By Bill Simons
On the eve of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy invasion of France in 1944, we share reflections from when we walked the beach early on the morning of June 6th, 2002:
Touch the sand, a hard cold plain.
Gentle waves break easy, muffling a distant echo within this sea—dark and foreboding.
Lazy lagoons capture still water. A gull swirls free, the sparrow offers a morning song above cruel hills. Waters, so murky, cling to their secrets by this flat, too-wise beach, where a mighty tide was turned.
The surly crimson pools are unseen; still, the knowing grains harbor a bitter truth, beyond our grasp.
This morning, steel clouds hide a horizon like no other; a horizon that wrought a vast gray armada for the ages: 5,423 ships, one goal.
On that day—“The Longest Day”—boys from Moline and Mobile, the sons of Brooklyn and Burbank, Phoenix and Philly, huddled cold in shivering clusters. Wide-eyed, bone-wet, tossed woozy by the uncaring sea—they puffed their last soggy smokes and whispered muted prayers, the final invocations before destiny’s dawn.
What unforgiving fear did they feel? What gut-wrenching terror shook their souls before they strode forth—each one to meet his fate?
Some never reached shore. Packed heavy with battle gear, they sank, a fatal stone descending—an unsparing depth.
Some managed just a single step, dropping to that hard beach. Others scaled storied cliffs, subdued bunkers, or trudged on to wage war in the hedgerow maze, emerging to tell tales—a generation’s pride.
Today, the morning wind is cool. But nothing like the chill of horror that gripped the boys of Omaha on that wide, too wide, beach below cruel hills. Wretched little rises turned imposing peaks; impenetrable bastions raining fire, a fierce explosion, tearing flesh—the sea runs red.
Such agony—dreams and destinies ripped asunder—and a shout of death heard by that distant steeple. The mourning dove flees—the world ablaze—and chaotic flames tell of the madman’s fury, a potent poison.
So step by terrible step, the battle is fought, the beach is won, a continent is conquered. Step by step, the Nazi knot is undone, and we wake from a twisted dream to again embrace that elusive thread, life’s fragile gift.
By Bill Simons
Grand Slam tennis fans can choose from numerous travel providers. Some offer luxurious service and on-site dining. Others offer tennis play and instruction as part of their packages.
Soha Yamin‘s longstanding Travels With Soha offers great seats, tennis clinics and insights into local culture. At the Australian Open, she will take customers to the wine country, or escort them on informative tours of Melbourne. Similarly, at the French Open, Soha whisks you off to the champagne country and leads extraordinary Parisian walking tours. This appreciation of the Left Bank was written after one such tour.
Europe draws us in. From Naples to Helsinki, intimate villages and curious neighborhoods appeal. Few are more compelling than Paris’ Odeon district, the Sixth Arrondisement, the jewel of the Left Bank.
Nearby, the ancient waters of the Seine flow slowly. Notre Dame Cathedral towers high, and hordes of eager Sorbonne students study hard.
But it is the street life of the Left Bank—the back alleys, bustling cafes, and hidden courtyards—which still delights with its long-ago tales, its fabled narratives.
Refugee, outcast, rebel, and scoundrel have all walked these rough-hewn aging cobblestones.
There’s Cafe Procope, the oldest cafe in Paris, where coffee was introduced to already-hyper artists. Founding father Ben Franklin hung out there, and Papa Hemingway wrote at nearby Les Deux Magots.
Just a few blocks away is the print shop of the much-romanticized Marat, the people’s hearld, who, long before Janet Leigh’s gory shower murder in Psycho, suffered the most infamous bathroom death, when he was knifed in his bathtub. What a mess.
Death does lurk, for around here the good doctor Joseph Guillotine tested and popularized the guillotine, which was seen as a far more humane way to die than hanging. It was claimed that all King, Queen, or commoner would feel was “a light freshness on the neck.” Here in France, we are told, “They chop off your head, then put up a statue of you.”
Still, these streets were also a haven. Artist and author alike took refuge in tiny apartments, painting canvases and writing treatises, novels, and poems, in assorted cafes and the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.
So we see L’Hotel, where the broken Oscar Wilde came from a British world of derision and imprisonment to the sweet freedom of a tiny 10′ by 10′ room (where you can now stay for $900 a night, thank you very much). Wilde advised us, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
Maybe that’s it—this town has long been so forgiving. So we in turn can excuse the fact that now, amidst the ancient wonders, there are more than a few tacky edges.
After all, here James Baldwin sought renewal, Jean-Paul Sartre changed mindsets, Albert Camus offered absurdist insights, and the iconic Gertrude Stein told us, “The good thing about France isn’t what France takes from you, it’s what France doesn’t take from you.”
Of course, Stein wasn’t always content. After her friend Pablo Picasso painted her now-famous portrait, she complained to him that it didn’t even look like her. “Don’t worry,” Picasso replied, “you will get to look like the portrait.”
In the weathered passages of this throwback enclave, you may look for vestiges of the old academies which ruled ideas, language, and the beaux arts—thought police with a French accent. Next to an avant-garde French fusion restaurant, an old eatery offers frogs legs. You may see grand and weathered wooden doors opening to a hidden world once filled with grand horses and carriages, bonnets and berets. You may look for a reminder of England’s George Orwell, whose claim, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” sadly still rings true.
Every other corner here intrigues. There’s the home of George Sand, that tiny woman rebel who in 1839 went with her lover Frederic Chopin to the Mediterranean to write A Winter in Mallorca. Now, 175 years later, Mallorca’s Rafa Nadal comes here each year to write his singular history, “A Summer in Paris.” There’s an inspired black sculpture, now seemingly ignored and in disrepair. Its prime use is as a motorcycle parking station—high art, modest function.
Ancient jewels endure a dash of unkind blight. Culinary treats—rich sauces and sublime eclairs—delight as clanging garbage trucks roll by: This is not a museum. Wasn’t it ex-pat F. Scott Fitzgerald who told us, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”?
So, I turn the corner, not far from a pigeon-friendly statue of the long-forgotten politico Georges Danton, and come upon my favorite hedonistic spot in town, Dressage, the hair salon on 7 rue de l’Odeon. Such a nice place to be pampered—warm towels, long shampoos, lilting French accents. But then I suffer a kind of mental whiplash as I learn that the site used to be home to the storied La Maison des Amis des Livres (The House of the Friends of Books), which introduced the French to Hemingway and courageously resisted the Nazis.
Even now, decades later, this place remains irresistible.
Time and ideas, evolving arts and continental comforts—the alleys truly are a moveable feast, a place of celebration for free-thinkers and crazed dreamers who sought this haven to sip dark coffee and vintage wines as they jousted in high-voltage salons and crafted major wonders. Here is an inspired cafe culture like no other, where brilliant minds somehow understood Gertrude Stein’s claim, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much and do nothing.” What better place is there on this earth to sit around and do nothing but create telling insights of the mind, and eternal images of beauty?
By Bill Simons
HIS PURPLE ROYALNESS IN THE HOUSE: The European Slams tend to attract royalty, but the notion of royals at the French Open took on a new flair when iconic pop star Prince attended Rafa Nadal‘s fourth-round match—wielding a sceptre, no less.
TIAFOE AND FRIEND: Rising young American Francis Tiafoe got a chance to practice with Rafa Nadal at the tournament that Nadal has won eight of the last nine years. For Tiafoe, it was a lesson not just in slam-winning shotmaking, but also day-to-day dedication. The Washington Post reported that Nadal went “through four shirts and three rackets as he drilled every shot in his arsenal — forehands, backhands, volleys, lobs, service returns and serves” during the 90-minute hitting session. “He steps into every forehand in practice!” Tiafoe marveled afterward. “I think him working on his game during the tournament is a big deal. Even at his level, he’s still trying to get better.”
CHRIS EVERT IS NOT A MAN: Dialogue heard by the Musketeer statue garden:
French fan No 1: “Who was that guy who always smashed his rackets?”
French fan No. 2: “Chris Evert.”
French fan No. 1: “Chris Evert wasn’t a man.”
GLAD HE DIDN’T LISTEN TO HIS MOM: Ernests Gulbis‘ mother recently encouraged him to quit pro tennis.
GO FIGURE: The last player to beat both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the same tourney was the now-retired new mom Elena Dementieva. She did it in Toronto in 2009 …
Canadian Milos Raonic, who lost to Serb Novak Djokovic, was born in Montenegro, and his mother tongue is Serbian.
OF PAPA AND HEMINGWAY: Ernests Gulbis‘ dad, Ainārs, is both wealthy and into books. Gulbis said his father’s country house is full of them. Gulbis was named after Ernest Hemingway, who gave himself the nickname Papa when he was 27. But despite Papa Gulbis’ interest in Papa Hemingway, the younger Gulbis hasn’t read any of the American’s books.
ALL BETS ARE OFF, OR UP AND DOWN: In his previous press conference, after the fourth round, Ernests Gulbis said that within his camp, “We have like small bets going on with—not me, but Dominic with Gunther, you know, with my coach.”
IT then had this brief dialogue today with the Latvian, who has reached his first Slam semi:
Inside Tennis: I wanted to ask you about something you said the other day, [that] you had small bets going on with Dominic and with Gunther. Could you just clarify what’s involved with that?
Ernests Gulbis: With what?
IT: You said you had small bets—
EG: Bets on push‑ups. You know, push‑ups. Whoever loses the match [does] more push-ups.
SPANISH ABDICATION: The day after the King of Spain announced he would abdicate his throne, there were whispers that the rest of the world might as well abdicate tennis and just leave all of the sport’s crowns to the Spaniards. It wasn’t just that beloved Rafa was being feted on his birthday by adoring fans across the world; or that, in the quarters, he would be facing none other than his fellow Spaniard, David Ferrer; or that, except among Djokovic-fanciers, Nadal is favored to win his ninth Roland Garros.
Nope, early in the afternoon, Spain’s female contingent seemed on the verge of taking control of women’s tennis as well. Garbine Muguruza won the opening set over of her quarterfinal against a flat Maria Sharapova, and Carla Suarez Navarro used her sublime backhand to take a big first-set lead over the extraordinary Genie Bouchard.
But ultimately, oh-so-tough Maria fought back to score another impressive come from behind win, defeating Muguruza 1-6, 7-5, 6-1. And the young Canadian talent Bouchard showed her strong pedigree by winning a see-saw battle against Suarez Navarro, 7-6, 2-6, 7-5. So, for now, the only abdication relating to Spain these days is the royal one.
HOW COOL CAN YOU GET: You’re walking down the street and a French couple asks directions of you and, despite being a linguistically-handicapped Californian, you can actually help them out in French. Très magnifique!
REVERSING THE TREND: Before Ernests Gulbis swept by Tomas Berdych, commentator Jim Courier said that players who beat Federer tend to lose shortly thereafter
HAPPINESS IS A WARM VICTORY: Ernests Gulbis said, “My happiness comes only from doing well my job.”
NOVAK DJOKOVIC’S SECRETS OF SUCCESS: Ernests Gulbis will take on Novak Djokovic in one men’s semi at Roland Garros, Gulbis has been critical of Djokovic, who he trained with as a junior, but after his quarterfinal victory today, he added a positive spin to their relationship. “Yeah, about Djokovic, you know, it wasn’t that we spent too much time together,” he said. “I came to Niki Pilic’s academy at one point and he was before me there, and then I stick to that place, and he was just coming and going … He was really professional already at that time. I remember we had a friend, one Croatian guy who was all about the girls at that age, already. He was dressing up. He was looking good, putting on [cologne], sunglasses, going to talk to the girls.
I see Novak, he’s going to stretch, you know. And Novak told me, ‘Yeah, you can have anybody. Can have all the girls in the world, you know. But to be really successful in tennis, you need to [work].’ Something like that he said to me.
That’s a kid who is 15 years old. I didn’t forget. About the job [of being a tennis pro], when did I understand it? I still think it’s not a job. I think it’s half hobby. It’s [an] enjoyable job, [a] very enjoyable job.”
BIG THREE: Djokovic basically says Milos Raonic, John Isner and Ivo Karlovic have the three biggest serves in the game … Nole also says Guga Kuerten drawing a heart in the Roland Garros clay was the most poignant celebration he’s seen.
By Bill Simons
In Washington D.C., the American government is led by a man with an African father, who likes hoops and is said to have a good jump shot. And guess what: Some day soon, American tennis might just be led by a boy from the D.C. area who has an African father, likes hoops, and has a good jumper.
Meet young Francis Tiafoe, just 16. Since American tennis these days is rather sickly, all eyes are on the highly-hyped wonder kid from College Park, Maryland.
He’s been on CBS, in the New York Times, and on the front page of the Washington Post. We’re talking high profile.
Of course, Tiafoe is not exactly the first bright tennis hopeful to capture the spotlight. Years ago, John McEnroe famously scouted the young Donald Young. The media drooled when Venus Williams emerged, and one tournament that featured super phenom Jennifer Capriati was dubbed the Virginia Slims of Capriati.
Now it’s Tiafoe’s turn. Already some $400,000 has been invested into his career. This is not a soft launch. Moving like the wind and looking far more grown than his 16 years, he’s dressed in a bright Caribbean blue outfit. His shirt shimmers, and so does his bright future.
On this day, his match has been shifted to a Roland Garros outback, Court 17. Take that, Yankee hot shot. But that doesn’t stop a horde of reporters, photographers, wannabe agents, coaches, the Mayor of Washington D.C., and a tennis-loving billionaire or two from traipsing out to the intimate, tree-lined outer courts. USTA handlers and Tiafoe’s coaches are on hand.
Here, the eye catches elegant apartments in the distance and a gentle collection of modest old trees. One hears the quiet hum of a nearby boulevard, and the edgy squeals from a junior on a nearby practice court. All the while, tennis historians speak of a bizarre corner of tennis lore—closets.
Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Amelie Mauresmo all came out of the closet. Boris Becker conceived one of his children in a broom closet in a London restaurant. As for Tiafoe and his twin brother, on occasion they would sleep overnight on a massage table in a 10′ by 14′ storage room that some have likened to a closet, at the storied Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland, where his father—an emigrant from Sierra Leone—lived for awhile when he was the facility’s janitor.
What a tale! Then again, from Pancho Segura‘s dirt-poor beginnings in Ecuador, to careers born in Moscow basement apartments or the LA ghetto, rags-to-riches tales have enlivened tennis, providing some of the sport’s greatest players. Now, Tiafoe’s Dad gets to his job at a car wash on a used bike, and his mom labors in a nursing home while going to school. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Those craving for a new American champion have looked at Sampras, Agassi, and Chang and said our next hero would be the product of emigrants. Tiafoe’s parents are both from Sierra Leone.
Others insist that what American tennis needs are gifted athletes. Clearly, in Tiafoe, we have one. Broad-shouldered, 6′ 1″ and growing, he attacks the ball ball with great acceleration, unleashing laser, whiplash forehands and moving like the wind. The youngest Orange Bowl winner in history, he’s also grabbed the Easter Bowl, and he rolled through his first match in Paris, defeating a French wild card opponent 6-4, 7-5.
After the win, there was a surge of elation amidst the American camp. Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty told IT that Tiafoe is a dream: “He works with the younger kids, he’s gracious, and a good sportsman—everything you would want in a player. He’s young and fun to watch. For what he’s doing, he’s handling it with tremendous maturity.”
USTA Player Development Chief Pat McEnroe added, “I’m very optimistic about his future. He has a long way to go … He’s freaking fast. I like that, and he’s got a live arm. Bill, did you see those forehands? He knows how to play tennis and he loves tennis.”
So what about dealing with the relentless hype machine,? “See these people around here?” McEnroe said, pointing to coaches Jose Higueras and Jay Berger, and to Mark Ein, the owner of the Washington Kastles. “We’re going to help navigate that. We’re a good team.”
Tiafoe admitted that there was pressure from having risen so quickly in the junior ranks and being the No. 1 seed. “I was really nervous from the start,” he said. “I was just happy to get through it.” This was not the first time Tiafoe, who adores tennis, played in France. Two years ago, he won a big international tourney here. “I love tennis so much,” he enthused. “I can play here at Roland Garros; [I can] travel and see new things and compete around the world. It means the most to me … knowing I was going to go play the French Open, I was very excited…words can’t explain.”
And words can’t explain Tiafoe’s singular path. He plays or thinks tennis 24/7. His favorite player isn’t Roger, Rafa, or Nole, it’s Juan Martin del Potro. The first big tournament he wants to win isn’t Wimbledon or the US Open, it’s the French.
As for his training, Tiafoe has taken the road less traveled, away from the sport’s American sun belt. He’s based at Maryland’s Junior Champions Tennis Center, as much a “the whole person matters” community as it is a high-performance academy.
At the highly-touted 32-court site, Tiafoe has seen the likes of Denis Kudla and Allison Riske train for the circuit. He’s also had to hit the books big time, and he continually gives back. “I really like it,” he says with a gleaming smile. “The coaches are really great. My primary coach Misha Kouznetsov and my side-help coach Frank [Salazar]. I really like being there. I’m respectful of the coaches, the players, and I feel at home there … [Plus] I mentor kids young Asian kids there, and that helps me mature, have responsibilities, and it helps my tennis a lot.”
In a “look at me” age of entitlement, Tiafoe celebrates modesty. He seemed in awe when he shared that he had chatted with Andy Murray, whose locker was by his. When asked who his favorite athlete was, Tiafoe who says he has a pretty good jump shot, quickly said the NBA’s Kevin Durant and then spoke of the poignant speech Durant recently gave.
“It was unbelievable,” says Tiafoe. “It made me cry. What he says to his mother is unbelievable. Guys like that should really inspire young guys … He’s one of the best basketball players and he’s still that humble. A lot of juniors in the locker room are really big-headed now. I mean, we’re all good players, but we haven’t done anything yet. Yet, Kevin Durant being that humble is huge, and that helps me. Obviously, sometimes I’d get a little big-headed, but after [seeing[ that interview, I don’t think I’ll ever be big-headed."
But what about all the attention he's getting? In Paris, the American press corps swarmed. Tiafoe insists, "It’s no problem. You guys are here for a reason. I’m a top seed. You obviously want to hear the words I’m saying. I just cancel it out. I’m just going to worry about what really matters and that’s on the court ... It’s been a lot. It’s been pretty exciting, though. Before you really realize, you’re doing something good, and you want to keep doing that. But I don’t let it get to my head, because there are plenty of others that haven’t made it ... I don’t want to be playing on court 17 for the rest of my life."
As for all the support he's gotten from the Junior Tennis Champions Center and the USTA, Tiafoe says, "It’s crazy. Without sponsors, I wouldn’t be here. I can’t thank them enough. Hopefully, I keep getting better, so that they keep paying for my travels."
Tiafoe's journey in the singles draw ended against a big, little-known German Jan Choinski. Almost two years older than Tiafoe, Choinski came from behind to score a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory.
Afterward, Tiafoe confided, "I was feeling pressure, me being the No. 1 seed. I was playing unbelievable tennis. Obviously, you are thinking you don't want to lose in the second round ... you are feeling pressure. I think it just comes out, all the emotions you feel inside, sometimes it just has to come out. Today it did more than usual."
Downcast and sad, yet philosophical, Tiafoe said there were "no positives" that came out of the loss, adding, "There're always bumps in the road. Nadal has lost in the first round at Wimbledon ... I just have to get better every day. [Other] guys are getting better every week.”
Stil, there is no doubt that Tiafoe loves his quest, one that allows him to “be in the same locker room today as David Ferrer.” About hopes for the next year, he says, “The big goal is always to win the big four. Now that I didn’t take this one, I’m really hoping to do that at the Open, where the crowd is definitely for you every match.”
In the wake of his shock loss, Tiafoe told IT, “Right after I got out of the gate, [my coach] Misha said, ”It’s not about today, it’s about later’ … That was pretty smart for him to say. Obviously, it was a tough loss, but you don’t want to peak in the juniors. You want to peak in the pros. That’s what Misha really thinks about.” And so do a half-billion American tennis fans, who are craving a new leader—maybe even one who has an African father and lives around Washington D.C.
By Bill Simons
Kim Clijsters, the mother warrior of our game, touched our hearts for many seasons. Sweet and friendly, she actually once said she played tennis in order to make friends.
Recently, she tweeted one of your philosophical comments, which suggested, ”Sometimes you’re just happy playing. Some people, some media, unfortunately don’t understand that it’s okay just to play tennis and enjoy it. They always think you have to win everything. It always needs to be a success story, and if it’s not, obviously, what is the point? Maybe you have to go back and think, ‘Why have I started playing tennis? Because I just like it.’ It’s actually sort of a dream hobby that became somewhat of a job. Some people just don’t get that, ever.”
Your point immediately drew feel-good praise. Chris Evert gave it a rave review and Caroline Wozniacki said, “He is so right, great quote … Sometimes you’re just caught up in what I’m doing instead of why I’m doing it.” One blogger offered the Einstein contention, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Roger, all this begs the question, can a game that is at the same time so joyous and so competitive actually become too fierce, almost soul-deadening? Has tennis gone too far? Have we gone too Lombardi? Has Vince Lombardi’s credo that “Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing” so infected our once-so-proper game that it now prevails as the sport’s prime ethos? Have we forgotten that, at its core, tennis is a game of beauty, fun, and recreation—an often sweet, surprisingly precise expression of our condition? Has the joy been drained out of an athletic endeavor that is simply about stroking a ball over a net?
On the one hand, Kim Clijsters did touch our hearts when she won the US Open. We smiled as she hugged her cute daughter and held that shiny trophy. But don’t forget all the injuries she endured, all those slow-burn years of training, and yes, don’t forget that evening she collected a nifty $2 million.
In other words, some insist that pro tennis is simply a fiercely professional Darwinian affair; a very international competition for the young, the fit, the talented, and tough; a sport whose appeal is based on success in an often cruel, risk-and-reward profession where players seek huge money in high-profile tournaments, inevitably producing just one ecstatic winner and 127 losers with a wide river of tears.
Roger, you know more than anyone that the game sparkles with grace and athleticism, balletic movement, and shot-making splendor. Still, one wonders whether tennis’ appeal is ultimately entwined in the unsparing, decisive battle between two lone combatants, often with divergent personalities and backstories.
It’s said that NASCAR fans relish car crashes. Hockey fights draw roars. Football blood sells seats. So, too, struggling tennis players— twitching in the sun or dodging humiliating defeat—or players stretching long beyond their limits, touch something in us. All of life’s battles seem to be before us, down there on that unmoving rectangle.
Just hit the ball over the net. Enjoy the sport, it’s just a game. But it’s more, much more. And in today’s world of instant replay, traveling entourages, deep-pocket sponsors, stacks of stats, media mobs, and muti-million endorsements, we are a bit dumbfounded. So, we turn to you, Roger, our philosopher king, and humbly ask: How does our sport achieve a certain sanity—that elusive, but sweet, balance between boy and man, joy and job, sport and livelihood?
Yours in Tennis,
Founder, Editor and Publisher
By Bill Simons
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”—Mahatma Gandhi
It used to be said that John McEnroe is a jerk, but at least he’s our jerk.
Well, John Isner may have never gotten past the quarterfinals of a Slam. He may never hoist a Slam trophy high. He doesn’t move with grace or lightning speed, and his wins over the very best are rare.
Still he’s our guy, my guy.
In the barren landscape that is American men’s tennis, John not only is our tallest tree, he’s our only tall tree—the only American in the top 60.
Of course, at 6′ 10,” amidst the lineage of American No. 1s, he is the tallest. Unfortunately, compared to Connors, McEnroe, Martin, Chang, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Roddick, and Blake, his resume is undersized. Yes, he was the hero of that three-day Wimbledon marathon. He scored some memorable Davis Cup heroics in France and Switzerland, and his new nickname, “Johnny Tiebreak,” has a ring.
But, for all his height, for all the ferocity of his forehand, and despite having a thunderous serve that often is but a blur, Isner has yet to really break through to the upper echelon of the game that gets so much of our love.
America hungers for Grand Slam winners, but for 11 lean years, our men have not been able to feed that craving. Could Isner do that? That’s probably too big an ask for the big man, who some feel has already performed beyond expectations. But here at Roland Garros, he became the first American man to make the fourth round of a Slam since 2012, when Andy Roddick reached the same mark at the US Open.
Yes, Isner, now 29 (the same age when Roddick retired), has won a lot: in college, where he was the NCAA runner-up; in Davis Cup, where he’s worn the hero’s mantle; and on the tour, where he’s claimed 11 titles, from his beloved Winston-Salem and Atlanta to far-off Auckland this January. He has massive weapons. He’s experienced, professional, and can come up big at clutch time. Plus, he cares. He’ll holler when he misses a rally forehand, or just put his hands on his considerable hips, or snap his Prince racket in half as if it were a toothpick.
All the while, his downsides are clear. Primarily, he’s faced with a lack of mobility and quickness which often leaves the court open and makes him a fairly easy target at net. Plus, there are issues relating to consistency, a backhand that can’t do that much damage, he’s endured some unhappy injuries, and he candidly admits that he is not comfortable playing outside of North America. After his dramatic US Open match against Gael Monfils last summer in New York, he tweeted, “I miss the South. #godscountry.”
Although in January Isner said he really didn’t care how the other Americans are doing, he is candid about the plight of American men’s tennis.”There is only one player in the top 50 [actually top 60] … for America right now, and that’s pretty bad,” Isner told IT. “So you guys [in the media] should talk about that. I have always said that there are some guys coming up that are very good … especially guy[s] like Jack [Sock].” He concedes that coaches Jose Higueras and Jim Courier have “a pretty good point” when they are critical of the work ethic of America’s young players.
After his quick and dreary 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in the fourth round here, we asked John what he’s most proud of in his seven-year career. He said, “I’ve been pretty consistent, consistently good, which came as a surprise, actually. What I’ve done in the last four years I’ve been pretty happy about. Looks like I’m doing that again this year. But the thing that is really disappointing is [that] it’s tough to get into that next level, that next level being guys like that dude over there in the press conference. [He points to Berdych in the main interview room.] I’m going to keep working … Luckily, I feel good. Even though I’m 29, I feel like I have a lot of good years ahead … [I'm] just very lucky to do this. Hopefully, I can do it as much as I can.”
So, we asked, what is the key to getting there? He replied, “In a match like today, [I] just have to have play better. Simple as that. I believe I have it. [Today] I was just beaten by a better player … He was too good.”
Finally, we asked John, if he could change anything in his career, what would it be? “Probably a few things here or there,” he replied. “But nothing really significant”
Ah, there it is, that killjoy phrase that has long haunted American tennis: Nothing really significant.
These days—and forever—”nothing in significant” hasn’t cut it among demanding American fans, who set the bar so high: 6′ 10″ high.
By Bill Simons
Sizzle and sass are their calling cards.
They’re Euro hunks with a Hollywood aura. They draw loud fans and adoring babes, ample groupies. Kids squeal. Neither Gael Monfils nor Fabio Fognini have made it to Slam finals. Still, they drip with charisma, very macho.
But don’t call them spear carriers or bit players. Rather they’re our sport’s sub-Federerian characters—animated support actors who bring intrigue. And their much-anticipated third-round afternoon affair on the often dramatic Court Suzanne Lenglen was a match like few others.
A sense of entitlement about them, these two drip ‘tude. They strut and pout, proud princes of the game. Here, nonchalance morphs into an art form—so very cool. These are clay masters.
Chess-like battles—probe and retreat—break out with a staccato regularity. Deep misdirectional forehands, slice-and-dice backhands, soft-as-a-flower drop shots, deceptive dinks, and seeing-eye lobs.
Fognini called it an epic match—lol. Purists quickly dismissed the encounter. “Bad tennis, good theatre,” they scoffed. Foot faults, penalty points, a middle digit flashed to the crowd, dicey confrontations with fans, a tanked fourth set—not exactly your grandfather’s tennis.
The crowd roared loud. The crowd booed indignantly. Monfils was up two sets-to-one, and then, in the fourth set, he stopped moving and stopped swinging.
Dead in the water, yes?
Think again. Monfils was simply re-grouping, keeping his ammunition dry. “I was starting to struggle,” he recalled. “The only option I had is to take [a] 6-0 [loss]. Why should I make any effort? … I don’t have time [to] waste energy against Fabio.”
Hmm, so losing becomes winning.
The match had more shifts and twists then a disco. Monfils was exhausted, Fognini was flustered, the French crowd—loud and ruthless—was elated.
Not surprisingly, Monfils, the 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 winner, was less than poetic in summarizing the compelling encounter. “You know, for me, it’s not about ups and downs. It’s more about saving my ass.”
THAT HURTS: When Dmitry Tursunov was asked about the injury he sustained during his loss to Federer, he called it “an ouchy one.”
TWEET WORD OF THE DAY: Rafamazing.
CROWDED CLOSET: Sloane Stephens has “about 250″ of her distinctive braided headbands.
CONSISTENCY: For the sixteenth straight time, David Ferrer has reached the fourth round of a Slam.
SLAM TRIO: There are three Slam winners left in the women’s draw: Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Sam Stosur.
KUZZY’S FIVE-YEAR ITCH: There were five years between the two Slams that Svetlana Kuznetsova won, the ’04 US Open and ’09 French Open. Now, five years later, is she due for another?
DESPERATELY SEEKING SLOANE: We live in a world of specialists. Spaniards like clay. Aussies prefer grass. Americans don’t do so well in Europe. And then there’s Sloane Stephens. Month in, month out, she underperforms at boring little tourneys. But put her in the limelight, and the LA glitz gal—who delighted in seeing her picture on a Broadway billboard— steps up and becomes a phenom. Last year she had a heady 15-4 record in Slams. In regular tourneys she was just 24-19. Go figure.
The press corps was determined to get Stephens to explain this curious trend.
But good luck. Time and again, reporters went to the well in order to get a theory, an explanation, a tidbit—anything! It proved to be a futile, at times comical effort. Slam Stephens or Sphinx Stephens? You decide. Here’s an edited version of the conversation:
Question: Six straight times [you've gotten to the] second week of a slam. That’s the most of anybody on the women’s tour, an active streak. Not bad. You must be pretty happy to keep it going?
Sloane Stephens: Yeah, it’s pretty cool …
Q: Why do you think this keeps happening?
SS: If I knew,I would capitalize on it. I would do it every week.
Q: Throw us a bone.There is a little bit of disparity between your play in the slams and the regular tour. So anything, something. What’s going on?
SS: I don’t know … if I had the answer, I would definitely let you guys in.
Q: Do you feel like a different person when you get to these big tournaments?
SS: No. Not really.
Q: There are clay-court specialists and indoor specialists. Could you be a Slam specialist?
SS: I just peak at four tournaments a year. Every other tournament I guess, just get me ready for these.
Q: So how about this [angle]? They say Stefan Edberg had a fire in his belly, he had real desire, passion. So do you have that more at Grand Slams than the other tournaments?
SS: Like I said, same question, I do not know, you guys. I do not know.
Q: Obviously, for the men, slams are different, best-of-five [sets]. Women, not really. But what feels different about a slam match? I’m trying here.
SS: Nothing. I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Honestly, if I had the answer … I would tell you guys. I’d be like, “Oh, yeah,” but I can’t even think of anything.
Q: Let’s try again, what if the fabulous, marvelous Grand Slam Sloane Stephens would play a match against the ordinary, not-so-great, regular-circuit Sloane Stephens? What would the score be?
SS: (Wrinkling eyebrows) 2 and 2, I mean, duh.
Q: To that point, do you think your first title will come at a Slam?
SS: I don’t know. But then you guys would be scratching your heads, wouldn’t you? You’d be like, “Hmmm, there must be something she’s not telling us.”
BIG JOHN MARCHES ON: The American men went into Roland Garros under a cloud. After a harsh spring, their only recent brush with real news came in the tragic form of a murder-suicide and fire at a Tampa home owned by recently-retired James Blake. But John Isner changed all that Friday by becoming the first American man to reach the fourth round of a major since he made the quarters of the US Open in 2012.
After Isner’s 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 victory over veteran Tommy Robredo, IT asked Isner if he’d spoken with Blake. “I have,” he said. “I live in that neighborhood (in Tampa], too. It hit home to me. So weird and so sad. James didn’t personally know any of the family [who he'd rented the home to], but it was just a bizarre situation … I live extremely close to that house … It’s just a horrible tragedy.”
Two more Americans—Jack Sock and Donald Young—had a chance at joining Isner in the fourth round but fell short. Isner told IT that he understands media criticism about the current state of the US men’s game. “You should talk about [it]—right now there is only one player [from] America in the top 50, and that’s pretty bad. But … there are some guys coming up that are very good, and we’re seeing that, especially with a guy like Jack [Sock].”
MATCHING INITIALS MAKE FOR GOOD MONOGRAMS: Surprise French fourth-round force Pauline Parmentier is part of a small alphabet’s worth of recent and current WTA players with matching initials. She’s joined by Akgul Amanmuradova, Belinda Bencic, Catalina Castano, Fiona Ferro, Jovana Jaksic, Jelena Jankovic, Kaia Kanepi, Karin Knapp, Klara Koukalova, Kristina Kucova, Mandy Minella, Storm Sanders, and young US sensations Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend.
MINOR YOUTHQUAKE ON THE CLAY: The US Open saw three women in their 30s—Serena, Li Na, and Flavia Pennetta—in the final four, but all three of those players and a host of other vets (including Venus and 2009 champion Francesca Schiavone) were knocked out early in Paris. Is clay where the WTA’s younger generation—led by the top remaining seed, 22-year-old Simona Halep—slides onto the main stage, declaring that the future is now? Or will the veteran Sam Stosur (at 30, the oldest remaining player), and relative vets Maria Sharapova (27), Svetlana Kuznetsova (28), and Jelena Jankovic (29) hold back the tide?
TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: Asked about his fourth-round opponent, Novak Djokovic, French favorite Jo-Willy Tsonga remarked, “I’ve won against him often, but not important duels and big tournaments. He ruined my career.”
NO, TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: With Serena gone home early, Sharapova isn’t mincing words about her title chances at the French. “I like to be positive yet realistic,” the 2012 champ said, after a double-bagel third-round win. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be the favorite at this tournament.”
ORANGE YOU READY TO WIN? Novak Djokovic stopped Jo-Willy Tsonga‘s famous Aussie Open title run in 2008, and he came out on top of another showdown two years ago here at Roland Garros. “It was a great match, but it is a bad memory,” Tsonga said about that encounter. “I went into that match with special emotions, but it ended badly. It would be good to finish a good meal with dessert, not a jelly orange, as it is bitter.”
NANNY AND THE PROFESSIONAL: On the subject of whether fathering a second set of twins might impact his Grand Slam performance, Roger Federer said, “How I sleep hasn’t been interrupted. I’m a true professional when it comes to those kind of things.”
NOVAK’S LANGUAGE COUNT: On the hunt for a carrière Slam at the French Open, Novak Djokovic can speak six languages, a number that matches his Slam wins to date. “I think it’s always nice, as a foreigner, coming into a country … [to learn] at least the basics from their languages,” he says. “It’s a nice gesture, a [show of] respect for that culture.”
When Latvian Ernests Gulbis was asked whether he would want his younger sisters to play tennis, the outspoken pro offered some controversial commentary. He said, “Hopefully, they will not pursue a professional tennis career. Hopefully. Because for a woman, it’s tough. I wouldn’t like my sisters to become professional tennis players. It’s a tough choice of life. A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids can you think about until [the] age of 27 if you’re playing professional tennis, you know? That’s tough for a woman, I think.”
Of course, this was only the latest in a long list of zingers from the glib, outspoken fellow. Here’s our Gulbis anthology:
MY NIGHT IN PRISON: In early 2009, Gulbis was arrested for the solicitation of a prostitute and spent a night in a Swedish jail. When IT asked him what he learned from the experience, he said, “What is there to learn? My only mistake is that I like girls. I don’t like guys, unfortunately. That’s my only sin. You all want sensation, something to grab onto and to write [about]. Most of the time it’s just not true … I mean, I meet with a nice girl on the street and I invite them to come over to my room, and then the police come and they put me in handcuffs and bring me [to] jail, so I spend one night in jail in Sweden. But it was a fun experience. No, really. I think everybody should spend one night in prison.”
I LIKE TO SEE WOMEN: When asked whether he liked joint tournaments where men and women both play to the regular ATP Tour events, Gulbis said, “I like joint tournaments, because at least you see some ladies around. Otherwise, the men’s tour can get on your nerves … [A joint event] has its minuses, because you don’t get all the practice courts. But I like to see women around. Women are a big part of my life and it makes me happy.”
I HAVE A SPACESHIP: When asked if he flies to tournaments in his billionaire dad’s private jet, Gulbis quipped, “Yes, and I have a helicopter, a submarine, and a spaceship.”
HAPPY I MADE MISTAKES: “I’ve done all the possible wrong things that you can do in a tennis career. But I’m very happy I made the mistakes … They were my mistakes … The mistakes are simple. After playing a good tournament, you get a week off. You can spend that week the right way, going for a one-hour run each day or going to the gym. Or you can do nothing like I did. You eat and drink whatever you want and [don't] sleep at night.”
ON RAFA, ROGER, AND NOVAK: After losing to Rafa Nadal in the Italian Open, Gulbis said, “I thought I was the better player throughout the match.” Nadal responded, “If [hitting] every ball at 216 [kilometers per hour] or 220 [makes you] the best players, then perhaps he was the best player.” He also complained about Gulbis’ on-court demeanor.
As for Gulbis’ next opponent at the French Open—Roger Federer—Gulbis has said, “I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy, but for me, all four of them are boring players. Their interviews are boring. It is Federer who started this fashion … I respect Federer, but I don’t like it that young players try to imitate him [in interviews].”
Like the similarly outspoken Polish player Jerzy Janowicz, Gulbis has taken special aim at Djokovic. “I don’t like Djokovic that much,” he’s said. “We’ve known each other since I’m 12. He was a normal guy then, but since his first big success he changed, his eyes changed.”
A WILD AND CRAZY GUY: Looking back to when he was 19, Gulbis said, “I was not really concentrated on tennis at all. I could go with friends until six in the morning, and in two days, I have a match. That is … a little bit crazy and stupid.”
WAIT, WAIT DON’T S— ME: Taking the initiative during a courtside spat with Gulbis, umpire Pascal Maria recently said, “Wait, wait, wait. Let me finish and then you give me s—.”
OH, CANADA: After being jeered at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Gulbis blasted Canadian fans, saying they were “stupid” and had conspired against him. “They’re used to hockey, it’s okay. But I don’t understand why you need to clap for a double fault … I can’t call a thousand people stupid … Milos [Raonic] is a great player. But the rest of the [Canadian] guys play great in Canada because it’s like Davis Cup every match. People are clapping … before a second serve to provoke a double fault … The crowd is very well educated. They know exactly what to do … to screw up the other player.”
A LITERARY NOTE: Last year, Gulbis told Sports Illustrated’s Courtney Nguyen, “I’m reading Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer. It’s a cliche. Everybody’s reading it and I always run away from books that everybody reads, from movies that everybody’s watching … I hope it doesn’t disappoint me.” BTW: Gulbis was named by his father—an investor and book collector—after Ernest Hemingway, one of his favorite authors, with the addition of an extra ‘s’ to give it a touch of Latvian flavor.
AN IDIOT LIKE ME: Gulbis once said, “I break around 60 to 70 a year. I felt bad after going to the factory where they make the rackets and I saw all the work they do. Everything is hand-made. They do everything for the players; they really think about what the players need, and then an idiot like me comes [along] and breaks them.”
AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH: In Madrid in 2010, Gulbis said, “I came here early [and] got used to the courts because they are not really straight. They are like playing on a mountain.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT MOTIVATION: After returning to the Top 100 with a title win at Delray Beach last year, Gulbis said, “I was really getting pissed to see who’s in the Top 100. There are some guys who … can’t play tennis. I don’t know how they got into the Top 100. I think I’m much better … It’s a motivation.”
ON DROPPING OUT OF THE 100: “I used to say that it’s really tough to get out of the top 100, you know? So I proved to everybody that it’s not so tough, it’s pretty easy.”
By Bill Simons
She has a big body, a big smile, a big game, and now some big wins, and you would think Taylor Townsend has a very big future.
Never mind that she’s just 18, and before Paris—stuck with an unimpressive No. 205 ranking—had won only one match in her career on the regular circuit. Things change fast. After her wins over Vania King and France’s best, Alize Cornet, Townsend was the toast of this town.
But while her storming of Paris showed us a lot, her mini-run opened up a slew of big questions about American tennis’ next big hope.
WHAT IF SHE COULD HAVE STEPPED UP? In the third round, Townsend came out and played some shaky ball, promptly losing the first set against the Spanish baseliner and No. 14 seed Carla Suarez Navarro, who has a wondrous backhand. Early in the second set, Townsend had a golden opportunity to change the nature of the match. But she shanked a makable forehand on break point in one of Suarez Navarro’s service games, and promptly squandered more four break points in the next. Suarez Navarro won 6-2, 6-2.
Afterward, Townsend’s co-coach Kamau Murray said, “You have to protect your opportunities. She had a little too much time to think. The first step in tennis is to get into Grand Slams, and the next stage is to step up. The top seeds had lost here. There was an opportunity.”
Townsend’s other coach, Zina Garrison, spoke of the pressure the teen was under: “It’s a little tough when one day nobody knows you and then the next day everyone does.” Taylor herself said, “Going from one level to the next is not an easy task.” But just imagine if she had converted one of those break points—the compass would have tilted a bit.
JUST HOW UNIQUE IS TT? Let us count the ways. She’s a lefty, with a stout physique unlike any other player. She has two coaches and trains in two not-so-fancy rust belt centers. She possesses surprising quickness, an uncanny court sense, and a sweet touch. She leans into her groundies and delivers awesome power, and—get this—she is the first player in eons who plays serve-and-volley ball, even on clay. It’s so much fun seeing her charging the net. She even starts her warmups there.
And, shock of shocks, Townsend actually likes the media. Is she unique? Heck yes—she’s the most refreshing entrant into this game in years.
IS SHE FOR REAL? It’s nice to make a splash. What’s not to love about sparkling Cinderella stories? But often tennis’ wretched and powerful stepmother, the brutal grind of the tour, steps in. Tennis rarely lies, rankings speak loud, ruthless reality checks are a constant. Just ask earlier darlings like Melanie Oudin or even Townsend’s friend, Donald Young.
Still Garrison states the obvious, “She has nowhere to go but up. It was a big thing for her to get here in the first place [Townsend emerged from a fierce playoff system in which she had to win two tournaments, including two singles and two doubles matches in one day] and then to win two matches in her first Grand Slam.”
Taylor has a fab resume: good strokes, good feet, good hands, good mind and tennis IQ, ambition, a great junior history, and special coaches. She reminds some of a the old lefty power ballers, such as France’s Henri LeConte and Chilean Marcelo Rios (minus the ‘tude.)
Taylor told IT, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel in my gut, in my heart, that I could do this … There are a lot of things that I miss about home … My phone [here] doesn’t work … But I would rather be here grinding and … going through these ups and downs … So, no I believe 100% in myself that I can do great things. But it’s a matter of time. I have to trust the process … it is a long process, it doesn’t happen overnight. But I see that, being here, I believe … I can compete on this level … I want to see how far I can go. So I’m excited, and I do think that I can do it. Just keep looking out.”
CAN SHE CHANGE THE GAME? Townsend and her camp have a refreshing “big picture” perspective. Already, Taylor speaks of wanting to be a game changer. Lest we repeat, it would be a startling breakthrough if such a full-figured woman became a top champion. What a role model! If she succeeds big time with her serve-and-volley game, it would shake up the stranglehold the power baseline style has long had on the woman’s game. Garrison repeatedly says Taylor is an “old school player in a new age.”
Plus, Townsend’s development is based on a kind of open “It takes a village” mentality. Garrison and Murray are her main coaches, but she’s been tutored at length by Billie Jean King (who spoke with her on the phone for 45 minutes the other day), tennis whiz John Wilkerson, and former pro Lori McNeil, among others.
Garrison bristles at the proprietary, possessive mindset of some coaches and the concept that all prospects should go through the same system at certain training centers. American tennis would be far better off, she argues, “if we just allow coaches from all over to contribute. We have great coaches around our country … There are different styles out there.”
Garrison also talks of the importance of giving back, and a collaborative approach among coache. She says Taylor “wants young people to look at her and say they want to play all aspects of the game.”
WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT AMERICAN PLAYERS AND COACHES THAT THERE HAVE BEEN VIRTUALLY NO TOP-LEVEL AMERICAN SERVE-AND-VOLLEYERS? Is the preeminence of the power baseline game just because of the new strings and rackets, the courts and balls—in other words, is it a worldwide trend? Or does it say something about a kind of unimaginative group-think approach?
WHAT ABOUT BODY TYPE? Garrison says she tells Townsend, “‘This is your body, this will be your body, embrace it.’” Still some wonder, should she lose weight? Should she even try? Does it matter, and will she inspire other big kids to give the sport a try? Does everyone have to look like Maria Sharapova?
HAS TAYLOR GREATLY IMPROVED? Townsend has had great junior results, but little experience on the main tour. In Indian Wells this year, she won her first main tour match and then took a set off eventual champion Flavia Pennetta in the next round. Still, some claim she has improved greatly. Taylor says, “I have just been working a lot on my mental game … [and] learned how to play the game … how to be a student of the game and … embrace my strengths and strengthen my weaknesses … just to trust myself. I have a lot of weapons and gifts and talents that not many people have, that I have to believe in. Just trust it. That’s going to separate me from a lot of people.
WHAT IS HER TAKE AWAY FROM PARIS? To be more patient. Sometimes it’s important just to get the ball in play. Garrison says Taylor needs to cool it with what she calls her “all-or-nothing ESPN shots.” Others feel she has to use her backhand slice more, particularly on the return of serve.
CAN SHE DO EVEN BETTER AT WIMBLEDON? Grass suits Townsend’s style, and she reached last year’s junior final. But she has to go through qualifying or maybe get a wild card. If she actually did get a wild card, she says, “I would pass out right right now … wow! Wimbledon is like my favorite tournament, I swear, I love the grass … the tournament, the atmosphere. That would mean the world to me … Oh my God, I’ll probably cry.”
ARE MATCHING INITIALS A GOOD-LUCK CHARM? Will TT or SS—Taylor or Sloane Stephens—be the next American woman not named Williams to win Wimbledon one day? (Don’t forget about Madison Keys.)
COULD HER THIRD-ROUND LOSS ACTUALLY BE A BLESSING IN DISGUISE? Top developmental coaches stress the importance of taking one step at a time. And many a young highly-hyped prospect hasn’t progressed as some had hoped. Early fame is a dicey deal. The hype machine can eat you up and spit you out. So you might say, “Okay, Taylor had a somewhat soft launch.” Reaching the third round is different from going deep into the second week.
But Garrison will have nothing to do with any soft, touchy-feely psycho-babble. “I’m a tough customer,” she says. “All I see are the misses. Still, I want her to take the positives from this tournament.” So do a billion American tennis fans—starved for a new compelling story line—who see a raw but bright young potential phenom
Was a star born this week in Paris? Who knows? But we do know that the big girl with the big game has dazzling talent, a. winning personality, a thoughtful perspective, and a good heart. And all of that is pretty great news.
By Bill Simons
In his book Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren captures the spirit of Chicago, writing, “The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”
President Obama was rather more succinct, saying, “Let me tell you something,I’m from Chicago.I don’t break.”
Chicago’s a tough town—mean streets, cold winters, great culture, not so great Cubs. When you think about trendy American tennis regions, Florida or California come to mind, not the Windy City. But as Donald Young and the young sensation Taylor Townsend advance at the French Open, and Chicago-born Katrina Adams is about to take over as President of the USTA, you might want to think again. Here’s a little Chicago reader:
• Mike Agassi and Richard Williams—the two fathers who plotted more than any others to have their kids become tennis champions—have curious, though brief, Chicago connections.
Andre Agassi‘s dad Michael was a lost kid in Tehran, Iran—a failed Olympic boxer who lived in wretched conditions, one of 13 family members cramped close in an apartment and sharing a single bathroom. No wonder he dreamed of America, migrating to Chicago. He became an elevator operator and met his wife before heading out to far warmer climates in LA and eventually Vegas, where he placed a tennis ball above Andre’s crib and then shaped him into an A-list prospect.
Richard Williams’ path was uncannily similar. Facing unvarnished racism in Shreveport, Louisiana (think: humiliation, brutal beatings, grinding poverty, and no pathways to significant success) Williams saw Chicago as his out, a dream destination where African-Americans had real jobs, homes that didn’t leak, and weren’t brutalized.
Williams hopped a freight train north and thought he’d arrived in heaven. African-Americans had cars, money, and could go to libraries. They didn’t beat you up for reading, like Williams said they did in Shreveport. He soon got a series of entry-level jobs and his own apartment.
But he became disillusioned, deeply disillusioned. It wasn’t that he was colder than he had ever been. After fierce, life-threatening confrontations with the police, he came to feel that Chicago “was far worse [than the South]. Chicago was an illusion. The best things were just as inaccessible to black people as they were back home. Maybe it was worse, because we were told they were within our reach … Here, black people thought they were free, but the same rules that applied in the South applied in the North. We still lived on the bottom … Everything was in stores. It took money to eat. In Shreveport, we could always steal a chicken or pull food from the ground.” Prejudice and hopelessness were endemic, and as Williams puts it, “Racism was a fact.” After yet another daunting run-in with the police, Williams told himself, “Even death was better than living another day in fear.”
So just like Mike Agassi, Williams left Chicago for LA, where he came up with his audacious master plan to raise two daughters who would win a lot of money, rule the courts, and change the game.
• Taylor Townsend—tennis’ celeb du jour—is a lot like her hometown: tough, charming, charismatic, singular, and a tad defiant. After the hot-tempered Russian Anastasia Rodionova gave her a hard time, she confided, “Lord Jesus thank you for giving me the strength to not go South Side of Chicago on that girl.”
What is clear, says Townsend’s co-coach Zina Garrison, is that Townsend does things her own way, and she wants to change tennis itself. (Newsflash: America’s first African-American President did come from Chicago.) Townsend doesn’t train in a traditional sunbelt tennis factory. She works out at modest facilities in Chicago and Washington D.C., and has two coaches.
In a once so-elite, so-white sport that has dealt with so many issues (anti-semitism, racism, and homophobia, for a start), Townsend may bring to the fore our debatable views about athletic body types and the very nature of beauty. Let’s face it, the attractive, full-figured 18-year old gives new meaning to the phrase “big babe tennis.” No, she doesn’t exactly make Serena look svelte, but to some she seems almost as big as John Isner is tall.
So what! More power to her!
Townsend seems remarkably comfortable in her Rubenesque frame. “She wants to be the player that changes the sport,” says Garrison. “So to do that you can’t let things harp over you … As for her appearance, I’ve told her over and over, she is what she is and she is what she is going to be and that she just has to be comfortable with herself, because we are all going to be judged on something.”
As for Townsend’s unique, net-friendly all-court game, Garrison says, “She is what I call retro in the new age … She is different.
She can change the way people think you should do things. I am a firm believer that everyone is individual. You can’t put people in boxes … [Our] whole philosophy is giving back. Don’t be some of these spoiled tennis players out here. I read an article on the little things that Novak Djokovic uses to motivate him and Taylor has the same things.”
Townsend also has a lot of other things going for her. In addition to a huge forehand, surprising quickness, a refreshing willingness to come to net, and enough guts to overcome a snarky “Yankee Go Home” French crowd, she now has some hefty mojo happening. The hottest tennis story in town, she’s drawing attention from British tennis players—Andy Murray tweeted, “How good is Taylor Townsend? #talent”—and happy-to-join-the bandwagon politicians. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn boasted, “This 18-year old southpaw’s grit and determination represent the best of Illinois.”
• Donald Young is another lefty African-American who grew up in Chicago before heading off to Georgia. And now, like Townsend, he is streaking in Paris. Young joked that he didn’t feel any pressure to be the player with Chicago roots who lasts the longest in Paris. He told IT about his early years in the city, saying, “That’s where the foundation was laid for my tennis … I was there from birth to 14. Most of my tennis and strokes and learning was there.
Being from there is awesome. The weather, I don’t miss. The people, I do. Chicago is a great city … I have a lot of fond memories. I played at Hyde Park Athletic Club and at Midtown. They were so nice to give me a scholarship and let me play there, because I couldn’t afford it … Alan Schwartz was great for that. My parents worked at Hyde Park, so I was able to get free court time there. Definitely in the summer you hit outdoors, all the public parks, where you could find a court open … I had a lot of guys that were around my age, and we were all around the same level … You just kind of grew together. It was awesome.”
Young added that he had known Townsend “since she was just in the cradle and all that. I would be over there [at their house a] couple times [when] I was sick. I had to go over after school, and my dad was working … I saw her grow up, and it’s great to see her playing well and winning matches. And to be at this level, it’s awesome. I’m really excited for her.”
When Young was asked about Townsend dealing with the hype machine, he said that Taylor “asks a few questions here and there. But she has a good team and we just talk about life and things. She is staying at our hotel. So we will sit down for breakfast, and we’ll talk about things in the past and her getting in trouble sometimes.
My parents and hers have been friends since before I was born, and my parents started her playing. They were like the first coaches … were always around … Her and her sisters, are … like [a] brother/sister type thing … [more] than friends. I have known them forever.”
• Thoughtful John Adams was the first and one of the most significant vice presidents in US history. Versatile Katrina Adams is one of the most significant USTA vice presidents in memory. Chicago-born, she won the NCAA doubles championship, climbed to No. 67 in the world in singles, reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, and won 20 doubles crowns with Townsend’s coach, Garrison. For years, she’s been the boss at the Harlem Junior Tennis League, as well as a Tennis Channel commentator. In the long history of the USTA, there have been many great African-American volunteers, but there hasn’t been a single African-American president. But Katrina, like that other vice president named Adams, should be changing all that.
• Adam is a pretty important guy in the Bible, and and so is Noah. The tennis connection here? Well, Joakim Noah, the son of France’s favorite tennis champion, Yannick Noah, is the beloved star of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
• Speaking of stars, Chicago entrepreneur Alan Schwartz not only founded a key Chicago club, he was the first person to emerge from the tennis industry to become president of the USTA.
• In 1897, five courts were built in Lincoln Park … Wilson, a storied tennis company, is based in Chicago … Chicago’s Andrea Jaeger turned pro at 14, reached No. 2 in the world at age 16, and eventually became a nun … Marty Riessen was a high school and Northwestern University standout, before winning six singles titles on the tour. He gained a No. 11 ranking and teamed with Margaret Court to win many of his nine Grand Slam titles … Chris Evert‘s tennis teaching dad Jimmy was born and raised in Chicago … Long ago, the US Clay Court Championships in suburban River Forest were a mainstay of the summer clay court circuit … Hall of Famers Frankie Parker and George Lott lived in the city and Lott was the long time coach at DePaul … Hyde Park’s Michelle Obama loves tennis.