Tennis And Me: What Started With Sharapova
This article discusses how I became a tennis fan and later a tennis writer. I thought that some of you, especially those who read me more frequently, might find it illuminating, and it’s interesting for me to look back on it too.
In the beginning, there was Maria Sharapova.
I entered the undergraduate program at Stanford University in 2006, which meant that I had an unusually long summer holiday. Following the quarter system, Stanford does not start its fall classes until late September. In the last few weeks before leaving for California, I had most of my evenings to myself. Baseball was the sport that claimed most of my attention at that stage, but I had grown accustomed to switching channels to other programs during commercials. I can’t recall exactly why or when I switched to the US Open at some time that August or September. Although I had played tennis as a child, I never had enjoyed watching it on television and did so only out of duty when my instructor told me.
But back then there was no willowy Russian blonde strutting around the court in an Audrey Hepburn-inspired black cocktail dress, blasting winners at will. As luck would have it, and probably because Sharapova often played at night, I saw several of her matches during that US Open before tennis had even started to play an important role in my life. Gradually, I flipped the channel back to the baseball games less and less often. I won’t deny the appeal of Sharapova’s looks, but I also am convinced that there was much more about her that captured my interest. I have been a relatively risk-averse person for most of my life, so the spectacle of someone firing at the edges of lines and corners with such steely composure riveted me throughout that tournament. My life as a tennis fan thus began as a Sharapova fan, and frankly I doubt that I ever would have become a tennis writer if not for her.
At the same time, that US Open introduced me to other players beyond Maria and struck the first sparks of my passion for the sport more generally. Among them was Justine Henin (then Henin-Hardenne), whose one-handed backhand and graceful movement I admired even as I rooted for Sharapova against her in the final. I still have a special fondness for the one-handed backhand, and I think that the roots of my appreciation for that particular stroke lie in watching Henin that year. On the men’s side, to which I warmed more slowly, Roger Federer amazed me as he did so many others with his knack for winning virtually all of the key points and the balletic way that he seemed to float around the court.
When I moved to California from the East Coast, where I grew up, the shift from one sport to another seemed a fitting accompaniment to a new beginning in a new home. The 2007 Australian Open became the first tournament that I watched from start to finish, and my reservoir of tennis knowledge expanded exponentially during that single fortnight. I still believe that watching the early rounds of majors is the best possible way to become more acquainted with the sport. You will see players whom you never knew existed, and the chances are good that you’ll develop a rooting interest in one or more. For example, I watched Andy Roddick play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round there and knew that, even though Tsonga lost, I definitely wanted to see more of him in future. (Probably more than I did of Roddick, but we won’t dwell on that point.)
While I continued to self-identify as a Sharapova fan, I can recognize in retrospect that my tennis interest already had expanded well beyond her. Otherwise, I would not have attended the ATP tournament nearest to Stanford, the SAP Open, that February. My first match featured Ivo Karlovic against Benjamin Becker. Now, I probably would make a point of not attending that matchup, but I found it thrilling at a time despite the stylistic monotony and the chilly, atmosphere-less arena. There is an immediacy and intensity to live tennis that watching on television simply does not capture. I saw Roddick at that tournament and a very young Andy Murray defend his title there, which merely whetted my appetite for more.
The next step consisted of attending a tournament for a full week rather than just a few matches as I had in San Jose. In August, my family and I made the trip to San Diego for the last edition of the Acura Classic, a Tier I event among the top WTA non-majors before the Roadmap arrived. Sharapova serendipitously won the tournament, her only title that year, but the trip also exposed me to champions like Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva. I recall walking along the path above the stadium one day when Venus jogged past and flashed her signature smile at us. Moments like those are what turn someone just becoming interested in tennis into a devoted tennis fan.
Sometime during 2008, I started the Twitter account that has progressed through a few different iterations into its current @ChrisSkelton87 form. Oddly, I can’t remember the precise impetus for starting it or exactly when I did. By that summer, I had connected through the account with many Sharapova fans around the world. When she left the game midway through that season, though, my interests diversified quickly to fill the void. My sister had become a devoted Rafael Nadal fan by then, some of which rubbed off on me. (I have to admit that Nadal was an acquired taste for me, since I found myself more naturally drawn to the offensively oriented and the stylish. But the taste is acquired now, without a doubt.) I also warmed to the engaging personalities of the three Serbs who launched their breakthroughs that season. It was clear by the latter stages of 2008, then, that I was hooked on tennis for good.
It evidently was clear as well to many of my followers on Twitter, who watched deluges of tweets drench their timeline during important and not-so-important matches and tournaments. One of them, Dean Ryan Martin from the Philippines, suggested that I start a WordPress blog. Dean ostensibly wanted to read more of my thoughts on tennis, but I suspect that he also wanted a less cluttered timeline. At any rate, I took Dean’s advice and plunged into the blogging world just before Indian Wells in 2010. I’m not particularly proud of my early articles when I look back at them, although I am proud of the designs crafted for the site by my Chilean friend Tilu Osorio. The articles have plenty of enthusiasm and rhetorical flourishes, and well-chosen images, but the analysis is nowhere near as thoughtful as I had believed that it was at the time. Nor are the insights overly original, mostly adapted from the professional journalism that I consumed so voraciously.
But the only way to get better is to keep watching and keep writing, and I certainly did both. I wrote copiously all that year and all the next year, covering virtually every type of topic imaginable. Sometimes I wrote almost daily for weeks at a time, building my following on the blogs and social media. By early 2011, I had managed to get the attention of media outlets in the United States and Australia, which somehow found what I had written sufficiently intriguing to commission articles from me. That breakthrough essentially started a straight line to where I am now, contributing to multiple websites and print publications as I try to establish a foothold in tennis journalism. It’s remarkable what persistence can accomplish.
In the beginning, there was Maria Sharapova. In the end? Well, I don’t think that there will be an end. Once you’re hooked on this sport, you’re hooked for life. But I did have the sense of a destination reached when I received credentials to attend Indian Wells this spring. I had traveled to the tournament twice before as a spectator, and I had written my first series of tennis articles about it. Writing about the tournament for a generally circulated publication, and attending press conferences with many of the game’s leading stars, I felt that I had arrived.
Feel free to share how you came to tennis in the comments. I’ll return on Friday with a Madrid blue clay/red clay comparison.