Roundtables at the Sony Ericsson Open

By Thomas Swick
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My last day at the Sony Ericsson I walked onto the grounds with a feeling of familiarity, not just because I’d been there the previous three days but because for years as a spectator I always came on the first Saturday. All the courts are busy, with matches and practices, the up-and-coming are hitting it out with the quickly fading, and the hard core fans and the fresh air fiends are joined by people who still have 9-5 jobs.

Wandering the outside courts I passed two young women in red-white-and-blue caps with the words “Dominican Republic” written on the front and small feathers and ribbons in orange and red attached to the side. “For Nadal,” Carlota said when I asked about the attachments. Evening things up a bit on Court 9, Zvonareva’s hitting partner wore a T-shirt with a big RF on the front.

“Good morning,” a large man pushing a garbage container greeted the contingent watching the practice. “Gonna be pretty hot. Make sure you have something to drink.”

I went for something to eat – a beef burrito – and sat at a round table in the food court with a lanky man in T-shirt and shorts. Looking closer, I saw that his shirt read: “Land of the Free: AMERICA,” and that he wore a lanyard and that his name was Pavel.

“I am in charge of all the tents,” he said. They had started putting them up on Feb. 2, he told me; it would take them three weeks to get them all down. He worked golf tournaments as well as tennis, but didn’t like the former, as the tents were too spread out. He told me he got to the center at 8 every morning and stayed till the last match was over. “One tent we had to change the carpet,” he said. “We were here all night. We didn’t sleep.”

I wished him the best, and told him I was off to see Federer.

“He’s playing one of my countrymen,” Pavel said. “Radek Stepanek.”

Sitting in the press area I was joined by Harvey Fialkov, a former colleague from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. I told him that the most noteworthy aspect of the match so far was the fact that Federer’s shirt – an almost military green – had no collar.

Soon, Bud Collins and his wife Anita sat down next to us.

“I don’t like Federer’s shirt,” Anita said. “It’s not elegant. It’s a really drab outfit.”

Her husband was dressed in a peach shirt and checkerboard pants, some of the squares in solid colors and some patterned with dots.

Federer’s game borrowed nothing from his clothing.

“He’s so beautiful to watch,” said Anita.

“You don’t hear him running,” said Harvey. “He’s like a stealth tennis player.”

I wanted him to lose a set, so I could watch him longer. But he finished with Stepanek in an hour and fifteen minutes.

At what I figured would be my last press conference, I asked my first question.

“Your outfit today was a bit different,” I said, watching with a feeling of unreality those famous eyes suddenly focus on me. “Your shirt didn’t have a collar. Is that a new look?”

Federer said he liked to mix things up, and hoped that the fans would like it. I didn’t tell him the consensus in the press box.

To another question, he expressed a little frustration with the system of press conferences, saying that a different format might be more satisfying for both players and journalists. One reporter asked him for an example, and he suggested “roundtables perhaps.”

It was one of the more intriguing ideas I heard at the tournament. Federer was different in the press conferences than in his on-court, post-match interviews. In those he has an endearing, boyish quality – smiling easily, making jokes, enjoying the attention. Even his voice takes on a softer, more playful tone. In press conferences he appears older, guarded, a bit weary of it all. But then most of the players do. Celebrities show their good sides to fans more readily than to critics.

After Andy Roddick’s loss to Pablo Cuevas – a small pocket of Uruguayans erupting in the upper deck – I headed over to Court 2 wondering why Roddick doesn’t wear a wrist band. Since all the men ask for the towel now after nearly every point, wearing a wrist band seems the least they can do.

On the Two Court Andrea Petkovic won in straight sets, did her little dance, and then charmed everyone by cheerfully signing and posing, posing and signing, until finally saying, with amused insistence: “Now I HAVE to go!” You got the feeling she’d be superb at roundtables.

The first evening match – Nadal vs. Nishikori – was played to a packed house. Tennis must be the only sport in which the stadium goes from a boisterous roar to a reverent hush in a matter of seconds. And, when someone like Nadal is playing, it does this every few minutes. It is like a Russian folk song, rising and falling between elation and melancholy. Perhaps this is why so many of the people who play it have names ending in “ova.”

I left the Wozniacki-Hantuchova match early, but before departing the grounds I took a sentimental stroll around the outside courts. The lanes that, a few hours earlier, had been bright and crowded were now dark and empty. All the sneaker-scuffed surfaces were silent. The day’s vast number of smacked balls had dwindled down to a few, inside the stadium, where a handful of stalwarts waited till the last of them rolled unnoticed to a stop.