By Bill Simons
Our sport, our lives are but a compilation of moments inspired and forgettable, wretched and grand. Yes, the song lyric tells us, we are nothing but “dust in the wind.”
But such rich, wonderful dust it is.
Each of us who loves tennis can recall a delicious mix of moments. The first time we picked up a racket. Our first win over a parent or rival. Perhaps lifting our first trophy, teaching a child, or watching our first pro match or a favorite Wimbledon final, or seeing the US Open from row Z.
Then there was the night they opened Ashe Stadium, when songstress Whitney Houston pleaded:
“Give me one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away
And the answers are all up to me
Give me one moment in time
When I’m racing with destiny
Then in that one moment of time
I will feel –
I will feel eternity.”
Yet, so many moments in tennis seem but a blur. “Tennis points,” said John McEnroe, “may be inspiring at the moment, but then the moment is gone. They’re like poetry written on water.”
Of course, all our practice and sweat point to one thing: winning. “It’s something you can’t explain,” said Rafa Nadal, after prevailing in Paris. “These moments when everything comes upon you. All the work you’ve done all these years, the sacrifices—when you reach your goal, it’s an extraordinary moment. For the first time, I cried after winning a match.”
Andy Roddick almost cried. After his heart-wrenching 2009 Wimbledon loss to Roger Federer, he got a huge ovation. He told Christopher Clarey, “In the moment the only thing I was thinking was: ‘Don’t break down, don’t break down, just get through it.’ Because I knew once I started a little bit I was going to start sobbing uncontrollably, which I didn’t want. So the crowd tested me … and it meant a lot.”
A lot of the most critical moments in tennis history are about completely anonymous beginnings. Gloria Connors cleared out her East St. Louis backyard to create a makeshift court for her son Jimmy to play on. The bad boy grew up to become the charismatic man who attracted more people to the game than any other. Michael Agassi hung a tennis ball over the crib of his infant son, baby Andre. Richard Williams saw a player win $40,000 on TV and, in a eureka moment, decided to raise two daughters who he vowed would become No. 1. Then there was the Swiss moment when, one morning, Lynette Federer dropped her young son off at a tennis club and told the pro, “Take care of my Roger.” Her son soon took pretty good care of tennis.
Other breakthrough moments in tennis have been high profile. Nineteen-year-old Steffi Graf won the Olympics in 1988. Seventeen-year-old Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985, and when Maria Sharapova, also 17, prevailed at Wimbledon in 2004, Brough Scott noted that at the end of the day she “was just a teenager hugging her dad and trying to call mom on the mobile.” After Novak Djokovic won his first Slam in Melbourne in 2008, his mother Dijana told the world, “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the first of many Grand Slams. You need to remember that. Write it down.”
Novak’s emergence was hardly shocking, but our game has been stunned by many a jaw-dropping moment. In 1913, as a part of a suffragette movement, women tried to burn down Wimbledon. In 1926, Suzanne Lenglen supposedly snubbed Queen Mary by keeping her waiting for a Wimbledon match. Adolf Hitler called German Gottfried Von Cramm to wish him luck in his 1937 Davis Cup match against Don Budge. Gussie Moran shook the uptight tennis universe when she revealed her lace panties at Wimbledon in 1949. Monica Seles was stabbed in the back on a Hamburg court in 1993. Pizza waitress Missy Johnson streaked across Centre Court just before the 1996 Wimbledon final.
At Wimbledon in 2001, when rain delayed the the Goran Ivanisevic–Patrick Rafter final until a Monday, Centre Court was opened to the masses. Thousands of rabid fans toting kangaroo paraphernalia and wearing wallaby rugby shirts all but stormed the place. Writer Laurie Pignon confided, “For more than half a century I’ve been covering Wimbledon’s Centre Court. I’ve had my emotions turn left, right, and inside out. But there was never a day like this, a day when joyful youth sat in the seats normally filled by blue-hairs and blue chips … Their unfettered enthusiasm was like a breath of seaside air.”
In addition to many a shocking moment, tennis has had an abundance of turning points and poignant events. There was Althea Gibson breaking the color barrier in 1950; the first match of the Open Era in 1968; the first WCT Championships; the landmark Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973; the creation of the WTA; the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final; the first pro tennis tournament in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the implementation of the tiebreak and Hawk-Eye; the 2008 Wimbledon Nadal–Federer final as dusk fell; and the 2013 triumph of Andy Murray, the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years.
Arthur Ashe singlehandedly gave us a string of impactful moments: the first integrated sports event in apartheid South Africa in 1973, his breakthrough Grand Slam wins in 1968 and 1975, and that heart-wrenching press conference in 1992 when he announced he had AIDS.
In the tradition of Ashe, two African-Americans, Venus and Serena, played their first ready-for-prime-time night match at the 2001 US Open, prompting 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley to reflect, “This sport used to be so lily-white, but here you have two African-American women playing for the title in Ashe Stadium, and the stadium next door is Louis Armstrong Stadium. That says it all. Arthur Ashe is smiling.”
Similarly, Federer seemed to be smiling when he took a moment to reflect on tennis’s heritage. He noted, “This is the moment you can thank the all-time greats from back in the day, when tennis was still amateur, to have brought this game to where it is today … It’s a moment to say thanks, because they created the platform for us today.”
What these players have given us is the arc of their careers—from wide-eyed hopefuls to great champions, to icons in decline holding on for one more moment before they become legends with deep wrinkles and endless memories.
The Daily Mail wrote of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, “First they came as little more than children fresh from the classroom, and we envied their youth and their talent; then they grew up as champions, and we slowly learned to love them as our own; and today they are before us, like two great actresses in a play without a script.”
Sometimes the best moments in tennis have little to do with matches. Roddick told the New York Times, “When I think of Wimbledon, my favorite time was the practice week when you could walk to the venue without anybody there … Every single year the first walk from the locker room out to Aorangi Park and back, it just floors me … the gravity of the place.”
Caroline Wozniacki has said that when she steps onto a grass court, “I’m like a kid in a candy store.” To Agassi, a big match on Centre Court “was the most enjoyment I’ve ever felt. No words describe the magic you feel—the freedom.” Alexandra Stevenson, who had 15 minutes of fame in 1999 when she reached the semis, simply gushed,”The glory of Wimbledon. I’ve seen that.”
But sorrow is glory’s mate, and, in 1993, when Czech Jana Novotna checked out of her final against Steffi Graf and blew her commanding lead, she soon found herself weeping on the royal shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. Simon Barnes reminded us that “Novotna played a game of tennis for everyone who has ever made an absolutely ghastly mistake. Or, to put it another way, for the entire human race.”
Still, pro tennis is more about combat than sentiment. “This is a gladiatorial contest—it’s mano a mano, woman against woman,” noted former ATP Tour CEO Etienne de Villiers. “It’s not just gladiatorial, it’s a little bit like jousting … There’s a strategy to this thing. You’re on your own. You’re on that horse and you’ve got to make the calls in the heat of the moment. There’s something very magical about that.”
The greatest of matches often seem to be reduced to a moment—the big game, the critical point, the decisive break, a telling tiebreak. After Vika Azarenka‘s breathless Wimbledon match this July against Serena, she said, “When everything [is happening] all I see is the ball. I don’t even really see my opponent. I just try and see the ball. That’s what’s important.”
After winning this year’s Wimbledon, Serena was asked to name the toughest thing she has ever accomplished. She replied, “The toughest thing is just to stay in the moment. It’s easy to go out there and say, ‘I want to win’ … But you have to win seven matches. You have to win each match, each set, each point.”
When you don’t, defeat can crush the spirit. Serena used to stay in bed for three days after losses. After falling in a Wimbledon final, Goran Ivanisevic called it “the worst moment of my life. I’ve had some bad moments—when you are sick or when somebody dies—but for me, this is the worst thing ever … I can only kill myself.”
Winning’s more fun. But is it overrated? Longtime observer Ted Tinling cautioned us, “The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.”
Some seem quite casual about it all. After one US Open win, Federer said tennis is “just about having fun, playing a good match, playing good tennis, enjoying the moment, playing in packed stadiums. It’s something not many people get an opportunity to do. I think everybody would love to be in my shoes.” You think?
Others relish the moment with more glee. Toward the end of her run at the 2000 French Open, Mary Pierce reported, “I just looked at the scoreboard and the [serve] speedometer. I listened to the crowd cheering. I just took a moment because [I sensed] this is going to make for good memories.”
When the intense Azarenka finally won her first Slam, the 2012 Aussie Open, time stopped. A dazed Vika recalled, “I felt so relieved it was over. That intensity … You’re so into the zone, and when it’s over, everything drops. Your energy leaves your body … I didn’t know what to do. I had no emotions—I had so many emotions. [It was] overwhelming. It took me a few days to realize what I’d done … I couldn’t enjoy that precious moment.”
Sometimes a win takes on an almost existential reality. Steffi Graf played with a surgeon’s focus, an unrelenting drive, and the prevailing pride of a lioness. Throughout her career, she quietly growled, until she won the ‘99 French Open and, in a moment of ecstatic celebration, all the demons that had long hounded her—her rivals’ continual jabs, those probing paparazzi, her father’s implosions, the psychic pain that shadowed her at every turn—vanished. At some level, she sensed she was now—at long last—liberated.
Ultimately, we realize that life is all about the moment. Writer Anna Godbersen told us, “I’ve always believed in savoring the moments. In the end, they are the only things we’ll have.” And tennis players as well sense their toil is about that. A volunteer at the Buddhist temple in London that Djokovic visits said the Serb found their meditations appealing because “it’s all about the moment, focusing on the now, not the past or future.”
None other than Barbra Streisand was teased when she told IT that Agassi “plays like a Zen master. It’s very in the moment.” But Andre’s hardly the only one. There is that fellow Federer and his coach Stefan Edberg. The Swede played the game with a minimalist (be joyous within and walk lightly on the Earth) sensibility. Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. His easy, balletic grace was a delight, and he played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.
An unending menu of moments is what this sport delivers: wonder, grit and remembrance. In the spring of 1989, Billie Jean King was coaching the aging Martina Navratilova. She told the struggling star, “Take a week off, then we’ll plan for Wimbledon ’90.” King then reconstructed Martina’s serve and her head, telling her, “Accept that you are slower. Play the ball … Stay on your side of the net, go through your rituals. Savor the moment. We care for you whether you win or lose.” Fifteen months later, a giddy Navratilova was clamoring up to the Friends Box to celebrate her final Wimbledon singles win.
That moment—now and forever—was hers. And our tennis moments are ours.
We soon will be embracing the US Open, where a young dreamer may well emerge; where the night crowd will roar and howl; where warrior Lleyton Hewitt will shout his final New York “C’mon!,” and a great champion, Ms. Serena, will play for history and for a moment—just one moment in time.