Saturday, August 23, 2014

US Open Qualifying 2014

So far the Qualies have cooked up a slew of nail-biters, plenty of 3-setters, and a good chunk of tiebreakers. Since the home of the Open is in my backyard in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, I take advantage (pardon the tennis pun) and head out to this beautiful four-day binge.

Day one is balmy, an SPF 70 Aveeno Suncreen day if ever there was one and you can feel the endless possibilities for these 256 hungry players, vying for 36 spots into the main draw in the last leg of the Slams (128 men and 128 women). The tournament is single elimination, think gladiators with racquets and headbands instead of swords and maces. Since word broke that last year’s champ, Raphael Nadal, would have to bow out of the tournament, there’s been a big sigh of disappointment. Djokovic and Federer
have bumped up to the 1 and 2 seeds, and a lucky loser will get to take Nadal’s vacant spot.

I’m watching Roberto Marcora from Italy who is currently ranked 221 in the world. He has amassed a whopping $19,309 to date for singles play and $587 for doubles. At this rate, he’ll be lucky to clear $35K for the year. Peanuts. Consider this: tennis, unlike team sports (baseball, football, and basketball) you are responsible for your own transportation, housing accommodations, and sunflower seed addiction. In his first match, Marcora up 4 – 2 in the 3rd set, is serving at 30 all, he blasts his first serve into the net. His second serve is an offspeeder into the box and wins a sweet rally only to have the line judge reverse the call. They replay the point and it’s an awesome one, Marcora makes an unbelievable get, outstretched, driving the ball down the line. He follows it up with a service winner. The next game the Serbian holds and Marcora has a chance to serve out the match. At 30 all they’re trading monster forehands as a 747 soars overhead. Although the groundies are muted by the plane, the grunts are still audible. Marcora cranks out an 129 mph ace down the T and then lets loose a barbaric yawp to celebrate his victory.

His second match is another nail-biter, but this time the #4 seed Facundo Bagnis is pushing him to the limit. The Argentine has a solid ground game and he is pinning Marcora to the baseline. They trade corner shots, but Marcora miss-hits a crosscourt forehand. His backhand doesn’t have the same zip as the day before. Bagnis also looks hungrier and takes it in 3 sets and will have one final challenge. He will face the American Ernesto Escobedo.

I had the chance to watch the old-timer, 36-year-old Michael Russell. The American has been a staple on the ATP for the past 14 years and reached a career high at #60 in 2007. Michael holds the dubious distinction of being the all-time USTA Pro Circuit singles champ with 24 titles. That’s like being the all-time Triple A homerun champ. Russell doesn’t waste any time in his first hurdle, dispelling Enrique Lopez-Perez of Spain in straight sets 6 – 1, 6 – 4. They play on Court 11, which is something of a mini grandstand. Russell is decked out in his Day-glo green and black top and is bouncing around like a clubber in the Meatpacking. Lopez-Perez is fast and has a wicked forehand, but Russell doesn’t seem impressed by it. On the changeover, Russell sits under the umbrella the ballperson has opened, and appears deep in thought as he sips his Evian. The ump intones, “Time” and both players spring from their movie director-style chairs. The Spaniard is adjusting his strings as he walks to the baseline. He cranks out a big serve down the T and Russell blocks it back. They trade 5 or 6 crosscourt forehands before Russell goes the other way and Lopez-Perez sprays a backhand wide. They seem to be even, trading winners and Russell will only barely eke out the Spaniard in that department 22 to 19, but Russell exploits his opponent’s weakness, the backhand. Lopez-Perez goes on to fluff 18 of those suckers. He makes 29 unforced errors in all to Russell’s 17 unforced errors. Russell also breaks his opponent twice as many times 4 – 2.

In the Second Round, Russell squares off with Belgium’s Steve Darcis. This is less a continuation of where Russell had left off and more of an uphill battle. He never seems to find his rhythm and ends up getting spanked by Darcis in straight sets.

Two Americans face each other in round 2, the up-and-coming Rhyne Williams and the seasoned journeyman, Rajeev Ram. Williams, a 23-year-old, qualified for the Australian Open back in January. His biggest show to date was in Delray Beach where he reached the quarterfinals. This guy looks like he has some promise. Ram, on the other hand, has been around for a while. He’s been to the quarters of Wimbledon, French Open, and Australian Open. His forte is doubles and he’s been in the top 50 for some time. Doubles is not singles and now Ram is scrapping it out in the singles qualies. Both players had fairly easy first-rounders.

It’s hard to watch two Americans battling it out. Who do you give your heart to the youngblood from Boca Raton or the seasoned doubles’ pro? Maybe you want to pull for Williams, hoping he can improve on his 1st round loss in the main draw of the 2012 Open. Ram has another idea. He comes out of the box with great composure and is really clocking his serves. He’s got great flow and is in control. Williams never really gets the upper hand. Not that he makes a lot of errors, but he is clearly outplayed. Ram doesn’t outgun his opponent, he outplays him without making a double fault or an unforced error. He’s off the court in little over an hour 6 – 3, 6 – 2. He will have to face the 7-seeded German, Andreas Beck.

As the gate shuts on many talented players, the gate opens for others. It’s a lot of fun watching these rising stars because who knows who for sure will make it to the next stage. Who will be the next Gilles Mueller, the first Luxembuorgian to advance to the Quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event back in 2008? He did it as a qualifier.

It’s time now for my banana break so I can take in the second half of the grueling day’s schedule. I hear Sharapova is practicing on Louie Armstrong. See you courtside

Friday, August 8, 2014

Open Your Piehole and Say Ahhhh

Mary Roach writes about science the way I eat my Chunky Monkey ice-cream. She has a marvelous sense of humor, and could decorate Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree with her myriad factoids. If you enjoyed her previous book Stiff (about cadavers), this follow-up will totally knock your socks off. Again, Roach answers many interesting questions about our innards, and although some of the subjects might’ve seemed dry in Bio 101, our talented author makes you regret the fact that you don’t wear a lab coat to work.

Her chapter “Liver and Opinion” really cuts to the heart of our cultural predilections for food— why we eat what we eat, and why, for example kidneys and liver got packaged under the splendid moniker “variety meats” back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She gives examples of how cultural food bias can be taken to extremes when on the Burke and Wills expedition in the 1860s, some of the British explorers were so repulsed by what the Australian Aborigines ate that the British explorers ended either getting scurvy or starving to death.

There’s an awesome essay on the Pre-WWI “Chew Freak”, Horace Fletcher, who suggested that efficient mastication could help trim the National Debt. Kafka, apparently was a Fletcherist, and took painstaking efforts to prolong his meals by excessive chewing so much so his father was said to have “hid behind a newspaper at dinnertime to avoid watching the writer Fletcherize”. Today chewing is still an important area of research. Andries van der Bilt leads a research team at the University Medical Center at Utrecht. Mary Roach describes the man as resembling a tooth. To give you an idea of her sense of humor. Van der Bilt spends his days working with comfort putty and experimenting with various aspects of oral physiology. He uses emotion-recognition software to ascertain whether people are happy, sad or ambivalent when they are chomping away at their meals. Did you know that our jaw muscles are the strongest muscles in our body?

Jonah zealots might be put off by the chapter Numero 8 “Big Gulp”, debunking the myths of fisherman surviving after being swallowed alive by whales. Roach deftly notes that it is not simply a matter of “spatial accommodations,” but physiology and chemistry that factors into equation. What about all those gastric juices swishing around inside our big beluga? She also delivers these delightful bon mots “would a man in a whale forestomach be crushed or merely tumbled? No one to my knowledge has measured the contraction strength of the sperm whale forestomach, but someone has measured gizzard squeeze.”

Who should pick up this book? Anybody who is interested in really delicious questions about our masticatory apparatus, anybody doing due diligence before getting their next colonoscopy, and, perhaps, anybody dying to know whether the eaten can eat back? Do you want to know if Elvis died of constipation or more about flatulence research? Roach doesn’t leave any gallstones unturned, this is a thoroughly researched, but highly accessible science book for those that wish Tina Fey or Stephen Colbert would give a diatribe or a treatise on gastroenterology.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Give Consider the Lobster Some Whatchamallit, Consideration

The Footnote King really delivers with his kickass essay collection, Consider The Lobster. He knocks John Updike on his duff (supposedly one of Wallace’s big heroes), he posits that Kafka was really a misunderstood humorist, and that tech crews are the real brains behind political campaigns. He goes out of his way to be a likable agitprop. He succeeds. And it doesn’t hurt that he is a master craftsman of the potent sentence. It’s not all about pretty prose, he loads his lines with philosophical polemics. This ain’t no beach read.

I love his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” because it’s so frustrating to be such a huge fan only to have a crappy book written about the ex-champ. His argument is really interesting and it reminds me of how disappointed George Plimpton was when he found out that Vladimir Nabokov was a big fat dud in person. Now, Wallace is fully aware that Tracy Austin, his childhood heroine, didn’t even pen her memoir, but rather had a ghostwriter do the dirty deed. Wallace himself admits that though he is a sucker for these sports stories, he usually tries to hide them under something “highbrow” when he’s at a bookstore’s checkout counter.

We all have curiosity about the rich and famous and sometimes we couple this up with a craving for something saucy, something that we know is really, nothing more than junkfood. Boy, does David Foster Wallace know how to pull us in. His opening essay, smartly titled “Big Red Son” is about Hollywood’s evil twin the Porn Industry. The characters are really characters is an understatement, but he doesn’t treat them in a pathetic way. You never get the feeling he is there, leering at the jugs of the porn stars. You can sense how important it is for him to see their humanity. He offers an objective tone, providing a fairly detailed analysis of the key players in the industry: camera men, production companies, journalists, and fans. Because he has such keen insight into what makes the various players tick— petty gripes they’ve had with each other and interests (beyond the screen) you believe his authorial voice.

What makes this collection so appealing is that it covers such a breadth of topics that you have to scratch your head and wonder how the hell this guy does it? You know he’s a meat-eater through and through, but he seems to, convincingly, plead the case for protecting the lobster from its vicious fate of being dumped into scalding hot pot. The lobster hangs on for dear life (by the claw) when he’s tossed in a pot. The lifelong loner is the type of animal (I use this word in its broadest sense) that hates, absolutely hates to be claw-to-claw with other crustaceans and that is how he spends his last moments before you point to him and choose him for your surf and turf dinner.

The sort of book review/romp on John Updike is classic, and it clues us into what D.F Wallace is all about. Wallace takes umbrage with the GMNs. The Great Male Narcissists. He includes Updike, Roth, and Mailer as the 3 horsemen of this enterprise. Wallace admits that he’s always been a big fat fan of Updike, but knows too that there’s a wee bit of misogyny going on between the covers. He’s not against the Updike obsession with penises and desire to roam free and be one’s own man, but that this is the overwhelming theme of pretty much everything the guy has ever written. Surely, a protagonist could be better-rounded. So maybe there’s a boatload of sentences that deserve lots of oohing and aahing, in the end, you want to smack some sense into his protagonists.

Love him, loath him. David Foster Wallace can write some stretchy sentences, but he's got lots of pop, and is always engaging.