Tennis under the palms in Key Biscayne
By Thomas Swick
For a day at the Sony Ericsson without much action, Wednesday had a fair amount of action.
Mid-morning the scent of cinnamon-roasted nuts floated through the air and Kim Clijsters stood in the outdoor players’ lounge.
“Kim! Kim!” cried a rubbernecker pressed against the fence. He had shown astonishing restraint in waiting until she had finished her conversation.
Clijsters turned and gave him a stern thumbs up, saying, in effect: I appreciate your support. Please respect my privacy.
Nancy Saylor stood at the fence much more respectfully (though maybe she was just tired). She had gotten the train in Deerfield Beach at 8:20, then the Metrorail, finally a bus to Key Biscayne – arriving at Crandon Park at half past ten.
Roger Federer was practicing on Court 9 before an excited crowd of a couple hundred people. After about 15 minutes he took a seat in a chair. We had moved from watching a man at work to watching a man take a break from work. “Federer’s sitting down,” I told a couple who wandered over curious about the object of our attention.
A small storm erupted to our left as a large legion followed in the footsteps of Rafael Nadal, its numbers increased by a few Federer deserters.
Finding a shady spot, I was joined by a middle-aged woman in a sunhat.
“It’s nice to be in the shade,” I said.
She looked at me with a mildly alarmed expression, shaking her head and wagging her index finger.
“Ah, no habla Espanol,” I said. “Dondé vive?”
“Guatemala,” she said.
About quarter past twelve two Miami Dade County policemen arrived.
“Are you a tennis fan?” I asked one of the officers. He had a Spanish name.
“Once a year I am,” he said with a smile. I was thinking of telling him he had a plum assignment and then I thought of my own.
A little after 12:30 they made their move to the court and, when Federer had finished a quick autograph session (“He’s always patient,” someone said), they escorted him back to the locker room. In their wake an Asian family walked in delight, admiring their Roger Federer poster now adorned with a surprisingly legible Roger Federer signature.
By the time I got to Court 10, Nadal too was sitting down, shirtless, showing off his policeman’s tan.
Up in the media center Bud Collins – in green shirt and green-and-yellow trousers – told me there was a press conference with Roger Federer. I had never been to a post-practice press conference before, so I headed downstairs.
About 30 journalists were gathered, and six television cameras. A tray of cupcakes sat on a side table, but no one touched them – or offered one to Federer.
The first question was: What do you love about tennis?
“I have nobody to blame if I win or lose,” Federer said, making a rare unforced error in English. Though he recovered quickly and said: “It’s one on one.” Later, when asked if he would encourage his daughters to play tennis, he showed great touch with verbs: “I don’t know if I would encourage them, but I would support them.” He spoke thoughtfully about the recent disaster in Japan (a Japanese journalist had asked him if he had any words for the Japanese people).
Demonstrating that he can still throw his verbs around, Bud Collins asked him if he was “puzzled, annoyed, or amused” when people say that the Federer era is over.
“Depends who’s saying it,” Federer replied, before adding that he never thought that he’d “dominate for 15 years.”
And when someone asked about Martina Navratilova’s remark that he will never get back to his former level, he spoke warmly of the former champion after suggesting, to laughter throughout the room, that perhaps she missed his title in London because she was off “climbing Kilimanjaro.”
Back out on the grounds, I noticed that stone crabs had finally been added to the foods on sale. And I found a Federer fan whom I had met two years ago. She was standing with a younger woman in a white RF cap. They had met, they told me, through the fan message board on rogerfederer.com. Christina was originally from Greece; Yulia from Russia. Federer: Forging International Friendship.
“Roger Federer is the best,” Yulia said, when I mentioned that she has lots of compatriots on the courts. “I don’t care if he is Russian or not. He has such a great personality, and his tennis is so beautiful.”
Christina said that she’s been coming to the Sony Ericsson every year since 2006 (the last year Federer won it). I asked how long she was staying.
“As long as Roger is here,” she said. “If he loses I go on the web and book a flight out of here.”
Sam Querrey and Andy Murray were practicing on Court 9. “Still playing tennis?” an elderly gentleman asked another, who was sitting in a chair. “Your body holding up?”
“It’s been a tough winter,” the other man said. “I broke my wrist in six places.”
Not far away, Alexander Dolgopolov and Nicolas Almagro hit.
“You know who that is?” a teenager asked his friend.
“Yea,” the friend scowled. “He has a really weird serve.”
The Sania Mirza-Arantxa Parra Santonja match was moved from Court 3 to Court 10. I overheard two men talking about a female player they had seen practicing in what looked like her underwear.
Not far away, Bob Richmond stood. He was from Chicago, and enjoying the Sony Ericsson much more than the U.S. Open.
“This is so much more intimate,” he said. “There’s a lot more interaction with the players. And all the players who are at the Open are here. We’ve seen all the players,” he said, adding with amazement, “and you’re ten feet away from them. I feel like a stalker.” He paused. “In a good way.”
Then he turned his gaze to Mirza.