By James Pham
It’s Thursday of the Shenzhen Open, the brand new 250-level ATP tournament replacing the Thailand Open, in the first of three weeks making up the men’s Asian Swing.
Changeover contributor James Pham is on site as the tournament’s in-house writer, writing website posts, press releases, doing player interviews and whatever else needs editorial support for the week. He shares some behind-the-scenes notes with The Changeover…
The Practice Courts
The first thing I do when I arrive on site every morning is walk past the 10 or so practice courts in this huge sports complex which also hosted an inaugural WTA event earlier this year. The practice courts here are open to the public, so from the first day, there are fans lined up to watch Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo and Richard Gasquet, the top four seeds of the tournament. Fan girls seem to favor blue-eyed Vasek Pospisil. I was told his nickname in Chinese is Shao Shen Ro, literally “little fresh meat.” I’m sad that he lost early and I didn’t get a chance to ask him about this.
Practice courts are great for seeing players in a more relaxed mode. It’s also interesting to see how players interact with their coaches. Some devise games to keep their man motivated. “Ten points if you can make this next forehand in the corner!” What points are exchanged for, however, is anyone’s guess… On one court, Robredo is playing practice sets with Ferrer, breaking out new balls at the same rate as in real matches. Robredo’s coach is pretty quiet while Ferrer’s gives advice after each missed point. It’s neat to see who practices when as well. It’s been blazing hot all week in Shenzhen, easily in the 90s every day. Murray and Gasquet usually practice for an hour at noon and then an hour later in the day. Iron man Ferru goes for a full two hours straight. I’ve never really thought about it, but it makes sense that while the singles players are more all court, the doubles teams usually practice very specific drills, like endless crosscourt forehands only.
Why Live Tennis is Awesome
Sure, you can mute the grunting when watching at home, but there’s nothing quite like seeing Sam Groth’s 145 mph serves in person. Beyond that, there’s a lot you see that’s not televised, like Gasquet asking to re-use every winning ball, or who asks for the towel after every single point, even after a 15-second ace (I’m looking at you, Santiago Giraldo!) While there isn’t a lot to separate the games of players in the 50-100 range, I look for the little things — who says “please” and “thank you” to the ballkids, who swears or doesn’t swear, how a player reacts to distractions. This is a new event, meaning the ballkids aren’t experienced (and don’t seem to understand a lot of English), so berating a kid for not understanding exactly how you want your towel presented to you? Not impressed.
Earlier in the week saw some unexpected drama on Center Court. Tied at one set all, Martin Klizan had a total meltdown against Viktor Troicki in a marathon first game. He hit an ace that the umpire indicated touched the net. “Are you 150% sure?” yelled Klizan. Another non-winning shot was called out and then got overturned on a Hawk-Eye appeal. Klizan complained that camera shutters were a too loud… and this was all in one game. He launched a ball out of the stadium when he eventually got broken and two games later, sent the net support flying with a Nalbandian-like kick, earning him a point penalty. From there, he simply sat down, mid-game. Troicki was as perplexed as anyone, waiting to serve. After a long delay where the umpire called the tournament referee, the ump then called a trainer who came on court for 5 seconds and then the match was called. It obviously wasn’t a medical time out. Klizan just didn’t feel like playing anymore, but didn’t happen to tell anyone.
The media area is a huge space in a gymnasium with broadband internet, TVs, coffee and soft drinks. So far, I haven’t seen any non-Chinese media. The media hotel is about a 10 minute drive from the site and we’re bussed back and forth according to a schedule. Sometimes, it’s a toss-up on whether to stay for a Gilles Simon match and have to wait around for an hour until about 10pm for transport, or leave early. There is no shade anywhere in the stadium, so after 6-7 hours of full sun, even tennis geeks like me are wilting…
Meal tickets are provided for lunch and dinner. Lunches are sometimes bento-box style where media eats with linesmen and ballkids or we can trade them in for food at one of the on-site vendors. I got to go to the Players’ Party where the top four seeds were marched on stage, asked a few dumb questions by an emcee who obviously didn’t know anything about tennis, posed with sponsors, received ugly momentos and pressed their handprints into some weird Hollywood Walk of Fame type thing. They left within seconds of the opening ceremony, while mainly doubles players and players who had lost early stuck around for the tennis-themed food and free booze.
Interviews are hit and miss. There’s usually not a lot of warning, other than someone yelling “Interview!” three minutes before it starts. With an average of 10-12 reporters per session, most don’t seem to cover tennis regularly which means only 1-3 of us ask questions. One-on-one interview requests are handled through the ATP. I’ve been lucky enough as the tournament writer to get bumped up the queue. Here are some snippets of some one-on-one interviews I’ve done so far.
“I mean, it’s crazy. Because I came here in China and I see, it’s maybe 25 courts and nobody’s playing. In Tandil, we have 10 or maybe 15 [courts] now and it’s fully booked all day. You know, the kids in Tandil, they don’t want to play soccer, they want to play tennis. We changed the minds of the families in Argentina, in Tandil. Not in Argentina because everyone loves soccer, Messi, Maradona… Every family, first boy, soccer, soccer, soccer. In Tandil, first boy, tennis, tennis, tennis, tennis. [laughs] It’s incredible. We have no money when we were young. We had just a couple of balls for maybe 20 players. So that ball? It’s like gold for us. ” — Juan Monaco on why the small town of Tandil has produced so many high quality players, including himself, Zabaleta and Juan Martin del Potro.
“Steak. Steak. Argentina steak, for sure. 100%. No confusion. [laughs]” — Monaco on what his last meal on earth would be.
“Bono, U2 singer and… I will need a girl… It could be Jessica Alba. Bono is an icon. I like U2 since I remember. I love the music. So I find him a very interesting person. So I would love to have dinner or have some time with him, for sure. And we need also a girl, you know. Jessica Alba would be great. I hope my girlfriend doesn’t get jealous of her. It’s okay. [laughs]” — Monaco on which celebrities he’d invite to that last dinner.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit true because it was two players we didn’t expect they won, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, but the best I think are still Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Murray, but yeah, as I say, some players pass through the victory and of course, we are all excited because maybe it’s a new era.” — Richard Gasquet on a possible changing of the guard at tennis’ highest levels.
“It’s white. You’re white. Tofu looks lovely. You’re lovely. You can cook it in many ways. You’re considered an all-court player…” — a reporter explaining to Gasquet why his nickname in Chinese is “Tofu”, to which Gasquet laughed and confessed he had never had tofu before.
“Oof. That’s very difficult to say. French food for sure. Because we have a good gastronomy and I am born in the south of France so of course, I will try to eat specialties from the south of France.” — Gasquet on his preferred last meal on earth.
“Zidane, for sure… and maybe Sarkozy, the last French president. Maybe these two, yeah.” — Gasquet on the two celebrities he’d invite to that last meal.
It’s always tricky with interviews. For my interview with Gasquet, Chinese television wanted to film it, so I didn’t ask some of the more personal questions on my list. I really wanted to ask about what he said after losing to Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, telling the press that ‘injuries and many things can happen so don’t put too much pressure on him.’ From someone who has suffered from too much attention/expectation at an early age, that statement from him just sounded so sad to me. For Monaco, I waited around until after his win over Pospisil (who I wanted to ask if he felt there was any locker-room resentment over singles players doing well in doubles, but after his early loss, I guess I’ll never know!). It was just Monaco and me, along with the ATP handler, so it was way more relaxed.
I have yet to interview Ferrer, Murray or Robredo, so if the readers have any burning questions, leave them in the comments!