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The Death's-head of Wimbledon, Part 5

The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 4

David Ferrer, Andy Murray, and Independence Day at the All England Club

Prior installments: Part 1Part 2Part 3

My left eye is bloodshot. I’m frankly pretty worried about it. I had no idea there was a problem until I popped into the Centre Court bathroom a couple of days ago and saw it looking sort of pinkly vicious in the (gleaming) Wimbledon mirror. If you look closely, and you pretend that my eye is a map of Wimbledon — so, say, my iris is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and my pupil is Centre Court — then all the angry squiggly blood vessels look like roads clogged with double-decker bus traffic. I’ll be honest here: The eye thing I can probably handle, but when my neck breaks out in a diagram of camera positions, I’m going to fire off a very stern e-mail to somebody.

Tennis draws you in. So: Wednesday afternoon, Wimbledon quarterfinals. David Ferrer vs. Andy Murray for a spot in the final four. Centre Court’s positively buzzing; England’s so starved for its first men’s singles Wimbledon champion since WWII1 that Andy Murray, who’s from Glasgow, qualifies as a local hero.2 Loud cries of “c’mon, Andy!” between points, audible even through my little commentary booth’s dense glass. From up here the crowd is searingly vivid during intervals of sun, then sort of grayly, liquidly vivid when the clouds blow in. The applause after Ferrer hits a winner is that chilly English applause of a crowd that would rather not be clapping but intends to live up to the courtesies. There are more periods of cloud than periods of sun. The winner of this match will play the winner of Tsonga vs. Kohlschreiber3 in the semifinals, then play the winner of the already-booked Federer-Djokovic semi for the championship. Whenever a player challenges a call, the crowd cranes forward simultaneously, then straightens up all at once when the Hawk-Eye replay on the stadium scoreboard is finished.

Major contrast of styles between the players. They’re both normally classified as baseline counterpunchers, which tells you pretty close to nothing about what the experience of watching them feels like. Murray lopes around the court like a skinny wolf, inhales distance, makes everything he does, good and bad, look kind of passive and effortless. At all times, including when both players are seated, he appears to be expending about a sixth as much energy as Ferrer. Ferrer’s a slippery, punchy little guy, with a way of seeming to wriggle minnowishly up to a shot and then surprisingly bonk the crap out of it. He’s a clay-court specialist, but one of those Nadal-genre Spanish clay-courters who play fine on other surfaces too. There are athletes who give the impression of plotting to scamper their opponents to death, and Ferrer belongs to this group. You want to talk about his “battery,” like he’s a persistent, annoying toy. I am rooting for him pretty unabashedly here in the old commentary booth. I am making soft tennis-y noises of admiration at some of the shots he’s landing, noises that are possibly not appreciated by the German commentary team up here covering the match.

Ferrer takes the first set in a tiebreak, 7-6 (5), which is huge because Murray’s visibly better than he is4 and Ferrer’s best chance of winning is to be way out in front when the tennis computer in Murray’s brain recalibrates itself to his peculiarities. Ferrer, who’s 30, is a superhumanly hard worker, a grinder who’ll chase down and retrieve every calf-high slice backhand you can send at him — but Murray hits harder ground strokes, has a bigger repertoire of shots, and is just as unflappable, defensively, as Ferrer. Murray also has the devastating unquantifiable advantage of looking like he’s moving slowly at the same pace that makes Ferrer look like he’s moving really, really fast. This is crucial. Unless you’re Lleyton Hewitt, you don’t win Wimbledon with a game that looks like comedically sped-up video footage of tennis. You win when you’re so gifted and in control that you can take the freakish speed of the modern men’s game in stride and still have the headroom to accelerate someplace truly alarming when you need to.

Anyway, Ferrer takes the first, and opens the second racing around like a Roomba that’s been struck by lightning. Groans and gasps from the crowd. Ferrer hits a dainty winner after an overhead baseline smash to hold at 4-4, and there’s a real possibility that my little tennis-y response noise goes out live to several million viewers in Germany. Murray dumps a couple of shots into the net in the next game and now suddenly he’s cursing to himself and stalking privately along the baseline: Ferrer’s got the break and a chance to serve for the set. A palpable sensation of pins and needles runs through the stadium. The moment is serious. A two-set deficit will be hard for Murray to make up even when his computer recalibrates. A few days ago one of the hawks Wimbledon uses to keep pigeons away from Centre Court was mysteriously kidnapped. Wimbledon uses hawks to keep pigeons away from Centre Court. A Twitter account under the briefly kidnapped hawk’s name has been tweeting support for Andy Murray. In the next game, Ferrer comes within a hair’s breadth of hitting an outrageous forehand winner for a 30-15 lead, but it drifts just barely wide. Pixels rearrange themselves in Murray’s head, and he breaks Ferrer back to level the set. Then he wins his own service game to force a second tiebreak. And — now playing aggressively, almost angrily — he wins the tiebreak on a rally that’s something like 20 strokes long. It’s 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), Wimbledon on a Wednesday afternoon.

The crowd is practically breathing in unison. I may be the only person in the stadium, Ferrer excepted, who wants Ferrer to win. I’ve set the TV monitors here in the booth to show the ESPN feed of the match, and I am thus treated to several closeups of Prince William, who is below in the royal box, smiling upper-lippily at the amusing behavior of his subjects.

Setting the booth’s monitors to show the match I’m watching means that the match appears here in triune form, the live, three-dimensional, “real” match in the booth’s main window flanked by smaller two-dimensional duplicates on adjustable angled mounts in the window’s upper corners. This is, for me, embarrassingly useful, because in real time I often can’t see whether shots have landed in or out, and since the broadcast is on a five-second delay, I can usually catch replays of just-finished close calls by glancing immediately at the monitors. Also, I mean: royal-box closeups.

What’s weird, though, is that people in the upper seats of this section of Centre Court, who can see in through the glass of my commentary booth, occasionally stand up and look in at the angled monitors, sometimes for whole points at a time. That is: People who have paid for seats for the match, who made the positive choice to come out to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and enjoy a day at Centre Court, will choose to turn their backs on the live match they’re at in order to peer through darkened glass at a TV monitor of which they don’t even have a good view and watch the same match, which again is happening in person right behind them, on a five-second delay. For one, two, three points at a time. I have no idea what this means. Are they looking for a stat? For an angle? Hoping to see themselves on TV? Or are they expressing a natural yearning toward our future existence as particle waves beamed from one glowing rectangle to another, ultraviolet photons leaping out of vaporized mercury? We’ve spent months, years of our lives gazing into reality as captured by the Apparatus. Who wouldn’t be curious, given the chance, to see how their immediate sense-surroundings would look after being run through the Broadcast Centre’s machines?

The draw here may have less to do with being on TV, is my theory, and more with the weird intuition that you’re already in TV.

Anyway, I find them, the TV gazers, fairly annoying.

Murray and Ferrer keep going back and forth, but there’s a sense now that Murray’s caught up to the wave, that he’s the one applying the pressure. In tennis, you can almost always tell which player has entropy on his side. One of them usually does, and the other guy has to play both his opponent and a gargantuan current of disintegration pouring in from across the net. The disintegration current is invisible and not measurable and absolutely real, and it’s now blasting squarely against Ferrer, who’s standing up to it but faltering a little, inevitably. Murray’s trying a lot of drop shots and missing almost all of them, to the point that someone in the crowd yells out, “No more drop shots, Andy!,” but he’s using them to mess with Ferrer’s positioning, to draw him in toward the net and thus render him more vulnerable to shots hit deep to the baseline.5 On break point at 4-4 in the third, Murray wallops a deep backhand return that Ferrer just mishits, and two blinks later Murray’s serving out the set: 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 4-6. English hopes soaring. It starts to rain, inevitably.

Ferrer fights on, disintegration streaming, and I keep making tiny sounds that have men in Dusseldorf peering at the TV menu with their bifocals and experimenting with the PCM settings.

At 5-5 in the fourth, with the match clearly bound for a tiebreak, umbrellas bloom all over the crowd. The little team of tarp haulers rushes the tarp across the grass. The cameramen in the access trench throw their drab military-colored tarps over the tops of their cameras. Rain stops play for 20 minutes. We start again.

Ferrer holds serve. Murray holds serve. Tiebreak. Entropy takes a deep breath.

Tennis draws you in. 5-4 in the tiebreak, Murray leading. Murray’s serving ad court, and he sends one down the middle, not a tough shot to return, and you can see that the obvious reflex move for Ferrer is to hit a cross-court backhand, which he does, but it’s a shallow return, landing just inside Murray’s ad-court service line. Murray is perfectly positioned to parry it into Ferrer’s deuce court, which forces Ferrer to scurry all across the length of the baseline (English mouths opening), and Ferrer can either hit a forehand cross-court or try to send one down the line. He opts for the former, trying to catch Murray off-balance or maybe just move him to buy some time, but because Murray’s already dragged Ferrer across the baseline on the last shot he’s had plenty of time to take up a central position just behind his own baseline, and he’s already moving toward Ferrer’s snapped forehand before Ferrer’s even hit it. Now, in his own deuce court, Murray can choose to whip an across-court forehand or play one down the line, so he does the latter (English eyes widening), which forces Ferrer to make the return scurry across the full width of the court. And now Ferrerhas to play the cross-court backhand to buy himself a split second to get back in position. But Murray’s spotted this, too, and already gotten to the moved spot, and Ferrer’s still scrambling toward his deuce court, way behind the baseline, when Murray crushes the inevitable massive forehand winner across the net (English foreheads spewing exclamation points). Match point for entropy, as always.

It’s the Fourth of July, but the British seem to be winning. Even the hawk got returned, the poor pigeons. Murray reels off a 135 mph ace to win the match, and all of this strikes me as terribly funny for a second, although I’d wanted Ferrer to win. I’m wearing the giant sunglasses because of my eye thing, and to the tennis fans peering in to see the TV highlights I must look like some round-eyed, black-eyed thing, stashed away up here, just grinning.

Filed Under: Art, Events, General topics, Wimbledon

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay

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