Imagine a three-act play that lasts two weeks. That’s a good way to describe the process of covering a Grand Slam tournament. Anyone who says they can keep track of it all is either a liar or a person with not a single close friend.
The first two rounds of a major are a tornado of scattered courts, pronunciations of new and familiar players, routine victories and the occasional highly competitive match. Alas, the presence of 32 seeds has greatly reduced early round surprise (yes, please, return to 16 seeds – much better for those who matter most, the fans). But while the on-court drama quotient is low, the need to know it all in our media world is high and compulsive, immediate and transient. Where did that lucky loser come from? What’s the deal with why that guy’s not playing Davis Cup? Who is this woman’s new coach? Why aren’t her parents here? Is that a new racquet the 19th seed is using? That suspended match: What was the exact time play was suspended, 9:34 or 9:35? If it rains, who will play when? Questions, questions. Answers, answers. At these moments, all of us who cover the tournament know we are one bad Internet hour away from disarray.
In an extremely low-tech maneuver, every morning I stare at each singles draw for five minutes, hoping the dozens of names – seeds and lower-ranked alike – will sink into my head so that I get the best possible picture of the tournament and its direction. Usually this fails, forcing me instead to mostly dig in and closely watch an occasional match, while concurrently attempting to keep track of others. Once upon a time, knowing this was a source of distress. More recently, at least on the good days, the thinking is that it’s best to just let the tournament come to me.
By Friday, though, two rounds have usually been finished – 75 percent of the players gone. Now, what was a seemingly endless (if not aimless) amble has begun to take shape. Act II us underway. An intriguing match might be upon us, be it among longstanding contenders – two Frenchman, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils – or a generational tussle (Caroline Wozniacki versus CiCi Bellis). There is also hope at this point that eagerly awaited matchups indeed occur. Will Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic win one more so they can meet up in a dream quarterfinal? Venus versus the holder, Garbine Muguruza, or Venus versus the native daughter, Kristina Mladenovic?
Over the course of this middle weekend, the festival-like atmosphere also pervades. Enough players remain in contention – singles, doubles, juniors – to keep just about all the courts alive, crackling with the sounds of tennis. Soon enough, the major action will be on the field courts; but at this point, a grounds pass remains a darn good way to watch great tennis up close.
Come the end of play Monday, we’ll be down to the quarterfinals, the pruning of the field courts and the start of Act III. Hence, the paradox of energy and engagement: As the event heats up, those who’ve been here the entire time start to feel wound down. Fortunately, usually, there is an energizing matchup; and even more, everything from this stage on carries historic implications. The big part of the funnel is a distant memory. Quarters, semis, finals – all eyes are riveted to just those scant few matches and even a select number of points that will in the end thoroughly define the entire fortnight.
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