Prior installments: Part 1 ♦ Part 2
Quick nonrepresentative Waldorf Astoria anecdote not intended to signify anything at all:
So I’m sitting in Oscar’s, the brunch place just off the Waldorf’s Lexington Avenue entrance, in the easternmost zone of the vast shopping/dining sarcophagus integrated around the Waldorf’s gloomy lobby, and I’m eating breakfast, having chosen the place because the description on Page 14 of my Guest Services Directory binder mentions a “casual yet modern ambiance” that I correctly interpret as signposting that they’ll let you wear jeans. I’m enjoying a banana smoothie with a plate of scrambled eggs. In the middle of the warmly yet softly lit dining room, there’s a round table occupied by four American business guys on whom I am cheerfully eavesdropping. They seem like business guys even though they’re wearing shorts. Their haircuts are conservative yet expensive-looking and their voices are confident yet relaxed. Two of them are Southern and the other two are doing that modern yet inexplicable Northern-politician thing of roughening up their own accents and fake-booking down-home grammar to blend in.
They are talking about the world’s most venomous animals.
“Shoot,” one says, “a timber rattler? You may not think they pack a punch, but wait’ll you look down and see one of them thing’s fangs stickin’ in your boot. Apt to modify your perspective.”
“Well I think that just speaks to Dave’s point that it’s not the exotic threat you’ve got to be scared of. They got frogs in Africa’ll boil your skin off if you wink at ’em, but the brown recluse in my basement’ll kill you just as good.”
“Lot of truth to that. Lot of truth!”
“Kristen and I went down to Australia for a couple weeks last year and I said to her, ‘Shoot, how much do we save if we buy the scenery but not the wildlife?'”
“Beautiful country, though.”
I let my attention drift for a couple of minutes, because I’m looking at the news — there might be a war, there might be a Wolverine sequel — so I don’t know exactly where the business guys’ conversation takes them. But when I go back to eavesdropping there’s a hushed yet vehement air of profound impending personal revelation, and they’re all leaning forward like it’s an emergency yet still brunch, and everything seems to hang in the balance. One of them’s staring hard at his hands and saying:
“I don’t like to talk about it. I do not. But that’s why I sleep with a 9-millimeter.”
It rains through most of Monday. The foliage at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center fills up with weird darkness and you can stand at the chain-link fences around the smaller courts and watch workers push these big broomlike squeegees over the DecoTurf.1 Fans in ponchos stream up and down the Avenue of Aces, coming in and out of shops. Sometimes it will stop raining for half an hour or so and when it starts again the umbrellas popping open look like fireworks.
Rain is always a problem at the U.S. Open, which is why the USTA is spending unspecified millions to fit Arthur Ashe Stadium with a retractable roof. But it’s especially a problem today, since the successful completion of both Roger Federer’s and Rafa Nadal’s fourth-round matches is necessary to set up the big Federer-Nadal quarterfinal everyone’s been dreaming about, which would mark the first time they’ve met at the Open, and which needs to happen on Wednesday for two reasons. One, because a small army of passionate tennis fans did not buy Wednesday tickets in the hope of seeing Richard Gasquet play David Ferrer. And two, because the NFL kicks off Thursday, which will do to the casual fan’s interest in televised tennis roughly what the Seahawks pass rush would do to Andy Murray if he picked up a football and frowned at it confusedly. So when the courts finally dry out, it’s decided to move some other stuff around on the schedule and hold Federer v. Tommy Robredo and Nadal v. Philipp Kohlschreiber near-simultaneously, temporarily exiling Federer from Ashe to Louis Armstrong Stadium, the tournament’s second-fiddle court.
What this means in practical terms is that even before Federer’s in the tunnel, Armstrong is thronged. A line of fans 300 yards long trails off from the gate like the tentacle of some strange jellyfish. Armstrong’s official capacity is 10,200, compared with Ashe’s 22,547, and many of these fans have paid $300 or $400 for tickets and bought new RF logo gear and possibly flown on airplanes to be here, so you can maybe imagine what the emotional seismograph looks like. New York is reacting to the sudden appearance of a scarcity economy with a tripartite combination of anger, attempted bribery, and weeping. Down here where I’m sitting, a couple of rows up from courtside, it’s anarchy. Little old ladies are acting out fiery scenes. A couple of Spanish-speaking women take up an outlaw position in the front row of media seats and refuse to budge until the head of stadium security threatens to get the police. They leave in tears; this happens again and again. When the match finally starts, I can’t see half the points because little knots of renegade Federer fans keep outflanking the ushers and occupying standing areas along the railings. Squads of USTA counterrevolutionaries in blue, red, and yellow polo shirts mount elaborate rearguard actions.
What with the visible fraying of the social contract, it takes a few minutes to notice that the match is really bizarre, and a few more minutes to notice that what’s bizarre about it is Federer. I’ve never been this close to him when he’s playing, and for the whole first set it’s so absorbing that I don’t even realize that he’s totally, totally off. Even totally, totally off, he still moves with enough of the old frictionless grace and displays enough of the old Renaissance astronomer’s imagination that it’s possible to watch from here and just thoroughly geek out. It’s only once I’ve settled in a little that I can process that, wait, he ran to volley that ball with his chest forward and his forehand trailing at a 10-degree angle from the shoulder and his hair flying back and he aimed at the extreme deuce-court baseline corner and the ball went searing off his racket like a flare and … sailed three feet past the line.
He plays terribly, just terribly. He comes to net too often, he falls apart on break point, he tries to run around all 11,352 of the high backhands Robredo heaves at him and gets maneuvered off the court. He parries a Robredo serve into the shallow ad court, giving Robredo time to line up a super-basic crosscourt forehand to Federer’s left side, but somehow all Federer can do with it is stab a backhand right back to where Robredo is standing, and now through no real tactical cunning of his own, Robredo’s in the perfect spot to smash a down-the-line forehand to Federer’s right, which Federer, who’s all the way across the court, has already given up on before it’s crossed the net. He loses in straight sets and it feels like less. Robredo, who has a reputation for choking, plays like a man whose windpipe could accommodate freight traffic. The final score is 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4, the dream quarterfinal with Nadal canceled. It’s the first time I’ve seen Federer beaten in person and it has the curious quality of some of his worst losses in that he actually looks forlorn.2
There’s some talk afterward, as there always is these days, about whether Federer should retire. This drives me crazy, so give me a second. Watching Federer decline makes me sad. Watching him lose to Tommy Robredo, whom he’d beaten easily in all 10 of their previous matches, made me sad. And if I could build a bonfire out of every editorial and every blog post arguing that the ol’ champ should hang ’em up before he tarnishes his “legacy,” I would build it, then I would burn the ashes, then I would blast the sticky ash-residue out into space, then I would fire warheads at the space capsule. Have you ever bothered to think about what “legacy,” in this sense, really means? Legacy is a marketing tool; it exists for the convenience of people who want to sell you something. It has nothing to do with the athlete, whose accomplishments aren’t going to change if he plays past his prime, literally aren’t going to change at all, because Skip Bayless doesn’t own a time machine. Legacy is a post-Jordan, made-up idea that glorifies “going out on top” as part of a corporate strategy, presuming that fans don’t have memories and can’t cope with the complexity of a human life. Legacy belongs in the same pile of bogus thought-propaganda as “controlling the narrative” and “personal brand.” I would fire warheads at the warheads, I’m not kidding.
So unless what you’re after in sports is to associate some abstract concept of winner-iness with a particular shoe line, meaning you need a sanctioned moment of narrative closure that licenses you to keep making that association, and keep buying those shoes, forever, just please, please come off it. What do you have to gain by railroading Federer into retirement? He’s comfortably one of the 10 best players in the world. Do you know how hard that is? What a great career that would be for almost anyone? If he finds playing meaningful and likes being out on tour, why on earth should he stop? Because somebody wants the luxury of having fewer memories of him? Look, I, too, think it’s rad that Borg walked away from the game when he was 25.3 Here’s a sports-grade argument for you: Federer isn’t Borg! If he doesn’t want to do the scorched-earth/mountaintop thing, let him go out softly. Say he wants to play qualifiers in his forties; that would also be great and fascinating and totally within his rights.
Now this part’s just me, but I would even go further and say that the sadness he makes me feel these days is a positive sadness; it’s generative. It hurts to see an athlete of Federer’s caliber contend with time. It helps to see that an athlete of Federer’s caliber is a human being and not primarily a vehicle for unit-shifting Rolex. It makes 2006 feel richer to me, not poorer.
Anyway. What I wanted to tell you about in Federer-Robredo is the crowd, which is this wild New York thing. The competition for seating, which, again, is lifeboats-of-the-Titanic stuff, seems to put paid to any lingering notion of tennis-fan propriety. For most of the match, the atmosphere in here is somewhere between a block party and a knife fight. There’s some slippage in the rule set, and we’re enjoying it. People are yelling “C’mon, Roger!” between every point, and soon just “C’mon, Rog!,” as though our sudden passage into democracy has caught him too. There’s clapping at inappropriate moments, and the umpire keeps having to lean forward toward his microphone, which at this distance I can see is enormous, a globe almost the same size of his head, and say “Thank you” in his crisp International Tennis accent. The wind keeps raking a combover of storm clouds across the sky’s forehead. It’s as if the stadium itself has become a belligerent mouth. But it’s fun. It’s joyous as long as it lasts.
Which isn’t long, because soon the roar from Ashe is telling us that Nadal has lost the first set to Kohlschreiber. My phone is screaming at me that Milos Raonic and Gasquet have just played an 11-9 fourth-set tiebreaker after playing tiebreakers in their first two sets. And then Nadal’s come back to win and Gasquet’s come back to win and it’s Tuesday and Novak Djokovic annihilates Marcel Granollers 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, and Serena Williams obliterates Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0, and we’re into Wednesday’s quarterfinals. And you can feel sad about Federer if you want, but time doesn’t stop at a tennis tournament, or anywhere ever, because life isn’t a highlight video, which is maybe some people’s whole problem.
And that’s why I sleep with a 9-millimeter. Only I don’t.