Tennis Origin Story #14: Owen Lewis

Melbourne, 2009. The Australian Open was coming to a scintillating end, with Rafael Nadal defying the limits of his physical endurance as well as fierce performances from Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer to win his first and only major title Down Under. Coincidentally, my family was on vacation in Melbourne that very week. We didn’t have tickets to the tournament, but my parents were spellbound watching those last two matches on TV. My dad rooted for Federer in the final, my mom for Nadal. 

My seven-year-old-self was asleep in the next room of our hotel. 

Most of what I remember from that week was the insane heat. Every day we were there, I think, the temperature hit at least 43 degrees Celsius. It topped out at 47 — 117 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest weather I’ve experienced to date. The simple act of stepping off an air-conditioned bus into the thick heat made me tired. I recall a kind stranger wafting air towards me with her fan and being grateful, but too lethargic to express my thanks beyond a weary smile.

While I was longing for stronger air conditioning, Rafa was racing around Rod Laver Arena in the slightly cooler night temperatures. He won his semifinal and final in five sets, playing for over nine hours across the two matches. Around eleven years after this, I watched his semifinal match with Verdasco in full on YouTube. For five hours and 14 minutes, I was spellbound: at the lefty patterns, at Verdasco’s bravery to go for risky winners constantly (he would hit 95 of them before double faulting on match point), at Nadal’s willingness to sprint for bullets or tightly angled shots until the last ball. It was the greatest tennis match I had ever seen, its consistent quality easily exceeding that of the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final in 2008 in my view. (People seem to forget that Federer lost five straight games to lose the second set.)

Sadly, I had to wait a while before becoming a huge tennis fan. Had I stayed up late one summer night in 2009, it may have happened much earlier. I would have been able to watch the legendary five-hour, 53 minute Djokovic-Nadal clash, Serena Williams coming within inches of the Calendar Slam in 2015…I would have been able to witness the Golden Era. These hypotheticals are starting to bum me out, so let’s move on. 

*****

I actually have one other tennis memory from 2009 — my parents told me that Andy Roddick had lost to Roger Federer in a very close Wimbledon final. I was deeply disappointed. My family lived in New Zealand until early 2010, and while we still lived there, I had this idea that the US was the greatest place on Earth. I was born in Washington, D.C., and always wanted to move back. In a moment of unfortunate irony, I didn’t realize that New Zealand was actually preferable to me, with nicer people and better food, until we actually did return to the States. But in 2009, my America-bias was still raging, so I was sad about Roddick losing. 

“Will he ever have a chance to win another one?” I recall asking my parents in a moment of distress. 

“Probably not,” they responded. It was my first taste of how infuriatingly conclusive tennis matches can be. Some create intrigue for the next matchup; others seem to say the winner could have won by even more, and they’re never going to lose to that opponent again. Still others are more about the stage than the result, and in retrospect, it was apparent Roddick’s last, best chance to win a Wimbledon final had passed. (Roddick at least got that elusive win over Federer in Miami three years later, though I was unaware of it at the time.)

In 2013, I started taking tennis lessons at a club, where my peers would mention professional players. I didn’t follow tennis myself, but Tennis Channel would play inside the club, so I would inevitably catch bits of whatever match from the archives was playing. As the Federer-Djokovic rivalry ramped up towards the end of the 2015, I recall rooting for Federer out of sheer name recognition from that Roddick memory six years prior. Federer had been the best back then, so I wanted him to be the best now. As Djokovic repeatedly beat Federer at the majors, my preferences strengthened. I didn’t want Djokovic to catch Federer in the head-to-head; I didn’t want him to win any more majors. Federer kept going deep in the big events, but why couldn’t he beat Djokovic? It annoyed me, and I didn’t even watch these matches, I only heard about the results.

*****

Federer-Djokovic might have drawn my attention towards tennis, but the first tennis I watched at length was the Wawrinka-Murray semifinal at Roland-Garros in 2016. It wasn’t the amazing physicality of elite clay tennis that stuck out to me while I watched, it was the scoring system. The fight. As I watched Murray put on a virtuoso display to take a two-set lead on Wawrinka, I craved more drama. I wanted a closer match. With Murray cruising, it didn’t look likely. In the third set, though, Wawrinka started going for more on his shots. He fist-pumped often, pointing to his head and shouting “allez!” The celebrations didn’t strike me as over-the-top, they looked incredibly cool and confident.

I was spellbound. Here was a player who was clearly dead in the water, yet he was playing and acting as if he could still win. If he was faking it, he was a fantastic actor. Not only that, but the sport was telling me that no matter how far behind someone was, if they started to play better than their opponent, comebacks were possible. This wasn’t the case in several other sports. Tennis, I could already tell, was something special. 

Wawrinka won the third set — giving me hope — and lost the fourth to another burst of error-free tennis from Murray. I remember watching Murray knock clay off his shoes with his racket before serving and thinking he looks invincible, a feeling that stuck with me for hours after the match. I remember Martina Navratilova casually saying “flawless tennis” as a stat popped up showing Murray had made something like two unforced errors in the fourth set. Djokovic might be the #1 seed, I thought, but there’s no way this guy is losing the final. 

Murray did lose, of course, despite winning the first set. I was irritated at how big the difference evidently was between the #3, #2, and #1 seeded players. And Djokovic’s tennis, even more solid in its metronomic reliability than Murray’s, annoyed me as well (though I did admire the disguise on his backhand drop shots). There was also an allure to my frustration, though. Those seeding numbers clearly had to have been earned, matches clearly had to be closed out even after building leads. Plus, the way Djokovic had fallen to the clay after winning the final had been intriguing. I wanted to see a celebration like that again. 

After Roland-Garros, I started to watch the ATP players at the majors with increasing frequency. At Wimbledon in 2016, I got to watch Federer in real time for the first time. I loved his coolness on court, which made it more special when he fist-pumped or yelled. I loved the crisp sound of racket meeting ball when he was connecting cleanly with his groundstrokes. He beat Marin Čilić from two sets down, saving three match points. It was incredible. The next round brought me crashing down to earth: Federer lost to Milos Raonic, squandering a two-sets-to-one lead and getting injured early in the fifth set. I was devastated — at the blown lead, the injury, and at Raonic’s comparatively flat final performance after his dynamic takedown of Federer. The sadness didn’t kill my enthusiasm for the sport, though. I watched more men’s tennis through 2017, being thrilled at Federer’s legendary Australian Open victory and taking plenty of schadenfreude from his revenge win over Raonic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals that year.

In 2018, the Australian Open on the women’s side wowed me as Halep, Kerber, and Wozniacki showed near-superhuman endurance to play a plethora of epic matches. The Halep-Kerber semifinal, in particular, blew my mind. Both players saved two match points in the middle of the deciding set, one with a winner and one via the opponent’s unforced error. The symmetry was stunning, and it had happened in the middle of a set of some of the most amazing long rallies I had ever seen. Halep eventually fell two games short of winning the title after playing for three and a half hours to beat Lauren Davis in the third round, then another two hours and 20 minutes to beat Kerber in the best match of the tournament. It was one of the best physical efforts I had seen, leaving me devastated for Halep despite not rooting for her at the outset of the tournament. After this Australian Open, I watched both men’s and women’s tennis. 

Besides this video coming from one of the best matches of 2018 and of the 2010s in general, rarely does a major put this much effort into making a good highlight package. If you won’t watch this because of my recommendation, please watch it simply because of that.

*****

The more tennis I watched, the more I felt my preferences between players fade. I still considered Federer my favorite player through the end of 2018, but over time tennis became less about him and more about the sport. It wasn’t that Federer ever did anything that made me like him less, it was just that I started to notice and like other players as well.

My interest was also drawn more towards tactics as I watched more epics. When I saw a great match, I wanted to understand as much about it as possible: I wanted to read articles breaking down the crucial stretches, I wanted to hear the players talk about what went right and wrong. My hunger to consume tennis media was often unsatisfied by what was out there, so I decided to try my hand at tennis writing. 

My articles were confused at first, but over time I started to think about how I wanted to write when I watched matches, which I think made my writing more tightly tailored to what was happening on court. I still struggle with organization and outlining my pieces, but I’m happy with how far I’ve come in the two and a half years since I started writing about tennis. 

During the pandemic, Andre Rolemberg contacted me on Twitter to see if I wanted to make a guest appearance to talk GOATs on his podcast, Tennis and Bagels. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been engaging in some pretty involved debates on Twitter around that time, but someone was seeking out my point of view on the subject? I can still remember how nervous I was — I sweated a lot — but I had a great time. Looking back on that time compared to where I am now is a bit surreal; I’m now a co-host of Tennis and Bagels with Andre and another good friend, Vansh Vermani. 

From the archives.

*****

In March this year, I was procrastinating on work and reading articles by Juan José Vallejo. Many of his pieces were written at the analytical level I wanted to read; I learned a lot from his tactical breakdowns. Plus, his pieces lacked the vexing I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone-so-I’ll-avoid-saying-anything-interesting-at-all spirit present in so many mainstream articles. I went through Juan José’s pieces pretty quickly and wondered if he’d written any more things. Before long, I came across The Changeover. Juan José had something like 200 pieces up on the site, and there were many other fantastic articles by the other co-founders, Lindsay Gibbs and Amy Fetherolf, plus new writers who had joined the site over time. I read and reread Juan José’s LiveAnalysis pieces. I found an article Lindsay wrote about the social media endeavors of Fernando Verdasco (on his Facebook page, he wrote an exclamation point after his name) and couldn’t stop laughing. I pored over the pieces for weeks, loving everything I read and being inspired to take my own writing to the next level. 

A couple months later, I applied for a media credential at the Newport 250 ATP tournament, though I would only be able to be on-site for two days. In a pinch-me moment, my request was accepted. I spent the night before the first day of the tournament doing research on everyone in the draw to write in a little notebook, then reading Juan José’s on-site coverage of the 2013 Houston 250 for inspiration. Like with my first podcast appearance, I was incredibly nervous — I walked past Blair Henley, who I recognized from Twitter, and was too shy to say anything — but loosened up with time. I talked to Kevin Anderson, I watched Jenson Brooksby beat Evgeny Donskoy. I consumed far too many blue Jolly Ranchers in the media room and didn’t use the bathroom at all on the second day. I wrote eight articles in just over two days. The experience was one of the best I’ve had, reaffirming a realization I had come to a while earlier: I wanted to be a tennis journalist.

This is a photo I took of Kevin Anderson serving at the Hall of Fame Open in Newport. I tend to be bored by matches involving a huge server when I watch tennis on TV, but watching a tall player (or anyone) blast aces in person is quite an experience.

Midway through the tournament, I messaged Juan José to see if he wanted to guest on Tennis and Bagels. I had wanted to talk to him since reading his pieces way back in March, but wasn’t able to muster up the courage. Sitting in the stands on the show court in Newport, the time seemed good — I wouldn’t have been where I was without taking the chance to apply for a credential. He agreed to come on the podcast, leading to a three-hour conversation containing pretty much everything I had wanted to say, a rare example of when a highly anticipated event ends up being as great as it is in the head beforehand. Again, I was absurdly nervous prior to the Zoom, but I had no reason to be — he was incredibly cool. 

It’s this spirit that I’m going to try to embody moving forward. Tennis doesn’t inspire the live-and-die-with-your-player feeling in me that it used to, but there are new areas of the sport I’ve been able to explore, and even more that I want to in the future.

I might have missed the end of the 2009 Australian Open, but the Happy Slam has since become my favorite tournament to watch — fresh players battling it out on ocean-blue courts with relatively unproblematic crowds shouting from the stands. It’s my goal to one day return to Melbourne to cover the tournament. Like Nadal in 2009, Halep in 2018, Djokovic in 2012, Federer in 2017 and so many other champions, I hope to leave nothing on the table as I pursue my goal.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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