An ode to tennis, as a new—and hopefully less serious—year beginsBy Jan 01, 2021
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An ode to tennis, as a new—and hopefully less serious—year begins
Ashe to Ashe, Dustin to Dustin...tennis is a funny sport.
Published Jan 01, 2021
For starters, what’s up with the scoring? 15, 30, 40, love? Seriously? How are we supposed to remember which is the ad court and which is the deuce court? Where else can two athletes battle it out for 11 hours over three days, playing a total of five sets and 183 games before a winner is determined? Can’t anyone break serve anymore?
But tennis is full of compelling characters, and an ever-revolving cast. We’ve got Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Navratilova and Gabriela Navratilova. We’ve got Dennis Novak, Jiri Novak and Novak Djokovic. We’re cuckoo for Coco and CoCo. We’ve got Rafael Nadal at the very summit of the sport, Sumit Nagal just beginning his climb; two B. Beckers (one with a few more Slam trophies than the other); Venus Williams and Michael Venus, not to mention the Venus Rosewater Dish, the trophy awarded to the women’s champion at Wimbledon. A Serena who at times isn’t very serene.
We’ve got Don Budge and Budge Patty. There’s Big Bill and Little Bill, Little Mo, Little Miss Poker Face and Little Pancho (who had the biggest of smiles). There are the Aussies, of course: Rocket, Muscles, Emmo, Newk, Davo, Demon, Rusty and Scud. They love their nicknames Down Under. There are the Black sisters, Hurricane Tyra and Tornado Alicia, who once took the US Open by storm. There’s Theodore Roosevelt Pell and Ellen Roosevelt, neither of whom occupied the White House.
Fittingly, we’ve had a journeyman named Tennys, a legend named Court, and a one-time Israeli soldier named Smashnova. There’s Chip Hooper, who, on occasion, was known to chip-and-charge. And how about Art “Tappy” Larsen, who, long before Rafa’s idiosyncratic wedgie pulling and bottle spinning, had a nervous habit of tapping anything in sight, and was sometimes even overheard addressing an imaginary bird on his shoulder?
There’s Vitas, Vilas, Vijay, Vika, Vic, Vince, Vinci, Virginia and Virginie. Ferro, Ferrer, Ferrero, Ferreira. Peanut, Peachy, Peaches and Pistol Pete. Ana, Anna, Wozniak, Wozniacki. Andre, Andrei, Andrey.
Thailand gave us Wishaya Trongcharoenchaikul, Kittipong Wachiramanowong and Paradorn Srichaphan, which rolls off the tongue. A tennis scribe’s nightmare. There’s the tongue-twisting Philippoussis, Tsitsipas, Pavlyuchenkova, Goolagong…oh, forget it.
Tennis royalty? Yeah, we’ve got that, too. Billie Jean King; The King of Clay; Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm—a real-life baron; and lawn-tennis visionary Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, without whom we wouldn’t be here at all. John McEnroe once splashed the King of Sweden with water in a courtside meltdown. A heartbroken Jana Novotna famously cried on the royal shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.
And who says there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Thiem’ anyway.
We have three Serbs—Djokovic, Ivanovic, Jankovic—who overcame war-torn youths in their homeland. Their humble beginnings included practice sessions in a converted indoor swimming pool. They would all rise to No. 1. We have two sisters who grew up in rough-and-tumble Compton, Calif. each of whom would ascend to No. 1.
Gorgeous Gussy caused a stir in her frilly undergarments. Anne White’s all-white/skin-tight body suit nearly got her ejected from the ivied All England Club. A 23-year-old Londoner named Melissa Johnson floated across Wimbledon’s Centre Court in her birthday suit.
Animals? We’ve got a Bunny, a Crocodile, a Great Dane, a Mosquito, Rajeev Ram, Kristy Pigeon, Mardy Fish, Irene Bowder Peacock, Wendy Turnbull (whose nickname was Rabbit), Gene Mako, James Duckworth, Stanimal, Tiger Tim, the Ohio Bear, the Big Cat, the Lithuanian Lion. Roger Federer was once gifted a cow he named Juliette.
Numbers? We’ve got that covered. There’s the Original 9, the Handsome Eight, the Fab Four, the Three Musketeers, the Big Three, the T-2000, SW19 and the War of 18–16.
Super couples? Steffi and Andre, Flavia and Fabio, G.E.M.S. Life. And many more that didn’t last.
Epic rivalries? We’ve had a few: Wills-Lenglen, Chrissie-Martina (80 matches, 60 of which came in finals), Borg-McEnroe, the Sampragassian Wars, Fedal, et al. Fan followings?J-Block, Samurai Club, #NoleFam.
In his Day-Glo pants, Bud Collins brought Breakfast at Wimbledon into our living rooms. (Many settled for Cap’n Crunch and OJ in lieu of strawberries and cream, and a tumbler of Pimm’s.) We’ve got the Ice Man and the Ice Maiden. We’ve got Fräulein Forehand, the Sao Paulo Swallow, Superbrat, Count Dracula, Dr. Ivo, Senorita Topspin, the Aussie Amazon, the California Comet, the Bucharest Buffoon, the Bounding Basque, the Belleville Basher, the Barcelona Bumblebee and the Tower of Tandil. Don’t forget Masha, Muzza, Dreddy, Deliciano, Sveta, Simo and Special K. A Swiss Miss fronted the Spice Girls. (Was it Martina I or Martina II?) There’s Ivan the Terrible, “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” There’s the Woodies and the Indian Express, too, and a lefty-righty pair of California twins who chest-bumped their way into the record books.
There are the three Gorans: Good Goran, Bad Goran and Emergency Goran. All of them found a way to work together on People’s Monday at Wimbledon in 2001. We’ve had many a Magnus—Norman, Larsson, Gustafsson, Eriksson, etc.
Sometimes it seems like we’ve got a language all our own: Double bagel, moonball, mini-break, hit-and-giggle, Sabatweeny, Serena Slam, reverse singles, SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger), The Queue, terre battue. I mean, what’s a ‘dead rubber’ anyway? Can there be such a thing as a ‘lucky’ loser? Extreme Western Grip sounds like a nasty diagnosis.
Querrey me this: Does any sport have better celebrations than tennis? Guga drew hearts in Chatrier’s sand box. Sporting a Cheap Trick-inspired checkered headband, Pat Cash defied decorum and clambered into the Centre Court stands. Jim Courier dove into the polluted Yarra. Petr Korda (Sebastian’s dad) scissor-kicked in Melbourne. And who doesn’t love the Petko Dance, that spontaneous expression of pure joy?
Along the way, we ushered in the Open Era; experienced the Tennis Boom; Seles was stabbed; Navratilova defected; Sampras tossed his lunch, and won; Gibson broke the color barrier; Kramer and his gang barnstormed across the U.S.; Davis and Fed Cup offered heroics from Hartford to Harare; World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman doled out nine valuable one-dollar bills; Ashe contracted HIV, died at 49 and was immortalized with the grandest stadium in the sport; Williams and Spirlea converged for ‘The Bump’; Richard Raskin became Renée Richards, going from the men’s tour to the women’s tour; Aaron Krickstein suffered repeated rain-delay humiliation; Tracy Austin won the US Open at 16, in pigtails and pinafore dress; Graf captured the Golden Slam; the BJK vs. Bobby Riggs Battle of the Sexes drew 30,000 to the Astrodome (and another 90 million TV viewers worldwide); a prodigiously talented 13-year-old Floridian made her debut at a tournament that would become known as the Virginia Slims of Capriati; Dick Norris Williams survived the sinking of the Titanic and went on to win the U.S. Nationals—twice, in both singles and doubles; Ted Tinling made tennis sexy, moving away from silk bandeaus and court-length dresses; Jeff Tarango’s wife slapped a chair ump; Wimbledon’s Centre Court was struck by bombs during the Battle of Britain; Jimmy Van Alen dreamed up the tiebreaker, thankfully; advancements in racquet and string technology led to the demise of the serve-and-volley game; going from image-is-everything ingrate in acid-washed shorts and frosted mullet to baldpated sage, a Las Vegan reached Hall of Fame heights (read the book); Andy Murray finally put Fred Perry’s ghost to rest; scarred by racist taunts, Venus and Serena boycotted Indian Wells for more than a decade; women successfully pushed for equal pay at the Slams; we were introduced to Cyclops, Shot Spot and Hawk-Eye Live (for better or worse); Borg drove off in a huff.
And to think, we’ve barely made a Dent here. But before we Wade into this thing any further, let’s be Ernests and Stich to the task at hand. It Paes to stay focused, they say. Okay, we all have our own road to Hoad. Let’s not be-Laver the point. Let’s not get caught swinging from the Rafter. No reason to Savitt for later. Let’s tap into our Kyrgios-ity and Busta move. We were Bjorn for this. I’ve got Agut feeling about it.
No Bueno? Are those the Gaël-force winds of doubt I hear? There Haas to be a better way, you say? Oh, aren’t we Majoli-er than thou? Why so Moody? You cannot be serious! Melo out. Don’t be Ruud. C’mon, the outlook is Rosie. Muster some energy. Let’s take a Riske, just for the Halep it. We’re all Safin sound. Don’t make Sascha big deal out of it. To stop now would be a show of Lleyton disregard. It’s not Muchova a gamble anyway. We hold the Keys to success.
Ahhhh, tennis. What a sport.
Roger and out. Althea later. Tilden we meet again.