BEIJING—The Temple of Heaven is one of this city’s must-visit sites. Located not far from the Forbidden City, it’s a mecca where tourists congregate.
Well, in my case, being the tennis buff that I am, my “Temple of Heaven” was located at another spot last Monday, the Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Center, where my wife Jasmin and I spent 11 ½ hours (from 10 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.) watching nothing but the green-and-blue courts, yellow balls and red-hot tennis stars.
Rafael Nadal, who’ll be crowned world no.1 this Aug. 18, was our first sight. Lucky us: we got ringside tickets, on Row 3—right along the baseline just meters from the players.
Rafa, as we all see on TV, is all muscle. But standing just 30 feet away from him whacking the ball, you’ll realize that, in person, he’s even bigger, more brawny and heftier—like a true-to-life Gladiator. Nadal’s first round match was against an Italian, Potito Starace. What a fight! While we thought, after the first set concluded at 6-3, that this would be a quick rout, it was not: the Italian maestro pushed the Spanish bull to exert all his might—which Rafa did, winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
Moments later, another familiar fellow entered the 10,000-seater Center Court to deafening applause: Roger Federer. Dressed in the Swiss red and white colors, Federer is elegant and refined while Nadal is savage and raw. To borrow the words of Muhammad Ali, Roger “floats like a butterfly” while Rafa “stings like a bee.” To my mind’s eye, RF is polished, donning a Giorgio Armani suit while swinging that racquet; RN is rough, all-muscled and shirt-less like Rambo.
Midway through the 2nd set of Roger’s match, a commotion happened amidst the crowd. Photos were flashed, spectators stood, heads turned, all eyeballs locked to a towering sight: LeBron James. Barely 18 hours after leading Team USA to a win over China in basketball, LBJ opted to sight-see and watch tennis. Imagine LeBron and Roger? Inside the same arena? One watching the other? It can only happen at the Olympics.
But LeBron’s stay was cut short because Roger was in a rush, crushing Dmitry Tursunov, 6-4, 6-2.
The biggest upset here? Andy Murray. He lost in the first round to the Chinese Taipei unknown, Y. Lu. We watched most of the first set and left when Murray led 5-4, thinking he’d cruise to victory. He was stunned, 7-6, 6-4.
Who else did we watch? Excluding two glamour girls whom everybody here wanted to see—Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, who withdrew with injuries—we saw almost every superstar of the sport: Novak Djokovic, Serena and Venus Williams, David Nalbandian, Lindsay Davenport, Lleyton Hewitt…
Jasmin and I would hop from Center Court to Court 1 to one of the seven smaller courts that would seat only a few. Every court you visit, you’ll see a familiar face that we only see on TV.
Doubles. That’s a popular attraction here. Not widely-followed on ESPN, it’s a hit around here—mainly because you see everyone who previously never played doubles playing.
Take Roger. You never, ever see him play doubles. But this is the Olympics and the goal is to amass medals… two gold medals, if possible. And so Roger teamed up with Stanislas Wawrinka to beat the Italian pair of Bolelli and Seppi.
A few steps farther on Court 2, it’s Rafa and fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo beating the Swedish pair of Bjorkman and Soderling.
Photos. That’s one activity we did all-day, snapping pictures of everyone. On two rare occasions when the players were near, I got a photo beside French stars Cedric Pioline and Paul Henri-Mathieu.
But here’s a funny incident. I spotted a top-ranked player watching in one of the side courts. Hurriedly, I gave the camera to Jasmin and asked for her to be ready to snap that photo when the time comes. True enough, as soon as that tennis star stood, I ran near him for that rare shot. He hesitated but I stood beside him, ready. We waited… waited… waited… The camera was stuck! And Jasmin couldn’t snap the photo. Seconds ticked…… and this player, with hordes of spectators starting to gather, got fidgety. Until finally, the photo was snapped. He sprinted to the opposite side to avoid the crowd then disappeared. His name was James Blake.