’m pretty sure that I’m the only person in US Open shuttle history to be preoccupying time ina traffic jam by navigating the 15th century and Martin Luther’s Reformation.
Part of this historical survey of Christianity involves the Spanish Inquisition, which is also happening some six hundred years later on a blue hard court, and it belongs to King Rafa. He wears all gray, with an orange swoosh, and later switches shirts, prompting the video screen’s attention, prompting whoops and hollers. His opponent on Monday night is Phillip Kohlschreiber, who also wears dark gray and blue, and the German wins the first set in a tiebreak. At one point, their crosscourt volleys angle exponentially until Kohlschreiber slaps a winner down the line by Nadal to lead 0-30 on Rafa’s serve. Later, Kohlschreiber comes back from 0-40 on serve and it’s clear this has the potential for upset, or at least five sets. There’s an epic deuce game in the second set and Kohlschreiber wins after what seems to be a five-minute point. He stands about ten feet from the baseline waiting for Nadal’s serve and has to jump to swing at Nadal’s looping topspin returns.
Night tennis at the US Open is a different animal. When Nadal plays, he elicits the truer demographics of New York City. Spaniards are heard between every point with violent “Vamos Nadal”’s and the Spanish media takes over the press section. This is the atmosphere. It’s a big party. Old men have pre-choreographed dances to pop songs. Pitbull reverberates across the stadium and the scoreboard shows lyrics like, “I Wanna Get Witcha Miami.” Middle-aged women bounce to techno and pretend to like Nicki Minaj. A media member opens a flask and takes a sip during a changeover. The head judge silences the partying crowd by saying “Thank you” and “Please” in that “I hate my job” tone of voice. Someone is scrolling through Facebook. Scattered people are fidgeting with their USOpen.org Radio earpieces. A power clap starts and crescendos during player replay challenges. Vivica A. Fox is sitting in the same box as Dakota Fanning. Donald Trump gets another tired boo. At times, it can get so quiet, you can hear John McEnroe from the TV booth. Other times, Arthur Ashe begins shaking.
Monday night I am ashamed but also doing something historical. I’m on my laptop in the open air at Ashe live drafting for my fantasy football league, which, I’m pretty sure, has never been done before. I’m battling spotty wifi, and cursing at myself when my draft button doesn’t load, sometimes-missing Nadal’s slices and spins. Is this heresy? Maybe not the kind with which the Catholic Church charged Martin Luther, but there’s no such thing as fantasy tennis. If there were, I’d take Rafael Nadal first. I’m picking him to win this tournament (he’s undefeated on the hard court this year) and he’s still got a lot left in the tank. The fascinating thing about tennis is that certain points in a game have much more value than others, even if they’re all worth the same. In an opportune moment, with the chance to break Nadal and get back into the third set, Kohlschreiber slams an easy floater straight into the twine and the crowd moans. Instead of breaking serve, the game goes to deuce and Nadal never looks back. What if he had slammed that in bounds? What if he had maintained serve? The great ones make opponents’ easy shots appear harder and are masters of forcing the “What ifs.”
Nadal’s opponent is Tommy Rebredo on Wednesday night, but everyone was hoping it would be Roger Federer. I didn’t see that upset on Armstrong in person, nor did I witness Andy Murray’s quarterfinals exit. This match is a joke and the fans are in on it. Nadal sweeps the first set 6-0. When Robredo finally wins a game near the end of the second set, Flushing gives a sarcastic round of applause. At that point, Robredo seems to just enjoy being in the moment, which many athletes rarely get to do. He has embraced defeat and is going through the motions, as if gazing in awe of this moment, one he may never again find. Nadal slams an ace and the crowd has become so jaded that no one cares. But of course, they do.
It is hard to believe you are watching greatness sometimes until it hits you. Tennis, like most sports can have many mundane moments. There’s a serve, there’s a few volleys, and then a shot goes wide. Sometimes you have to realize that out of all the people in the world, you are watching the best current tennis player the world has to offer. Some may argue it’s Novak Djokovic, or it’s still Roger Federer, or that Andy Murray deserves that title now. Regardless of these unsolvable dilemmas, when you see Nadal touch a drop shot that squeaks over the net as his opponent’s momentum is carrying him into the photographer’s well, greatness makes itself known. Sometimes his shots are so good, it’s comical.
Before Nadal takes the court Wednesday, Victoria Azarenka is finishing up a match against Daniela Hantuchova. After her straight set victory, Pam Shriver asks about her music warm-ups and she mentions Marvin Gaye. She also mentions that she is 24 years old, while every other semi-finalist is 31. “I’m still a baby,” she says.
A Spanish-speaking writer in the pressroom later addresses her comments on the court. “Victoria, you referred to yourself as a babe…” Azarenka cracks up and puts her head down on the table, tickled with the giggles at the slight linguistic mishap. It was a harmless mistake, and a flattering one, too.
Everyone knows she meant to say “baby.” Everyone knows that.
Just like everyone should know that a cheesesteak comes with onions!