Day One at the US Open 2013
You know you’re a tennis fan when, on a crisp August evening, under a plumb colored sky, you’re sitting at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, where cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma introduces his quartet, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, by saying, “I bet you’ve never seen four goats on a stage before,” and your immediate reaction is to look around for Roger Federer—or Rafael Nadal; or Serena; or even Djokovic.
Yep, that’s how you know you’re a tennis fan: you have forgotten that goats exist in the real world, where they have four legs and horns, and don’t know a forehand from a fingerboard. As it was explained to the audience, a “goat rodeo” is a metaphor for a risky and chaotic situation, not unlike the creative process, or an arena filled with angry goats and cowboys, or Super Saturday at the US Open. In fact, I’m pretty sure the musicians named their collaboration in honor of an especially blustery Super Saturday. You know what it’s like, when courts boil and roil from the inside, hurricanes blow from the outside, and the world’s best players don’t get to play much tennis. That’s essentially the definition of a goat rodeo.
Along with Edgar Meyer on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Chris Thile—the only mandolin player I’ve ever seen perform while wearing a meticulously tailored hipster suit—Mr. Ma played two hours of music that was almost as exciting as the running slice-slash-stab passing shot Rafael Nadal hit off Ryan Harrison’s overhead smash to earn the first of many, many break points on the American’s serve. But though Nadal did hit several thrilling shots, I have to admit that overall, the single set of music performed by The Goat Rodeo Sessions on Saturday was more engaging than all three sets of the Nadal-Harrison match. I should point out, before I upset a significant number of my readers, this was not Rafa’s fault.
Perched— and chirping away—in the ESPN booth, John McEnroe made the accurate observation that there is simply not a single thing that Harrison does anywhere near as well as Nadal does everything. Ryan Harrison is now 0-20 against Top 10 opponents, a stat he might appreciate more if those losses had occurred at a slightly more advanced stage of important tennis tournaments. When asked, Harrison is always quick to point out that he relishes playing the best “on the big stage,” but I bet he’d trade the biggest and the best for a shot at the second round, or more importantly, a better split-step after his serve.
Shortly after Nadal broke Harrison’s serve and then held his own with ease, McEnroe went on to note— with a delightful disregard for sense—that Ryan Harrison has never won a five set match, and therefore “the longer this goes, the worse it gets for Harrison.” Fortunately for the 21-year-old, it didn’t go on very long. Nadal won 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in just over two hours. Harrison actually lost the final point from the seated position, having toppled over just in time to watch Nadal bury a short ball in the opposite corner of the court.
To go on citing opinions of broadcast commentators, one of the online ESPN announcers (possibly Taylor Dent) said that while Nadal is playing for the title, Harrison is playing for respect. This struck me as a poor choice of motivators for the 21-year-old. After all, it presumes an essential lack in the self that has nothing to do with tennis technique. If he’s not playing to win—which would make a kind of sense in this case—Harrison should be playing to better understand himself, not to try to get other people to understand him better.
In any case, the one-sided nature of the contest made it difficult to judge the Spaniard’s form, but two hours and five minutes was plenty of time for me to form a decided opinion on Rafa’s new pointillist headband: I like it. Like a well-tailored hipster suit on a mandolin player, it works.
What hasn’t worked, on account of the rain delay, was my plan to steal everything Yo-Yo Ma said during his between-song chats at the Greek Theatre — Ma is hands down the jolliest and most insightful world-famous cello player I have ever heard talk about goats— and apply it to the GOATs who were to perform on the Arthur Ashe stage during Day 1 of the Open. Mr. Ma spoke eloquently about his continued love of playing his instrument, and of the undying human need for invention and risk. He said our passions deserve practice, and referred to himself as an old goat who never wanted to stop learning new tricks. (He put both hands to his head as he said this last bit, index fingers pointed skyward, to show us his goat horns. See, a jolly cellist.)
I had intended to lift all these lovely Yo-Yo sentiments and stick them directly to the goatiest of all the current GOATs: Roger Federer. Had all gone according to plan, it would have been very inspirational, like a Blue Mountain card, but with horns. However, as you know, it rained. And like the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Arthur Ashe stadium is—for now— wide open to the night sky. (Except, I’d like to point out, it does not rain in Berkeley in August.) So, no Federer primetime match, and no making little horns with my fingers while I type. (Probably easier that way.)
Oh, what the heck. I’ll write it anyhow. How often does a tennis blogger get to use a Presidential-Medal-of-Freedom-winning classical musician discussing domesticated ruminants as her muse?
OK, there. You probably can’t see, but I’ve just done the horns. (To do it properly you’ve got to get the index fingers aligned precisely with the edges of your eyebrows.) Now for the typing:
Leading into the Open, there has been much talk concerning the exact moment when the 32-year-old Roger Federer ought to retire.* Yesterday, today, tomorrow, and ten years from now have all been suggested to Roger via helpful tweets. Already the Swiss has fallen to No. 7 in the rankings, which makes it statistically difficult for him to qualify for membership in the Big 4. Moreover, nobody wants to see the sheen rubbed off his GOAT coat if he tumbles any lower.
But the problem with quitting while you’re ahead, or even quitting when there is any possibility at all of getting ahead, is that you’ll never know where you could have gone. In place of the secure knowledge that every avenue was exhausted, there will be uncertainty. And uncertainty is the GOAT of difficult states of being—most of us go to great lengths to avoid it most of the time.
After my initial confusion about goats on the stage at the Greek Theatre, I didn’t think about tennis during The Goat Rodeo Sessions’ performance. Mostly I enjoyed the pleasure of listening to and watching four accomplished musicians work and play at something they so clearly love. But at the end of the evening, just before the encore, I did think about tennis again. The quartet finished their set with a rousing tune called Attaboy. Then, they thanked the audience for being there, and Yo-Yo Ma instructed us, with something very like joy in his voice, all to go home and always practice our passions. He sounded sincere.
The essence of sports depends on laying down a firm line between the experiences of victory and defeat, but for a split-second I wished it didn’t. What if Federer and the Williams, and the struggling Harrison, and James Blake—who did announce his retirement, effective immediately after his final round at the Open— could all pick up their stringed instruments and collaborate—practicing, performing, and enjoying? Wouldn’t it be nice if the goal was for each person to become the best they could become on that very day, instead of “better than everyone else for all eternity”—an enterprise doomed to failure?
Well, it would be nice. But it would also be a lot less like tennis.
So instead, we’ll wait and watch, and be uncertain. And if Roger Federer —or Venus Williams, or James Blake, or Tommy Haas, or any other people too old to know how to twerk like Hannah Montana — do manage to win the US Open, I am going to put on my best hipster jacket, break out my mandolin, and totally pretend I know how to play it. Attaboy!
*They say the champions –from Venus Williams to Roger Federer to Francesca Schiavone—always think they can get it back. Federer is 32. Venus and Fran are 33. But come September, Serena Williams, who allowed Schiavone only six points in six games, will also be 32-years-old. And Tommy Haas, as we all know, is 142. Age is not the only deciding factor.