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Curious About Pleasure


Australian Open 2014, Second Round, Days 3 and 4

Florian Mayer def. [14] Mikhail Youzhny 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3

Sam Querrey def. Ernests Gulbis 6-2, 6-3, 6-4

[3] Maria Sharapova def. Karin Knapp 6-4, 3-6, 10-8

[6] Roger Federer def. Blaz Kavcic 6-2, 6-1, 7-6

Back when I was gearing up for my visit to Melbourne, when I bought my copy of Australia: The Continent so Hot it Melts Concrete, I also purchased a pretentious hardcover book about coffee: The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, by James Freeman. Because reading about the comparative merits of pour-over versus siphon extraction is perfect preparation for international travel. (The flight attendants on New Zealand Air were thrilled when I demanded to know whether their on-board brew was made with wet- or dry-process beans.) Also, it was an impulse buy. The photo of the cup of coffee on the book cover happened to look exactly like the cup of coffee I wanted to be drinking at the time. Amazon knows these things about us.

Anyway, the book turned out to be absorbing. Its subject-matter—growing, roasting, and drinking a caffeinated beverage—is held in highest regard, and discussed with utmost gravity. Freeman describes the lonesome, creative suffering of a career as a coffee roaster with the same level of seriousness usually reserved for heart surgery or saving babies. Or sports-writing. But, if you like excellent coffee, or hoity-toity cafes, or luxury gadgetry, it’s a goldmine of fascinating details. And it reminded me of tennis.

Freeman, who is the founder of Blue Bottle, one of Northern California’s most respected—borderline fetishized— coffee-roasting companies, might inflate the importance of coffee in the grand scheme of life, but he isn’t wrong about the strange satisfaction to be found in the repetitive loneliness of trying to do something unnecessary, unnecessarily well. Roasting the perfect blend of coffee beans is not unlike the Sisyphean suffering involved in playing tennis devotedly, and even in watching tennis devotedly—or, at any rate, in wilting in the concrete-busting afternoon heat while one of your favorite players loses a fifth set of tennis.

On my first day at Melbourne Park, I watched Mikhail Youzhny and Florian Mayer play a midday five-set match on Court 8. The match eventually went the way of the German, who was stepping gingerly on his tender, booted ankle, and sculling away at his double-handed backhand slice, but who also played mostly well and almost always aggressively. Youzhny, by contrast, played well occasionally, mostly when his back was against the wall in the fourth set, or down break points in the fifth. Otherwise, the Russian spent the hottest part of a searingly hot afternoon slapping an endless series of groundstrokes and serves into the tape, excoriating himself emphatically in his mother tongue, and clenching his square jaw in rage until his tanned complexion turned the color of cooked lobster. At no point during the match did Mikhail Youzhny look like he found the competitive process fun.

Later, in Margaret Court Arena, Ernests Gulbis quickly got down to the business of making tennis look like a truly wretched way to spend time. The Latvian lost in straight sets to American Sam Querrey, who executed his special brand of morose excellence with a level-headedness that neatly juxtaposed his opponent’s decompensating ego. The crowd looked for any and every excuse to get behind Gulbis, cheering enthusiastically for each wing-flapping forehand winner, and cooing sympathetically after every drop shot that dropped, mortally wounded, onto the wrong side of the net. But the most exciting moment of the match turned out to be when Gulbis launched his racquet vaguely in the direction of a ball-child and exactly toward the ground. The racquet head snapped in half on court, where Gulbis left it for dead. After shucking his sweaty wristband into the stands, Gulbis slowly unwrapped a new racquet, gestured imperiously for a child to fetch his designer vibration dampener off his broken stick, and sauntered back to the baseline to continue spraying forehand errors.

My first day at the Happy Slam seemed intent on reminding me that playing tennis for a living is less about playing than it is about hard, virtually liquefying, work. Even Alexandr Dolgopolov, usually content to at least grin in the face of defeat, looked thoroughly miserable to be losing to a determined Jeremy Chardy in the humid early evening breeze. (I’ll spare Matt Ebden the ignominy of describing the purgatory that was his loss to an injured Vasek Pospisil during the night session on Rod Laver Arena.) And on Day 4, the tennis suffering seemed to be, if anything, worse. The heat—extreme western heat, if you will— continued on being relentlessly hot, but there was less cloud cover than on the day before, and sunlight poured over the blue courts like so much molten gold. 

Despite her stylish changeover ice-vest, Maria Sharapova looked heat-stricken and muddle-headed on Rod Laver Arena as she dragged herself—and her straining vocal cords—to a victory over Karin Knapp, 10-8 in the third. Carla Suarez Navarro also needed three sets and over three hours under the cruel sun to defeat her opponent, Galina Voskoboeva. And then the tournament itself was forced to deploy the “extreme heat rule,” which decrees that all coffee served on the grounds must be thoroughly iced—and also that people stop playing tennis outdoors. 

Speaking of coffee, I thought about Freeman’s book on crafting the perfect cup on Wednesday, as I watched Youzhny try to coax forth something like his best tennis on a seriously off day while I, my spectating self, struggled to avoid slipping into a full-on heat-stupor.* In The Craft of Coffee Freeman described, at length, the necessity of vigilant attention to detail, not to mention the overall tedium involved in learning to make coffee-making look effortless. But he also wrote lovingly of the finished product, saying, among other things, that coffee makes us curious about pleasure. This was a declaration that stuck with me, and I think it applies to almost anything in life—person, place, or thing—into which we project our emotional experience of potential. If it doesn’t make us curious about the good things in life, it should. 

It was this curiosity that came to mind as I realized Youzhny was not going to bounce back against Mayer in the fifth set as he had bounced back in the fourth. The match was not a pleasure for me to watch, and I imagine it was not a pleasure for the Russian to play – or for the German either, for that matter. But although watching all those sets of tennis, only to see my guy lose in the end was dreary, and cost me most of the salt reserves in my body, it wasn’t a disappointing disappointment. (If that makes sense.) Instead, it felt a part of the larger experience—a low note to emphasize the high ones to come, to use Freeman’s language. It was still tennis, and it made me curious about pleasure.

As fortune would have it, a high note wasn’t far away. Within 24 hours of Youzhny’s loss I found myself with an excellent seat on Hisense, underneath a closed roof in an air-conditioned stadium, cradling a dish of affogato, and watching Roger Federer unfurl two sets of sleek tennis on his way to a 6-2, 6-1, 7-6(4) victory over a game, clean-hitting, and occasionally bold Blaz Kavcic. It was all very posh—like a siphon-brewed cup of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe on a leisurely (and temperate) Sunday morning. That is, if a leisurely Sunday morning included the cracking sound of swiftly struck forehand winners and the cheers of a few thousand sports fans.

Roger Federer, the sixth seed, was having a pretty good night. He displayed an unerring attraction to the open court, as well as an affinity for break point conversions and the happy ability to please a crowd that loved nothing more than to Ooh and Ah at his shot-making prowess. People tend to say that Federer makes it—tennis, perfection— look easy. I’m not so sure about that. A better way to put it might be that Federer, when he’s playing well, makes it look unattainable. There was a fantastic, and fantastically long point on Federer’s serve at 3-0 in the second set wherein the Swiss managed to get to several balls he had no business arriving at, and then doing things with those shots that he had no business doing. He eventually won the point, while Kavcic was left shaking his head in disbelief. Only Federer.

But as many times as Kavcic was left with nothing but a wry grin of frustration, he didn’t give up. Just after that long, magic point from Federer, the Slovenian broke the Swiss for 1-3. Federer responded by hitting four winners and breaking right back. For two solid sets of tennis, it was that kind of night for the Rolex Brand Ambassador. Still, it wasn’t a perfect performance. In the third set Kavcic lifted his game, primarily via gutsy serving, and Federer’s level dropped to somewhere between fair-to-middling and just-plain-passive. There were several interesting shanks. But the Swiss regained some rhythm as the third set aged, earning match point in the tiebreaker, which he won after forcing Kavcic to dive for not one, but two, volleys in a row. Carlos Bernardes called “game, set, match” while the Slovenian was still coming out of his second roll on the concrete. It was an absolute pleasure. And it made me very curious about how Rafa was doing over on Laver. 


*At some point during the fourth set I worried I might be succumbing to heat-induced auditory hallucinations because I imagined I heard live accordion music. Further investigation—in the form of directing my gaze to the stands of Court 13—proved that it was only Damir Dzumhur’s loyal fans, who’d come thoroughly equipped to help the Bosnian defeat Ivan Dodig. Besides a few dozen Bosnian flags and a catalog of traditional Bosnian tennis folk-chants, they’d also brought a piano-accordion to play during changeovers.

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About Arienna Lee

Arienna Lee is a psychologist and storyteller in the Northern California. She writes about tennis and the psychology of tennis. She likes long walks on the beach, fist-pumps, and one-handed backhands. You can contact Arienna via: admin@tennisfrontier.com
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