I’ve been reading about tennis a lot lately. Dad put a racket in my hand pretty early, and I wish I could say I were still playing tennis often, as that would probably make me feel better about myself and act as a slight counterbalance to my problem with sitting and dying, but at least I'm reading about my favorite sport, right?
I go through periodic bursts of heightened tennis motivation punctuated by months of nearly forgetting that the sport even exists, but this is what happens when one has multiple interests and isn't much of an athlete, I suppose. My last DIY tennis league ended a few months ago, and other than a couple guys who dropped out, I finished dead last, but that's okay. At least I played all my matches and actually enjoyed losing them. We all put in $20, so I lost that too, but this time I didn't have an epic battle with the USTA or pay them $35 to do nothing for me.
These days, I have a couple friends that play very well, and I've beaten them both a few times, but not in a long while. I can usually count on losing a close match to one friend and being completely taken to school by the other, and that's fine with me. It's not that I like to lose, but I'm there to get exercise, challenge myself and enjoy the sport. That's why I can enjoy losing matches. Winning is still the goal, but the other reasons are why I'm on the court. I'd rather have two friends that challenge me than play two guys that can't keep the ball inside the fences.
My life without tennis wins is still good, for a former high-school player who once had some potential, now pushing 40 and pushing ever harder on the bottom of his steadfast office chair. I played a single set a few nights ago and thought for a while that I could win it, but I ended up losing it 5-7. We probably would have played another set or even two, if the court had lights, but public tennis courts rarely seem to be a municipal funding priority, evidenced by the rampant cracks, deteriorating nets and absent lights at my closest local courts.
I don't know why I've been so incapable of winning for so long, but I have a few theories (excuses). Yes, my mind wanders on the court. Often my thoughts will drift to a movie I just watched or a book I'm reading or what sounds good for dinner. I love being out there and hitting balls, getting exercise and breaking a sweat, but I just don't have the fire in the gut for competition. I've never really had it, and maybe that's just it.
I've never been much of a sports guy. I rarely watch sports on TV or in person, and that includes tennis. I love playing tennis or frisbee or ping-pong, foosball or basketball or even touch football or whatever, but on these rare occasions, my opponents are non-athlete friends who are just enjoying the exercise and the company. I enjoy competing and try to win but don't really care if I lose, so maybe that's why I do so often. I don't know. The other theory is fitness. Obviously there's the sitting thing, so the fitness is in decline no matter how much I exercise, but it's not as though my regular opponents don't face the same sedentary, fitness-depleting office-work quagmire.
But enough about office drones. Speaking of people who don’t sit in a chair all day and are thus much more fit and svelte than the rest of us, tennis professionals have a pretty cool job. Reading about my old heroes has been a lot of fun. When I was little, dad and I watched the Grand Slam tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon, US Open) every year on TV, and sometimes we'd drive to Cincinnati to see some live tennis at the ATP, a lessor-known event that most of the top pros still played. I took lessons and went to tennis camp as a kid, and I had been interested in the game since dad first put a racquet in my hand at age three, so there are plenty of fond memories.
Sometimes I wish I had stuck with the sport and taken it more seriously, but there's the mind-wandering thing again: I had other interests. I didn't want to drop everything else that was fun in my life in order to focus on one thing. I felt that if I did, I might not enjoy it nearly as much, or even worse, I could even grow to hate what I had once loved. I made my competitive high-school team early but dropped out for...wait for it...heavy metal. Yes, my first foray into playing in a band was a craptastic metal group, and I had to choose between tennis and rock and roll. Tennis lost, but let's rewind to the good old days of watching tennis with my dad on his tiny black and white TV set, with the salted-in-the-shell peanuts and the cold drinks.
During my favorite era of tennis, basically the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, the sport changed a great deal, and I followed it much more closely than I do now. For a long time, in my mind, it was all about the big three: Borg, Connors and McEnroe. It was a more interesting time for the sport. Players used wooden racquets and finesse instead of graphite blends and overwhelming power. Points lasted longer. The ball moved much more slowly; balletic professionals seemed to dance all over the court with a light touch instead of relentlessly hammering each other into submission from well behind the baselines like they do today. Federer's style of play is the great exception to the approach of the new breed, but few would argue that his era isn't fading fast.
Strategies varied; the serve and volley game still existed. Most pros didn't have personal trainers, nutritionists and bodyguards. Some didn't even have a coach. They didn't consider changing their names to match their own brand of chocolates. There was real drama. Professionals were finally allowed to play in the big slams. Davis Cup matches were hotspots of international drama.
Million-dollar exhibitions were played all over the globe between slams. Rival tennis associations battled for notoriety and control of the pro tours. Martina Navratilova defected publicly from Czechoslovakia, and she did it at the US Open. Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of The Sexes. Arthur Ashe became the first and only black man to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, going on to coach John McEnroe and others as US Davis Cup Captain. Jimmy Connors made huge bets on his own matches, cracked jokes out loud throughout them and brought his manic, fist-pumping bravado to an elitist sport that badly needed to loosen up.
McEnroe and Illie Nastase screamed obscenities at linesmen and women, umpires, opponents and spectators, drawing fines, penalties and new tennis fans in equal measure. Stone-faced, silent Bjorn "Ice" Borg, with his signature long hair and headband, won five Wimbledon championships in a row and walked off Centre Court after losing his sixth title to McEnroe in 1981, inexplicably quitting tennis for several years while at the peak of his talent. Boris "Boom Boom" Becker steamrolled Wimbledon at 17 on tree-trunk legs and served like a panzer tank. Ivan Lendl arrived in the early 80s and, once he had overcome his tendency to lose big matches, changed the game again with his superior fitness and baseline power, training on rollerskates, becoming a nemesis for McEnroe and Connors and dominating the tour for years.
Andre Agassi arrived soon after with his colorful wardrobe and massive mullet, launching his on-the-rise cannon-fired forehand service returns like his drill-sergeant father had taught him with what Andre called "The Dragon," a towering, souped-up torture monster of a ball machine that blasted thousands of speeding tennis balls at seven-year-old Andre's feet for merciless hours, days and years, forging a future superstar who says he didn't really mean it when Canon paid him to sell their "rebel" camera and say in an ad that "image is everything." I'll just go ahead and admit that in junior high, I had a colorful pair of Agassi's Nikes. Fortunately I did not attempt to emulate his mullet, but there would be plenty of time for other bad teenage haircuts.
When it was released in 2010, my lovely wife gave me Agassi's memoir, Open. With the exception of a very thin book I had owned as a kid--more of a pamphlet really--which I don't think is even in print anymore (Bjorn Borg's Borg By Borg), Agassi's was the first tennis memoir I can recall reading, and compared to those I have read since, it was superior. This is due in no small part to the writer J.R. Moehringer's contribution. Not long before I received Agassi's book, I had read Moehringer's great 2006 memoir, The Tender Bar. Agassi had liked The Tender Bar as much as I had, so he hired Moehringer to help him tell his story, and that decision paid off.
The result is a thoughtfully crafted look back through Agassi's tough childhood as a tennis trainee, forcefully conscripted into his father (Mike) Agassi's harsh tennis pro preparatory school. Andre says nobody ever asked him if he'd like to play tennis, and as a result he hated it for decades. He blames his French Open loss in 1990 on fretting over his toupee more than the match itself (really) and relates his brief struggle with crystal meth and depression, but those weren't the reasons I read the book.
In junior high, I was pretty serious about tennis, and when Agassi came along, I thought his long hair, earrings, crazy-day-glow clothes and shoes and denim shorts were cool simply because they were different and challenged the status quo. My dad just thought he was "bizarre." I admired his game though, too. I wanted to hit as hard as he did and return serve as well, so I tried to emulate aspects of his game. Open was a fascinating read, but Andre left unanswered the one question I still had when I finished reading: what is his relationship with his father like now, after all these years? I couldn't believe he had left that huge question...well...yeah...open.
Dad got me Jimmy Connors' new 2013 memoir, The Outsider, not long after it was released, and I ate it up. Connors, before Agassi came along, was my favorite player and remains my all-time favorite. Some credit Jimbo with breaking down stodgy old barriers to what was often perceived as a snooty, white collar sport, particularly at Wimbledon, by bringing in some old-fashioned blue-collar enthusiasm for the game and replacing a few erudite, champagne-sipping, tennis-white wearing, umbrella twirling wealthy socialites with screaming, cursing, beer-quaffing, pizza chomping, fist-pumping fans that would be just as comfortable at a football or hockey game.
Jimmy had his fair share of bouts with linespeople, umpires, tournament referees, officials, opponents and even fans, but he also had a sense of humor and the heart of an entertainer. Whether you agreed with his behavior or not, if you loved tennis, you had to watch the guy. Legendary for his ability to turn a match around when down a couple sets, Connors was magnetic on the court, particularly during his stunning blast into the semifinals of the 1991 US Open at the unbelievable age of 39.
After reading Jimmy's book, I had to go back and read High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry (2012), by Stephen Tignor, for a bit more perspective on those golden years that Agassi had barely touched on and Connors had chronicled with some detail. Without a definitive memoir by Borg, I wanted to know more about the big guys in the late 70s and early 80s that I had so much enjoyed watching on TV as a kid, including more about what they really thought of each other.
Tignor's book seems a bit inappropriately titled, as it doesn't really focus on the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, but it is a helpful review of the era and the players who, for me, were the most interesting guys to watch at that time, but not just Connors, McEnroe and Borg. There were other greats to watch too, including Geruliatis, Nastase and Tiriac, along with later 80s and 90s champs like Noah, Lendl, Edberg and Wilander, among many others.
After reading Tignor, I felt like I'd heard everyone else talk about McEnroe without getting his own input on those days, so next I read his 2002 memoir, You Cannot Be Serious. Big Mac was a force to be reckoned with on the courts, and he definitely earned his "Superbrat" moniker. Mac The Mouth would reliably throw a fit during matches and became a legend of bad behavior.
For me, it seemed that despite his many victories and indisputable record as one of the greatest champions ever, his behavior always overshadowed his playing. You could definitely argue that there was little difference between Connors' antics or McEnroe's; both are players that fans loved to hate, hated to love, or just enjoyed watching for the chaos that inevitably ensued, but looking back, it seemed to me that Connors had more fun out there, while Mac just seemed obligated to bitch and moan and whine, but a fan's tastes are finicky. One thing that can't be argued over is the impact that each of these guys had on the sport.
I will likely read McEnroe's new memoir when it comes out next year. Say what you will about Superbrat, but I think he has become the best tennis commentator on television and possibly ever. I still love the sport, but for my money, the homogenized pro tennis of today just doesn't have the personality, diversity or gravitas it once boasted. I still watch a match now and then. Thanks to Jimmy, who started the league for the 35 and older set back in the 90s, we can sometimes even catch our older heroes facing off against each other again on the worldwide Champions Tour.
Post-script: Several months after writing this post, I had the privilege of seeing McEnroe, Connors, Lendl and Cash play live in Nashville.