Friday, November 23, 2007

Why I Love Tennis

So last night I was watching the Andre Agassi documentary on the Tennis Channel, and after getting choked up not once, but several times, I got to thinking about why I love this sport. Some who know me might call my love of tennis obsessive. And a lot of people don't really get it. What could be so great about a sport that's better watched alone and in quiet, a sport that doesn't involve tail-gaiting or bean dip, whose main event of the year is a dignified Sunday morning affair where the proper dish to serve is strawberries and cream? Tennis is not for sports bars, or large social affairs. It's incredibly complicated in terms of its scoring system. The rules changes for different tournaments. It has a year round schedule. I can understand how an outsider might look at it as a weird sport to obsess about. But I love tennis. I've loved it since I was little and my family used to watch Wimbledon or the US Open at our beach rentals over the summer. I loved it when Andre Agassi was still a rebel, and Pete Samprass was still chasing records instead of owning them, long before that Swiss dude came into the picture. And for the purposes of clarification, to explain why I can easily spend 5 hours watching one match, or devote an entire weekend to a tournament, I thought I would try to explain, once and for all, why this game is so great, why it means so much to me. Let me count the ways.

1. Tennis is all about human drama. I love stories, of all sizes, shapes, and sorts and tennis is the ultimate sports vehicle for stories. And not stories in the inspirational sports movie way where you find out about the plot points after the event has happened. In tennis, every single match is a story about two people (except for doubles) standing across the net from each other, with no team to shield them or helmet to hide their emotions. As an avid viewer of tennis you know about the lives of the players. There are a lot of tennis players but only a small number consistently at the top. And through press conferences or post match interviews or the commentators, you find out the subtle details of their characters and lives. And so when you watch a match you're not just watching anonymous guy in shorts, you're watching a person who's gone through emotional struggles or spent a while recovering from injury, a kid whose on their way up or a fading legend trying to stick around for a few more years.Players can't hide in tennis. Every frustration or triumph is out there for view. And it creates these matches, usually at least one a tournament, so rife with human drama.
What other sport could create the emotion of watching Andre Agassi beat Marcos Baghdatis in the 2nd round of the 2006 US Open, Agassi's last tournament. Here's Agassi, 36 years old, a legend, but one who has been let down physically by his body. It's obvious he loves the sport because he's stuck around that long, but it's also obvious he's in pain. And Baghdatis is 21, an up and coming player, young and talented, and it's a huge tournament, so there's a lot at stake for him. And it's more than a sporting event, it turns into this 5 set epic, lasting well into the night, but the crowds are packed until the very end, everyone in New York cheering Agassi on, not ready to say goodbye to him. It goes to a fifth and both players just smile, knowing that its past them now. It's all come down to this tiny fraction of points. Agassi wins and it's phenomenal. He's more than a decade older than Baghdatis, obviously struggling physically, but he wins, and everyone in the place is on their feet like its the final. I remember watching that match in my bedroom, staying up into the wee hours to see it finish, and knowing that it was about more than tennis then. It was about this individual fighting with everything he has not to leave, to play one more match, one more point. It was beautiful in a way sports rarely are, because it was about more than the ability of the body, it was about the tiny, impossible, oh so human struggle of having to face change, to move on from something you love, knowing its for the best but still not quite willing to say goodbye
Or what about the drama of Pete Sampras playing after his coach has passed away, literally crying during the points, pushed beyond his emotional limits, but not giving up, winning the match. There's James Blake coming back from a year filled with injury, sickness and the loss of his father, his rise back to the top of the game. Or the Serbian players who are in the top 10 now, whose early lives were marred by war and struggle but who found a way to overcome those challenges and do what they love on an international stage. I've seen players playing their mentors, their best friends, their siblings. Or the times players bring personal dislike onto the court, the gloriously outrageous trash talking and bad behavior. Tennis is not driven by teams or organizations but by individuals, and because of that it will always be about the human stories behind the players. And for that I love it.

2. In tennis you follow players, not teams. Some might say that is a drawback because while teams can go on for decades, players sadly cannot. Some players have very short careers, ending before they are even 30. But there's something about sticking with a player, seeing them go from an awkward teenage kid to a graceful and classy man in his early 30s that makes the sport latch onto your emotions in a way few others can. You feel an affection for players because of this, because they're out there for public consumption, on their own, and all of their ups and downs and failures and successes are going to be seen in a harsh and unforgiving light. The first round upsets, the times players get beaten badly by guys much less talented than them, all of these are hell on a fan, but it's a gradual process. Following a player through the bad stuff makes it all the more sweet when they achieve success. Not to harp on Agassi too much, but in the middle of his career he spent a year in the bottom of the rankings, losing a lot, almost out of the sport, and then he comes back and wins the French Open and starts winning majors again. And for someone who has followed his career, it's an incredibly emotional and rewarding thing.
3. The dramatic comebacks. One of the greatest things about tennis in my opinion is that it is never too late for a player to win a match. It's not like basketball or football where things run on a timer, the length of tennis matches are determined by points. A player can be one point away from losing, having not won a single set or game, and it is still not too late for them to win it all. Some of the greatest matches I have ever watched have been the comebacks from two sets down. I remember Andy Roddick facing a break point in the 2003 US Open against Nalbandian, and coming back to win the match and go on to win the tournament. These are the matches that have fans shredding their nails in anxiety, almost ready to throw in the towel because it seems hopeless, but the thing is it is never hopeless. A player can find his game or a second win or a purpose and start to fight well into the match.

4. Late night matches at the US Open. Matches that start past 10pm and go till almost 2am, sitting up in bed in the dark with my eyes glued to the TV screen, not even thinking about turning it off until its done. Some of the greatest matches I've ever watched have been US Open night matches, the aforementioned Agassi/Bahgdatis match, the classic Agassi/Sampras match from the 2001 Open, one of Andy Roddick's first big matches against an equally young Lleyton Hewitt also at the 2001 Open, James Blake finally getting the monkey off his back and winning his first 5 setter against Fabrice Santoro at the 2006 Open. And far too many other great night matches that have me sleepwalking the next day.

5. Early morning watches at Wimbledon, getting up early and watching live tennis over coffee and breakfast. In my mind summer and tennis are always connected, with Wimbledon right in the middle at the end of June and beginning of July.

6. Because great tennis moments stay with you, no matter how small. James Blake looking up to the sky and smiling when he and Agassi went into a 5th set tie-break at the 2005 US Open. Andre Agassi at 35, after winning the US Open semifinal, walking back into the locker room with a huge smile on his face and finding his baby daughter there to greet him. 19 all in the 5th set of the epic 2003 Australian Open Quarterfinal between Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui, both players utterly exhausted and to the point of collapse, Roddick hands his racket to the ball kid and El Aynaoui follow suit, the ball kids play while both players sit down on the court and take a rest. John Isner, a 22 year old kid, fresh out of college at Georgia, taking a set from Federer, possibly the greatest player of all time at the US Open, a look of pure, sheer jubilation on his face. Rafa Nadal quietly acknowledging the greatness of Agassi when he beat him at his final Wimbledon match, allowing Agassi to take the moment. The embrace between Novak Djokovic and Baghdatis after their 5 set 2007 Wimbledon match, both players exhausted and drained, Dkokovic the winner, but both holding onto each other, out of respect and admiration. Rafa Nadal, covered in clay, holding on to his parents and for the first time in hours looking like a teenager instead of a tennis great. The small waved apologies after let cords, the way tennis players have the class to acknowledge win they win a point out of sheer dumb luck. Tennis players smiling to themselves after playing a great shot, unable to hide the simple joy of doing something cool. The classic moments from before I was born but which thinks to Tennis Channel and rain delays I've been able to watch, Jimmy Connors 1991 run to the semi-finals at the age of 39, all of the great Borg and McEnroe matches, so many other classic moments in tennis history. Which brings me back to what inspired me to write this blog in the first place, reliving one of my favorite tennis moments, Andre Agassi's farewell, him sitting in the chair after his match, looking with red eyes out into a standing crowd who would not sit down, even as the minutes began ticking away. I live for the tiny things in life, and they don't get much better than that. Tennis is my passion, and I hope I've done it some justice.

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