Australian Open: Life Reminds Tennis What Really Matters




Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—Sports are wonderful.

They sweep you away to another domain, a zen-like world of wonder – escape and joy.

Nothing else matters, only the game.

Put on your blinders. Forget your headaches. Don’t sweat that overdue mortgage payment or your nasty boss. All that matters is whether that crosscourt backhand dips in.

And right on cue, here this year at the Australian Open, there were many delights to embrace. Australia’s darling Daria Gavrilova emerged – a bright youngster. A gritty legend, Lleyton Hewitt, retired. The greatest of our champions, Mr. Federer, scored a record 300th win in a major.

Then, out of nowhere, the world with its ample dysfunction came by. Never mind that the Melbourne summer was cold and rainy and the No. 2 seed (Simona Halep) suffered a massive upset. The No. 1 story was suddenly about a dicey scandal.

Headlines rang.

Do gamblers control the game? Is there a black cloud over tennis? There were no facts. But here’s a newsflash: nightmares don’t need facts. And you never know, the game’s integrity could collapse in a flash.

Then a fan, during Ana Ivanovic’s second-round match, fell on some stairs in Hisense Arena and had to be taken off on a stretcher. The Serb was shaken. And today in distant Canada four children were senselessly slaughtered in another school shooting. The caring Canadian Milos Raonic dedicated his win to the victims and said, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen much back home…A lot of people were heartbroken…Today’s match mattered heavily, and I did everything I could to find a way to win. At the end of the day…there are five people that will never go back to school again…That’s just far bigger than whatever I could’ve done on court today.”

Long before today, back in 1995, there was another moment here when the pathos of our lives made the minutiae of our games seem more than meaningless.

During the Jim Courier vs. Pete Sampras Aussie Open quarterfinal, the perpetually stoic Pete was stunned on center court. The AP’s Steve Willstein wrote that it was “as if [Sampras was] naked, his emotions exposed, his face awash with tears, his chest heaving.”

A fan had just called out, “Do it for your coach!”

Sampras melted. Fans were astonished by one of the most poignant moments in tennis history. Pete was preoccupied with his thoughts of his beloved mentor Tim Gullikson who, after suffering dizzy spells earlier in the day, had just flown back to America.

While Pistol Pete wept on court, his girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy yelled from the front row,”C’mon, honey, get in there.” Across the net, Jim Courier called out to his friend, “Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.” It was supposed to be a joke. Understandably, Sampras was not pleased. He wanted to be anywhere but on that tennis court playing a game with a racket. But he threw some ice water on his face and charged back from two sets down to win.

Just 15 months later Gullikson would succumb to brain cancer. Twenty-one years later there was more drama on this court. The crowd would again be stunned, as if they’d been smacked in the chest. There was a hush. Life’s unsparing realities again dropped by. A man – well, no ordinary man – had fallen on the arena steps while walking up to gate 18. British tennis guru Nigel Sears, who had been in the news all year. Last April, in a Scottish church, he beamed as his daughter Kim married the most eligible bachelor in tennis – Andy Murray. Then, after Wimbledon, Ana Ivanovic asked her old mentor to come to her aid.

Sears seemed to be having a good effect. Hitting winners, stroking with confidence, the Serb was in fine form as she rushed to the third round.

But drama has always surrounded the sensitive, olive-skinned and reflective Serb who’s from a land where sport and life collide with a noisy intensity.

“I think Serbians in general are very, very tough people, with a strong winning mentality,” she once noted. “People have to understand,” insisted her countryman Janko Tipsarevic, “that all that we have in tennis here in Serbia came from mud…No one invested one Euro into any of our players.”

Famously, child Ana would practice in the winter cold in a Belgrade pool. “It was Olympic-size,” she recalled. “Very cold. They couldn’t afford to heat it…so they drained it and put carpets down to make two courts. But you couldn’t hit crosscourt, because the walls were so close to the sideline. So we had to wait until summer to go outdoors and hit crosscourt.”

After young Ana won the 2008 French Open title, wonks couldn’t wait to anoint her as the next dominant force.

But she had demons. Once, after being crushed by Justine Henin she confided, “All of a sudden I started getting nervous…I didn’t think about moving well or how I should play…I was thinking more about the occasion than about my game. That’s what I was afraid of.”

Analysts wondered whether she was just too nervous or complex or maybe just too beautiful and nice. “She’s a goodhearted person,” contended her former coach Sven Groeneveld. “But she has another side. She’s a Scorpio, and if people push the wrong buttons, she will sting.”

But, often it just seemed that the tennis world was too messy and imposing for this nuanced, sensitive soul. “Sometimes,” Ana admitted, “I wish I could get away from everything and go somewhere where nobody knows me. I know I can’t just disappear.”

Tonight she was front and center in an odd, high-profile drama. Her coach Nigel Sears was lifted out on a stretcher. All the while, just 150 yards away, his son-in-law, Andy Murray, was battling to win his third-round match, and his daughter, some 10,500 miles away and just a couple of weeks from giving birth to her first child, was probably taking in all of the horror. Sears lay still, seemingly forever, and then was rushed to the hospital, conscious and sitting up, and soon was given cardiac tests.

“Can this tournament get any stranger?” asked one long-time ATP official.

Ivanovic had told us, “Once you are on the court…you have to be a killer. You have to show your presence and stuff.”

But tonight the stuff of life and the power of Madison Keys prevailed. Ana teared up as her match was suspended, and then, when play resumed, the Serb fell to the big-hitting 20-year-old American, who scored a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 come-from-behind win.

But the real winner here this week at this Down Under tennis happening was life itself. Time and again it came by, knocked on this sporting door and shouted loud, “Hold on mate, wait a minute. Little drop shots and big trophies are but silly footnotes. What really matters is our health, our integrity, our passion and our loved ones.”