When tennis’ power is greater than mere Grand Slam sporting event
QUEENS, NEW YORK, September 2015
Rafa Nadal is sweating profusely — even for him. The perspiration drenches and soaks through his black T-shirt, maybe the third one he’s changed into already this match. The Spaniard fidgets in his normal routine before serving. Wedgie pick. Ball bounce. Tuck stray hair behind his ears. Repeat. The first two sets are Nadal’s. Victory seems inevitable, which is, in a way, more disappointing than gratifying.
We love Nadal in all of his quirky fidgety splendor, yet want to see more of a struggle, not a one-sided domination where he faces no challenge.
Almost as quickly as we wish it, it happens. Across the net, Fabio Fognini is waging a comeback. It’s subtle at first, then there’s no denying it. The Italian has made himself a contender, willed it to happen. His cross court shot is working, so is his down the line. Forehands, backhands belted with power, only casually so that the effort behind the shot-making is deceptively hidden. He’s playing his heart out, getting revved up — and so are we. Fognini could pull off a major upset, but will he? It’s always the question in a tough, hard-fought tennis match. Whose mettle will hold up, and subsequently, whose serve?
This time it’s Fognini in five.
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As the action plays out on the screen, my Mom’s lying down in her bed, with covers piled up over her and just a single lamp illuminating the dark room. Actually she can’t lie down. As the drama rises, so does her posture. The fight gives her energy and there’s no way she’s missing it.
The battle she’s watching on Arthur Ashe Stadium is a pumped-up, more public version of her own. Through some coincidental, fated, serendipity, tennis’ flashiest, final Grand Slam of the year is also timed this year to distract her from her just-beginning fight.
It’s one of the first things I pointed out when I knew that I’d be flying back to California for round one of my Mom’s chemotherapy regimen. “We can watch the U.S. Open together now,” I announced as if this whole series of events was choreographed and welcome, as opposed to crushing and shocking.
Truth be told, the discovery that chemo and the tournament lined up felt like a small consolation prize. Finding out that breast cancer you were told was gone is not only not gone but spreading is like the player across the net hitting overhead smashes that rebound into the stands with no possible defense.
Doctors, when it comes to cancer, at least in my experience, are careful to not use hopeful, victorious words like “remission” or “cured.” When they think treatment has worked they make the achievement tinier and speak of it in terms of being out of the woods for now. Tumors always need to be watched. They can creep up unexpectedly and rudely when life seems great and getting greater.
That was the situation here. My Mom had been back to normal for close to a year after her previous breast cancer fight. Weeks earlier she and some friends had gone on a cruise to Alaska that involved karaoke singing, elaborate buffet feasts and whale watching excursions. At 63, she was in the best shape she’d been in in years, maybe decades. My brother Josh’s wife had given birth to Mom’s first grandchild. Izzie was a mere 4 pounds at birth, even more delicate and precious than a normal infant. Somehow being born early and fragile didn’t require extra time in the hospital or any stay in the NICU. His emergence was, dare I say it, a miracle. For me, a new job and a new life beckoned in Dublin, Ireland. As a result, future goals revolved around an Irish reunion to bring all of our good fortunes together in a far-off place.
Cancer never shows up at an opportune time, yet this arrival felt particularly inconsiderate.
Nagging back pain my Mom couldn’t shake led to a battery of tests by her doctor. Tests led to a diagnosis that none of us predicted or liked; we just coped and scheduled who would be where when. The standout instruction from all of the doctors was clear: Chemo needed to happen now.
I’d take the first shift as Mom’s caretaker. At least we had tennis to sustain us, to entertain us, to be a friend that ESPN brought to us daily from 8 am to 8 pm. Continuous coverage of the tennis action felt like it was on the air strictly for our viewing pleasure. Besides Chris Evert and Pam Shriver, who were paid to watch all of the matches, we were determined to log the most hours analyzing the action.
Really, it was fitting. Tennis has long been the sport of my family, starting with my Dad. Growing up poor in a section of Brooklyn near Coney Island, along with excelling academically, Dad played baseball and basketball. When a racquet fell into his possession one day, he headed to the neighborhood courts and taught himself to play by emulating McEnroe, Connors, Borg and the other standout players of the 70s. The tactic worked. Tournament success followed, and teaching my mom tennis became an early part of their courtship.
Of course, Dad passed on his love for the game to his children. Lessons started shortly after each of us learned to walk. Buckets of balls filled the garage at all times. Mastering two-hand backhands and forehand volleys became the sources of both hugs and arguments in our household.
The U.S. Open was a pilgrimage I first made at age 12. There, I practically rammed into Argentine tennis star Gabriela Sabatini en route to one of her matches, and we staked out the practice courts to glimpse Steffi Graf (uncharacteristically volleying!) up close.
Tennis dictated everything — our time, our attitudes, our aspirations.
My Mom’s love of the game only intensified after my Dad’s death. She joined league after league at her tennis club in order to play as many singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches as she could cram into her schedule. Free time was spent road tripping to U.S. Open series events throughout California to glimpse and then emulate the pros. Constant tennis brought constant motivation, during times good and bad.
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Serena Williams is hot off of a win over perhaps her toughest opponent, her sister Venus. Spry Italian Roberta Vinci, unseeded and untested in her earlier matches, is expected to be a breeze for Serena. It’s believed to be just another check mark to the bigger aim of winning an elusive Calendar Slam, in which a player raises the victory trophy at not only the U.S. Open but also the French, Australian and Wimbledon in a single year.
Dominance is certainly the first set narrative against Vinci. When Serena’s booming serve is firing correctly, there’s no stopping it.
But midway through the second set, Vinci begins hitting better returns, perhaps digging deep into her doubles bag of tricks to nail volleys and drop-shots. Momentum is changing. It doesn’t seem possible that Vinci can keep it up. Serena Williams’ super power, as much as her pounding serves and impossibly powerful smashes, is her mental toughness. Even when she’s below par and shouldn’t win, she does.
Only this time, against the ultimate underdog, she can’t find a way and, improbably, loses.
Vinci, in her post-match interview, is initially speechless. How do you describe an upset of that magnitude which absolutely no one predicted and nearly no one seemed to want? Vinci, in a charming manner that few could get away with, gives a cheeky apology. To the American fans expecting to root on history as well as to her opponent hoping to make it. Vinci tells them, “I’m sorry, but this was my day.”
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The statement brings a smile to Mom’s face. She’s fond of Vinci, off the bat, for her grit and small stature and then for her humor in handling such a tough experience. And the fact that her victory was so inconceivable, such a herculean test of belief and follow-through, especially with a crowd so vehemently in favor of her opponent, makes it that much more satisfying to behold. Mom absolutely drinks it in.
She doesn’t say it out loud, but you can tell the underdog displays she’s beheld are rising up in her like fuel to power her own comeback story. If these determined players can take on champions as intimidating and legendary as Rafa and Serena, maybe I can get through an insurmountable opponent like cancer yet again. It’s the inner monologue I sense based on the glint in her eyes. There’s no overt discussion of what it all means. We merely marvel, knowingly smile at each other and then go back to taking in the action on screen.
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Tennis has historically been a country club sport. Costly. Requiring pricy equipment and reliable access to a functioning, well-kept court just to get going. Often the best-maintained stadiums of play and practice are reserved for those who can afford the privilege, regardless of their drive, talent or affection for the sport.
This is all true. But I think what makes tennis so irresistible to my family — especially given that my Dad was self-taught and found a side route into tennis far from the posh members-only clubs — has nothing to do with this elite air around the game. It’s the game itself.
So many team sports come down to the movement of a ball back and forth across a gigantic field, passed between hands or feet, stolen away or whooshing into a net whenever possible. Matches can be pulse-poundingly exciting or absolute snooze fests, depending on the chemistry of the players and tempo of the action.
So many individual sports come down to a set of judges — biased humans acting as if they somehow lack the very human trait of partiality — scoring a performance or a clock flashing the quickest time.
Tennis is different.
During the grandest tournaments and occasionally even during the most humble, it’s that rare contest between solo gladiators to see who can endure. A player can be coached and prepped by the best, receiving instructions on technique, footwork, visualization strategies. Ultimately, though, it’s up to that player alone to withstand whatever fires at them from across the net.
Who can keep composed, play their own brand of tennis and fend off a competitor aiming to do the same? Who can stay fit enough, uninjured and unencumbered in their body, handle the nerves in their mind, keep swinging, running, stopping on a dime? Doing it all with power yet precision, effort yet ease. Their strokes can be magnificent or passable; no one is assigning a score so it’s all about what works for that individual and if they can keep tallying points when needed. Only recently was on-court coaching even allowed to occur.
Many players crack under the pressure, understandably fatigued, either mentally or physically. Tennis matches can be long and arduous, lasting hours and multiple sets. Yet, almost always, who wins comes down to single moments. Individual points. Inches. A lone shot that changes the whole trajectory.
It’s what makes the whole spectacle compelling, dramatic and multi-layered. Even a casual fan can, on some level, grasp the beauty of tennis, the athleticism needed to dictate points and, by changing the rhythm and pace, steer points away. It takes patiently playing defense and offense at once, ninja-like. Power and touch. A more seasoned fan can appreciate how tennis played by the most skilled can rise to art form, and can demonstrate what’s possible with hard work, stamina and commitment. The rallies take on an epic quality, warriors giving it everything they’ve got.
That blend of simple and complex is something to behold and something that, I believe, makes tennis the ultimate mirror for life’s victories and struggles.
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In the case of Mom, her battle with cancer proved to be the equivalent of a dramatic, it-could-go-either-way 5-setter. Chemo worked. At least for a time. Despite the loss of hair, of appetite and of strength in her bones, her body and meddle proved tough enough to withstand round after round. Eight months after I resettled in Ireland — a move she was adamant about not standing in the way of — Mom was so well that she and my sister journeyed to Ireland to visit. That week was uncharacteristically sunny, not a single rainstorm in a land famous for its dreary weather. “You don’t know how rare this is,” friends and strangers across Ireland would remind us, as if they knew the significance of it all.
The Ireland holiday would be Mom’s last big trip. Ultimately cancer battled back, regaining control yet again, as it so rudely does. Mom was able to spend her final days out of the hospital and at home under hospice care, surrounded by loved ones. A small consolation prize yet again.
Later that year I made a pilgrimage to Wimbledon. Going to the hallowed halls of tennis, which Mom and I had always talked about doing, felt like a way to honor her memory as much as giving a eulogy at her funeral. A high school friend who knew my Mom agreed to meet me in London and camp out for tickets with me in hopes of getting into the Day Session on the first day of the tournament. Once inside, moving from court to court to catch glimpses of matches, I imagined the banter Mom and I would have had, the shared joy I presumed we’d experience over underdog Sam Querrey’s surprising run to the semis.
This year I returned to the U.S. Open, the tournament that has captivated my family for decades, joined by my brother and his son Izzie, who’s now 8 and just starting to grip a racquet, understanding perhaps in some small way the meaning and allure that the game of tennis has long held for his loved ones.
I entered hoping for surprising, enlightening matches, the contenders ready to wage battles with the likes of Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek, stirring up excitement and magic in the process. Mom, of course, wasn’t there, her absence forever felt with each match I watch.
Yet there’s some consolation in knowing that I can feel closer to her, long after her death, in that sacred place. Watching action-packed points on the court, I can imagine Mom right there courtside beaming and rooting for that next underdog, that seed of inspiration from the tennis court to inspire greatness off of it.