View From The Bleachers: Rome's Tennis Masters Up Close and Personal
The matches have been played. The reports have been written. The opinions have been expressed.
It is difficult—and rare—to find an angle that has not been done to death by the pros. This review and slideshow, therefore, tries to take advantage of a privileged position: a seat in the bleachers for both the semi-finals and the final of Rome’s showcase tennis event.
First-hand experience adds a dimension that is entirely absent from the many-layered filter imposed by television, pundits and the press. Impressions build up like oil on a canvas, adding texture, colour and intensity to what is already a gladiatorial sport rich in complexity and suspense.
This “Bleacher Report” attempts to paint in some of those sensory highlights.
The deep terracotta of the arena is a shock for the novice clay-court spectator. It ranges from the deep shade of rust on a dented car, through the vivid orange of a new flower pot, to the mellow brown-earth shade of Rome’s weathered palazzos.
The sun is so bright that the yellow in Rafael Nadal’s shirt almost vibrates against the white of his shorts. Novak Djokovic’s trademark blue really does turn electric.
Roger Federer’s oil-smoke grey back sheens silver bright. Fernando Gonzalez’ gave the impression of a demon darting across hellfire.
In the Foro Italico, things are done just a bit differently from how those traditionalists at the All England Club manage their tennis showpiece.
Put to one side the chaos of trying to purchase tickets online. Ignore the absurdity of collecting them through a tiny hole—the height of the average navel—in the side of a concrete wall.
Take it on chin that each day’s tickets can only be collected on the morning of play, so that queuing is repeated on three consecutive days.
As spectators of tennis, the Italians are both ebullient and respectful in a joyous and considerate way. Music blasts, banners wave, fans cheer, clap, and enthuse.
But the moment either player begins to serve, the arena drops into hushed attention. There are thrilling rallies, stunning volleys, and dramatic shots, yet gasps of admiration are subdued by a collective “shooosh” until the point is over and the crowd explodes.
Is it any wonder that so many of the players rate this tournament as one of their favorites?
It is only enclosed within the relative intimacy of a tennis colosseum such as this that the sounds of tennis in their full variety can be heard.
The grunts and groans have become familiar through television screens but the deep sigh of a Federer or the sharp “eyeee” of a Nadal at the points of impact are thrown into dramatic contrast in the bowl of the arena.
The footwork, too, is described by sound. Federer’s is characterized by a fast patter on the light gravel of the court surface, Nadal’s by the aggressive slides into both forehand and backhand strikes.
Moments of off-court drama
The warm-up of the final was thrown into disarray by an incident high up in the audience to one end. Whether it was illness or an accident was unclear but medics arrived in large numbers, leaping upwards to the source of the problem.
Nadal and Djokovic shuffled from foot to foot, unsure how to react, gazing up at the source of the disturbance. In due course, a young man was stretchered out of the arena, and the crowd clapped in appreciation. As things settled, the players’ warm-up, began afresh, as though nothing had happened.
The statement of intent
Nadal’s rituals at the start of matches are widely recorded and described. Less obvious are the reactions of his opponent.
In their semi-final, Nadal arranged and rearranged his bottles to the nth degree while the umpire and Fernando Gonzalez waited at the net for the formalities.
No sense of urgency from Nadal, but pent-up irritation from Gonzalez. Then Nadal exploded from the stillness of bottle-placing to the confrontation of coin-toss. The line is drawn in the sand before a ball it hit.
The private moments
Some of the more intimate incidents also pass unnoticed by the television viewer. End-changes show the combatants during “down-time”—relatively speaking—and their behavior and body-language can be fascinating.
Nadal never looks anything other than intense. He wears the scowl of anger if he has lost a game or the scowl of determination if he has won it.
Federer drops into enforced relaxation, slouched back and gazing around the arena as though he has better places to be.
Once in a while, the pattern is broken.
Towards the end of the first set between Federer and Djokovic, the former exchanged a fleeting word with the umpire. He might have been calling for the trainer—a significant moment in the light of recent months. But the next change of ends revealed something altogether less sinister.
Federer was handed a plaster and, in a peculiarly obscure gesture, applied it out of view of the hovering camera. He then, matter-of-factly, handed the debris to a steward. Play continued uninterrupted, the incident unnoticed.
The weather takes center stage
The omens were there as soon as Federer broke Djokovic’s serve in the first set. Clouds began to gather over the rim of the arena. The wind suddenly gusted furiously.
To complete the biblical theme, a swarm of flies swooped over the rim of the highest stand towards the opposite crowds. Heads were hurriedly swathed in hats, scarves and coats as the swarm dispersed up and over the further edge of the forum.
While Federer pinned Djokovic down with wondrous tennis, thunder rumbled around the sky. As Federer strolled from one winning point to the next, the lightning began to flash and Djokovic’s head dropped.
With Federer in control at a set and a break up, the gods lost their temper and rain was hurled down. The players fled and the crowd was drenched.
The doom-laden sky handed Federer the chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With balls a little heavier, the air a little cooler, the court a little more capricious, Federer lost his rhythm and Djokovic took advantage. The gods—though whether Mars or Neptune is uncertain—had spoken.
A little light relief
There are always intense moments at the net before a final gets under way. Formalities are observed but the underlying tension is palpable.
At this particular final, the formalities were almost forgotten when Djokovic—a sure indication of his nervousness—rushed to the baseline to begin the warm-up before the obligatory photo-opportunity.
Shame-faced, he rushed back to the awaiting umpire and opponent to embrace for the cameras. It broke the usual tension and each smiled at the faux-pas. Though perhaps Nadal’s smile looked a little more confident.
Then there was the tennis
The element of a tennis match that is captured most easily by television is the shot-making.
Angles, speed and tactics are revealed in combination, and always from behind the baseline. This is the best vantage point for appreciating the wide swing of shots, the side-to-side distance covered by the players, and how close the ball lands to the outer lines.
But a seat at the side reveals an entirely different game: The speed and trajectory of the ball, net clearance, the sprint required to retrieve a drop shot or the lob.
In short, the speed of this sport: Ball, reaction time, leg work and adjustment. It opens up a whole new appreciation of the shot-making.
So who wowed with what shots? Forehand
The forehand drive has to be awarded to Fernando Gonzalez. The power and sheer speed of his inside out attack defied belief.
‘Nando, as the crowd took to calling him, injects more ferocity into that single shot than any other player on the tour.
So who wowed with what shots? Backhand
For Federer, in this particular match, it was the backhand—yes, the backhand.
Invariably the weaker wing, this side of Federer has been bombarded to such a degree that it has become stronger with the passing months. Though not always consistent, in his match-up with Djokovic it was the star of the show.
Top-spin drives down the line and across court had whip and pace. So confident was the shot that he resorted to the slice more rarely than usual, and even then as an offensive shot rather than to win time.
The Federer backhand is, of course, a thing of physical beauty in its execution. The speed and precision on this occasion ratcheted it up to the realms of artform.
So who wowed with what shots? Volley
Djokovic is awarded the volley, partly because he used it more often than the other semi finalists, but largely because his touch is so deft.
He is a remarkably flexible man for his height ,and that allows him to get low, twist and execute with precision. It is a brave man who attempts to drop-shot him—the response can be devastating.
So who wowed with what shots? Application
And Nadal? All of his shots are sound, powerful and effective. But the weapon that draws the poison from this all-round execution is his unflagging application.
No ball is ever—seemingly—beyond his reach or his retrieval. He is a driven athlete who will never accept that a point is lost until the ball misses a line or hits the net. It is quite awe-inspiring to see Rafa in full flight.
The end came too soon. The memory that was filled to overflowing with impressions of tennis at its most intense proximity has leaked like a sieve until only a modest collection remains.
These will suffice to feed the mind until that precious opportunity for another first-hand tournament comes along.