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By Blair Henley

Sara Errani French Open (Februay 20, 2013) -- After several days in Memphis and many matches watched at the U.S. National Indoor Championships, nothing has been more interesting to me than my Sunday night meal at the on-site restaurant known as “The Pub.”

I was “flying solo” (which sounds so much better than “eating alone”) and had planned on cycling through my usual list of news websites as I ate (so as not to look completely pathetic). But then I realized who was surrounding me. Several players had chosen to fuel up at The Pub as well, given that meals weren’t officially served for them in a separate room until the next evening. Instead of perusing the latest on last-minute baseball signings or the depressingly public Pistorious trial, I took a minute to observe. 
Coco Vandeweghe looked every bit the 21-year-old, sprawled out on the couch to my left, furiously typing away on her smartphone. Her coach, a nearly unrecognizeable Jan-Michael Gambill, sat across the table, equally engrossed in whatever his iPhone screen had to say.  In the time it took me to devour my grilled chicken sandwich and fries, I heard not one word uttered between the two, a testament to the monotony of these tournament dinners for players and their various team members.
If Vandeweghe was nervous about the first round match she was scheduled to play later that night, you certainly wouldn’t know it. Without saying anything, she gave off the air of someone completely unconcerned with what she was there to do, her blonde hair slightly disheveled, her attitude, Californian. I wondered if it was possible to be a competitor and completely disinterested all at once. Hours later, she would upset South African Chani Scheepers 6-2, 6-1. Somewhat predictable in her inconsistency, she would lose her next match 6-3, 6-0 to Jamie Hampton.
In a booth behind me, Melanie Oudin more than balanced out the silence of her fellow American. Chatting away with two other women, her bubbly conversation had me flashing back to her 2009 quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open. She would have been the perfect poster child for women’s tennis had she only been able to sustain the magic that initially propelled her to international fame. Though the last several years have handed Oudin more than her fair share of challenges, both on the court and off, her personality is still there in spades.
As I dipped my crinkle-cut fries in the vat of ketchup I shot onto my plate (sqeezable ketchup bottles = genius), I thought back to my first interaction with Melanie: She was fourteen, I was 22. We took the court as opponents in a low-level professional tournament. At the time, she was a complete unknown, making my loss to her much more difficult to swallow. Let’s just say that her later success, if brief, alleviated my years-old embarrassment.
In the corner, Heather Watson ate dinner with her coach, his wife, and their two children. Their party of four resembled the closest thing to a real family of any table in The Pub that night, unless you count Sabine Lisicki, her long blonde hair perfectly coiffed in a tight bun, sitting down to dinner with her longtime coach/father Richard and her newly appointed coaching consultant, Ricardo Sanchez. I spoke with Sabine after her first round match and, to her credit, it seems she’s survived the oft-perilous father/daughter relationship with her personality and social awareness intact.  
Speaking of family, Scheepers and her new husband Roger Anderson sat quietly in the corner. It takes a special couple to survive with one or both individuals playing on tour. Mercifully, my husband didn’t know me while I was still competing. Given my notorious intensity levels, I’m not sure we would have made it to the altar.
As multiple interactions unfolded in front of me, there was one that portrayed perfectly the reality of life on tour. Galina Voskoboeva, who lost a 3.5-hour marathon to Heather Watson earlier that day, sat audibly sobbing to her coach, no doubt wondering how she could have let the match slip away. Or, perhaps she was cursing the fact that she came back from a 5-1 deficit in the third set, only to lose in a tiebreak anyway.
I’ll never know exactly why she was so upset because, like most players in these tournaments, she wasn’t speaking English. But, of course, the sadness, frustration, and anger that often accompany a brutal loss, is well understood in every language.
As Jail House Rock appropriately blared just a little too loudly from the speakers overhead, I thanked my waitress and headed back to my space in the press room, effectively closing my little window into the world of pro tennis. It was enlightening while it lasted. 

(Photo Credit: GrinderTaber.com)


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