This morning the narrow streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood were sunk beneath a foot of snow. Steps, stoops, sidewalks, even cars were invisible. When I was walking to work, very little of it had been plowed or shoveled, so the only way forward, if I didn’t want to be covered in white powder up to my knee, was to search for a path of footsteps that had been laid down, like deer tracks, by an early-rising pioneer. Still, whatever its annoyances and inconveniences, I doubt that I’ll ever lose the sense of anticipation I get when I pull back the curtain on a morning when I know there will be snow on the ground. It’s a feeling embedded in childhood, when snow meant a day away from school that could be spent sledding through the streets with friends or, if you so desired, staying in and watching reruns of My Three Sons. Snow meant freedom, stolen freedom.
It still can as an adult, but now I find that freedom at work, in a quieter-than-usual office, where the flakes float by, seemingly in slow motion, in circular patterns out my window, some upward, some sideways, some downward. On snow days as a kid in a small town, I loved to walk down an alley near my house where, because no one needed to pass through it, the snow would never be plowed. Mine were inevitably the first set of footprints to be set down. Ice and snow coated everything in sight, the tree branches that hung overhead, the telephone wires that threaded between them, the red picket fence that enclosed a neighbor’s backyard. There was no sound; the world was frozen silent.
This type of scene is impossible in New York City. Here the only place I’ve found where all outside noises fade away is the colossal Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, though even there you can’t escape the low ambient buzz from airplane engines above. But there are compensations. My walk to work takes me through Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, an underrated gem that’s framed by the Empire State Building to the north, the Flatiron building to the south, and the Met Life Tower to the east. It’s hard to believe, as you look up at the Met Life, that this was the tallest building in the world from 1909 to 1913. But New York is full of monuments and landmarks that were once world-famous and are now passed by without a glance.
In the summer, the trees inside Madison Square radiate and refract sunshine in a way that surreally brings something like nature to the heart of the city. Today, the branches were bare and the normally green lawn was a hazy, drifting field of white, getting higher by the minute. The corners of the park feature unsmiling statues of obscure former luminaries from other centuries—Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, Congressman Roscoe Conking, and former president Chester Arthur. The best of them is near the park’s center: Saint-Gaudens’ tribute to Farragut, the Civil War admiral who got a battle started by telling his crew, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” This morning, 129 years after he was erected in that spot, Farragut appeared to be wearing a white scarf across his shoulders as he surveyed the park. I wondered what he made of the eye-grabbing fire-engine-red Wellington boots that one woman was wearing as she crossed in front of him.
Anyway, these thoughts were terminated as I got to my office and clicked on a couple of tennis-related links. One took me to Andy Murray’s comments about how he was “trying some things out,” rather than focusing on winning, during his loss to Janko Tipsarevic in Dubai. On the one hand, he’s only being honest. It won't be hard to see the discrepancy in the top players' intensity in Dubai compared to the way they approach the upcoming Masters events in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. Guaranteed money tends to do that to people. Plus, to learn to serve and volley effectively, Murray does need to test it out in match situations, and he's not about to do any experimenting at a major.
But that doesn’t mean it isn't a rip-off for fans. As spectators we need to believe that an athlete is putting it on the line out there. As Allen Iverson, the Sixers' ancient game-day warrior, knows, no one pays to watch practice, man (see below). If a match has no meaning for the player, it can have no meaning for us. Murray, who mentioned Roger Federer's preparation habits by way of defending himself afterward, appears to believe that, like Federer, he has earned the right to concentrate his efforts on rounding his game into shape for the majors. Aside from using Dubai as a tune-up, Murray is also, like Federer, skipping Davis Cup this time around. But while at this stage of his career Federer is often not at his best at smaller events, I’ve never gotten the feeling that he’s been focused on anything other than winning the match he’s playing.
Fortunately for me today, my job has taken me back to an earlier time in tennis, one where playing the sport was only beginning to seem like a plausible occupation, and six-figure appearance fees were beyond anyone's wildest imagination. I’ve been working on an article for Tennis Magazine about what I’m calling the Greatest Generation, a group of four world-class male players who trained on public courts and at the Los Angeles Tennis Club in the 1930s and 40s, and helped create a golden age for U.S. tennis. The four—Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, and Pancho Gonzalez—didn’t form a single generation in a chronological sense. Vines, the oldest, was born in 1911; Gonzalez, the youngest, in 1928. But they shared a location; a middle-class, non-tennis family background; and a worldview shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, and the experience of trying to fit into a tennis world that, based as it was in private, grass-court clubs on the East Coast, was utterly foreign to them.
In the process, I’ve been reading a tribute book to Vines put together in 2004 by his son, Ellsworth III. He’s certainly proud of his father—the book is called The Greatest Athlete of All Time. But what it consists of couldn’t be more modest or touching. The bulk of it is a long series of letters that Vines wrote to his girlfriend and future wife—“sweetheart” in the parlance of the times—Julia Verle Low back in L.A., when he was on the amateur circuit back east and at Wimbledon, a tournament that Vines won on his first try in 1932. These letters, which we would consider embarrassingly heartfelt today, bring to life a time when tennis could be seen as a temporary pastime even by its greatest player. Vines would grow bored of the sport by the end of the decade and eventually become a pro golfer—the guy really was a fantastic athlete. But even here, as he strives to win the U.S. Championships, tennis remains in the background, his matches summarized in single sentences, his practices wrapped up in two words: “Training diligently.”
Mostly these letters are testaments to how much he misses Verle on the road. Here are a few lines:
From New York, 1930: Had a sweet letter from you today sweetheart and it was just perfect honey. I don’t have to compare you with any other girls Verle to find out your goodness and sweetness. I can just see it dear. When we start comparing instead of looking and trying to find all the good things in one another we are liable to notice little faults. We all have out faults dear.
From USC, 1930: Sure hope you’re thinking of me lots dearest as I’m always thinking of you honey.
On a train heading east, 1931: Dearest Girl, the same old thing. I can hardly write intelligently. This is the worst yet. I missed you a lot honey and am always wishing you were along with me. Someday you will be sweetness.
From Philadelphia, 1932: Dearest Sweetheart, had another letter from you today. It sure is wonderful to receive them from you. You mean so much to me.
OK, you get the idea. This quickly gets repetitive, and I don’t think anyone outside the Vines family would want to read every word of it. But dipping into his letters is to dip into a world that’s startlingly straightforward and unaffected, where desires seemed easier to satisfy. Was this how life was in the U.S. during this period, when people were poor—Vines himself knew poverty as a kid—but they had confidence that their government wasn’t out to get them, that the country was worth trusting. If this is any evidence, it made life simpler, just like Vines’ closing words to his letter from New York in 1930, written as he was planning to come home to see his Girl:
P.S.: Better make a list of all the things you want to say to me. I’ve memorized mine already and it only contains four words. I love you Verle.***
"We talkin' about practice, man. Not the game, that I go out there and die for."
Enjoy a YouTube classic below and have a good weekend.