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Saturday, November 09, 2002

More News From a Wet Place
It's still raining in LA, and from what I can gather, it started just about when I arrived and is expected to stop just about when I'm due to leave. I'm starting to realize that this relentless fine mist can be just as pernicious as a Seattle-style drenching. It's sneakier—not the kind of soaking you get stepping into a heavens-opening downpour, but a slow, sneaky dampness that just sort of leaves you feeling perpetually "not-dry."

The last couple of tennis matches I've been to have been awesome—yesterday Venus Williams v. Monica Seles was a tightly contested battle, and today's tussle between Jennifer Capriati and Magdelena Maleeva went to three tough sets. The higher-seeded players won each time, but both matches were exciting and could have gone either way. And still there is hardly anyone here to see them. It's as if the World Series were being played in front of a crowd smaller than you might find for a college softball game, the Super Bowl were played in front of a crowd smaller than you'd find for a Texas high-school football game, or if the FA Cup Final were played in front of just a couple of hundred Huddersfield Town supporters.

The folks who are here don't seem to have much of a clue what's going on. I mean they follow the scoring, but they don't seem quite hip to tennis etiquette—not applauding double faults (some folks were even applauding single faults), moving around while play is in progress, or making noise while rallies are going on. They're not malicious, they just don't know the rules. There doesn't seem to be a natural fan base—in England you always find tons of lesbians, a smattering of guys with long lenses hoping to make eye contact with a young millionaire and have her follow him back to his bed-sit in Kilburn, and your basic middle-class Home Counties couples who like a bit of sport at tennis tournaments. Here it seems to be mostly random, casual observers.

In some ways, tennis just isn't compatible with the U.S. indoor sports culture. Folks who are used to going to the Staples Center to see the Lakers or the Clippers play basketball or the Kings play hockey have a certain expectation of how to behave. You cheer on the home team and try to sabotage the visitor. There are no rules about when you can applaud or when you can go out to get a beer. For the tennis, if you want to go get a snack (and the arena really wants you to do that, since they make major bucks out of concessions), you're going to miss at least two games, probably four, just running out on to get food or to go pee. You have two minutes to get to your seat, and if you don't find the right spot, an usher and maybe even the chair umpire is going to yell at you to please just take the nearest seat. In LA, where folks go to events to see and be seen, just sit in the nearest seat? It's anathema to the local culture, where your position in the pecking order is determined by the choice-ness of your seating assignment. And there's no schmoozing—in a culture where companies lay out thousands of dollars on tickets to sporting events so they can wine, dine, and glad-hand potential clients, you've got to shut up, sit down, and stay where you are.

I've seen hardly any doubles matches, because the press conferences for the singles players clash with the doubles, and it's hard to pass up the opportunity to be one of 30 people asking questions of the best tennis players in the world, many of whom also happen to be among the most famous people in the world. I'm really impressed with just about everyone. Even when they've just lost a tough match, players are patient and answer questions that they've no doubt answered hundreds perhaps thousands of times in their careers. It's tough to be original, though. At this particular event, the press conferences are transcribed and distributed just minutes after they're over, so all the stories use the same quotes. "Personal" topics are off-limits (and there are grim-faced WTA officials on hand to nix any verboten subject matter) and it's very hard to elicit information about a just-completed game that will truly interest folks who weren't at the match. I've been especially impressed with Maggie Maleeva, Venus Williams, and Kim Clijsters. They seem like cool, smart women who it would be fun to hang out with.