Tennis in These Tumultuous Times

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Bill Simons

“Be well and safe, and kiss the ones who count. The world spins. We hang on.” – Mary Carillo  

I was in a daze – all of us were. The 14-hour flight from Australia always drains me, and trudging back to customs just to wait forever in line is always a dreary blur. 

But last February was different. I was jolted out of my lethargy. On the other side of the wide corridor was a bobbing sea of white. Hundreds of travelers from other flights startled me. Each one of them was hidden behind a mask. 

“How odd,” I thought. “Is a brave new world before me? Is this the look of the future? A kind of dreary twilight zone, a world diminished?” Little did I know that soon all of our lives would be upside down, our only certainty uncertainty. Much would change forever. 

Since then, we’ve all been tested. Waves of COVID have surged, wavered, and then, to our fury, roared again. We grumbled, “Will there ever be an end?” We thought we knew – but we didn’t. Hopes rose, then plummeted. Wonderful old boring normality remained elusive. Our anger flared. How could this have happened? Will a vaccine give us our lives back? 

Our perspectives shifted. We discovered a curious depth in ourselves; a richness unfolded. New dimensions and questions emerged. “What really matters?” became a mantra.

As we mourned, we realized how much we’d had – and how much we’d lost. We sensed life’s fragility, and our own vulnerability. 

In our sport and in our lives, we’re used to forging ahead, diligently problem solving and dealing with the rhythm of events we know so well. But with a jolt, our lives were gutted. We had to hit pause and step back. 

Serena said, “One thing I’ve learned with this pandemic is, ‘Don’t plan.’” Stanford coach Paul Goldstein disagreed: “We have to plan, we just have to have a radical acceptance and relentless adaption.”

Teaching pro Doug King shared, “There’s a deep sense of loss. Our whole world is being tested.” Industry leader Dana Gill observed, “We’re floating in space with no gravity.” Whimsically, Brit Jo Konta admitted, “I have no idea what day it is anymore, no idea what round it is, no idea what tournament I’m playing. It’s like Groundhog Day.”

No. 1 Ash Barty reminded us, “It’s important to try and slow down and accept.” But why, then, are we often busier than ever? Edna Heft joked, “I can’t wait for social distancing to end so I can get back to the rat race and relax.” 

Often humor has been a bittersweet refuge. “I need to start social distancing from my fridge,” quipped the WTA’s Shelby Rogers. One observer recalled, “I told my suitcases that there will be no vacation this year. Now I’m dealing with emotional baggage.” A wise guy complained, “They said that a mask and gloves were enough to go to the supermarket. They lied. Everyone else has clothes on.”

But the pandemic is no joke. Perhaps writer Simon Briggs was right when he contended, “Great athletes think they are invincible – otherwise they wouldn’t be great athletes. As a result, some of them are struggling to process the scientific guidance.”

Many in our game – for instance Novak Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin del Potro, Benoit Paire, Goran Ivanisivec, Sam Querrey and Frances Tiafoe – were struck by the virus.

Before she was hit with COVID-19, No. 2 Simona Halep confided, “I miss my team. I miss the players. I miss everyone from the tour. I can’t wait to travel again. I can’t wait to play tennis again.”

David Berry captured what was lost for weekend warriors: “You miss those chemicals in your blood when you hit that perfect backhand. I hit one this morning. It Pro tennis is a nomadic global family of competitors and characters. Oh, do I miss the long journeys to Melbourne’s Happy Slam, Rafa’s gritty and gutsy grind on clay, Federer gliding with his dreamy athletic grace 25 yards from Wimbledon’s press seats, and the roar of an athletic cavern called Ashe Stadium. 

I miss crackling in-person press conferences, a bound-for-glory kid zoning out on Court 18, tracking down a breaking story, and the frenzied hush of tennis writers at their keyboards at 1 AM wrapping up breathless stories.

Here at home, tourneys, league play and spontaneous hits on balmy Sunday afternoons became endangered species.  “Because we are separate,” Billie Jean King told us, “we yearn to be together.” 

All the while, we mourned. Death descended, grief burned. Stefanie Myles’ blunt complaint rang true: “2020 can stuff itself, truly.” 

Other times we sought the comfort of lofty reflections from diverse voices. Stefanos Tsitsipas, the ATP’s coming-of-age philosopher-in-residence, said when you are in quarantine, “you lose your mind and start talking to objects.” He added, “We have the opportunity to change habits and come out stronger.” He actually suggested, “They should put us in lockdown once a year. It’s good for nature, it’s good for our planet. It will be environmentally very beneficial…Life is such a hustle, and you never get the time to spend with your family and connect with them.”

Young Amanda Anisimova, 19, offered adept advice: “When you start feeling anxious or a panic attack is coming on, stop for a minute and take a deep breath, reset your thoughts. Listen to yourself. Your opinion matters. Get comfortable spending time by yourself. Find things you like doing on your own. Don’t be scared of change! It’s how we grow. Life can seem super hard, but keep going – you’re stronger than you think.”

Awareness guide Jon Kabat-Zinn contended that the pandemic “has raised both our levels of uncertainty and opportunity. We feel profound sadness, rage and grief, and at the same time we see unimaginable openings and possibilities…If there’s any moment in the arc of your life when you have the opportunity to be free, it is now, when we can enact radical acts of love and sanity and feel our basic humanity and profound interconnectedness.” 

Now is the time to ask what we really want, to step back and let go. 

We listen to ourselves and our loved ones. We accept that so much is out of our hands. Yet all the while we embrace a faith that, yes, someday, we’ll emerge from this freefall, and that our lives, our world and our loved ones will again thrive. Right now we can’t get much of what we want. Instead, now is a time to appreciate everything we have, while knowing that from these moments we will rise and grow. 

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