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Tennis in the Time of Football Fever

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Even on break day in Moscow, World Cup reruns score over Wimbledon semi-finals

They think we’re ‘sumasshedshiy’. ‘Crazy’. We want to watch tennis. Or ‘tehhyc’, as it is spelt here in Russia. But they say they don’t know what we’re talking about. “Wimbledon,” I repeat. “Semi-finals.” So they point to their television screens, in bars and restaurants around Moscow, and remind me that the World Cup is going on. In this country. Some TVs are showing Russia’s first match against Saudi Arabia. Others are analysing Hrvatska’s (Croatia’s) chances in Sunday’s big final. Here we are, then; back on the crowded Valovaya St in Moscow; awaiting our luck at the next eatery, the next diner, the next tavern; awaiting our next eviction.

All seems lost, when we stumble upon ‘Dorogaya, Ya Perezvonyu…’, which translates to (and I kid you not) ‘Honey, I’ll Call You Back…’ It’s a swanky sports bar that reeks of pale ale and Americana. There’s a wall-hanging of actor John Malkovich resembling the Joker. There’s Christian Bale as Batman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robin. There are some 15 televisions screens, all showing the highlights of the Peru-Denmark World Cup game, and there’s the benevolent bar-manager, who asks his bartender to turn on the tennis for three Wimbledon-starved Indians. “Who’s playing, (Marat) Safin?” he asks.

The televisions are centrally linked and 15 screens change to Eurosport 2 and Centre Court, where South Africa’s Kevin Anderson and USA’s John Isner are tied at one set a piece in the first of the men’s semi-final. “Is this a first-round match?” asks Alexei, leaning over from the table besides us. “I’ve never heard of them,” he replies, blinking at the screen near him and turning back to his drink, when we tell him the stage. There are about 30 patrons in this bar on this non-World Cup, non-football Friday afternoon. A few seconds ago, they were all glancing at the TV. Now, they are reconnecting with their smart phones.

Anderson is 2.03m tall. Isner is 2.08m. This is the tennis version of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where monsters (Jaegers and Kaijus) have a go at each other for the length of a film. Only, Pacific Rim forgives us for watching in 132 minutes. This match has long breached the three-hour mark. When Isner serves, Anderson can’t return. And when Anderson serves, Isner has no answers. The third set, of course, goes to tie-break. Just like the first two sets did. Alexei, from the next table, looks bored, drunk and angry. “I have seen better matches on foosball tables,” he says.

The first of the pleaders arrive at our table, armed with a translating bartender. “They don’t want to watch this,” she says, pointing her thumb at two men. We plead right back, promising them that a far superior exhibition of tennis, the second semi-final between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is about to start soon. As soon as Isner, now leading by two sets to one, wins this set, that is. Anderson wins the fourth and we move into the fifth. We don’t have the courage to tell them about Grand Slam tennis’s no-tiebreak rule in deciding sets. Or, that Isner once took 138 games to win a fifth set on these very lawns.

Isner serves and holds. Anderson serves and holds. At 12-12 in the fifth, the bartender reappears, with a Russian gentleman one wouldn’t necessarily argue with. He does the talking, not the bartender. “No translation,” he says, pointing at the TV and knocking the same index finger on our table. “No translation, no translation.” I help him translate by holding my phone under his chin. He says, in Russian, “I cannot understand. I cannot understand.” And he grabs the remote control from the manager and changes the channel, from Eurosport 2 to Match TV. Some patrons clap; almost all tables have their gaze focused on us.

Match TV is showing football. Not from this World Cup. Not even from the Russian Premier League season gone by. The abbreviations of the teams are YФA and 3EH. They’re playing in pouring sleet, on a surface that’s more white than green. The channel-changer returns to our table, speaks into his phone and holds the translation in front of my face. “Now, this is a sport that we all want to watch.” Arms wrapped across his chest, he watches the game from our table, smiling alternatingly at the TV and at me.

We know our options are limited. Either drink through the humiliation and appreciate this 2016 footage of YФA leading against 3EH. Or clear the tab and leave. We choose the latter. And just as we exit, I notice that all eyes have shifted back from smart phones to the 15 television screens. Outside, we meet the manager, smoking a cigarette and smiling at us. “Crazy people,” he says, stubbing some ash. “Who watches tennis during a World Cup anyway?”

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