Sport is very different when mediated by a television camera. On screen, you lose all sense of a ball’s true speed, of the players’ astonishing agility. Roger Federer’s forehand on TV is still a thing of beauty, but it’s something you can (almost) take for granted. Seeing it for real is a useful, if crushing, reminder of how far removed it is from anything you could come up with yourself.
On two consecutive nights last week, thanks to some generous colleagues at the newspaper where I work, I went to the ATP World Tour tennis finals at the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. The organisers went for maximum American-style razzmatazz. Before the players came out there was a long build-up involving flashing lights, a rousing voiceover, and clips of interviews displayed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling. During the changeovers, the lights in the auditorium were dimmed and rock music blared. Men with large plastic guns occasionally appeared and fired T-shirts into the crowd. We were a long way from Wimbledon.
On Wednesday, an off-colour Nadal lost in straight sets to Davydenko (who went on to win the tournament yesterday). But Thursday night’s was the match-up I really cared about: Federer v. Del Potro, a rerun of their epic US Open final in September, which Del Potro won in five sets. This time, unlike in New York, Del Potro seized the early initiative, serving wonderfully well throughout the first set, which he won 6-2. In the second set, Federer started playing better, and it went to a tiebreak. Because of the quirks of the group qualifying system, Federer only needed to ensure that he didn’t lose the match in straight sets to make it through to the semi-finals.
The tension for us Federer fans was unbearable; I was bashing my fist on the empty seat next to me whenever he lost a point, and leaping out of my chair every time he took one. When Del Potro went 5-3 up, it looked like curtains for Federer – but then he produced a series of masterful slices and drop shots to reel off four straight points and take the set. Del Potro won the final set 6-3, which meant that he, and not Andy Murray, was the other player from the group to go through. The crowd didn’t seem too disappointed.