klara zakoalova

The Sony Ericsson Open once again attracts the best players

By Thomas Swick
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On my way to the media center yesterday morning I saw a young woman heading toward me, with her head down, intently texting. I moved out of the way before we collided, but wondered: What if I had also been texting? This is a potentially dangerous activity. Or, depending on your attitude, a new way of meeting people.

Heading up the steps I paused on the second floor landing to watch the Wozniacki family arriving for the day, the father with Polish courtliness stepping aside to let his wife, stylish as always, follow after their daughter. Except for the palm trees, it could have been parents’ weekend at Yale.

I headed over to Court 6 for the Andrea Petkovic match. The fact that Petkovic studies political science and, according to Wikipedia, loves the works of Goethe and Wilde, makes her the thinking man’s tennis player. Other men find her interesting as well, since she looks like a sinewy Amanda Peet.

The first match was still going on when I arrived: Elena Baltacha of Great Britain versus Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic. Behind late in the second set, Baltacha asked to see the trainer and was told that the trainer would come only for an emergency.

“Well, it is an emergency,” Baltacha pleaded, “because I can’t move. That’s not an emergency?”

She lost soon after.

“Thank you,” she said sarcastically to the chair umpire.

Her coach came down from his place in the stands.

“Disgusting,” he said to the chair umpire in a British accent. “Absolutely disgusting. Letting a cripple play. Is that how you look after players?”

“I think she was looking for an excuse,” a spectator said after the coach and his player had departed.

Petkovic arrived shortly, and started her match against the American Jamie Hampton. Her play was intelligent, but not what I would call Wildean. Tennis is mostly a game of mutes, and has been pretty much since the McEnroe era, and racket technology has rid it of a lot of its nuance. It is a wordless, high-powered exchange in which the participants sometimes seem more like robots than human beings.

It is why it’s important always to linger after the finish. Petkovic not only patiently signed autographs and posed for pictures, she seemed happy doing so. It helped of course that she had won, but you got a sense of someone with a wider perspective, a grander purpose.

Not far away, a large crowd fronted an empty Court 10. I asked a woman who they were waiting for and she didn’t know. “Isn’t that silly?” she said. “We’re standing here waiting and we don’t know who we’re waiting for.”

Then an official arrived and said that Djokovic would not be coming. “I’ve never seen so many disappointed faces,” the man said. Though I took it well, knowing that I’d see Djokovic at the 4 o’clock press conference. I was becoming a fan of the post-practice press conference. Even the post-no-practice press conference.

After lunch, on Court 5, Richard Gasquet hit with Stanislas Wawrinka. It was like a beauty pageant of one-handed backhands. To me, the ultimate in tennis is not just being No. 1, but being No. 1 with a one-handed backhand. Sorry Andre. Sorry Rafa.

But there was no talking, even in practice, and not a trace of a smile. You could find happier looking people dressed in suits and sitting in cubicles.

“I was over watching Soderling hit with Raonic,” the man next to me said. “Soderling’s serve sounded like a cannon going off. I don’t know why that is. Raonic’s serve had more of a pop to it.”

His phone rang and he answered it.

“Hello Mark, how ya doin? I would love to play some tennis. Do you hear these cannons going off? I’m at the Lipton.”

Shawn had told me that he still refers to the Sony Ericsson by its old name, and everyone who knows tennis understands.

Federer made his way, with police escort, to Court 4. “Please clear the way,” boomed one of the officers. “He’s not signing now; he’ll sign after his practice.”

“Just get a picture, honey,” a woman shouted to her husband. “He’s not signing autographs.”

The bleachers, which were packed, erupted in applause as he stepped onto the court. I guess if you warrant a post-practice press conference, you deserve applause at your practice.

Next door, on Court 3, there was another sort of beauty pageant, as Petkovic was playing doubles with Anna Ivanovic. The bleachers there were also full, though the crowd, surprisingly, did not consist exclusively of young men.

I left early and headed to the press conference. Djokovic talked as much about soccer as he did about tennis. Some players had formed a team and played a match to raise money for Japanese earthquake victims. When asked to name the best soccer-playing tennis players, Djokovic answered immediately: “Baghdatis. Second best: Murray.” The biggest problem, he said, was that “everyone wanted to play attack. Baghdatis and Murray accepted nothing else.” He continued talking with reporters after the last question; he too seemed capable of enjoying the moment.

At the media happy hour – yes, not only do we watch tennis all day, but they reward us for this by giving us a happy hour – Bud Collins stood in pale blue shirt and a pair of trousers printed with colorful triangles.

“I guess it’s a teepee design,” he explained. “We buy the fabric in Santa Fe and then give it to my tailor. Jim Courier walked over and discussed ways to get more young American girls playing tennis.

I walked back out through the grounds. Evening is the loveliest time at the center: The day’s swirl of activity is winding down, the unclouded sun is losing its punch. There is a pleasant lull between the departure of the day ticketers and the arrival of the night crowd. Music wafts from the stage over the courts: Wednesday night it was blues guitar; Thursday night, Spanish guitar. It is in the evening, with its balmy breezes, when you suddenly realize you’re on a subtropical island off the coast of Miami. An island which once again has attracted the best tennis players on the planet.