Tennis takes its giddy young stars and lifts them high to the heavens. But then it can rather brutally crash them down on the jagged, unforgiving rocks of reality.
In 1990, the frenzy over 13-year-old sensation Jennifer Capriati got so intense that they called a Florida tournament “The Virginia Slims of Capriati.” Years later she had run-ins with the law, and serious bouts with depression.
In 1989, the carefree rising star Monica Seles gleefully strode out onto Court Centrale and tossed flowers to the delighted Parisian fans. Four years later she was stabbed in the back on a Hamburg court.
As a teen, Steffi Graf said her life was perfect. Late in her career, though, she seemed subsumed with sorrow and wept at many of her pressers.
In 1999, a beaming 17-year-old Serena Williams won the US Open. Eighteen months later, an Indian Wells throng howled at her for over two painful hours.
At the 2018 US Open, the coach of the enchanting 20-year-old Naomi Osaka said her greatest quality was her innocence – and that the whole world could learn from it. More recently, much of the tennis world has learned from Naomi’s fears and fragility.
Enter Britain’s sweet tennis darling, Emma Raducanu, the best tennis player you hadn’t heard of in early June. Back then, the 18-year-old from London was more concerned about acing her high school finals then her WTA foes.
But at Wimbledon, she managed to grab headlines as she raced to the fourth round. Critics like Piers Morgan and John McEnroe pounced when she suffered a mid-match panic attack on Court 1. Morgan said she wasn’t brave, couldn’t handle the pressure and needed to toughen up.
Soon she qualified for the US Open and, as the Brits say, won ten matches “on the trot” (without losing a single set) to score one of tennis’ most remarkable, “A Star is Born” triumphs. She and the tennis world were in bliss.
Next came an intoxicating tonic only the Anglo-American hype machine can concoct: blaring headlines, red carpets, pricey evening gowns, the Met Gala, breezy chats with fawning morning talk show hosts on both sides of the Atlantic and an outing to the premiere of the James Bond movie.
In the wake of all this, Emma didn’t pick up a racket for ten days, fired her coach and came back to California (where earlier this summer she fell in the first round in San Jose), hoping to continue her Cinderella magic.
Headlines claimed she was on her way to world domination. Sloane Stephens noted, “She’s probably going to be knighted… She’s been on a stamp already.”
(Actually she was only on one of those postal marks they use to cancel stamps.)
And on a cool desert Friday night the No. 100 player in the world canceled tennis’ fairy tale du jour. Emma’s magic carriage turned into a pumpkin. The 27-year-old Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich prevailed 6-4, 6-2 over the underwhelming, error-prone and rusty Brit, who seemed slow and rather lost on the gritty desert court.
But she handled the press well. She said, “For the bigger picture, I’ll be thanking this moment…I’ll just have more experience in the bank…It’s going to take me time…I’m still so young…I mean, I’m 18-years-old. I need to cut myself some slack, so, yeah.”
Fortunately, Emma was cut some slack in contrast to 2019, when Indian Wells teen champ Bianca Andreescu was asked, “How does it feel now that your life has changed forever?” Emma’s emergence did reopen up the topic of early development in tennis.
Melanie Molitor, the mother and coach of Martina Hingis, the best WTA teen ever, said, “I never had the feeling that I’ve stolen her childhood. I mean, what is it that she should be doing, playing with puppies?”
But Jennifer Capriati’s mother, Denise, was remorseful: “The excitement, the endorsements, the money, the prestige, the pride. There it all is, and you get caught up in it, and you’re not thinking of what your child is missing, and if this is what’s best for them…I beat myself up for not stopping things from getting so out of hand back then. I let the whole thing control her.”
Raducanu has been hit by a tornado they call fame. Let’s hope she can find some shelter from the storm.
REILLY UNPLUGGED: Inside Tennis’ candid, rollicking interview with Reilly Opelka, “Raw, Real and Reilly – Meet the No. 1 Player in America: Badass Reilly Opelka,” has drawn an extraordinary response.
But we feel there are others that were better, including our recent exchange with Billie Jean King. In our conversation with the 24-year-old Reilly, he offered many a salty view: the media stinks, American men are not about to break through to the very top, there would be no Serena without Venus, mixed doubles should be banished from Slams, and, yes, John McEnroe is a genius and ESPN’s Chris Fowler should stick to football.
Some have said it’s the best interview Inside Tennis has ever done. Others said he paints the media with too broad a brush and would be nowhere without the media’s coverage. His criticism of Fowler struck a chord. For those who missed it, here’s a link.
ONE RECORD WE HOPE IS NEVER BROKEN: Mike Bryan noted that his brother Bob won the Delray doubles twice, “Once with a real hip and once with a metal hip.”
GETTING DOWN TO BASICS: After scoring a fairly easy opening-round win, Frances Tiafoe went right out to have an intense practice session. Sloane Stephens noted, “That says he wants to eat.”…Daniil Medvedev said the key to surviving the circuit was having “a fresh mind.”
BIG SWITCH ON BIG TOBACCO: The bank that has long sponsored Indian Wells is broadcasting an ad that notes the dangers of cigarette smoking and boasts that it does not support Big Tobacco. Decades ago, the WTA was launched thanks to critical support by Virginia Slims.
GO FIGURE: The only two male players in the draw to have ever reached the Indian Wells final are Andy Murray and John Isner…In an appealing clash of Americans, Frances Tiafoe downed Seb Korda with surprising ease 6-0, 6-4…Jenson Brooksby signed an endorsement contract with the Danish eyewear company Christopher Cloos…Chicago hosted three WTA events this summer…Karolina Plisova noted that there are three Czechs in the top ten. She said they excel because Czechs are tough on themselves and have a great history that goes back to Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, “and that motivates us to play better.”….Cem Ilkel, only the second Turkish man to have made the main draw of a Grand Slam, fell in the first round of Indian Wells to Jenson Brooksby…The German paper BILD reported that Alexander Zverev is dating the 32-year-old German model Sophia Thomalla.
A SMASHING TRIUMPH: It will be hard for anyone to outdo Vasek Pospisil’s four-smash destruction of his racket.
INTERESTING QUESTION: Should Jenson Brooksby accept Andy Roddick’s invitation to come to Texas for a three-day tutorial on how to serve?
TO EACH HIS OWN: After losing his opening round match Feliciano Lopez headed back to Spain and is now playing a Challenger…After failing to convert match points against Diego Schwartzman, Maxime Cressy headed off to his brother’s wedding.