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The Rally, Quarantine Edition: How the sport's past is always present

The Rally, Quarantine Edition: How the sport's past is always present

Locked down on each coast, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk first tennis loves and connecting with the game without a racquet in their hands.

The Rally, a series of discussions between writers Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor, continues back and forth across the Continent–Joel in California, Steve in New York–each wrestling with what it means to engage with tennis (and seeking to keep it in perspective during this current global crisis).


I’m writing to you from my studio apartment in Oakland. Word came down Monday in the San Francisco Bay Area that approximately seven million residents have been ordered to follow a “shelter in home” decree and only leave our homes for essential errands—groceries, pharmacies, medical emergencies—until at least April 7.

Amid such disruption and isolation for so many, I feel fortunate to have work that I can do from home; for that matter, that I even have work and a comfortable home. 

So how to ponder tennis during these times? The machinations of the sport seem trivial now—though of course, there’s concern for many who earn their livelihood from it, including players, coaches, agents, tournament staff and sponsor employees and, yes, we in the media too.

But as events have been cancelled, as tennis facilities have started to shut down, it’s left me wondering: What are the many ways we engage with the sport? For most tennis people I know, the playing part comes first, far ahead of watching the pros. I suspect that my regular tennis mates will be going stir crazy in the weeks to come and perhaps figure out ways to hit against local walls or in their backyards and living rooms. I imagine more Pickleball, increased table tennis and perhaps even a badminton renaissance. Racquet sports zealots are insatiable.

I’m also reflecting now on nearly 50 years of connecting with tennis without a racquet in my hand, first as an observer and reader; eventually, as a writer. At the age of 12, six months after I’d first hit a tennis ball, my older brother said to me, “You know, if you played tennis a little more than you read about it or talked about it, you might be a good player one day.”

So life takes its twists; earlier this week, I had a cyber-salon of sorts on Twitter, connecting with many about their favorite tennis books. And unlike when I was a child, match highlights these days are only a click away. Lefthander that I am, I find myself returning to portions of the McEnroe-Connors ’84 US Open semi that concluded the iconic “Super Saturday.” Hey, some people watch “Woodstock.”  

It would be nice to find refuge in a specific tennis book, that this is the time to at last devour “Infinite Jest.” Alas, my mind is so scattered that I’m dipping through many I’ve previously read. There’s a quirky book called “The Tournament” -- a month-long tennis competition featuring such cultural figures as James Joyce, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and Tallulah Bankhead (the reporter from Tennis Magazine is Norman Mailer). But it’s difficult to concentrate strictly on any one book, so instead I’ve reread portions of John Feinstein’s Hard Courts (fine account of the ’90 tennis year), Vijay Amritraj’s autobiography and even a few old copies of World Tennis magazine. Consider more personal smorgasbord than epic feast, but also, deeply comforting during an anxious moment.  

What is it, Steve, that is connecting you with the tennis during this unprecedented time? For that matter, what’s the mix of ways you’ve come to engage with the game?

Serena, De Minaur, Gauff and more get creative under quarantine:


You’re writing to me from a studio apartment in Oakland. I’m writing to you from a one-bedroom in Manhattan. Why don’t either of us have mansions and swimming pools? It would at least give me more rooms to pace through, and more windows to stare out of, while I’m procrastinating.

We haven’t been locked down in NYC quite yet, but we’re rapidly following in the Bay Area’s footsteps. No restaurants, no bars, no book stores, no offices, and no gyms—which means no indoor tennis here. How many racquet clubs will still be above water when this storm has passed? I thought my dreams were about to come true when a reasonably-priced squash club opened just two blocks from me last month. Now it’s closed, and who knows if or when it will open again.

But like you said, we have a place to live and work to do, and that’s something to be exceedingly grateful for right now. And as someone who would rather write than talk any day of the week, the quarantined life kinda comes naturally to me.

In theory, this should be the perfect time to plow through all the books and movies you’ve never had time to read or see—like the big, fat, dusty copy of The Power Broker that has been sitting undisturbed on my top shelf for going on 10 years now. But as you noted, Joel, this is also not an ideal moment for extended concentration, or for getting lost in someone else’s story. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to go more than five minutes without checking the TV or Twitter to find out the latest (disastrous) news. I am proud to say that I did make it through all 431 minutes of the 1967 Russian production of War and Peace. It’s a dazzling piece of cinema, but all in all I’d say it could have been shorter.

As for ways to engage with tennis, my favorite match to rewatch, and one of the few I own on video, is the 1977 Wimbledon semifinal between Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis. “Summer lightning” is how our tennis-writing hero Rex Bellamy described it at the time, and that phrase is alway in my head as I watch it. The five-setter between these two future friends—it was this match that brought Bjorn and Vitas together—was an extended flash of brilliance. Forty-three years later, there’a a soothing purity to it, especially when you compare it today’s much flashier pro game. Both men in white, both wielding wooden racquets, both rushing the net (yes, even Borg), both maintaining the highest level of play from start to finish—until Vitas finally blinks at 6-6 in the fifth, and slumps off the court after the handshake, gutted. With BBC announcer Dan Maskell interjecting judiciously, it’s a match you can keep on in the background, and tune in and out of.

Now that I think about it, it’s interesting that 1977 was the first year that I watched Wimbledon as a kid—mostly on tape delay, with matches severely shortened, on NBC. Four decades later, I’m still watching it. I read recently that the song that was No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts on the day you turned 14 will stay with you for the rest of your life. For me, that’s “Every Breath You Take,” by the Police, and it’s true, I probably know every word to their album from that year, Synchronicity, even after not hearing it—and after steadfastly ignoring Sting’s solo career—since I was in high school.

Is there a similar phenomenon in tennis? Is there a match that first hooked you as a kid, Joel, one that never left you and still defines the way you think about the game?

Several players have taken part in The Toilet Paper Challenge:


My engagement with tennis began in 1972. The pro I first noticed was Arthur Ashe. That year he got to the finals of the US Open versus Ilie Nastase. The match was aired on CBS—then TV tennis’ biggest innovator, with sharp sounds emanating from the courtside microphones and intimate camera angles from the court at the West Side Tennis Club.

Ashe too was quite charismatic, with his yellow shirt and a racquet I found mesmerizing—the silver, graphite stick known as the Head Competition.

I watched the final that year with my older brother, Ken. He liked Nastase, impressed by his shot-making and, being 16 years old, taking more than a little pleasure in Nastase’s roguish behavior.

As a dutiful and pensive younger brother, I preferred the understated Ashe. With Ashe up two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth, I thought my favorite would win. But it didn’t go that way. Nastase came back. Nearly 50 years later, I vividly recall the image of Ashe, standing calmly but certainly shattered, during the awards ceremony. Here’s lots from the match, but the last five minutes reveal Ashe in agony:

Maybe that was the day I learned that tennis was as much about losing as winning. Interesting how you too, Steve, could sympathize with Gerulaitis in that losing effort versus Borg. Or maybe, these days especially, we’re both attuned to life’s ups and downs. 

Two days after that Ashe match, I started seventh grade. I don’t know how, but that same month I stumbled into reading Levels of the Game, John McPhee’s dual profile of a US Open semifinal between Clark Graebner and none other than Arthur Ashe. McPhee’s book offered an assertion that is at the core of my DNA: a player’s game is the extension of his or her personality. Levels of the Game was the subject of my first tennis story, a handwritten book report.

So what do these memories have to do with where we are today, with so many of us turned inward? Many I know see time as a line, a straight and forward progression of events from now into the future. That notion even flavors how they see this sport we so love – in friends I know who don’t take into account the score when they play and think the history of tennis begins with Roger Federer.

But for my own weird reasons, I see the connection between people and events quite differently. “It’s all now you see,” said one of my favorite writers, William Faulkner. “Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.”

So why not let tennis be one way we can continue to connect with ourselves and so many we care about across time? Just today, I had a long talk with a friend about a past US Open final we’d both enjoyed years before we met. If in some ways, tennis is an individual sport, it’s also a relationship sport. I know right now that I am deeply missing many of the people I play with – the remarkable way we both test and enjoy one another.

What are you missing now about the tennis, Steve?

The 1972 US Open final between Ashe and Nastase:


Interesting thoughts on tennis and time, and how we can connect with it through its history. I know most people detest GOAT debates, or at least profess to detest them, and I understand why—they’re full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But I’ve always welcomed them, not because I want to force anyone to agree with my opinion on who the GOAT is, but because the conversation can lead me to appreciate past players in new ways.

Also interesting and surprising to me is how, when it comes to players and rivalries, my sympathies can change with time. During the 1980s, when John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl were engaging in their Cold War proxy duels, I was firmly in the Johnny Mac camp—not surprising for an American teenager raised in the Reagan era. I think I was nearly as devastated as McEnroe when he blew a two-set lead to Lendl in the 1984 French Open final. The next day I sat in the back row of my 9th grade French class staring at the ceiling and shaking my head, until the teacher finally asked what was wrong with me. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her, and all the other kids in the room, that I was in despair over a tennis match.

Yet 36 years later, when I see those old Mac-Lendl matches, I find myself rooting for Lendl and his iconic argyle shirt—which I thought was hideous at the time—all the way. Over the years, and after having met Ivan, I’ve come to think of him as the more intriguing character. For one, I can see now how influential his approach to the game turned out to be. For another, rather than backing the American in a Cold War rivalry, I now find myself sympathizing more with Lendl’s personal history as an immigrant from behind the Iron Curtain.

Something similar has happened to my view of the classic Slam finals between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario from the late 80s and early 90s. At the time, I was a Graf fanatic and couldn’t stand what I considered, in my youthful ignorance, Sanchez Vicario’s unimaginative grinding. But rewatching those matches for a series of articles a couple of years ago, I discovered that I had turned 180 degrees and become a serious Sanchez Vicario fan. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, she seems to be among the smartest and strategically interesting players in history. But that’s what tennis offers us: A wealth of personalities and personal histories, from virtually every part of the globe, to think about and reassess. Lendl and Sanchez Vicario are like tennis versions of Miles Davis’s 70s stuff for me. In all three cases, it took a long time for me to see beneath the off-putting surface, and recognize the stubborn, unorthodox excellence beneath.

You asked what I’m missing most about tennis in this time of enforced isolation, Joel. I think it’s the sounds that come with playing the sport, in part because I hear almost no sounds at all through the day. Right now all I can do is pick up my racquet and spin it in my hands; when I want to pretend I’m playing a match, I stare at the strings and adjust them. I like the sound they make when I move them, and it reminds me of the ping that comes off them when you hit the ball. I’m really looking forward to hearing that ping again.

Over the past week I’ve been meditating once a day. It’s something I’ve rarely done in the past, but it has helped me “be with calm,” as Rafael Nadal would say, in a not-so-calm time. During each session, the host on the meditation app I’m using tells listeners to imagine that we’re looking up at a blue sky with clouds passing by, and to let our thoughts drift with those clouds.

What always comes to my mind first are tennis images. I picture the clouds passing quickly above Centre Court at Wimbledon. I picture the planes that silently fill the sky high above Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. I picture the thin slant of sunlight that cuts through Rod Laver Arena when the roof is nearly closed. I picture the sunsets at the US Open, when Manhattan looks like an inferno in the distance.

Obviously, I’m missing tennis. For now, I’ll try to hang on to those thoughts for as long as I can.