PARIS — The Wimbledon press box is magical – a sublime enclave.
At the US Open, there are a handful of courtside press seats just by the umpire’s stand. You sit there and bathe in the surrounding roar that is Ashe Stadium.
But here at Stade Roland Garros, a single row of baseline seats are like no other press seats in Grand Slam tennis. Here the war zone pulsates – just 30 yards from the combat. Smell the geraniums. Touch the action.
And, if you’re feeling bold, you can go to the very end of the row and all but sit in the laps of the most prominent coaches, wives, moms and lovers in this game.
And I was feeling bold – very bold.
After all, No. 1 Andy Murray was in a riveting battle with a Stanimal – No. 3 Stan Wawrinka. And when the Scot is under pressure, more than any other elite player in memory, he invariably looks to his box.
The king of angst, he berates himself with an unsparing zest. Shakespeare’s King – Lear was the name – would be proud. The master of the “mumble tank” mutters: “The French sky above me is falling. Justice has vanished. This cruel world betrays me.”
All the while Andy’s ample team – led by his coach Ivan Lendl and wife Kim Sears – just sit there and support him or, if you’re harsh, enable his self-punishing rants and free-form grumbles.
It’s an operatic show within the show. But what is he actually saying to his team? I wanted to know. So I worked my way down to the power seats.
And when I settled, there was Mrs. Murray just over my left shoulder. Lendl was a mere three seats away. I could see how sunburnt his knees were and how his age-appropriate wrinkles were advancing. I hoped I hadn’t crossed a line. Was I too invasive? Hopefully not. I avoided eye contact.
The world-famous burnt orange court seems to be gloating. Far below a blue Chamber of Commerce sky and puffs of lazy clouds, it appears to breathe drama as Murray and Wawrinka battle in an unkind heat that prompts many a continental gentleman to remove his stylish coat.
And you know this semifinal is a big match. The corporate seats are almost full. France’s one percenters are out in force – see and be seen. Plus, you can’t help but notice that you are at an epicenter.
Photographers of every stripe – a Spanish lady with a cell phone that sports a Dumbo decal and a bald, grizzled pro with a Nikon that has a foot-long lens – come by to get their shots.
The slow-stroll appearance of the game’s most important billionaire east of Larry Ellison turns heads. Long before Donald Trump became President, Sports Illustrated insisted that the US Open was all about the New York tycoon who was staring down from his Ashe Stadium suite. The French Open isn’t all about Ion Tiriac, the Romanian banker, promoter and old-school ideologist in his $1,100 loafers. It just seems that way.
Friends boxes draw all types. No one has seen more matches then Serena and Venus’ long-suffering mom, Oracene Price. Brooke Shields, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are just a few of the scores of celebrity “friends” who’ve supported players. Sania Mirza attracted refined ladies in saris at Wimbledon. Marat Safin filled his Aussie Open box with babes. Bjorn Borg’s chain-smoking wife Mariana Simionescu and Boris Becker’s edgy mate Barbara Feltus twitched incessantly throughout their men’s matches.
Ivan Lendl is just the opposite. Unmoving and stone-faced, the Czech-American who won here three times sits like a statue in his black shorts and blue shirt.
But that doesn’t stop Andy’s other coach, Jamie Delgado, his physio Mark Bender and his agent Matt Gentry from hooting and hollering at every turn.
Andy’s wife Kim Sears is the product of one of Europe’s fine tennis families and is not nearly as nervous as some wives. Famous for letting go with a dandy expletive directed at Tomas Berdych’s camp at the Aussie Open, Sears sports a huge diamond ring, a simple creme blouse, black skinny jeans, humble white sneakers and serious shades.
As with many Brits, her complexion is flawless and, of course, she gives us a very British tone.
Never mind the American usage – “Ann-dee.” Sears calls her husband “On-dee,” as in “C’mon, On-dee,” when he stumbles and fails to reach a drop shot. Or “Nice serve, On-dee,” after a second serve to the corner forces a Wawrinka error.
When her husband is almost pinned in one of scores of scintillating rallies, she flinches just slightly.
All the while – through triumph or disaster – Lendl is an unflinching poster boy for stoicism. Granite shows more emotion.
As the match evolves from a close fight to an epic battle, Andy’s angst grows.
His two sets-to-one lead wavers. Still his box provides seamless support. But Wawrinka’s barrel-chested forehands and best-in-the-game backhands gain power and punish relentlessly.
Still, Murray’s mates gamely cheer, even though Wawrinka wins a key fourth-set tiebreaker to even the match at two sets all.
Now Murray’s drop shots, which once had a teardrop delicacy, sit up and are pounded.
Sears winces. We feel her pain.
Andy’s shots seem limp. He later quips sarcastically that “hitting the ball short in the middle of the court didn’t work.”
The world’s No. 1 player is taking one shot after another. The game’s most avid boxing fan is bouncing off the ropes.
Even now loyalty has its limits. As a puzzled Sears reflects on the carnage, she reveals her sorrow, poignantly lifting her index finger to her lips.
Amazingly, in the middle of a disastrous fifth set, Lendl offers a couple of cryptic comments, almost under his breath. At last his mask-like face reveals a couple of slight expressions of frustration. What a reveal!
As Wawrinka’s vise grip tightens, Andy’s angst heightens. The Brit goes limp, his shoulders slump. And if that’s not enough, his shoulders collapse again. This time even deeper.
In contrast, the barrel-chested Swiss is in full flight – confident, focused and unforgiving. The man with the most famous tattoo in tennis (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) is now tattooing Andy.
Now even Lendl throws in the towel. He sits back. His body goes limp. He folds his hands meekly together. The man’s body language all but shouts surrender.
Incredibly, Murray is now down 0-5 in the fifth. Could proud Andy possibly be bageled in his final set, just like No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic was two days ago?
No, Scottish pride intervenes. He wins the battle for the next game, but loses the Wawrinkian war 6-7 (8), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1.
With the 4:34 marathon match lost, Murray marches off the court in a funk. Kim dashes from her seat in a flash. A glum Lendl retreats with purpose.
And, of course, at a moment like this, what else can you do but recall good old Leo Tolstoy, who told us, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”