A day at the French Open
PARIS -- I am walking from the Metro stop to Roland Garros with U2's "Beautiful Day" streaming into my ear buds and a grin spreading across my face. It is a beautiful day. The sun is out, the morning is warm and I am on my way to watch and write about Serena Williams, Roger Federer and the French Open.
And I can't stop thinking about how I owe tennis my very career.
You see, I worked my way through college -- back when such a thing was still possible -- at the very exclusive Seattle Tennis Club, where I took out the garbage, set up tables and stacked towels. I also worked graveyard shifts as a security guard. To pass the time at night, I played a baseball card game called Statis-Pro (we didn't have video games other than Ms. Pac-Man back then). The nights were long and to fill all the hours, I started writing stories about the matches. Then, I started writing stories and opinions about sports in general.
It was an early blog, only instead of the Internet, I posted my typewritten stories next to the employee time clock.
I grew to enjoy the writing and eventually submitted my work to the student newspaper. And that began a career in journalism that has taken me here, to the French Open, nine time zones away.
11:30 a.m., Court 1: The oldest court at Roland Garros, Court 1 is called the bull ring because it's an intimate circle of seats surrounding the clay playing surface. I'm sitting within feet of the court. I am so close I can hear the players talking. In previous days' matches, a couple balls nearly bounced into my lap.
Right now I'm watching a doubles match pitting France's Virginie Razzano and Alize Cornet against Sania Mirza of Indonesia and Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States.
Mattek-Sands owns the upset of the tournament -- she beat 2011 French Open champ Li Na in the second round and has advanced to the quarterfinals just three months after being ranked 205th. But what really grabs my attention is she listens to Macklemore's "My Oh My" while walking onto the court before each match.
The song is a tribute to Dave Niehaus, in which Macklemore recounts growing up listening to the late Seattle Mariners broadcaster, particularly his call of Game 5 of the 1995 division series. I didn't think anyone outside of Seattle had even heard of the song, let alone was listening to it to pump themselves up.
"I'm not even a Mariners fan -- I don't follow that much baseball -- but when he's talking through that, it chokes me up a little bit," Mattek-Sands says. "Ken Griffey Jr., that moment -- when you hear him and the crowd, it's a cool sports moment, and I think that's one of the reasons I like walking out to it."
1:30 p.m., Court Philippe Chatrier: Serena Williams has just finished off Roberta Vinci to win her eighth consecutive set of the French Open and her 28th consecutive match overall. She hasn't lost a match in three months. She is the No. 1-ranked woman in the world and the heavy favorite to win the tournament.
And now she is giving a postmatch interview at Roland Garros' premier court, addressing an appreciative crowd in French. She handles the interview nearly as smoothly as she handled Vinci.
Which is more difficult, a reporter asks later, closing out a match or speaking to the crowd in French? "Definitely speaking French," she says. "For sure."
This can't make her defeated opponents feel any better about losing to her.
2:04 p.m., Court 9. Or 11. Hard to say: Roland Garros is the smallest site of the four Grand Slams. Apart from the three show courts, many of the courts are clustered together for a tight, intimate setting. There is only a narrow walkway swarming with fans separating Courts 9 and 11. It's like watching a match at the courts near my house, except no dog is lifting a leg at a nearby tree.
A signpost points the way to the other Grand Slam sites. I'm 365 kilometers from Wimbledon, 5,839 from Flushing Meadows, 16,959 from Melbourne Park and a long way from hauling garbage at the Seattle Tennis Club.
3:26 p.m.: Time for some lunch.
I have a couple options. I could eat at La Brasserie, the dining section where a three-course meal includes foie gras, "braised beef of free range poultry with aromatic and preserved vegetables" and desserts such as "peach soup flavored with hibiscus and country shortbread." The meal costs approximately $80, not including beverages. A glass of Moet Chandon champagne goes for $17 or $104 for a bottle. Water is $7.
I opt to go to a concession stand where I pay $6 for a large but stale baguette, with a thin slice of ham and cheese.
5:04 p.m. Court Suzanne Lenglen: The crowd is going nuts. Or at least as nuts as a tennis crowd is allowed.
Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Robredo are facing each other in a fourth-round match that began roughly four hours ago. Both men are from Spain. This is their sixth meeting and Almagro is looking for his sixth win. He has lost only one set to Robredo in their previous five meetings and he won the first two sets here as well 7-6, 6-3.
But then Robredo rallied back, just as he had from 0-2 deficits in his two previous matches. He won the third set 6-4. He won the fourth set 6-4. And now he is serving, one point away from a historic comeback.
When Almagro returns the serve into the net to end the match, Robredo spins and raises both arms in victory. He collapses to the red clay, kneeling and resting his head on his racket. He is overwhelmed. The crowd is on its feet. He slowly stands and takes a seat on the side of the court. He buries his face in a towel and wipes his eyes.
While Almagro walks out quickly, Robredo walks back on the court, saluting the cheering throng by kissing his fingertips.
"My eyes are wide open, and I'm not sleeping," he says. "People said, 'Did you ever dream of doing this, being in this situation?' And I said, 'You know, nobody dreams of doing such things. What one dreams of is to reach quarterfinals, but not such a nightmare five-setter."
He is the first player to rally from 0-2 deficits to win three consecutive matches at a major since 1927.
"I'm not thinking about history," he says. "History is this match I played today."
5:50 p.m., Media center interview room 4: There are four interview rooms at the media center. Room 1 is a large conference room, with stenographers to transcribe the interviews with players. Room 2 is much smaller but still has a stenographer. Room 3 is smaller still, about the size of a child's bedroom and no stenographer. And then there is cramped Room 4 which has a low angled ceiling, like an attic. All it's missing is cobwebs, peeling insulation and boxes filled with high school yearbooks.
Taylor Townsend sits inside this room on a leather chair, surrounded by half a dozen reporters. Townsend, 17, was the top-ranked junior in the world last year and is viewed as a future star. Earlier in the day, she beat Viktoriya Lushkova in a junior match on Court 17, which is tucked way, way in the back of Roland Garros, far from the show courts.
Asked where she might be ranked in five years, Townsend replies in mock disgust, "What kind of question is that? No. 1! C'mon now! Serena will be a little bit older and I'll be a little bit older." She laughs and then is asked how many Grand Slam titles she will have by age 22. "I don't want to be greedy so I'll say three."
She laughs again. She is joking. Or maybe she isn't.
7:47 p.m., Court Philippe Chatrier: I was wrong. A tennis crowd can get louder than the Robredo match. After three sets, Gilles Simon is beating Roger Federer 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, and the fans are into it.
"Roger! Roger! Roger!" fans chant during one break.
"Gilles! Gilles! Gilles!" a second group chants after a telling delay.
This is interesting because Simon is French and Federer is Swiss. Later though, when Federer regains the lead and is close to putting the match away, the support shifts back to Simon..
"They definitely reminded me of what Simon's first name is. I heard that throughout the entire match," Federer says in the postmatch interview, answering questions fluently in English, French and German. "I enjoyed it. It's always nice being part of the atmosphere like tonight, you always enjoy those types of matches.
"And while you're walking in the back of the court, you tell yourself, 'This is exactly what I work hard for. I'm strong and I'm going to be stronger than him.' I'm going to fight and leave everything on the court."
He is. Federer wins the match in five sets and has now reached the quarterfinals of the past 36 Grand Slams. Only five other men have even played in each of those 36 Grand Slams.
"I guess this is a record I will look back on when I'm not playing anymore and say, 'That was incredible that I was able to achieve that,'" Federer says. "Because this ain't just a one-week thing or a one-year thing. It's such a long period of time where I've had to fight through matches like the one today. And the number is unbelievable. I probably would have been happy with one at some point in my career."
I don't know what is more impressive. That Federer has won more Grand Slams than any other man (17); that he has reached the quarterfinals in 36 consecutive Grand Slams or that a man born in Switzerland so casually uses the word "ain't."
9:28 p.m. Court Suzanne Lenglen: The sun has set and the courts are darkening. All the day's matches are finished except for this one. Due to the lengthy Almagro/Robredo match, Agnieszka Radwanska and Ana Ivanovic got a late start. But Radwanska, ranked No. 4, is about to close out a straight-set victory. And when Ivanovic double-faults, the day's competition is over.
"I really pushed myself to see the ball," Radwasnska says. "Again, I just wanted to finish that match. [The darkness] was extra motivation to even play better and finish that second set."
The day is over. As I exit Roland Garros, the security guard electronically scans my credential. It's an odd thing. Why scan my credential when I leave the grounds? I am taking nothing from the grounds but memories of great tennis, great players (current and perhaps future), historic matches and perhaps some stains from the whipped cream-covered waffle that served as my dinner.
Time to get to the hotel and finish my story. Only I will write on a laptop, not a typewriter. And the story will be posted on the Internet, not by the time clock.