If the athlete is the actor in search of an audience, then Singaporeans yesterday gave Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki the valuable gift of their collective presence. It was a week night, no longer the opening night and yet a raucous night in every way. Wozniacki smacked the net in sweaty fury, Sharapova shrieked without respite and a baby wailed back, as if in appreciation.
The match was terrific in its tension, the crowd was as grand in numbers as it was gracious. Infatuated they might have been with the Russian, yet increasingly admiring they became of the Dane. If there was anxiety that Singapore might turn its back on tennis as Sharapova does to her opponent after every point, then it was quickly dismantled.
The flashing sign that almost pleadingly insisted "Make Some Noise" was quickly redundant: When large screens showed the players striding down a corridor towards the court, the first yell went up. It never subsided.
Maggie Smith, that sublime actress, once spoke of an "invisible thread" that occasionally links performer and watcher and that it is "stunning" when it happens.
In sport, this link manifests itself through a symphony of sound - the groan, the exclamation, the astonished applause, the standing ovation. Singapore may be a subdued, shy city, not quite given to vocally advertising itself, yet last night was audibly beautiful. It is now a city of multiple sore throats.
When Sharapova designed a superb backhand slice which spun, sighed and died, she got an ovation. When both players composed a point whose high notes included a volley, a lob and a drop shot, they drew whistles. Of course, the occasional fellow wandered down the aisles while play was on and intermittent camera flashes intruded, but the crowd primarily understood the virtues of stillness and silence.
With the construction of the Sports Hub, this city now has its stadiums; it is fans it requires to fill them. Yesterday, at least, the excellence of tennis' women was evidently irresistible. Singaporean Aida Noor Saadon, 46, now based in Ipoh, drove her four kids eight hours to get here.
Michelle Arteche, 21, who first started watching tennis in 2004, when Sharapova won Wimbledon, could not resist the lure of the Russian.
Arun Thiruvengadam, who had played tennis with wife Mayura in college, now arrived with their two young daughters who are taking baby tennis steps.
For all the couple's affection for tennis, for all their stroll onto Centre Court at Wimbledon one year when the tournament was done, they'd never seen the game "live". After last night they may well return, for Sharapova and Wozniacki fulfilled their primary obligation to the audience.
Which isn't to wear a stylish dress. Or show up for an autograph signing session. Or hit with some kids. Or be a telegenic, quotable presence. It all matters, it all helps, but first spectators want to see effort. The ball chased. The lines hit.
Skill doused in sweat. You can't always be your best, but you can try your best. Not every athlete gets it, but these women are in this elite field only because they do.
On Monday, a friend e-mailed me an article on the magnificent jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who spoke poetically about his art: "That's the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody.
You don't know if they'll like it, but you offer it." Yesterday Sharapova and Wozniacki offered up a gritty, edgy, athletic music. And it sounded like Singapore liked it.
This article was first published on Oct 22, 2014.
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