Not every story has fairy tale ending. The final match of Fernando Gonzalez’s career- a 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 loss to Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Miami- took place without a television camera in sight. It ended in the worst way possible- on a double fault.
“I was a little bit tired at the end.” Gonzalez admitted afterwards.
He had every right to be tired. In his thirteen year career the Chilean played 571 ATP singles matches and 207 ATP doubles matches. He won a combined 479 of them (370 in singles), earned 11 singles titles, and amassed over 8 million dollars of prize money. He made it to the finals of the Australian Open in 2007, the semis of the French Open in 2009, and won three Olympic medals- one of each color. He amassed all his accolades in signature style- with fun, flair, and a famously ferocious forehand.
You didn’t just see Fernando Gonzalez hit a forehand- you felt it.
I only had the pleasure of seeing him play live once, but it was the most memorable tennis match I have ever attended. It was a 4th Round clash at the 2009 U.S. Open. Fernando took on Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a late afternoon into the evening match on Louis Armstrong Stadium. It was a perfect storm of greatness- two of the most entertaining players on tour, a rowdy New York crowd (with Chilean and French fans to spare), and a beautiful sunset providing relief from the mid-day September sun.
The match was sensational (check out the highlights below), and Gonzalez was in rare form. Down a break in the first set- and naturally unhappy with his play- he nonchalantly handed his racket to an elated woman in the front row (1:54 in the video). Later in the same set, when Jo had a great look at an overhead smash, Gonzalez turned his back and ducked (3:30). At various points throughout the evening he smashed his racket, pumped up the crowd, and applauded his opponent’s crafty shots. I was so used to tennis players putting up a wall when they came out onto the court, but with Gonzalez it was the opposite. I felt like I knew what he was thinking and feeling at all times- almost to the point where I thought I was on the court running around right beside him. And every single time, without fail, that he unleashed the fury of his forehand I got chills– no small feat in the New York summer heat.
Eventually Gonzalez won that match 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-4. He went on to face Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and I left Flushing Meadows that evening with a greater understanding and appreciation for what tennis could be. Tennis wasn’t merely a sport when Gonzalez was on his game- it was a theatrical experience that transcended country club stereotypes, pushed boundaries, and often defied logic.
Many pundits throughout his career wondered why he couldn’t- or wouldn’t- tone down the histrionics. It was often said that if he could stop with the outbursts and the racket smashes and learn to keep his composure that he would have had an even more decorated career. But that’s just not who Fernando Gonzalez was. He gave it his all- for better or for worse. There were no filters, no falseness, no reigning it in. It’s what made the forehands so chill-inducing and the dramatics so head-scratchingly entertaining. He held nothing back. It was exhilarating, maddening, and why he captured the hearts of so many tennis fans.
But at the end of the day- in his 571st ATP singles match- there was nothing left to give. His body had been breaking down often over the past year and a half, clearly paying the price for laying it all out there every single time. The endless cycle of pain and rehab had left him fatigued. Simply put, when he could no longer give his matches 100%, he decided to call it a day.
After he hugged Nicolas Mahut, flashed his trademark smile, and soaked in the applause from the crowd, Gonzalez turned his attention to the big screen. The ATP played a tribute video for him where Roger Federer, David Nalbandian, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal (among others) sang his praises. He was clearly moved by the video- these weren’t just his competitors, they were his friends. “I think (it) is much better to remember as a person than as a tennis player,” he told the press afterwards.
Of course, that’s the greatest thing about Gonzo- the person and the tennis player were always one in the same.
Around 11:30 PM at Madison Square Garden a tan Rory McIlroy, the newly crowned #1 golfer in the world, stood quietly and practically unnoticed in the back of a crowded press room. All eyes were on his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, as she talked about dragging McIlroy onto the tennis court earlier that evening to play a point against Maria Sharapova. “He was not too pleased with me but at least he can say he played tennis at Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of people can say that.,” she laughed. Later in the same press conference Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were asked what they thought of the breakout New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin. Federer, who has been overseas the past month, was well aware of “Linsanity”, and said he hoped to watch (Lin) play at the Garden one day. Roddick had actually used Lin’s locker before the exhibition that night and said he might have to “send (Lin) a thank-you note” after his victory.
Tennis, meet pop culture. Pop culture, meet tennis.
Amidst all of the scheduling, length-of-season, and injury dramas in the WTA and ATP these days, exhibition matches are often frowned upon. But last night’s 5th Annual BNP Paribas Showdown’s Tennis Night in America showed exactly why they’re an integral part of the game. Andy Roddick put it best when he said, “I’m not sure how 18,000 (spectators) in the most famous venue in the world watching our sport can be a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing. There are a lot of people (in the media center) who don’t cover tennis on a regular basis and it will be out there tomorrow. I think it’s a huge positive for our sport.”
The evening started at 7:30 when world #2 Sharapova and world #4 Wozniacki stood (under spotlights) on opposing ends of the court on top of blue light-boxes as sparklers flew behind them and Katy Perry’s “Firework” blasted from the stadium speakers. This was not going to be your average night of tennis. However, during the first set Wozniacki and Sharapova battled like the match was taking place a few miles east and a few months later at Flushing Meadows. They were laser-focused, engaging in sharp rallies, and playing very aggressive tennis (yes, even Wozniacki). There was barely even the hint of a smile.
Things changed in the second set. In the break between sets Sharapova, Wozniacki, and the chair umpire talked and giggled (yes, even Sharapova). Later, after the girls exchanged leads, Wozniacki decided to kick things up a notch. During a changeover she took a young girl from the audience and began dancing with her. Never one to be outdone, Sharapova then took an older man from the audience and danced with him. When the music stopped and it was time for tennis again the boisterous New York crowd made it known they weren’t ready for the fun to stop. Wozniacki- an expert at milking a moment of fun- knew exactly what to do. She went into the crowd and fetched McIlroy. At first it seemed like the couple were just going to dance, but then she put the tennis racket in his hand and created a blockbuster moment- he actually played a point against Maria Sharapova.
After losing the point to McIlroy (“He won more points (against me) than Caroline did!” Maria joked), Sharapova would go on to serve out the match and fairly easily defeat Wozniacki 6-3 6-4.
Then, around 9:00PM, it was time for the men (professional tennis players, not golfers) to take over. Andy Roddick and Roger Federer are clearly no strangers to each other, New York, or the big stage. The two have played twenty-three times- seven times in the semis or later of a Grand Slam- with Federer holding the infamous 21-2 lead in their head-to-head. But this time was different. It’s Roddick’s home country and Roddick was born to comically entertain a large crowd. In the first set alone Roddick got Ben Stiller’s autograph, tossed a racket after a failed tweener, reacted mockingly to a foot-fault call from the crowd, and did a spot-on impersonation of Rafael Nadal.
Impersonations and jokes aside, Roddick played some crafty, powerful tennis, and most importantly looked healthier and moved better than he has in months. Federer, fresh of a victory and a plane-ride from Dubai, also played some brilliant points but the American was just a tad looser and sharper than his adversary this night. With the near-capacity crowd hanging onto every point Roddick upset the Swiss Legend 7-5 7-6 (7).
After the match it was all jokes and respect between the two. Roddick quipped that he “must be in Federer’s head,” and said that the 16-time Grand Slam Champion “clearly isn’t very good under pressure”. Federer seemed pleased that Roddick is playing well again, saying “it is good to see (Roddick) play so well and hopefully he can make another run at the top-10.”
There’s no telling what the tour-level significance of these matches will be. Is Wozniacki going to actually employ the more aggressive techniques she displayed tonight at Indian Wells? Will Sharapova stay loose and serve-quip free from now on? Can Roddick build on this momentum and make another run at the Top 10? Will Federer ever survive the humiliation? Only time will tell. But last night 18,079 people in person and countless others on sketchy streams around the world got to say they saw Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova laugh and dance, and the best golfer in the world play tennis. Tennis has had many memorable Monday nights, but none quite like this one.
There’s always a point of no return.
For Brad, it was seeing Steffi Graf’s ponytail fly up and hit her in the face when she hit her forehand in a 1990 match against Jennifer Capriati. For Chris, it was watching a teenage Andy Murray at the 2005 Wimbledon stand up to then 14th seed Radek Stepanek by mocking his lucky net-cord kiss. For Kelly Padgett, it was stumbling upon one of Andrea Petkovic’s infamous videos on youtube, and laughing as Petkovic pretended to pay Novak Djokovic for an interview.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the psyche of tennis fans lately. What is about this sport and the people that play it that makes us rearrange our schedules, worry for days on end, and get up at all hours of the night to watch a fuzzy yellow ball be hit back and forth from one side of the court to the other? Why do we care so much? Why does it matter?
To try and make sense of it all, I asked for volunteers to answer some questions for me about their experience being a tennis fan. Overall, I received thirty-one completed “fandom surveys” from fans of twenty-one different players. I laughed and cried as I scoured through them for days, re-reading the candid stories and over-analyzing the similarities and differences between them. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and poignancy. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I solved any great mysteries, but I did come away with a deeper understanding of the power of our sport.
Melissa has been a Xavier Malisse fan since 1998- fourteen long years of ups and downs. “I just started following him, and never stopped,” she said. “Once I start following a player, I support him through good and bad times, even if that is sometimes hard. I don’t abandon a player because of negative results.”
Ruby, a Marcel Granollers fan, feels the same way. “Pathetically enough,” she told me, “I almost see it as my ‘job’ to stick by him.”
Melissa and Ruby are far from the only loyal tennis fans out there. Thirty of the fans I surveyed said that there was nothing they could imagine (besides a flippant mention of manslaughter) that would make them stop being a fan of their favorite player. Y. Jones, a Kei Nishikori fan, was the lone exception. She told me that she’d have to re-think her commitment to Nishikori if he ever got his ear pierced. “I just cannot stand a male figure wearing (an earring) in general,” she confessed.
Of course, a loyal tennis fan usually endures more lows than highs. Linda started following Flavia Pennetta in 2006, and became a die-hard fan when she saw an injured Pennetta enthusiastically cheering on her teammates in the Fed Cup Final that year. She couldn’t have picked a worst time to start being a fan. Between “the wrist injury, the struggle to come back, the breakup with Carlos Moya, and the struggle to recover from that,” Linda describes the events of 2006-2007 as “twelve months of horror” for Pennetta. But Linda stuck by the fiery Italian, and her loyalty paid off. She got to experience the joys of Pennetta’s two wins over Venus Williams, and her incredible run in the summer of 2009 when Pennetta won Palmero and L.A. back to back and became the first Italian woman to enter the Top-10. Linda describes the entire summer as “magical”.
As an Andy Murray fan, Hannah has been on a roller-coaster ride, but it’s how Murray has reacted during the low points that has secured her as a fan for life. She started following him during the 2010 Hopman Cup, but after his 2010 Australian Open Final loss to Roger Federer, there was no looking back. It wasn’t necessarily his play on-the-court that she admired, but rather his heartfelt display on the podium afterwards that made an impression. “Oh that speech.”
Similarly, Hannah was deeply impacted by how Murray acted after withdrawing from the World Tour Finals in London last November. “I was waiting for him (after his press conference announcing his withdrawal), just wanting to wish him luck for the next season and a fast recovery from that groin injury. As he walked out the venue, he was clearly very disappointed with not being able to play. However, he was still kind enough to give fans his autographs and thank everyone there for waiting and cheering him on.”
“His decentness as a guy is just admirable,” she concludes.
Curtis, an Ana Ivanovic fan, can relate. He recalls being “on cloud nine for an entire month” after (Ivanovic’s) 2008 French Open win, and has stuck by her through all the tough times since. “I have always considered myself a bigger fan of Ana Ivanovic the person, than Ana Ivanovic the tennis player,” he said. “While her results on court have changed over the years, she hasn’t changed as a person, which I really admire. She never let her fame or her struggles change the person who she was. That’s not easy to do. That’s why I keep coming back.”
In order to “keep coming back”, even in the rough times, most tennis fans maintain a delicate balance between their hopes and expectations. Charlotte, an Andy Roddick fan since 2003, realistically expects him to just win a few more minor tournaments, but deep down lets herself hope that he will “win many slams and beat Roger Federer as many times as he damn well likes.” Linda says that she’s learned the hard way to “never really have high expectations for (her) favorite players. The lower your expectations, the smaller you chance is of being disappointed!”
There are rare occasions when hopes and expectations merge together. For fans of players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, this happens more often then not.
Freelance sportswriter Matt Zemek became a Federer fan in 2004. “(Federer) played a brand of tennis that was more eye-pleasing and stylish than anything I had seen before.” He vividly recalled the first breakthrough moment he witnessed as a fan, Federer’s 2004 U.S. Open Quarterfinal against Andre Agassi. “When Agassi forced a fifth set in very windy conditions on that Thursday afternoon – the second day of the match – the American had the advantage. Federer somehow found a way to turn the tide in the fifth set and play particularly focused tennis. When he won, he let out a particularly primal roar and tore at his shirt. (He’s not Djokovic, so he didn’t succeed in tearing the shirt!) Federer seemed to know right then that he had conquered New York and all of its distractions. Sure enough, he didn’t lose another U.S. Open match until 2009.”
After such an immediate and long-term payoff, it’s no surprise that Zemek calls becoming a fan of Federer, “the most rewarding fan investment of (his) life.”
Zemek’s experience is unique. Most of the time becoming a fan, even of the greatest players, isn’t instantly rewarding. Aleksa became a fan of Novak Djokovic in 2005. “I first saw him play Marat Safin that year in the first round of the Australian Open,” she remembered. “He was crushed, of course. He was just a baby with porcupine hair. Six years and six months later he won Wimbledon.”
Anna became a Novak Djokovic fan a little later- in 2010 to be exact. She hoped that he would win another Grand Slam or two, but she never saw the 2011 season coming. “I felt constant surprise, joy, and elation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d pull off all of that,” she said. While Anna admits that she does “hope that (Djokovic) wins all the Grand Slams from now on”, she realizes that is unrealistic. She is going to have to start managing her expectations again, keeping her hopes in check. Angela, a Rafael Nadal fan, is having a hard time doing just that. “Though (Nadal) has accomplished so much already, I would like him to have even greater successes,” she admitted. Angela does, however, realize that he may never reach the same heights he did in 2010, and says she will “deal with it as it comes.”
That’s the thing about reaching the top of the tennis world, whether as a player or as a fan- eventually, there will be a decline.
Siva, a Federer fan since 2001, is trying to come to terms with this. “Decline is the one constant in the game. I am fairly certain that Federer is declining. I am not sure I am prepared to deal with it.” Zemek disagrees. “Watching Federer handle tennis mortality is something to relish, not cringe at (for now),” he says.
Lawrence, another Federer fan, sides more with Zemek. “If (Federer) doesn’t become number 1 in his professional career again the Earth will still twirl around the Sun. Yes. It doesn’t matter.”
Aisha has been an Ana Ivanovic fan since 2005 when she was a ball-girl during her match against Nicole Vaidasova in Miami. Throughout the match Aisha recalls that Ivanovic “was an absolute sweetheart.” Aisha has stuck by the Serbian through the thick and the thin past seven years, but sometimes the losses are hard to take. When Ivanovic lost to Petra Cetkovska at Wimbledon last year, Aisha momentarily lost control and smashed her iPhone to bits. (Luckily she works at Best Buy and was able to get a replacement one quickly.)
Romi Castagnino promised herself that if her favorite player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ever won a Major that she would go sky-diving. Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Horacia Tecau last month. Castagnino is rapidly trying to overcome her fear of heights.
Though the above examples are extreme, it was clear after reading through the surveys just how strong of an affect tennis players have on their fans. I was expecting to read about the loss of sleep, the occasional (or not-so-occasional) skipped class, and the general emotional highs and lows of fandom, but it became apparent that the influence runs deeper than that.
Many fans have drawn messages of hope and fortitude through their relationships with their favorite players. Maureen has learned about toughness by watching Maria Sharapova battle through matches and injuries. “I’ve learned not to give up easily,” she reflected. Christy has taken similar lessons from David Ferrer. “He has shown me that perseverance can overcome almost anything,” she told me. “Just because you’re ‘too short’ or whatever, doesn’t mean you can’t reach (your goals).” Karen Williams added, “Becoming a fan of Venus (Williams) has made me realize personally that through times of adversity you can accomplish much.” Suman has tried to adopt Roddick’s “never-say-no attitude”.
For Hannah, being a Murray fan has made her a much more independent person. She has traveled, often alone, all around the United Kingdom (and beyond) to see him play. For Lawrence, the impact Fed has had on his life is simple. “Be yourself. Stay cool.”
For some, the connection runs even deeper than that. Besides being pushed to face her fear of heights, Castagino has been inspired by Bethanie Mattek-Sands comeback from injury. “This was extra inspirational for me because around the same time she had her injury I broke my psoas muscles and it was pretty serious thing. I am still in rehab but seeing Bethanie come through her injury gives me extra motivation to push harder and keep my mind positive.” Similarly, a Rafael Nadal fan (who chose to remain anonymous), also found inspiration in Nadal’s transition from knee problems in 2009 to three-time Grand Slam Champion in 2010 . While struggling with personal matters during the time of his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs she reflects that, “it was Rafa who got me through the bad days, the ones where I felt there was no hope.”
Most of the time in sports, you become a fan by default. You root for a team because you were born in a certain state, or went to a certain school, or were brought up a certain way. Being a tennis fan is different. It’s a relationship. It’s personal. It’s intimate. We don’t become fans of groups of people, states, or organizations- we become fans of human beings.
Sometimes we choose the players we are going to be fans of. Other times, the players choose us. Whether there’s something about them that we relate to, or something about them that we aspire to become, once the connection is made it’s virtually unbreakable. It’s why we get worked up when our favorite player is insulted. It’s why we get anxious for the matches, sad for the defeats, and exuberant over the victories. It’s why we do care. It’s why it does matter.
If I’ve learned nothing else from reading the stories of thirty-one passionate tennis fans, it’s that our favorite players aren’t just an extension of us, they’re an integral part of us. Most of the time, that’s a good thing.
(Eternal thanks to all those who took the time to fill out a survey and help me with this article: Curtis @curtos07, Charlotte @crystaleyesd, @eternal_elenea, Angela @4allsurfaces, Rhian @rosso_neri, Kelly Padgett, Siva, Lawrence, Chris @scoobschris, Matt Zemek @mzemek, Kelly @mikomonstr, Jane @jb10is, Géraldine, Suman, Karen Williams, Christy @triplebagel, @thriding, Melissa, Sarah @thetennisstorm, Aisha @Isha312, Brad @bradhunter, Maureen @drewsmama, Dianne @champingthebit, Anna @anna_tennisfan, Romi Castagnino, Ruby @ficcanasa, Y. Jones, Brooke, Hannah, Linda, and Aleksa.)
The time has come! While Andrea has done a great job breaking down the World Group match-ups, I thought I’d spell out for you the specific reasons why you should set your alarm for 5AM, skip work, cancel all of your social plans, and dedicate your entire Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the wonder that is Davis Cup.
10. The Newcomers
It’s been 8 years since Canada has been in the World Group. For Japan it’s been 27. In both cases the newcomers, led by youngsters Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori respectively, will be looking to prove that they belong with the big guns. Both teams have uphill battles- Japan hosts Croatia and Canada hosts France, but there’s nothing quite as exciting as fresh blood.
In a giant reversal of storylines, Federer is the only one of the “Big 4” playing in Davis Cup this weekend. To top it off, he’s playing in Switzerland, against a depleted but still fun-to-beat American squad, and with good buddy Stanislas Wawrinka by his side. Love him or not, it will be fun to see the Legend soak in the well-deserved adoration and play in a team atmosphere on his home turf.
8. Russian Roulette
The Russian Davis Cup Team has undergone a bit of a makeover. Alex Bogomolov, Jr. is not only making his Russian debut, but he’s the team’s #1 player. Dmitry Tursnov and Igor Andreev, team mainstays, are absent while the struggling Nikolay Davydenko and the wildcard Igor Kunitsyn take their place. Mikhail Youzhny is coming off singles and doubles victories in Zagreb, but has been complaining to the press about an injured shoulder. All in all, there’s absolutely no telling what to expect from Team Russia as they travel to Jurgen Melzer’s Austria this weekend, and as always- that’s part of the fun.
7. Veterans Day
Some players have proven time and time again that they adapt to the Davis Cup atmosphere better than others. Whether it’s Melzer leading his Austrian team, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek becoming mental giants for the Czech Republic, or David Nalbandian discovering the game (and legs) of his youth, there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing the veteran guys play their hearts out for their country.
6. The Battle of the Misfits
One of the ties I’m most looking forward to is Spain/Kazakhstan. The Spanish Davis Cup stalwarts (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco) who have dominated the team competition for the past few years are sitting out this year, paving the way for their less heralded countrymen (Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, Legend and Former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez). Meanwhile Kazakhstan’s team is full of former Russians (Mikhail Kukushkin, Andrey Golubev, Yuri Schukin, and Evgeny Korolev) who migrated over to the neighboring country for a chance to shine. It will be fun to see all of these former “back-ups” take the stage and fight for Davis Cup glory.
5. Tommy Haas
Do I really need to explain this one? The often injured but forever adored German (when he’s not American) is back in Davis Cup action for the first time in five years! How lucky are we? Let’s just sit back and enjoy.
4. The Other Groups
Believe it or not, the World Group Playoffs aren’t the only Davis Cup action happening this weekend. There are some pretty crucial ties happening in “Group I” and “Group II” (don’t you dare ask me to explain what that means). Teams in action that you might be interested in are: Ukraine (Sergiy Stakhovsky! Sergei Bubka- yes, Vika’s boyfriend!) vs. Monaco, Uzbekistan (Denis Istomin- am I the only one interested in him?) vs. New Zealand, Australia (Hewitt! Tomic! You know them!) vs. China, P.R., Great Britain (Murray-less) vs. Slovak Republic (starring recent ATP Zagreb finalist Lukas Lacko). You’d be amiss if you didn’t scavenge for some (surely static) streams for the lesser-known teams this weekend too.
3. The New Heroes
Every year Davis Cup weekend, especially the first round, breeds unheralded heroes. Something about the five-set format, the team unity, and the pressure/invigoration of playing for one’s country brings out the best in some unsuspecting players. Who will it be this weekend? Could Milos lead the Canadians past the accomplished French team? Could the upstart Japanese make Davis Cup history against Croatia? Could the Swedish team find a miracle and cause the Serbian team to sweat? As cliche as it sounds, expect a new Davis Cup legend to be born.
2. Double Trouble
Davis Cup is the time for Doubles to shine, and this weekend is no different. This weekend we have spectacular Doubles storylines: the reunions of fan favorites Fedrinka (Federer and Wawrinka) and Bendra (Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra), the eternal mystery of who the other Bryan Brother will be (Bob Bryan is home playing father duty, so either Mardy Fish, John Isner, or Ryan Harrison will take his place alongside Mike Bryan in Switzerland), and the always delightful Davis Cup return of BerdWorm (Berdych and Stepanek). Whether you’re a fan of doubles, awkwardness, hysteria, or just misplaced volleys, Saturday will be a special day for you.
1. The Cheerleaders
Let’s be honest- Davis Cup really isn’t about the tennis. It’s about seeing the bromance on the benches as the fellow team members watch and frazzle along with us. Nothing is as great as seeing a good cheerleader- whether it be Roger Federer on his feet urging on Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero fist-pumping a Nicolas Almagro winner, or John Isner and Ryan Harrison embracing when Mardy Fish gets to set point, there is no better reason to watch Davis Cup than to inspect the camaraderie on the benches.
Maria Sharapova giggled and jumped in the snow with her Russian compatriots. Forty-one year old Kimoko Date Krumm upset Polona Hercog, ranked 42 spots above her and born 21 years after her. Serena Williams destroyed a racket. Christina McHale served a bagel. Julia Goerges nearly upset Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova, but fell just short and broke down in tears on court. The upstart and adorable British team, led by new coach Judy Murray, stormed (and tweeted) their way through their competition. Francesca Schiavone (over)-dramatically won a match.
It was a predictably unpredictable Fed Cup weekend, what many would describe as “typical” WTA, and I loved every single minute of it.
It’s been a tumultuous few years for the most popular female sports league in the world. In 2007 the tour seemed invincible when Wimbledon became the final Grand Slam to offer the women equal pay. However, an unfortunate series of events have left the tour in flux ever since. In 2008 World #1 Justine Henin abrubtly retired, leaving a vacuum at the top of the game. With various injuries crippling The Williams Sisters and Sharapova, a group of talented young girls were thrust into the spotlight at the top of the game a bit prematurely. The “Slamless Number One” saga overshadowed everything else, only rivaled in media coverage by the incessant shrieking debate (which often reaked of sexism). Some of the best female athletes on the planet were constantly declared out of shape and mentally weak by the experts of the game, many of whom were former WTA stars themselves. To make matters worst, all of this turmoil transpired simultaneously with the “Golden Era” of the ATP. The more Federer, Nadal, and recently Djokovic dominated the Slams the more it seemed to diminish whatever “product” the WTA tried to produce.
As a WTA fan it’s been a sad few years. Wait- no, I actually don’t mean that at all. It’s been a rollercoaster for sure, but it’s been a blast.
I love parity, I love unpredictability, I love my sports to come with a side of “WTF is going on here?”. I love the fact that every Grand Slam you could pick fifteen women who have a legitimate shot to hold the trophy at the end of two weeks. I love the fact that Schiavone, Li Na, and Samantha Stosur are now Grand Slam Champions. I love that Vera Zvonareva, despite a history of meltdowns that would have made her eligible for the Real Housewives of Russia, made two Grand Slam Finals and climbed to number 2 in the world. I love that Kim Clijsters retired, had a baby, then came back to the tour and won three more Grand Slams- 3 times more than she had pre-motherhood. I love that Sharapova has fought her back from what many feared would be a career-ending shoulder injury and now, at 24, seems poised to be a factor for years to come. I love that Serena went from hospital bed to U.S. Open Final in less than six months. I love that Andrea Petkovic dances in victory. I love that the outspoken Agnieszka Radwanska seems to only win when she’s taped up like a mummy. I love Petra Kvitova’s forehand, Victoria Azarenka’s backhand, Marion Bartoli’s insane serve, and yes- even Caroline Wozniacki’s moonball. (Sometimes).
I love that the best days are yet to come. Champions and superstars Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are sill hungry and fighting for titles. Azarenka and Kvitova, twenty-two and twenty-one respectively, seem unfazed by the pressure of expectations. Clijsters is with us for the rest of the year (and I still not-so-secretly hope for more) and will be extra motivated to win her first French Open and/or Wimbledon trophy. Venus Williams might not ever win another Slam again, but it won’t be without trying like a true Champion to deal with her Sjogren’s Syndrome and find a way to compete on the top level again. Wozniacki will (surely) be determined to regain her spot at the top of the rankings and earn that elusive Slam. Li, Schiavone, and Stosur will all be eager to get rid of the “One Slam Wonder” label. And then of course there’s Svetlana Kuznetsova. Any given Slam.
I don’t think that dominance is the only way to measure success. I don’t think that unpredictability is always a sign of weakness. If you disagree with the prior statements then that’s fine, but I do think that these female athletes deserve heaps more respect than they get on a regular basis.
Yes, I unabashedly love the WTA, flaws and all.
Here we are tennis fans. A new year. Another Grand Slam. Two grueling weeks of non-stop nerves, mind-numbing anxiety, long hours, exhilaration, and meltdowns- and that’s just for us!
Let’s face it- it’s not an easy task being a tennis fan, and sometimes the intensity makes us crumble faster than Mikhail Youzhny in a tiebreak. A Grand Slam doesn’t always bring out the best in us. Some of us choke while others lash out in pressure situations and it isn’t always pretty out there in tennis fandom.
But let’s make this year different. For the 2012 Australian Open let’s do things right.
This year we will come prepared. We will stock up on all of the essentials beforehand. Coffee, liquor, nutritious foods, junk foods, energy shots, vitamins, and- of course- tissues. We won’t have the energy or the willpower to go shopping over the next two weeks, so we will go ahead and do it now. The last thing we want is to find to find ourselves without supplies at the break of dawn in the middle of our favorite headcases’ third set break-fest.
We will be sure to manage our schedules properly. We will be mediocre employees and avoid temptation to volunteer for that extra project at work. We will cancel that family dinner that we’re already resenting and back out of drinks with friends on Saturday night. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for our friends, family, and selves during a Grand Slam is to keep our distance. They don’t want us to fake listen while we check our phones for the latest score. They don’t want to hear about Roger’s back or Svetlana’s fashion mishap or Fernando’s meltdown. We can spare them the boredom and spare ourselves the frustration.
We will follow social media rules and etiquette. It’s easy to get carried away and forget common courtesy, but that’s when things get ugly. This year we will remember the guidelines. When tweeting and facebooking about the results, we will not tag the losing player. We will refrain from tagging them in posts where we are bashing their game, mannerisms, or fashion sense as well. We will do the proper thing and only talk negatively about players behind their backs.
If someone breaks the above rule we will attack them mercilessly.
We will give everyone a break. At some point during the next two weeks we will all feel a little bit like Boris Becker. By Friday there’s a good chance I’ll be searching for Benneteau’s name in the draw, only to remember an hour later that I watched him self-implode on Monday. Between the time-zone differential, the rustiness of a new year (let’s face it, we’re all out of practice with streaming and scoreboard watching), and magnitude of the event we will all lose track of something important at some point. We will give everyone one pass. Of course, if anyone- especially an announcer or journalist- makes two mistakes, we are free to hold it against them forever.
We will know when to walk away. There will come a time for all of us when the best thing we can do is to step away. Whether it’s to take a walk, to actually get some sleep, or to just change the channel, we will not be too bull-headed to pull out of watching a match or two when we know it’s best for our overall mental and physical health.
And most of all fellow tennis fans, this year we will keep our senses of humor. Before we cry, before we throw things, before we lash out at our tennis fan friends and threaten to quit tennis forever, we will take a moment to laugh.
Because as much as we care, as much as we love these player and this game and the crazy stakes of a Grand Slam, at the end of the day it is only a sport. It’s supposed to be fun. So as we’re choking back tears and chowing down on espresso beans and energy shots at 4AM next Friday while toggling between ten matches and suffering from the advanced stages of sleep deprivation, let’s remember that we love this, that it’s hysterical, and that we wouldn’t have it any other way.
With some preparation, perspective, and kindness we can make this the best Grand Slam yet- on our end at least.
There have been a lot of 2011 lists made this month that perfectly sum up the tennis season, shine light on the best and worst matches and spark intellectual debate amongst tennis fans. This is not one of those lists.
Rather I have spent the past week scouring the depths of Tumblr and Tennis Forum, polling on Twitter, and racking my brain to come up with the first (that I’m aware of) all-tennis-gif list! The only rules I set for myself was that it had to be a gif from the 2011 season, and that it couldn’t contain words (an arbitrary rule I admit, but it helped narrow things down).
So sit back, close out some of your other tabs and programs (this is very image heavy- 20 gifs!) and enjoy this unique look back at the 2011 season.
20. Victorious Vika
The always understated Viktoria Azarenka came out of her shell to celebrate a victory at Wimbledon.
19. Best Shot Ever
Mr. Modesty Andy Roddick reacted to his infamous Championship point at Memphis in February.
18. Vegemite Vera
Vera Zvonareva’s poker face was as good as ever as she tried some vegemite at the Australian Open.
17. Ferrer Shrugs
No big deal, David Ferrer. You just beat Novak Djokovic 6-3 6-1 at the World Tour Finals.
16. Bouncing Bartoli
Thirsty girl! Only Marion Bartoli (at the Australian Open) could make sitting look so exhausting and mesmerizing.
15. Dancing Frenchies
The world is just a better place when Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are dancing in it. Together.
14. The Miracle
In February’s Fed Cup tie, Russian teammates Dinara Safina and Maria Sharapova shared a laugh. Then my heart exploded.
13. Dynamite Dani
Daniela Hantuchova upset World #1 Caroline Wozniacki at the French Open, then unleashed her inner dork.
12. Murray’s Shower Surprise
“Like” it or not, Andy Murray caused quite a splash in his Head Racket commercial, released earlier this year.
11. Hungry Fer
If you can’t play tennis, might as well eat a burger. Isn’t that the saying? (Fernando Verdasco at the tie in Austin, Texas)
10. The Petko Dance (+1)
Andrea Petkovic lost the China Open Final, then danced with winner Agnieszka Radwanska. She’s cooler than you are.
9. Jo’s Head Bop
In the Valencia final Juan Martin Del Potro did what we’ve all wanted to do for some time and knocked Tsonga in the head.
8. Sabine Celebrates
If you don’t feel warm fuzzies watching Sabine Lisicki react to her win over Li Na at Wimbledon, you officially don’t have a soul.
7. The Djoker Returns
Work it! Thanks to a rain delay at Wimbledon Novak Djokovic found some time for fun in the midst of all that winning.
6. Federer’s Finger
Roger Federer upset the world #1, ended the winning treak, and then wagged his finger. I’m not sure which was more noteworthy.
5. Gilles and Son
He won the Hamburg title and then gave the cutest high-five ever. It was a good few minutes for Gilles Simon.
4. The Kiss That Missed
Grigor Dimitrov missed his shots on the court and (incredibly awkwardly) at the net in his loss to Gael Monfils at the U.S. Open.
3. Slip, Slide, and Catch
Only Rafael Nadal could make falling look this cool. It’s really just ridiculous.
2. Settle Down
David Ferrer gets excited, Feliciano Lopez calms him down, and the guy in the background remains creepy. A Davis Cup classic.
1. The Disappearing Racket
At first it was there, and then it wasn’t. Radwanska’s Australian Open racket mishap still can’t be beaten- it was by far the best gif moment of the year.
So, there’s my list. What are your favorites? What did I miss? What shouldn’t be here? Sound off in the comments or send me a tweet. And most of all tennis fans and friends, have a Happy New Year!
I really feel bad for the tennis players over the holidays. They work so hard for so little and barely have time to relax! So if I were the Tennis Santa, what would I bring them to lighten their load and bring a smile to their faces during this season of cheer?
The first thing I would wrap up and put under the e-tree would be the Fountain of Youth. Did you know that it’s actually an Archaeological Park in Florida? How cool! I’d pass out a lot of these since quite a few players are at or around the age of doom (30) and could use the assistance turning back the clock and prolonging their tennis primes. I wouldn’t give one to Federer though. He doesn’t need any help.
Speaking of turning back time, I’ve found the perfect gift to help Andy Roddick re-discover his days of glory- or at least his days of hair. The Afro-Visor!
On the other end of the spectrum Robin Soderling just got a new puppy, so I will certainly have to bring him an embarrassing costume for the adorable pet!
I thought I’d get the cerebral Sam Stosur something special to help those match to-do lists stay put. Sweat-bands and sharpies are too finicky of a combination for a Grand Slam Champion! She’ll love these “To-Do Tattoos”.
For Mikhail Youzhny, and maybe the rest of his Russian compatriots, I’d like to try to eliminate the brain farts on the court. Therefore, why not help them get out of their system off the court? The “Brain Fart Whoopie Cushion” should do the trick.
And finally, I’d like to prolong the day that Jelena Jankovic inevitably runs out of entertaining excuses for losing tennis matches. With this “Instant Excuse Ball” the colorful Serbian should have material for years to come!
So that’s my list- what about you? What would you virtually gift to your favorite players if you were the Tennis Santa? Feel free to share in the comments section, or tweet me with your lists. And no matter what you celebrate, be sure to have a safe and happy Holiday season. There’s no time to be too naughty, the new tennis season is just around the corner!
On the evening of Friday August 26, 2011 the eyes of the country were on Hurricane Irene, who was fast approaching the East Coast of North Carolina. Tennis fans had turned their attention to New York, waiting to see how the storm would effect their favorite players and the upcoming U.S. Open.
I was about three-hundred miles inland from the storm watching one of my favorite matches of the year.
At Wake Forest University in a make-shift tennis stadium located underneath the overhang of the football stadium the 43rd ranked player in the world, 10th seeded Robin Haase, took on the 113th ranked player in the world, Qualifier Julien Benneteau, in the semifinals of the inaugural Winston-Salem Open.
As the sun set and provided some relief from the scorching August sun, approximately four thousand locals packed the temporary stadium ready for some Friday night entertainment. Most spectators had bought their tickets long before the order of play had been announced, and were feeling a bit slighted- after all, the afternoon semifinal had been between Andy Roddick and hometown hero John Isner!
During the second point of the match, as the sky was turning orange and the crowd was still settling in, Haase’s forehand clipped the net and dribbled over. Benneteau scampered to the net and made it just in time, awkwardly pitching the ball back over the net. The two men stayed at the net for a twenty shot sensational yet clumsy exchange of volleys and returns before Haase finally was able to angle the ball out of Benneteau’s reach. The Winston-Salem crowd leapt to their feet in appreciation and the two men smiled and laughed before Benneteau jovially reached across the net to shake Haase’s hand. Then the umpire, Somat Madgi, intervened. Apparently during the exchange Haase had reached his racket over the net and therefore the point was automatically awarded to Benneteau. Haase and Madgi had a heated exchange before Haase finally settled back in at the baseline and signaled he was ready to move on- to the third point of the match.
Robin Haase, 24, is a talented Dutchman often recognized as one of the big underachievers in tennis. He hits big and plays aggressive, reminiscent of James Blake at his best only with a little more variety. Coming into the Winston-Salem Open he was soaring at a career high ranking and with his first tournament victory freshly under his belt. He made it to the semifinals with easy victories over James Blake and Pierre Duclos, and with an upset win over #3 seed Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals.
Julien Benneteau,29, is an effervescent Frenchmen, who prances around the court and makes power and precision seem graceful. In 2010 he reached a high ranking of 31 before a wrist injury derailed him, and he came into the Winston Salem Open on the comeback trail. He had to qualify just to get into the tournament and on this Friday night he was playing his eighth match in seven days following three-set come-from-behind escapes against Igor Andreev and Sergiy Stakhovsky.
Early on Haase was clearly rattled from Madgi’s call and Benenteau easily raced out to a 3-1 lead despite not being able to find a first serve. However once Haase started getting balls in play he quickly won five games in a row to win the first set 6-3. When Haase went up a break early in the second set things seemed grim- the excited crowd became restless, worrying that their night might end way too soon. Would Benneteau be able to pull off another magical escape or would the second point of the match be the highlight?
That’s the phenomenal and infuriating thing about tennis- nothing is a guarantee. Anything can happen. Every match has an equal opportunity to be an epic or a complete dud. The most dramatic match can have no memorable rallies and a blow-out can contain points for a highlight reel. You just never know.
Luckily on this beautiful night things were far from over. Benneteau finally found his first serve midway through the second set and managed to take it to a tiebreak, where he saved two match points to extend the match to a third set. It wasn’t without drama though. At one point Benneteau disagreed with one of Madgi’s calls so fiercely that he sat in the back of the court and tried to wait the decision out. (This tactic was not successful, in case you’re wondering).
In the third set, like clockwork, Benneteau fell behind a break. Robin Haase served for the match at 5-4 but his nerves found him once again and he was broken. Benneteau faced one more match point in the third set tiebreak before winning the last three points of the match. Julien Benneteau defeated Robin Haase 6-3 7-6(7) 7-6(6) to make it to the finals of the Winston-Salem Open.
After a two hour and thirty-two minute sometimes sloppy, sometimes sensational, and always dramatic match the Winston Salem crowd was wild with applause. This sport of tennis, with two players most had never heard of before, had made it’s way into their hearts. The energy in the stadium that night was electric and it gave me chills. There are few things more heartwarming than seeing people fall in love with the sport for the first time. As cheesy as it sounds, it makes me fall in love with the sport all over again.
When all was said and done Benneteau danced, and it was unlike anything Winston-Salem had ever seen- I’d call it a mix of the chicken, the robot, and the electric slide. People shouted “Allez” in a southern accent. The man I had seen in qualification rounds on a side court had made it all the way to the finals. It was a magical moment.
For Robin Haase, however, it was another memorable collapse. Every single time he had control he let the match go. When his game is on it’s indescribable, leaving opponents on the other side completely helpless. When his brain turns on and he overthinks things his game often falls to pieces and it’s hard to watch without wincing.
In the big scheme of things this little match didn’t mean much in the narratives of 2011. Maybe the more interesting story to most is whether or not Rafael Nadal win one or two majors this year, if Federer can get to seventeen slams, or whether Djokovic will have the best-ever season or merely a top-5-ever season. But to me that’s like seeing the rich get richer. No disrespect to the top athletes of this sport, but sometimes I think it means more when the players have less. For these two players, for this inagural tournament, for this Friday night crowd this match meant everything.
The majority of Winston-Salem may never learn how to properly pronounce Benneteau or Haase, but I know that none of them will ever forget the match that night- and shouldn’t that count for something?
(Photos c/o Fred and Susan Mullane/Cameraworks USA)
Robin Soderling used to be one of the most misunderstood players on the the ATP World Tour. Nowadays, however, he’s just one of the most missed.
Earlier this week Soderling, who has been off of the tour since July fighting mononucleosis, withdrew from the Australian Open. He tweeted that he was hoping to be able to return to the tour in February. It was heartbreaking news for myself and the rest of the tennis community. Though we haven’t always fully embraced and appreciated the shy but unyielding Swede, the thought of a Soderling-less January just seems completely wrong. Something’s missing, and it hurts.
How did we get here? Did absence make our hearts grow fonder? Did we not know what we had until it was gone? Are we just feeling sympathy for an ailing athlete, or is this group heartache a symptom of something else? Is it possible that, without even realizing it, we all fell a bit in love with Robin Bo Carl Soderling?
The Early Years
What did we know about Robin Soderling the morning of May 31, 2009? Dedicated tennis fans knew him primarily as an indoor-tennis-specialist, a rare breed of player who’s only significant results came when the stadium was closed off from the outside world. He had been in nine finals and won three titles, all indoors on either hard-court or carpet. Unfortunately outside where the rest of the tennis players lived he was seen as an underachiever, another in the endless parade of players who seem destined to never live up to their potential.
He also had a reputation as a, well, to put it nicely- a brat. In a 2007 Wimbledon five-set match against Rafael Nadal he made waves by mocking the French Open Champion and playing mind games (seen in the video below). This ruffled the Spaniard so much that in his post-match interview Nadal made some uncharacteristically harsh comments about his opponent, calling Soderling “strange”, and saying that he had a hard time finding anyone in the locker room with nice things to say about him. Those comments would follow him around for years to come.
I’m not sure that “breakthrough” is a strong enough word for Soderling’s 6–2, 6–7(2), 6–4, 7–6(2) defeat over Rafael Nadal on May 31, 2009 in the fourth round of the French Open. In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not . That match is the tennis world’s “Where were you when…” moment. I’ll never forget the surreal, uncomfortable, queasy feeling I had sitting on my couch that morning watching the upset unfold. Some things in life were certain- death, taxes, and Rafael Nadal winning the French Open. Robin Soderling and his monster forehand knocked the entire tennis world off it’s axis that day. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.
As we all tried to gather our breath and find our footing again in this strange new world, Soderling steamrolled through Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals and survived an epic five-setter against Fernando Gonzales in the semifinals to make it all the way to the French Open final. The man who had never been past the Third Round of a Major and who had never made a Final outdoors on any surface was now facing Roger Federer in the French Open Finals.
Though Soderling lost rather meekly to Federer that day, he shocked the tennis world again during the trophy presentation. His speech was one of the most memorable runner-up speeches ever- sincere, funny, and incredibly endearing. He “yoked” his way into our hearts that afternoon, and showed that his personality was just as complex and surprising as his game had become. (His speech starts at 7:20 in the clip, everything before that is crying Federer.)
So many players are defined by their breakthroughs that the word has become rather transparent. Not Robin Soderling. After the 2009 French Open he was not intimidated by his new-found fame or astronomically increased expectations. He finished 2009 ranked number eight in the world, his first Top Ten finish ever, and powered his way to the Top Five in 2010. He showed no fear going into the 2010 French Open where he had the bulk of his points to defend. He made it all the way back to the final and he did it in style, defeating a guy named Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal got the best of him in the final that year, but one thing was for sure- Robin Soderling 2.0 was not a fluke. He was here to stay, and it was time for the rest of us to get used to it.
Things came full circle in he fall of 2010 when he went back to his beloved indoor courts to win the biggest title of his career, the Paris Masters, by defeating hometown favorite Gael Monfils in the Final.
Despite only playing for seven months and battling nagging injuries and illness for most of the spring, Soderling still managed to win four titles this year. Four!
Tennis is a scarier place when Robin Soderling is around. He has the potential to beat any player on any surface at any time, and he’s proven that he’s not too scared or intimated to do it. Tennis needs that. We as fans need that. This sport is at it’s best when it’s knocked off balance, when it feels like anything is possible, when there are dynamites in the draw.
Let’s face it, we didn’t fall in love with tennis because of the security it provided. That’s not who tennis fans are. We love the heart-attacks, the unpredictability, the nauseating knowledge that nothing is a given. We love the underachievers, the floaters, and especially the villains.
Get well soon, Robin. We can’t wait to have you back.
(Thanks to my twitter followers for sharing their favorite Soderling moments with me this week, especially @A_Gallivant and @ptenisnet for the links to the videos above.)