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Day 7: Blue Skies and a Marathon (of Tennis)

More spectacular matches...

semi-overcast 72 °F

My apologies, faithful readers, for failing to post in two days. It's Sunday early afternoon here...my last day in Beijing before I head down to Shanghai tomorrow mid-morning. I meant to post yesterday but got caught up watching live coverage on NBC of Michael Phelps et al.

So I need to backtrack to Friday and will write a separate entry instead of combining it with Saturday's. After Thursday's downpour the skies cleared and the humidity went away - it was still hot out but in a different way than last week. A very pleasant and welcome change! My cousin Bing and her kids were to fly back to California that evening, so we made plans to have lunch at a Peking duck restaurant in the city. First, though, we all hovered around the flat-screen to watch the finals of the women's all-around gymnastics. What a nail-biter. We agreed that Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson had been dinged a bit on their scores on a couple of the apparatuses (apparati?), which made the floor exercise all the more dramatic.

After seeing them clinch the gold and silver, we piled into the van and headed to the restaurant. For those of you who have never eaten Peking duck, it's quite the experience. The preparation takes quite a bit of time (at least 24 hours, as I understand) and is painstaking, but the results are well-worth the price. If it's cooked the right way, the fat is essentially cooked off, leaving crispy skin and moist, succulent meat underneath. The custom is to wrap some pieces of skin and meat in a thin pancake (think of a small crepe) with some hoisin sauce and slivered green onions. Delicious. We ordered a bunch of other dishes, and I ate so much that I didn't think about food for the rest of the day...you should know that such a thing doesn't happen often to me.

We made a quick stop at a supermarket so that Bonnie could buy some more Chinese candy to take back to the States, and then Peggy and I took off for the tennis venue at the far northwest end of the main Olympic area. With zero smog you could see the mountains that surround Beijing - who knew?! Peggy told me that such an occurrence happens only four or five days out of an entire year. Since we had been there earlier in the week, we knew exactly which route to take and where to park. Many of the roads surrounding the Olympic park are closed, which makes navigating a huge pain in the A. Even the roads that are open often have barricades down the middle so that you can't turn. We made it as close as we could get to the venue in short time, but since we had left at 4pm (the time that the session started) we missed the first set of the semifinal between James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez of Spain. Blake had won the first but Gonzalez took the second 7-5, which pushed the match into three sets. It seemed that both were playing somewhat conservatively, trading groundstrokes and not moving to the net.

The third was a back-and-forth marathon with each player holding serve, all the way until the 19th game when Gonzalez broke Blake. By that point I knew it was just about over, unless Blake could break back. Unfortunately that didn't happen, and Gonzalez won the match at 11-9. Very disappointing since Blake wouldn't be able to compete for the gold medal and had been the last American player left in the singles competition. Gonzalez indeed played well, but I already knew he would lose in the finals after I found out who was in the other semi: Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

First, however, we watched a women's semi between Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Dinara Safina of Russia. Jankovic recently took over the world's #1 ranking, but I had never seen her play on TV before. Safina is the sister of Marat Safin, who was one of the top three men's players a while back before Federer and Nadal became household names. Jankovic's and Safina's forehands were huge - they pounded the ball and had these amazing rallies that seemed to never end. Safina took the first set and Jankovic the second, but in the third Safina proved to be better on that night. Jankovic displayed a sassy attitude that I had heard about before, and I don't think she won over the crowd at all. She's a great player, but I wasn't displeased to see her lose.

After two three-setters, it was already close to 10pm. We had sat in the sun for the first hour or two, so I was feeling pretty drained already. But with Nadal and Djokovic about the play the other men's singles semi, it wasn't like we were about to leave. Djokovic may not have the same name recognition as Nadal or Federer, but he's the world #3 and won the Australian Open in January. He's the one who does the on-court imitations of other players - if you've ever seen him in action, it's priceless. Otherwise he's awesome and proved that he could hang with Nadal. Compared to the Blake-Gonzalez match, this was at a whole new level. The ball flew back and forth with so much power and speed it made me dizzy to watch.

Yet another three-setter, as Nadal took the first set and Djokovic the second. Just as was the case with the previous two, the players held serve for a while until Nadal was able to break Djokovic and then win the match in a thrilling last game, featuring three overheads by Djokovic and two saves from Nadal (the third overhead having gone out). Right after that point Nadal collapsed on the court and spread his arms and legs out, like he had spent every last ounce of energy. Amazing stuff.

By this point it was about 12:15am, and yet a FOURTH match was about to start: women's doubles between Russia and China. Dinara Safina was part of the Russian team and had to come back on to the court, which was unbelievable given her three-setter with Jankovic. Peggy and I decided to bail and go home. I have to say, Olympic tennis is a much better value than any of the Grand Slams if the big stars decide to compete. I sat in my seat for EIGHT hours straight and saw the men's #1 and #3, the women's #1, and several other big-name players on the circuit. Even though the matches are best-of-three for both men and women, you know that the athletes are playing for their respective countries and really want to win.

Some final observations from the tennis venue:

1) Friday night was the fourth time I saw a University of Wisconsin t-shirt since arriving in Beijing. There was a guy sitting behind LeBron James at the tennis prelims who was wearing a Duke shirt, and I saw an American in a Georgetown shirt at the Beijing South Train Station (I couldn't help but approach him - it turns out he had lived in DC but now owns and lives on an olive farm in Tuscany...tough life!). Four UW shirts, though??

2) No famous sightings this time, which was weird considering the matches were semis and not just prelims. The Prince of Spain, Felipe, must have gone back to Madrid already. Oh well.

3) There was a group of middle-aged, overweight Chileans sitting at courtside cheering for Gonzalez. For some reason they annoyed me - they acted like college frat boys. I hope they get their own when Nadal absolutely destroys Gonzalez in the men's final.

4) The Chinese spectators at these Games don't seem to cheer for Americans when there's a choice. Why do so many people dislike us? Oh, sorry, I forgot...because we have a warped unilateral foreign policy. Question answered.

5) The Chinese man sitting behind me for the first few hours smelled like Tiger Balm, that menthol rub in the octagon-shaped jar that's the Chinese equivalent of Vic's. At one point during the Jankovic-Safina match he let out a small fart.

6) There's been a bit of talk about the etiquette that Chinese people exhibit at tennis matches. For one, they don't keep quiet during points - rather, they ooh and ahh. Also, they talk amongst themselves instead of being silent. They answer their cell phones. They make verbal commentary on well-hit balls by saying "hao qiu" which translates as "good ball." It takes a bit of getting used to, but I could tell that they were starting to pick up on the appropriate behavior. That didn't stop me from shushing people in our seating area a couple of times.

7) I'm still not a huge Nadal fan, but he is a spectacular player...no one can doubt that.

Posted by alsandiego 23:55 Archived in China Tagged events

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