By David Gertler
I rushed home from school, my heart vibrating against my chest. I wasn’t expecting this. How could I? Serena had never lost in the first round before, how could I ever expect this journeywoman named Virginie Razzano to challenge, let alone come close to beating an all-time great?
But, that’s the reality that faced me as I hurried into my house and turned on a grainy tennis feed to watch the unheralded Razzano take down Williams in three sets, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3. The adulating crowd’s cheers felt like spikes raining down on me.
But, I realized in hindsight, that this was a defining moment in my sports fandom. A casual tennis fan might shrug off the loss, saying to themselves “Ok that sucks…when does Nadal play?”
For me, this meant something more. I felt true emotions about that match and the outcome. I wanted Serena to come back strong and prove that, despite the pulmonary embolism that nearly cost her everything.
For the rest of the 2012 season, I lived and died by Serena’s Wimbledon and US Open matches. I sat on the edge of my seat as she somehow survived roadblock matches against Zheng Jie and Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon. I cheered with pure joy as she won the Wimbledon title in three sets over Aga Radwanska.
I agonized over her tight US Open final against Victoria Azarenka, feeling more relief than anything else.
Feeling relief instead of joy was yet another indication that I was truly becoming a die-hard fan.
I had always liked tennis, playing it for fun when I was younger and enjoying the strategic battles that often reminded me more of chess than any other sport.
I had been a casual fan for quite some time, but it was truly that Serena-Razzano match that made tennis something more than that for me.
From there, I started watching more and more, and by 2014 had really gotten into the ATP Challenger Tour as well.
The Challenger Tour interested me because it was truly the defining stage of men’s tennis. Young prospects trying to make it to the top of the game, journeymen playing out their career, injured players trying to make their comeback, it was all on display on the free-to-watch Challenger streams.
The ATP Challenger Tour separated the future stars from the players that would flame out. Played in front of sparse crowds for (way-too-little) money, it showed who was willing to put it all out there for their career as a professional tennis player.
It was so cool, for instance, to see Frances Tiafoe grow into the player he is today. Tiafoe lost his first five Challenger finals, four in three sets, and his first three from a set up.
Yet, Tiafoe persevered and finally won one, beating Marcelo Arevalo in the 2016 Granby Challenger. From Granby until now, Tiafoe has won six Challenger finals in a row and even has an ATP Tour title to his name in Delray Beach.
Watching players navigate the Challenger Tour almost feels like you’re watching them grow up.
It’s this combination of high-quality tennis and players’ individual stories, both inside and outside the sport, that make tennis such a cool sport to follow.
And I don’t plan to stop following the sport anytime soon.