PARIS — At first glance, tennis appears to be an individual game — a world of self-absorbed ball-strikers going about their business in quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet isolation. But at heart — and I indeed mean that part of the body — tennis is a relationship game, deeply intimate, two combatants engaged and aware of one another in ways they may never quite be able to articulate successfully. Through the ups and downs of each point, the stares and glances — and most of all, the flow of energy — tennis players emerge with a profound consciousness of what it means to relate to someone. A tennis player takes life personally, the nature of the game forcing them to view life in its unblinking pain and sorrow, joy and happiness.
Consider then the recent anguish of Virginie Razzano, who shortly before the French Open began lost her coach and fiancé, Stephane Vidal, who succumbed to a brain tumor he had endured for nearly a decade. On his deathbed, Vidal implored Razzano to continue to play. That she did, invariably losing, was the early feel-good story of the fortnight. Razzano issued kind comments, her nation briefly rallied behind her and in the process she earned praise for her embodiment of grace under pressure.
But grace when wed to the world of sports takes a beguiling twist. Grace: Roger Federer's ballet-like movements, right? But I suspect from my personal experience that Virginie Razzano scarcely feels graceful in that way right now. Last September, I lost my wife, Joan Edwards. It was a year ago during the French Open that she left our home for the hospital — never to return. Like Vidal, Joan too had suffered from a longtime illness, a love story amplified and appreciated by attendant pain. A couple surrounded by illness is akin to one formed in battle: the bombs have dropped; they will drop, so in between, savor each moment.
If you have the guts to plumb deep, every realm is a powerful metaphor. And what more than death can offer that kind of white-hot insight into life's meaning? And what the heck does tennis have to do with it?
Razzano will continue. She'll be supported by the tennis community — particularly by those who have long been close to her. And, hopefully, she'll do what she does best and do so knowing her beloved is right there alongside her. Competitors compete. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they win, but again and again they return to the arena. “Lose today,” said Jimmy Connors, “but I will play you tomorrow. And I've followed guys to the ends of the earth just to play them again.” Note that Connors did not say, “I will beat you tomorrow.” Just play.
My hunch is that Virginie Razzano has feelings akin to those one feels during a tennis match — to grub, to grind, to grasp point-by-point, moment-to-moment. Perhaps that's what best defines grace: the ability to be honest, real, and face the hand life deals you.