Sunday, 27 June 2010

It's A Family Affair

It's the time of year I normally hate – no, not summer, but that season when sport seems to rule the TV and a large section of the population's lives. This year is a first for me because since September I have been living without a TV in a house where TVs are not considered an essential item. This means that for the first week of the World Cup, I managed to entirely avoid seeing any footage. Sure, I walked past the odd pub and caught the occasional glimpse of green pitches and heard that familiar sound of fans cheering on or commiserating team performances.

For several reasons this year seems to be the year of firsts... Perhaps, I should have waited until 2010 to do my degree. Tennis is something I have always grown up with: every year my Olds tune in to Wimbledon; at family gatherings a trip to the local tennis courts is not unusual; at school I was forced to “play” and my Aunt and Uncle are both line judges. My travels left me open to trying pretty much anything at least once so this year I decided to give myself another first by taking advantage of my Aunt and Uncle's position, utilising their easy access to Wimbledon tickets. Not a huge fan of tennis, I justified the expense by viewing it as a rare chance to spend a day in the English sunshine and something else to file away in the experience bank.

I began my day meeting my Wimbledon date – Old Dear; Spending a day with my dad seemed to be a fitting way of continuing this link between Tennis and my family that I always unwittingly make. Faffing around in Waterloo getting supplies, I painfully recognise myself within him; I am truly my father's daughter and this unavoidable fact is something that I will be reminded of throughout the day. I watch him rummaging in the characteristic luminous orange rucksack, burying things deep in the bag he will clearly need in a few moments and perpetually thinking he's lost something. On the train we are virtually wearing the same glasses and later on in the day after he's given me a tour of the grounds and we are sitting with Pimm's another embarrassing personal characteristic is mirrored – he clumsily manages to explode a bottle of carbonated water and immediately afterwards succeeds in knocking over a champagne bottle – thankfully empty.

All refreshed and having watched snippets of women's singles and my Aunt line judging a men's doubles game, we head over to court 18 to bask in the sun. It's not long before another irritating Owenism I seem to have inherited pops up uninvited - nose blowing that resembles a fog horn heard through a megaphone at close range; Luckily, this isn't something that happens during a vital match point, especially as the crowd are fully engaged in this rather tense exceedingly close match between American, 23rd seed, John Isner and Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut. I actually feel quite sad to be leaving at 4.30 when it's time to meet my Aunt in the Umpire/Line Judging area for tea.

An hour later and we return to Court 18 pleased and amazed the battle continues – in the fifth set neither player has a clear upper hand and the number of games played is already so ludicrously high there are murmurs of world records being beaten. Both players are grunters and the occasional softening and quietening of their animalistic sounds perpetuates unanimous giggling from the crowd. John is already clearly tired but somehow my sympathies lie with the Frenchie. John is a lobber with once world-record breaking speed serves, “Nico” on the other hand is a runner darting all over the court, seemingly expelling more energy despite John's appearance. Both have dedicated supporters – a group of fellow Frenchies repeatedly chant ascending “alle”s while American spectators yell “John” in an accent I can't help but associate with the cheesy Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tantum film, “Dear John”. Two kids in front, one wearing an Arsenal t-shirt, both start yelling “alle John” and one shouts out a plea for the “ref” to ignore one of his faults.

As the game continues with no clear winner in sight the crowd whoop, making firework appreciation noises and attempting Mexican Waves. The umpire relishes announcing the ridiculous score, laughing each time as he updates us. Outward appearances suggest John is now not merely tired but completely exhausted. He stands looking dismayed with his hands on his hips. Good-natured yells of “We want to go home” start to be emitted from random spectators and are always followed with a peel of laughter. At 40 match point games there is a big cheer – it's impossible not to admire the dedication and devotion of these two equally-matched players.

I'm just as impressed by the ritualistic military style of the ball boys' and girls' routine and there is also plenty to revere in the line judges who stand centrally at the other end of the court from John, bravely facing the wrath of one of his high-speed balls. Hearing the loud bang as one of his serves hits the spot these line judges stood in only seconds before and watching Nico's almost panicked looking self-defence style returns, I'm glad I'm not in the path of those balls.

Munching on Percy Pigs, I feel exhausted from the heat and the constant crossing and uncrossing of my legs on either side for nearly three hours. As time passes, John becomes the underdog - his T-shirt isn't the only now transparent garment as his sweat-soaked shorts become that way inclined. Sitting to the side of the court, his legs splayed with his racket between them, the self-recognition in his exhaustion produces empathy. I am pathetically reminded of all those times I'd be walking uphill from the gym after swimming and using power plates, carrying shopping and contemplating just giving up, stopping and sitting down or the also equally “painful” uphill walk to University first thing in the morning. Through all John's sweat and frustration, Nico appears unfazed and I find myself starting to unwillingly change my allegiance.

At “47 all” the scoreboard ceases working as if it has maxed out, having never gone to such a score before or through pure exhaustion like the more determined players. At 50, we leave this Herculean effort to engage in a final stubborn argument over which station we'd arrived at. Unfortunately “bloody-mindedness” is another father-daughter trait I'm constantly reminded of – sometimes it proves useful and for others around, I'm sure it's frustrating. On this occasion, like the tennis players we'd recently watched, Old Dear and I are perfectly matched, except on arriving at the station it was clear I'd obviously got my overs and unders mixed and would have to admit defeat.

On the way home, we discover a desperate Nico has lunged for the ball propelling himself across the court and launching his racket but is still fighting for his victory. At Waterloo, I say my farewells and on the bus home I'm told the match is postponed due to dwindling light until the next day – a wise decision I think as I contemplate the damage John's service could do in the darkness.

For the first time in my life, the following morning, I actively seek out Metro's sports pages on my way in to my supply booking. Surely if either player was to win it'd be due to a cardiac arrest? I'm strangely disappointed by the lack of a resolution and keenly await a text update later in the day. When I discover John eventually won the 138th game of the fifth set at 70-68 to a standing ovation, called Nico an “absolute warrior” and claimed to have not felt tired, I am no longer sure I wanted him to win; Players fresh-faced from sleep, rest and food, it doesn't feel like the same match. As the crowd had suspected the day before, the game broke twelve world records ( and the players received a crystal bowl and champagne flute to mark the feat.

Played over three days (the fourth set was halted on Tuesday night) for eleven hours and five minutes with the final set lasting a staggering seven hours and six minutes, this was the longest match in the history of tennis, beating the previous 2004 record at the French Open of six hours and thirty-three minutes by Fabrice Santoro Arnaud Clement. The 118 games in the final set beat the previous record in men's singles of 46 by Nicola Pietrangeli and Nikola Pilic in 1962 and Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969. Although Andy Roddick now has the fastest serve at 155 mph, Isner managed to set a new personal world record with his 113 aces. So not only was the day a first for me but a first for many world records and somehow I was jammy enough to witness them. Watching such an exciting game has me contemplating returning for more sweat and blood at next year's Wimbledon but without a TV, I won't be following the rest of this year's action.

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