There’s an old tennis joke that you surely have heard before. In the event you haven’t, it goes something like this: Two friends, one an avid tennis fan, one not so much, visit Wimbledon. The tennis fan wants to introduce his uninformed friend to what he believes is the greatest game in the world. What better place to do that than in Centre Court seats at Wimbledon, right?
When the non-tennis fan first laid his eyes on the beautifully manicured and lush grass at Centre Court, he’s astonished. The place is breathtaking, the perfect stage for an international event of this magnitude. “Wow, how do they get the grass to be so green?” he asks his friend.
“Well, it starts with 5,000 years of rain …” his friend sarcastically responds.
That’s what I feel like, the most dehydrated tennis fan in this country. I’m the Sahara desert of tennis viewers. And that’s the beginning of the confession I must make before I proceed to a few thoughts: I am the most front-running tennis fan you know. I don’t think it’s close, really. I have caught glimpses of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the past — wow, surprised myself by being able to name even five current male tennis players — but was never worthy of being called a “fan.”
I was mesmerized by the fourth and fifth sets in the classic 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, but I didn’t deserve those riches. I didn’t even watch the first three sets. Yes, I know, what a fool I was. But, like anything, I just hadn’t yet caught the bug for tennis. I wasn’t privy to its history and its iconic moments. I wasn’t brought up with it, wasn’t taught it, don’t even really remember one time in my house where anyone sat down with the intent to watch a match. For me, it was always baseball, football, basketball, golf … it was a lot of things, just never tennis.
Anyway, you get the point. Any snooty remarks disciples of the All England Club toss at tennis impostors would fit me like the finest tailored Armani fabrics. I deserve them. I spurned Lord Federer at the 1st hour. I barely relented at the 11th.
That’s because a funny thing happened recently. In preparation for the Federer-Nadal French Open final last month, ESPN was showing different graphics on SportsCenter, trying to put both men in their proper context. With a win, Nadal would tie Bjorn Borg with six French Open titles. At age 25. And then, of course, Federer had won a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles before his 30th birthday. Both were incredible feats, athletic accomplishments that we may or may not see again in our lifetime, that level of such youthful dominance.
I remember thinking at that moment, “How much have I even watched these two guys play? These are two of the best athletes in the world, possibly the two best ever in their sport, they are competing against each other in the prime of their careers, and I’m not going to stop to enjoy it even a little bit?” It wasn’t an epiphany. It was more like one of those moments when you’re standing under the hot water in your shower, and you remember something — a name, a nagging to-do list item, whatever — that you had been trying to remember all day. It quickly becomes clear again, like the thought was not gone but merely napping in a dark corner of your brain. Anyway, that’s what those Federer-Nadal graphics at that moment did to me. (What, I can’t be the only one who thinks/brainstorms well in the shower, right?)
When Wimbledon rolled around, I was more prepared. I watched some Federer and Nadal, but also some Djokovic and some Murray. I saw some of a guy named Tsonga. When they weren’t playing, I tuned into some of the women’s matches. I watched different players mainly to listen to the commentary. I wanted to become immersed in the tennis dialect, I wanted to be able to identify crucial moments without needing a British accent beaming through my TV. For the first time, really, I had a sincere interest to learn the game.
The night before Djokovic would beat Nadal to claim his first Wimbledon title, I watched the HBO documentary “McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice.” It brought to life the battles that I am too young to remember. It showed the human flaws in these otherwise indestructible characters. It was a fabulous hour about the respect and admiration John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg had for each other while being as fierce of competitors as you can be. You felt the frailties of their personalities but believed they would always be conquered by the stubbornness of their minds.
When I watched Djokovic utterly bully Nadal — something that I’m not sure has ever happened to Nadal in a Grand Slam final before — one of the things that became so apparent after watching the documentary the previous night was how much faster the game seems today. Without looking at any numbers, the speed of the game seems remarkably faster. How much of that is completely due to improved technology and equipment, I’m not sure. Probably most of it.
What’s even more remarkable, though, is that today’s players can handle the game at its current pace. To my knowledge, the human body hasn’t become more apt at cutting and running and stopping in the last 30 years. I think the composition and structure of joints and muscles is still similar. But looking at Nadal and Djokovic sprinting, planting, stopping, turning, sliding, swinging continuously on multiple surfaces is mind-boggling. I don’t know the technicalities of the game well enough to make this statement definitely, but the level of footwork required to be a great tennis player has to rival the footwork it takes to be a superior basketball player. It has to.
Watching those guys dart back and forth left me with one concrete thought: By the end of the first set, my groin would resemble a batch of assaulted linguini. By the end of the second set, my lungs would look like one of those exploding golf balls. And then that would be the official end of me. The athleticism and physicality involved is incomprehensible.
Hours after Novak had won and ate a few blades of Centre Court grass, I wondered if my turning to tennis had much to do with Tiger Woods’ injuries and the NFL’s lockout. Without those, the sports media world has been left with hours of airtime to fill and thousands of words to write. The big events have been tennis or the Women’s World Cup, to go along with our usual summer baseball storylines. I’d like to believe that even with those things, I’d have eventually explored tennis a little deeper. I mean, it’s not like there was a golf tournament or Pats-Colts game to watch at 6 a.m. on a July Sunday.
It’s irrelevant now, I suppose. Football will come back, Tiger will come back, but I have seen my tennis light. For someone who relishes supreme athletic feats, I’m not sure why it took this long. And look, I’m aware everything I have said here is not news to tennis aficionados. Those people are looking at me and thinking, “Yeah, idiot, we’ve always known how much fun this game can be!” And I also know that I’m not going to completely dive headfirst into tennis yet. I’m probably not going to watch many players other than the big names, at least not yet. I almost certainly won’t watch events other than the Grand Slams. Yes, this still makes me a frontrunner by multiple variations of the definition.
I’m still the friend who wonders how the grass at Wimbledon became so green. But I’m trying. Maybe this past month of tennis consumption equates to my first 100 years of rain. Repeat it 50 more times, and then maybe I can stand among those of you launching snooty remarks from the verandas of the All England Club. I don’t know.
But damn it at least feels good to no longer be the Sahara.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.