I have been an ardent tennis fan for ages now. But until recently, I never had the opportunity to watch a top level tennis match live. I have spent most of my life in Kolkata, and it is definitely not the most opportune place to be a tennis fan, or player, or anything related to tennis really. So when the Davis Cup qualifier between India and Italy was held in Kolkata, it was an opportunity that I just could not afford to miss.
The experience of watching such elite level athletes play one of the most physically demanding sports imaginable in person for the first time was definitely worth it. There were a lot of things that lived up to expectations, things that exceeded expectations, a few things that fell a bit short and many unexpected little things that added to the experience.
Anyway, read on to find out more about my takeaways from this first-in-a-lifetime experience.
The tie was held on the grass courts of the Calcutta South Club. Heading into the tie, the Italians were the overwhelming favorites. They had far more experienced and accomplished players than the Indian team. I don’t think many realistic fans expected India to pull off the win. Personally, I would have been happy with a rather competitive tie – perhaps India winning the doubles and one upset in the singles. Ultimately, if I got to watch 5 competitive matches, I would have been delighted.
That is not how things panned out though. Italy won the tie 3-1. There was no need for a fifth rubber. India won a fiercely competitive doubles match, fighting back from a break down in the deciding set to force a fourth rubber. But the 3 singles matches were well and truly dominated by the Italians, who won all 3 in straight sets.
Following are the matches that I got to watch:
Andreas Seppi def. Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-4 6-2
Matteo Berrettini def. Prajnesh Gunneswaran 6-4 6-3
Rohan Bopanna/Divij Sharan def. Matteo Berrettini/Simone Bolelli 4-6 6-3 6-4
Andreas Seppi def. Prajnesh Gunneswaran 6-1 6-4
When we first entered the stands, the players were warming up. And the very first thing I noticed was the ball. The ball looked so big and prominent and was conspicuously visible even against the green background of the lush grass courts. Yeah, we’ve all seen tennis balls on TV, we’ve all played with tennis balls at some point of time or the other. But you just could not be prepared for just how prominent this ball would appear. There has been a lot of research done on the colors of the balls and courts by tennis authorities since the late 80s. And at least from the players’ and fans’ perspective, it is nigh on perfect. Most tournament balls appear pretty prominent on TV too against the backdrop of most of today’s courts. But you definitely don’t get the feel of exactly how large and visible they appear in real life.
The players really stand out
And I mean physically. Tennis players are built! When you see them on TV, you don’t really get a sense of just how big these guys are. The first match was between Seppi and Ramkumar. And by modern tennis standards, they are definitely not stand outs. When you see them on TV, you definitely don’t feel like commenting on their size. But they are 6’3” and 6’2” respectively. That is actually really tall. And the hours and hours these guys have put in at the gym is clearly apparent. Their calf muscles looked like they were carved out of marble by Renaissance sculptors. The two competitors standing in the centre of the court commanded all the attention. These were elite athletes, they belonged there. The tiny people cheering them on all around them quite visibly did not.
After the matches, we got to see a lot of the players moving about around the club. You couldn’t miss it when one of the players walked by you. They dwarfed almost everyone around. And again, it was not just about the height. Their overall physique, their gait, it all stood out. I’ve seen a lot of cricketers and footballers up close before. But they just did not command the spotlight quite the way these tennis players did. After the first day’s matches, I and a couple of friends managed a selfie with the 6’5” Berrettini, who was a really cool guy by the way. Now I’m a pretty decent sized guy at 5’10”. By Indian standards, I’m pretty much on the bigger side. But I was totally dwarfed alongside Berrettini as you can see.
Grass is beautiful
I am so glad my first tryst with live tennis was grass court tennis. Grass courts just have an inherent serene aesthetic quality to them. There were hard courts and clay courts in the South Club grounds too. None of them looked anywhere near as good as the beautiful grass courts on which the matches were held. The grass just added an extra intangible dimension to the whole experience.
What seats to get? The vertical view beats the horizontal view.
I had previously wondered what angle would be the best to enjoy live tennis from. I had suspected that a vertical view from behind one of the baselines would be the best. And that was absolutely how it turned out. I had a taste of both. On the first day, I got the vertical view. On the second day, I got the horizontal angle getting a more sideways perspective of the match. Both had its pros and cons, but on balance, the vertical view watching down the court wins out by a distance.
On the first day, I was seated in the stands behind one of the baselines. The view of the tennis was great. You have very clear perception of the shot angles and the players’ movements. The broadcasters always prefer this angle and there is a very good reason for it. However, there was one serious problem, which was probably more serious for this specific event. I’ll try to explain this as much as I can, because it is a very relevant problem.
Keep in mind that the Davis Cup rules require that World Group and Play-off ties be played at a venue where the space behind the baseline is 27 feet and there is a seating capacity of at least 4000. The AITA secured exemptions from these rules from the ITF. The courts at the South Club have a space of 21 feet behind the baselines. Temporary stands were constructed to accommodate up to 3000 spectators. Now when we entered the stand – a temporarily constructed stand – most of the front row seats were occupied. However, the stands were far from full, and there were no seat numbers specified so we could try to find the best possible available seat.
Now the first seat I tried, I could view only the far side player. The near side player and the near side baseline were totally invisible. We kept trying different seats – going further back did not help, moving forward gradually improved things. In the end, I watched the first match standing near the side railings just behind the front row, and this actually gave me an excellent view of the match.
I’ve tried to explain the exact geometric problem with the help of a few diagrams. Drawing diagrams is definitely not my strong suit, so bear with me.
The above diagram roughly represents the situation at South Club during the Davis Cup. The point H represents the height of the bottom most row of the stands. Assuming a constant slope of the stand(which is not always the case at tennis stadiums across the world, If it is not a constant slope, you would need to draw a line from each row on the stand and pass it through H), if you extend that line, you reach the court at point P. Ideally the point P for a stadium should be well behind the baseline. This is where having a large court with a significant amount of space behind the baseline can come in handy. That would provide more room for the point P to land behind the baseline. Also, if the stands are steeper, that could also help to push P back. I would suspect this is the case at a court like the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which goes up really steeply. Also, for stadiums where H reaches ground level, this viewing complication would not exist.
Since the point P was so far advanced here, we could not see the player on the near side until we got really close to the edge H. Here’s a geometric demonstration of why that was useful:
So from relatively closer in, you could get a really good view of the entire court. I saw the second match of Day 1 sitting in the second row and the view was just perfect.
On the second day, I was seated in one of the lateral stands. This felt like a significant step down from Day 1. The angles were not as clear, and even the tramlines on the far side were not clearly visible(this was perhaps a more grass court specific problem, as chalk might get erased easily). Also, you had to keep shifting your gaze left to right to left to right… throughout the rally. On the plus side, the players and their movements and mannerisms seemed more apparent.
There are probably very good reasons why the top players have achieved what they have
Okay, okay, I’m not trying to state the obvious here. My point is that these reasons are more clearly apparent when you watch these top players playing from close quarters. To demonstrate my point, I’m going to talk about Andreas Seppi’s movement here. Of course, I witnessed a lot of players with varying strengths and weaknesses plying their trade. Even Seppi has so much more to his game. But I’ll stick to that one attribute here.
Seppi has had a very long and very accomplished career. He’s reached a career high ranking of 18, and at 34 years of age, he’s still going strong. We all know his movement has always been one of his biggest strengths. But seeing it live definitely made me appreciate it a lot more. Seppi’s first match was against Ramkumar and that was a matchup of contrasts – Seppi’s baseline game versus Ramkumar’s serve and volley style play. Seppi’s second match was against Gunneswaran and this was more of a baseline duel. Even in the first match, Seppi’s superior movement was on display. But against Gunneswaran, with both players employing a more homogeneous style of play, it became really conspicuous. Make no mistake, Gunneswaran is not the worst mover around, but Seppi’s movement stood out in stark contrast. His anticipation was amazing, and he seemed to be able to start moving towards the ball a split second earlier than his opponent. And the movement itself was sure footed, confident short sharp steps and he rarely seemed to reach any ball out of position. Gunneswaran has his share of weapons including a big forehand which can cause severe damage if given the opportunity. But it just felt that Seppi had the ability to reach more balls with more time to set up for his shots, and also easily get into slightly more comfortable positions to hit his shots more consistently. In short, Seppi’s movement was clearly giving him a slightly higher probability of making better shots. And while at this level, his opponent might be perfectly capable of hitting that big forehand winner from difficult positions, you would think the slightly higher comfort levels that Seppi was hitting his shots from would eventually make a difference over the course of a set, match or tournament.
Maybe my assessment was correct, or maybe I got carried away by watching a superb display of quality tennis in person. Either way, I believe that the best players have attributes in their game that separate them from the rest. If one player has achieved more than another, there’s probably reasons for it. Of course, the margins at this level are very small. And as such, the difference in skill between Seppi’s movement and Gunneswaran’s movement on that second day was probably very minute. But that difference existed, clear as day. And such minute differences are what contributed to Seppi taking the match 6-1 6-4. And it is probably minute differences that separate top 10 players from players struggling to break into the top 150. But there will surely be some differences – be it mental, physical or in skill levels.
Other miscellaneous observations
People have heads, unfortunately
At the start of the Berrettini-Gunneswaran match, there was no one sitting directly in front of me. This afforded me a very clear, unobstructed view. A little while later, a group of people arrived and occupied the seats in front of me. Now I found myself having to look over a head, or between two heads.
Music during changeovers? Please no.
I know that some people will disagree with me on this. But for me, music just does not go well with a tennis match. And in this case, the organisers had also arranged for drummers, who sometimes added a Durga Puja like feel to the changeovers. That was just cringeworthy. My verdict on the music – it just does not belong anywhere near a tennis court.
Go to a tennis match with fellow tennis fans
If you are a true tennis fan, you know how easy it is to get involved in the game, in a point even. You know the weird reactions that you have and the weird noises you make during an intense rally. Well, I arrived kind of late on the second day, and initially I found an empty seat surrounded by a particularly sombre crowd. In fact, beside me was a mom trying to shush her kid and make him sit in the same quiet and dignified manner that she was. After reacting like a typical tennis fan for just one solitary point, I decided I had to make an effort to sit in the aforementioned quiet and dignified manner too. Luckily, I was soon able to locate my mates, and I could get back to being the typical fan for the rest of the day.