Tennis' Starry Night
When the U.S. Open’s Cinderella, Melanie Oudine, and its Terminator, Roger Federer, both stepped out under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, acclaimed novelist Jane Stanton Hitchcock saw what makes the sport magical.
Melanie Oudine, America’s latest Cinderella, came to hit the ball in bright pink and yellow sneakers. She lost. Roger Federer looks like a flying rope on the court. He won. I watched two amazing matches last night and came to the conclusion that tennis isn’t about hitting a ball over a net anymore than poker is about cards. On this level, tennis is about The Game. The Game is the show, the dream, the hype, and ultimately and most importantly, the psychological stamina one opponent has over another.
Melanie Oudine played tennis, and she did her best with the enthusiastic approval of a crowd hoping to crown another American Idol, court style. Her opponent, the mighty Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, played The Game with no crowd approval, but rather, a steady coolness that pummeled Oudin into a kind of gentle resignation as the match progressed. Both young women behaved so graciously at the end of the match that the crowd got its payoff for all that hoping that Cinderella would get her crown—that payoff is that these two young women are both great sports. In that respect, they both understood The Game.
It was almost as if Federer were stretching out the match to give the crowd the thrills it craved watching two tennis machines go at it.
Roger Federer’s win against Robin Soderling was something else entirely. Men’s tennis is brutal with its hundred and twenty-five mile an hour serves and endless power packed rallies. Yet this match seemed oddly staged by Federer. Like Oudin, Soderling played some great tennis. But Federer played the Great Game. It was almost as if he were stretching out the match to give the crowd the thrills it craved watching two tennis machines go at it. But I had the feeling that Federer was always in control, like a great actor who gives a lesser light the chance to shine in front of the camera. Maybe it wasn’t that way. Maybe Federer was playing as hard as he could. Still, he looked so cool sipping his water on the sidelines while Soderling sat hunched over in his chair with his head buried in a towel.
Two sets went to sudden death. Yet many people left long before the final point because they knew that Federer is the master of The Game.
The moral for me was: Just hitting the ball is missing the point.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock is a playwright and a novelist. Her new novel about Washington society, Mortal Friends was published in July.