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Why Tennis Needs Silence

By André Rolemberg

Whether you watch it on tv, on live, or at your local club, tennis has a unique quality among sports: it needs silence.

If you play the sport, you also notice it for yourself that any noise can break your flow, disrupt your momentum, make you downright pissed off.

Why?

Every athlete needs focus to perform. Most athletes have the super-human ability to shut off any influence from the outside world, as if nothing else existed but themselves and the game being played. 

Even tennis players have that ability. Novak Djokovic spoke about the ability to cut out the crowd chanting his opponent’s name, and even magically making it sound like they were saying his instead. Djokovic is one of the most focused players ever to walk on a tennis court.

But noise still sucks. Somehow, it still messes everything up. So, if every sport needs a state of absolute focus to be performed at the highest of levels, why do tennis players need complete silence, to the point where it is a requirement if you want to watch a match live?

Here’s a few things I think could explain this rather uncommon need.

Rally structure

First of all, there is the way the rallies happen. In tennis, you are only allowed a single touch at the ball. The touch happens in a split second, meaning you cannot just land the ball on your racket and think about it: it must leave your racket nearly as soon as it touches it. 

This is true for doubles as well. There is no saving grace. You mess up, and that’s it for the point. No one will be there to save it. Unlike in volleyball, a sport with some similarities, where players can produce miraculous defense and turn into attack before it even crosses the net. Or a routine play turned into nightmare if a player fails to do the job right in the first two touches: a third can still keep the point alive.

In tennis, that single touch is what you have. What’s worse: it only guarantees your survival for a little longer.

You can successfully hit the ball back 40 times in a rally. If you miss on the 41st time, you lose the point. Hitting the ball back in is the bare minimum, the prerequisite to playing tennis. Hit the ball out, your efforts are often nil.

Scoring system

The scoring system in tennis is a work of art. It is divided in a few pieces that, grossly putting, are independent of each other.

You need to score sets to win a match. You need to score games to win a set. You need to score points to win a game. You need to keep the ball in play longer than your opponent to win a point.

Conversely, you can hit 50% more balls in than your opponent, and they still finish with more points. You may win more games in a match and your opponent still wins the match. You may win more points then your opponent, and still lose the match. You may do literally everything better than your opponent, albeit just marginally, and still lose the match.

Look at these numbers — brutal. And what is worse, you must win to advance. Tennis really can be an unforgiving sport.

This brings us to pressure points: the ones that close out the clusters of a game, a set, and a match.

When a point is worth more than others, to a point where all your work can turn out completely fruitless, nerves kick in. The absolute need for precision and focus become the ultimate truth. There are no second chances. Or, at least, not after you hit your first serve. 

Players need silence, because one single point gone the wrong way and it cascades down into catastrophe. A lapse in concentration, a shanked forehand, a shaky second serve, and the momentum gets pulled hard towards the other side, as if all your teammates decided to drop the rope at the same time in a game of tug-of-war.

Speed of play

Several sports are quick paced, but there’s something to be said about the incredible speeds at which balls are thrown around on a tennis court. 

Not only does the ball go fast, but also racket heads move at super-human speed to generate the amounts of pace and spin we see coming from players.

With a tiny ball, rackets that have become bigger, but are still somewhat small especially if you consider that only the “sweet spot” is where you want to make contact with the ball, it makes sense to say that any distractions and it’s all over.

As previously stated, you misfire, you lose the point. Even on serve, if you lose your first serve, there goes what is possibly the biggest weapon in the game, and you have to make a choice between going for the second serve and risk losing the point with a double-fault, or playing more conservative and counting on winning the point in a rally which likely will start neutral.

When things happen fast, you have to move fast and think fast. When that happens, you cannot afford to get caught in any sort of distractions. Head in the game, or you’re off-tempo. 

Technique and physics

And just as things happen fast, you must be able to do things fast, but also well. Tennis technique is very precise and also does not allow much room for sloppiness and error.

Moving well means reading the trajectory of the ball, judging the distance from your body to the contact point, placing your legs in the optimal position for optimal balance, swinging with the right distance from the racket head to your body, applying the right amount of spin or “feeling” the right trajectory of a flatter shot or a slice.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second, but obviously no one is truly thinking about these things as a step-by-step guideline when playing. It happens with muscle memory and proprioception, which is basically thinking with your body.

But, just as you can lose your train of thought if someone interrupts you mid-sentence, you can lose your balance and spatial perception if something significantly disturbs the environment you’re in.

Some sports have a higher tolerance to this. Think of soccer, basketball, hockey. They will stop at almost nothing short of a streaker or something that physically interrupts play, like an object thrown on the field/court/ice (and even still, hockey players can even play for a few seconds without a stick that has been broken, and still lies around during play.)

Tennis does not tolerate much at all. Camera flashes, people moving, a whisper too loud between people or from commentators sitting courtside. 

Any small disturbance jeopardizes the outcome of a point. It could be a nuisance at 0–0 in the second game of the first set, on serve. It could be 30-all at 11–11 in the fifth set of a Wimbledon final.

The importance of a crowd

Should crowds just shut up, then?

Absolutely not. Players have *some* tolerance to a little bit of noise, and can play through “ooohh’s” and “ahhh!” sometimes. Murray did that on match point against Djokovic at his second Wimbledon final, and won. Who could blame the British crowd? It was a historical moment. Even I, who’s never been to Great Britain, felt the magic energy.

So crowds have space, and can turn things around. Think of Leylah Annie Fernandez in her US Open matches. Think of the electric atmosphere during Tiafoe-Sinner in Vienna last year (2021). Players can work the crowds. They can draw energy and adrenaline from them.

Crowds matter. 

The point is, you want to be involved in the game, you want to be a part of it. What you don’t want to be is the one who breaks the flow, that swims against the current and consequently ruins everyone’s experience. Making noise at a bad time is like talking on the phone during a movie in the theatre. It doesn’t enhance the experience, it just makes you stick out like a sore thumb, and like such, anyone would want to get rid of the pain as soon as possible.

Make noise between points, scream your favourite player’s name, jump up and down.

But when the umpire says, “quiet, please”, then… Quiet. Please.

A Rafael Nadal Fan’s Reflection On Roger Federer’s Retirement

By Zach Schiller

Wednesday, September 15th, 2022 will forever go down as a somber day in the tennis community. In a video reminiscent of the grace, humility, and class he showcased on a tennis court for two decades, Swiss superstar Roger Federer told the world that he was retiring from professional tennis following the conclusion of the following weekend’s Laver Cup held in London. While not entirely surprising, given the injuries and surgeries that had marred Federer’s career over the last three years, his announcement nonetheless sent shockwaves throughout the tennis and sporting communities globally as countless players, analysts, and fans paid their respects to a man that undeniably left an indelible impact on the game he loved so dearly. 

Federer’s beautiful flowing technique and laundry list of achievements that he garnered throughout his career have naturally been the subject of a plethora of articles and social media posts since his retirement announcement, attempting to recapture and reintroduce the magic of the Roger Federer experience to the world. Sifting through the deluge of physics-defying highlights the last several days has simultaneously filled me with a sense of wonderment and regret. The regret stemming from the way I had viewed Federer throughout his career: The chief foil to Rafael Nadal.

As a young child, I was indoctrinated into the fandom of Nadal by my maternal grandparents. Rafa’s raw athleticism, physicality, and unwavering determination, combined with his humility and refinement, captivated my grandparents and thus captivated me. I wanted nothing more than to watch Rafa climb to the top of the tennis world and shatter every record that stood in his path on the way to becoming the greatest. In order for this to happen though, Nadal would need to overcome the best player in the world who soon morphed into the man many considered to be the greatest player to ever step foot on a tennis court: Roger Federer. Every Nadal versus Federer encounter, particularly their magnificent major matchups, felt as if tennis’ history and legacy were being decided with every breathtaking stroke of the racket. Moments permanently etched in my mind include their colossal clash in the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Nadal finally edged out Federer on his beloved Centre Court in a five-set thriller as the sun poetically dipped beyond the horizon. I hate to admit it now but I belittled Federer for crying at the trophy ceremony on the court (in his iconic garb from that year) following his gut-wrenching loss. On the other side of the spectrum, while most of the tennis world delighted in Federer’s return to glory, conquering Nadal on the hard courts of Australia in five sets for his first major title in nearly five years, I was sick to my stomach and will forever remember the fact that Rafa was up a break 3-1 in the fifth before Federer charged back to win the final five games.

Rooting against Federer as a Nadal fan during their matchups seems justifiable given that Federer was in fact playing against my favorite player. However, my cheering against Roger Federer extended beyond his encounters with Nadal. Instead of appreciating the gifts Federer gave to the tennis world, I chiefly saw him as Nadal’s rival who needed to be stopped at any cost possible. I cannot remember a single time when I wanted Roger Federer to win when he stepped on a tennis court. Let that sentence sink in. I actively cheered against or at the very least had no positive feelings every time one of the greatest sportsmen the world has ever seen laced up his sneakers. This feeling extended all the way to what turned out to be Feder’s final tournament at last year’s Wimbledon, where he bowed out to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets; I am fairly certain I am one of a select few non-Polish people who rooted for Hurkacz.

A month after his quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon, Federer revealed in a video he posted to Instagram that he would be undergoing a third knee surgery in 18 months in order to “feel better for the medium to long-term,” and have “a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.” Given his age of 40 at the time, the number of surgeries he had undergone, and the melancholy tone Federer delivered his message, fans around the world wondered whether or not the Swiss maestro would ever grace a tennis court again. However, those worries were seemingly put to rest when Federer announced in late April that he planned on returning to professional tennis for the Laver Cup in late September (an annual team competition pitting top players from Europe vs. the rest of the world that Federer helped create) and an indoor hard court tournament hosted in his hometown of Basel.

Upon hearing this news, I felt an emotion I had never felt before: a longing for Roger Federer. Although quite the cliche, the old adage of you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone certainly rang true for me. Despite the massive influx of promising young talent into the men’s game as exemplified by this year’s U.S. Open, reality had set in that the void created by Roger Federer’s absence could not hope to be filled. As the possibility of a tennis life without Federer began to cross my mind before this announcement, a wave of regret would wash over me from time to time, acknowledging that my allegiance to Nadal had blinded me from appreciating Federer in ways that I should have. I vowed that once Federer returned to the tour, I would not take any one of his scintillating steps or ferocious forehands for granted.

Unfortunately for me and the rest of the tennis community, the dream return of Federer to the tour did not materialise. Though it was a once in a lifetime scene at the Laver Cup this past weekend watching Federer team up with his longtime rivals (especially all of the incredible Big 4 content that was produced) and end his professional career crying alongside longtime-rival-turned-doubles-partner Nadal, the sad reality is that Federer’s name will never again appear in the draw of another ATP or Major tournament. I – along with the rest of the tennis world – will forever be left wanting. Once again that feeling of regret washes over me, although this time it is far more pronounced knowing that the end is not a possibility, it is certain. 

Rather than simply serving as a way for me to wallow in my regret, I hope that I can pass along some advice that transcends beyond tennis to all sports so that my mistake is not tragically repeated by others. Before getting on my high horse though, I acknowledge that a certain level of dislike, animosity, or vitriol towards a rival player or team adds depth to sports fandom and some even consider it an integral part of the fan experience. Believe me, I certainly harbour some unkind thoughts and feelings towards a certain football team from Dallas and an obnoxious hockey team from Boston. Sports are also naturally zero-sum games. Not everyone can come out victorious, so it is natural to want others – particularly your favourite player or team’s biggest rival – to fail along the way. With that being said though, when your favourite team or player finds themselves locked in a rivalry with an all-time great, a once-in-a-lifetime player, be wary of letting your rooting interest cloud your ability to fully appreciate their greatness.

Otherwise, you will end up just like me: a regretful fool.

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Dear Roger Federer…

By Hanya El Ghetany

Dear Roger,

Every Tennis player has a story to tell. I’ve been listening to yours since I was a teenager.

As an Egyptian, football was the only sport I grew up watching as a kid. Team sports were big in Egypt and so was football. While I enjoyed the idea of a collective nation following one sport that we were not particularly internationally good at but absolutely adored, I always felt more connected to individual sports. The loneliness, physical and emotional demands of individual sports always intrigued me. 

I always believed that the sport you choose to watch and how you choose to watch it tells a lot about your personality. You’ll always gravitate toward a sport that fits your personality. Once you are born, you will find your family, friends and nation directing you towards your native country’s sports, the ones that are regarded “street-sport” in your hometown. The sports in which your country is most likely to excel. As you become more familiar with other sports and yourself, you will gradually develop a preference for one that appeals to you – carrying your sport from your own nation with you. Similarly, your favourite player also tells people a lot about your personality, and you’ll always gravitate towards players that share the same values as you. You might like different players, appreciate different players, but your favourite, the one you will weep over when they retire, are the ones that are most similar to you. In searching for myself, I found tennis, and in searching for greatness, I found the great.

Having said that, it was 2004 when I found my father watching a sport that was not football. My interest sparked. I asked him why he was watching tennis and he said “because it has the most interesting and the best scoring system in any sport I’ve watched!” That answer was different. I never heard someone praise a sports scoring system. Mind you, my dad literally watches every sport on planet earth. However, this was the only time he asked me to join him and watch the match. We were watching Wimbledon at the time. As I watched a young, 23 years old you win his second consecutive Wimbledon, my interest peaked even further. I remember my dad telling me to remember your name, Roger Federer, as he will go down as one of the best players this sport has ever seen. The rest is history. 

My dad explained to me the scoring system, how the tour worked, and we watched the rest of the season together. Needless to say, I never doubted his vision once again. I finally found a sport that fits my personality and an athlete who I thought shared the same values. You already had the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Madrid under your belt (as far as I remember) and you went on to win the Canadian Open, US Open, and the ATP Finals. It never stopped. Between 2004 and 2007, you won 28 titles between majors and ATP 1000s. I thought this must be what a God looks like…

The glory continued. I watched you win title after title, grow into a greater person than you already were. I watched you build rivalries, friendships, and your family. I was part of your journey, and you were part of mine. I never stopped supporting you and I never saw any other player.

Your tennis is an absolute that goes beyond any concept, especially from the win/ or lose concept. Your tennis goes from the basic to the perfect to the eternal.

You taught me how athletes should deal with each other and in doing so, you showed me how ugly some sports are, and how elite tennis is. You and Rafael Nadal were a force of nature. Not just two of the greatest tennis icons, but you both transcended tennis. You showed the world how humans should be like. Absolute role models. The respect. The friendship. The hard work to conquer the world. You complimented each other. You were two opposite forces that interconnected and counter-balanced to create the best version a human could be. Then came Novak Djokovic. The intensity level, the competitiveness, the desire to win at all costs is so palpable between you two. The way you three have competed with each other over the years, it felt as if the other competitors of this great sport just didn’t exist. You completed each other and made each other better. Even today, as we speak, your duels are most talked, written & GOAT-ed about. The horizon will lose its sheen once you all leave the arena behind and move on. 

I followed you all these years from when you were the undisputed GOAT until now and the thing I admire most is that you could have retired on top with all the records and left them for the next generations to break. But you didn’t. You relentlessly fought against the next generations and were always the best in the world along with two other players. Even though injuries got in the way, you were bold enough to challenge the present and future with everything you had. Your greatest rival was never Novak or Nadal but time itself. 

In all this glory, you never lost sight of who you were. You were humble in defeat before victory. Your rivals and every player you ever stopped from achieving their dream wept when you retired, carried you over their shoulder and praised your personal endurance and strength. They all agreed that tennis will never be the same. I have never seen this in any sport, nor will I ever see it again. You did not want to be alone when you retired, and before you asked, all your teammates and fans were around you. There isn’t a word in the dictionary that has been invented yet that describes your utter brilliance on and off the court. When they said a picture is worth a thousand words, I believe this was the one that was intended.

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Since you initially made your impact in the tennis world, the bar has been set so high and the game’s popularity has skyrocketed. People have simply forgotten that you will inevitably miss months due to injury or might choose to retire, and that no one, especially your fans, especially me, have been prepared for this in the last couple of years. Some people will say it was inevitable to which I say, we still had hope and we still believed he would make a final comeback. 

Current tennis players might be quicker, have more endurance, more accuracy and might even be more powerful than you at this stage, but nobody will ever love and play tennis like you. You are the reason I started watching tennis, and you are the reason I will continue to watch tennis. Because of you, tennis is magical, and I believe it is the biggest legacy a player can give to his game. Every time you stepped on the court; you inspired thousands of youngsters to reach your level. Thank you so much for what you did to the sport. I’m still not prepared to watch tennis knowing that you will not be here. Roger Federer, tennis will never be the same without you. In my book, you are the finest and will always be the best. 

You will always be my GOAT.

Some people were born too late to explore the world. Some people were born too early to explore the space. I was born to see you in your glory days. If you would do it all over again, I would watch it all over again. And again. And again. 

You’re not only my favourite tennis player, but you are also my all-time favourite athlete. You created a new meaning for sportsmanship.

I remember your promise, please don’t be a ghost.

Love,

Hanya

Tennis Brought Me Back to Earth

By Isabel Wing

 The tennis courts in Sunland, a suburb in the mountains of Los Angeles, are set between a baseball diamond and a dry, unweeded field. A busy five-lane road surrounds the park and provides a backdrop of sirens and revved engines. The 210 freeway thunders with trucks and cars a mere block away. My father would drag me to the courts when I was small to watch him play, spinning his racquet in one hand and yelling from the baseline, “hey, watch THIS serve!” only to smack the ball into the net.

We watched tennis year-round in my house, and every school vacation was marked with a different Grand Slam event. I was too young to understand the rules and reason in the game, but my parents’ mutual love for the sport brought us to the couch for hours at a time. They loved Roger Federer, who had only just begun to step into his supremacy, and like the rest of the world, we watched in awe. Coming out of the Sampras era, they were eager for a new dominance in the modern millennium. Their enthusiasm spread into me and I wanted to try the sport myself.

With much frustration, my father tried to teach me how to play tennis. I was tiny with wrists so thin, it was impossible to hit a traditional one-handed forehand. Without thinking, I held the forehand with both hands in a backwards grip, and found I was able to hit the ball with more strength and accuracy. My father insisted that if I continued, a one-handed forehand was a necessity. I was stubborn and refused, so he fed balls to my strangely gripped two-hander anyway.

The weekends were spent at the Burbank Tennis Club and a few summers at a camp in Santa Barbara. I wasn’t improving — outside of lessons, I avoided practice and spent complained to my mother that I had no hitting partner my age, and playing against my father was unfair with him being stronger and more competitive than me. But the truth was I had no motivation to get better. I lacked the natural ability the other kids had, especially the commitment. My bony, four-foot-tall body could not compete with the athletic teenagers, and though coaches tried to break the habit of my forehand, I had limited reach and hit with zero spin. I was fast enough to get to every ball, but had no finesse. Each match left me bored and irritated, and I never looked forward to the next one. Playing tennis never brought me as much joy as watching it. I was so focused on movement and keeping my eyes on the ball — there was no thrill that matched when I saw Federer and Venus glide around the television screen like powerful gazelles. Sitting on the couch for hours, my heart would fill with emotion and exhilaration. On court, I was just tired. I quit playing before my thirteenth birthday.

Tennis fandom runs deep on both sides of my family. My mother’s aunt in Los Angeles was a talented player, and though she was never a professional, she was friends and mixed doubles partners with Pancho Gonzales. They would hit together in Exposition Park. In 1956, my father’s parents made an unexpected stop at a hotel on their honeymoon in Cape Cod just so they could watch the U.S. Open Final between Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. Their five children grew up watching tennis with the same fervor. In 1975, the family went on vacation in New Brunswick, and one night they piled into a motel room to watch Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors go head-to-head in the Wimbledon final. The announcer on television stated that the odds on Ashe winning in straight sets were 46 to 1. My grandfather said, “Well, if we were there, we would have to have some of THAT action.” Ashe won in four. 

In 2017, I was in Ontario for my grandfather’s funeral. On the day of the Australian Open final, we woke at 3:00 in the morning to watch Roger and Rafa battle for the 35th time. Roger hadn’t made a grand slam final in years, and no one expected him to reach the final, much less win it. All of us were Fed fans; even my 87-year-old grandmother awoke with the rest of her children to watch. When Roger was down in the fourth set, poised for an agonizing defeat, my uncle went to bed, saying he couldn’t bear to watch Roger lose. When Roger went up a break in the fifth, we woke him. “You may want to see this.”

The love for tennis followed me all the way to art school on the east coast. My sleep schedule revolved around tournaments. My roommates often complained about my muffled noises on the other side of the room during a late night match, the room completely dark except for the glow of a laptop screen. After the 2015 U.S. Open final, I shrieked so loudly when Federer lost to Djokovic that people came to check if my life was in danger. No one at my small liberal arts college followed sports, and people found it strange that I listened to tennis radio streams in between classes. There was a tennis club on campus and there was even a court, but when I asked what they thought of the Big Three rivalries, they said they had never heard of them. 

As I went through school, the severe depression and anxiety I was diagnosed with in my teens began to deepen in ways I couldn’t understand. I suffered a humiliating breakup that left me clinging for control over my life and my mind, which was not helped by the stark Vermont winters and my usual predilection for solitude. Daily life was a struggle, and just leaving my room paralyzed me. Time amongst other students in the dining hall would send me spiraling. Apart from my therapist, I hardly spoke to anyone. My anger and loneliness swirled into wrenching anxiety attacks, and most of the year was spent on my dorm room floor. Nothing helped me cope, and I was running out of options. While lamenting to my father about how miserable I was, he gave me a piece of advice.

“Everything is tennis,” he said. 

He didn’t mean that my life was like tennis, or that I could beat my way out of social situations with a racquet. He meant for me to use tennis as a way of coping; a distraction from the emotional and social hell that was my early twenties. “Whenever something happens, just think about tennis.”

It was a clever way to distract me, and my therapist agreed. When anxiety settled into my chest and tightened around my lungs, I would watch a video of classic Federer moments or reread “String Theory” by David Foster Wallace. If I was losing myself to rage, weighed down by my insecurities, or felt immobilized and numb, I forced myself to think about tennis. There were points I could replay in my head when nothing else could bring me back to earth. Sitting in the dining hall, I read through the latest tennis news, taking note of every detail so as to ingrain the information in my mind. At a table for one, I listened to tennis podcasts and texted my father about players’ chances in the current tournaments. In the evenings, when it was harder to block intrusive thoughts, I would sit on my floor cross legged, breathing deeply, whispering tennis statistics over and over as though it were a meditation chant. It was the healthiest comfort zone I had. 

Federer prepares to rake a backhand pass against Tomáš Berdych at Wimbledon, 2006. Screenshot: Wimbledon

During a late night session of mindless scrolling, I decided I needed to buy a tennis racquet. I looked up how to measure my grip size, and ordered the cheapest one. After it arrived, it stayed in the box for weeks. Winter was just about to take over in Vermont, but there were still outdoor tennis classes every Saturday morning on campus. I could see the edges of the courts from my second-story window, surrounded by reddening maple trees. On the last day of autumn, I summoned the courage to go. There weren’t any students, just a few kids from town and some of my own professors. The coaches thought my forehand grip was hilarious, but they didn’t make me hit one handed. I hit a few drills, attempted some serves, and played feeble rallies with my literature professor. That one hour spent in the cold sun on a surface I hadn’t set foot on in a decade stirred something in me. The coaches suggested I attend the sessions in town. 

I started going to the indoor tennis courts twice a week. Once the streets were snow-covered and the temperature dropped below ten degrees, I was the only one there, so I got a private lesson for the price of a group. The pulse of forehand and backhand drills was formulaic and I could fall into the rhythm with ease, each strike of the ball clearing my mind. Slowly, I started to get better. At 22, I was no longer a weak and skinny kid who couldn’t control the ball. I channeled all the fury I had for myself and the world into overhead smashes. I couldn’t keep my mind from going to dangerous places sometimes, but I could think about the racquet in my hand, my eyes on the ball, and the vibration of the strings rippling down the neck and into my body. After bad days, I drove to those courts and hit alone while the freezing winds rattled the domed roof. 

The familiar sounds of a match; the firm and defiant smack of a ball, the slip and whine of rubber shoes on concrete, the rising and crashing wave of the crowd as players rush to return; each detail was a comforting hand on my shoulder, an exhalation, a reminder that I was still in control of my life. Even when a match becomes so chaotic, so outrageous that the French government can’t shut it down, there is precision and beauty in tennis that gives me instant relief. Even when I am screaming and crying because Roger lost.  

Federer And Me

By Nick Carter

This was originally published on Nick Carter’s “Grounds Pass” blog back in April 2022. It has been edited in light of Roger Federer’s retirement.

I’m not exactly sure when I first watched Roger Federer play tennis. It would have been one of the Wimbledon finals he won in the 2000s. I remember being aware of his first two championship matches against Andy Roddick and then suddenly this other player called Rafael Nadal emerged as his rival. Before I was 13/14, I didn’t really ‘get’ tennis, other than I knew I wanted to have a go at it. I was more interested in pretending I was playing than actually watching it. I didn’t really know many players outside of the big names. To me though, Roger Federer was the coolest one. I was sold on his brand: sophisticated, traditional, graceful. He won the old-school way, and had this ability to outplay anyone at any given time. If I did watch him, it was at Wimbledon as I didn’t discover other majors until the 2007 French Open (where I was shocked to discover Nadal could outplay him). Because of my Wimbledon bias, to me he was the ultimate player in men’s tennis. None could compare.

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Off court, but more importantly on court, Federer just oozes smoothness. His forehand and single-handed backhand motions always seem so perfectly executed when he is completely dialled in. His serve is devastatingly accurate, hard for even the best returners to get a handle on. He is also just so fast across the court; blink and he’s already covered so much ground. Yet, he seems to do it without any obvious effort, unlike the charging bull of Nadal or the elastic stretches of Novak Djokovic. I guess the idea of precision and clear thinking in excellence have always appealed to me more in sports players. I also admire Federer’s steeliness on court. He shows little emotion, other than a desire, no, expectation that he will win. He can win by outthinking his opponent, finding something more within himself to achieve his goal, or just by playing well enough that he can wait for a mistake and then force his way through the opening. Of course, it was some time later before I realised his great rivals could also do the same.

My perception of Federer has changed over the years. It started with my acceptance that he could lose. This was forced by what was, in my teenage eyes, a ‘sub-par’ 2008 season – if a year where winning a major could possibly be sub-par! He lost to Djokovic in Australia, and was demolished by Nadal at Roland Garros. I reasoned this as the after-effects of Mononucleosis i.e., Glandular Fever. I couldn’t really say this after he lost an epic Wimbledon final that year to Nadal, in what many now describe as the greatest match of all time. Shamefully, I did not watch the whole match as, in teenage petulance I refused to watch when Federer was in a losing position. I did watch that final set though, or at least the end of it. It’s on my long to-do list to go back and rewatch that match. Whilst I have grown to accept that on that day, Nadal was marginally the better player, it was very satisfying to see Roger avenge this in the 2019 Wimbledon semi-final. And, it is something to say that Federer’s performance that day has added to his status in tennis history, even if he lost.

It’s frustrating to me that I only really got into tennis as Federer fell from his peak dominance. Even though he was the best player in 2009, the final time he was year-end number-one, it wasn’t convincing. There is only one season where I have watched him play where I felt like I was watching the definitive best player in the world, and that was his renaissance year in 2017. As he aged, he found his peak less consistently than he did in the 2000s. I’ve gone back and watched a couple of his matches from that period and it is so interesting seeing him clearly be the best player on that court, and it feel like the norm. Now, to be fair, it was still happening on a regular basis up until 2020. He still went deep into tournaments and was still on his day a match for Djokovic and Nadal.

As I’ve tried to understand the technical side of the game more, I finally understand the secret of Federer’s success. For all his apparent grace and smoothness, his game is based on relentless aggression. He will find any way to win the point, and as he has aged the desire to end it quicker has grown. If he sees a space to hit a winner, or can get into position to perfectly strike an unplayable shot he will. If he needs to come into the net, as he would have done at the very start of his career, he will. If he can hit a pinpoint accurate ace, he will. When he needs to be patient and extend the rally, he can do this, biding his time until he sees an opportunity. But he’s not interested in grinding an opponent down like prime Nadal or Djokovic. Federer is waiting for that moment to land a killer blow.

I have some great memories of watching Roger Federer play tennis. You’ll notice all my choices are from the majors, particularly Wimbledon, as for most of my life I haven’t been able to watch much of the ATP Tour due to it being on pay TV in the UK. I have hazy memories of watching the 2007 Wimbledon final where he fended off Nadal in five sets. Its not remembered as one of their all-time best clashes, but it’s still one of the six times they went the full match distance in their legendary rivalry. Another one for the rewatch list one day. Federer’s victory against Djokovic in the semi-finals at Wimbledon 2012 was pretty sweet at the time. Djokovic was clearly the best player in the world at that point, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Roger beat him, but a welcome one. He was clearly better that day. Similarly, at Roland Garros in 2011, Federer was the one who ended Novak’s unbeaten run that year with an incredible performance. In fact, most of my favourite Roger memories were in semi-finals. These include the aforementioned Wimbledon 2019 clash with Nadal and him reaching his unstoppable peak against Andy Murray on Centre Court in 2015. Usually when Federer and Murray play, I feel a little conflicted (as I did in their final clash in 2012), but here I just had to marvel at the unbelievable performance the Swiss was putting on.

What about finals though, what trophy lifting moments do I most treasure from Federer? Well, since that Wimbledon final in 2007, he went on to win nine more majors. Of those, I wasn’t able to watch his last two US Open titles in 2007 and 2008. All his Wimbledon titles after 2007 are good memories, don’t get me wrong, they just aren’t my favourite. I don’t really remember his 2010 Australian Open title other than it was fairly straightforward. Whilst I like to see Roger win, it’s more special when he has to fight for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t watch much of his final major title at the 2018 Australian Open, as I didn’t have access to the television channel it was shown live on.

Roger’s 2009 Roland Garros title was very cathartic to watch at the time. Finally, he had won the one major trophy that Nadal had kept from him for so long. It was a very stressful road to that final, but once he was there, he showed that he deserved it. So, that’s a very happy memory for me. However, my favourite title that he won has to be the 2017 Australian Open. For us Federer fans, he was coming back after surgery and was aged 35. By that point for most players before and since, their successes are over and retirement is looming. Roger however came out looking better than ever. He won three five set matches in his run to the title, beating some of the biggest thorns in his side including Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka. It was his victory over Nadal in the final that was his crowning glory. Purists will say it wasn’t a great match, I don’t know as I haven’t seen all of it yet. Due to other commitments, I missed the final live and had to catch the highlights later. However, they did show the final set, which was an awesome comeback by Roger from a break down to win 6-3. For me, it will always be the best match of that year just for the great narrative of that final.

I also have great memories of seeing Federer play in person. In 2011 and 2012, I went to the O2 Arena in London to watch him take part in the ATP Finals, which was an awesome experience. I don’t have many solid memories of the matches, other than he seemed assured to win even though they went three sets. In 2011, he was playing Mardy Fish, in 2012 I saw a match against Janko Tipseravic. I guess the best memory of those days is the atmosphere of the stadium and the moment he won the match as he did his standard satisfied fist pump in celebration.

Federer was my favourite player for two reasons. Firstly, he still is one of the coolest athletes I’ve ever watched on multiple levels. Cool in demeanour, but also cool in some of the incredible shots he can produce. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is his ability to improvise any shot, even ones that I don’t think anyone has ever hit before. He is still absolutely breath-taking to watch when he is in form. Secondly, he is more of an underdog now as he’s got older. He’s definitely not been able to challenge Djokovic as much as he would have liked over the last 10-11 years. Nadal frustrated him for many years until that 2017 match in Melbourne turned things around. He’s more vulnerable to upset and injury now. Every major has become a journey for Federer, and the drama is always gripping. I’m invested in seeing if the ‘old man’ can win big one last time.

With Roger being my favourite player, you might assume that I believe him to be the greatest player of all time. Here’s what I will say on that subject. Statistically, he is no longer the most successful player of all time, at least in terms of number of titles on the biggest stage. He is now behind both Nadal and Djokovic. He’s also behind in the head-to-head with both of his rivals as well. Now, with Nadal you can put some asterisks in there as a lot of the results are surface dependent, whilst with Djokovic their peaks never really coincided. Federer is definitely the greatest player of the 2000s (the decade not the century) given his dominance during that period. Only Nadal fans might argue with that point. He also set the bar for the other two to reach for. He was the one whose records they were chasing and he was the one who set the required standard for them to join him in dominance. Arguably, Federer is probably most widely recognised by non-tennis fans, at least for positive reasons. If you transcend your sport, that is an obvious sign of greatness. Look at how many non-tennis personalities commented on the news of his retirement as proof of this. It will be interesting too what kind of response Nadal and Djokovic get when they stop to really see their impact.

Whilst it’s over-the-top to say Federer has been a role model to me, he has been a source of inspiration. When I finally started playing tennis, I wanted to play an attacking game with a single-handed backhand. It became very clear that I lacked the skill and control to pull that off, and I am very glad my coach trained me to have a solid double-hander (although I can pull off a killer cross-court single-hander if needed). Federer was also the subject of my first piece of tennis writing. About ten years ago, I wrote a piece documenting his career and arguing that his decline was inevitable and he should retire whilst at the top of the game. Thankfully I never put that online and the original copy is now lost somewhere. I was completely wrong, and I’m so glad he carried on and exceeded expectations for an athlete in their 30s. However, I enjoyed writing that piece and that desire to cover tennis stayed with me until I finally started to post my work online last year.

It seems a shame for me to be writing this knowing Federer will only play one more time at the Laver Cup, an event he helped found. I would have preferred the end to come with a farewell tour, finishing with Wimbledon, New York or perhaps Basel, where it all started for him as a ball boy. Given the fact he was entered into Basel in 2022, this might be a very recent decision to end his career because his body wouldn’t allow it. He is 41 years-old and we all knew the end was coming soon. If that’s the case, I can accept a sudden goodbye but it still seems lacklustre. That could be coming from a lack of respect for Laver Cup on my part, given the controversies around the existence of the event (the one blot on Federer’s copybook in my view).

So, I’m still coming to terms that the weekend of September 23rd-25th will see the final match of Roger Federer’s career. I had hoped to see him play for a third and final time at Wimbledon in 2023, the place that he is automatically associated with, especially in Britain. Still, we will see him play one more time, and we should make the most of that and enjoy it together. Especially as he will still be the coolest guy on court.

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Giving up on Nick Kyrgios

*This article does contain mention of domestic abuse charges*

I first heard of Nick Kyrgios back when he beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2014 with a performance that screamed potential superstar. He was young, just a teenager, thrust under a microscope to be examined as the world number 144, but while many before him had wilted under the gaze of a giant opponent, he adapted so quickly that it was easy to get taken in by him.

His lack of experience seemed to work in his favour. He hadn’t yet fallen to confidence crushing losses in front of the world and so there was no residue there, no ingrained sense of insecurity that could negatively impact his game when it came to crunch time. Instead, he was free and so solid, cemented by pressure-less authority time and time again in rallies. It was as though he’d come wandering on court out of nowhere and decided to win a tennis match regardless of who he was facing. The stage was his and he performed on it, a glint in his eye, an awareness in his smile, the stop-and-stare impact he was having on those watching only driving him further and forward. He revelled in the spotlight that Wimbledon and Nadal offered him, stretching his arms out and taking the applause with an attitude that bordered on a youthful cockiness that made him all the more magnetic.

From there, I was more-or-less sold on him anyway, taken by his demeanour and attitude that relentlessly kept us guessing exactly what would be coming next. But it wasn’t until he gave an interview the following year in 2015 that I think I labelled myself a fan.

“I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it,” he said. “It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport. It is just crazy how things go.”

By saying this, Kyrgios immediately drew criticism. “Travelling the world, making millions, cry me a river!” so many would say and I just thought that was so immensely unfair. If you strip away all the fancy shiny things, this was a teenager admitting that he didn’t love the job he did and what was so unreasonable about that? Perhaps people felt that he should be more grateful for what he had, for his talent and skill that he performed with on court, for the money that he was banking. But I felt this set a dangerous precedent for the sort of authority that fans felt comfortable having over the athletes of their favourite sport. They go out there every day to entertain but they should be under no obligation to feel happy while doing so.

***

And so the first few years of the Kyrgios career bypassed and when instances of controversy played out with him in the leading role, I thought I got it. I thought I understood and knew what it meant and maybe I did a bit, I’m not sure, but what I thought I was seeing was a young adult going through the stages of frustration at his own career situation because he felt locked in and unable to do anything else. He’d found himself good at something at this young young age and as a result, felt trapped by it, felt the immense weight of being potentially stratospherically good, that all hope of being able to possibly be something else felt lost.

Looking back, perhaps I was just making up reasons in my head for his over-the-top behaviour because I liked how different he was to all the other juniors coming up the rankings. I liked that he repeatedly maintained that he barely practiced all that much and was unmotivated. I liked that he went to pubs before big matches and struggled to hold focus when things slid away from him. I liked him because I think in a way I saw myself in what he was trying to deal with, admittedly on a much less magnified scale. When Kyrgios was making those early waves with both his play and his antics, I was an undergraduate at university and more than a little frightened of where I was going, of what direction I was heading in, uncertain if I’d made a mistake in my choices, but knowing that I’d committed and that I probably had to follow it through. I was scared of trying too hard at something, of putting so much work into something I thought I wanted to do, only to falter and fail somewhere down the line when it was all too late and realise that my best effort was never really good enough anyway. It felt easier to coast and accept mediocrity rather than try for anything bigger and be told it was never meant for me. And so to see a player of my favourite sport struggle to rationalise his own journey provided me with a genuine sense of comfort while watching him.

***

By winning early big matches against Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Kyrgios was transformed instantly from potential-one-to-watch into 100%-one-to-watch-and-watch-very-fucking-closely-indeed. It was from here that Kyrgios began leveraging a level of consistency out of himself that was enough to break into the top 30 in the world in a sport he could not hope to find peace with. As he rose in ranking, he rose in notoriety. There are lists and lists online noting his bubbled-over headline-grabbing outbursts, so-many-so that I’ll spare you a breakdown of them here but soon, there existed enough for editors to feel justified in calling him a “badboy”. This of course was made easier by the fact that tennis as a sport has historically held itself to some stupidly out-dated standard erected by the upper-class, the privileged and the white. Kyrgios – with his angst and his anger – was an outsider to be watched and entertained by from afar but kept at arms length.

And people were entertained by him, very much so in fact, with many sharing and conversing with their opinions on him with every match he played. But rather than settle in, focus up and start taking himself a little more seriously like I thought he might be able to manage in time, it looked to me as though Kyrgios instead felt the need to continually provide the shouting, the swearing, the tanking of matches that had helped make him a headline favourite. Those that loved his behaviour, loved how un-PC he was, came to watch him for that. Yes, they wanted his trick shots and explosive court-craft as well but they expected more, expected the spiciness. They wanted the clowns and the acrobats and the big top red-and-white tent that came with the Kyrgios brand and left somewhat dejected on the occasions that they didn’t get that. And so with a lack of love for the game but a surefire ability to conduct and control the theatrics that surrounded it, Kyrgios fell into his niche and made himself far too comfortable to ever really bother trying to move on from it.

From there, Kyrgios went about constructing a fanbase larger than many of his colleagues that had achieved far more than him on the court at that point and I was among his followers, still keenly watching and waiting for the penny to drop for him, for everything to make sense for him, for him to finally accept what needed to be done to take that final step that his talent was crying out for him to take. And I knew he wasn’t perfect, I knew he was immature and made comments that grated and clanged as they landed badly and I knew all of that and still I was a fan because at the heart of it, I felt like he was worth it. He sold tickets with an addicting mix of tennis and “ooo-what’s-gonna’-happen-next?!” and I lapped it up. I was taken by him and the way the cameras loved him and how tournaments sold him and how he sold himself as well. I liked the swagger and the overconfidence, the racket smashing and the tears that came at surprising moments for someone who still persisted that he didn’t much care. I dunno’, I guess I thought I got it, this game he was playing, the charade he was acting out longterm and building his career around. I thought I got it and I think I liked that I thought I got it.

***

I can’t pinpoint the moment that the fan of Nick Kyrgios in me started to deteriorate but it’s been a steady process over the past couple of years, highlighted by his extended tour absences and his volatile reactions to random comments from his fellow players that seemed entertaining when he was a youngster struggling to find his way but now seemed dulled with repetitive desperation to remain relevant. I was looking for something new and kept hoping for a turn that never seemed to come and so while I was still interested in Kyrgios’s career on the odd occasions he did make it back to the court, I didn’t find myself quite so enamoured by him.

Others certainly still were though, my god, others certainly still were, and I could understand why because he still gave them a reason to care with a brand of tennis that didn’t take itself seriously. He’d win a few matches in a row with nonchalance and by doing so, kept reeling in the casual tennis fan which is a HUGE target demographic and makes up the majority of audience numbers for bigger matches. And so while many more hardened tennis fans had grown tired of him, Kyrgios became an everyman highlight reel, easily marketable and dependable when it came to providing numbers of views on video compilations through trick-shots, temper fuelled outbursts and direct crowd interaction.

I had come to terms with being a not-a-fan-but-a-casual-acknowledger of his matches because I couldn’t bring myself to not enjoy them, he was – for want of a phrase that hasn’t been rammed down our throats repeatedly by pundits over the years! – box-office. But then his ex-girlfriend Chiara Passari accused him of emotional and physical abuse via a number of sporadic Instagram uploads. This was over a year ago now and was so spread out and random that it was difficult to piece together exactly what was happening. It didn’t particularly help the situation that many of his detractors immediately sprung up with variations of “oh, I always suspected, just look at how he behaves on the court!” because the correlation between on-court behaviour and off-court behaviour is so damn difficult to define and almost impossible to take at face-value. In any case, there was obviously something up and it was unsettling to then see him active on the the tour and for there to be no update on what exactly had transpired. He had a new girlfriend as well. Things seemed to be going OK for him.

That was until Wimbledon of this year when, while on the run of his career, it was revealed that Passari was officially taking him to court, accusing him of grabbing her and it was here that the final vestiges of fondness I had for him bled very quickly away through the cracks. Of course, I’m literally a nobody, and the thousands of new fans that found him as a result of his run to the Wimbledon final were either quick to overlook or did not hear about the accusations levelled at him, buried as they were in positive media spin that painted big sparkly golden hearts around him as he fell at the final hurdle of the Wimbledon fortnight. This was his big career moment that he’d been waiting for and nothing – not idle chitchat about domestic abuse, not nothing – would overshadow this for him.

And it’s worked for him! Following that Wimbledon run, he went on to make the US Open quarterfinals last week, beating the now-former world number 1 on the way with a soundtrack of support that threatened to lift the sun from its bed on the horizon through its sheer strength of volume alone. The Kyrgios faithful. The Kyrgios many. The Kyrgios lot, undamaged in number. This is, after-all, men’s professional tennis, where brushing bruises under rugs comes easy for its stars and their fans.

***

This piece is not a call for Kyrgios fans to stop following him. Nor is this me telling them that I’m judging them for continuing to do so. This is just a piece for me to say that there’s a time when I’d have been on top of the world to see Nick Kyrgios in a Wimbledon final. I’d have been telling all of my friends who told me he’d never amount to much that “I fucking told ya so, didn’t I?!” I wasted a great many hours writing articles detailing why I thought he was just a stupid misunderstood kid who didn’t know what he wanted in life. And perhaps he was a few years ago. Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he wasn’t. I don’t know him now and I didn’t know him then despite projecting a huge amount of stuff onto what I thought I did know about him. Regardless, whatever issues he has now cannot be excused away as merely a side-effect of age.

I set out to write this specific piece about him because I see a lot of people wondering how anybody could have ever really been a fan of his attitude and I’m not sure if I made it clear but if I do need to clarify a bit, I think a big part of it is because he stood out to a certain demographic as someone that wasn’t trying to make tennis his everything and that in turn made him different. It made him edgy. It made him cool, I guess. I think it almost made him a tragic hero for the media. People will likely read this and come to the conclusion that I let him off with a great deal of stuff so that I could continue being a fan of him and that would be the correct takeaway, I think. It was easy to do because I liked him and I think I just wanted to pretend in some small way that the feeling that most young people have of just doing something to get by was being represented on a worldwide professional tennis stage.

***

In all of this madness, I find myself reflecting back on a time where I thought that Kyrgios couldn’t not one day go on to win a major tennis title. Despite his lack of commitment, his ability would be enough to climb over his wayward attitude and drag him into the history books of tennis whether he really wanted to be there or not. This year, at the age of 27, he came within one match and two sets of finally proving me right and all that I’m left wondering now is exactly what it might mean for men’s tennis if he finally does get over the line.

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The End

By Archit Suresh

“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Hellen Keller

The newly added entrance doors swung open, and for a moment it felt like all was right in the world again. The crowd cheered wildly, in a way that they had never cheered for all the other previous champions who had walked onto the court just minutes earlier. Roger Federer was back on Centre Court where he belonged. 

Except it didn’t quite feel right. 

Standing beside him was Novak Djokovic, looking fresh in his tracksuit as he prepared to take on Tim Van Rijthoven later that day on that very same court in his quest to overtake Federer’s 20 major titles. (Spoiler alert: he did.) He looked like a tennis player. On the other hand, Federer looked very much like a man who was nearing an exit from the game that he had devoted himself to his entire life. Everything about him that day told us what we needed to know. There he stood next to one of his great rivals, in a black suit and tie, dressed as if he knew that his days on a court as a professional were numbered. Everything about him screamed businessman/mogul/sporting icon/ambassador. Everything except his shoes. Federer, a friend of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and known for his sense of style amongst players, walked out in a pair of white sneakers. It seemed as if a small piece of him, like many of his fans at the time, was holding out even the tiniest bit of hope that his rehab would pay off and the knee that had been troubling him for years would let him try and come back onto the tour one last time.  

Unfortunately, it isn’t to be for Federer, as he announced his plans to retire from the sport after this year’s Laver Cup.

This might have been the world’s most unsurprisingly surprising retirement. We knew this was a long time coming. Hell, people were ready to write the Swiss man off after 2013, after losses to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon and Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open, in what would be one of his worst career years to date. People were ready to write Federer off in 2016 after his first bout with knee injuries forced him out of the game for nearly six months. Not having won a major since Wimbledon in 2012, Federer looked as if he was nearing the end of his career, and people were all too eager to announce possible retirement dates.

We all know what came next. A rejuvenated Federer came back to claim his 18th major in Australia completing his fairytale run in the final against longtime rival Rafael Nadal. He then went on a tear that had us thinking Federer was here to stay for a while. That’s what great athletes do. They accomplish so much against all odds so rapidly that they make us believers on the ride along with them. They make us forget that they’re human. If someone had asked me two weeks ago if I thought Federer still had another major left in him, I would’ve said I was 99% sure that he didn’t. I’d have said that the physical and mental toll would just be too much for him to overcome. But I would’ve left 1% on the table to account for his ineffable greatness. After all, we couldn’t do it with Serena Williams in New York a few weeks ago. Time eventually conquers all, but Roger Federer sure made it sweat to catch up to him.

Nadal and Djokovic likely still have a few more majors left in them, even at this stage in their careers. If they keep winning, we won’t bat an eye. If they lose, it’ll feel like yet more of the world is crashing down on top of us. But life moves on. Tennis will not stop because of Federer’s announcement. We will wake up and life will keep moving forward. Carlos Alcaraz is number one in the world. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are still battling. Jannik Sinner is on the rise. Davis Cup matches are going on through the night. Tennis will keep going. They say time stops for no one, but it might slow down a little when Federer takes the court with his greatest rivals as teammates for a final sendoff.

For many tennis fans, including myself, Roger Federer was their path into the game. I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually, I became more of a tennis fan than a Federer fan. To those of you wondering where to turn after this, I have one thing to say: Federer may be leaving the game he got so many people involved in, but his legacy lives on in the players that grew up idolizing him, the rivals he shared the court with, and most importantly the fans that kept their eyes glued to his tennis. It’s been a long and fun ride that went by in the blink of an eye. It comes to a close soon, so cherish the moments we have left with all of them together as we bid farewell to an illustrious man and his career. We may not have much time left with any of them, so let’s make the most of it while we still can.

Enough glorious moments to last a lifetime. Screenshot: Australian Open

Understanding Your Worth

By Ashlee Woods

Existing as a Black woman in a sport like tennis comes with a plethora of challenges. It’s a part of the territory. It can be cruel how hard it is to make it if you don’t look a certain way. 

Taylor Townsend is one of the rare exceptions. 

Townsend had one of her best results since returning from maternity leave: making the U.S. Open women’s doubles final with Caty McNally. This run means just that much more when viewed as yet further proof that the human body is capable of wonderful things when the mind is in sync with it. 

***

Back in 2012, at the tender age of 16, Townsend was at the top of the junior girls’ heap. Fresh off wins at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, she was forced to go into an eight week training period and denied a U.S. Open wildcard. Her hopes of competing in the tournament were all but dashed. Doctors found that her conditioning issues were related to anemia. What USTA thought was a fitness issue was actually a health issue. Yet they still wouldn’t send her to Flushing Meadows. 

“Just take a second and think about all this and ask yourself, ‘What do you think “fit to play” really means,” Townsend wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “What are we really talking about here?” 

What Townsend is talking about here is a harsh reality for fat, Black women in America and across the globe. If you don’t ‘look’ healthy on the outside, you’re not healthy. It’s an unrealistic standard that has permeated the sport for generations. Townsend was at the top of her game with an autoimmune disease and it still wasn’t enough for the USTA. 

This run to the final — alongside every single other win Townsend has had since leaving the USTA— is a reminder that when a person understands their worth, very few people can tell them differently. Townsend knew that she was physically and mentally built differently. She also knew that she could still succeed in this sport. 

Patrick McEnroe, the head of talent development at USTA when Townsend was there, had to hand a finalists’ trophy to the very woman he had tried to stop. The very woman that the USTA told was not fit to play.

It turns out that Townsend was not only fit to play. She was – is! – fit to lead. She’s fit to be a mother to her baby boy. 

She’s fit to win. 

“I’ve put in the work,” Townsend said after this loss. “I’ve earned my way to be here and I think everyone sees that. I’m going to continue to put my head down and grind and this is going to motivate me to go even harder. Watch out for 2023.”

The US Open 2022 Men’s Singles Final Preview And Predictions

By James Steel

The US Open 2022 Men’s Final Preview

‘The queen is dead, long live the king’. 

In the United Kingdom, these words are being said in unison at all formal events, but across the pond on the east coast of the United States, this statement is being played out in the Arther Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums at Flushing Meadows. In one corner is Casper Ruud, the world number 7 whose achievements include the French Open final, Miami Open Final, and an amusing number of clay court ATP 250 titles. In the other corner is Carlos Alcaraz, the current ATP Next Gen champion whose achievements include two ATP 1000 titles in Miami and Madrid and two ATP 500 titles in Rio and Barcelona.

Now I’m not suggesting that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are gone. They most certainly are still major forces in the game and will most likely win more major titles in the near future. But given Djokovic’s medical choices and questions on the fitness of Nadal, there has been a gap that has opened up at the top of the game for players to step into the void of current tennis royalty and the two players in Sunday’s final are certainly attempting to do that. This preview will go through how they got there and what could happen in the match.

Casper Ruud (5)

Ruud is having one the best seasons of his life, even without playing the first major of the year down under. He has affirmed himself as a top 10 player with deep runs in Roland Garros and Miami, reaching the final in both. Coupling these runs, Casper has followed up on his previous years ATP 250 successes by defending his two Swiss titles in Geneva and Gstaad and also adding a title at the beginning of the year in Buenos Aires.

Now a common criticism placed on Ruud is that he is a clay court specialist who is a mercenary only at the clay ATP 250 level. But over the last year, Casper has started to prove himself in the mind’s of his doubters. In late September and early October, he won his first hard court title in San Diego, beating Cameron Norrie in the final, a feat even more impressive given a couple weeks later, Norrie went on to win the Indian Wells ATP Masters 1000 title. The final in Miami in March this year also illustrated his hard court game, defeating Sasha Zverev and Norrie on the way to the final. 

Now bringing it to the tournament at hand, Ruud has ridden over a range of tricky opponents throughout. His most notable win came in the quarter-final, where he dealt with Matteo Berrettini in impressive fashion, defeating the Italian in straight sets. There have been two positives to his game this tournament: his fitness and his backhand stroke. In terms of his fitness, he’s looked immense and there has never been any signs of fatigue throughout all of his matches played, with the Norwegian chasing down balls from the first point to the last and utilising every facet of the defensive game that he favours. The backhand has also shown considerable strength. Rarely has it let him down and it’s found a near-baseline consistency in all of his matches so far.

If we’re looking for possible areas of weakness however, Ruud has had lapses in concentration in a couple of matches. In both the fourth round against Corentin Moutet and the semi-final against Karen Khachanov, there was a noticeable drop in tempo during the third set and this led to those sets being dropped and an extension of the match. Ruud would obviously go on to win both of these contests by upping the tempo immediately in the fourth sets but it’s still a concern for him and could prove fatal against an opponent with the ability to capitalise on such moments…

Carlos Alcaraz (3)

There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe this second main tour season for the teenage Spaniard. Alcaraz started the year with a good run in Australia, narrowly losing out to Matteo Berrettini in the third round of the Australian Open, but it was in February and March when we would truly see a breakthrough. In February, he picked up his first ATP 500 title on the clay in Rio, beating Berrettini and Diego Shwartzman along the way. Then in March, Alcaraz showed he was a real talent by getting to the semi-final of Indian Wells before narrowly losing out to one Rafeal Nadal. Things really ramped up a notch when he won his first ATP 1000 Masters title on the hard courts of Miami, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and then a certain Casper Ruud in the final. Following these with big titles on the European clay at the ATP 500 in Barcelona and his second ATP Masters 1000 title in Madrid. It’s this second Masters title that deserves particular applause, highlighted as it is with wins over Norrie, Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev.

However, it has not been completely plain sailing for Alcaraz. Rightly or wrongly, there were title expectations at Roland Garros which ended in the quarter-finals. Following this, there was an inactive grass court warmup season followed by a fourth round exit to Jannik Sinner at Wimbledon. After this, the mini central European clay season would see him claim two final losses in Hamburg to Lorenzo Musetti and in Umag with a loss to Sinner. Things didn’t look better when he hit North American soil with a second round exit to Tommy Paul in Montreal and a quarter-final exit to Norrie in Cincinnati. 

Moving onto this tournament, you could be forgiven for believing `Alcaraz’s matches were played on Broadway, for there has been so much drama and theatrics. The past three have all gone the distance, both in terms of length and the time of night it finishes, so much so that I as a European tennis fas has been able to watch the final set or two whilst eating my breakfast! There was of course the match of the year in many people’s eyes with the quarter-final against Sinner that produced a level of tennis that pleased the tennis community and gave us all hope that there will be outstanding matches and rivalries once the ‘Big 4’ depart from tour courts. 

The main pickup from this tournament with Alcaraz’s game has definitely been his problem solving and the variety in his game. The problem solving is something I do want to highlight as it shows an incredible level of emotional maturity. If we look at his last two major performances, there was a sense that he couldn’t solve his way out of the game if plan A didn’t work and both Zverev and Sinner played on this to get their four set victories. This looks to be much improved upon with Alcaraz changing up parts of his game when he needed to break Sinner back at key parts in their quarter final and demonstrating variety in his game in all its glory. 

Match Predictions

Now for the main event itself. I am backing Alcaraz in four sets. The reason for this breaks down into three elements. First, the game of Alcaraz when firing can blow Ruud off the court. We witnessed this in the Miami final, where after a slow start Alcaraz was firing forehand and backhand winners from all over the court with little answers being offered by Ruud. Second would be the counter punching capabilities of Alcaraz are just that bit better than Ruud’s. If you watch the Miami final back again, there are a range of occasions that Ruud was on top of the point and Alcaraz finds a way to snatch it away from him. Third and finally, pressure and mentality. With Alcaraz, we have seen that in the big moments in the big tournaments, he has delivered time and time again. We don’t have that certainty with Ruud and with the way he crumbled against Nadal in the final at Roland Garros, there is that worry. In the big moments, can Ruud deliver?

The answer at the moment is no.

Winner Takes All: Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud do battle later today in the men’s singles US Open final.

Jabeur Again Moves Mountains, but Seeks to Shift Everest Next

By Hanya El Ghetany

“In tennis, there is only one winner, but it was a great experience for me, and I’m looking for my next final.”

Ons Jabeur after losing the 2022 Wimbledon final to Elena Rybakina

It has been 63 days since Jabeur started her Wimbledon final post-match press conference with this positive outlook. Little did she know, she would be playing another major final a couple of weeks later. Jabeur’s run in New York has been nothing short of phenomenal. She won her first three rounds against three Americans, beating Madison Brengle (7-5, 6-2), Elizabeth Mandlik (7-5, 6-2) and Shelby Rogers (4-6, 6-4, 6-3). When Rogers had a 4-3 lead in the second set of their match, Jabeur stole the frame by winning 12 of the next 13 points. During the changeover, Rogers requested a medical timeout and then returned to the court looking noticeably out of sorts. In the third set, Jabeur promptly broke Rogers twice to go out to a 4-0 lead with some excellent strength and baseline defence. She then went on to beat Veronika Kudermetova (7-6, 6-4), Ajla Tomljanović (6-4, 7-6) and Caroline Garcia (6-1, 6-3) to face world number one and Roland-Garros champion Iga Świątek in the final. 

Jabeur was rather consistent throughout the tournament, having only dropped a set against Rogers in the third round. She played close to a perfect match against Garcia. She was serving incredibly throughout and  always in total control of the match. It almost seemed to look like Garcia was just reacting to what Jabeur was doing on court. Garcia had been in excellent shape this summer, having won three titles and returning to the top 10, but it was obvious from afar that the 28-year-old was uncomfortable in the most important match of her career. The first set was over in 23 minutes, with six aces from Jabeur and 14 unforced errors from Garcia. Garcia attempted to defend herself at the beginning of the second set after dropping her first set in the tournament, but Jabeur was dominating, and Garcia was still giving up too many free points. Her big night was turning into a horror show as her serve, which had been so strong during the fortnight, was dismantled. In about an hour, Jabeur had become the first Arab and North African woman to reach the U.S. Open final. 

The Tunisian left Wimbledon with a lot to learn from and a lot to look forward to. “I was trying to win my serve at the beginning, but then I felt like I was going really fast, even making some mistakes. I felt like she was playing better in the second and third set because she was making less mistakes. I was expecting myself to return better and take the opportunities that I had to break her so many times. It is frustrating to play someone who serves really big and doesn’t give you the chance sometimes to take that break, but it wasn’t meant to be.” This is how Jabeur described her final against Rybakina last summer. She said to the line of reporters waiting to ask her questions that she had the Wimbledon trophy as her wallpaper, now she was going to think about replacing it with the U.S. open trophy. She got on her flight for the U.S. swing with a pair of titles under her belt and two finals to learn from, Wimbledon and a loss to Swiatek in Rome. And today, on September 10th, 2022, Jabeur was once again playing a final to achieve her long-lived dream. 

Neither Jabeur nor Swiatek reached the final by accident. It was a natural achievement, a product of years of hard work. In Jabeur’s case, you don’t get into the final of two consecutive majors by accident, and Swiatek has dominated the tour this year, what with her 37-match winning streak midseason. Projecting these two in the final pre-tournament would not have surprised anyone. With their head-to-head at 2-all before the final, both players had a solid chance to grip the trophy.

The Wimbledon final was valuable experience for Jabeur in terms of holding a lead, but in this match, Swiatek refused to let her get ahead. Even when Jabeur broke, it would merely be to get back on serve rather than to build a lead. For most of the final, it looked like Jabeur had mentally lost the match, too frustrated to get much going. It felt like she was thinking of the unforced errors before they happened. In about an hour and 15 minutes, Iga was already leading a set (6-2) and up 3-0 in the second. Jabeur said ‘There is only one winner in tennis’ and that statement is 100% correct. No matter how brilliantly you play throughout the tournament, if you lose the final, that’s it, you weren’t the ultimate winner.

Perhaps thinking of that very possibility, Jabeur expertly clung on to save her serve at 0-3 and soon had the set back on serve. The match was a rollercoaster in that second set; just when it seemed one-sided for Iga, Jabeur tried to change things around. Jabeur’s resilience led to her winning five games in a set in a final match against Świątek, the first time this had happened since the world number one lost her 1st WTA final at 2019 Lugano. At this point, both players were visibly nervous. Even those who have played a dozen major finals seem to get nervous in the tense moments. At 6-5 and 40-30 to Świątek, Jabeur saved the first championship point and forced the second set into a tiebreak. At 6-5 in the breaker, after a nerveless forehand winner at 4-5, Świątek was once again at championship point, and this time Jabeur misfired. Świątek had her third major title.

Jabeur lifts the runner-up trophy. Screenshot: U.S. Open

Jabeur’s season has been extraordinary, with a lot of firsts along the way. She won her first WTA 1000 title in Madrid. She won her first WTA 500 title in Berlin. She made the final in Rome. She reached her first Wimbledon final and her first U.S. open final. On Monday, she will be the new world number two. She is the first Arab and North African man or woman to achieve all these things. She moved a lot of mountains during this season to achieve her dreams, and she moved them for a lot of youngsters in her region to follow in her footsteps. She needs to think about how to climb Everest next. Her goal next year will understandably be to win a major, oh, and figure out a way to beat Iga. 

It is reasonable how frustrated she must feel right now, having lost two major finals in a row, but once the moment has time to settle, she should feel great pride as well, in addition to motivation for 2023. Her match against Świątek was a tough one. She was playing the best player in the world. Managing to fight so well in the second set was a great improvement from the Rome final against Świątek earlier this year. Looking at the positives, I am hoping that her 2023 will be equally extraordinary, with a first major title. Her resilience shines so brightly on court, and I hope that this resilience remains equally strong off court and she doesn’t give up on achieving her dreams. Everyone who has read Jabeur’s story and followed her progress and watched her get closer to her dreams understands how much it will mean for her if she wins a major. Just keep pushing, Ons Jabeur. You’re almost there.

The Kids Are Alright

The second set of tonight’s U.S. Open quarterfinal between Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz was almost the length of a short movie, a hallucinatory battle of highlight-reel shots and physics-defying gets. Sinner scored the first break at 1-all with a mindblowing point: he rained a return onto Alcaraz’s baseline, but his 19-year-old opponent survived the attack, gradually turning the balance of the rally in his favor, then cranking an angled crosscourt forehand. Sinner, on the dead run, somehow pulverized the ball back crosscourt with a brutal right arm that might as well have been propelled by vengeful angels. It was almost like his racket strings had wrapped around the ball like one of those scoopy-catchy toys, ensnaring the ball before hurling it with maximum strength in the direction that it came from. Juan Martín del Potro was in attendance, and he might have shed a tear at this shot. Alcaraz, for all his demonic speed, barely moved for the ball.

Sinner held serve pretty comfortably until 5-4, looking likely to serve out the set to even the match, Alcaraz having won the opener 6-3. But Alcaraz broke, then held at love in about 2.5 seconds, then went up love-40 on Sinner’s serve. It was a startling turnaround, brutal in how abrupt it had been, and it was hard to imagine anyone being capable of regaining their footing on a rug pulled so sharply. Sinner, whose serve is generally not one of his biggest strengths, suddenly found a few shattering unreturnable deliveries. At ad-in, he seemed to have escaped the danger. Then Alcaraz replied to a forehand blast from on top of the net with a miraculous behind-the-back shot; no one in their right mind would have attempted it, but immediately after racket hit ball, it was obvious Alcaraz had somehow sent the ball low and with pace to Sinner’s feet, setting him up to win the point one shot later with a backhand pass. The trick shot sent fans into a frenzy, drawing tweets like this:

If it seems like I’m going on and on about this set, that’s because this was what the stanza felt like: a never-ending highlight reel in which each insane shot looked certain to prove decisive until the next proved it irrelevant. In the end, Sinner took a tense tiebreak 9-7 — midway through, Darren Cahill rested his head on his neighbor in Sinner’s box — Alcaraz had missed a putaway forehand on the one set point Sinner hadn’t saved with a bone-crushing serve.

When a best-of-five match stands at one set all after two hours and 10 minutes, there’s usually a sense of heaviness. Not dread, not by any means, but a bit of wariness — put your feet up, make some popcorn, because we’re going to be here for a while. In this match, though, everything felt light to me. Neither had made a major semifinal in 2022 (or ever, for that matter), so the match would be a hallmark win for one and a courageous loss for the other. At 19 and 21, Alcaraz and Sinner were at no risk of suffering a career-defining defeat. Their young legs could presumably take another couple hours of punishment, and their arms? Well, Alcaraz hit a forehand at 107 mph early in the third set.

*****

“The future of tennis” is a phrase that has been thrown around with regards to the ATP for more than a decade. Each time we’ve thought the dominance of the Big Four was waning, though, someone in that vaunted quartet stepped up to fill the position of their faltering brethren. Lately it has been Djokovic and Nadal tearing up the world, sharing a gaudy 36 of the last 50 major titles between them. They have turned NextGen after NextGen into LostGen. They are probably not even finished with their cruel reign, despite the fact that they are in their mid-thirties.

There are many reasons, though, to think that Alcaraz and Sinner are the successors. For one, age finally is settling into Djokovic and Nadal’s performances, as are other factors. Djokovic is not vaccinated, ruling him out of several big tournaments, including this U.S. Open. Without the motivation of week-to-week competitive play and months-long breaks, you have to wonder how much more Gumby he has in him for when he does take the court. Nadal won two majors this year, but also dealt with a stress fracture in his rib, a flare-up of his chronic foot injury, and an ab tear, all of which forced him off the tour for considerable amounts of time. He has weathered an astonishing number of injuries in his long career, but one senses he is finally being worn down.

And it’s not just that — Sinner and Alcaraz have serious game. Time after time tonight, they sent returns flaring onto the opposite baseline, often after very good serves. Their ballstriking ability sends the fuzzy yellow thing flying this way and that at truly alarming speeds, yet their movement is dynamic enough (particularly in Alcaraz’s case) to keep nearly anything in play.

This match was of two phases, the first being defined by Sinner playing the big points better than Alcaraz. The 21-year-old saved a trio of set points in the second with massive serves. He bunted a backhand return winner to seal the set himself. In the third, he twice came back from a set down, then played a peerless tiebreak. But Alcaraz had a set point for a two-set lead on which Sinner didn’t hit a mammoth serve; he had a chance to put away a forehand anywhere on the right side of the court and instead it slammed into the net. He netted an easy forehand at 7-all in the tiebreak. He couldn’t serve out the third set and put up a tiebreak performance that Sinner trampled as an elephant might a toothpick.

Sinner, by comparison, was cool as ice. Alcaraz played so well earlier this year that many of us started projecting that he wouldn’t have a rival equal to him during his prime years, never mind that those years could be half a decade off. And I did still think Alcaraz was better than Sinner, even when it looked like Sinner would win the match; the Spaniard’s speed and forehand and return of serve are irresistible. But since his first meeting with Alcaraz at the end of last year, Sinner has been making that case less and less persuasive with each edition of the rivalry, from calmly outplaying Alcaraz at Wimbledon to outlasting him in Umag to taking him to the brink here in New York.

When Alcaraz broke out, many players accepted his rise with almost passive recognition of his talent. He was so good that others almost shied away. Stefanos Tsitsipas has lost to him three straight times. Alexander Zverev got absolutely cooked by Alcaraz in the Madrid final, then promptly said the young Spaniard, then a newcomer to the top ten, was the best player in the world. Sinner has been different from the start, insisting with his stern groundstrokes that if Alcaraz was the golden boy destined for stardom, Sinner would make his path to the top as miserable as possible, usurping him if necessary. When he went up a break early in the fourth set, Sinner looked as close to surpassing Alcaraz in terms of threat level as he had since Alcaraz rose to prominence.

But then came the second phase of the match. Alcaraz has shown a jarring affinity for astonishing comebacks this season. Not all of them have resulted in wins; in fact, very few have: despite huge pushes from way behind in the score, Alcaraz lost to Berrettini in Melbourne, Zverev in Paris, Sinner in London, and Musetti in Hamburg. Here, Alcaraz again seemed unbothered by the thought of a loss. He saved a match point with a sharp backhand return, riding the momentum to the 7-5 comeback set he barely missed out on in the second stanza.

Alcaraz after winning the fourth set. Screenshot: U.S. Open

In the fifth, Alcaraz went down a break at 3-2, and he immediately broke back. When Sinner won an epic rally — he hit a backhand overhead smash, then anticipated an Alcaraz putaway to club a forehand winner into the open court — Alcaraz was unimpressed, quickly forcing an error with another good backhand return. Serving for the match, he defended well on the opening point. He sliced an ace out wide at 15-all. And he painted the service line with a 128 mph body serve to seal the deal.

This match has so many implications for the future it’s hard to know where to start. It was a lovely indicator that this young rivalry’s promise is boundless. For Sinner, it was as brave — and, likely, as painful — as a loss can get. For Frances Tiafoe, it was the most fun he’s ever had with tennis while not playing himself. But more than anything, it was a glorious reinforcement of all Alcaraz’s freakish talent. Who knows how far he will go, but I haven’t seen a limiting factor yet. He is incredible.

*****

In the middle of the third set, Sinner serving and Alcaraz up a break at 4-2, they played an utterly frantic point, Alcaraz nearly passing Sinner at net before having to backtrack for an angled dink and sprinting towards the baseline in a hopeless (but enchantingly fast) dash and- tell you what, just watch the rally yourself.

Alcaraz’s movement is one of his biggest assets, but sometimes it’s almost excessively explosive. Here, he had no chance to get to Sinner’s final shot (let’s be honest, anything short of a sports car equipped with a robotic arm had no chance), but he ran like hell for it anyway, and the fury of his movement forced him off his feet. As Carlos Alcaraz lay there on the ground not in defeat but in negotiation with his own abilities, the camera lingered on his face for a moment, his mouth expressionless, eyes staring towards the roof of the biggest tennis stadium in the world.