In July, it was Wimbledon. Now, the U.S. Open, live from New York City. It’s as if the gods of televised tennis are purposely trying to destroy my sleep. The men’s match Friday night began at 10:45 p.m. As the clock slid past 1:30 a.m., I finally had to hit the remote’s “record” button, desperate for sleep.
I later read that Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish phenom, finally cleaned his opponent’s clock at 2:50 a.m. I keep telling myself, “It’s just a game, go to bed.” But it isn’t. I’m devoted, and I don’t want to miss any of it.
I’m beginning to understand how the guys feel every weekend about “the game.” It’s just that my favorite sport televises “the game” every day, every night, for two weeks. Come to think of it, it is like a whole season of football … compressed into one fortnight.
How did this happen? Where did this dedication come from? I was about 12 when two tennis courts were added at the edge of our high school field, a block from my house. During the rare times there was a game going on, usually weekends, I could hear the ball hitting from my backyard. Pok … pok … pok. That was my signal to run to the courts. I was nosy. I needed to see what the pok, pok, pok was all about. Then I became a fixture outside that chain link fence. Watching. Learning. Yearning.
Gradually, I got to know some of the players. One day, one of the older men must have taken pity on me, and asked if I wanted to hit the ball. I was young and impressionable. How hard could it be? Well, it was somewhere between difficult and impossible. A lot harder than it looked. Eventually, he let me borrow his racquet a few times, and taught me some basic strokes along with the rules. I was terrible, but I was hooked.
My first racket was wooden, heavy, and kept in a wooden press to prevent warping.
Within weeks of proud ownership, it was badly scraped up and remained that way for ten years before being replaced. Lessons had to wait until my twenties.
As the years passed of moving every few years, I’d find a court, a game, new tennis friends. I loved the exercise, but what I loved the most was the game itself – my first sport that wasn’t a team sport. It was only me against the opponent, and I loved figuring out her game, her weaknesses, and how to avoid being victimized by her best shots. I loved the strategy of the game. Win or lose, it was all up to me.
In the ’60s, tennis turned professional. This lowly fan dreamed of someday visiting the huge new tennis center in Flushing Meadows, New York. It took years of watching Connors and McEnroe, Chrissy Evert and Martina Navratilova on television before I got there.
Watching a young John McEnroe infuriated and embarrassed me. I thought the abrasive, yelling brat was obnoxious, representing the U.S. in a way I didn’t like. Today, I’ve forgiven him his youthful brashness, and I look forward to his play-by-play commentary and insight into the sport. He’s downright colorful after 1:00 am. Where was he when I was 12? Oh yeah. He was in diapers.
In the ’80s, business took me to the Big Apple a few times a year, including in early September. For the next decade, I traveled to that beautiful Billie Jean King tennis center in Queens, eventually opting for nighttime tickets. I loved it. The air was soft, the crowd typically New York… boisterous, gossipy and hugely enthusiastic.
I was there the night Jimmy Connors played on his 40th birthday and whipped the crowd into a party frenzy. I was watching the game I adored being played at its most outrageous, most contagious, most fun. It was a blast.
It was also in that same era that arthritis claimed my knees, my speed, and alas, my game. I still miss the pure exultation of a day on the courts and the wearily happy lemonade recaps that followed.
Thankfully, technology has made it possible to continue enjoying tennis. All four Grand Slams – the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open – are televised. Wimbledon and ours are about all I can survive.
As I write this on Sunday, young Alcaraz and his Norwegian opponent, Ruud, are hammering each other in the final. The winner will claim his first Grand Slam title – and $2.6 million. Tennis is now big stuff.
I’m glued to it all, still fascinated all these years later, loving every 130 mph serve, every drop shot, every nail-biting tie breaker.
I can always sleep next week. Oh, and the laundry….
Marcy O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]