Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Tennis Weekend in Chicago (plus a little extra) - part one

Sooooo, I received two emails within the space of about ten seconds a while back and they are what spurred me to splurge on a long weekend in Chicago.  The first email said my credit limit was increased on my mini-credit card.  I saw that and thought, nah, I'm still going to cut the card up.  Then the second email said that discount pre-sale ticket packages for the Laver Cup were going on sale the next day.  WELL.  To me it was a sign.  A sign that I was supposed to use that credit increase to buy Laver Cup tickets.  My budget will not thank me for the sign, but hey, I went for it.  

For those of you not in the know, the Laver Cup is a new tennis team competition that my hero Roger Federer put together.  It has two teams - Team Europe and Team World, and will alternate venues between Europe and...the world, I guess.  Last year was the first year - it took place in Prague and I watched most of it on tv; it looked like so much fun!  The matches were all exciting and the players really seemed to get into it.  Roger played doubles with his great rival, Rafael Nadal, and that match was for the books.  Then when Team Europe won and Nadal jumped into Roger's arms, a bromance meme was born.  They announced early this year that the competition would be in Chicago and I thought 'hmmmm.'  Then when I got the two-email-premonition, the deal was set.

On the Laver Cup website, they also had hotel packages listed, so I went with the Virgin Hotel Chicago.  It was the least expensive of the hotels listed and looked fun.  The cost was certainly cheaper than anything I was finding online.  I also lucked out and had enough frequent flyer miles to be able to get my plane ticket for free, so that helped with the budget a little bit.  I've had these tickets booked since March, so I've been looking forward to a break for a long time.  Last weekend was finally the time for fun.

When doing my internet research, I also saw that Steppenwolf would be presenting the first preview of Bruce Norris' new show, Downstate, while I was there.  Well, hello, you know I enjoy Bruce Norris' plays, so I was in!  I invited an old friend from undergrad to join me and I was as much looking forward to seeing him as I was looking forward to seeing the play.  I also discovered that my mom and her sisters would be in Chicago for a day during their annual sister vacation!  All signs pointed toward my premonition being a good one!

Of course, the best laid plans and all that.  My flight was delayed about an hour, then it took me almost two hours to get into the city by cab.  So my dinner with my mom and aunts was severely cut short.  We had fun in the short time we spent together and laughed a lot, but it wasn't nearly enough time.  I walked with them back to the train entrance and ran back over to my hotel to freshen up - oh, by the way, the Virgin Hotel Chicago is great!  It's kind of funky and the rooms are set up very interestingly.  The closets and bathroom are on one side, then there's a little partition and the bedroom is on the other.  I liked being able to leave the light on in the bathroom, yet close the partition doors and the light didn't stream into the bedroom.  Very nice.  Anyway, I got ready to go to the theater and on my way down the elevator, I got a message from my friend that he couldn't join me after all.  I have to admit I was rather devastated not to see him.  This devastation may require its own blog post in the future.  Moving on.  I got into a cab and went to Steppenwolf by myself, dammit.  I guess I always see shows by myself in New York, so why should Chicago be any different?

I don't want to say much about a first preview, but Downstate seems to be in pretty good shape already.  As is my custom, I did NOT read the program before the show, so I kinda didn't know what I was in for.  OK, I did quickly scan the blurb on the website:  "In downstate Illinois, four men convicted of sex crimes against minors share a group home where they live out their lives in the shadow of the crimes they committed. A man shows up to confront his childhood abuser—but does he want closure or retribution? This fiery, provocative new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris zeroes in on the limits of our compassion as it questions what happens when society deems anyone beyond forgiveness."  But I guess I didn't really register or intuit what I would be seeing.  And that is totally on me.

Downstate is tough - it's really funny and it's really ugly.  It's moving and it's completely off-putting.  It goes places I didn't really want to go and I felt myself grappling with why would this play even be necessary?  Why would Norris want me to have sympathy for these men?  Then I read his piece in the program and it was just as provocative.  It really made me think and perhaps understand better what Bruce was going for - making me think about exactly how far I can go with my natural empathy.  In this play, everyone is a hero and everyone is a villain and I guess that's life.  Other than that, so I don't give anything away, I'll just say the acting is first-rate, though again I had an issue with a character in a wheelchair being played by an actor not in a wheelchair.  I fully understand that Steppenwolf is an ensemble and this actor is part of their ensemble.  I also fully acknowledge that this actor was fantastic.  BUT.  I mean, if Steppenwolf can't feature an actor in a wheelchair, who can?!  I don't know.  It just frustrates me, as you already well know.

There just happened to be another NY friend of mine in the audience and he suggested getting a drink after the show, but again, I didn't want to talk about the play yet or hear anyone else talk about it (like last week's Craig Lucas play).  I just kinda wanted to sit with it.  Of course, when I got into a cab back to the hotel, the cab driver wanted to know about the show.  We got into a long discussion about the play, theater in general, his nephew who has been wrongly sentenced to 60 years in prison for buying drugs, and about the criminal justice system in America.  It was quite a weighty conversation for a not-that-long cab ride, but it did keep my mind off being depressed and/or triggered by the play and by my friend not joining me there, so that was good.  And so ended my first day in Chicago.

Friday morning, I decided to do room service before starting my day.  I love room service.  I admit it.  It was very pleasant.  Then I decided to spend a little time at the relatively new American Writers Museum, which was only a couple of blocks from my hotel.  I figured I could get a sense of the space in about an hour, before it was time to head out to the tennis.  After going, I wish I had left myself a little more time to get fully immersed in the museum, but I guess it's good to save some things for another trip.  The American Writers Museum is on the second floor of an office building and is set up as mainly one long loop around.  There is a children's exhibit area just past the entrance, but most of the space is taken up by one long timeline of American authors.  There was a lot of interactivity, with panels you could move back and forth, and sound bites, and photographs.  I thought it was just a really interesting place and I would love to go back.  Since I rather rushed through, I'll just say that I thought they could've included more women and writers of color and playwrights, but that's ok.  I'll put some photos below.

After the museum, I went downstairs to catch the express bus to the United Center, where the tennis was being played.  Of course, I missed the bus by about 30 seconds, and knowing that the next bus wouldn't be there for 20 minutes (at least according to the Laver Cup website), I decided to take a cab.  The neighborhood of the United Center is a little off the beaten path, and a lot of the streets were closed, so the cab had to let me out a little ways away.  By the time I made it into the stadium, I had missed the first two games.  But that was ok.  The United Center is laid-out pretty well and I had a terrific seat, though it was a little far back (my binoculars really came in handy).  I couldn't really get any good photos on my phone, but it was fine for viewing.  Interestingly, I had different seat neighbors for each of the sessions (there was a day session and a night session on Friday and Saturday, then just a day session on Sunday).  That made things pretty interesting.

The first match was Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (on Team Europe) vs Francis Tiafoe from the US (on Team World).  This was really a mismatch - Dimitrov is much farther along as a player than Tiafoe, though there were a lot of really great rallies and a lot of excitement.  But the outcome was never in doubt.  It was a good first match, I think, to get everyone into the event.  Second match was Brit Kyle Edmund vs American Jack Sock.  Sock has had a really crappy year on the tour this year, at least in singles.  He's also had a lot of doubles success, so I think his brain is confused at the moment.  He can play brilliantly and horribly, often in the same point.  This match was pretty exciting, though - Edmund won the first set, then Sock got his head together and won the second set.  In the Laver Cup format, if the players split the first two sets, instead of playing a deciding third set, they play a ten-point tiebreak.  This kept the matches very exciting and moving very quickly.  The momentum went back and forth in the match tiebreak, but Edmund pulled out the win with some very aggressive shotmaking.  It was an excellent match and I was happy to see both players live (I had only seen them on tv before).

Neither match was overly long, so I was a bit worried about what I would do between the day session and the night session.  I didn't want to take two more cab rides to and from my hotel, but I discovered the Fan Zone outside the United Center.  It had a lot of food stands, exhibits, and lots of places to sit.  I grabbed some doughnuts from one of the vendors (they looked much better than they tasted) and sat at a picnic table.  Later, a couple of other single women sat down with me and we had a nice conversation.  One woman was from Portland and one was from Dallas.  It was an interesting break and it was nice to sit in the sun for awhile before heading back into the arena for the night session.

Up first was Belgian David Goffin vs Argentine Diego Schwartzman.  This match was really thrilling, with each gent taking momentum and executing some really exciting shot-making.  There were a lot of South Americans in the crowd, I think, so there was a lot of enthusiastic cheering for Schwartzman, who played very well to it.  This match also went to the ten-point match tiebreak and both players held match points before Goffin pulled off the win.  He leaped to the air and you could really see how much Laver Cup means to all of the players.  Their excitement was very contagious.

The last match of the first day was a doubles match and it was a marquee match up:  for Team Europe was my hero Roger Federer and my nemesis Novak Djokovic, versus Team World's Kevin Anderson and Jack Sock.  Someday I will explain my complete and utter antipathy towards Djokovic.  It was hard to root for him at all, but since he was playing with my Roger, I had to.  This was a very lively doubles match, with some excellent play from all four players.  I think Kevin Anderson, though, was the MVP.  He was just on fire and played really really well.  The teams split the first two sets in this match too, but the match tiebreak was a tad anticlimactic, and Team World got their first point of the day.  I was disappointed that Roger didn't win, but oh well.  I was just happy to have seen him play.

After the match, I went outside with the thousands of people pouring out of the stadium, but I couldn't find the bus stop in the dark.  I just got all turned around and ended up taking another cab.  I got another chatty cabbie - this one wanted my opinion on whether Uber is a fad or if it's here to stay and did I think he should get a new hybrid car?  I have no idea why I looked like someone with answers to those questions, but we had a nice enough chat on the short ride back to the hotel.  I briefly thought about heading up to the rooftop bar in the hotel, but since it was pretty late, I decided not to.  So ended day two.

You know what, I think I'll save days three and four for another post, this one is long enough.  I'll be back!

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