By Bill Simons
Let’s face it, in these fierce days, God forbid if your kid doesn’t get in the perfect pre-school.
Likewise, it’s all but a disaster if your children’s SAT tests aren’t Einsteinian and if your flawless offspring don’t get into an elite school or score the right job. Or so it seems.
We live in a pressure cooker world. Relentless stress is a pandemic that so many Americans suffer from.
Just ask Mardy Fish, who in 2012 suffered a baffling anxiety meltdown at the US Open while playing Gilles Simon. Demon after demon gripped him on court in the hotbed that is the US Open tennis.
But wait, aren’t world class athletes immune from serious diseases?
Arthur Ashe had a heart attack, brain surgery, and contracted AIDS from a blood transplant gone terribly wrong. As for James Blake, he broke his neck, and then an outbreak of shingles paralyzed half his face temporarily. Venus Williams has suffered from the draining autoimmune condition Sjogren’s Syndrome.
People deal with their maladies in different ways. Venus holds her feelings close to her chest. Just take one step at a time, she advises. “Everybody’s got their problems. The important thing is not to complain. Mardy’s taking it like a man. It’s really bad luck, what’s happened to him, but he’s held his head high. He’s made something of his opportunities here.”
But Fish says that it helps him “to be open and to talk about it, first and foremost…I’ve got so many different emotions…If it helps me to talk about it, maybe it helps others talk about it. I’ve heard from lots of people…that are thankful that I’m out front with it.”
Fish, who also suffered from a racing heart that brought fierce nocturnal fears, explained to IT, “Anxiety disorder is where your mind takes over and usually goes into the future and predicts what you think is going to happen. Usually it’s bad stuff.”
The Beverly Hills resident, who was No. 6 in the world and briefly the best American, added, “There’s a reason why I didn’t ‘retire,’ because…I wanted to go out on my own terms.”
Fish eventually was hospitalized in Miami for his anxiety disorder. When he practiced he used a monitor to record his heart rate, and he was worried when his opening US Open match went over three hours in intense heat. He hadn’t even practiced for three hours.
“A huge part of it is just coming back here [to the US Open], enjoying the experience one last time, and…conquering what happened when it was all pulled away. This tournament is where it all came crashing down, and where I had my worst feelings of my whole life. It’s a tough thing [that this happened] at my favorite tournament. So I…desperately wanted to come back and change that narrative.”
Winning his first-round match over little-known Italian Marco Cecchinato indeed changed Mardy’s narrative.
THE SERENA SLAM: There has never been a Slam where a single story line – Serena‘s quest for the Grand Slam – has been so dominant.
SERENA’S SLAM KICKOFF – AN EDISONIAN POWER OUTAGE: Kimiko Date-Krumm famously said that her goal in a long-ago match against Serena Williams was to last for more than an hour. She succeeded, lasting 61 minutes – but Vitalia Diatchenko didn’t do so well. The slim veteran, who had a slim chance of winning, served with obvious fear and a funky rigid motion that offered powder puffs Serena pounced on. In just 21 minutes, Williams began her quest with a 6-0 bagel win, then won two more games with an embarrassing ease before the Russian pulled out with an ankle injury.
In arguably the most dramatic quest in Open tennis history, Serena’s journey to equal Steffi Graf‘s record of 22 majors and the achievement of a calendar-year Grand Slam began in the most nondramatic of ways. This was a monumental woman-against-girl mismatch that had virtually no redeeming features. Then again, when Graf won the Grand Slam in 1988, she did it in the most methodical, almost emotion-free manner.
Where’s the fire?
Serena now faces the not-exactly formidable Kiki Bertens in the second round. The Dutch woman is No. 110. Amazingly, with the withdrawal of Sharapova and the upset losses of No. 7 Ivanovic, No. 8 Karolina Pliskova and No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro, the top remaining seed in Serena’s half of the draw is a teen, 18-year-old Belinda Bencic. Yes, the Swiss prospect seems to have given her more trouble than her coach, Martina Hingis. Bencic beat Serena in Toronto just weeks ago. Still, the Open has suffered a power outage of Edisonian proportions.
Already two formidable seeds on her half of the draw – her prime rival Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from the tournament; and Ana Ivanovic, who lost today to Dominika Cibulkova – are out of the draw. Yet somehow the phrase, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” comes to mind. After all, Serena thrives on challenges and drama. And as forgettable as tonight’s happenings were, we can’t imagine Ms. Williams – tennis’ reigning champion and glorious diva – will not by the end of the Open deliver a storyline to be remembered.
ONE TASTY MORSEL: Alec Baldwin said Serena‘s opening night mismatch was like a crunchy hors d’oeuvre. The actor told Pam Shriver, “Serena’s having a Diatchenko as an appetizer.”
SERENA WON’T BE FORCED INTO STILLNESS: Leading into the US Open, Claudia Rankine, whose National Book Award-nominated book Citizen includes a long chapter devoted to Serena, wrote in the New York Times Magazine about the meaning of Serena’s career in relation to race.
“The word ‘win’ finds its roots in both joy and grace. Serena‘s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory….She shows us her joy, her honor, and yes, her rage. She gives us the whole range of what it is to be human, and there are those who can’t bear it, who can’t tolerate the humanity of an ordinary extraordinary person…In the essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘our humanity is our burden, our life, we need not battle for it, we need only do what is infinitely more difficult – that is, accept it. To accept the self, its humanity, is to discard the white racist gaze.’ The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism. Imagine.”
MARIA’S MUDDLE: Maria Sharapova, who pulled out of the Open with a leg injury, won the 2014 French Open, but she hasn’t made it past the fourth round in 11 of her last 19 Slams.
A BOUCHARD DAY’S NIGHT: The struggling Genie Bouchard said she prefers having no coach to working with Sam Sumyk because it is “better [to have] nobody than someone who causes harm.” The Canadian, who has suffered an astounding free-fall since reaching the 2014 Wimbledon final, is now working during the US Open with Jimmy Connors, who formerly coached Andy Roddick and very briefly taught Maria Sharapova. Bouchard, whose baffling failure to shake hands with foes before Fed Cup matches drew ire, is scheduled to play mixed doubles with another young controversial player – Nick Kyrgios. She defended the embattled Aussie, saying that “at the end of the day I think he’s good for the game.”
JUST WONDERING: Are Nick Kyrgios and Madison Keys an item?
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT: Do injured players play in the first round of Slams just for the money? Vitalia Diatchenko, who didn’t come close to winning a game against Serena, earned a hefty $39,000. That’s $4,888 per game. There probably should be some rule against the practice.
MCENROE’S CALL FOR PROFESSIONALISM: John McEnroe, who could create hefty storms in the calmest of seas, said Nick Kyrgios would “be well-served to look at the guys like Nadal, the guys that go out there, tremendous effort players. These guys are so professional now that he can’t afford to waste as much energy as he’s wasting with these sort of off-court comments that he’s making that just cause more problems for him.”
MAKES KYRGIOS SEEM LIKE AN ANGEL: Italy’s pouting, preening, profane Fabio Fognini.
SEEDS TOPPLE: No. 7 seed Ana Ivanovic lost to 2014 Aussie Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, and last year’s finalist Kei Nishikori suffered a shock upset to France’s Benoit Paire, despite having a match point in the fourth set tie-break. He confided that he lost his concentration.
VENUS ON HER LITTLE SISTER: “She deserves every single thing that she has. At the same time, she’s not focused on the attention, she’s focused on her tennis. So she’s focused on the important things, and the results show.”
GO FIGURE: Rafa Nadal said Novak Djokovic is his toughest-ever opponent…Djokovic brought a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy to his first US Open press conference…Tumaini Carayol noted that Karolina Pliskova won the US Open Series without reaching the quarters of a big event or beating a top 50 opponent. She did reach the Bank of the West Classic final at Stanford…Victoria Azarenka‘s former boyfriend, Redfoo, has been watching Lucie Safarova and hanging with her camp…Six women’s seeds – Ana Ivanovic, Karolina Pliskova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Jelena Jankovic, Sloane Stephens and Svetlana Kuznetsova – fell on day one, while only one men’s seed, last year’s finalist, No. 4 Kei Nishikori, fell.
RAFA SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT: Nadal was said to decline an opportunity to play doubles with Nick Kyrgios at a fundraiser for John McEnroe‘s foundation. But Rafa insisted that in fact he didn’t ask not to play with Kyrgios. “I was never supposed to play a doubles match,” said the Spaniard. “That was wrong information. I was told I was going to play Lleyton [Hewitt].’’
GENERATION GAP: Venus Williams, 35, is the oldest player in the woman’s draw. Before losing, American Sofia Kenin, 16, was the youngest.
“They usually get me for ID. People think I can get anything because my name’s on the door. it’s hilarious.”—Billie Jean King, about having to show ID at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“Tiger Woods. I like his mentality. I like his eyes when he’s competing. I am a big fan of him.”—Rafa Nadal, on who he’d most like to play in tennis.
“It’s great to get one win.”—Eugenie Bouchard, after her first first-round victory at a Slam this year.
ON-COURT INTERVIEW: Coco Vandeweghe didn’t just defeat Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-3 today, she also became the first player to give a TV interview during a competitive match. ESPN’s Pam Shriver asked Coco a few questions on-air and on-court between the first and second set. While Coco viewed the experience in a positive light on Twitter, Caroline Wozniacki was less enthusiastic: “Did I just see Coco do an interview on court, mid match, after the first set?? Surely you would wanna focus on the game out there? No.”
By Bill Simons
One of the more curious tag lines in tennis is “bad dad.”
In an era of problematic fathers, the phrase rings true. But, at the same time, it’s far too simplistic. Life’s complicated. It’s easy to judge.
Yes, the term capsulizes a phenomenon in tennis: pushy, relentless pops who, in order to produce a champ, go over the top, and inflict verbal, emotional or even physical abuse. Andre Agassi wrote at length about his dad, a frustrated Iranian boxer who “coulda shoulda” been an Olympic champ, until judges robbed him of the fame he thought was his due. He subsequently dangled a tennis ball over his son’s crib, long before Andre lifted the Wimbledon trophy.
Steffi Graf‘s dad went to jail – tax evasion was the charge. But there were other issues, too. The father of Croatian Jelena Dokic was an abusive drunk. She suffered dearly.
“Bad dad” stories – mild or maddening – abound. Bernie Tomic‘s Dad, angered when his son was repeatedly called for foot-faults, yanked him off the court. Eight-year-old Anastasiya Korzh was ejected from a New Zealand tournament when officials discovered she was wearing a radio earpiece to get instructions from her father. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni told writer Wayne Coffey that her dad regularly beat her with a shoe, and after she defaulted from an event when she was 14, he beat her in a bathtub for 40 minutes. When he was done, he gave her money to go buy ice cream. More recently, Timea Bacszinsky cut all ties with her controlling dad.
Yuri Sharapov, Maria’s Dad, was obsessed. He came to America with 700 bucks and would take his kid to lessons on the handles of his bike. Now Maria has millions. He was intense and full of bravado, but there was no evidence of abuse.
Pam Shriver said her favorite dad was Lindsay Davenport‘s. Her reasoning was devastating: she never once saw him.
The late Stefano Capriati was intense. Sadly, he forced his teenage daughter to do an exhibition match in Tokyo right after playing in Australia.
Outstanding money, not-so-outstanding parenting.
Eventually Jennifer would endure many more woes, including burn-out.
In contrast, when a promoter approached Jimmy Evert with a briefcase full of money for a proposed exhibition featuring his young daughter, he threw the guy out out of his house.
The elder Evert, who passed recently at age 91, was a master teacher who taught his kids on a public court in Ft. Lauderdale. All five excelled, but his second daughter, his beloved Chrissie, was No. 1 in the family, No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in many a heart.
Like other legendary tennis parents – Richard Williams, Michael Agassi and Gloria Connors – the late Evert had Illinois connections. And, like others, the Notre Dame product migrated to the Sun Belt to succeed. Unlike many a tennis parent, Evert was a bravado-free zone. I once saw him enter a West End theater in London with his wife Colette.
“Wow,” I thought, “There’s the legendary coach who shaped a star.” But there was no swagger. The Everts emanated nothing but humility. On second glance, they were just like any other baffled American tourists wondering where the heck their seats were in row J.
Virtually every day, Jimmy Evert took mass in Fort Lauderdale’s St. Anthony Church. On August 26, the place was packed, to celebrate the life of a unique and gentle man.
There have been other good fathers in tennis. Wayne Bryan loves the game with every fiber of his soul, and I always liked the late Karolj Seles, a hilarious Yugoslavian cartoonist who drew doodles to lighten the heavy load on his daughter Monica’s slim shoulders. He spoke with a heavy accent. I barely understood a word he said – still, I relished listening. The man adored his daughter. His glee was clear, his paternal pride sweet and deep.
There was good reason for Jimmy Evert to be proud. All five of his children were state champs, and all reached the finals of national championships. And, permit us to ask: has there been a more beloved champ than Chrissie?
When she spoke to that packed Florida church, in the presence of Martina Navratilova, Mary Carillo and Pam Shriver, she said it was “probably the most important speech I’ll have to give in my life.”
Chrissie wasn’t known for her aces, but she aced her remembrance, noting that “ten hours a day, seven days a week, for 49 years,” he taught tennis at the humble Holiday Park in town. He was married for 62 years to Colette and “not once did I hear them fight – not once. They called each other ‘Sweetie.’ They held hands at 85.” Her Dad had won the Canadian Open, but Chrissie only found out when she, too, captured the tourney and discovered her dad’s name on it.
Chrissie stated the obvious; “The father-coach role is tricky,” she said. “[But] never did he put pressure on me to perform. Never did he get mad if I lost – only if I didn’t try.”
Writer David Hyde noted, “We root for the good guys in sports. We root for dignity. We root for modesty. We root for those who understand the importance of winning and losing – and of what’s more important…Tennis, Jimmy felt, wasn’t instilled in his five children to breed a champion…The bigger ideal was to instill goals, teach lessons and most of all keep the family together.”
Jimmy felt that emotions should be held tight. It was not only the right thing, it was perplexing for foes. No wonder that, until she evolved, Chrissie was called “the Ice Princess.”
Evert said, “[Dad's] legacy, really, was the way he lived his life.”
“It sounds like a Jimmy Stewart movie, the life Jimmy Evert led,” noted the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “He slept, worked, prayed and molded a champion all in a half-mile radius. He was eulogized where he prayed, by a family that grew up here, too.”
And, of course, much of tennis grew up with Chrissie, thanks in large measure to a good dad – a dad named Jimmy.
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.
En route to seeking the Grand Slam, Serena Williams spoke about her toughness, her vulnerability, her coach, her nerves, her humor, her race, her sister and her mother.
Did you ever think about winning a calendar-year Grand Slam?
When I was younger that was definitely a goal … [Now] it’s become more of a dream or fable. I’ve never been this close. So, we’ll see!
Do you ever look back and find deep inside you that little girl who had these dreams? Do you think, “Wow, look what I’ve done”?
Not yet. One day … I’ll definitely look back. I’ll be like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Right now, I’m into continuing to be the greatest champion I can and the best role model I can be … [If you] look back, it’s so easy to become satisfied and complacent.
Are you able to put in perspective what you’re doing?
It’s really, really huge…I have the Serena Slam now, which is amazing … but I don’t have the Grand Slam in my hands.
When you were dancing around after winning Wimbledon, did you think of New York?
I thought, “Oh, man, I’ve won New York three times in a row. I hope this isn’t the year I go down.” I want to do well there – we’ll see.
Twenty-one Slams, six Wimbledons, the Serena Slam. What speaks loudest?
The Serena Slam. Starting this journey–having all four trophies at home—is incredible.
How’s this Serena Slam different from the one you won 12 years ago?
It’s different—it’s unexpected. Back then I was “top of the world” and expected to win. Everyone expects me to win now, but I’m having more fun and enjoying each moment … I wouldn’t have thought last year after winning the US Open I’d win the Serena Slam. I just knew I wanted to win Wimbledon. It was the Slam I hadn’t won in a while.
What did you learn from winning the Serena Slam?
That I’m able to do anything. Anyone’s able to do anything they set their mind to … it takes teamwork. My coach does a wonderful job keeping me consistent … The physical work, the training … it’s a team effort.
Talk about the impact of your coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Does he scout opponents and come up with game plans?
I [now] go into a match knowing exactly what to expect and what to do. It makes life easier. His motivation is unbelievable. We’re a lot alike. He’s a perfectionist—I’m a perfectionist. When I’m not where I need to be, he’s there. He’s like, “There’s no other option but to be better” … We’re [always] working on new things. He’s like, “If you want to continue, you have to improve A, B and C” … [Now] every time, I know how to react. It’s been really good to have an extra ear … Something’s working – you can’t argue with results. He does a great job keeping me focused … I tend to get down on myself when I don’t win easily. So he’s like, “You should be happy. You got through that. I don’t know how you got through that” … [He's] really encouraging.
Going to New York with a chance to win the Grand Slam, there’ll be a lot of hype.
If I can do the Serena Slam, I’ll be okay heading into the Grand Slam. There are 127 others that don’t want to see me win. Nothing personal, they just want to win.
Do you feel indestructible?
You’d be surprised that I feel so vulnerable. Every time I step out there it’s just overcoming those feelings.
What could stop you?
I’m always one of my biggest competitors. I can always stop myself – that’s why I try to stay positive, focused, and as calm as I can … I have to make sure I don’t have too many cheat days, and make sure I’m prepared. Anytime, fear and doubt can stop me. If I’m a little nervous and fearful, that’s never a good sign. It does happen, but I embrace it, bottle it up and throw that bottle away. I just go for it … I have ways of avoiding doubt. That’s my secret.
Do you have the capacity to surprise yourself?
Oh, yeah … I would have never thought I’d win another Serena Slam … It’s really cool.
Was the French Open the most difficult Slam you’ve won?
When you have the flu, your whole body aches … But it has nothing to do with why I lost first sets—that was just poor starting, and not playing the way Serena Williams should play. Very unprofessional.
What’s been the toughest thing for you to accomplish?
To stay in the moment. It’s easy to go out there and want to win…But you have to win seven matches. You have to win each match—each set—each point.
How do you stay in the moment? What’s your inner voice saying while you’re trying to focus?
Usually I’m singing … if I stop singing, I usually start losing, so I go back to singing. It’s crazy up there. You don’t want to be up there.
What songs are in your head?
It’s usually the same. It’s actually “Flashdance,” by Irene Cara. Super random, don’t ask me why. I like the words. If you break down the words, it’s pretty cool … really intense.
Many consider you the best player ever.
I’m just Serena [who] trains every day and does everything—the youngest of five. That keeps me levelheaded and humble. When you mention me next to the greats, I just feel really weird for now.
Do you understand tennis better now than before?
Definitely … I read the game better … After three games, I’m like, “Now I know what you’re going to do.” Or, when their coach comes out, I key on what they change in their games. That’s just experience and age.
A lot of athletes see their careers in terms of different phases.
I can see at least three. There was the first Serena Slam, 1.0. There were a few stages where I wasn’t doing too well, and then there’s this stage.
Do you judge a phase by your results or by everything you’re doing?
Definitely, the latter. There was a stage where I was doing really well and I ended up in the hospital. That was devastating, but ultimately that stage set up this stage.
What’s the difference in your body from years ago?
I feel almost better now. I have aches and pains. But I’m more fit. I can do more than I did 10, 12 years ago. I just keep reinventing myself, in terms of working out, in terms of my game … I don’t feel old. That’s what keeps me in it. I joke I’ve been on the tour for a hundred years. I don’t feel 33.
You’ve beaten Sharapova 17 straight times and haven’t lost in 11 years.
Whenever you play someone [who] has beaten you before, you get focused … Whenever I play Maria, I have to be focused. She wasn’t the best in the world for no reason … I love playing her. She brings out [my] best … I love her intensity. My game matches up well against her.
How important are tough matches?
Sometimes you definitely need to know, “Okay, I can last two and a half hours.” Everyone prefers an easier match. But a tough match really helps … Last year I would have lost [that Wimbledon match against Heather Watson] … I just feel so much stronger mentally. That’s always been my strength, and the older I get, the tougher I get upstairs. This time next year I’ll probably be even stronger.
When you get into a third set, do you feel you can’t lose?
I feel really vulnerable … I have one more set to win or to lose. I just go for it.
Do you still get nervous before a final?
I get nervous every time I walk out on court. I’d be concerned if I wasn’t nervous.
What does losing and winning mean to you?
I really hate losing. I’m the kind of person that’ll work harder than anybody else to make sure I don’t get that. If I do, I learn from it. That way I don’t have to do it [again for] a long time.
And of winning?
As long as I don’t lose, I’m okay.
You said problem-solving was one of your biggest assets.
When I’m losing, I’m like, “Okay, why are you losing? What are you not doing?” I come up with several different solutions…My father built a game where I could change…I have five, six, seven different options. I have a good foundation [that] helps me grow.
You said you’re no longer desperate to win.
I was so desperate to get to 18 [Slams], and since then, I’ve totally relaxed … I don’t have anything to prove. I’ve won all the Slams multiple times. Now I’m here just to enjoy it. It’s making me play better—which is crazy.
Talk about your mental toughness.
Being mentally tough is probably my biggest strength. My dad always said, “Tennis is so mental, you have to be really mentally tough.” I took that to heart. Being the youngest of five really made me scrap and be tougher … It’s great to have a big serve, too. You could be the best in the world, but sometimes you’re down and you have to be able to come back … It’s hard when every single match you’re the favorite and it’s bigger news when you lose than when you win. But Billie Jean King says, “Pressure is a privilege” … If I’m far ahead or far down, [it's] just one point at a time and go for it. I don’t think too far out beyond one or two points.
Aside from your sister, who has been the toughest player you’ve faced?
I played [Justine] Henin, who [was] amazing. Monica Seles was great. Lindsay Davenport. Martina Hingis was also a super-tough opponent.
Which players inspired you?
I loved Monica. I thought she was super cool. I loved her grunt, her fight. I loved Zina Garrison, because she was almost the only black player—there was Lori McNeil, too … It was inspiring … It’s so good to see people of color be able to play a sport that was once dominated by one race … You can’t put everything on me and Venus. There were so many other African Americans: Althea Gibson, Zina, Lori, Camille Benjamin. I still talk to Zina and she inspires me. Just knowing what she’s gone through makes me want to work harder.
Now you’ve become an inspiration—a big wheel’s turned.
It’s gone full circle. I’ve become the person that people can look up to—but not on purpose. I just go out there and do the best I can. I’m myself, and people can learn from my mistakes and from what I do right. I’m not picture-perfect, and that could be inspiring, as well…The only thing that motivates me is that I love what I do—that’s why I continue.
And your thoughts on having gone back to Indian Wells?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was the right timing … It was incredibly inspiring for everyone and for sport .. It [was]…one of the proudest moments of my career. I didn’t ever feel [as nervous as] that. Definitely not before a match … There were tears of [being] overwhelmed. I just felt so good to be out there … But up until that moment I didn’t really know if it was the right thing …Receiving the love from the crowd meant a lot…Everyone has come a long way—especially the WTA and the USTA. They really stepped up to the plate. I appreciated all the love … It was amazing to come back [to] a place where I won my first match—I visited La Quinta and took pictures … Being able to come back where I had so much success has been super inspiring. It makes me want to do more.
Why did you do fundraising before you went to Indian Wells, for the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for prisoners?
We all know many things [have] happened in the country … It was just an opportunity to speak up … Everyone’s saddened and disappointed at some of the things that [have] happened … We are dealing with race issues. It’s admirable how many people stand up and speak out for the rights of humanity. Hopefully it’s going to make a difference. Seeing the work that EJI is doing in terms of getting the right representation for many, many minorities and for the prison system … If you’re in a position where you can stand up and be a role model, why not?
Did you ever think about doing what basketball players did, wearing a shirt in honor of Eric Garner?
That was really admirable. When I saw the shirt, I thought I would’ve loved to have been part of that movement.
How important is it to forgive?
I was taught to always forgive and to always try to look at the bigger picture … You can overcome things, even [when] they might not be the best of situations … To forgive, you have to be able to let go of everything. I did that a long time ago, but I still wasn’t at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells. I was nervous. I had gone through something that wasn’t the best thing … You have to let a lot of those emotions go.
It’s important to be receptive?
It’s really important to accept who you are. Not everyone is going to accept you. If you go through your life wanting everyone to accept you, that can cause a whole set of issues.
Venus said the two of you came into tennis and changed the game.
We [were] different. We didn’t play juniors. Our dad [was] our coach for years. Usually you switch it up a little bit … We’re black. We started something new. It was fresh. It [was] definitely something opposite from what you’d expect from an average player … [Venus] came in as a new face, a black woman who was shaking up the world. She had all the pressure … I just came in behind her, just snuck in there. There was no pressure … She dealt with it so amazingly. She had a lot of confidence and class, and still does … She’s definitely grown, but she’s always been very mature and very regal.
What have you learned from facing her?
That no matter what, family and spirituality should be No. 1.
What about Venus gets under your skin?
Her dog. He’s bad. I love him … [But] he kind of uses me. Whenever Venus comes home, he goes back to her.
Your mom’s always calm. If you achieve the Grand Slam, what can we expect?
She’ll look as stoic as normal. Or she might not even know [laughs]. She’ll be like, “What happened?” That’s mom.
What’s the best part of being Serena?
I just have fun. I don’t take myself seriously. I’m always making jokes—I’m always laughing. I try to always stay on an even keel and not let anything get to my head.
Your humor: is it annoying, insufferable, or what?
It’s annoying. I’m always making jokes and playing pranks—no one can take me seriously.
Did you ever think of another career path?
I saw a picture [when] I was in a stroller on the court. My destiny was to play tennis.
AN OVERVIEW OF UNDERGARMENTS
By Bill Simons
It’s a long tradition in tennis.
No, it’s not strawberries and cream or that eternal question, “Tennis anyone?”
In 1932, a long-forgotten Brit, Bunny Austin, pointed things in a modern direction when he actually dared to wear shorts. In 1949, the naughty but nice California girl Gussy Moran conspired with designer Ted Tinling – supposedly an establishment insider – and wore a lace-trimmed undergarment at Wimbledon.
Western civilization teetered. Officials fumed.
God forbid they would allow their female competitors to become California girls. A Puritanical fire reigned. But Moran’s fifteen minutes of fame adeptly catapulted her to a considerable career on the edges of tennis, and romances with Egyptian sheiks and the like.
Linda Siegel, another appealing California girl, perhaps could have benefited from some undergarments. When her breast popped out during a 1979 Wimbledon match, the tabloids couldn’t resist. They offered cheeky headlines: “Thanks for the Mammaries.”
In contrast, the Russian sex symbol, Anna Kournikova – the most hyped player in history who never won a tournament – put her undergarments to good use. She signed a more-than-supportive endorsement deal with a bra company, which promptly posted billboards all about oh-so-proper London. At a press conference about her promotion, Anna contended, “Women should wear this bra in all circumstances.” But then a reporter asked a question she didn’t like. Kournikova shot back, “We’re here to talk about bras.”
When Russian Tatiana Golovin managed to wear red panties at Wimbledon, she said, “They say red is a color that proves you are strong and confident, so I’m happy with them. We’re just trying to…get a young crowd – and it’s fun.”
But Czech Barbora Zahlavova-Styycova was hardly amused with the ways of Wimbledon. She complained, “It’s very weird [for authorities] to check under my skirt [to see] if I’m wearing white underwear.”
The history of undergarments is over the top. Just before a Wimbledon match this year, the fashion police pounced once again. OMG, Genie Bouchard‘s bra strap was black! After winning the US Open, Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zverera lifted their shirts to show off their Adidas sports bras.
Once the hunky Jan-Michael Gambill complained, “My bags were missing in China for three days. Have you ever tried to find Calvin Klein underwear in Shanghai? There’s so much we take for granted in the States.”
Over at the French Open, Sammy Giammalva asserted, “There’s nothing’s worse than clay in your underwear.” In fact, the two best clay court players in history have a thing for underwear. Sweden’s Bjorn Borg has been selling his colorful Bjorn Borg boxers for years. Okay, there were say-it-isn’t- so revelations about them containing shockingly high levels of toxic chemicals. Still, they sell nicely in Sweden and Holland.
But no one goes over the top about underwear more than Rafa Nadal. Politicians have their wedge issues. Rafa has his wedgie issues. The French sports paper L’Equipe assigned a writer to count how many times Rafa tugged at his backside during a match. It was triple figures.
Of the 606 entrants in a recent BBC contest on the best ways to get into Wimbledon, our favorite suggestion was the notion that you might actually get through the gates by pretending to be “the underwear supplier for Nadal with a new batch of nonstick pants.” LOL.
Now, amidst all the relentless pre-US Open noise and hype, there was Rafa, who earlier this year came out on court with his shorts on backwards. Today, the man whose muscles have muscles had a glint in his Spanish eye. On a hot afternoon,in the shadow of the somber New York Public Library, he coolly promoted his new line of Tommy Hilfiger underwear. The hunk who told us that “sex is important, but if you’re having a perfect day, you don’t have time for sex” was having a perfect day. He pranced, preened and played at a pop-up Hilfiger PR event that had it all: Manhattan sexual sizzle, C-level celebs and models, self-important corporate flags, a cadre of photographers, and a giddy mini-throng at Bryant Park, where an alluring emcee announced, “We’re going to play strip tennis today.”
Nadal – at first flawlessly dressed in a gray suit and tie – soon joined in with his supporting cast, bashing hit-and-giggle shots about a makeshift mini-court. If you won a point, your foes had to remove a garment.
Blaring music insisted, “I know you want it.” The emcee teased, “Take it off, take it off, baby, show us what you got.” Then, just before things got out of hand, we were informed, “We’re going to leave it at that – you’re a champ.”
Nadal, the 14-time Slam champ, who hopes the rising Croatian Borna Coric doesn’t undress him in a tough US Open first-round match, once said of his bruising style, “I like the sensation of suffering…it makes me feel good.” On this afternoon people felt good – nothing suffered. Well, nothing but a tad of dignity and a chunk (or should we say hunk) of modesty.
1. DON’T YOU DARE BLOW IT: Serena has the Serena Slam and owns her top foes. But playing for history and under “don’t you dare blow it” pressure, can she four-peat to tie Steffi Graf for the most Slam wins in the Open era (22) and become the first player since 1988 and the sixth player ever to claim a calendar Grand Slam? PS: Back in the Stone Age, Laver did it twice.
2. DJOKOVIC ON THE HARD COURTS: Tennis’s best hard court player is a dominant No. 1. But, OMG, he’s actually blinked a couple of times this year, and hasn’t won in NY since ’11.
3. OLD MAN FEDERER: Grace check, variety check, power check, longevity check. He continues to amaze. And Murray matters, too. But can either outlast Novak in five?
4. SO YOU WANT TO DANCE WITH THE STARS? Nishikori, Wawrinka, Berdych, Raonic, Dimitrov and France’s athletic artists have all fallen short in NY.
5. DAZZLIN’ DAHLINS: Cici Bellis, Vicky Duval and Melanie Oudin all had breakout moments. Who will have their 15 minutes of fame?
6. THE STADIUM: Flushing Meadows has been hard hat city recently. Will all the beams and towers for the partially built roof have an impact?
7. DOUBLES DAZES: Bethanie Mattek-Sands has won more Slams than anyone this year (four) and Martina Hingis has three. But last year’s champs, the Bryan brothers, haven’t won a men’s Slam in a year.
8. BOYS PIPELINE: American boys—Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Noah Rubin—have won three of the last five junior Slams. Plus there’s Taylor Fritz, Michael Mmoh, Stefan Kozlov and Kalamazoo champ Frances Tiafoe.
9. NO WAY: Marin Cilic was injured, hasn’t beaten a top 10 player this year, and is “only” ranked No. 8. So there’s no way he can defend his title. Right—and Federer’s washed up, too.
10. RAFA THE ENGIMA: Rafa’s won 14 Slams, two US Opens and just prevailed on clay in Hamburg. Could he shock in New York?
BTW: Uncle Sam Wants You: Could No. 13 John Isner, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson or Sam Querrey go deep into the second week? And can a woman not named Williams get beyond Labor Day? Think Keys, Stephens, Riske, Lepchenko.
By Michael Mewshaw
Had he not died tragically of AIDS, Arthur Ashe would be 72. Still, many of his contemporaries are active in the game. Naturally, one wonders whether Ashe would be involved in pro tennis were he alive. But before considering what he might have become, it’s heartening to recall what he was, and Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era by Eric Allen Hall provides an invaluable resource. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, it’s a solidly researched book.
While it doesn’t break new ground, it conscientiously covers old ground which, regardless of its frequent retelling, holds universal appeal.
A child of the segregated south, Ashe grew up in Richmond, Virginia. His father was the maintenance man at a blacks-only recreational center, and long before Arthur learned to play tennis there, his father “taught his son to work hard, avoid selfishness and not challenge the racial hierarchy.” His mother’s early death was a formative event, leaving Arthur with an aversion to emotional outbursts and loss of control. His tennis mentor, Robert Walter Johnson, stressed that Arthur should ignore bad calls and race-baiting. Displaying calmness on-court and off, he developed a Zen-like ability to achieve his goals—i.e. to compete against whites in previously restricted tournaments—and win against increasingly gifted players. When he attended UCLA, his coach J.D. Morgan provided emotional and technical support, but again emphasized that Ashe’s tennis would suffer if he became entangled in racial politics.
Never inclined toward radical protest, Arthur positioned himself between extremists of the left and the right, resisting those who called him an Uncle Tom and those who tried to turn him into one. His understanding of injustices deepened, however, at home and in the wider world where tennis took him. Intellectually curious and an omnivorous reader, he believed in studying the issues before advocating action. As Hall notes, he was a “quietist,” a “gradualist,” a “pragmatist,” and this annoyed critics who expected him to be as forceful as his serve or as flamboyant as his backhand. But instead of making showy statements, he carefully calculated what was required to win. The best example: his clever 1975 Wimbledon upset of Jimmy Connors, when he re-geared his game and won with off-speed shots, dinks and lobs. (Peter Bodo has just published an excellent book, Ashe vs. Connors: Wimbledon 1975, devoted entirely to this match.)
Ashe’s approach was the same whether he was fighting racism in America or apartheid in South Africa. He kept his own counsel, examined the debate from all sides, and reached conclusions based on what he viewed as reason rather than impulse. He served as a founding member of the ATP, was a US Davis Cup coach, and founded key groups to promote tennis in inner cities, education and AIDS awareness. He admitted that he was slow to support the civil rights movement and he had an ingrained resistance to feminism. To read his early comments about women’s tennis and equal prize money is a bit like reading George Wallace’s fulminations against integration. But he evolved under the influence of his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe to call Billie Jean King “the most important tennis player, male or female” in the past fifty years.
This evolution paralleled his response when he contracted AIDS. At first, he kept his condition secret, but once it became public knowledge, he joined others, including Magic Johnson, in raising awareness of the disease and raising money to find a way to control it. Also a strong advocate for the rights of Haitian immigrants, he was arrested in front of the White House. It’s difficult to picture any contemporary player comporting himself with such courage and commitment, and supporting causes that might undercut his career.
So if Arthur had lived, how would he fit into tennis today? At the very least, he would be fighting for systemic reform. As early as 1982, Ashe declared that the day tennis legalized guarantees was the day he would leave. Now guarantees are common and so are the practices Ashe believed they encouraged—tanking, tax fraud, prize money splitting and what he characterized as “collusion” to protect top-ranked players. One can imagine he’d bristle at the recent capitulation to Rafa Nadal’s demand that Carlos Bernardes not officiate his matches. And certainly Ashe would be a fierce advocate for education and programs to increase diversity in tennis. So while Hall’s book is a salutary reminder of what Ashe meant to tennis, it’s also a commentary on how the game, in some ways, still falls short of his hopes for it.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, among them Short Circuit: Borg, McEnroe and Connors—the Era of Bribes, Match-Fixing and Drugs.
By Bill Simons
Serena Williams‘s move to hire Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou as her coach has been the most successful mid-career move by any player in history. With Patrick in her corner, Serena has won 8 of the last 13 Slams. So what’s the secret French sauce? To find out, Bill Simons spoke with Le Coach at Wimbledon.
We’ve seen Serena struggling in so many matches. She’s frustrated and stomping her feet. Then something turns. She flashes a fist pump and yells “C’mon!” and turns the tide.
She has something that I’ve seen just once in the women’s game—the ability to refuse to lose. She has what I’d call a life instinct. When she feels she’s going die, she finds an energy that I find incredible. When she’s in trouble, when she feels the taste of losing—which is closer to the taste of dying—then she finds this energy. She starts to play incredibly well and scores six games in a row. She brings her game to another level … She always bounces back. Always.
You said that a coach must accept that he could lose his job any time. Early on in your relationship in 2012, after Serena barely survived a Wimbledon match, her father Richard was furious. He asked you, “What’s going on? It’s your job to coach her. This is a business.”
He said that in front of the tennis world. It was in the fitness room and he said it very, very loud. I immediately thought he was testing me, and I responded to him so he could see who I was. I was answering that he needed to respect me, that wasn’t the way to speak to me, and if you keep on talking like this, I will not respect you. But I do respect him a lot. I explained that, and he was angry. And I said, “Don’t talk to me like this, otherwise you won’t get any answer.”
The day after, we had a good talk. He was testing me. He’d coached his daughters all his life. He did it unbelievably well. It’s something that never happened before … Richard wanted to know who I was before feeling comfortable in my taking care of his daughter. Maybe I would have done the same, maybe differently. But it’s normal that he tested me. Since that day we’ve had a really good relationship.
Richard has a ferocious side. Is that part of his drive?
He had a tough life. He was subject to a lot of racism. To succeed at the highest level in the white world was probably a drive for him. I totally respect that. What he did was unique, and even if I didn’t like him as a person, I would still totally respect that.
During a French photo shoot, the photographer told Richard, “Toss that tennis ball to Patrick.” Was that symbolic?
I didn’t know Serena or him, but I always defended Richard, because he was attacked relentlessly by the French press because of his attitude, something that for the French was shocking. Their judging him was unacceptable. You can’t judge what he achieved—it is untouchable. I was telling the French press, “What you wrote is wrong.” So the photographer said, “Richard, toss the ball to Patrick. It would be a symbol of you passing the baton to a young, talented coach.” So, that was funny. Do you know what happened after that?
I coached his daughter. It’s really funny.
A coach has to teach strokes, but also must have courage. Early in your relationship, Serena came out to practice and gave you the cold shoulder. She wouldn’t answer you. Then you told her you had just three rules.
Like Richard, Serena gave me the opportunity to show what kind of person I am—it was important to build a relationship. So I said, “There are two rules with me—actually three. First, when you come to the court you say, “Hello.” Second, when I talk to you, you answer me. And she asked me: “What’s the third?” I said, “I don’t know yet, but I will find it.”
Have you found it?
No, I didn’t need to. Serena later told me, “When you said that, I loved it. I respected [it] a lot and enjoyed it, because no one’s ever said that to me” So it was the right thing to do … She had to know who I was and had to respect me as I respected her.
Your coaching of Serena has been one of the great stories in tennis. What’s been the key?
Her focus—the fact that she wants it so much—that she’s so consistent. She’s fighting for every point, every match. She refuses to lose. Her game’s improved because of all the effort she’s put in. She constantly wants to improve. Even when she doesn’t play her best, her whole level is higher.
She said that a year ago, she wouldn’t have won that amazing Heather Watson match here at Wimbledon.
She’s in a good place now. She’s calm, happy, focused, feels strong, and wants it hard. It’s the perfect combination.
Early on, you told Serena she had to accept defeat. Why?
Because if you don’t accept the idea to die, you cannot live. It’s that simple. If you’re afraid of losing, you’re playing with fear, and fear is the worst advisor. It gives you all the worst advice possible. So if you accept the idea that [losing] might happen, then you play to win.
You said fear translates to physical play: your stance gets “slippery,” you don’t follow through, you’re not free.
The mind is the master. If you work on hitting through the ball every day, but then when you come to court you’re afraid to win, then you don’t want to miss, and instinctively your body goes back and you don’t do what you do everyday … If the mind thinks wrong, the body does wrong. If, as a coach, all you do is technical, the mind doesn’t do the right thing and it’s not going to work. And if you only work on the mind, the technical won’t work. It’s very important that Serena has the right mindset. If she does, no one can stop her.
When she’s in the zone no one can beat her?
Yes, nobody. No one has found the key [to beating her]. The key is hidden really, really well. I mean she can lose, but the key to beat her, no one ever found it … Maybe one [Petra Kvitova beat her in Madrid]. But it hasn’t happened again. So it’s not a real key.
Who hid the key?
I don’t know, but no one has found it.
Yet in five matches in Paris and against Watson, she struggled mightily.
She might be the best player of all time, she might be in a good state of mind, but she’s human. Every player will try to make her struggle, and when Serena has a bad day and her opponent plays the match of her life, anything can happen.
What’s the chemistry that causes a woman from an American inner city to click with a French coach of Greek origin?
What’s more important than where you come from is your quality, and how you do your job. Magnus Norman is doing an incredible job—he’s Swedish. Amelie Mauresmo, Darren Cahill and Ivan Lendl come from completely different horizons, but they’re just the best coaches.
Tennis transcends nationality?
Sure. In every job there are great people coming from completely different origins.
Still, Serena adores Paris. When she gets there, she sparkles.
There is a great connection—it’s important. We’re both coming from different horizons, [we are] opposites, but it shows that even people who are completely opposite can have a great relationship, and it’s nice to see … Obviously there’s a great trust between us. We’re simply doing a good job. We’re working on the right things. We’re focused—that’s it.
When Richard saw Virginia Ruzici win $40,000 on TV, he vowed “I’ll raise two daughters, and they’ll become No. 1 and No. 2.” Then he wrote a 75-page teaching guide. When you began with Serena, you created a four-point plan. Does that touch you that you both had a vision and a plan?
I don’t believe in chance—I don’t believe in luck.
Not at all—no lucky draws, no lucky net cords?
No, no luck. You can have luck in one match. You can’t have luck in one career, or even in one year. But luck doesn’t exist. Richard brought both his daughters from scratch to No. 1, because they did something really right. I believe in plans. If you plan everything, there’s no other way to have success in life, otherwise it’s luck. That Richard wrote those 75 pages on what he wanted shows there is no luck. I’m doing the same. I took into consideration everything I knew about him and Serena. I started working with someone who was 30, had a 13-year career, and was No. 1. I read all the books. I read Serena’s book. I did as much as I could to understand her and the philosophy of the family. Then I could start to bring her the results she wanted.
Serena’s the most intense player in the game, but the No. 1 thing on your list was to take stress away from her.
Because at that moment she was struggling.
She’d lost her confidence?
Not all—but a lot. She’s probably the best player mentally in history. The win is inside. But sometimes this can work against you. [When] she wanted it so much and was not having the results, she started being really stiff. I knew if she could relax a little we would put things in perspective. We worked technically on that. She had to relax her mind.
She told you, “I’m a bad loser, after a loss I stay in bed for three days.” But you told her, “That won’t happen again.”
True, but she said, “You’ll see—when I lose that will happen.” “No, I won’t see that, because that’s not going to happen, meaning you’re not going to lose.” And for eight months she didn’t lose any match except one.
Right away, when you started, she won Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
It was an unbelievable effort, but not surprising. I said when I started, “I want Serena to have the results according to her talent and the effort she puts in.” With the mental, the physical and the game she has … she needs to have that level of results. She didn’t always have those results, and I wanted her to win all the tournaments in a row.
For years people claimed Richard didn’t know much about tennis and wondered when Serena would get a great coach. She’s said, “When you are there in a room, I feel an energy, a presence; something opens up.” Talk about the player-coach relationship.
The coach has to have many tools, and the relationship with the player has to be strong and positive. After you talk with her, she has to feel stronger. You bring this plus, then you bring that plus. All those things together bring the player to another level.
Is there a joy in working with a world-class athlete who loves to laugh and has various interests?
Yes, [but] even if she wasn’t nice and didn’t laugh, I’m here for business, [by which] I mean the results. It’s a joy because we make the results, because she’s writing history. I’m blessed to be helping, and when you’re a coach that’s the most exciting thing.
You’ve said you weren’t kidding around, that you were here to “make a difference” and the only way to assess that was by the records. What kind is Serena going to make?
You never know what she’s going to make, but you know what you want to make, and when I started with her that’s what I said. They asked if [Serena winning Wimbledon in 2012] was an achievement, and I said, “No, it’s a start. I will be happy if Serena does much better than she used to. Otherwise I don’t know what I’m here for.” My goal was to make her win more, play longer, improve her game, and break records. The results have been good. I am very, very proud of her. What she’s been doing is really, really incredible. I knew she was unique, but she shows it every day … The Serena Slam is such an incredible achievement. To win four majors in a row is so difficult … She’s always a level above the others—everybody agrees on that. You have to be able to maintain consistency … every single match. Because all the girls play her so hard. Every time she has to dig deep. In Australia and at Roland Garros she was sick, and at Wimbledon she had [an] incredibly difficult draw … Even if you’re dominant, you have to overcome a lot … It says a lot about where she is mentally.
She’s spent much more time as No. 1. She’s has a lot of records, [but] there are a few more—
That’s what we’re going for. Will we do it? I don’t have the crystal ball.
God forbid one day you die, and you go to heaven and St. Peter says, “Patrick, I will let you in only if you tell me—back in 2015, when you were talking to that curious American reporter, did you think that Serena would break Graf’s and Court’s Slam records?”
Yes, of course, I think she will—otherwise I’d tell her I’m not the right coach. So I’m sure she will, but since she hasn’t done it, we shut up and work … I’d be surprised if she stops. She loves being No. 1, she loves winning Slams. As long as she feels she can, I think she will.
How will she deal with going for the Grand Slam in New York?
She will do exactly what she has done … Focusing on the next match, on a game plan, on how to prepare. [That way] you have a good chance to forget [about] all the [surrounding] things … Every time she starts a Slam I know she can win it.
What’s the magic of her serve? Many call it the best stroke in history.
It’s the quality of her motion and her technique. If you saw her throw a football you’d be very impressed. It’s like perfection. She has an incredible rhythm, plus she has strength. Those three factors are a killer.
What’s one quality of Serena’s that we don’t see?
You see her mood every time. She’s quite sincere. She’s not like some players that say the same thing all the time. She’s quite emotional at her press … basically, you see where she’s at.
In 2012, Serena came to your French academy and hit for five minutes, as you watched in silence. Finally she stopped, turned to you and asked, “Can you help me?” What did you think at that moment?
I was waiting for that moment. I was sure that moment would happen someday.
• Serena’s biggest travel nightmare was a 13-hour flight from Russia to Chicago. She advised, “You probably shouldn’t eat chili in Moscow.”
• Serena has almost twice the ranking points of No. 2 Maria Sharapova, whom she’s beaten 17 times in a row. She’s 35-5 against her two prime rivals, Maria and Vika Azarenka. In men’s tennis, the Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, has dicey head-to-head records against his top rivals.
• Before Wimbledon, Serena trained on Jack Nicklaus‘s grass courts in Florida.
• Serena would pick Stan Wawrinka as a mixed doubles partner because they’re friends, wear Audemars, and are “just cool.”
• Serena’s on a competitive dance team whose dream is to perform on Ellen.
• At this year’s French Open, after Serena had to come back three times in a row from a set down, she said, “It’s ok to go two tough sets, but to go three sets back-to-back-to-back is on the verge of unprofessionalism for me.”
• After being asked whether the focus on grunting in women’s tennis is unfair, Serena said, “I’m done with controversy.”
• Serena says she’d be happy if Venus played Indian Wells: “She’d get a wonderful welcome.”
• As for herself going to Indian Wells next year, Serena says, “I think it’s … a must.”
• Serena says she feels like a totally different person off court than on: “It’s almost a humbling experience for me.”
• Serena remembers being in a clinic led by Arthur Ashe. She says, “He was so nice. He took his time with all the kids … and a lot of time with me and Venus. It’s something one never forgets.”
• Fifteen years ago, Serena joined with others who were calling for the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, and then boycotted the tournament in Charleston.
• The astounding pictures of Serena stretching during a photo shoot for New York magazine show off her beauty and lithe, muscular athleticism.
• Serena was Venus‘s’ first hitting partner on the road. She wasn’t paid.
• Serena lost the first time she played Steffi Graf, but then defeated her at Indian Wells, which she says was “one of the highlights of my career. It was my first big win.”
• When asked what position in the NFL she would play, Serena said she would be a “quarterback or linebacker … Nadal would be a good running back because he’s low and can run fast. Roger would be a good quarterback. Venus—wide receiver.”
• Serena says she doesn’t want to think about retiring, but wants to stop when she’s at her peak.
• Our favorite recent Serena observation is by Kerry Howley, who wrote, “A flippant past-tenseness has crept into her language. ‘We were so fast,’ she says of herself and her sister Venus as children. ‘We are. We were. Gosh, is this over?’ She laughs. There’s a weird anxiety in her stilted professional bio: Serena ‘continues to also pursue her other interests and has set herself up for a career after tennis.’”