Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Intimacy of Late Night Tennis

Stanford, Ca.

I am one of a few brave souls watching the late match, between Stanford alumnus Hilary Barte and Taiwanese player Kai-Chen Chang. I am here watching world-class tennis in an eerily silent stadium. During each changeover the stadium empties out more, and each time the umpire calls "time" to begin play again, I feel luckier than I was 60 seconds ago, even though I am slightly colder.

I feel almost as if I have hired these players for my own private party, the way that an oil magnate might hire a pop star like Christina Aguilera to play at his daughter's sweet 16 party. Up in the white hospitality tents, there is a couple sitting on a couch, and it looks like they are watching a movie at home. They are two of four people left up there. We aren't breaking any attendance records at the Bank of the West Classic tonight, but I don't mind.

How could I mind? I am in the front row after all, hanging over the railing in the quiet environs of the Taube Tennis Center on the University of Stanford Campus. It is so quiet, in fact, that the hum of the motor inside the service speed display box is louder than anything else in the stadium. Except for the sound of the ball hitting the strings, of course. Neither woman on court is big enough to be considered of average size by WTA standards (Chang is 5'6" and Barte is listed generously at 5'5"), but that doesn't stop either of them from hammering away at balls aggressively.

Now that I've moved down to the front row of this nearly empty stadium, I am a completely contented tennis junkie. I am getting my fix, beneath a blanket of stars with a few hundred like-minded people. What could be better? There is something to be said about a jam-packed stadium, and we will certainly have that tomorrow evening when Serena Williams plays her first match on American soil since her outrageous "I'm gonna stuff this ball down your throat" debacle at the US Open in 2009. But tonight is all about intimacy for me.

Tennis wears many hats, means many things to many people, but for people like me, who generally shy away from big crowds and who relish the sweetness of prolonged silence, tonight's first round match between two virtual unknowns is just perfect for me.

It was perfect for Barte also, until the wheels came off her game after she had sprinted to a 5-2 lead in the first set.

The California native who is of Filipino descent had come out confidently, her well-defined calf muscles rippling (front row seats give you good access to rippling calf muscles) as she moved to balls with inspiring intensity, but then, perched on the precipice of winning the first set, something seemed to go awry. She had three set points on the Chang serve in the 8th game of the set, but didn't make good on any of them.

"I physically didn't feel that tight, but I think mentally I started thinking about the future a little too much," said Barte, of her inability to close out the first set.

Barte wouldn't win another game for the remainder of the set, nor would she play with the confidence that she had possessed in the early snippets of the match. Chang, who was born in Taiwan and whose parents sell seafood to markets there for a living, wouldn't let her. It took the slightly skinny 20-year-old a while to get her game flowing, but when she did, it was plain to see that she has potential to make a career for herself on the WTA Tour.

Whether she will or not, is another question. Having the potential is a common thread among all the players looking to break through on the WTA Tour. Having the consistency, discipline, and composure to turn that potential into victories is not so simple though. Chang doesn't intimidate at all in appearance, but she has a lot of pop in her game, and some zing too. The problem for her is maintaining an appropriate level of control to make her power all the more dangerous.

As for Barte, it's hard to tell if she has enough power to make it at this level. She's a cerebral player to be sure, but that'll only get you so far on the big stage. She was a four time All-American in singles and doubles at Stanford, but she's encountering a whole new level of meanness in her first few weeks on the WTA Tour.

When she sauntered into the press room to speak with a group of local journalists after the match, she was giggly, and not at all upset about the hard loss. This isn't to say that Barte didn't care; she just has a playful demeanor.

"I think coming here (to Stanford for college) was the best decision of my life," said Barte of her decision to go to Stanford over attempting to become a pro at the age of 18. "Maybe tennis-wise it wasn't the best for my development. I think it did a lot for my tennis, but it did unbelievable things for my life, like my mentality, and life lessons that I've learned. I think that will pay big dividends when I start playing on the circuit."

Barte, who plans to become an eye surgeon someday, comes off as a sweet and genuine person. It's not hard to picture her cuddling with a golden retriever or helping a tiny child blow out the candles on her birthday cake. But faced with the firepower that exists in the women's professional game, she knows she'll need to find ways to be aggressive against the world's best players.

"Watching all the women practice, it's the way that you kind of have to go about it," she said. "I don't think I can play passive -- especially because I'm smaller. I don't think that will go to well."

She's probably right, but in tennis, as in life, we each have our aptitudes, our ways of finding success, of deconstructing the game, and of deconstructing opponents. Barte will never be one of the bigger hitters on tour, so she's going to have to find creative ways to impose her game on bigger, harder-hitting opponents.

Meanwhile, lucky me was all wrapped up in the present. This is the life, I thought, as I stopped my tape recorder and put my headphones on. Contemplating the contemplations of others. It was cold out, but inside I was feeling warm. Warm for the game, and warm for the people who play the game, letting it all hang out until there's nothing left to do but ponder.


  1. Nice post Chris! Big matches always get the coverage, but it's good to read about something that would slip under most people's radars.

  2. Barte definitely one of my fave Card players of all time. Makes the most of her slight build. I wish she did a bit better in the NCAAs singles championships earlier this spring, but overall, an excellent collegiate career. I thought she had a great chance to reach the second round after I saw the draw.

    You are correct about how eerie it is to watch tennis in an empty stadium.


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