By Bill Simons
Our great figures, those who touch our lives and inspire our imagination, have a power and presence: such courage, great vision. Each are remembered for particular gifts. Some, like Lincoln, Churchill, and Martin Luther King, were sublime orators. Others, say Einstein or Edison, emanated scientific genius. With King and Gandhi, there was an almost spiritual transcendence. Lincoln, a gifted politician and unabashed storyteller, combined visionary ideals and a rough and tumble prairie realism and folksy insight that rose to the occasion. For all their greatness, these were real men with real demons and gnawing doubts. Gandhi, Lincoln, King and Nelson Mandela all had issue with women. Churchill liked his cognac, and his views on race were problematic. Still, it was their inexplicable magnificence that moved us.
Now, just one transcendent figure lingers amongst us. And President Nelson Mandela—who is nearing the end of his 95-year odyssey of wonder—brought something that defied logic. In a land infected with a scathing hatred—deep and visceral—he overcame the pain of 27-years of imprisonment to unleash an improbable surge, a wave of healing that allowed seemingly unimaginable beams of reconciliation to shine bright.
His dignity and almost Buddha-like lack of bitterness resonated. Love thy enemy. Turn the other cheek. Beat thy swords into plowshares. Mandela made Biblical ideals seem real and attainable and forged a political miracle for his people, his land, and humanity.
At first, with patient “know thy enemy” wisdom, Mandela won over his sadistic captors at a windswept island jail. Then, almost seamlessly, he went on to turn the tide of a place ruled by bitter hearts and tyrannical divisions. What promised to be a bloodbath became an unfathomable triumph, a multiracial democracy that united seemingly entrenched white racists and incendiary blacks.
Oh, if there were only such a moral genius, a force for good, in the Middle East—or for that matter, in our land—how this world would be better.
But there has been only one Mandela.
The great men we embrace do have some sports connections. Churchill liked the races. There is an Indian cricket stadium named after Gandhi. A great college football heritage is based in Lincoln, Nebraska and to this day Edison’s work illuminates countless sporting events. But of our towering figures, just one loved sports and embraced games.
Certainly, the world was astonished when Mandela, the former freedom fighter and convicted felon, was elected President.
Still, skeptics assured us that like many an anti-colonial hero, he would morph into a vain dictator with diamonds from Antwerp and a villa in Italy. (Wrong, Mandela remained modest and served for just five years.) And certainly, conventional wisdom told us, he wouldn’t be able to unite a country that was flooded with so many rivers of rage and revenge. The land smelled of violence. Blood would flow. No one could possibly turn back the racial and tribal deluge that loomed.
But Mandela—the calm, wise, creative soul, whose name means “shaker of trees”—thought otherwise. He dared to leap outside the box. His prime tool to build nationhood was the controversial Springbok rugby team, created by white supremacist Afrikaaners and emblematic of the macho might of apartheid: a gleeful symbol of triumph for whites, an inviting target of derision for blacks who were eager to jeer the prevailing ethos. After apartheid’s fall, activists eager for payback immediately moved to change the team’s name and beloved colors. But Mandela initiated his jujitsu, turning a clear liability into a transformative asset. Few others knew their enemy so well.
Already, an expert on Afrikaaner culture, Mandela soon mastered the basics of rugby, befriended the Springbok players, and wore the fabled No. 6 Captain’s jersey. Mandela used the team to unite thick-necked racists and raging insurgents, who—much to their own amazement—discovered that after chanting “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” together in a Rugby stadium, they could go on to build a “warts and all” democracy based on a unison few imagined possible.
Over time there had been other sporting events with big-picture impact. In 1936, Jesse Owens’ short sprints at the Berlin Olympics sent a longstanding message to those backing Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy delusions. Jackie Robinson’s courage opened countless doors. Billie Jean King’s “I am woman, hear me roar” win rearranged our gender landscape. President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy led to Walmart shelves crowded with Chinese widgets. Likewise, the Springboks’ 1995 overtime win over New Zealand’s mighty Blacks in the World Rugby Cup had a stunning impact. The alchemy was astonishing. Mandela’s use of a bunch of sweaty, burly jocks—pounding and grunting—was nothing less then Houdini-like political magic.
Then again, Mandela—the fitness fanatic who jogged in place every dawn in his cell, did countless fingertip push-ups, and encouraged everyone from his children to his fellow prisoners to get fit—adored African games like ndize, khetha, and thinti, which he described as “a youthful approximation of war … [in which boys] who distinguished themselves were greatly admired, as generals.” As a young man he took up boxing. Sure, he conceded that “my lack of speed … [was not enough] to make up for my lack of power.” But he liked boxing because “when you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his color or social status.” Plus, he found the sport completely reinvigorating. He recalled that in his world, where even revolutionaries got the blues, “After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling refreshed [and] ready to take up the fight again.”
Plus, Mandela loved tennis. He played as a young man, recalling, “I was by no means an expert. My forehand was relatively strong, my backhand regrettably weak. But I pursued the sport for exercise, not style… I was a backcourt player who only approached the net when I had a clear slam.”
A key part of the Mandela story is how, after years of a gutsy Gandhi-like disobedience campaign for prisoner rights, he gained the counterintuitive respect of his jailers, who evolved from sadistic brutes into respectful professionals that granted prisoners appropriate privileges. Years later, this same process of transforming his foes was replicated on a larger stage when his diplomatic brilliance led to the demise of apartheid. On Robben Island, the prisoners used their hard-earned rights to paint a huge green rectangle in the middle of their grim prison yard. They then added white lines and put up a net to create the world’s most poignant tennis court.
“[We had our] own Wimbledon,” gushed Mandela. But of course, as with any court, there were issues. Not all the prisoners learned how to play, and those that did had to deal with the universal issue of court time. Like most hackers, Mandela was more than inventive at explaining his losses. After one setback, he informed his then-wife Winnie that he played poorly because he couldn’t concentrate from thinking about her. Still, as time went on, it became a heady honor for jailers and visitors alike to play with Mandela. Go figure.
Another privilege the prisoners gained was the right to listen to the radio, and Mandela famously tuned into the fabled 1980 McEnroe vs. Borg Wimbledon final, some 6,000 miles away. A decade and a half later, in one of the more bizarre (“Attila the Hun, say howdy to Mother Theresa”) moments we could imagine, McEnroe, whose brand is all about unrepentant rage, met Mr. Reconciliation himself. Naturally, Mandela embraced Mac with a welcoming grace. McEnroe later said he’d pay a million bucks for a video of the moment.
Mandela’s tennis moments go on and on. There was an international charity tennis tournament and gala in his honor that drew tennis’ glitterati to Cape Town. And like Churchill, Mandela loved to paint—in retirement, he created an entire series of whimsical paintings based on tennis.
Whimsical tennis paintings are delightful, but Mandela’s fateful connection with Arthur Ashe—the athlete who campaigned most strongly against apartheid—was a whole other matter.
For decades, anti-apartheid politics was intense and contentious. Should one follow the pleas of activists and the UN to isolate South Africa’s apartheid rulers by boycotting the nation or instead, should one say that art, sport, and economics have their own dynamic, above the fray and independent of politics? Many, like Paul Simon, the Supremes, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Brad Gilbert, became involved in the harsh controversy.
At first, Ashe wasn’t even aware of the reach of apartheid, and he presumed he could play the South African Open. But his South African friend Cliff Drysdale quickly informed him that he wouldn’t even be allowed into a land where racial rules prevailed. In his book Days of Grace, Ashe recalls that another South African pro, Ray Moore, thought there just might be a way out of the morass. “I think,” Moore suggested, “There is one man in South Africa capable of leading my country out of this mess”
“Is he white?” Ashe asked.
“No,” Moore replied. “He is a black man, a lawyer imprisoned on Robben Island … His name is Nelson Mandela.”
“Mandela? I’ve never heard of him.”
“Well, you will,” Moore insisted. “In fact, I think he will become president of South Africa one day.”
Over time, Mandela and Ashe proved to have much in common. Both were renaissance thinkers with deep wells of calm, possessing a quiet reflective nature that allowed them to adeptly evolve, change course, master a range of challenges, and quietly inspire. And both shared a burning desire for justice that exceeded their deep appreciation of decorum. Over the years, both Mandela, from inside his jail cell, and Ashe, from outside and using his platform of fame, campaigned against apartheid.
Ashe would go through two phases. He began by fighting for years to get a visa to visit South Africa in order to be the first black to ever play the South African Open—on the condition that the stadium be open to both blacks and whites. From 1973 through 1977, Ashe would visit South Africa four times. There, while briefly integrating sports events, he “looked apartheid directly in the face, [and] saw the appalling WHITES ONLY and NONWHITES ONLY signs, the separate and drastically unequal facilities very much like those of my childhood in Virginia. I saw the sneer of superiority on the faces of many whites, and the look of obsequiousness, fatalism, cynicism, and despair on the faces of many blacks.”
Ashe’s trips, including his run to the final of the 1973 South African Open, were sensational happenings. While an angry few raged and called him an Uncle Tom, claiming his presence gave legitimacy to the apartheid regime, most saw him as a role model and beacon—a successful African-American in a black culture too familiar with failure.
Black writer Mark Mathabane said Ashe was “the first truly free black man” he had met, and wondered, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such self-confidence, trash a white man, and be cheered by white people? …The more I read about the world of tennis and Ashe’s role in it, the more I began to dream of its possibilities. What if I too were someday to attain the same fame and fortune as Ashe? Would whites respect me as they did him? Would I be as free as he? The dreams were tantalizing.”
But the real world struggle to abolish apartheid was daunting and bloody. Amidst heated debates, Ashe became a fierce advocate for the international boycott of South Africa. Invoking Mandela’s position, he convinced the ATP to prohibit the creation of two new proposed South African tournaments. Ashe also moved to have South Africa banned from Davis Cup play, and convinced John McEnroe’s father to stop his son from playing a $600,000 exhibition against Bjorn Borg in Bophuthatswana, South Africa.
Then, in a move that Ashe felt probably cost him his job as Davis Cup captain, he took to the streets and participated in an anti-apartheid demonstration outside the UN, joining the likes of Coretta Scott King and Harry Belafonte as one of 3,000 demonstrators arrested outside of the South African embassy in Washington.
All the while, Mandela was reading Ashe’s writings and telling the world that, once he got out of prison, the first person he wanted to talk to was a tennis player—Arthur Ashe.
Eventually, when apartheid at last tumbled, Mandela told the world, “I stand before you not as a prisoner but as a humble son of a free people.” Soon after, New York City celebrated the triumph with a ticker-tape parade and a town hall meeting at City College. There the circle was completed. Ashe recalled the intimate moment:
“I watched [New York City mayor David Dinkins] go over to Mandela and whisper in his ear. I saw Nelson’s head raise abruptly, and he broke into a beautiful smile.
“Arthur is here?” he asked, with obvious surprise and delight.
“He’s right here,” David said, turning to me.
“Oh my brother,” Nelson said, looking straight at me. “Come here!”
He threw his arms around me and held me for a moment in a most affectionate embrace. He told me that in prison, he had read my three-volume work A Hard Road to Glory, about black American athletes.”
Ashe noted what so many felt, that for Mandela, “to have spent twenty-seven years in jail … to have been deprived of the whole mighty center of one’s life, and then to emerge apparently without a trace of bitterness, alert and ready to lead one’s country forward, may be the most extraordinary individual human achievement that I have witnessed in my lifetime.”
The connection between Mandela and Ashe had evolved into the most significant international bond ever between a politician and an athlete. After all, the two agreed that, as Mandela wrote, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite that little else has … It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Mandela and Ashe would meet again in Johannesburg, London, and then in New York, at the Waldorf Astoria where, with the onslaught of Ashe’s deadly malady, their roles were oddly reversed. With courage and wisdom, Mandela the student, learned about Ashe’s new cause, AIDS awareness. When the end was approaching for tennis’ great humanitarian, Mandela wrote to Ashe, “I can never forget my own joy at meeting you. I hope you feel my embrace across the continents and that it serves to let you know that we love you and wish you well.”
Ironically, the world is now turning across the continents with love to South Africa to embrace a man like no other, a man whose days on this earth may be limited but whose grace, majesty, and courage knows no limits. And as Einstein said of Gandhi, so we might say of Mandela: “Future generations will struggle to believe that there existed such a man as him on earth.”
By Bill Simons
The late much-celebrated Nelson Mandela had a long and important connection with
sports and tennis, which drew Inside Tennis publisher Bill Simons to Johannesburg. Here is
his account of the Mandela legacy in sports, which we originally published in 2010.
These were sweet days of redemption. In 1994, at last, the weight of South African history – mean and unsparing – had lifted.
Still, questions loomed.
Breaking through the shadow of a troubled land – bright diamonds, ominous fears – a new day was emerging. The singular Nelson Mandela, after 27 painstaking years, was at last free. The dreary clouds of apartheid had parted and in a miraculous election, in which all at last could vote, the onetime revolutionary, ex-convict and terrorist emerged to lead.
But there were questions. Big questions.
The headline was simple: “Mandela Can Win An Election, But Can He Lead?”
Intransigent whites – raging with anger, consumed by fear – were on the brink of a violent counter-revolution. Brutal backlash from bitter-enders, who had seen their once muscular power evaporate, was imminent. Conventional wisdom confidently insisted the streets would soon be stained with blood. But Mandela – ingenious, determined – had a vision: an outside-the-box, all-power-to-the-imagination idea to use sports, of all things, to capture hearts, to unite a nation. Of course, Mandela was that most rare of men who could bring together ruler and ruled, jailer and jailed, militant and gradualist. As much as Reagan or Roosevelt, this “benign Machiavelli” could unleash relentless charm offensives.
Mandela’s master plan was to use mass theater to win whites (and blacks) over to the notion of unity by bowing before the altar of South Africa’s secular religion: Rugby. After all, the national team, the Springboks, had 10 times the cachet of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Notre Dame rolled into one. In their green and gold uniforms, they were the athletic gods of the Afrikaners, the white tribe that concocted apartheid in the first place. But while whites adored the beloved burlyman group, blacks bristled openly, rooting against them and organizing an international boycott to neuter a potent symbol of cruelty.
But this was not a time for petty revenge. If the blacks, now flush with power, had merely removed the white’s cultural treasure, the cycle of separation – dreary and unsparing – would just have marched on, locked in place. Instead, Mandela was counter-intuitive. He would use an odd, but powerful weapon – one that heals the soul – forgiveness.
With the World Cup coming to Johannesburg in ’95, he would use the polarizing Springboks to defuse centuries of hatred. Long before “Yes We Can,” his “One Nation, One Team” slogan would evolve from an implausible pipe dream, to a kind of widely accepted “We Shall Overcome” for sports. That accomplished, the less-than-dominant Springboks would have to face New Zealand’s fearsome and favored All-Blacks in the final. And Mandela – brave, harsh, bold – actually had the temerity to show up for the pre-game ceremonies wearing the Springboks’ celebrated No. 6 captain’s jersey. Such madness! For certainly the largely white throng of 62,000 would shower the anti-Christ with disdain and derision. Old colonial flags might unfurl. Whites would never sing the new anthem of the land. And, dare we note, a bomb could have exploded or Mandela could well have met an assassin’s bullet (like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, et al, before him).
Instead, what exploded was an outburst of ecstatic reconciliation. The muscle-bound but at last integrated Springboks actually joined in to sing a Xhosa-language liberation hymn that was now a national anthem, and the crowd in the Ellis Park stadium chanted loud:
Here was a transformative sports moment suggestive of Jessie Owens at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics or Jackie Robinson shattering baseball’s racial barrier in 1947. Alas, the master of forgiveness and reconciliation had molded sport to his purpose. Beaming and confident, his appearance proclaimed “We are all in this together.” And when the Springboks scored a narrow, extra time victory, celebrations (not bombs) exploded from Soweto’s steamy back alleys to the scruffy outback hills of Transkel.
This was the moment.
A nation defined could breathe at last and strive to stumble forward, the path secured. Success was now an option. Without Mandela, such wildly disparate parts would never have merged.
Such a fluke! But those who knew Mandela realized this was no ordinary revolutionary with a “them or us” mindset. Here was a reflective man who clinically studied the language and games of his oppressor and his lifelong love of sports would eventually prove to be not just some pleasant weekend diversion but rather a tool for transformation. Mandela had played some tennis in college, and was a serious amateur heavyweight who idolized Joe Louis. An intense fitness buff, when he was dumped onto a fierce, wind-blown hell they called Robben Island, he would do endless finger push-ups and jog faux-marathons in place in his cell at dawn, much to the consternation of his slumbering cellmates. Eventually, the world’s most celebrated prisoner – No. 466/64 – led a go-slow strike to stop the men from being forced to pound rocks in lime quarries. But, when the authorities relented, the only exercise prisoners got was a dreary half-hour forced march around a cement courtyard, a plight that eventually led to one of the most incongruous moves in the history of sports facility construction: a tennis court was created right in the prison courtyard.
Mandela noted, “Prisoners from the general section painted the cement surface green and then fashioned the traditional configuration of white lines… A net was put up and suddenly we had our own Wimbledon in our front yard…Exercise was unusual for African men of my age and generation…Some of my younger comrades looked at me and said, ‘If that old man can do it, why can’t I?’ They, too, began to exercise…I had played a bit of tennis when I was at Fort Hare [University], but I was by no means an expert. My forehand was relatively strong, my backhand regrettably weak. But I pursued the sport for exercise, not style; it was the best and only replacement for the walks to the quarry. I was one of the first in our section to play regularly. I was a backcourt player, only rushing to the net when I had a clean slam…Being able to play was immensely freeing. Playing tennis and attending to my gardening became my two favorite hobbies…It was a strange sensation enjoying such civilized hobbies in such an uncivilized place.”
A few years later, Mandela would tune in his radio to listen to John McEnroe as he met Bjorn Borg in what some still consider the best tennis match in history, the ’80 Wimbledon final. All the while, the prime international sportsman to campaign against apartheid was none other than the elegant Virginian, Arthur Ashe. Time and again, the spindly conscience of our sport moved to counter apartheid. After he was twice denied entry into South Africa, Ashe played in Johannesburg in ’73, where he demanded the unthinkable. The Ellis Park crowd that would watch had to be integrated. Ashe’s appearance was empowering. One 14-year-old black zealously shadowed the American’s every move. Then when Ashe finally asked why, the boy responded, “Because you are the first truly black man I have ever seen.”
Similarly, writer Mark Mathabane wondered, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such confidence, trash a white man and be cheered by white people?” Sport itself was proving to be a bomb, shattering mind-sets.
Ashe soon went on to lead the movement to ban South Africa from the ATP and Davis Cup play, and was arrested in Washington, D.C. while protesting apartheid. So it’s not so shocking that Mandela said Ashe would be the first notable he would want to meet once he was free (and indeed the two had a memorable meeting when Mandela visited New York). And when Ashe died in ’93, Mandela called his ally “a citizen of the world,” and “an extraordinary individual who has given me and millions hope at a time when it was needed most…The history of South Africa will not be complete without reference to his fervor.”
Through the years, Mandela sustained his tennis connection. He sketched a widely marketed drawing of his prison court, met with a large delegation of players who held a fundraising tournament in his honor and took McEnroe to see his Robben Island cell. As we recently noted, when Andre Agassi met him, he was particularly struck by Mandela’s ode to mindfulness, his insistence that “we must all care for one another…But also we must care for ourselves, which means we must be careful in our decisions, relationships, statements. We must manage our lives artfully in order to avoid becoming victims.”
More than impressed, Andre said Mandela was “Gandhi-like and void of bitterness. His eyes…were filled with wisdom…[that] said he’d figured something out, something essential.”
Though merely a tennis writer, I had the notion, against all odds, to seek an interview with Mandela. I wanted to hear him reflect on the power of sport and what his fabled prison tennis court was actually like. I wondered what he imagined as Mac and Borg battled on a distant court, what he thought of the elegant dignity of Ashe and did he agree with his fellow freedom fighter Bishop Desmond Tutu, who once told me that, yes, international notables like Arthur played a pivotal role in the fall of apartheid. I wondered what he thought of America and how he would balance the deeds of McEnroe – who was so nasty so often – yet told promoters to take the million dollars they offered him to play in Apartheid Africa and shove it. And, more than anything, I would have wanted to know how he rose above his deep rage to attain his singular serenity, such a transformative calm.
With this in mind in ’99, I shot for the stars and shamelessly sought an interview with the great man. I enlisted friends and power brokers: the heads of the USTA and ATP, the ex-New York mayor, David Dinkins, and the ambassador to South Africa.
Surprisingly, my seemingly futile quest actually gained traction and in 2000, after covering a Davis Cup tie in Zimbabwe, an interview was scheduled. So I trekked down to Johannesburg and checked out Mandela’s two homes: a minimalist, yet inspiring, shanty where he had lived in Soweto, and his current abode, a grand white home with a tennis court in Houghton, a leafy enclave that would seamlessly fit into west L.A.
But, ultimately, fate would scream “Not so fast.” At the last minute, Mandela’s longtime gatekeeper, Zelda, told me my meeting had to be called off because the President was “trying to sort out some little spat. He’s been taken to a peace talk in Burundi where these people unfortunately have taken to shooting each other.”
Oh well. Even a tennis zealot like myself had to concede that resolving the Hutu vs. Tutsi bloodbath (which had already claimed 200,000 lives and left 500,000 homeless) was a tad more important (to say the least!) than reflecting on Borg vs. McEnroe. But never one to throw in the journalistic towel, four years later I again requested to talk with Mandela. When I was again turned down (this time I was told that his “calendar was so full, injudiciously full”), I wondered whether all my effort was just the hubris of a “go for it” dreamer? Or did my “Journey to Mandela” make sense? After all, not only did tennis touch his life with an intriguing regularity, no other political figure had used sports so adeptly to bring the raging masses together. Plus, however futile my quest was, at least it was in the spirit of his most celebrated sentiment, his “dare to be fearless” teaching, which insisted that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us…Playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking…We are all meant to shine…It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”
By Marcus Paul Cootsona
You may remember the Novak Djokovic of a few years ago—Grand Slam talent, but grandly uneven endurance, health, and focus. Well, that was before he’d heard of Dr. Igor Cetojevic. Watching on TV as Novak crumbled to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the 2010 Australian Open quarterfinal, Dr. Cetojevic diagnosed Novak’s problem. He was gluten sensitive.
Some months later, Djokovic met Dr. Cetojevic, shed gluten and dairy, reduced his sugar intake, learned to eat slower, and slept more. He dropped nine pounds and improved his health and mental clarity. His new book, Serve to Win (Ballantine/Zinc Ink, 161 pages, $25), lets us in on much of what he did. Before going gluten-free, Novak was knocking at the door of greatness and tennis immortality. After the change, Novak 2.0 came in, got comfortable and remodeled a couple of rooms.
In this short, spry book, Djokovic challenges the reader to give up gluten for 14 days and then add it back in to their diet and gauge how they feel. Mr. Djokovic is convinced and convincing when he says that you’ll feel better, focus better, and have more energy. He even offers an easy-to-understand program for retooling your body and mind that includes weekly menus, easy recipes, and a few koans along the way.
Much of the diet will apply to many players, since you don’t have to be gluten-sensitive to benefit. Gluten, the protein in wheat, barley and rye, wants to transform to sugar. If you don’t have a pressing need for it, it gets stored as fat and over time desensitizes your insulin receptors. In the extreme, this causes diabetes. At the least, this extra sugar is stored as fat around vital organs. Still want that bagel?
But the challenge is not without its wrinkles. First of all, the list of foods with gluten is like, well, the list of foods. And second, how much do you want to be like Novak Djokovic? The life of any professional athlete, especially one in a demanding individual sport like tennis, is demanding. Djokovic has a team watching everything he eats and every move he makes, and his daily program is rigorous and relentless. Many players are happy just to have time for breakfast.
Still, the book isn’t all about diet. Though Serbian, Djokovic could often pass for a card-carrying Californian, alternately sounding like Michael Pollan, Jack Kornfield, or William Dement. There are informative chapters on meditation, stretching, sleeping, and mental game approach. Besides offering useful and usable diet and training advice, the book is ultimately a timely and timeless call to action. Are you ready to really change your workouts, your diet, and your life for your sport? Novak Djokovic thinks you should. Though it is, after all, up to you. But as Novak might say, do it now. Don’t wheat.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, here is Inside Tennis editor Bill Simons’s interview with Billie Jean King from 2010.
INSIDE TENNIS: There’s a story that a woman in Manhattan tells a taxi driver, “I have to go out to Queens and meet Billie Jean King.” When the taxi driver asks how to get there, she says, “Well, there’s a big brick building that has her name on it.” Is that true?
BILLIE JEAN KING: It was one of the sponsors coming out to the site.
IT: What is it like to have your name up on the tennis center, to have such fame? What is that lifestyle like?
BJK: It’s a sense of responsibility. It’s our job to go for it.
IT: Let’s look at some numbers: You sign up for $1 with Gladys Heldman, 30,472 show up at the Astrodome, Venus Williams wins $1.4 million in equal prize money at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova signs a $70 million deal with Nike…
BJK: Seventy million what?
IT: Her contract with Nike.
BJK: Seven zero?
IT: Seven zero.
BJK: Great. Love it. Look at what basketball and baseball players make. I’m thrilled about the money, but I don’t think about the money. I do think about the money if there’s a message—like with equal prize money. I kept telling Venus, it’s about the message. The message is important because 60 percent of girls in this world are not getting educated. You’ve got all this poverty. Any time a woman is in poverty, it means her boys and her girls are in poverty. So microfinancing is important. It sends a message of equality, and I want equality for everybody. For instance, we don’t have enough men going to college now. That’s a challenge here. But overall, the challenge is still girls and women because we’re so underserved. That’s what [Bill] Clinton’s Global Initiative emphasized again this year.
IT: Speaking of things global, what do you think of the WTA Championships going to Doha?
BJK: I think it’s great. Anytime we go to a new place, it’s good for them to see these women producing and making this kind of money. I went to Doha and wanted to do a clinic for the boys and girls. They only allowed the girls to do it. You cannot believe how excited they were. They had some really good little players who could hit. I spoke to one of the mothers. Her daughter is lefthanded, which is sinister. She has lefthanded kids. She said, “I want my daughter to be a champion so it would help the stigma. [In Qater, the left hand is seen as the “dirty hand.”] The Sheikha [Hind Bint Hamad Al Thani] didn’t wear a veil— her face showed. She came out on court and presented the check [to Serena Williams]. That was huge. Unless you go there, you don’t know what’s going on.
IT: Frank DeFord once wrote that you and Jackie Robinson were the two most definitive athletes of the 20th century, but that Robinson needed someone to open the door for him; you had to break the door down on your own. Do you take pride in the path you’ve forged?
BJK: Absolutely. It started when I was 11 or 12. That’s when I decided I wanted to be No. 1. Those are very impressionable moments. They’ve done research on that. That’s when kids usually decide their dreams.
IT: When you were first breaking away with the women’s tour, someone said, “No one’s going to come out and watch those birds…”
BJK: I [heard that from] a few of those guys, which was very hurtful, because they were my friends. If I didn’t feel close to them, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so taken aback. I thought that was pretty low. But I try not to take things personally. That really helps. That’s the only reason my name’s on the USTA National Tennis Center—I never took it personally. I really like these [USTA] people. I didn’t have to agree with them. Every two years, we have a new president, so we start over. My friends say, “Why are you so nice to them?” I say, “It’s not about them. It’s about what kind of character I have.”
IT: You started battling them as a player.
BJK: We all did. It wasn’t just me. I was definitely more forthright.
IT: But part of the USTA culture is “You know your place.”
BJK: But you try to change things diplomatically. The reason we got equal prize money in ‘73 was Billy Talbert. I only had a quiet, one-on-one discussion. People think we were really boisterous. That’s not true. Ninety-five percent of it is behind the scenes. We were boisterous only when we didn’t have any other course to take. You have to be calm when you make decisions. You can’t make them when you’re too low or too high. Always try to get in the middle before you make an important decision. That wasn’t what the media or the public’s perception was. A lot of the great things we did were done in quiet settings. Even the $1 contract—that was at the little Houston Racquet Club. We were having these discussions day and night at Gladys’ Heldman’s home. One minute before we held up those $1 bills, I called the USTA president and said, “Are you sure you won’t do a tour? We don’t need to do this if you’ll do a tour.” I had been trying for two or three years to talk sweetly to them. They kept saying, “No.” Then they said, “You’re going to be ostracized. You won’t ever be able to play again in any of our tournaments.” I said, “You’ve left us no choice. But I want you to know that when you read about it tomorrow, I talked to you first. I don’t want to go behind your back.” That was a quiet time. That was on a pay phone, not in front of 100 media people in a room with microphones up my nose.
IT: At the Battle of the Sexes, you really had the weight of history on your shoulders. Some said it was more pressure than a Wimbledon final.
BJK: For sure. It was a one-time thing. It transcended that match so much. So many things were involved. The emotions that men and women were feeling were just incredible—about themselves, about the opposite gender, about their children—it was at the right time in history. It was at the height of the women’s movement, we were just coming off Vietnam, Watergate was starting to heat up—it was a very tumultuous time. I guess God put me on Earth at the right time to be able to do that. Arthur [Ashe] and I were born the same year—in ‘43. We asked ourselves, “Why?” It’s our destiny. It was meant to be. As a young person, I knew there was something special that was going to happen to me. I was seven years old when I told my mother I was going to do something great with my life. She said, “Dry the dishes and let’s go—you’ve got homework to do.” My mother always kept going. Little did they know. When my brother Randy and I started our dreams. They had three jobs. That was just to get us to a tournament. We didn’t have a lot of extra money. Those are the kinds of kids we need in tennis—blue-collar kids. The rich kids can go everywhere and get the points.
IT: You’ve said that Americans don’t realize how good they have it.
BJK: I don’t always agree with that. It’s your environment. If you grow up in my or my brother’s environment, you can make it. I think Americans have a great history of resolve. We have a history of adventure, conquering the frontiers. That’s always going to be in our DNA. We have to tap into the best athletes. I’ve listened to parents—especially of color—and they all say the same thing: “Go to the elementary schools and ask the football coach to give you the best two athletes at school and tell him you’re going to give this kid a life and an education.” People tell me this over and over. I’m going to listen to them because they come from a different place. I’m white. They’re worried about the children. They’re in the right place. You have to find the right schools. Where do they have really good athletes? Where do they have great basketball players? The inner-city. We don’t need a ton of them; we just need the best. Low-income kids and first-generation Americans. There’s something special about the way they’re brought up. It’s old school-new school. There’s something special about that — Agassi, Capriati, Sampras. I’m telling you, there’s something there. Don’t ignore it. It doesn’t mean a fifth-generation American can’t be great. But they’ve got to come from a strict family—a family that was loving and strict, like my family. Chris Evert and I had the same thing. We had the best setup. Blue-collar family. She’s Catholic and I’m Protestant, but we might as well come from the same cloth as far as the way we were brought up.
IT: Can kids from the ‘burbs with BMWs and Xboxs and iPods make it?
BJK: Yes. But you’ve got to get the kid who’s got the resolve. Like Ryan Harrison—he’s highly motivated. I want that kid.
IT: And Sam Querrey and John Isner?
BJK: They’re great kids, but do you really expect them to beat everyone? I don’t. What I love is that they’re getting the best out of what they’ve got, and that’s all you can ask.
IT: Who’s the greatest? Martina? Steffi?
BJK: Martina—singles, doubles and mixed. And Steffi in singles. That’s all I could ever say. The greatest all-around athlete is probably Martina. But we can’t compare our games. We couldn’t hold a candle to these kids today.
IT: You’ve met so many wonderful people. Who’s the most impressive?
BJK: Everyone’s got different plusses. Obama is a great listener. And kind. And he’s smart.
IT: You’re close with Hilary.
BJK: I’m not that close. She did ask me to help her [with her presidential campaign]. I did not have any relationships with Obama, although I lived in Chicago for 12 years. I can’t believe I didn’t meet him, because I helped the mayor with things. As soon as we met, it was like, BOOM.
IT: In many states, gay marriage is such a serious question. Your thoughts?
BJK: Civil unions are what I wanted everyone to vote on because you have to go in phases sometimes. It can go too far to the right or the left. Things don’t happen if people get too angry, too off-balance. If I could have done the game plan 20 years ago, I would have said, “Let’s get civil unions right because I want the law to protect us first. That’s the most important thing. We still have over 1,000 federal laws. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders who can get fired with no recourse. It’s getting better though. It’s definitely going in the right direction. People are always uncomfortable when there’s a fear or an unknown. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people just totally uncomfortable. Usually the people who yell the loudest have latent tendencies themselves and are scared, so they just go overboard. They protest too much. When I hear that hate, that’s when I go, “uh-oh.”
IT: You’re a close friend of John McEnroe’s. He loves tennis. Incredible talent, great mind, brilliant commentator, but at 51 he still has a dark side—losing it, chewing out Mashona Washington at a Word TeamTennis match…
BJK: I love John. He’s just got demons. But you have to understand his generation. It was pretty much whatever they wanted. They didn’t have to think too much beyond that. I like it when a player has skin in the game, and most do not. I’m talking about putting money back in the sport. There’s very few of us who’ve actually put our money back in the game. I’ve owned four tournaments. I own part of Indian Wells. I had to put up money for that. Sampras, Chris did too. But they were established. I’ve always put money in the game, but I’ve also made my living out of it, which has been fantastic. How many Americans do we have putting money back in the game? How much money do we take out of our prize money every year? What’s Federer up to—$57 million? I like to see players give back to tennis, not other foundations outside of tennis. They think about their brand, their own thing. Then they do a foundation someplace else. I do the Women’s Sports Foundation, but at least it’s in sports. But I also do the Elton John AIDS Foundation. World TeamTennis has raised almost $10 million for them. Since ‘68 I’ve been a small businesswoman in the sport of tennis.
IT: If you could watch just one player?
BJK: Nadal and Fededer are a cut above right now. They were both in soccer. I’m just so thrilled they chose tennis. They could have chosen soccer. We never would have seen them. We need to get soccer kids because they have good footwork and hand-eye coordination. If we don’t sign up kids on a team when they’re young, we’re never going to have our sport where we want it. And we need to have a format in college where we have 24,000 screaming kids and get it on TV like they do for March Madness. I can see it so clearly.
IT: Bud Collins said you were a prophet in the wilderness. Is that true?
BJK: Sometimes. I don’t always want to change things. You’ll never meet someone who loves tradition more than I do. But that’s why we change history — because we appreciate history, we appreciate tradition, we appreciate people’s ideas. It’s one thing to have an idea; it’s another to execute.
IT: You’ve touched so many people.
BJK: I’m not finished. I still feel rarin’ to go.
IT: And your proudest accomplishment?
BJK: What I’ve done off the court because we keep passing the baton as we go down through life. After I’m gone, these things will have a life of their own. Each generation will build on them. That’s what makes me happy—equal rights and opportunity. There have been milestones and milestones. We went from amateurs to professionals. That was huge. I’m proud that it was my generation that did it. We are the transitional generation. Every day I wake up and say, “We did it.”
By Bill Simons
Long before there was Chrissie, Steffi, Monica or Serena, there was Mo. Whoops, make that “Little Mo.”
A bright beam—fresh and lustrous—Maureen Connolly effortlessly emanated an unmistakable zeal when she swept across the then-dreary, often crusty, tennis horizon.
Tired old ways and ho-hum wannabes beware. Here—with a certain Federerian grace and a Connors-like will—was the perfect athlete at the perfect time.
For America in the ‘50s was eagerly distancing itself from the ravages of depression and war. Welcome to a brave new world of full fridges, fast Chevys, and heady suburban swagger—patios and plastics, poodles and pools. Widgets and creature comforts were adored: “Oh darling, do pour me another martini.” Appearances mattered. Success was…well, success was everything.
And Mo had it all.
A little-known, well-scrubbed urchin who began with a $1.50 racket on San Diego’s humble public courts, she emerged with a glint in her eye and a bounce in her considerable step. She was nothing less than a fresh injection of wonder, willing her way to nine Slam championships in the nine majors she entered between 1951 and 1954. Her joyous ways, zealous desire, and fine shots shouted, “Here comes a new age!”
In the late ‘50s, America—flush in its Eisenhower honeymoon years—would delight in the wonders of Disneyland, motorcycle jackets, juke boxes, Elvis, and V8 sedans with big fins. But before that, in the early ‘50s, tennis had a compact wonder: California’s “Little Mo.”
She was petite. She was cute. She was a charmer.
“It is touching and reassuring,” wrote the London author and editor Alison Adburgham, “that this teenage girl, already at the pinnacle of world fame, should find delight in little things, in little cats with smiles, in furry poodles with sequin eyes, in dainty birds with fly away wings which quiver as she runs.”
But don’t be fooled.
Mo was steel. When she was just two points away from suffering a horrendous Wimbledon defeat, some fan—an Air Force flyer up in the stands—yelled out, “Give ‘em hell, Mo!” She turned to the kid, whispered “thank you,” and promptly morphed herself into a juggernaut who went on to claim her first title at the All England Club.
When a Time magazine headline announced, “Tennis Has a New Queen,” Mo duly struck a pose. When she wanted to counter her Catholic ways and eat meat on Friday, the Pope relented: Here’s your special dispensation, Mo. When she played in Rome, riot police were deployed to prevent mayhem. Her pre-Wimbledon airport arrivals became media theater.
Mo attracted flashbulbs and inspired newsreels and headlines. Seventeen photographers showed up for her first English practice. One hundred media members came to a press event.
She’d call her own press conferences, or ask reporters, “Hey boys, are you getting what you need?” Tennis historian Ted Tinling noted, “Many post-war journalists had never met a tennis star, and this was the beginning of the public’s involvement in the real personality of sports performers … the forerunner of today’s accepted media routine.” All the while, fans from West London to East Hampton got what they wanted. Little Mo was the ticket.
For all of their stunning success, many a women’s tennis star has been haunted by cruel acts, accidents, or disease. Helen Wills Moody’s career ended when a German Shepherd bit off her finger. A leg injury and a car accident devastated Tracy Austin. Psychological demons shadowed Jennifer Capriati. Monica Seles was stabbed. Venus Williams suffers from Sjögren’s Syndrome.Serena stepped on a glass and then was nearly killed by a pulmonary embolism.
In contrast, Connolly’s fate seemed dreamy. A gifted athlete, the San Diegan—who rode the bus to Beverly Hills every weekend to take lessons—became the No. 1 junior in Southern California when she was just 13. Victories and trophies piled up, and by 1951, the “killer in pigtails” was the youngest player ever to win the US National Championships (aka the US Open). In 1952, she took Wimbledon and defended her US title. Then, in 1953, she became the first woman to capture the Grand Slam: all four majors in one year. Amazing. Never, before or since, has sports seen such a teen phenom.
But Mo’s triumphs were built on a tangled base of heartbreak, angst, anger, and military intent. Her father, a Navy Commander, jumped the family ship when Mo was just four. Her mother, a failed concert pianist who lived her life through her daughter, was long a problematic parent. Her stepfather wanted Connolly to quit tennis, while Mo herself feared that if she lost a match no one would love her.
What a mess.
Yet the result of it all was a fiery drive based on what Mo herself dubbed a “hate complex.” She recalled losing a match to an older foe, Ann Bissell, at the age of 10. “I was no ordinary little girl,” she wrote. “And tennis to me … was much more than just a game. Defeat was unendurable; it could not be talked away by the sympathy of an understanding parent. It must be avenged! Beating Ann Bissell became my single goal in life.”
Connolly went on to beat her nemesis and soon sought out the storied Beverly Hills coach Teach Tennant, who had worked with such greats as Alice Marble and Bobby Riggs, as well as snazzy stars like Carole Lombard. Teach was an unflinching disciplinarian and superb architect who brilliantly crafted careers. Mo wrote that to Tennant tennis “was never a game, it was a battle, and no field marshal mapped strategy more carefully … She was the field office, I the troops, and we went into action with deadly purpose … Her confidence was a living, glowing thing … and she had the magic power of being able to transfer it. Lose was not a word in her tennis vocabulary. Teach believed everything in my life should be sublimated to tennis.”
Whimsical jaunts to the bullfights in Tijuana were a cause for crisis. Any thought of Mo actually getting that pet horse she so craved was, of course, out of the question. And god forbid if Mo have the temerity to hang out with her fellow players. After all, Tennant only fueled Mo’s ferocity by demonizing her foes. As Mo wrote later, “Tennant contributed to my hate complex, but there was fertile soil for the seed. She believed one should not make friends with opponents … I translated this into hating my foes. Miss Tennant … had no idea a seed of hatred would flower in my breast with such a dark bloom.”
The most infamous example of these motivational shenanigans came before the 1951 US National final, when Tennant concocted the notion that Doris Hart felt Little Mo “was a spoiled brat” and was gunning for her in the final. Mo fell for the ploy, later confessing, “I never hated anyone more in my life! I turned on her like a tiger.” (By the way, Jimmy Connors’ mother always insisted her son “Get those tiger juices flowing” on court.)
But eventually, Mo would turn on Teach too, making a high-profile announcement at the 1953 Wimbledon that Tennant was now history. Gone was the supposed wicked witch of the west, the inspired, yet oppressive taskmaster with all her rules. Joy and freedom now held sway. Connolly teamed up with Aussies Nell and Harry Hopman, travelled the world, fell for a seaman, played for the love of the game, and at last could indulge her longstanding passion for horses.
After winning her first Wimbledon victory in 1951, the Junior Chamber of Commerce and other San Diegans had given Mo a horse. When Mo won her third straight Wimbledon in ’54, all she wanted to do was to get back to see her two loves: her man, Norman Brinker, and the horse, Colonel Merryboy.
On July 20th, 1954, 19-year-old Mo went out for a ride on Friars Road in Mission Valley that was jolly and benign until a speeding concrete truck came careening around a curve. Colonel Merryboy got spooked, swerving into the truck’s path, and in one horrific moment, a storied career was shattered. One of Mo’s legs was broken and all the muscles in her 19-year old calf were severed. She tried to recover. But it never happened. A dominant force in her teens—winning six Slams in a row and all nine Slam events she entered—would never hit another ball on the circuit.
Instead, Mo married Brinker, moved to Dallas, went to Southern Methodist University, had two wonderful daughters, coached, wrote, became a restaurateur, and launched a superb tennis charity, the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation.
It was cruel enough that a magical career—brimming with historic promise – was destroyed in a flash. But only 15 years later, Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly succumbed to cancer. She was just 34 years old.
Our collective memory is filled with the inspired figures that left far too early: Mozart, Gershwin, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs come to mind. As for tennis, no other meteor had flashed so brilliantly, only to vanish so suddenly.
Swoosh, that was it. Much like when Bjorn Borg retired at 26, when Seles was stabbed, or when Arthur Ashe passed away, fans were left grasping at straws and coping with questions.
How come the young star, with so much to lose, even risked mounting a horse?
What went wrong with her recovery? These days, wouldn’t she have been able to go back on court after a while? Or was there far more involved in her never returning, including a Kim Clijsters-like desire to start a family? If Mo had gone on playing, wouldn’t she probably have turned pro, perhaps nudging tennis into becoming an Open sport far sooner than 1968? And Mo was a lefty. So what would have happened if Tennant hadn’t insisted she play right-handed?
With her clean, deep groundies, her laser will, her uncanny ability to raise the level of her game and her ongoing sense of serenity, Mo collected most all of her nine Slams with devastating ease. (Only her 1953 Wimbledon final against Darlene Hard was a classic battle.) She pulverized virtually all her foes. But if her career was longer, would the African American Althea Gibson (whose right to play in previously all-white tournaments Mo fiercely defended) or the Brazilian Maria Bueno have threatened Mo’s dominance?
Billie Jean King noted, “It was sad Maureen had to retire so early, because we don’t know how many more major titles she could have won. It would have been great to see her compete against Tracy Austin or Chris Evert, or even at the other end of the spectrum against Martina Navratilova.”
Mo still remains a part of the debate about the top ten players of all time. But now, on the 60th anniversary of her Grand Slam, we are left to wonder: If Colonel Merryboy hadn’t been freaked out by that cement truck, would Mo be front and center in the biggest conversation of women’s tennis? Along with Steffi Graf, Navratilova and Serena, would she be in consideration as the greatest of all time?
Instead, all we can do is look back at the most glittering 1000-day career in sports history: a long ago, but still sublime, window of wonder when charm, charisma, athleticism, and beauty joined together to offer a promise that knew no horizons. Still, beyond all those inspired memories, was something else. After all, Mo’s ultimate legacy was to leave us pondering that most perplexing of all questions: What if?
By Bill Simons
Early on at the US Open, as I wandered through the players lounge—amidst the usual blur of coaches, girlfriends, and hangers-on—an over-the-top player was playing foosball with two young American kids. It was loud, intense, and fun. An adolescent glee-fest, it arose from the din—such joy.
No one knew who those two kids were. Everyone knew who the player was: Rafa Nadal.
Elated and captivated by the intensity of the game, here was an unbridled delight. One of the world’s most celebrated sportsmen seemed to be but a boy: simple, uncomplicated, and captivated by the pleasure of play.
Such is Rafa Nadal, a man with few of the nuances of the comic and occasionally philosophical Novak Djokovic. A happy lad, free of Andy Murray’s sullen moods, and Roger Federer’s occasional flashes of metro self-absorption.
I wondered, what makes this man seem so content? So I asked Rafa about the relationship between his game and his life. “I always had the theory,” he said, “that [the] most important thing is to be happy, enjoy what you are doing, and be fresh mentally … Everything very normal. Nothing strange in my life. I practice. I practice physical performance, practice tennis. I go fishing. I play golf. I go party when I have the chance to go party. That’s all. Really normal guy, normal life.”
So, unlike Djokovic, Rafa doesn’t go to Buddhist temples. He’ll eat pizza and other “non-gluten” forbidden pleasures.
In a vain, “look-at-moi” age of ego and excess, Rafa is the most humble champion tennis has ever sported. To him, every tournament is “one of the best” in the sport. To him, Federer is amazing. Rafa is never the favorite in any match anywhere, and God forbid if you dare suggest the master of all matters clay is the best clay-court player of all time. When we asked him why he is beloved around the world, he replied, “I am not the right one to answer … The only thing I can say is I try to be fair. I try to be correct with everybody. I try to be friendly with everybody. That’s all, no? … I am a positive player … I try my best in every moment. Even [when] things are not going well, I am never very sad or doing a negative attitude. Outside of the court I try to sign [autographs for] everybody. I try to make the photos. I act like a normal person … But what really makes me happy is what I did to have this trophy with me. So that’s what really produced these emotional moments [when he cried on court after winning the US Open]—working hard in tough moments, trying to be positive.”
Yes, you could say that Rafa’s appeal is basic, even animalistic. Federer’s Nike symbol is that fancy medieval “RF.” Rafa’s symbol is a bull. US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka told IT that she would be rooting for Nadal in the final “because he [practiced] with his shirt off.” Need we say more?
But don’t be fooled, there is little that is really normal about Rafa.
He obsesses over the smallest of details: Have you ever seen a player place his courtside bottles with more surgical care? He tugs at his pants and twitches as if he’s being attacked by an unhappy mosquito. His left bicep rivals that of Atlas. He was born on an island in the Mediterranean—hardly a tennis factory—and he’s long been coached by his unsparing uncle, Toni Nadal. He briefly played right-handed, but now is a southpaw—an inconvenient, often overlooked, reality which drives many of his foes nuts. And that high-bouncing corkscrew forehand of his is a wonder of the modern game. Nerds tell us it has about a billion RPMs. Were it not for that dandy shot, Mr. Federer may well have won well over 20 Slams.
Beyond this, Rafa has always been able to change his game: faster serve, slower serve, standing in, more aggressive, great backhand slice, improved volleys. Plus, he’s arguably—along with Jimmy Connors and Pancho Gonzalez—the toughest fighter in tennis history.
Rafa was outplayed during the critical third set of the US Open men’s final against Djokovic. But at 4-all , he managed to come back from a 0-40 deficit. Then, when Djokovic suffered a slight lapse—the loss of a scramble-point, and a flubbed forehand—Rafa pounced, blasting a forehand winner to steal the set, and really the match, which he won 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 over his drained foe.
One senses that Rafa invests in every game, every point, every stroke. It matters, the urgency clear. But why? He told IT, “I’ve always had it [that fighting spirit]. I did because I worked so hard since since I was a little kid. It’s true that my uncle made me play under a lot of pressure in every practice when I was a kid. Playing under that pressure in every practice I was able to play with as high an intensity as possible. I’m sure that [because] he did that for me all those years, that is precisely why today I’m able to exist in this tournament.”
“Exist in this tournament,” he says. Alas, what a typical Nadalian understatement!
Of course, Rafa more than existed in the US Open. He convincingly won his 13th Slam. And, in this stunning year, in which Federer and Murray have had mixed results and in which Rafa is coming off seven months of recovery from a bum knee, he has shown once and for all that he is no mere clay specialist. Yes, his dominance on dirt oddly obscures that he has reached five Wimbledon finals. But this year, incredibly, he has a 21-0 record on hard courts. Indeed, commentator Mary Carillo said that the best matches she has seen on grass, clay, and hard courts have all featured the Spaniard: Nadal’s 2008 Wimbledon final, his classic marathon 2012 Aussie Open loss to Djokovic, and his triumphant victory over Djokovic in the semis at this year’s French Open.
But ultimately what makes Rafa so wondrous is his disarming simplicity. His joy for the game. His willingness to embrace the battle. His heartfelt recognition of his foes and his love.
His love of the moment. His love of the arena. His love of tennis.
Having said that, the 27-year old now has 13 Slams, 26 Masters titles, and an Olympic Gold. He’s led Spain to Davis Cup glory again and again, and has a whopping 21-10 winning record against Federer. So let the Greatest of All-Time debates roar loud. After all, it’s only normal.
жалюзи и рулонные шторы в Минске
отзывы о натяжных потолках в Минске
оконные профили Rehau в Минске
ассортимент натяжных потолков в Москве
ON THE GREATNESS OF THE GREAT ONE
By Bill Simons
The celebrity revelation of the first week of the US Open was shocking. Victoria Azarenka’s great love—the pop jester with the helter skelter hair, Redfoo—was missing in action. Well, he was down under in Australia being a judge on the vapid but oh-so-popular TV show The X-Factor. We immediately asked Vika the obvious question: “What is your X-factor?”
She replied that she was a comic. She loved to joke with her friends and wished she could share that quality with the fans.
But today on court, in her second straight US Open final, Vika showed little comedy. She was somber and fierce, coming up just short.
So, then, what is the X-factor for her opponent, a woman who once called herself Serena X?
Well, let us count the ways, the 17 things, that make Ms. Williams—with her 17 Slams—the most unique player in this or just about any other era.
1. LONGEVITY: As Martin Luther King said, longevity has its value, and Serena (who won her first Open as a wide-eyed 17-year old with beads in her hair) has been a force for 15 years. With experience comes knowledge.
2. PLANETARY INFLUENCES: We love Libras, but that’s not it. Serena’s older sis Venus, who she all but worships, has been everything: practice and then doubles partner, encouraging fan and supporter. Venus went out ahead of lil’ sis on the circuit as a role model and trailblazer, which has greatly eased Serena’s journey.
3. THE POWER OF LOSS: No one in tennis history is a better revenge or comeback player. Serena has overcome widely varied setbacks—among others, being jilted by Lavar Arrington; the murder of her half-sister Yetunde Price; her near-death experience with a pulmonary ailment; and, most recently, a humiliating defeat to Virginie Razzano in the first round of the ’12 French Open. Since the Razzano upset, she’s been on fire.
4. PATRICK MOURATOGLOU: The handsome, smart, and forthcoming French tennis teacher has become Serena’s coach and lover. Need we say more?
5. PARIS: She’s also fallen in love the City of Lights, France, and clay court tennis. There’s a reason that she has greater variety, finds more angles, is better at crafting points, and (in a move which should be illegal) even uncorks drop shots.
6. PATIENCE: Serena is patient? You’ve got to be kidding. But yes, now, with great awareness, she adjusts her tactics and her pace and can upgrade her game, as she did today, at crunch time.
7. THE TEAM: Mother Oracene, Papa Richard, her half-sisters, her physio, her hitting partner, and her press agent have her back. A seamless support system that deals with her day-to-day life, heals her hurts, pushes her to be so fit, and settles the storms of the game’s leading diva. Love in tennis does NOT mean nothing.
8. DOUBLES: Playing an extra event could be draining. But Serena loves playing with her sis, and it probably helps her volleys, her returns, her net skills, and keeps her from obsessing too much about her singles.
9. CALM: Don’t tell us that the explosive, implosive time-bomb that Serena once was has now gone Zen. Well, not exactly. But she showed ample quietude in a very windy final with many twists and setbacks; a match which could have morphed into a psychic disaster. Instead, she weathered both the weather and the many storms Azarenka induced.
10. SPEED AND DEFENSE: It’s hard to get it past this girl who gallops about and gobbles up virtually every shot in sight. What do you have to do to win a point?
11. SUPER SERVE: The serve is the most important shot in the game. And Serena, by a hefty margin, has the best serve in history. With a beautiful service motion based on Pete Sampras’ gorgeous serve, she can hit all four corners, and her wicked second serve kicks high. Today it was a mighty factor in her triumph.
12. THE RETURN: Oh yeah, when it is clicking, Serena has the most brutal return in the WTA.
13. FOCUS: Forget about wanting to be an actor. This woman has a “kind of crazy” intensity and rarely left her room during the Open so as to “stay in the zone.”
14. BALANCE: Newsflash: Serena’s a big girl who could flail away and slip and flop in a heap. Now she calls on far better footwork and some serious grace.
15. FEROCITY: Her coach Mouratoglou said,“She has this rage inside that she can put on the court and be so tough for her competitors. She also has this ability to find solutions on court. When she’s in trouble, she finds something inside to change the momentum.” Like McEnroe, she plays her best when she’s angry.
16. SHE NEVER GIVES UP: That was President Clinton explanation of Serena’s greatness. Serena herself simply said, “I just keep trying and I keep fighting. I have that spirit just to keep going.”
17. SHE’S A CHAMPION: When we asked Azarenka what the X-factor was with Serena, she candidly replied: “There’s one word—she’s a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there.
I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so badly meet, it’s like a clash. That’s what happens out there [in] these battles. In the important moments, it’s who is more brave, who is more consistent, or who takes more risks. And with somebody like Serena, you’ve got to take risks. You can never play it safe, because she will do that [take successful risks]. She did that today really well.”
Immediately after Serena Williams collected her 17th Grand Slam title with a 6-4, 6(8)-7, 6-1 victory over Victoria Azarenka in the women’s final of the US Open, a small group of reporters including IT spoke with him about Serena’s amazing recent success and what makes her a champion:
QUESTION: Patrick, can you explain Serena’s mental toughness, after what she went through in the second set?
PATRICK MOURATOGLOU: It’s not only her. After she got broke, maybe she got a little bit tight and maybe she slowed down a bit without knowing it, but it’s also [Victoria] Azarenka’s ability to fight incredibly well. She found the momentum from the fact that Serena was playing a bit slower, to accelerate and become the boss of the rallies. It completely changed the match.
In the third set, Serena really found a way to calm down, completely erase what happened, and start over from zero, and again she was the master in all the rallies.
Q: Is it amazing to you that she was able to press the reset button?
PM: She’s Serena.
Q: What is her X factor, what is that special quality makes her Serena?
PM: She has many qualities, I wouldn’t say there’s just one. First of all, in her game, she has qualities that are above everyone—the serve, and this ability to accelerate the rally at any time on any shot. She has this rage inside that she can put on the court and be so tough for her competitors [to face]. She also has this ability to find the solutions on court. When she’s in trouble, she finds something inside to change the momentum.
Q: When she lost that cat-and-mouse volley exchange, she seemed angered by losing that point. Do you think in a way that stimulated her and got her going?
PM: She uses [that anger]. Also, in the first set when she was down 4-5 and 30-all on her serve, suddenly you could see that she clicked, she realized that she was not aggressive enough, she was letting Vika dictate too much. She completely changed. And then in the third set, she scored six games to Vika’s one.
This is also her—sometimes when she clicks, she is able to [rise above] whoever’s on the other side of the court.
Q: Do you feel like your strategy for the match has been validated?
PM: Today, I’m happy. I could be here trying to explain that my strategy was the right one. But today, the good thing is that she found a way so that you don’t have to ask that question to me.
Q: What about her sustained excellence, from 17 to 31 years old? We haven’t seen a player do that in a while. Why do you think that is?
PM: I don’t know her long enough to talk about what happened before, but I’ve tried to give good explanations for her motivation, and because she has it, she became a better player—a more intense player, a tougher opponent. You have to realize one thing that she didn’t do last year—this year, every time she steps on the court, she’s the favorite. Every time. She’s played so many matches with that on her back. She found a way to win the match today, and she’s lost only 4 matches this year, with unbelievable expectations on her shoulders. That’s a big difference, even today, between Vika and her. She had all the pressure on her shoulders, and she made it [to victory].
Q: That pressure comes out when she’s serving for matches. It happened in Cincinnati, and she got broken while serving for the match twice today. What makes those hiccoughs happen? Is it the pressure?
PM: Sure. She’s human, so when she got closer to the win, maybe she got a bit more tight. She was not as incisive, and Azarenka is such an unbelievable fighter that she could use that to dictate, and the match completely switched.
But in the third set, Serena found a way to calm down, and you could see that she started to play a bit slower, and come back to the start with a fresh mind. Every time she finds a way to calm down, she finds solutions. This is something that she really has, and I haven’t seen that in many other players.
Q: She’s now one major behind Chrissie and Martina, how important is that to her?
PM: I don’t think she thought about it before because it was too early to think about it. Now she’s gotten close to those two players, it’s true. But I think she’s doing it more for herself than for breaking records. She’s so happy every time she wins a new grand slam—every time it’s a new story, a new achievement, and believe me, every time she steps on court with that pressure on her shoulders, it’s an achievement to be a winner at the end. Also, her reaction is really a champion’s reaction, because most players, when they have pressure, they take it the wrong way. Most try to take the exit. She didn’t. She just worked harder, and worked every point on every match, which is something she never did in the past. It shows she can still do some new things. She can still surprise everyone, and she can still improve a lot.
Q: Can you see her still winning majors for the next two or three years?
PM: I don’t see any reason why she wouldn’t.
Q: Where do you think that fire or inner motivation that she has comes from, Patrick?
PM: You never know where it comes from—she’s a champion. It’s difficult to explain what’s in the mind of a champion. She feels she can [do it]. She feels she’s the best—not in a bad way, but because it’s true. This self-confidence in her game gives her the will to prove it every day on the court. She does everything to prove it to herself.
Q: There was one changeover where she walked so slowly, so deliberately. What went through your mind then, when she was clearly reflecting on her situation?
PM: I love it when she’s slowing down and thinking and trying to be calm. Every time she does it, something good happens, because she sees the game, she sees what she does right or wrong, and she finds a new solution. That is something that’s hard to teach to someone.
But she’s always had this ability to find solutions and win. It’s not something new. There are some things that are new in her game, but this ability she’s always had.
Q: Going back to the hunger side, it’s amazing that she’s been winning Grand Slams for 14 years. That’s an incredible span—most players would probably have given up. Why is she still coming back?
PM: You said it, she’s not most other players, she’s Serena Williams. There is only one.
Q: You were saying earlier that she’s a little bit more meticulous and consistent. How have the two of you as a team gotten to that point?
PM: I’ve said many times that she wants to improve. She’s very open to adding new things. When she understands something and knows that it’s right, she’s prepared to do anything better. It’s not difficult, because she wants to be better. She’s always open. That’s also one of the secrets to why she’s still winning Grand Slams after 14 years—this will to get better every moment.
Q: Can you talk about a couple of the new things she’s improved upon this year?
PM: I don’t like to talk too much about that, because it’s better if I keep it between her and myself, but definitely the fact that she’s much more consistent. I think she’s scored 25 6-0 sets since January. I don’t know what her former record [in a year] was, but I think [it was] less than 10. It shows how intense she gets, and it’s definitely the right strategy, because the best players in the world are always the most intense. Look at Nadal. Even the ones who are not that gifted at the start, like maybe David Ferrer, if you look at his career, he’s always so intense and so focused. That’s the right strategy, there is no doubt about it.
Q: She obviously has other interests, but do you get the sense that she know feels, “This is what I do great, I’m a great tennis player, this is how I can express myself”?
PM: You are right. At certain periods she wanted to do many other things, she was curious. We’re not in their lives, those tennis players who gave everything to tennis for 20 years and have a lot of success—they probably need to see something different, because there’s [more to] life, life is not tennis. I can understand that. But maybe now she realizes how exceptional she is. It makes sense for her to come back to tennis and achieve the very best she can. Then she has all the rest of her life to do something else.
Q: If someone said to you when you began working with her after her first-round loss at the French, “Hey, don’t worry, you’re going to have around 110 wins in 14 months,” what would your thoughts be?
PM: I’m not that surprised, because I think she deserves what is happening. First, because she is such an unbelievable champion, and second, because she did everything to have it. In a way, for me, this is the year she deserves.
Q: Is she the best of all time, in your mind?
PM: Of course, in my mind, she is. She would be even if she didn’t win tonight. But history will tell.
After waiting 45 minutes and skirting past a mini-squadron of seven pleasant (but no-nonsense) Secret Service agents, Inside Tennis editor Bill Simons managed to briefly speak with President Clinton. This was the third time Simons had gotten an interview with the President. He spoke with Clinton thirteen years ago, when the President sat near John McEnroe in a luxury suite. A year later, in 2001, he chatted with Clinton right by the Royal Box at Wimbledon. There, Clinton compared American politics with Britain’s Parliamentary system.
Just outside of Clinton’s suite this year, in a back corridor, Simons had this brief exchange with Clinton about Serena Williams and Billie Jean King.
INSIDE TENNIS: President Clinton, what do you think Serena’s greatest quality is?
BILL CLINTON: Well, today it was that she didn’t give up.
IT: What is Billie Jean’s greatest quality—how has she transformed American society?
BC: That’s her greatest quality. You heard her say in her interview with Charlie Rose yesterday that even though she loved tennis, she always wanted to be someone who opened up new avenues for girls and women. And she was able to open new avenues for girls and women. She was able to play highly competitive, high concentration tennis, win, and always be concerned with why she was doing it. She’s a wonder.
THE EPIC DJOKOVIC-WAWRINKA SEMI WAS ALL ABOUT THE THEATER OF THE ABSURD
By Bill Simons
On his left arm, Stanislas “Stan” Wawrinka has a provocative quote from Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s 20th century champion of the Theater of the Absurd.
But the third game of the fifth set of this year’s US Open semi between the ninth-seeded Wawrinka and No. 1 Novak Djokovic was more than absurd.
It was epic, memorable, and quite probably the best game in tennis history. Simply put, it was tennis at its most wonderful, competitive, dramatic and baffling best. Do you know how to spell R-O-A-R!?
But what about that actual quote that Wawrinka has emblazoned on his arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”?
Not since Janko Tipsaravic’s “Beauty Will Save the World” tattoo has body art so appropriately reflected the moment at hand, the pulse of the game. After all, the two Euro players—throughout 21 agonizing minutes—“ever tried and ever failed,” no matter what. And certainly Wawrinka and Djokovic “tried again.” The epic third game of the fifth set featured a whopping 30 points, thank you very much.
Goodness, some sets are shorter than that. And both of the warriors “failed again” and again. Inexplicably, Djokovic didn’t convert any of his five break points, and eight times Wawrinka faltered when he had game point.
Here were two warriors—legs battered, nerves jangled, spirits battered, but hopes still high—who sensed this was the tipping point. This, surely, was the game for the soul of this match.
After 29 stunning points, Wawrinka sensed the greatness of the moment. If ever there was semifinal theatre at the Open, here it was, a taste of … well, Mr. Beckett, a taste of tennis’ theater of the absurd. And in a moment of spontaneous outreach, the usually contained Swiss Wawrinka gestured to the massive crowd, encouraging the 23,000 souls to let it all out. Djokovic, the game’s foremost showman, soon joined in and prompted the crowd, too.
Queens simply exploded, New York-loud. Even the chair umpire noted the absurdity. He joked, announcing, “The players are NOW ready.” But, just maybe, this was an overreach, for Djokovic lost the next point, and with that, the epic game slipped through his Serbian fingers. Certainly, his loss would be definitive. Wawrinka would now rally and prevail.
But instead this day brought to mind one of the great matches of all time, John McEnroe’s classic 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg, where the young American won the battle—prevailing in the most fabled tiebreak in history, a 22-minute, 18-16 fourth-set shocker—before losing in five sets.
Similarly, an exhausted Wawrinka won the battle but lost the war 2-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. There have been many great matches in history. We like the 2008 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final. There have been great marathons. Nothing beats the Isner-Mahut three-day Wimbledon duel. And there have been many great runs. Our fave is still Jimmy Connors prancing and dancing his way to the 1991 US Open semis. And obviously, there have been many great games in the long history of tennis. The last game of this year’s Wimbledon final—in which Andy Murray finally prevailed in nine sizzling minutes of action to become the first British Wimbledon champion in 77 years—was mighty fine.
But, whether you simply call it “The Game” or “The Big Game,” there has never been a game like the third game of the fifth set of this year’s US Open semis.
Moments after the match, IT asked Djokovic’s longtime coach Marian Vajda about his man’s mettle. “He just showed better guts and a big heart at the end,” Vajda said. “It was very hard to maintain a very high level. Both guys, especially Stan when he was serving, were trying to hit winners early on, but there were a lot of rallies at the end. It took a lot of patience just to get Stan off in his movement. After four hours it was obvious that someone more patient would dominate. Novak did it. That was crucial … He never panicked, he always kept the rallies under his control. Obviously at the end as he increased the pace, finally he could hit the ball in a way that he couldn’t for a couple of sets.”
As for Wawrinka, IT asked him about his Beckett tattoo: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
“Yeah,” said the Swiss, “That’s how I see my life in general and my tennis career. After the match in the Australian Open [a fourth-round 5:53 loss to Djokovic], a lot of people were thinking that it was gonna be tough for me to lose that kind of match. But at the end I took all the positives [I could] … and [now] I’m here now playing the semifinal.
Okay, today I lost again, but I’m back in the top 10 and I’m playing my best tennis. So I need to do the same. The only thing that I can see, [is that] everything I’m doing outside the match, on the practice courts … [are] good things and I’m [going] in the right way.
I just need to continue to practice hard and to try to get more victories like I did these two weeks.”
Then we wondered about a curious line from that Beckett quote.. We asked, “What does it mean to fail better?”
Wawrinka replied, “It depends how you see it. But it’s just … go back to practice. It’s simple in tennis … It’s important you go back to work and try to improve.”
And there is nothing at all absurd about that.
NO KIDDING: Stan Wawrinka said, “This is my moment.”
STAN’S SURGE: Wawrinka had a bad summer, with early losses in three tournaments before the Open. But in New York, the Swiss had quality wins over Radek Stepanek, Ivo Karlovic, Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, and Andy Murray. What a run.
A CANDID CONFESSION: Rafa’s coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, said that at his age he has nothing to hide and that he does coach from his courtside seats.
IT’S NOT SUPER SATURDAY, BUT IT AIN’T THAT SHABBY: Super Saturday is a thing of the past. Still today—with the two men’s singles semis and the women’s doubles final—wasn’t too shabby.
TORNADO WARNING: American junior Tornado Alicia Black has reached the girls’ junior final. And with a name like that, every tennis writer in the land has got to pray she’ll emerge as a tour regular.
Serena Williams: “#Veerena will be back. Thanks guys for support. Love u all.”
Times of London writer Neil Harmon: “Did Rafa just examine that towel to determine which side the label was on before using the opposite [smoother] side on his face?”
The USTA’s Tim Curry: “Will Tokyo 2020 be for Nishikori what London 2012 was to Murray?”
Writer Jane MacManus: “They hugged at the net. I love tennis.”