Here’s what you need to know about my tennis game: It’s non-existent.
I learned to play tennis in high school, managing to master an OK serve. But I had grown up playing racquetball and squash (I lived in a university town with easy access to free courts) in which shot placement is all in the wrist.
In tennis, keeping your wrist straight is paramount. I am unable to do that and, consequently, while my serve goes in, every other shot goes way long, often flying up and over the court-side fence.
Twenty years ago, a friend (who had taught tennis professionally) hit the ball around with me for five minutes. Then, shaking his head mournfully, he said, “You play other sports, right?”
None of which has kept me from being a rabid tennis fan — for watching, not playing — and never more so than during the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, which began last Monday in New York and continues through Sept. 9. (If the rain delays that have plagued its first few days continue, the tournament may have to extend for a day or two past its scheduled end.)
I watch the early matches, when the top-ranked players cruise through easily (if they’re lucky) and promising young players just starting out battle with weary aging veterans looking for one last victory. As the ranks are winnowed, there are always new favorites to discover, examples of courage and fortitude under pressure, marathon matches that go long into the night (Jimmy Connors and Patrick McEnroe in 1991 and James Blake and Andre Agassi in 2005 immediately spring to mind), old rivalries that are revived and new ones established, and the pleasure of immersing yourself in a ritualistic sports contest, even if it’s only as a spectator.
For more than 100 million viewers, that immersion comes every year during the football season and especially the Super Bowl. For others, it’s baseball and the World Series. There’s also basketball and the NBA Championships (which seem to go on longer every year), and hockey and the NHL Finals.
For me, it’s the U.S. Open. I clear my schedule — it helps that the Labor Day weekend always falls during the tournament — and make sure that the TV is working. (Back in 1969, my father bought our first color TV just in time to see the underdog New York Jets, led by Joe Namath, beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.)
More than most others, tennis is an international sport. At the U.S. Open, the best players from around the globe (at least those who’ve made it through the season without major injuries) go mano a mano, armed with nothing more than a racket.
On any given day, any male player ranked in the Top 100 can potentially beat the No. 1 player if he’s in the zone, or if No. 1 is having an off day. (There’s not as much depth in the women’s ranks; there, only the top 20 players have a realistic shot at unseating a No. 1 without it being a headline-making upset.)
With tennis, unlike most contact sports, careers can last ten and even twenty years. Jimmy Connors played for nearly two decades and Martina Navratilova won a mixed doubles title at the U.S. Open in 2006 at age 49. Over time, you come to know and love these players, to appreciate both their finesse and their idiosyncrasies.
Just look at two-time U.S. Open single title winner Venus Williams who, 15 years after first making her debut at the Grand Slam tournament, bowed out, possibly for good, earlier this week after losing in the second round. We first saw her there as a prodigiously talented teenager, all impossibly long, Gumby-like arms and legs and with beaded braids flying. Fifteen years later, she’s 33, prone to exhaustion because she suffers from an autoimmune disease, but still capable of the occasional brilliant diving save of a point or a 115-mph serves.
I’ve attended the U.S. Open in person a few times and always enjoyed it. But, honestly, unless you have a gazillion dollars or are there at the invitation of a friend with high-priced corporate seats, the view of the matches is much better on TV.
These days, I actually watch on my laptop at the U.S. Open website — Roger Federer is dominating Carlos Berlocq in a second round match as I type this — or on my iPad using the U.S. Open’s app. If you have a decent broadband connection, it’s just like watching on TV, only on a smaller screen and without as many annoying commercials.
This year, just as I do every year while watching the U.S. Open, I find myself wondering if maybe, with a little practice and effort, I couldn’t learn to play after all. But then, to paraphrase that famous quote attributed to Robert Benchley and various others, I just lie back and wait until the urge passes.