Tennis is a most remarkable and most human of sports.
It pits one man’s will and talent against another before a crowd of screaming fans. As Long Islanders we are fortunate indeed to have easy access to the world’s greatest tennis tournament each September when the U.S. Open comes to Flushing Meadows.
This year’s finals match up was between the No. 1 ranked Novak “The Jokester” Djokovic and No. 2-ranked Roger “the Maestro” Federer.
This matchup deeply polarized the 23,000 in Arthur Ashe Stadium in a way I have never seen before.
It mattered not whether you were in attendance or watching from the comfort of your home.
The adoration shown to Federer and the disdain shown to Djokovic almost became an embarrassment.
There are few things that recommend television watching.
Many years ago I did a piece called “Being there versus the tube” where I contrasted the experience of actually buying a ticket and attending the U.S. Open versus watching it at home.
The real experience is raucous but the TV experience puts you in direct contact with the tennis players and their every reaction.
Close ups of Roger Federer allowed you to see his elegant attire (all white with pink trim), his wavy hair, his catlike graceful moves on return of service and his face which remained calm and peaceful throughout.
Contrast this with all those grunts and grimaces of Djokovic. This best he could muster up was a smirk and a creepy kind of smile when he hit a winner.
This was met with silence from the crowd. It is said that Djokovic is deeply religious but evidently religion does not translate into a likable persona.
The result of all this was cheering from the crowd when ever hit missed shots.
This is an unusual event to see in the typically well-mannered world of tennis.
It was reminiscent of the relationship the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker had with the New York baseball crowds back in the ‘90s.
In a Sports Illustrated article he referred to New York sports fan as “some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDs next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time next to some 20 year old mom with 4 kids.”
Needless to say this did not go unnoticed by the New York fan and when he came to town to pitch at Shea Stadium, which is right next to Arthur Ashe Stadium, the hate-hate relationship was stunning.
The relationship between Djokovic and the crowd was not quite that bad but he is trending in that direction.
I once wrote that the arrival of Djokovic to tennis and is unseating of the graceful and elegant Federer at the top was ‘the return of the ugly.’
My overriding thought during the entire match was how it must feel to face with such overt hostility from a crowd of 23,000 fans.
Djokovic was raised in Serbia and experienced 78 days of day and night bombing during the Serbian War.
This no doubt prepared him for what he must have felt in the Arthur Ashe Stadium last night.
He wins the U.S. Open, he raises the trophy and almost no one cheers.
That is the greatest fear that all actors have and what often will cause stage fright.
Being on stage, taking your bow and being met with hostility.
It is a testament to Djokovic that he withstood the silence he faced all night long.
It also may be a testament to war and how it can strengthen a person in this way.