Saturday, June 25, 2011

Green grass, Strawberries and Cream...

... These are some of the trappings many associate with arguably the most prestigious and hallowed of tennis tournaments, the Wimbledon Championships, which are currently underway at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. As a fan of the sport of tennis for many a year, I've always wanted to make my way to Centre Court at SW19 and soak in the atmosphere while watching some of the world's finest duke it out.

Sadly, I had to settle for the Aegon Queen's Club Tournament instead, one of several warm up tournaments that take place prior to the Grand Slam of grass-court tennis. Next to Wimbledon, some would argue that this is akin to settling for a Big Mac with fries instead of a delicious treat from a more renowned purveyor of burgers. They may be right, but seeing as I'd never watched a professional tennis match outside the constraining boundaries of a television screen (or computer monitor, if you're going to be pedantic), the experience of watching some of the top men's players in the world in person is one that I shan't soon forget!

Saturday the 11th of June 2011 was the scheduled semi-finals day at Queen's Club. The weather leading up to the day had been a bit miserable, as it sometimes rather inconveniently tends to be in the British Isles. I got there early and armed with an umbrella. I also had my precious and woefully under-used camera with me, and the photos you see in this post were taken by yours truly (as if you'd mistake them for photos taken by an actual photographer!)

There is a hint of the quaint and old fashioned at Queen's Club, and perhaps a slight dash of pompousness. Upon my arrival I didn't spend too much time in the main grounds and instead proceeded to the courts. I caught Juan Martin Del Potro practicing for his delayed Quarter Final doubles match (which he went on to lose). He looks much bigger and stronger in reality - or maybe he's bulked up. This only held my attention for a short while, and I moved swiftly on to Centre Court and took my seat, snapping photos occasionally and wondering if so many ushers and burly guards were required. They probably are, but it was a little unexpected nonetheless. I guess it takes a LOT of people to run an event like this.

I didn't have long to wait before the afternoon's proceedings, err, kicked off. The first order of business on court was for the ground-staff to set up the net, which was followed by the ball-girls making their way on to the court. Shortly thereafter, the players for the first semi final, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, were introduced to enthusiastic applause, particularly for the latter home-town favourite. The players did the usual routine you see on TV at the start of any match - settling in to their seats, getting their equipment and drinks sorted, and going through the formality of the coin toss - before starting their warm up.

My vantage point wasn't exactly stellar (the photos can be misleading, such is the benefit of having the ability to zoom!), but I had a clear view of most of the court from what I found to be a favorable angle. It was a bit strange at first, witnessing these routines play out from a fixed angle and distance. I'd become so used to watching them on TV with multiple camera angles and close ups and stats on screen, that this felt far more, well... ordinary. Roddick and Murray are both top 10 players, but now they appeared to be just two guys practicing on a tennis court - albeit two obviously highly skilled tennis players.

One of the benefits of the real world view was that I could choose to observe whatever I wanted, as opposed to whatever the broadcast director dictated. You get to notice some of the peripheral details a bit better this way. There's a plethora of activity around the court with the ball girls running around and distributing balls, operating in sync with the efficiency of a well oiled machine; this activity is continuous from beginning to end.

The announcer introduced the players during their warm up while I snapped as many photos as I could - I'd already decided to focus during the match proper instead of distracting myself with the camera. The allocated warm-up time was soon spent, and a hush descended upon the stadium. This made me realize something about sound - in broadcasts it is usually selective and overlaid with commentary with the end result being that it does not accurately represent the buzz of the crowd, or at least the buzz of the crowd one experiences being IN the crowd!

The players walked out to their positions and the match commenced. Now, this may be stating the obvious but watching these guys play in real life is quite different from watching them on TV. Television adds a level of detachment and a larger-than-life aura to proceedings, and as such it's hard to compare it directly to what you know of people playing in 'real life'. I'd seen club level players before but couldn't really appreciate how different the skill level of a professional actually is in comparison (although at an intellectual level it is somewhat obvious!) The speed and agility of a top player's movements around the court and the power and spin being consistently applied to the ball are impressive to say the least. One particular aspect that is very hard to appreciate from a TV angle is how low over the net a lot of these shots can be, passing seemingly an inch or two over the net time and time again.

The match itself was somewhat disappointingly one sided, but there was still quality on display. Roddick

There was a second semi final to follow, as well as the doubles semi. I shall say no more about these as there's nothing particularly to say about them that I haven't already mentioned in this post! The weather was fortunately excellent for most of the day, and I stayed right up to the end when well over 75% of the crowd had fled (it steadily dwindled during the doubles matches). Total time spent at the court clocked in at around 6 hours, and I have to say it's unlikely I've ever clapped as much as I did that day; polite applause between points is de rigueur.

Before I conclude this post, I do feel the need to say something about doubles matches. I hardly ever watch them on TV, but watching them here made me realize that they can be entertaining and exciting even though they lack the drama and intensity and depth of the singles game. Watching the number one ranked Bryan brothers and former Indian greats Bhupathi and Paes was a treat!

In conclusion I will say that - as a fan of tennis - attending semi finals day at Queen's club was an absolute blast, certainly the most memorable tennis event of my life thus far. Mind you, this doesn't mean I intend to revisit Queen's Club any time soon (though I certainly wouldn't mind). I'd rather try to attend a Grand Slam; if you're going to spend time and money it might as well be for the biggest and best. This isn't a knock on the non Slam events as they are essential and worthwhile, just a testament to my desire to allocate my financial resources in the best possible way! Next up, hopefully Wimbledon or the ATP Year End tournament.

Fun fact - between two of the matches I tried to guess how many people were in attendance. It was a full house for the singles matches, and I approximated around six thousand. Turns out the capacity of Centre Court at Queens is seven thousand. Not too bad for a very rough estimate I think, and I still remain amazed at how so many can fit in to so small a space (and how little 7000 people actually is in a visual sense).