Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Juan Mónaco 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 and Carlos Berlocq beat Gilles Simon 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 at Estadio Mary Terán de Weiss, crowd ~10,000, Davis Cup World Group quarter-finals (Argentina beat France three rubbers to two), 7 April 2013.
French showman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has just bombed down a 200km-plus, scud-like missile to open his Davis Cup tie with Argentina’s Juan Mónaco; the opening serve going just inches long. The crowd respond like a room full of fifth grade students when one of their classmates is reprimanded by the teacher. “Hola, Jo!” they holler, as if the visiting superstar needed any reminding that he was in hostile territory. You expect Argentinian football crowds to be parochial, but this is tennis. This is the sport of Pimm’s and lemonade, strawberries and cream, prawn sandwiches and long summer evenings in SW19. But if Jo was expecting the polite applause and austere etiquette of Wimbledon, then he would have been sorely let down.
The manicured lawns of the Estadio Mary Terán de Weiss spring up like an oasis from the scruffy surroundings of Parque Roca, located in Villa Soldati, the city’s poorest barrio. According to Wikipedia, the brand new tennis court sits alongside a deadly 1962 train crash, a financially catastrophic amusement park, and a 2010 shanty town riot as the neighbourhood’s most noteworthy achievements. Colectivo 91 delivers me about 1km away, which gives me a chance to sample the sights of the government housing complex and the smells of the local landfill.
The immaculate gardens, Lacoste corporate tents and Freddo ice cream stands do a good job of distracting Buenos Aires’ tennis-loving elite from the reality that lies beyond the stadium walls. Around 10,000 have made their way to la cancha for this Davis Cup quarter final, a sun-kissed Sunday playing host to the two remaining rubbers with the score favouring Argentina 2-1. Among the locals is a knot of 200-or-so French representing the Association des Supporters des Equipes de France de Tennis (ASEFT, for short), who greeted their countrymen with a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise as they entered the arena in the morning. The players and their entourage stood arm-in-arm, swaying gently to their nation’s stirring anthem, while the locals whistled and jeered callously.
Argentinians don’t need to be asked twice to wave their national flag, and the tennis provides a perfect opportunity to flex their jingoistic muscle – against a big, fancy, European superpower, no less. They were intent on making life difficult for world No.8 Tsonga against the local hero, scruffy haired scrapper Juan Mónaco, ranked No.19. In start contrast to the customary hush that sweeps the crowd moments before a player serves, the porteños merely dulled their whistles to a volume that would escape the umpire’s censure. They had no such reservations when Tsonga committed a rare error, greeting every fault with enthusiastic approval.
Mónaco fought manfully but Tsonga was in tip-top shape, perhaps stung by being taken to five sets in the reverse fixture on Friday. “Pico” matched the effort of the crowd in the first two sets – which both ended 6-3 – but Tsonga blew it open in the third, wheeling out the party tricks in a 6-0 rout. He found his serving rhythm – giving the gallery little opportunity to carry on – and tucked away a number of inch perfect lobs over the hapless Mónaco. The Frenchman did it so easy he could afford to banter with the crowd, who weren’t having a bar of it, probably enraged by the unflappable smile that Tsonga carried throughout three near flawless sets. Despite a performance that would have demolished most players on the circuit, the pro-Argentinian crowd refused to budge. They refused to applaud the enemy, despite being treated to a rare show of skill.
Tsonga’s victory meant the tie was poised a 2-all heading into the deciding rubber, between Gilles “Gillou” Simon and Carlos “Charly” Berlocq, No.13 versus No.79, and no prizes for guessing who the crowd was getting behind. It was hard to assess Berlocq’s calibre before the match. He would have been confident after taking Tsonga to five on Friday, but maybe a little tired, too. Berlocq’s hulking frame makes him look bigger than he actually is, especially compared to the slender Simon. The 30-year-old from la provincia stands just six-foot tall but a barrel-chested torso supported by two spindly chicken legs (the left one held together by medical tape) and adorned by a large, angry looking head make Berlocq an intimidating presence on the court. While the nimble Frenchman slid across the clay delicately, Charly spanked the ball with little subtlety or grace but bucket loads of effort. There was a lot of Wayne Arthurs about Carlos Berlocq, another honest tradesman who drew a couple of inches when he represented his country.
As the shadows stretched across the Buenos Aires clay (which requires constant water, raking, and sweeping … who knew?), I settled in to the row of seats just in front of the broadcast box for a terrific view of a match quickly developing into a titanic arm wrestle. A small band – literally a small band; they had trumpets and drums and unmistakably Argentinian cymbals – grew louder as the match wore on. Both men were forced to fight for every service game, both earning and defending and losing countless break points, trading a string of breaks in the second and third sets. But by the end of it all, Berlocq had moved within striking distance of victory with his two-sets-to-one lead.
As the result drew nearer, the locals’ already tenuous adherence to tennis etiquette waned further. The musicians – with a small and well-worn repertoire of Argentina staples – whipped the crowd into a frenzy at key moments (when Simon was serving for a rare hold in the third, the trumpeter seized to opportunity to bust out “Es un sentimiento”), much to the chagrin of the umpire, whose parentage was frequently questioned (even the gentile tennis context fails to shake the porteños‘ fondness for the phrase “hijo de puta”).
The supporters – for all their puerile goading of the opposition and the officials – provide a unique backdrop for tennis. The classy, tennis-specific venue was shrouded in blue-and-white national flags with the names of different towns and barrios scribbled on the front. The unrelenting waves of noise provided their players with terrific momentum. At the change of ends before Berlocq served for the match, the crowd erupted in a version of “El que no salta es un ingles”, a surefire way to get Argentinians out of their seat, and even compelling the Argentine bench to join in with their compadres. The crowd hardly needed any encouragement – even a septuagenarian who struck a remarkable likeness to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Brooks Hatlen (the white-shirted gentleman in the foreground of the below photo) was rattling around to the cantito.
It was a nervous end to the match, despite the backing of the masses. Berlocq needed seven match points; I remember clearly because I was filming all of them in an attempt to capture the triumphant moment when Charly did his best Hulk impression, ripping off his shirt and diving into the clay. For a 30-year-old who has never passed the second round of a grand slam, putting his nation into a Davis Cup semi final must represent the highlight of his career. With such a raucous throng of frenzied Argentines in his corner, he must have felt like Messi for the day.