Tennis' culinary & culture connection with food writer Andrew Friedman

Tennis' culinary & culture connection with food writer Andrew Friedman

In “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll,” Friedman reveals how, like many tennis pros before the Open era, chefs labored in obscurity for years until the transformative late 1960s and ‘70s.

All four of tennis’ majors take place in cities where quality food is plentiful.  

But of course, none surpasses Paris. You have to work very hard to find a bad meal during Roland Garros. Over the course of the tournament, everyone from players to officials to media enjoy the chance to savor elegant, delicious meals—from steak at the iconic L’Entrecote, to fish at Chez Andre, to Indian, Italian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Swiss and many more cuisines.  

Which brings us to Andrew Friedman, a writer who has significant credentials in tennis and food. In 2007, Friedman collaborated with tennis star James Blake on the book, Breaking Back, which became a New York Times bestseller. He’s also written many other articles on tennis, including for Tennis Magazine.

But consider tennis a mere bagatelle to the considerable expertise Friedman has in the world of food. Over the last 20 years, he has collaborated on more than 25 books with many prominent chefs, including Tom Valenti, Alfred Portale and David Waltuck. Friedman’s latest book is Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession.

“When you think of sporting events, you think of how big a deal the food is there,” says Friedman. “You think of where these Slams are situated. Melbourne, Paris, London, New York are some of the best food cities in the world. And chefs often tend to be a part of the promotion, such as when you have the ‘Taste of Tennis’ events that involve both players and chefs.” 

Friedman sees an intriguing connection between big-time chefs and world-class tennis players.

“They are both dependent on years of training and the development of muscle memory,” he says. “Just like a young tennis player will spend hour after hour after hour on groundstroke drills and serving, so a young cook will learn how to mince. You have to be able to execute at the high level, even when you’re under pressure.” 

This begged the question: How would several of today’s iconic tennis players fare if they were chefs? 

Start with Serena Williams, long owner of an apartment in Paris. Says Friedman, “Her kitchen would be really tight, all buttoned down. As someone who’s very well traveled, there would be a cosmopolitan feel to it—and knowing her, very eclectic, un-shy flavors. The food would be sure of itself, bold and assertively seasoned.”

Getty Images

Friedman imagines that like Serena, Novak Djokovic would also be “meticulous, carefully arranging leaves of tarragon with some kind of implement,” while Roger Federer would have all ingredients lined up to create “a delicious tasting menu.”

As for the King of Clay, 12-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal, Friedman says, “He spent so many years at number two, so he’s the striver. His food would be very soulful, of course Spanish, traditional, in a rustic setting.” A potential Nadal signature dish: gazpacho, the hearty soup comprised of a wide range of vegetables.

Further exploring the tennis-chef connection, In Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, Friedman reveals how, like many tennis pros in the pre-Open era, chefs for years labored in obscurity. Not until the late 1960s and ‘70s—the same years when tennis at last burst into the mainstream—did a great many chefs at last start to become known as celebrities in their own right.

“Their food became known as ‘personality’ food,” says Friedman. 

Perhaps, the concurrent growth of tennis and food culture were all part of the same cultural trend that began roughly 50 years ago—towards health and fitness, but also in the spirit of self-expression and the pursuit of fame, wealth and enduring excellence. As Friedman sees it, no chef personifies this more vividly than the man he considers the Federer of cooking: high-energy chef-entrepreneur, 70-year-old Wolfgang Puck.

“Like Federer, he’s universally beloved, has every shot in the book and his longevity is amazing,” says Friedman.

And in the same way that the writer and broadcaster Bud Collins gave voice to tennis during the sport’s years of ascent, food too had its own bard, a critic named Ruth Reichl who began her food-writing career in one of the culinary revolution’s hot spots, the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Bud’s nicknames helped popularize tennis,” says Friedman, “and Ruth started to write about chefs the way people had been covering topics like movies and music.”

Let it also be noted that one of Collins’ most visible broadcasts incorporated food into its title: the 1979 debut on NBC of “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”