The lonely sport
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Music at changeovers and fans hooting from the top tier. You want silence, go to a cemetery. This is the US Open. It’s alive. One year, 1977, a spectator is hit by a bullet in the leg. One year, Boris Becker says, “You can play a saxophone in the stands and nobody cares.” But all this is just the beginning. Because amid all this, your rival is slapping backhands down the line, he’s Garry Kasparov in sneakers with a sneer, reading your moves, his shots scattering your concentration, and you desperately need a counter-strategy, a plan, something, but there is no help allowed during a match, no voice allowed to calm you, no coach allowed to guide you.
This is what makes tennis fun, unique, cruel. This is the game Andre Agassi called the “closest to solitary confinement”.
Tennis doesn’t look brutal. No one wears a helmet, a mouthguard, a crotch protector. No one touches you—though historically in the locker room the odd fisticuffs are not unknown. No one even curses you unless you’re the umpire, and in New York even Roger Federer once goes “don’t ****ing tell me the rules” to the chair.
But tennis is worse than violent. It’s lonely. Just you, the other guy, and 15,000 bystanders to your brawl.
Sport needs words. Players need advice. This is human. So my tennis partner and I have a weekend plan. It involves scotch-taping a sheet of paper to the backdrop of our court with these instructions.
“Place the second serve.”
“Don’t push the ball, hit it.”
We’re playing for nothing but cheap bragging rights, yet in our tiredness we forget our tactical way, in our despair we abandon our basics.
Not just us either. Tennis players, Serena Williams included, often pull out crumpled notes. Ahsha Rolle, once a mid-level player, kept them in her Bible. “Stay focused,” she wrote. “You can do it,” she reminded herself. Andy Murray’s piece of paper this year, which he glanced at during changeovers, advised him to “be good to yourself”, “try your best” and “be intense with your legs”.
This doesn’t quite sound like tennis’ version of notes from a brilliant José Mourinho match-plan. This is prosaic stuff, schoolboy basics, ho-hum instruction. But it’s what the player needs, clarity amid the clutter. Even just plain reassurance will do. Like Pete Sampras, his game in tatters at Wimbledon one year, reading a note from his wife, Bridgette, which was addressed to “My husband—seven times Wimbledon champion—Pete”.
These notes are the only words a tennis player will get. He has no boxing cornerman shouting into his ear, no Angelo Dundee shouting at Sugar Ray Leonard in 1981, “You’re blowing it, son. You’re blowing it”, till Leonard rallied to beat Tommy Hearns. He has no half-time inspiration offered to him, no real-life coach telling him, as Al Pacino did in Any Given Sunday, “We are in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me, and we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light.”
He has no badminton coach with a firm hand on the shoulder after a first game lost and no unblinking table tennis guru telling him to increase his topspin revolutions. He’s got no football teammate to hide behind, no fellow batsman to offer counsel on a pitch, no caddie polishing his racket.
He can look pleadingly at his coach’s box, pray for signals and even get a few, berate his coach, semaphore his despair. He can be lifted by a fist pump from his team, and even Roger Federer needs this now, and there is something poignant about sport wherein even the great poet in his winter needs reinforcement that he has not lost his way.
It’s lonely out there.
Footballers don’t travel like tennis players, neither do basketballers, nor almost anyone; not so far, not so often, across borders, past oceans. The cricketer’s tour has a settled duration, the average tennis player isn’t sure how many nights he’ll stay. He wins to stay relevant, earn points, pay the salary of a coach, buy the ticket of a girlfriend, without whom the court gets even lonelier.
Sometimes, it seems sport is over-reliant on the over-celebrated coach who interprets the play for you, guides, warns, exhorts. But in tennis “think for yourself” isn’t an idea, a suggestion, it’s the truth. As matches turn and twist—maybe Stan Wawrinka is throwing forehand grenades or Federer is half-volleying your return and springing to the net—it’s annoying, it’s bewildering, but what are you going to do?
It is solution-finding and problem-solving with someone in your face and exhaustion in your head. In Björn Borg’s book, My Life And Game, he writes of his 1977 Wimbledon final against Jimmy Connors. He has a point for a 5-0 lead in the fifth set. He lets it go and before he knows it Connors is at 4-4. “I almost started to cry,” wrote Borg. Yet the Swede keeps his composure, the American mistakenly changes his daring game plan and Borg has his second Wimbledon title.
Novak Djokovic, who goes on 5-hour runs on a tennis court, sliding and stretching, somehow staying lucid when the tired brain wants to shut down, is staggering. Yet the same player, in the French Open final this year, gets tight, he hits short, he’s not his authoritative self. Becker might have calmed him down but Becker is not allowed to say anything. Only watch him fall.
For the purist, the man alone in the arena is essential to the game’s charm. For traditionalists it is, therefore, unthinkable that women allow on-court coaching on their tour (though not at the four majors). But for a tennis businessman who deals in practicality, this may be the future.
Sport, he tells me, has to engage fans, involve them, bring them closer to the game, take them inside it and make money in the process. On-court coaching, with coaches miked up, is one way. For some it makes for a better spectacle, for others it means smarter tennis. In Borg’s book, published in 1980, the Romanian, Ion Tiriac, is quoted as saying: “Coaching has improved every other game. Why should tennis be any different?”
On-court interviewing is the latest gimmicky leap. On the first day of the US Open, former player Pam Shriver (representing ESPN) interviewed Coco Vandeweghe after the first set, during a changeover. It made you wonder how far sport is willing to go to get attention and how much of itself it is willing to lose to attract fans.
When Serena Williams was asked about it, she said, “I think it’s great for some viewers”, but then she added this: “For me, I’m really focused the whole time.... I’m really trying to think about what I want to do. I don’t necessarily want to answer questions about anything. I just want to be in that moment and kind of focused. That’s kind of the integrity of tennis when you think about it.
“It’s just you on the court. It’s not a reporter. It’s not a coach. It’s just you in that moment. I kind of love that. It’s the only sport where you have that.”
One day, like so much of sport, this part of tennis will be gone. Coaches will rule on court. Players will listen. TV will intrude. But till then the loneliness of the game is to be treasured. It is compelling to watch players make tactical errors, not hold their temper, not be decisive. And then somehow find a way through and fight fear, quieten nerves, create solutions. They draw out their own greatness, they soothe their tortured selves. They wear embarrassment alone and they triumph by themselves.
It is truly an individual sport, it is intense sport. It’s why, maybe, in the end, when it’s all done, they cry.
Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Strait Times, Singapore.
Also read | Rohit Brijnath’s previous Lounge columns.