The Proving Ground and The Magic

As much as we may want to separate it because “it’s only a game,” the fact is that the ring, the courts, and the field are all part of life, and life intrudes on these spaces even as they carve out a realm of action that reveals a side of humanity just as poignantly as the novelist or the actor does. In my case, it started off with basketball — the sport that can be played with a ball, a floating circle, and one, two, or ten players. In my teens, I pivoted into a fascination with the history and the art of one of the oldest and most brutal sports: the sweet science of prizefighting. I studied the old footage and the rivalries and read Muhammad Ali’s autobiography The Greatest with deep appreciation. There would be one more sport to discover just as I was turning seventeen, leading into a lifetime of switching roles from watcher to competitor and back again across an array of backyards, fields, and courts.

So came tennis into the picture for me in 1989 in the form of the green grass of Wimbledon hosting the lightning serve and the aggressive net play of #3 seed Boris Becker of Germany. In those days, HBO showed the early round matches, and I was out of school for the summer. I had never really sat down and closely watched a tennis match before that moment. There was something about the pomp and quiet buzz of the old Centre Court stadium. Oh sure, I’d grown up with John McEnroe, Chris Evert, and Connors on the TV, but we were more likely to be watching the Phillies or the Sixers in those days as opposed to tennis matches. In that ’89 Wimbledon, it must have been in an early round match that I saw a player try to hit a lobbed ball over Boris’s head; his back was almost turned. In a split-second decision, he leapt upward from the grass and brought the racket in a windmilling motion and with a hammer strike and flick of the wrist slammed the ball down with a thwacking bounce on the opponent’s court for the point. That single point in the tournament reeled me in to the sport and instantly made me a Becker fan. He went on to defeat world #1 Ivan Lendl and to win the championship over Stefan Edberg, so it was a magical introduction to the serve and volley version of this sport.

In those same years, I was waking up on Sunday mornings to watch Randall Cunningham quarterback the Philadelphia Eagles against the teams of the NFC East, but more importantly, I was at the beginning of my years of playing pickup basketball. I had never been much of a joiner in my youth, so I missed out on organized sports through the school years while I was nerding out with science fiction and collectibles. My experience was a contrast from my father, who must have told me as many as 15 or 20 times about that clutch jump-shot he hit in his 8th grade basketball team’s 19-18 championship victory in the new gym for which his mother had raised the funds. I, on the other hand, found my way into a streetball game with my father in March of 1990 in what became an unforgettable moment. We fell way behind by a margin of 18 baskets to 10, but despite the deficit, my father at 45 years old turned on his best defense and ball distributing skills while I made one key rebound and a basket — a double stat, the old gym rat would say. We won the game, and months later, I started going to that park in South Ardmore two or three nights of every summer week. I was a left-hander, and I developed a jump hook-shot that my opponents might view quizzically or even with laughter — until they had to start covering it. Years later, sometimes my father would give me a sneaky look and remind me of that 18-10 deficit in a game that we went on to win 21-20.

Image: Varun Kulkarni / Pixabay

As a child, I had often gone with my dad’s family to see my uncle Danny play basketball for Haverford High School. My grandmother attended every home game and recorded his stats with religious accuracy. Danny was a shooting guard with a dynamic but shrewdly efficient style of play, and he was one of the best high school players in the Pennsylvania suburbs by the time he was a senior. I remember being in those full, echoing gymnasiums, watching his games and occasionally sneaking under the stands as the game roared on. At home I would switch between reenacting Dr. J’s 76ers playing the Los Angeles Lakers and Danny’s Haverford Fords (yes, the car) playing the Radnor Raiders (now Raptors) with my Nerf basketball set. Dan was on a short list of good-looking, standout high school athletes in the area, and now an image comes back to my mind: a long-lost, post-game photograph of me with one of the best basketball players from the Pennsylvania Main Line suburbs. I am posing with flushed cheeks and a big smile and holding up my finger in a “we’re number one” gesture alongside of the great forward Dion Irons, who was in his green and yellow Springfield Cougars uniform. I wish I still had that photo. The young athlete’s amiable expression and the look on my face together tell a story about the inspirational aura of sports.

Through my college years, my dad and I continued to play basketball at South Ardmore. Sometimes there were daylong winning streaks filled with camaraderie, and other times there were arguments, dirty fouls and rancor — kind of like life itself but magnified. Sport runs deep in our families and in American culture, marking memories and eras. A great-grandfather of mine had been an amateur boxer just after World War I, and Meredith’s maternal grandfather Gene played college basketball during the next global conflict. Half a century later, as I watched the 1990s come into their own identity, the ascendancy of Michael Jordan arrived as both a basketball talent and a new media star. In those same years, Boris Becker competed against increasingly long odds versus a trio of American competitors in Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and the energetic Andre Agassi. On the ladies’ side, the comprehensive athleticism and will of Martina Navratilova was giving way to the brilliant play of the younger Steffi Graf. The Williams Sisters would take the courts by storm before the end of the decade.

In early 2004, as I was preparing to embark on my career as a high school English teacher, I began to increasingly hear the name of a player from Switzerland who was beginning to dominate the major tennis tournaments: Roger Federer. During those summers, in the mid-2000s, I would watch the Wimbledon matches in the morning and then go out to that same tree-lined basketball court in Ardmore to try to get into games of 5 on 5. My father was nearing 60 years old, so I was more often going there by myself. Basketball was my mill and my proving ground; tennis was a global event that I little understood but couldn’t pull myself away from watching.

The question comes to mind — why tennis? I had never played the sport, so after Boris Becker drew my attention, what kept it? In some ways, my answer goes back to the sport of boxing. I was such an enthusiastic fight fan that I had created my own homemade boxing game based on role playing game principles. I had watched and collected old videos of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson while also following the career of Mike Tyson. However, after a decade of following the sport, I could see that boxing was leaving a trail of ruined careers, brains, and lives. The sport had such a rich history that mirrored some of American society’s most pivotal events such as Jack Johnson’s clashes with both opponents and the color line or Joe Louis’s symbolic and inspirational World War II era battles. Nevertheless, for me the sport was dead on arrival by 2000, and I’ve never been remotely interested in the off-putting boxing/martial arts mash up that is known as ‘ultimate fighting.’

Singles tennis had the one-on-one confrontation of boxing without the element of unavoidable physical harm or the parasitic people who managed the fighters. Tennis was the same kind of contest of will, strength, and finesse as a boxing match — and in men’s singles with 5 set contests at the major Grand Slam tournaments, the sport required incredible endurance. Tennis also had something that really no other sport had: distinctive surfaces that shaped the game and the expectations of its competitors.

In the 1990’s I had to respect the singular effectiveness of Pete Sampras and his booming serve on the Wimbledon grass and hardcourts of the U.S. Open, but I had looked for players who could emerge to challenge him and inject new rivalries into the sport. After Sampras, in 2004 Federer was driving toward the pinnacle of the sport on those same courts. With his elegantly swept one-handed backhand, laser service game, and the ability to shorten points down to a minimum of options for his opponent, Federer was poised to thoroughly dominate the sport for the years to come. I was searching the landscape for a new kind of player who could successfully challenge him.

It turns out that to find that player, I needed to watch a different version of this same sport: clay court tennis. A player from Spain named Rafael Nadal was pouncing around the red, dusty courts of western Europe and honing his own brand of high energy tennis. He took charge of Roland Garros, the only clay court Grand Slam tournament, and in time, he would break Roger’s winning streak on the Wimbledon grass in a historic five-set match in 2008. At that same time, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and the Scotsman Andy Murray were also showing signs that they would make a lasting mark on the sport.

Image: Pexels / Pixabay

In the history of sports both ancient and modern, there have been droves of talented athletes, memorable personalities, and more sparsely, forward-thinking activists. The rare players who combine all three of these qualities are able to elevate both the level of play in the sport and the social consciousness of people around world. Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King are two such athletes who have helped to show that sports can be a platform for both competitive genius and positive change. Ali refused to take the step forward to be inducted into the U.S military during the Vietnam War on the basis that his country needed to change its treatment of its Black citizens and the fact that he had no quarrel with the government of North Vietnam. Ms. King was in the midst of a dominant tennis career when she took up the added challenge of setting a new path for women’s tennis by founding the Virginia Slims tennis circuit as part of the Original 9. This organization became the Women’s Tennis Association and ushered in a period of greater standing and better pay for women’s tennis. Tennis’s Big 4 as they have been called, have been much more known for their on-court efforts, but Andy Murray has taken the baton in his own modest way from activists of the past by speaking out on behalf of the concerns of women players and as a thoughtful voice on political issues in a matter-of-fact way.

From 2005 through 2020, over 15 years of rivalries, changes of seasons and surfaces, injuries, controversies, winning streaks, and occasional upsets of an historic nature, This Big 4 has spun a story of staggering prowess and brilliance under pressure. At 36 years of age, Roger Federer achieved that which was previously unthinkable in the men’s game, winning a record 20th Grand Slam singles championship in Melbourne in 2018. Both Nadal and Novak Djokovic would forge onward in the seemingly impossible goal of tying and surpassing Roger. Along the way, Djokovic called upon a retired all-time great to serve for several years as his coach — the colorful personality who is Boris Becker.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray had gone on to win his second Wimbledon singles title in 2016, but unfortunately a hip injury in the following year put him on the verge of an early retirement at 31 years of age. All this time, Serena Williams emerged as the runaway ladies’ champion of her era, surpassing her sister Venus and eventually winning the Australian Open in 2017 for her astonishing 23rd major — even doing so during the beginning months of her pregnancy.

During this time I continued to play basketball and shadowbox out in the backyard — except in 2011, the backyard had changed from one in the suburbs of Pennsylvania and the streets of Philly to the Capital of Texas. In Austin, I took advantage of the trails and green spaces and drew inspiration from another outspoken athlete: the Oregon track star named Steve Prefontaine. In his brief life and fiery career as a middle-distance runner in the 1970s, Prefontaine was known for his big attitude and domination of races from the opening pistol. He was also known to shake up his sport and the status quo as an activist on behalf of amateur athletes and against the arbitrary restrictions of the Amateur Athletic Union. For me, Pre brought out the appeal of committing to a run and — just as Bruce Lee said about martial arts — finding self-expression through this form of exertion.

The old loyalties and rivalries in the sports world were occasionally stirred by a Cinderella championship run, including a Phillies World Series title back in 2008 and most memorably when in early 2018, I watched from Austin while holding a five-month old girl as the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the dynasty of the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl that provided a long-awaited first for Southeastern Pennsylvanians and the region’s diaspora of fans that stretched even as far as Northern Ireland in our family. In 2013, I had lost John, so watching the Birds or seeing Nadal play for the US Open championship were things that connected my old life to the present in a bittersweet way. He had been my biggest fan and my most frequent teammate in my informal competitive life. In one pickup b-ball game probably back in ’93 or so, I was posting up while being covered by a guy who was friendly with us. John was dribbling up top over to my side of the court, and I was moving into position when the guy quietly said to me, “Here comes your pass.” I could just about hear the slight, sideways smile in his voice. He was right.

While sports hold a religious level of devotion for millions of fans globally, I have to acknowledge that being overly invested in this world of competition can have a number of downsides, particularly in collegiate and professional sports. The resources put into organized sports often seem to be at odds with the priorities of a serious and compassionate society. I’ve already cited the layers of danger and the harms caused by prizefighting, but the revelations about the extent of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) as a widespread malady in current and ex-football players have really given me pause in my once vibrant enthusiasm for that sport.

Meredith’s father and her late uncle knew quite well the challenges of the professional side of sports. Her uncle Rob had been a flanker for Texas Tech University, and he had gone on to a significant career as an assistant coach for several collegiate programs and later as a high school athletic director. My father-in-law had been a formidable tight end in college for the SMU Mustangs and had played professionally for a Louisiana franchise known as the Shreveport Steamer in the first iteration of the World Football League in the mid-1970s. The two brothers had even played each other when their schools squared off on the field one season. They competed in the face of uncertainty, occasional injury, and the pressure to succeed in a game with high stakes and then, maybe just as difficult, to make the most of life after the walk off the field.

In most cases in the world of sports from recreational to amateur to professional, the goal is ultimately to win, but the real imperative and the great joy of sports for me are found primarily in going out there and playing well. I’m not saying I don’t want the victory, but there is another dimension to sport besides defeating an opponent. There is the competition within the self, the sense that I am getting better and exploring more of my potential as a player and as a human. It’s connected to the way in which runners are often more interested in their individual times rather than what place they finish in a race. Playing well also includes sportsmanship, which reinforces that no matter the level or age of the players, the regard for one’s teammates and opponents alike is essential.

The 2020’s have not proven to be the best vision for which we might have hoped in life and sport. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wimbledon was cancelled in 2020 for the first time since World War II. The previous year, Novak Djokovic had asserted his primacy at the event by fighting off two match points to roar back and defeat Roger Federer for that coveted championship. However, 2020 had its own strange logic and alienating pattern, and the fortunes of Djokovic tracked in this way as he made the error of organizing an exhibition tournament for charity in the midst of a global tide of coronavirus. A number of players became infected, and the final was cancelled. Later on in New York, Djokovic was defaulted when he carelessly struck a ball away that ended up hitting a line judge in the throat. He was later defeated by Nadal resoundingly in an out-of-season French Open final.

In 2021, Andy Murray defied the odds and came back to Wimbledon with a metal hip and the desire to compete again. Djokovic was playing unmatched tennis, having scored a rare victory against an ailing Nadal on his favorite clay in Paris, and Djoker went on to add another Wimbledon title to his resume with an inexorable win over “the hammer” of Italy, Matteo Berrettini. After two weeks of dominating the New York nights at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, Djokovic found himself one match from surpassing Nadal and Federer for a record 21 majors — with the additional stakes of winning all four Grand Slams in a single year. For the championship, #1 ranked Djokovic would play #2 ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia.

In the same September in which Medvedev dealt Djokovic a stunning defeat in New York, Meredith decided it was time that I start to learn about this sport firsthand. She signed me and Natalie up for our first ever tennis lessons one cool Sunday morning. We brought our brand-new rackets to our respective courts, and in the “redball” class for 3- to 4-year-olds, Natalie warmed our hearts by seeming to take to the sport with enthusiasm in her first on court experience. That morning I had the benefit of a relatively young player-teacher who must have been on the pro tour fairly recently: by his own account, he had once played then-U.S. Open Champion Medvedev. It was an admittedly thin connection, but John loved those kinds of markers of proximity to greatness, no matter how slight the link.

Back in the mid-1980s while he was working on his songs in L.A., John was playing pick-up basketball and 3-on-3 games when he squared off with a high school senior named Paul and beat him in one-on-one. The kid was so impressed playing with and against my 40-something dad in only a few meetings that he asked John to coach him and his friends in a tournament. I believe it was sponsored by McDonald’s, and according to Johnny’s own legend, they made it into the final eight before they were eliminated. As a result of the surprisingly good showing by the unheralded team and Johnny’s courtside coaching antics, he was invited to play in a “VIP” basketball game. Watching from courtside his players made a bet with another spectator: if John gets in the game, no matter how little time he is on court, he will score. My father got his chance. Shortly after entering the game, he caught a pass and released a baseline jump-shot somewhat casually. His shot was blocked by a fellow VIP playing on the other team — Olympic high jumper Dwight Stone. The next time John caught a pass on the wing while readying one more (and likely his last shot) he pump-faked, watched his defender sail past him, and arced his shot right through the net. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his players celebrating in the stands while the game’s announcer, LA Lakers coach Pat Riley, called out “…And that’s the Music Man, John S–!” In that way, John brought out the magic of sport.

In January of 2022, after a saga that burned across social media and breaking news reports, Novak Djokovic was detained and eventually deported from Melbourne, Australia for not having received the Covid-19 vaccine. Two weeks later, it was quite a strange Sunday morning as I snoozed on a foldout mattress nursing my own Covid-19 infection while keeping tabs on my six-month old son, when I woke up to a buzzing alert on my phone that Rafael Nadal had become the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles with an unheard-of, from-the-brink comeback win against Medvedev 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. Months later on the red clay in Paris, with cortisone injections in his ailing foot, Rafa won another 4-hour war in the quarterfinal with Djokovic and went on to make it 22 in ’22.

The twists didn’t end there. In the spring, Boris Becker was sentenced to a jail term for violating the legal requirements of his bankruptcy, and after the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia, The All England Lawn and Tennis Club instituted a ban on Russian and Belarusian players from participating in the Championships at Wimbledon. Medvedev and his compatriots were barred from the competition. Djokovic tore through a politically and medically decimated field and claimed his own 21st Grand Slam, close on the heels of the new leader. Amazingly, in the men’s singles championships held at Wimbledon over the last 20 years, only Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray have been the winners. This elite level of performance by these four players has been a gift to those of us who have had the time and the good fortune to follow these storylines. The rare breakthrough performances of new faces in these years such as Juan Martin del Potro in New York and Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros helped to underscore just as clearly the high standards of this competitive era.

In the summer of 2022, I was home on a rare evening by myself in Austin and went to the park across from our neighborhood. I met a group of guys in their 20s and early 30s who were playing half-court basketball, and just as I would have done in Philly or Jersey years ago, I introduced myself and ended up playing a game with them when one of them had to drop out and leave. I hadn’t played basketball with anyone in three years, but I had been practicing occasionally in the Texas heat. I managed to make a couple of shots and held up my end of the bargain on defense, but I was tired. Then, with the contest on the line and a lucky bounce here or there, I caught a pass, squared up, and hit the game-winning shot. I decided not to tell them that soon I would be turning 50. It was just good to be on the court again. This same summer, our little blonde-haired boy was taking his first steps and saying his first few words. I find it appropriate and probably a fitting tribute to a pair of grandfathers and two dearly missed uncles that one of those first words was simply “ball.”

Austin, TX