The skies were blue, the air was crisp, the temperatures were cool and the Aussie Open again seemed carefree. A front page headline read, “Let’s Salute Our Heroes.” Australia is bouncing back. It was as bright and breezy as it should be. Then a little bit of the world imploded.
Writer Zach Baron recently noted, “The random cruelty of the game has a way of culling even its most talented players.” Just this afternoon American Tennys Sandgren said tennis can crush your spirit.
Coco Vandeweghe said that before she suffered a devastating nerve injury she had grown to hate tennis. And then, when she was hurt, she fell into a deep depression. “Everything happens for a reason,” she observed. But sometimes you wonder – yes?
This afternoon, in a small back interview room on the fourth floor of the media building, a handful of reporters gathered to talk with Amanda Anisimova. The 18-year-old sensation, who’d reached the French Open semis and was ranked No. 22, had just lost her first Grand Slam match since her Russian-born father and coach, Konstantin, suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. He was just 52.
The press conference didn’t begin well. A well-intended quip about her new Nike contract fell flat. Then an Australian woman, on assignment from her desk, tangentially referenced the loss of her Dad. Nothing happened.
But then, incredibly, the reporter circled back and asked, “Do you feel unsettled?” The stunned Anisimova asked (or should we say pleaded), “Do we really have to talk about this so fast after a match?” Then, her chest heaving, she burst into tears and sobbed. This was one of the more cruel moments our sport has suffered in recent memory. One thought, “Where’s the empathy?”
Anisimova is incredibly gifted. With Coco Gauff and Sonya Kenin, she’s America’s leading hope for a bright new world of post-Williams women’s tennis excellence. She’s brave and thoughtful. After the Parkland Florida mass killing, she came out strongly against gun violence. More than anything, she had a wonderful whimsy. No wonder her Twitter feed was filled with humor. “Keep your hands off my fries and we are good,” she joked.
Just three days ago, New York Times writer Christopher Clarey wrote a superb in-depth piece on Amanda’s world since her dad died. Anisimova confided that it was hard for her to leave her house. She added that her Dad’s death was “obviously the hardest thing I’ve had to go through and the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I don’t really talk about it with anyone. The only thing that has helped me is just playing tennis and being on the court. That’s what makes me happy, and I know it would make him happy, so that’s the way it is.”
Anisimova’s new coach is Carlos Rodríguez, a wise Argentinian who once led another sensitive soul, Justine Henin, to glory. He noted, “I don’t think Amanda has gone through the mourning process completely. We have to be very careful and very sensitive and not rush things. The last few months, she has had a very difficult situation and not much time to react.”
Today, sensitivity had vanished. After the damage was done, the reporter apologized again and again to the grieving teen. It was too late.
Sadly and inexplicably, since last August the fathers of three young women pros, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, Latvian Jelena Ostapenko and Anisimova, have lost their dads. This brings to my mind the sudden passing, in 2017, of Stevie Johnson’s beloved father and coach, Steve Sr. Stevie recalled that after his father’s death, a tennis court became “a place where I felt all wrong. I just couldn’t go hit balls like everything is normal…The most ordinary moments…could make me think of Dad.”
Johnson tried to put things in perspective. But after Wimbledon he collapsed from the stress and had to be hospitalized. He learned that you don’t have to be macho: “It is okay to talk about it…There’s no right answer to get over a loved one.”
Of late, in this distant land, forests have been burning. How telling that just before the passing of her Dad, Amanda tweeted a provocative insertion of New Age author Marianne Williamson: “Pain can burn you up and destroy you or burn you up and redeem you.”