Weathering Hights: The Mile and a Half High City

Jan 28, 2012

In a city that already stands at 7,500 feet,"Club Berimbau" is built at the top of one of the higher mountains. On a clear day when the smog isn't bad you can see all the way across the city and to the mountains on the far side.

Sorry I’ve been meaning to post for a couple days now and I have a lot to say so this might be a long one.  I’m in Mexico City and I actually just played my match in the qualifying for the second Mexican future.  I lost in three sets to a solid Brazilian player who is ranked #699 in the world.  I’m more bummed about this loss than I was last week because I was up on him and really should have pulled out the match.  Before I describe the match though I should explain the strange conditions we’re dealing with here in Mexico City.

Sunrise View

Mexico City is a huge, crowded city that sits in what is called the Valley of Mexico at the center of the High Plateaus.  It is estimated that the greater metropolitan area of Mexico City has a population of 21 million people and its mountainous location gives the city an elevation of close to 7,500 feet above sea level.  Such altitude drastically changes the conditions for a tennis match because the air is thinner, meaning that the ball has less resistance as it travels.  This dynamic makes it extremely hard to control a tennis ball because the forces you apply to with your racquet are all amplified by the lack of friction or opposition as it flies through the air.  In laymen’s terms, it makes it real hard to put spin on the ball and keep the damn thing in the court.  Also it makes the serve, which is already a hugely important aspect of the game, even more so because with less air resistance the ball moves quicker, the result being that people can just crack serves, putting even more pressure on the returner than usual.

Pressureless balls. Have you ever seen tennis balls that come in a cardboard box?

To combat all these peculiarities that come from playing at such high an altitude we use what are called “pressureless” tennis balls, which are basically just dead balls that don’t bounce very well and can sort of counteract the effects of the thin air.  In the end though, for all intensive purposes, what you wind up with is crappy tennis, played with balls that feel terrible since they are heavy and don’t bounce, under conditions that are still extremely hard to control.  Sounds fun right?  The good news, although I guess it didn’t really matter that much, is that my game is actually fairly suited to such wacky tennis because it gives an advantage to players who hit the ball relatively flat, since spin has less of an effect when the ball is moving so fast through the air.  And growing up playing mostly indoors definitely tailored my game to playing flat since indoor courts are generally faster than outdoor courts.  So, to make a long story short, although I feel awful along with everyone else playing here, there is a good chance that I may feel less awful than many.

Besides the effect the altitude has on the balls and the act of playing tennis, it also greatly affects the simple physiology of existing so high above sea level.  Luckily though, due to my early exit from Monterrey, I’ve been in Mexico City training since Wednesday, which has allowed me both to get used to the strangeness of playing here as well as helping my body to adapt a little to functioning in the thin air.  It’s strange how you can actually feel the change in the amount of oxygen your lungs are getting.  I noticed it immediately when I became winded just climbing the stairs to get to my first practice court.  I don’t know whose idea it was to build the club on the side of a mountain, but I’ve climbed more stairs in the last three days than I have in the last two years of my life, and it’s a common joke that the hardest part of your match is getting to your court.   Luckily, after a couple days your lungs start getting used to the change, and although its still hard to catch your breath after a long point, at least you stop feeling light headed after a couple sprints across the court.  I’m hoping to hold on to all these extra red blood cells for a while if I can and maybe I’ll be in even better shape once I’m not playing on the moon anymore.

I like this picture. It looks and feels like we're playing tennis on the edge of the world.

Anyway, these were the conditions I was dealing with going into my match this morning.  The Brazilian’s name was Augusto Laranja and he was the fifth highest ranked player out of the sixty-four in the qualifying draw, so I knew he would be good.  But I also felt like he might struggle more than me with the altitude due to his probably being a clay-court player who likes to hit heavy, spin shots, and would thus give me a good opportunity for a highly ranked win.  Unfortunately it turned out that although I think he was a bit disoriented at first, he was still very talented and he managed to come from behind to beat me in a close three set match.  For those that understand a tennis match, I won the first set 6-3 and was up a break 3-1 in the second, even having break points to go up 4-1 and two breaks.  But to his credit the Brazilian did not give up and found a way to settle himself down and into the match, turning the set on me and forcing me to scrap and battle for every point.  Once he found his rhythm the match was neck and neck, both of us gaining leads and then losing them until I finally played a loose service game late in the third set and couldn’t recover.  He ended up beating me by a final score of 3-6 6-3 6-4.

My roommate Jon playing his qualifying match. Good view of how the courts are situated with the city spread out below and behind

All in all it was a good match and except for a couple loose points at inopportune moments I thought I played well and deserved to win.  The Brazilian proved though why he is ranked so highly in how well he fought back and was unwilling to just rollover and die like I had hoped he would.  Although I’ve had close matches with good players before, this was the first time I’ve played someone at his level and felt like I really could have and in fact should have won.  While I’m pretty disappointed to have lost early once again in this tournament, I made a strong showing after being dealt a tough draw and I’m happy for the most part with how I performed.  So life is good.

In non-tennis news, while there are quite a number of Americans playing this circuit, I am traveling with a guy from San Antonio, who played for University of Texas and graduated in 2010.  His Name is Jon Wiegand and he managed to find us housing for this tournament living with the family of a friend of his from college.  I have to say it has been a much better experience living in a Mexican household than staying in a hotel.  Not only does it save us money by not paying for a room, it is also extremely comfortable and nice to be taken in by such a generous family who has made it a point to take care of us.  Mexican hospitality is incredible and many of the players have been benefitting from various members of the club where the tournament is being held.

Our first night in Mexico City Siegfried and Ziggy took us out for some authentic Tacos de Pastor (pork tacos). I had eight of them. And thankfully haven't been sick yet.

Our host family’s story is particularly interesting.  It begins thirty years ago, when Siegfried Wieland (sounds a lot like Jon’s last name) came from Germany to Acapulco to vacation on the beach for a week and escape the cold of a harsh German winter.  Apparently, it all began when he was at a bar one night attempting to by an orange juice (I know, yeah right, what kind of German goes to a bar and orders an orange juice?  It’s ok though.  It’s been a long time and he can remember it however he wants).  Anyway, he got in an argument with the bar tender, who was trying to stiff him by charging him ten dollars for his drink, but the argument wasn’t going anywhere since he spoke no Spanish and the bar tender obviously didn’t know a word of German.  Luckily, a Mexican man who was also at the bar and happened to overhear what was going on randomly knew enough German to help Siegfried negotiate the situation, and afterwards invited him back to his table to have a drink with the girls he had come with.  One of those girls turned out to be Siegfried’s future wife, and after a night of dancing, what started as an argument with a local bar tender turned into the event that would change his life forever.  Siegfried has now lived in Mexico for thirty years, and although he still looks, sounds, and acts like the firm and proper German that he is, his roots have been everlastingly sown into the fertile, and passionate land that is Mexico.

So, strange as it sounds, Jon and I have been spending our stay in Mexico City “en la casa de los Wieland’s,” thoroughly enjoying all that Mexican/German hospitality has to offer.  Since I lost today I believe that tomorrow I will go see a professional soccer game with Ziggy, short for Siegfried II.  While I am still pretty bummed with having lost, I will keep training and preparing for the next tournament in Guatemala, and hopefully get some good sightseeing in while I’m still here hanging around.  By this point I’ve learned that disappointments and long waits are both part of the professional tennis experience, and while it is easy to get lonely and feel sorry for yourself, it is important to stay positive and not let such feelings get you down.  I know I could have done better but I’m still in Mexico City and I’m happy to have the time to explore a bit now and see what the city has to offer.

7 responses to “Weathering Hights: The Mile and a Half High City”

  1. Dory Kanter says :

    Great commentary on life as a tennis pro. I enjoyed it immensely, Charlie. Keep writing!

  2. charliecutler says :

    Thanks Dori. I’m just glad it doesn’t bore you too much.

  3. Annie Wang says :

    ¡Hola Charlie! Me gusta mucho tu blogs tambien… vamos con el tenis, queremos que tu ganes! Así, buena suerte… y coma mucha comida deliciosa 🙂

  4. William McMahan says :

    You have always been a wordsmith, and great pictures, Legend… Although I must say, I always get nervous when I see you near police-type peeps!

  5. ana says :

    Cool sports club! I guess they built the club on the side of the mountain, with a lot of stairs for people to exercise. It makes a lot of sense, since it’s a Sports club 🙂

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