Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ferrero, Sequoia, and Finding a Home

Juan Carlos Ferrero used to be the best tennis player in the world.  Back in 2003, in the middle of that five-year vacuum between Sampras and Federer, Ferrero joined Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and even, briefly, Andre Agassi in taking his turn at the top of the tennis-ranking mountain.  Now Ferrero is 31, still young by the standards of society, but positively ancient in the world of tennis.

Ferrero fell short of the quarterfinals at this years U.S. Open after losing to the colorfully named Janko Tipsarevic.  And had he managed to win that match, an almost certain defeat at the hands of current world number one Novak Djokovic waited at the other end.  Regardless, the Tipsarevic match I have little to say about, except that it was a hard-fought four setter.  The match before it was the interesting one.


On our way to San Diego, my wife and I suddenly found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Now that's no surprise in Southern California, but in this case the traffic was particularly bad.  The highway, it turns out, was on fire.  Or, rather, a fire raged on both sides of I-15 in Victorville, just north of the northern reaches of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  After two and a half hours of trying to find a way around the flames, we turned North instead, setting out on an unexpected path.

We ended up in Lake Isabella, on the doorstep of Sequoia National Forest.  Big trees, we thought.  We want to see big trees.  We rolled into a shabby old motel near the lake at almost 10:00 PM, after starting our day in Flagstaff, Arizona, and called it a minor, if unexpected, victory.


Gael Monfils might be the most entertaining player on the ATP World Tour.  He dives to make his shots, he lopes around the court, he pouts, he yells, he engages in a subtle rope-a-dope that announcers - and, in theory, his opponents - mistake for nonchalance.  Above all, he plays with joy and the curse of grace, and so the crowd loves him and is yet frustrated by his failure to be better.

The "curse of grace" is a term Joe Posnanski uses to describe Carlos Beltran.  Some athletes are so gifted, so refined, so graceful at what they do that they appear not to be trying.  If only, we think, he would try a little harder, he'd be truly great.  Gael Mofils tries hard.  You don't become as good a tennis player as he is (#7 in the World entering the U.S. Open) without practicing hours and hours and hours a day, without pushing yourself, without learning how to give more than you think you have.  And yet he looks like he's not trying, because he's just that graceful, and because - despite the criticism it brings - he wants you to think that he's not trying.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, whose own grace is largely a memory by now, beat Gael Monfils in five sets last week.


After a long drive through the Kern River valley, up into the mountains, we finally arrived at the big trees.  The first one lurked behind a turn on the road, eliciting cries of surprise and awe as we passed.  Even if you've watched Planet Earth, even if you've seen one of the countless pictures of the Giant Sequoias, nothing can prepare you for actually seeing one.

We happily paid to park next to the somewhat touristy Trail of 100 Giants trailhead.  Rarely - though moreso in National Parks than anywhere else - the touristy vibe of a place is irrelevant to its own internal grace.  The Giant Sequoias along the trail we walked were in no way lessened by the paved path that weaved between them, nor by the screaming of children unaccustomed to a screen-less walk through a natural monument.

One child in particular screamed and screamed and screamed.  He didn't want to go towards the leaning tree, or away from something he liked, or along a path near so many bees.  The exact nature of his protest was hard to make out, but it was, I'm certain, directional.  It seemed to me, above all, that he didn't want to confront the Sequoias.  No child is able to comprehend those trees.  Indeed, probably no adult can really understand what it means for a tree to be 1,500 years old.  Constantine is ancient history; the birth of a Sequoia, even more so.

Infinity is not nearly as overwhelming a concept as finite but large.  The Sequoias are giants - too big to see the top of, over a dozen feet in diameter at the base, sometimes scarred with burn marks as large as an entire cedar tree - but it is their relationship to time, more than space, that truly impresses.  What can a child do but cry when confronted with a 75-year-old baby of a Sequoia that's older than Granpa, and yet at only the beginning of its young life?


Monfils played as Monfils plays.  Ferrero played as he is forced to at his age.  After a gritty first set tiebreaker, Monfils power and agility won out in tight second and third sets.  He looked to be in command of the match, but he plays an expensive brand of tennis.  Every dive, every collapse, the effort of chasing down so many of Ferrero's well-placed shots caught up with Monfils.  He still held serve in most every game down the stretch of the final two sets, but a break here and a break there, and Ferrero closed out the match 6-4, 6-4 in the final two sets.

Tennis - especially at a Major Tournament like the Open - is a grueling sport.  As important as power, speed, and agility are, stamina and the ability to pace oneself are just as important.  Ferrero rarely overexerted himself in his match with Monfils, playing just hard enough to push the Frenchman, just pesky enough to stay in the first three sets and steal one of them.  Then, by the time the fourth set rolled around the match was already well over three hours old, and Monfils's grace and nonchalance turned into fatigue, and Ferrero showed the instinct that allows you to be the best in the world, if only for a short time.


The tree we spent the most time with was dead.  It had fallen well over 100 years ago, and yet it had barely decayed.  For the Sequoias even death moves in slow motion.  Lying on the ground, it's easier to appreciate the sheer size of one of these Giants.  Walking from base to tip is roughly equivalent to traversing three tennis courts.  Climbing onto the curved peak affords one a view of a dangerous fall.  Bringing the virtually imperceptible giants to human scale only further reinforces how unfathomably huge they are standing up.

On the exposed faces of the fallen Sequoia people had scrawled initials, expressions of undying love, crude jokes, and brief political rants.  It's tempting to be upset about the human need to spoil natural beauty, but in this case anger is as perfectly irrelevant as the illegible carvings.  These trees do not exist on any human scale, and our petty efforts to make them ours - by writing on them, or by protecting them from writing - misses their point.  Indeed, they do not have, in any human sense, a point.  They are merely trees.  What power we exert over or in service of them says more about us than it does about them.


 I wonder about players like Juan Carlos Ferrero.  What motivates him to keep playing when he knows that he stands little chance against the Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics of the modern game?  As time passes the gap between himself and the top players grows, and as new top players find their way to the peak of their own games, Ferrero will continue to be the same Ferrero who reached his peak in 2003, and has been fighting to maintain a semblance of that greatness ever since.  Sure, another big paycheck, another endorsement deal or two can't hurt, but defeat does hurt for a champion.

"The love of the game" is a hackneyed and inadequate response to the question.  Of course Ferrero loves the game, and of course he believes in himself.  Somewhere, though, in the back of his mind, he has to know that the victories left to him are the ones that are not won during prime time, with the lights shining on him and the TV cameras rolling.  He might beat Gael Monfils, who is number seven in the world, but that is still a minor, unexpected victory.  Maybe, though, even for a former world champion, that's all that matters sometimes.


Now we're searching for a home in the South Bay.  The trees are behind us.  Their monolithic presence has given way to human concerns: a place to sleep, food to eat, a toilet to shit in.  As we search we've been forced to reconnect with commerce, with the artificial rules and regulations of the social contract, with the cultural codes that run even deeper than that, with the games that you have to play.  The U.S. Open is still on TV.

And what is a home, really?  It's a place to stay, but - as the saying goes - you can carry it on your back.  It's a transitory phenomenon, a place defined by its residents, a moment.  And yet the question "Where do you live" usually elicits a one word response: Honolulu, Denver, San Francisco.  These capital-letter stand-ins for the particular moments we spend in our homes speak to eternity, a time that spans our own lives.  In the end, a home is both the moment and the eternity, the place and the Place.  Perhaps we don't always look for these things, but we find them anyway.  Or, anyway, they find us.


What does Juan Carlos Ferrero have to do with the Sequoias?  Nothing, really.  Ferrero operates on a human scale, searching for a victory this week, and another one next week.  His career as a tennis player will be over soon, even though it only just started, even by the standards of a normal human "career."  The Sequoias, on the other hand, lie mostly outside of human perception.  Comprehending what it means for anything to exist for 1,500 years is essentially impossible for a creature that lives less than 100 years.  Eternity is not the precise word, but it might as well be.

As I search for a home, I'm really searching for a place where I can filter my perceptions, understand my interactions, and ground my existence.  Wrapped up in a home is an understanding of home in its moments and in its eternities.  Ferrero and the Sequoias are experiences I filter through myself, and as I look for a home, I look for a way of understanding not the meaning of tennis or really big trees, but rather something about myself.  I know where I am going, what I am going to do, and perhaps even a little bit about who I am.  Still, there's something else that a home represents in time, in space, and in understanding.

That something is wrapped up in eternity and in moments, in trees and tennis courts, and, above all, in the way we move through it all.

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