Aug. 29, 2005, 3:30 p.m.
I sit on the No. 7 train, heading to the U.S. Open, and I admire the shapely calves of the woman sitting next to me. She’s talking to two colleagues who stand in front of her, and they’re all going to the Open. One of her colleagues is a fey young man who bears an uncanny resemblance—especially considering our destination—to Pete Sampras. The other colleague, a middle-aged woman, appears to be the boss, and she’s gossiping about someone in their office: “She’s gone on four dates with this guy who is categorically handsome, but he hasn’t made a move. He’s not aggressive enough.”
“Four dates?” says the woman next to me.
“That’s a lot of dates,” says Pete Sampras.
“She’s the third woman I know who said she’s dating someone who’s not aggressive,” says the boss.
I wonder what’s going on with these passive men, some of whom are categorically handsome, and then I tune the trio out. I tell myself that I should be thinking about tennis—after all, I’m on assignment. For some reason, my mind then flashes back to this town tennis tournament I won the summer before eighth grade. I was supposed to get a trophy, but it wasn’t ready when I won. The guy in charge of the tournament and the trophies was this fellow who had a withered leg from polio. He was in his late 40’s, and the town paid him a small fee to be in charge of all things tennis. He loved the sport and was constantly playing, heroically dragging that leg all over the court.
I had two baseball trophies, two soccer trophies and one fake, unearned trophy, which featured an athlete in a bathing suit, and I desperately wanted to replace the false trophy with my tennis trophy. Five trophies would really show the world what an athlete I was. How the world would know this I’m not sure, since no one ever came into my room other than my mother.
So I started calling the man with the bad leg every two weeks, asking him if my trophy had arrived yet. After about four months of phone calls, he yelled: “It’s just a trophy! Stop calling me!” Then one day, about six months after I won the tournament, he put the trophy in our mailbox. I positioned it on my bureau where I could stare at it narcissistically for hours, but it was a bit tainted now since I had tormented the tennis guy to get it. I was the town champ, but I still felt like a loser—my life story.
I’m outside the press office at the tennis center, waiting for my credentials, and I spot Virginia Wade, the former British champion. She’s tanned, handsome and dignified, with gray hair feathered down the middle. Then I spot the beautiful Maria Sharapova coming from the practice courts. She’s in a halter top and sweatpants, and though she is thin and tall, I can see that beneath the sweat pants she has powerful buttocks, which must aid her serve. Sharapova then disappears into the players’ entrance to the stadium, and I admire, on my right, a policeman with a German shepherd. The dog is panting from the heat and lying down on the job. I see that on the back of the policeman’s shirt it says “Canine Unit.” Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to be a policeman, and I’m also madly in love with dogs, so I write in my little notebook that being a part of the Canine Unit would be the best of both worlds for me, and then I remember how, years ago, a transsexual prostitute in the meatpacking district whispered to me like a siren as I walked by, “It’s the best of both worlds,” and then a girl in the press office comes outside and tells me that my credentials are ready.
I’m sitting in the journalists’ section of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The humidity is as thick as a phonebook. It’s like being in a bathroom with the windows closed after taking an epically long, hot shower. I’m wearing a linen blazer that feels as comfortable as a suture. To my right, in the V.I.P. section about 30 yards away, Mayor Bloomberg and former Mayor Dinkins, both in suit and tie, seem impervious to the heat.
Maria Sharapova is playing a Greek woman named Daniilidou. Sharapova is in a light-blue dress with yellow trim and no sleeves. The dress flaps up when she exerts herself, and you see bright yellow undergarments, which aren’t really panties but the kind of thing that a superheroine might wear—a cross between panties and tights.
When she serves, I note that her armpits are quite white, as opposed to her tanned outer arms, and I find this very sexy. I’ve always had a thing for women’s armpits. It’s not an all-consuming thing, like a foot fetish, but just a general admiration for the female armpit.
Sitting near Mayor Bloomberg, I observe Andy Rooney hunched over in a posture that would seem to indicate rapt attention, but on closer inspection, I can see that his spine has been crushed by age and time, though it doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention. David Boies, Al Gore’s lawyer, sits a few rows behind Rooney, and my mind drifts back to the 2000 election, but it doesn’t like to drift back there for too long.
From the upper reaches of the stadium, a man cries out, “I love you, Maria!”
She wins in straight sets.
Andre Agassi is playing superbly and is easily defeating his opponent, a guy named Razvan Sabau. Women call out, “I love you, Andre!”
Agassi seems to waddle a little, and I imagine that his body, after running thousands of miles on tennis courts all over the world, is a bit worn down, but he still hits the ball with great authority.
I wonder what keeps Agassi going. This is his 20th year playing the U.S. Open—isn’t he bored with it? Then I think how being competitive never goes away. It’s instinctual, like lust: No matter how much you’ve made love, you’re still more or less interested in sex. I, for example, never play competitive sports any more, but I do play Internet backgammon against anonymous strangers, and I find myself wanting to win. But why? Who cares? It must be Darwinian. To prove you’re the best is part of our programming, because if you’re the best, then you get to have a mate and you get to pass on your genes. Why we want to pass on our genes, I don’t know, but seemingly we do. So this desire to pass on one’s genes fools one into striving, even at Internet backgammon or professional tennis. Something like that. Well, we’ve all been hearing about Intelligent Design, and I’ve just now given an example of Ignorant Darwinism.
I’m in the interview room with many journalists. Agassi, who has won his match quickly and efficiently, comes in. He has white threads hanging from his chin, which he seems unaware of. He must have dried his face with a towel that was falling apart.
He fields a number of dull questions with patience and generosity. I then work up the courage to ask, “Do you ever feel bad defeating your opponents? You handily beat that guy tonight and it was his first U.S. Open.”
Agassi looks me right in the eye and says firmly, “No. You don’t cheat anybody out of their experience. It all makes you who you are down the road. You’ve got to learn from it. I’ve been on the other side.”
I love his answer. It’s the thinking of a champion, but it’s also quasi-spiritual, acknowledging the other player’s destiny. Then I think how, when I was 14, I let my best friend beat me at tennis. I had been defeating him for years and so, this one time, I finally let him win—and when we were done, he lorded his victory over me. He carried on for several minutes, and then I weakened and said, “You only won because I let you.” This resulted in a terrible fight, and we never played tennis again.
Sept. 2, 2005, 4 p.m.
Serena Williams is playing an Italian woman named Francesca Schiavone. Serena has very appealing, well-defined armpits and her superheroine panties are burgundy. When she walks, her rear seems to have a life of its own, and a very nice life at that.
It’s a bright, beautiful day, and above us the Fuji blimp makes a loud, droning sound like an enormous, noisy refrigerator in the sky, and men call out, “I love you, Serena!”
I’m sitting with a bunch of salty old journalists. Bud Collins, the legendary, jovial tennis maven, is directly in front of me, and I say to him, “Excuse me, Mr. Collins, but I was wondering—do you know when fans started shouting out ‘I love you’ to the players?”
“I first heard it a century ago,” says Mr. Collins, “in Boston. Someone shouted ‘I love you, Cooz!’ to Bob Cousy. I’m not sure when it started in tennis. They get some sort of self-fulfillment proclaiming it.”
Then Mr. Collins says, to a man to our left, “Would you please sit down, sir?” and I see that it’s Richard Williams, Serena’s father. He turns and smiles at Mr. Collins, who was, of course, joking, and says, “If I sit down, I won’t be able to get up.”
Serena is playing inconsistently but winning. She’s too much for Schiavone. During tough points, her father, with a slight lisp, encourages: “Come on, Serena!”
An old Italian journalist next to me says to an even older American journalist, “You know what ‘Schiavone’ means?”
“No,” says the weather-beaten old American. These guys are a fraternity of tennis press, and they enjoy teasing each other.
“‘Big slave,’” says the Italian.
Bud Collins turns around and says, “It means ‘big slave’?”
“Yes,” says the well-spoken Italian. “I have to talk to you, Bud, about these things, not this old alligator”—referring to the weathered American journo—“who can’t understand nuance. He’s not civilized.”
“Go, big slave,” says the old American.
I’m in the corridor of the stadium. Serena has won. Two journalists are speaking with Richard Williams. I approach and they peel away, and I say to him, in journalist mode, “You hear so much about the American Dream, but I think you’re an authentic dreamer. You envisioned your two daughters as champions, and it came true.”
“I wanted them to be No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, but I was a fool then,” he responds.
“What would be your goal now?” I ask, surprised by what he has said.
“Unity of the family,” he says, a bit forlornly, and then we part, and I don’t know the full story, but I think he must be broken-hearted that his marriage has failed.
I’m in the interview room, and Serena Williams is fielding questions. She’s eloquent and charming. I ask her, “Amidst all the calls of ‘Come on, Serena!’, are you able to make out your father’s voice?”
“I can kind of differentiate my dad’s voice,” she says. “I definitely listen for it innately.”
“Does it help you when you hear him?”
“I think it does,” she says sweetly. “I think it does.”
I’m tempted to ask her about her father’s statement about family unity, but it doesn’t seem necessary.
The air temperature is pleasant. It’s the kind of night that makes you forget about global warming for half an hour, and Roger Federer, the No. 1 man, is playing a wily Frenchman named Santoro. Federer walks about the court with great self-possession, seemingly unflappable. His eyes are set a bit too closely together; otherwise, he’d be matinee-idol handsome.
In the V.I.P. section, Nicole Kidman, ethereal with her yellow-blond hair and luminous skin, leans back in her chair, calmly elegant, like a 21st-century Grace Kelly. She sits with the director Steven Shainberg, who has cast her as Diane Arbus in his latest film. I watch her watch Federer. It all feels vaguely Roman—he’s a gladiator and she’s an empress—except no one’s Iife is at stake, only money, and lots of it. I wonder if she finds Federer appealing. I imagine myself talking to her, how I would fumble for words, like a fool.
I lie on a bench near the enormous World’s Fair globe, which is just outside the tennis center. Fountains go about their business of shooting water in the air. I look up into the black night sky. I’m a bit lonely, and I think about my failings as a person. Then I give it a rest and just look into the sky and, for a moment, I feel at peace on a beautiful summer night.