Pippin was his name, a barn owl, delicately poised on the arm of his holder, his big bright eyes taking in dozens gathered Sunday night at the South Carolina Aquarium on the Charleston Harbor. The occasion was the Volvo Car Open player party – a glitzy nighttime lull before the long grind of competition got underway.
As Pippin proudly paraded, players partied proudly and playfully. Past champions Venus Williams (’04), Jelena Jankovic (’07) and Andrea Petkovic (’14) chatted with various sponsors, longstanding tennis zealots and many friends and followers. Others in attendance included Madison Keys, now about to play only her third tournament of 2017; Johanna Konta, fresh off her win in Miami; top-seeded doubles duo Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova; and a local contender, Shelby Rogers.
The news value of a player party is minimal. Still, to those intrigued by the traveling tennis circus, these events have long carried a mystique and allure. What goes on when players are away from the courts? From time to time, one hears tales of the mischief associated with young people who travel the world, make a lot of money and confidently occupy their bodies. Exhibit A: Marat Safin.
But at heart, player parties mostly have a PG-rated sweetness to them, a compensatory contrast to the lives tennis players lead from a very young age. For most of us, adolescence is a time to search and seek focus, be it everything from schoolwork to sports, theatre, government, parties and all manner of gestalts with friends and families.
Not so for tennis players. The laser-like attention it takes to excel – even as a junior -- mostly excludes breadth in favor of depth. You win a match, many a pro has told me, and you have about five minutes to savor it before you must start preparing for the next one. The schedule is relentless: the stretch, the workout, the practice session, the match, again and again and again.
Consider the Volvo Car Open player party a counterbalance, a kindly respite of sushi and pizza, chicken and grits (we are in the South), makeup and earrings, candy and camaraderie – a brief escape from the rather austere life of a solo warrior.
Of course I can’t speak for how Pippin saw it.