Saturday, July 13, 2013

I Saw Real Summer, I Swear

There is such a thing as summer; I’m not making it up. I mean real summer and not the hot, wet, still, cloudy, grumpy-thunder kind that we’ve been having in the northeast this June and July.

I finally found it at 6:57 a.m. July 12. I woke up in our friend’s house, looked up through the skylight, which might be a little annoying to some at 6:57 a.m. on another morning, but not to me on this morning.

I saw a blue sky. If you say, “big deal,” you obviously haven’t been spending time around New York City recently. The blue wasn’t just peeking through gray clouds, and it wasn’t surrounded by haze from high humidity; it filled the frame. I could feel the fresh air coming in through the open skylight and this thing called an open window; open is what some people do with a window, when their air conditioning isn’t running on high 24/7. Amazing, but true.

This was really fresh air with a taste of the sea on it to boot, which makes sense, since we were on an island, Down East, as they say.

The day before my discovery, on our journey here, and I’m not making this up either, the temperature gauge on our Volvo C30 dashboard did not make it to 80’F, not even in the first hour it took to drive from Exit 3 on US95 to Exit 5, which usually takes about four minutes.

An early morning thunder storm (gee, what a surprise) and heavy rain must have softened a slope of earth near Riverside CT, because a tree fell from it onto US95, hit the cab of a passing truck during rush hour and closed two lanes. So, our first four minutes of the journey took an hour and we had to reset our journey clock and then we drove and drove north and east and north again then down east. Luckily, there were no kids in the back to ask, “Are we there yet?” We drove and talked about all the stuff we don't talk about at home for eight more hours. I have a feeling that both the high divorce rate and most long marriages may be directly related to long motor journeys.

We stopped in Yarmouth ME and I dove into a plate-sized harbor full of fried clams on a white flour roll with tarter sauce and waves of vinegar upon it and drank a lemonade that had sugar in it. You know what? I survived. Don’t tell Bloomberg; he won’t believe it. 

On the mail-boat to Little Cranberry Island that we caught in Northeast Harbor, a woman put on a Breton striped sweater. I hadn’t seen a sweater on anyone outdoors in weeks, although I have seen them on people indoors, freezing from arctic air conditioning. It may have been a cotton sweater, but still.

I can see the island’s harbor now from where I’m sitting on the porch and can see Mount Desert Island beyond it. The air is stunningly clear and clean. It’s midday, the sun is shining brightly amid whisps of clouds and it is unmistakably summer here. Real summer. Tomorrow's forecast promises the same.

A man just rode by on a bicycle and he wore an outer shirt over a T-shirt and he was not too hot and he wasn’t racing to beat any thunder and lightning and he did not get drenched, and by all outward appearances he was thoroughly enjoying himself, outside, in summer, in the middle of the day.

I saw it right here. Islesford, Little Cranberry Island, Maine. I swear.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Little Shot of a Scot with Whiskers

Fred Perry
Greenwich Mean Time occurs a wee-bit downriver from Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and July 7 at 17:54 Zulu (as GMT is known) Great Britain, the U.K., and Scotland finally had a men’s lawn tennis champion, Andy Murray. For England itself, technically, it’s still 77 years and counting, but, cheerio and hip-hip, after Sunday’s final and a heart-thumping three straight championship points served and lost at 40-love, let’s just forget about that, shall we, Old Beans?

This was not exactly an epic, like Murray’s opponent Novak Djokovic’s nearly five-hour- long semi-final against Juan Martín del Potro. Actually, the shadow of that earlier match may have been the only one showing on court Sunday, and at Djokovic’s expense. He simply looked wasted by the third set, and though he made a valiant try, assisted by Murray’s understandable sudden case of nerves, he just didn’t seem to get it going.

Nobody on Henman Hill, named for Britain’s previous best hope to end the gold-cup drought, is likely to remember the horrific thoughts developing in their minds as Murray struggled to get a first serve in during that penultimate game, as his knees seemed to be made of Dundee Marmalade. A net-cord appeared to reach up (assisted by Fred Perry’s ghost?) and save the day, holding back what looked like a winner down the line off Djokovic’s racquet. Then, what passes for pandemonium ensued in dainty Wimbledon.

But, what I want to know in this Age of Kim K, is why doesn’t Andy’s mum ever sit near the other Kim, the much, much better Kim, Andy’s camera friendly girlfriend, Kim Sears. What’s up with that? If they got along better and sat next to each other maybe Andy could have stopped that string at 76 years or even less! Talk about stress: a domestic freeze in front of millions of fans.

Kim Sears
Andy of Mayberry Murray is not, always looking on court as if he is losing, no matter what the score. Perhaps that is just the understated Scot’s way, or the weather up north, or just years of losing the “big ones.” That ended after Ivan Lendl, no stranger to the frown himself, took over as Coach of Andy; so far the tandem has produced two major championships and brought an empire to its knees and maybe its endorsement purse as well. Imagine the Murray brand if he could smile! Well, that might look a lot like…Kim Sears. Did we mention her already? I think so.

So, on we go to the U.S. Open in late August, where the U.S. has begun a run of its own, nine years without a men’s champion (Roddick, 2003). That’s the second longest drought for American men; it took twelve years and the beginning of the open era for Arthur Ashe to succeed Tony Trabert in 1968.

Thanks to the Williams sisters, and Martina adopting our country as her home, American women have experienced only one extended stretch, 1988-1997, without a winner. And, they appear poised to offer up a winner other than Serena before the men offer their own, barring truly profound miracles. After all, a British man has won more U.S. men’s titles than Americans in recent years: one, Andy Murray himself, in 2012. Not to mention a Swiss, a Serbian, a Spaniard, etcetera.

I’ll be there on opening day, having logged over fifty combined U.S. Nationals (“amateur”) and Opens at Forest Hills and Flushing Meadow. There is little likelihood that I will venture into Ashe Stadium, since, in the early rounds, it offers pretty dull stuff. Instead, I’ll be wandering the field courts, as I did once at Wimbledon (2006), looking for a tense battle between the number 115th and 162nd ranked men or women.

Merion: angina anyone?

If I close my eyes and just listen to the pop-pop from the racuets, I can pretend it’s still happening on our own soft lawns, public lawns to be sure; the mere mention of “private club” might cause USTA and ESPN poobahs major angina.

If Andy Murray can finally succeed, who’s to say we can never have a lawn tennis championship again?

Not I.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wimbledon 2013: Quirk Defeats Logic in Crooked Sets

Marion Bartoli
The preferred dish at bistros in Genevea by the lake, where Marion Bartoli lives, is perche du lac, and it looks as though the new Wimbledon champion has been adding sides of pasta or pommes de gruyeres. No matter. In what The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey called a “logic-defying” fortnight at All England Club, Bartoli’s win is perhaps the most powerful shot to logic’s broadside. Hallelujah!, we sing.

Logic has created a game in which all court surfaces have been equalized. Clay, grass, and Deco-Turf have been engineered to provide uniformly high and true bounces, with precious little room for idiosyncrasy, as if Microsoft or IBM had been in charge of the project.

Logic dictates that each player have nearly identical groundstrokes, hit every topspin forehand as hard as humanly possible and sometimes even harder. And, logic tells the players to hold fast to the safety of the baseline.

Consequently, rational thinking says, “Don’t rush the net; it’s scary up there.” So, we have worn-out baseline grass at Wimbledon and first-day looking green up near the net, where past greats made thousands of winning volleys.

Federer, of course, is mostly exempt from all this, except for fear of net play. His strokes and versatility are throwbacks to yesteryear and yet, he still hits with enormous power. But, Fed may be fading at last. Hopefully, young players will ignore their coaches and emulate Fed’s style as much as possible.

Marion Bartoli defies all this logic, and we must love her for that. First, her apparently lax dietary regimen, to which many of us can closely relate. Then, her quirky service motion and extra high toss. Her second serve is slower than that of some clubs’ B –Team members, but she wins 60-70% of points when she makes her first serve. She is prone to hit two-handed from both sides, even her volleys, and, yes, she forays into net (Rejoice!). Aside from all that, she is French. Enough said.

Tennis has a huge marketing advantage, which it hides in plain view. It is the only sport in which men and women compete side by side in its major championships; only the Olympics does the same. Thus, we have two-week pageants, rather than four days like The Masters, and we have the potential of seeing a great variety of playing styles.

Once again at Wimbledon, American men were nowhere near good enough to challenge in the singles draw. Thank goodness for the remarkable Bryan Brothers in doubles. The young American women, especially Sloane Stephens, show greater promise, but did not get
perche du lac
beyond the quarters this year (where Bartoli beat Stephens). Logically, the poobahs of the USTA have been yearning for and investing in the next American champions in the "inner-city" for over a decade, one dominated by the Williams sisters, who developed almost entirely outside the USTA system. How long will that quest take to succeed? A couple of more years for the women perhaps, and much longer for the men, if ever.

Marion Bartoli may not ever repeat her Wimbledon accomplishment and may not ever win another major, but we all owe her a debt of gratitude for her logic-defying win. We can only hope that more quirk will sneak into the game, and that the grass courts will once again be soft, instead of being a kind of fuzzy concrete. We can hope for some odd bounces, ground strokes that look as if they were forged in isolation with great creativity; and we can pray that more players will learn the joys of net play.

Friday’s men’s semi-final between Djokovic and del Potro is being called one of the great matches, and much of it was fun to watch. But, it took nearly five hours to complete, a Tolstoyan epic in a Twitter age and the longest semi in Wimbledon history. Now, there’s something funky and noble about that too; however, we should remember that the tie-breaker was put in place largely to shorten men’s matches. But that was in the serve and volley era on grass and hard courts. What are we going to do now?

I watched that semi at the club where I play. At the end, one of the three gents watching with me, all in
their eighties, said to his pals, "Not long ago, this place would have been packed to watch a Wimbledon semi on a holiday weekend." 
The team players march on, as do the pros and the hundreds of free-boat college players, but the everyday players, especially the young ones are disappearing, having chosen other games to play. Perhaps they've come to the logical conclusion that five hours is a bit too long to play a game, even golf.

Sad to say, they may be right about that.