This may not sound like much of a game at first, but sit with any diehard tennis fan during the U.S. Open this week, and you'll know exactly what I mean. The one-on-one format, the extreme close-ups, the grunting--it all adds up to a sport where spectators project more of their own emotions onto the players than any other ... except maybe golf (but due to the slim number of camera-ready Maria Sharapovas and Andy Roddicks in golf, the choice for TV watchers this time of year is pretty clear).
A case study: There we were--me, my erstwhile vegetarian sidekick, my dear Yaiyia and, last but not least, Wicked Uncle Stevie--watching the September 2 match between world No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland and unranked Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. Federer had just served up one of his 73 winners--or unreturnable shots--and was leading his unheralded opponent four games to three in the third set. Santoro had stayed close in both of the first two sets, at scores of 7-5, 7-6, but was clearly hanging on for reputation-enhancement alone against the superior Federer.
"I think he's ordering room service about now," spat the wicked uncle toward Santoro. He was rooting for the quick, violent snuff-job, the exertion of authority and the accuracy of ranking systems worldwide.
"Yes!" whispered the vegetarian when Santoro stole a quick point. She was rooting for the underdog, seeing in the desperate 33-year-old a bourgeoning bit of drama that might ... well, let's not jinx it, but ... wouldn't it be kinda ... you know?
"Oh, put him out of his misery!" cried Yaiyia, hands over her eyes, when Santoro scored a point. She respected his wily effort too much to watch him continue to hope for a victory. In the match's waning points, however, the irrepressible grin on Santoro's face let us know that he wasn't laboring under any delusions about his chances.
As for me, I didn't say anything. I don't have cable, I don't get to watch much tennis and Federer is arguably the most inventive and tireless shotmaker to win the U.S. Open since Boris Becker landed face-down in Flushing Meadows 16 years ago. I just wanted to watch a master at work, and was willing to let some unranked dink with a bad haircut humor him for a little longer to satisfy my sick craving.
If you want to find me this week, I'll be glued to the set in one of Boise's vast selection of tennis bars, a nasty smile on my puss and a beer clutched in my mitts. Drop by for a lesson in the philosophy of will to court-power.