Let me digress, for one post, from discussing austere abstractions about the design of tournaments to some unusual aspects of being among the spectators at the one I’m attending now: The Western and Southern Open tennis tournament (W&S).
There are good reasons to go and see top-class tennis in person. As so often, no one said it better than David Foster Wallace: “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.”
There are also, however, some good reasons not to watch tennis live. Watching live tennis often means sitting on hard seats or benches in the hot sun for hours at a time.
This year, for the first time, the folks who run the W&S have a new viewing option for wimpy heliophobes like me: the First Financial 1899 room. “First Financial” is the sponsor who snagged naming rights for the new room, and “1899” celebrates the antiquity of the tourney, which was first held in 1899.
The 1899 room is part of a large new building that has been constructed between center court and the grandstand court. It contains 252 seats which look out through huge windows onto center court, all more or less at the baseline viewing angle familiar from television, and all reasonably close to the action–in the front row there are only eight rows of ordinary box seats between you and the court. The seats are upholstered. The room is air conditioned. There’s a special restaurant that only the holders of 1899 room tickets get to eat at, with tables looking out and the action on center court, and even a few looking the other direction for a good view of the grandstand court. There are squeaky-clean and little-trafficked rest rooms reserved for 1899 room denizens.
These comforts do not come cheap. But leaving aside the cost, it’s worth considering whether this way of watching tennis loses the qualities that David Foster Wallace prizes in live tennis. You’re watching tennis from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room through a wall of glass with the accustomed baseline angle used for television. Do these elements combine to create a viewing experience that’s disengaged from live tennis in the same way as viewing tennis on television in your living room?
There are a few respects in which the 1899 room falls short in recreating the comfort of your living room. The room’s designers resisted the temptation to fit more seats into the precious space by making the seats uncomfortably narrow. And they nearly avoided trying to fit too many rows in. For some reason, however, rows 1 and 3 are not deep enough – row 1 is too close to the front wall, and row 3 is too close to row 2. As luck would have it, my seats are in row 3. The seats are quite upright, and there’s really not enough room for knees and feet. It took me a few hours to find a way of sitting in the seat that I could abide for long enough to watch a tennis match, and only the aisle seats are adequate for extended periods. Fortunately, there are often some empty seats nearby, and from time to time I’ve resorted to sneaking into row 2 or row 4.
The computer simulation of the space on the W&S website shows small groups of fashionable people mingling at the bar and elsewhere. But that’s not how the space works in practice. Access to the restaurant is strictly controlled. There’s a small corps of waiters to bring various drinks to your seat because the bar can only be reached by a roundabout route. The men’s room is at the top of a couple of flights of steep steps (which can be avoided by the use of a finicky wheelchair lift) – the women’s room is more easily accessible. They empty the place out between the day and evening sessions, a temporary exile that can be avoided only by buying a meal in the restaurant.
The restaurant encourages reservations, though it apparently doesn’t have enough custom (at least early in the week) to turn away walk-up customers. Service is through a buffet line. The food looks pretty good (and at $30 for lunch and $40 for dinner, with drinks and tips extra, it ought to be). Fortunately, it’s not too hard to run out for snacks from one of the regular concession stands. But there’s a dark rumor that next year they’ll try to gin up the business of the restaurant by making it against the rules to bring in food from elsewhere. In box 603, where we live, a petition deploring such a possibility was circulated this afternoon.
There are large black seams, nearly an inch wide in the wall of windows that separate you from the elements and center court. The space between those seams is about six feet, so for some seats they’re not much of an issue because you seldom want to look at what they’re blocking. In some other seats you get used to moving your head a bit side to side depending on what part of the court you’re looking at. The glass is not particularly reflective, but at certain times of day light-colored objects do appear reflected.
So, the space falls short of living-room style comfort, but that’s not really the question. The question is whether the various comforts (or attempts to provide comfort) isolate you from elements of the live event that, as DFW explains, make live tennis so much better than watching it at home in your living room. And the answer to the question is … well, yes and no.
Sound is important at a tennis match – so much so that broadcast television invariably has microphones down near the court to pick up the thwacks of the ball being struck and the grunts of the players who strike it. And there is, fortunately, such a microphone picking up the sounds of the court and piping them into the 1899 room. This afternoon this microphone was shut off for a few minutes, and the effect was eerie. You could see the ball being thwacked, but you couldn’t hear it.
So, the outside sound is not (usually) the problem. The problem is that after a while you realize that no one outside the 1899 room can hear what’s going on inside it.
Live tennis has a distinctive sonic profile. There’s a big crowd, and between points they’re making big crowd noises. But with a well-behaved crowd (and the tennis fans in Cincinnati are notably well-behaved) the crowd falls silent just before each point, and during the point pretty much all you can hear are the thwacks and grunts and slides that are part of the game itself, and occasionally a collective gasp when something astonishing happens. Then when the point is done the crowd registers its appreciation – sometimes with just a little polite clapping, and other times with hoots and yells. In the few seconds before the next silence folks will discuss what they’re just seen with a few words, or yell encouragement to the players. There’s also a rhythmic clapping that happens while the crowd are waiting for the big video scoreboard to show the result of a pending challenge. And then silence descends again for the next point.
In the 1899 room, you can hear all of these things happening, but you know that you’re not a part of them. Most of us reflexively give a clap or two when we see a good shot, but we’re not part of the crowd’s reaction because we’re not really part of the crowd. You quickly lose the sense that you’re contributing to a proper appreciation of the play by applauding at the right times.
The 1899 room doesn’t fall silent for each new point because we realize that there’s no need – no one, certainly not the players, can hear us. So in the 1899 room conversations do not stop. There’s a continuous babble of many conversations, not unlike what you’d hear in a busy restaurant. Some of these conversations are about the tennis, but most are not. A peal of laughter might ring out in the middle of a point because someone has told a funny joke.
This sonic isolation does tend, I think, to make the game seem more remote. Certainly the play can be compelling, and the unfolding narrative of a particular match can keep you on the edge of your seat. But the steady flow of background conversation that replaces the periodic silences makes it harder to stay involved. It’s easier to find yourself tuning out the tennis the same way you might, from time to time, if you were watching it at home on television. Heck, if the seats were a little more comfortable, it would be easy to take a brief nap.
What I miss most about watching live tennis the regular way is the silence that settles on the stadium with each new point. And what I miss least is sitting in the heat of the sun and getting rained on. All in all, I think that the 1899 room is not a bad place to watch some of the great tennis being played at the W&S. But it’s not an unarguably good place to watch it, either.