Fans shuffled up to roped-off seating areas, clutching their beers and craning their necks to see over the guards disallowing entry. They could not enter, lest they broke the stream of consciousness. The stadium erupted into applause after a particularly long volley, the ropes came down and the people shuffled to their seats. Pop music piped in, the newest Taylor Swift song, circling above the crowd to help us forget the inarguable fact that they were watching the loneliest sport humans have invented yet.
No wonder the game requires silence. The players stand on islands, their only interactions with judges meant to call out their faults and the other player endeavoring to force their folly.
It’s a game of errors.
After John Isner, a local kid, 1-seed and consistent winner in Winston-Salem, withdrew with an injury, the crowd looked to anyone who would engage them.
They had Sam Querrey, an American and friend of Isner, whose struggles in recent years had relegated him to unranked status, falling from as high as 17th in the world in 2011. Embraced as Isner’s replacement, Querrey’s match against 2-seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a Spanish player with a knack for pestering fans and judges, represented the best chance to capture the fans’ imaginations. The highest ranked player after Isner, Garcia-Lopez had a good shot to destroy the field.
But he did not have his mojo working. Isner had not dropped a set in his matches, but Garcia-Lopez struggled with his qualifier, Dustin Brown, a long-dreaded German-by-way-of-Jamaica. He then had to go to a long third-set tiebreaker to dismiss Donald Young, the 11-seed.
If Garcia-Lopez squeaked by on talent, Querrey had been playing the best tennis he’d played all year. His forehand had been landing the corners, and his return — a two-handed stab at the ball rather than a full swing — had been working to keep him in more points than other players who tried to counter power serves with power returns.
Tennis provides a natural advantage for the server, so players have to destroy the natural order to win. Therein lies the difference between tennis and other singles sports. Golf has nature and man-made obstacles, sure, but golf does not have another equally athletic human proving his/her worth 78 feet away. They don’t have the human element — the idea of having to out-think another human to succeed as much as tennis does.
You cannot blame anyone for your faults but yourself.
Perhaps that’s why John McEnroe screamed at judges or Ilie Nastase tossed his racket around in the old days — they knew that they were struggling against perfection and that drove them crazy.
Querrey dominated the second set while Garcia-Lopez fell apart. He had cutting remarks for crowd members cheering against him. He glared menacingly at the line judges despite using very few player challenges. His game struggled. He felt the need to intimidate his surroundings since he could not intimidate his opponent.
Once Querrey overcame Garcia-Lopez’s challenging serve in three sets, he played the other post-Isner face of the tournament.
Jerzy Janowicz, a stylish, drop-shooting Polish player, worked in mysterious ways. He sat on the net to talk to the head judge. He screamed and berated himself when he missed shots. His intensity, though, proved misleading.
He sported a rough-hewn stubble beard, an acute sign of his nonchalance. He embodied an Eastern-European laissez-faire attitude toward the game. When he challenged calls, he did so without looking toward the video replays and when players hit beautiful shots, he’d curl his lip and shrug as if to say, “So be it.” His post-match interviews showcased a mix of sardonic brashness and coy interplay with the fans.
He won us over by beating Querrey in a grueling three-set match. The humidity, only equaled by the intensity, wore on both players. With no one to jeer, the fans began reverently cheering both players. While most still pulled for the American, Janowicz’s allure unsettled the crowd. Almost withdrawing with a foot injury, he struggled at times to even run to the ball.
And he still won.
The mix of reactions to Janowicz’s swagger and obvious determination to play through injury coalesced into crowd support. He became the underdog and the catalyst all in one — something Querrey could not do with his workmanlike attitude and improving play.
It was unfortunate that Janowicz succumbed to Lukas Rosol, a humble player who went about the business of loneliness without neediness. Rosol did not pander to crowds or let bad calls affect his play. His strengths shone without Garcia-Lopez’s sneering, Janowicz’s knowing affectations, the American flag next to Querrey’s name or Isner’s hometown embrace.
The Czech tennis player won because he focused, overcame adversity on three match points and moved in on Janowicz’s drop shots with reckless abandon despite the horrid heat. Rosol blocked out the loneliness, the natural advantages and held the trophy as though it was his hostage afterwards.
He did not fluster or embrace the crowd. He stood on his island, understanding that he didn’t need anyone else.
He knew that feeling of elation would trump his loneliness for a while — until the next time he crouched in position with only his thoughts to guide him.