Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Life On the Outer Courts: A Set With Jack Sock

If you watch an average Grand Slam at home, chances are you focus primarily on the major matches on the big show courts. I know before attending these events in person, I had very little perspective on the overall scope of a professional tennis tournament (not to mention a Grand Slam) and was unaware of the vast array of action on "the outer courts." But even within our first moments at our first tournament at Indian Wells, it was clear to me that the best time to watch a match is when you step away from Ashe, Armstrong or the Grandstand and venture to more obscure places, like Court 13 on the appropriately named "Outer Courts". So yesterday I moved away from the ambiance of the media cafeteria and ventured out to be "amongst them" to once again watch the action away from my comfort zone (and my free refills of #1 soda). It seemed only natural that the place to be on Tuesday afternoon was Court 13 for the epic battle between American Jack Sock and German Philipp Petzchner. I decided to keep a Running Diary of the Sock-Petzchner matchup and here is what I found:

3:24 pm: While considered an "outer court", Court 13 is not in the tennis hinterlands. It has 10 rows of bleacher seating on one side, a high perch above another and seats 584 people if filled to capacity. The setting is thus intimate, but does allow the belief that you are playing in a match of some importance. However with no private entrance area, the players have to wade through the crowd to make it onto the court. Unlike the masses of movement that follow Nadal, Federer and the like, as Sock and Petzchner walk in, little attention is paid to anything beyond the attractive reporter who is making her presence known in the bleachers. The person most affected by their grand appearance was a Tennis Channel cameraman forced to duck to avoid Sock's bag hitting him in the head (just for the record, I need to state that there is no need for a new trend I am players carrying two bags. What could one possibly need for the three hours on the court that would require an additional carry-on? We aren't packing for a ten day cruise to Alaska here people...three rackets, a change of shirts and maybe (if you so wish) some fruits and nuts. You can leave your iPad and picture of distant relatives at home).

3:33 pm: As the warmup period comes to a close and the match begins, one thing stands out. First, Petzchner is wearing a garish outfit that makes him look like an English Football League Two striker:

Now don't get me wrong. I am all for personality and unique appearance on the court...but the wool socks have to be hot and while not a fashion guru, I am not sure a look is successful if "radish" is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it. Still, do your thing already refuse to spell your first name conventionally, so why not have an outfit to match.

3:39 pm: Sock gets an early break with a stunning passing shot of of a Petzchner volley that brings the crowd to its feet. As they explode, I continue to beat myself up over the fact that I really do not like Sock. That probably isn't fair (as I don't know him) and it is a terrible feeling to have because Sock could be the future of American tennis. He is able to hit stunning forehands, has a powerful serve and if he can improve over the next two years, is this generation's Andy Roddick. But his attitude on the court makes him unbelievably unlikeable to me. He has a constant smirk on his face, belittles umpires, line judges and (worst of all to me) the ball boys and girls. In fact, he seems to spend most of his time on the court with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, looking for someone to blame for whatever minor calamity has fallen his way. At one point early in this match I even saw him seem to be angry at the ground for betraying his attempt to get to a slice forehand. But Sock is also really talented and extremely entertaining to watch. Oh yeah, he also has the single best comedy name in all of tennis. Thus I want Jack to make me like him...but unfortunately so far he has failed miserably.

3:43 pm: Sock reaches 136 mph on a first serve, a truly remarkable sight. We forgive those in sports who showcase major talent don't we?  Maybe I can look past his otherwise disappointing personality traits to see Jack Sock, not the crusty smart-alec but Jack Sock the hidden receptacle of something great.

3:50 pm: Nevermind. As Sock bounces a ball prior to his first serve, a big point during the crucial 5th set of the match on adjoining Court 14 leads the crowd to erupt into a loud cheer. Sock then stares in the direction of those fans and glares, as if their joy during the point to the side was somehow a distraction to his immaculate serve. It is this Jack Sock that makes me nuts. First of all, why in tennis is complete silence necessary? I know tennis players have assumed silence is golden since the beginning of time. But why? This isn't golf, where you are hitting a stationary are hitting a moving object flying at you at over 100 mph...the sound of a human voice will make that more difficult? And even if it would, so what? Baseball players seem to handle it just fine and the difficulty is almost certainly greater. And even if silence is required, does Sock really expect that on Court 13, which is adjoined by three other courts and has fans milling about left and right, he will get the immaculate conditions of Ashe Stadium? The answer is yes he does and it is that sense of entitlement that places me back once again in the "anti-Sock" category.

3:56 pm: Another monster Sock serve goes off Petzchner's racket frame and careens into the crowd, striking a woman in the face. This is an often unknown hazard of attending a match...the possibility you will get pelted with a ball. The woman takes it like a trooper and holds her eye while her husband consoles her, but it marks the fourth time during this tournament I have seen someone take a strong shot to the face by a tennis ball. While foul balls do make baseball hazardous, no sport produces more involuntary participation from the crowd than tennis (and that is before the multiple usages of the "Kiss Cam").

4:02 pm: On an outer court, every sounds gets magnified and individual cheers in the crowd can take on a life of their own. After Petzchner breaks back on Sock and evens the set at 4-4, a man in the crowd screams loudly, "RIGHT HERE JACK, LET'S GO!" He says it with a force that nearly makes me jump out of my seat and clearly has an effect on Sock as well. Jack looks up into the crowd, sees the man and gives him a puzzled glare that seems to suggest, "who are you?" The man never again yells for the rest of the set. It must have embarrassed him to have such enthusiasm tampered by the player he so was hoping would "GO!" I immediately felt bad for him and even now, hope someone gave him a hug.

4:10 pm: Serving at 40-30, Petzchner stops the proceedings to ask for a towel from the ball girl. It seems to this observer somewhat unnecessary since he has taken a towel after each point and has thoroughly dried whatever could possibly be on him at all moments of the match. No group of people towel off with the frequency of tennis players during a match. If one drop of perspiration hits any part of their body, all must be stopped and a towel must be brought to accommodate. Compare this say to the NBA, where players are dripping with sweat, sharing the bodily fluids of others and in a constant state of gross moisture, yet seem to be fine moving without said towel and you players may be a bit prissy. I am just saying.

4:16 pm: Sock, continuing his "argue with anything, whether moving or inanimate, theory, challenged the lack of a call of a let on a Petzchner serve. He walks to the umpire and says, "that ball hit the net by six inches!"  I am not sure what that sentence means (it either hit the net or didn't and if it hit it by "six inches," it wouldn't have gone over the net), but Sock is adamant he is correct. The umpire cooly throws technology under the bus and says, "don't blame me...blame the computer!" Sock then looks at the umpire and says, with no degree of sarcasm, "I blame you AND the computer!!!" Somewhere a computer silently weeps.

4:22 pm: During a tense final service game, Sock saves a match point and sends the set to a tiebreak. He looks down at the ground after the game point and yells. "WHAT! THAT'S RIGHT! WHAT!" I am not sure if Sock is channelling Stone Cold Steve Austin or seriously interrogating the hard court surface, but either way I assume it is Jack showcasing happiness. As the tiebreak begins, my friend Miguel, the security guy sitting in front of me with the most serious look on his face I have ever seen, stands up and begins staring with anger at a gnat that is flying to his left. I took a picture of the moment right before I believe Miguel was going to have the gnat removed from the premises for making too much noise:

4:29 pm: The match that began with a bang ends with a whimper. The tiebreak starts off poorly for Petzchner and he never recovers. Sock wins easily 7-2, and within seconds he is pumping his fist and smirking. Soon thereafter, Philipp has to retire from the match due to injury and the entire proceedings are concluded prematurely. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise fun afternoon on an outer court. The match showcased three important things to me:

(1) Being on "The Outer Courts" is much more fun than the main stadiums, especially in the first week.

Early in the tournament, Arthur Ashe Stadium is used primarily as a show court for the sport's biggest names. That is all fine and dandy but those first week matches are generally dreadful affairs. The excitement, and even matches are all out yonder in the boonies of the double-digit courts. They are worth the price of admission.

(2) You can see a player's true personality on the outer courts

Even in a sport like tennis, a player's true personality doesn't always come through. The cameras don't catch every thing a player does or every moment he spends arguing a call or questioning a decision. Plus, when the players realize they are on a primary court and will have a national audience, they generally are on their best behavior. Not so on the outer courts. There they showcase exactly who they are, warts and all. Thus you will know who is a true gentleman and who might be slightly insane.

(3) I am still fascinated and disappointed by Jack Sock

John Isner is American tennis currently. But Jack Sock is the best chance at the future. And I can't make myself yet like him. His actions on the court are of the worst whining variety and his attitude is difficult to tolerate at best. With that said, he is still very young and his talent is obvious. His name brought me to his game (and the jokes as he gets more popular will only increase), but his talent and attitude will make him a story for years to come. I will continue to watch him and hope to see him mature, but whether it happens is anyone's guess.

We are sitting in the rain and hoping for some late tennis action...but since it is still Day Three, when the skies clear, I will be headed to an outer court.