The thick brown canned coffee stains the sides of the glass, bubbling up slightly.
It’s an unfamiliar drink for Owen but in his defence, it is 4.15am for him and he’s only just about awake. He’s also nervous, as is Scott, his partner and co-interviewer in this, the first of hopefully many attempts at a professional sit-down chit-chat with someone who works in tennis. The time zone difference means that for Scott, it’s a much more reasonable time of 9:15am. Despite this, however, he still looks as though he’s just rolled out of bed, hair tangled at all angles, unshowered and unshaved…
Our worries are very quickly put at ease with the arrival of the man we’re speaking with today.
Saša Ozmo joins our call and through initial patchy connection issues, warmly introduces himself as he finds a quiet spot to speak to us from. His words have the air of someone who’s been looking forward to this, a talk with two relative newbies trying to find their way in the complex world that is tennis media. Despite the fact that he undoubtedly has a lot on his journalistic schedule currently, Ozmo takes his time with us, asking us questions about ourselves and informing us that he’s already visited the Popcorn Tennis homepage and has enjoyed the pieces that he’s been able to read there.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Ozmo’s work, he’s a successful Serbian sports journalist. Having been fascinated with sporting coverage since he was a teenager, he worked at the B92 Serbian broadcasting company for over 10 years, before going on to find a home writing for Sportklub, a popular subscription channel that began back in 2006 and is currently available in an array of different countries. Alongside this, he also keeps a blog updated with more analytical writing, predominantly in the realms of basketball and tennis.
In short, he has experience that we’re more than interested in hearing about.
Ozmo’s tennis fandom began in childhood. He describes a move from Belgrade to Cardiff during the NATO bombings when he was a kid, where he would watch Eurosport’s coverage of Roland-Garros and sometimes Wimbledon. “I used to plead with my aunt to not go to school, to watch tennis,” he laughs.
What’s the best match he’s ever seen start to finish? “Djokovic-Nadal, Australian Open final 2012,” he says. The match in question is a five-hour, 53-minute package of draining rallies in which Djokovic and Nadal pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought physically possible on a tennis court. The final ended when Djokovic banged a big serve down the T (in a last lovely bit of parallelism, Nadal’s return landed short in almost the exact same spot on Djokovic’s ad side service box), then put away an inside-out forehand winner.
“Such a crazy day for Serbian sport,” he goes on. “The Serbian water polo team played the finals of a big tournament that day. And our handball team was playing the finals of the European championship, which was here in Belgrade. And I actually had tickets to go to the finals, but I was so exhausted after Djokovic-Nadal that I watched it on TV and gave my ticket to a friend. It was like I was playing for six hours.” Ozmo can hardly be blamed for his exhaustion. The rallies were so grueling that at 4-all in the fifth, Djokovic crumpled to the ground after losing a 31-shot exchange, and a few minutes later, he sent a rocket return at Nadal’s feet, who was too exhausted to get out of the way and simply volleyed the ball back from the baseline. That point devolved into a 19-shot rally, after which Nadal hunched over from a leg cramp. The match was surreal, and is a more-than-worthy choice for the best one has ever seen.
Both Scott and Owen have aspirations to be sports journalists, and Ozmo is a perfect person to ask about everything from his career to advice on writing. Ozmo has written a book in Serbian called Sport Journalism. “The idea first came to my mind when my professor of Political Sciences in Belgrade invited me to hold a lecture for her students,” he remembers. “So the first time I did it, I went there unprepared, y’know, told some anecdotes and blah, blah, and it was fun for them but I did not think in the end that it was very useful. And so the second time that they invited me, I thought ‘OK, let’s do this properly.’ And so I sat and made a presentation and that turned out to be a blueprint for the book.”
We saw an opening in this line of conversation to ask whether he can give us any advice. It would have been very easy for him to tell us to go and buy his book to get the inside scoop but Ozmo isn’t like that. Just the opposite, in fact. “Yeah, I can, of course,” he says. “But it’s a bit longer, we can do this Zoom some other time to talk closely about journalism.” Rather than leaving it there, he goes on to expand and offer some valuable insight.
“One thing that worked quite well for me, which I note because I do a lot of mentorship as well, in the two newsrooms I’ve been to during my career, usually every time a new kid comes, they’re all ‘just give him to Saša.’” Ozmo clearly has instincts as a mentor that run deep.
“I’ve seen they don’t take criticism too well. At least that’s what it’s like in Serbia. So in my book, before journalism, you need to be open to constructive criticism. Because I know for myself, if I haven’t listened to two people’s advice to me in regards to what I was doing wrong, I mean…They helped me so much. So sometimes I try to pass on that knowledge and it does not get the same reception and that’s the key.”
It is the consistent desire to better oneself that Ozmo underlines as the most important element when looking to kickstart ANY career path, not just one within journalistic circles. He wraps up this section of the interview by reiterating his offer from earlier, entirely unprompted, to speak with us in greater detail at some point in the future to help us further.
A big aspect of Ozmo’s job is to cover Novak Djokovic. He’s the world number one, a 20-time major champion, and the best Serbian athlete of all time.
Djokovic’s rise and continued success inadvertently helped Serbian journalists such as Ozmo to be able to pursue their passion for tennis as a full-time career. “I love doing what I do for a living and thanks to Djokovic, I am able to travel so I’m really, really grateful to him.” Ozmo takes a moment and smiles before going on. “I know he didn’t really do it to help me, you know, but he did, he helped me along with many others because without him, we are not such a wealthy country… He helped me achieve my dreams and without him, I do not believe that I would be travelling, especially not to Australia. Maybe some other places, like France or London which are closer, but not Australia.”
Naturally, much of Ozmo’s tennis coverage centers around Djokovic. And naturally, we were deliriously excited to not just be one degree of separation from the world number one, but to be able to talk to someone zero degrees away. Ozmo remembers his first interaction with Djokovic well. “My first one-on-one interview with him was Roland-Garros 2015, after his second-round match. It was quite a big deal for me back then because that was my first tournament that I covered on site…it was very important for the rest of my career to cover on site. So we arranged that interview. It took a while. His PRs told me ‘we have ten minutes,’ and we ended up talking for 22. It was a great interview; I’m proud of that interview.”
The interview helped propel Ozmo’s career upwards. “I don’t have those butterflies and stuff like that, but it meant a lot. Before the interview, I told him ‘this is like a Grand Slam final to me,’ and he laughed and said ‘don’t worry, it will be okay.’So we spoke for 22 minutes and it was a huge boom in Serbia and the international media took parts of the interview and it was a sort of beginning for me.” Ozmo is equally generous with his time, talking to us well beyond his initially outlined time frame of half an hour.
As a result of his numerous interviews with Djokovic over the years, tennis fans have frequently asked Ozmo to pass along their messages of support. “We are not buddies. We have a really good professional relationship,” Ozmo clarifies, laughing. Journalism is often a profession of objectivity.
For years, Djokovic has been under fire by media outlets, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. His treatment by the press has become such a debated topic on Twitter that we knew we wanted to get Ozmo’s expertise on the subject.
“I don’t want to generalize,” Ozmo says, “because there is a lot of fair treatment of Djokovic, and I think some of his fans on Twitter don’t realize that…I have a lot of friends in the Western media, and they do write really great articles.”
“But in some parts of the media, there is this portrayal that goes on, that they always pinpoint the negatives, and they put the positives in the second plan…with Federer, and mostly with Nadal, it’s the other way around.”
“Of course he’s not flawless, he’s made a bunch of errors,” he tells us, making it clear that despite Djokovic helping his career, Ozmo is aware of his imperfections. That doesn’t mean he thinks Djokovic is always done justice by the media, however. “Sometimes I do feel it’s unfair. For example, sportsmanship award: he never gets nominated. Nadal gets the award, he did not play for half of the year.”
“As far as the relationship with the fans, and I’ve been to many tournaments, and believe me, I know how some players behave when the camera is turned off. And I know how Novak behaves when the camera is turned off.” Ozmo leaves this quote open ended but it’s very easy to read between the lines here. It’s no secret that Djokovic makes time for his fans and many players reportedly don’t make the same level of effort.
Worst, though, are when media outlets tell outright falsehoods in an effort to smear Djokovic. “In some examples,” Ozmo says, “there are some blatant lies as well. That ‘pressure is a privilege’ quote that went viral…some people apologized afterwards, but in the world that we live in with social networks and everything, it’s a bit too late. You have to be more responsible, especially when it’s such a touchy topic.” His answer brings to mind Erica Albright’s quote from the 2010 film The Social Network — “the Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.”
“Just to conclude, I really don’t think this matters so much. And the fan sport, o-kay. Obviously Novak has millions of fans around the world. But if he does not get crowd support in the stadium, it does not matter. He’s won a million times against the crowd support, and then the crowd supports him against Medvedev and he loses, three-love in the finals. At the end of the day, who cares, you know?” And as for wanting to be liked, as so many claim about Djokovic, as if it is a negative characteristic: “Sometimes people in Serbia say ‘why do you care, why do you give a fuck? You can be like Ivan Lendl.’ But he’s not that kind of personality. He wants to be liked. I mean, I want to be liked, everyone wants to be liked.” We can attest to all of this, but especially that last bit…
(Please, please retweet this article for us.)
“But the good thing is, he stopped caring, I think,” Ozmo concludes. “In the early stages of his career, it bothered him a lot more.” It’s here that Saša finishes his answer, but we can tell that if he wanted to, he could easily go on.
Ozmo’s job extends far beyond covering Djokovic. “There are different aspects of the job. Most of the people see when I’m on-site, covering tournaments, but that’s not the high percentage of my job. Most of the time I’m just sitting at my computer typing news, doing interviews, and writing blogs — I’m not complaining, I love doing that — but when you’re on site, that’s a completely different story, and the reason why I pursued this line of work since I was in high school.”
“My favorite part of my job is the first few days of Grand Slams, especially the first two rounds, because it’s so crazy. If Djokovic is not playing, I’m always on the outer courts and never on the biggest courts. I have to of course watch Djokovic because of my work, but if not for that I would always be on the outer courts for the first few rounds. That’s the greatest experience one can have at slams. And when someone asks me ‘when should I come?’ I always say ‘the first few days, and don’t even bother buying the ticket for the biggest stadium.’”
Ozmo specifies that watching players yet to reach the spotlight allows spectators to hear every bit of the action, including the athletes’ mannerisms. “I remember watching Shapovalov vs. Tsitsipas in the junior semis, and it’s a pretty cool thing, watching those players when no one’s basically heard of them.”
“In Paris, I watched Kecmanovic, who’s a Serbian guy, playing Shapovalov in the semis of Roland-Garros. I watched Felix in New York, all when they were juniors.”
Ozmo has familiarized himself with all levels of tennis, always being open to watching and learning from matches that aren’t the most publicized. “I must say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much wheelchair tennis can be interesting,” he tells us. “It’s amazing the skill those guys have, and the strength of their arms…I mean, the guy hits the ball harder than me. It’s crazy. It demands so much skill…when people ask me what to see, I tell them ‘go at least see a set of wheelchair tennis if you have time.’”
Djokovic has received some blowback for his lack of transparency over his vaccination status in the run-up to the 2022 edition of the Australian Open, the first Major tournament to introduce a vaccine mandate for players.
To bring things to a close, we return to Djokovic, asking Ozmo his thoughts about the world number one keeping his vaccination status to himself until as close to the Australian as possible. Ozmo’s answer is immediate and concise: “My thought is that I want him to reveal his decision as soon as possible so that I know if I should apply for a VISA or not.”
We all laugh. Ozmo has more at stake in Djokovic’s decision than most of the rest of us.
I’ve been resisting throwing my hat into the ring for a while on this, but after Popcorn Tennis started this seemed an obvious time to talk about the big debate in tennis: who is the greatest player of all time? For the last 10 years or so, the topic has been whether it is Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as they have dominated the game since 2004. No other players in history have been at the top of the game for as long as these guys, and the battle between them has captured the imagination of a generation of fans, such as myself.
The debate becomes passionate — dare I say heated — on social media. This makes sense; if we choose our champion, our idol, we want them to prove themselves stronger than the others and we will defend them. After all, if we love something or someone enough, their status becomes part of our identity. Unfortunately, the title of greatest of all time (or GOAT for short) is not one easily given in our sport.
The reality is, there isn’t a simple definition we can use in tennis. Now, the obvious answer here is who has won the most majors (in singles). This makes sense, they are the most important titles in tennis and the only events that throughout history have seen the very best players competing. All other events have gained or lost importance over time. In the men’s game, Masters 1000s are only a fairly recent addition (having started in 1990) but even then, there have been plenty that those at the very top have missed. Similarly, the Olympics only really started to matter to the higher-ranked players since the mid-2000s. So, the ‘Grand Slam Race’ naturally has had the most attention.
Which begs the question: why can’t we use this simple metric? There are two reasons for this. First, at the moment there is a tie between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer for 20 each. (I am expecting Djokovic to take the lead by winning at least one more major in his career.) The second reason is historical context, which is where we need to look beyond the ‘Big Three’. Historically, many players skipped the Australian Open, either because of the travel issues, the court quality or the prize money available. So, the modern players have had and taken more opportunities to add to their tallies. Furthermore, tennis has only been a professional sport since 1968, and for many years before that the very best players couldn’t take part in the majors because of their lack of amateur status. Looking at their results across the professional game, it is highly likely that both Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall would be on more than 20 majors each had they had the opportunity. Statistics always have context, which makes it difficult to compare eras. That being said, I do believe that this may be the greatest era in men’s tennis, given that a group of players as a whole haven’t captured the imagination of the world in such a way as the “Big Three” (and Andy Murray) have. The closest equivalent was probably the late-70s/early-80s when it was Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors at the top of the game. Only someone who lived through the era at the time could confirm this though.
The issue of deciding a GOAT isn’t a tennis-only one. Other sports have the same issue. The biggest sport in the world is soccer (football for UK/European readers), and they have a similar issue. If you ask the question of who the greatest player of all time is, the mind goes to the goal-scorers, because they get the headlines. If you google the question, it actually seems to be a short list of contenders: Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it is not an easily settled question. Pele has the most career goals of the four, but most came in the Brazilian league. Now, I am not a football historian, but I’m not sure how high profile this league was when he was playing. So, the discussion then comes down to which goals matter, playing style and also the impact these characters have on their teams as a whole. All these are highly subjective.
My other favourite sport is Formula One (and most forms of motor racing), and similarly to tennis there is a heated GOAT debate. The leading names in this are Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is the record holder in most statistics, but he has taken part in more races compared to Fangio and Clark as F1 seasons are twice the length they were in the 1950s and 60s. Fangio could be called the greatest given he won 47% of the races he took part in. However, many still today would say Ayrton Senna because of the legendary status he has as a driver, which is purely down to his style and attitude. The way he captured the imagination of fans in the 1980s and 90s continues today with a generation of people who never saw him race live. Yet, he won ‘only’ three championships compared to the seven of Schumacher and Hamilton. World Championships are probably the most important statistic in the sport, as winning individual races doesn’t carry the same kind of weight. In a tennis sense, it would be the equivalent of year-end number ones mattering more than major titles. There are also contextual differences between eras, as not only are there more races held now, but the cars are very different to drive and far more reliable. Most of the drivers listed would win a similar number of races were they driving today instead of Hamilton.
Let’s now look at a sport where there is a definitive GOAT: Boxing. This is a sport that Andy Murray, among others, has said is the most comparable to tennis, because of the nature of the one-on-one contest that is mental as much as physical. Boxing’s GOAT is Muhammad Ali, who is also regarded by many as the greatest sportsman of all time. Interestingly, this is not necessarily backed up by stats. He did ascend to the top of the world three times, seemingly defying the aging process for almost two decades. However, he did not retire undefeated in his career, which is heralded as the most impressive feat in boxing, or win as many matches as others who came after him. Now, some of these losses were due to some ill-judged fights at the end of his career, which adds some important context and shows he loved competing so much (much like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic now). What made Ali memorable was his charisma out of the ring, and the fact many of the fights he took part in (and won) are some of the most memorable in boxing history. In the ring, his fighting style made him iconic, with quick feet and strategic thinking and his bravery in taking on some of the other greats of the sport. Furthermore, Ali’s activism made his legacy even deeper, as he was a black icon and his success made a positive impact for other black fighters. Furthermore, his pacifism in the time of the Vietnam War made headlines, even if it impacted his career negatively. In many ways, there are no serious contenders to his status of boxing’s greatest athlete.
The other sporting icons listed here, such as Lionel Messi or Ayrton Senna, have a similar aura about them. Something about the way they mastered the sport captured the imagination and earned the respect of fellow competitors and fans of their disciplines, as well as being noticed by those who didn’t follow their sports closely. Occasionally the greats also make an impact in the way they act off the pitch, out of the ring or off the court. Yes, they need to win more than anyone else, to beat the opponents and prove they are the best of their generation. But being the greatest requires them to have something intangible.
This brings us back to tennis, and I have to say in the men’s game there isn’t a clear leader in this respect. Who captures your imagination depends on what it is about the game you love. I think Novak Djokovic is unquestionably the best player of the 2010s, Rafael Nadal is the best clay court player of all time and Roger Federer was the best player of the 2000s. If you love physicality, then for you I suspect Djokovic is the greatest of all time. If it is fighting spirit of a player, of course one is drawn to Nadal. If it is style and creativity, then Federer is likely the one you would prefer. That’s if you want to restrict your options to the current era. I want to go and review matches from other greats of the game, such as Laver, Borg and Sampras, to see how they impact me (provided there is enough footage out there). This is another issue of the GOAT debate: there tends to be a lot of recency bias involved.
The thing is, I don’t know if there is a male tennis player in history who seems to have that aura that draws people to them off the court as well as on it. Even if Novak Djokovic tops the stats tables, I don’t see him winning over many people who don’t follow the sport closely. Rod Laver is not a name that people mention outside of tennis circles; for whatever reason he isn’t known in the same way. Bjorn Borg was to an extent, his ice-cool demeanour on the court won many fans, but I suspect his physical attractiveness did also play a part. The closest of the modern era is probably Roger Federer. Everyone was impressed by his dominance in the mid-2000s, even non-tennis fans knew who he was. He’s managed his ageing body through the 2010s to be able to still push Djokovic and Nadal, who are significantly younger. The brand Federer has built is huge, and he has won the ATP Fan Favourite award 19 years in a row since 2003, which shows the following he has built is still substantial. What is lacking for me is his off-court charisma, but this is down to personal taste.
If you want to call Djokovic the greatest male player of all time, I won’t say you’re wrong. However, I will also say the same to fans of Federer and Nadal. If you’re reading this, and you remember Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, and still think them the greatest, I won’t argue with you either. I honestly can’t pick one for myself. My favourite player is still Federer, and I think there is still a case to call him the greatest, but I am not sufficiently convinced.
Honestly, I think the greatest tennis player of all time is found in the women’s game. Serena Williams successfully bested two generations of players and is arguably one of the greatest athletes in any sport. Martina Navratilova pioneered a similar level of athleticism in the 1980s despite her age, whilst also escaping a controlling communist regime and being one of the first prominent LGBTQ+ athletes. Billie-Jean King won battles off the court as well as on it, leading the promotion of the women’s game and setting the foundations of the modern game, as both male and female athletes now share centre stage. Then there is Suzanne Lenglen, who dominated the game in the 1920s, only losing seven matches in her amateur career, and was known as “La Divine” such was the fascination with her playing style. She was the first celebrity tennis star, and it could be argued she is the reason the sport has retained such a high profile for so long. I’d also dare to suggest Monica Seles as a potential candidate, given what could have been in her career having had so much success so early. The story of her comeback from being stabbed on a tennis court is inspirational. Again, which of these athletes you choose as the greatest is subjective (for me at this moment in time, I’d lean towards Lenglen but again I need to review footage of other players). They all fit the criteria of being the clear best of their generation, serial winners and also capturing the imagination of the world beyond tennis. I don’t want to sell short the achievements of Helen Wills, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf or Justine Henin by the way, I just need to do a bit more research into their stories.
If this piece has a conclusion, it is this: There is no definitive GOAT in tennis. A lot of what makes a GOAT in any sport is intangible, perhaps even subjective. Statistics do matter, they are vital in comparing players within a generation, in a single moment in time. Statistics show us who the candidates for the very best ever are, but they only have value in the context they were collected. However, if we were to insist on exploring the question of who is the greatest of all time, the best candidates can be found in the women’s game rather than the men’s.
Olivia Gadecki is ranked 181st in the world. Like world #1 Ash Barty, she is Australian. In fact, Barty has been supporting the 19-year-old Gadecki for some time. The teenager’s ranking isn’t sufficiently high to qualify for the Australian Open next month, but she was primed to receive a wild card into the main draw. The only problem? Gadecki is refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which is a must for Australian Open participants.
Barty has recently spoken about Gadecki’s decision — most disappointingly saying “I’m proud that she’s made her decision, for her reasons, for her right reasons.” There are several issues with this. Gadecki’s choice isn’t shocking; a teenager making the unenlightened choice not to protect themselves, and potentially others, from COVID-19, is tragically far from unique. The more surprising reveal is Barty’s apparent peace with Gadecki’s unvaccinated status. Barty is vaccinated. Due to travel restrictions in Australia, she skipped last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s WTA Finals, passing up her chance to defend her title at the latter tournament.
Though it’s much better than many players’ stances on vaccination — take Pierre-Hughes Herbert, who is also refusing to get jabbed and will therefore miss the Australian Open — Barty’s philosophy is frustratingly inconsistent. It’s great to be vaccinated to protect those around you, but why someone wouldn’t then hold others to the same standard is beyond me. I’d like to protect myself and others from a disease that has been killing thousands of people every day, but you, you can do whatever you want.
Holding people accountable is often difficult or uncomfortable. With COVID-19, it is necessary. The world has already been deeply scarred by the pandemic, and there is no end in sight. People still refuse to wear masks out of belief of conspiracy theories or sheer selfish negligence. Many who do wear masks wear them below their noses, seemingly unaware that people draw in air through that body part as well as through the mouth. 21 months into the pandemic, it all tragically screams I don’t care, and we should care, we should care an immense amount.
Barty’s quotes are a million miles from the most discouraging takes on vaccination, but they’re still detrimental to the push to get through the pandemic. It’s natural to want to support someone you mentor. But in today’s climate, it’s crucial to call out those who aren’t doing their part, regardless of who they might be. Criticizing someone and wanting them to do better is not the same thing as turning one’s back on them or expressing dislike (assuming that’s what Barty wants to avoid).
The best response to the Gadecki news is to disagree with her decision and hope she comes to her senses.
Midway through a Parisian evening six months and one week ago, Rafael Nadal had set point for a two-sets-to-one lead against Novak Djokovic in the Roland-Garros semifinals. He had survived a terrifying stretch of error-free tennis from his opponent, coming back from 3-5 down to gain the set point at 6-5. He looked vulnerable, more so than he usually does at Roland-Garros, but he still looked like himself. Things have changed quite a bit since, and not just because Djokovic saved the set point with a drop shot and went on to win the match, playing some of the best tennis of the year. Nadal played just two more matches for the rest of the season. His congenital disease in his tarsal scaphoid, the pain from which he’s been able to manage for years, flared up in force. Though Nadal stayed in the top ten, ending the 2021 season at #6 in the world, there were question marks surrounding his comeback.
Returning from injury is nothing new for Nadal. In the 2010s, physical issues forced him out of seven major tournaments, either through mid-match retirement or withdrawal. This is a lot. (By comparison, Djokovic and Federer each missed or retired from two majors due to injury in the same time frame) Nadal has previously been able to ascend to the top of the game each time he’s been knocked out by an injury, but this time may pose new challenges.
Nadal is now 35 years old. He plays differently than he used to. He was once able to race around the court endlessly, so much so that he could usually paper over his weakness of hitting backhands from a wide position on the court. At 35, playing the marathon game is no longer a feasible possibility for him. Djokovic has been able to make his exceptional defense last into his mid-thirties, but Nadal’s ability to play attritional matches hasn’t had the same longevity. Nadal has had to beef up his serve and backhand; he comes to net more now than he used to. These adjustments have kept him near the top of the rankings, but he’s not the physical force he was in his prime years.
Presumably, Nadal will still be a threat to win Roland-Garros if he is fit. At the other majors, though, his prospects seem dim. It’s tempting to say he could win another U.S. Open, since he won the last time he took part in that tournament (2019). But since then, Medvedev has improved greatly on hard court, Thiem and Tsitsipas have each recorded a win over Nadal at the Australian Open, and Djokovic, ever Nadal’s biggest tormentor, has largely remained healthy. Since winning that U.S. Open, Nadal has been close to his best at just one hard court tournament, the 2020 World Tour Finals, and even there, he lost to Thiem and Medvedev. The best-case scenario for Nadal seems like another Roland-Garros title or two.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Roland-Garros isn’t until halfway through the 2022 season. Nadal has just played his first tournament since Washington D.C. in August, the Mubadala exhibition. He lost in straight sets to three-time major champion Andy Murray, who is currently ranked 134th in the world. He then fell to world #14 Denis Shapovalov in a super tiebreak after splitting sets. Do these results mean much, and if so, what?
The short answer is that the two losses don’t seem that significant. Players are often rusty after a comeback, having lost touch with the competitive rigors of professional matches. Nadal’s return of serve was iffy, managing just one break of serve between the two matches. There were the vintage moments where Nadal set up a forehand down the line winner with a backhand slice or put away a soft volley at net, but overall quality was lacking. Nadal stole the first set of today’s match from Shapovalov after trailing 4-5, 15-30 on the return, but went on to lose the second set and the tiebreak to 10 points. He hit plenty of errors, including misses on shots where he wasn’t trying to place the ball especially close to the lines.
There was one game against Murray, with the Scot serving at 4-5 in the second set, which encapsulated both Nadal’s successes and struggles. The Spaniard began the game with a crosscourt backhand winner at a tight angle. He set up 15-30 with a forehand winner down the line. But when Nadal led in the game, at both love-15 and 15-30, he hit short second serve returns and made unforced errors on the following shot. Murray held serve, broke in the following game, then served out the match: 6-3, 7-5.
Nadal is yet to commit to playing the Australian Open. His primary goal is likely the clay season, so it probably won’t even be a huge cause for concern if he doesn’t play in Melbourne.
At the end of the day, Mubadala saw Nadal play two short exhibition matches on fast hard court, not ideal surface conditions for the Spaniard. It’s just not a very big sample size of match play to judge from. Nadal didn’t play as well as he could have, but his movement looked unhampered, and considering the events of the last six months, that’s probably a win all by itself.
It remains to be seen whether Nadal can get himself into the same spot he was in during that Roland-Garros semifinal: a favorable position in a big match. Mubadala certainly didn’t provide enough evidence to make a call either way. But Nadal is trying to get back to where he has been before, and if his career has taught us anything, it’s that he won’t stop trying until a chance is completely dead and buried.
Trigger warning: profanity is used throughout this piece.
I was born into a story of ritual. Where adults around me tried their best to find signs and wonders in the little lives they had made in a church-turned-cult, but were borne ceaselessly back into the past by the rituals they clung onto, and, for a long time, unable to see that these rituals walled in their children. Where other freakishly well-behaved children wore those rituals as white raiment, golden haloes free in the package deal, and used both to make me feel like the heathen I was meant to be. Where nosy, white elders, empowered in a brown and beige world, saw fit to puppet all these people—adults and children—into performative roles in a story they had made up in their white heads. This is not a story about that side of me, though. This is a story about tennis. But it is also a story about ritual.
Adults play the game of love flawlessly with their kids for a while.
They create a beautiful myth of the eternally-happy family inside the walls of the home, they feed each other the best food they can find, they gambol in meadows or run-down parks, and they, the parents, often pretend not to fuck each other silly every week.
But there comes a time when the Outside wanders into the child’s mind with its whisper-feet, seducing and enticing as it only can.
Like, with the psssts of some troublemakers…
Like, with silhouettes of hearty teenagers in the insect-burping borderlands between family and society…
Like, with the dream of walking through an Open Era of wonder out there, and taking down a ring-obsessed dark angel with just a schoolyard scrap, finger-biting and screeching “It’s mine!”
The Outside comes inside the home.
So that the Inside will want to go outside the home.
This is the Way.
We don’t always like the Way.
We put ourselves in a gilded prison of Home’s myth, its utopia of eternal, selfless, agape love, its Insideness.
We put on a perverted, psychological ‘Mandalorian helmet,’ so that we can stay inside even outside, keeping up appearances of taciturn strength.
We, especially the Adult versions of ourselves, emphasize, even enforce upon our children, the behavioural borders between Us and Them, the carefully-demarcated world of Family, the patterns of Usness, bound in rules, religions, mores, and manners—probably something more recognizable for you, reader, if you grew up as an Indian, as I did.
Because we all wish “our own kin, kith, and kind” are better than everyone else.
And, then, at some point, even our justificationsand forms of behavior to resist the Outside will seem like infernal NONSENSE.
Because we know that we need to find our own World of Meaning, not somebody else’s.
So that we can finally learn the elusive art of living with ourselves, flaws and all.
The Adult, in its attempt to save the Child with lessons of what seems like Adult Behaviour, has homogenized the child in its own image, but has forgotten, or perhaps, arrogantly overridden the feeling of the child’s individualism.
“She felt for the first time, the mountain-range of [her family], and that she was no longer free, no longer just [herself], but of the blood. All this was cloud in her. Ominous, magnificent, and indeterminate. Something she did not understand. Something which she recoiled from – so incomprehensible in her were its workings.”
As we grow older, it is this timethat we often look back on, reexamining the nonsense—the lies, the denial, the suppression of our need to be our own people—that parents, other influencing adults, and even ourselves slapped upon our sticky, impressionable child-minds.
Because it’s often in how and why things become nonsense that makes the most sense.
In understanding how we created Nonsense Forms of Behaviour to unreasonably keep ourselves Inside, we can learn how everyone creates the same Nonsense Forms, and we can learn how to use and discard them, to break free from them, to find sensible compromises, and to find our own sense—a fresher, more relevant sense.
And what is the most common and most dependable Nonsense Form of Behavior?
Rules? Manners? Prescribed Profession? Policy? Protocol? Human Resources? Officiousness? Empire? Nationalism? Fundamentalist religion? Fascist anti-theism? The unbearable, overbearing orthodoxy of it all?
Make it easy.
Give us one word for all of that—barring the nonsensical beardboy.
Ritual to infuriate ourselves, and then, after a long stroll down Memory Lane, to make us laugh out loud in retrospect.
Wondering why on earth had we ever gone through all that.
I would have blown out a fucking artery if I even knew what an artery was.
Tom & Jerry was minutes away, but, right here, right now, some fool server was alternating between good and bad on each side of this thrice-accursed word called “Deuce.”
Deuce. A good serve, a mishit. The players walk to one side.A bad serve, a return, a higgledy-piggledy volleying error off that return. The players walk to the other side. Deuce.
I looked at the umpire in white, silent fury.
Why did he utter the word with such apparent relish?
Why did he want this infernal ritual to go on?
Stop saying that word.
My eyes were in Wimbledon. The doldrums of deuces. The land of the serve. At the end of its horrifying 1990s era of men’s tennis.
My 5-year-old body was in my grandparents’ home, in Mira Road, a northern suburb of that grimy island called Mumbai.
My grandparents were also grumpy like me, but they were grumpy at one of the players they were backing, whom I have no memory of.
They were not grumpy at the tennis itself.
The only player I remember them “stanning” was Agassi. But I don’t think he was playing in this particular match.
On other days, they spent hours tolerating, and, then, just as much, berating his occasionally-loose play, hoping it would pull, taut, and snap out those 85mph balls only he, at that time, was capable of producing from both wings—forehand and backhand—as a consistent talent.
As you may have guessed, I didn’t care about tennis.
They were my favourite people at that time, so I just politely watched whatever they watched, waiting for them to bore off of it until I could usurp their vacated spots on the bed, and dawdle over my favorite cartoon shows.
My parents didn’t want a TV at home, so by the time I visited my grandparents, a monthly affair, I was ravenous.
But, in those reluctant minutes when I was forced by affectionate politeness to watch tennis with them, my perception of the world genuinely changed.
For the worse.
It was an introduction to the rituals humans, as a species, fling themselves into for no apparent reason, such that some of these humans seemed like they came from a different genus to me altogether.
At Wimbledon, more so than any other tennis tournament, the essence of tennis as a whole system of human behavior seemed like it was a no man’s land where a circus of kooky, white people pitched their tents and started emanating strangeness to the watching townsfolk, a strangeness no child knew was possible.
Something that only a heavy-pause sport like tennis could extract out of a moment, where, in the silence, the viewer’s scrutiny can only intensify—a quality deified at Wimbledon more than in any other tennis tournament.
Something that a child, having never experienced it before, is now challenged with: a foreboding possibility that this psychology of an adult will require you to do these expedient, creepy, deranged things as you age.
Something out of those works directed by Messers Hitchcock, Gilliam, and Lynch—throw in a script carved out of a Roald Dahl story—where creepiness drips over the slow, pausing scenes of life, rarely gushing, so that you think most of whatever is happening can be life’s standard, sane procedure—except for that wet, nagging spot.
And this derangement wasn’t just apparent in the actions of the poor players between their points—unsettled, travel-weary, globe-hopping kids forced to handle their shit aloneby this tradition-strapped, sporting invention of overwealthy white men enforcing all-white apparel.
It was more apparent—actually most apparent—in the strange, strange, holy-fucking-shit-strange linespeople—with their unnatural stolidness, their seeming snobbishness against any sort of hand-contact with the tennis balls, and their arms perpetually locked to their knees despite some of those balls hurtling toward their face at 200kph.
Like, I get that if you don’t put your hands on your knees, you can’t stabilize your half-crouch—that necessary half-crouch that allows your 68-year-old eyes to home in on yourallocated line—in the hope that when that blinding green flashes by, you can separate the millimeters.
But it takes something unnatural to not—somehow—take your hands off your knees to move them in front of your face, to jump to one side, to flinch, to, I dunno, todo anything reflexive, in order to stop that tennis ball from invading your face… instead of leaning towards the damn thing.
“DO SOMETHING, MAN! YOU DO BLEED, RIGHT???
OR ARE YOU AN ANCIENT GNOSTIC SO FANATICAL ABOUT THE IMMATERIAL WORLD THAT YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE EXISTENCE OF PAIN??
WHAT IF FABIO FOGNINI, ANGRY-SAUNTERING ON THE BACKCOURT, SARCASTIC-GRINNING-MAD AT THE CRUEL WHIMS OF TENNIS, TOOK A LIGHTER OUT OF HIS POCKET AND LIT YOUR BUCK-NAKED, SUN-DRIED SEAWEED BEARD ON FIRE???
I DON’T THINK YOU’D ACTUALLY CARE!
I. DON’T. THINK. YOU’D. ACTUALLY. CARE.
AND THAT MAKES YOU A FUCKTON SCARIER THAN EVEN THAT VERSION OF FABIO FOGNINI!”
And, to an ignorant kid in that setting of autocratic TV broadcasters and endearingly-grumpy, Agassi-stanning grandparents, where the little that you watched was barely a choice, that something unnatural—that power that compelled these usually old linespeople to go seemingly against fundamental human behaviour—was “tennis” to me: the system of meaning where humans were supposed to act in STRANGE AS FUCK ways to get ahead in their STRANGE AS FUCK tennis world.
My reaction, when watching these inhumans do their thing, wasn’t one of empathy, sympathy, or pity.
With no knowledge about this sport’s almost-colonial-era ordinances, traditions, and rituals, I could only feel infuriating confusion, irritation, fear, and even rage—as these linespeople, on the world stage, acted like normal stuff didn’t matter.
That they were inhumanly emotionless enough to completely lose themselves to the role of a faceless servant, like Anthony Hopkins’ Mr. James Stevens, and that the ability to show meaningfully autonomous and normal emotions to stimuli was completely severed from their belief systems.
That they were stronger than I could be, able to take hits in the way some blasé, train-traveling Mumbaikars take hits from oncoming heads, hands, elbows, and knees at Dadar station—without so much as a flicker or flinch!
That they were of an ancient order of Stoics, who, in an attempt to influence the greatest empires of their day and teach these empires’ children manners, stood vigil over that empire’s most public events day and night, as children finger-flicked their ancient, gnomic faces in the hope of a reaction, and could only come away terrified and sobbing as nothing, nothing human, ever moved on those ancient faces (This order now works at Wimbledon and Buckingham Palace).
That they were the escaped bevy of statues at the Stonehenge, who, after 4,639 years of pigeons defecating all over their stone bodies, were liberated into human form by a chance magic spell, and choose to take their revenge on the pigeons by situating themselves in the city that ate the most pigeon pies—doing menial, statuesque jobs by day and gorging on pigeon pie by night!.
That they were unaware of their strangeness, and that I was the strange one for thinking this stonewall crust of human behaviour wasn’t possible!
It was all so, so strange.
These were my general emotions as a kid watching tennis at Wimbledon.
Extreme, extreme confusion.
And inexplicable anger.
Perhaps, the type of anger that comes from confusion, at the way people could repress themselves and do things so perfectly on the surface.
Anger at the impeccable-to-a-spot ball kids, with their suddenly fluttering limbs quickly cocooning back into abashed, stiff statues.
Anger at the umpire and his clipped, rulebook phrases, who didn’t seem to have to do much apart from the occasional linecall, an authority without action.
Anger at the crowd, pitter-pattering out the most useless applause I had ever heard in world sport at that time—me, a kid more accustomed to the actual enthusiasm at cricket matches in Indian stadiums and football matches in Brazilian stadiums.
Anger, searing anger, at the horrifying, bobblehead Duke of Kent!
At the fussy rituals, at the whispered myths of past matches, at the unspoken, ekistical argot of the whole damn place, whose original logic no one truly knew.
It now reminds me of one of my favorite literary worlds, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy—about a gargantuan, crumbling castle of long-abandoned spaces, of logic that has long-abandoned the present, of imposing strange rituals upon weary, bluepilled inhabitants.
The inhabitants, like the strange people at Wimbledon, are a grotesquerie of varying malaise-ridden personalities, personalities shaped by the lonesome, till-death-do-you-part roles imposed on them, occasionally finding little freedoms that make the books a good read.
Sometimes charming, like Peake’s illustration of Life-in-Death…
Sometimes just caterpillarshit creepy, like this real-life scene of a Wimbledon woman forcing a grown man to wear white underwear.
The castle’s dusty, interior society is openly hierarchical, from Earl—not a Duke of Kent—to its lowest kitchen scullion.
It is a closed system, where social mobility and social freedom is at zero…
—right from one of its topmost attics, where old Rottcodd eternally naps in a hammock to ‘keep vigil’ over what is essentially an art collection, his slumbering, sedentary sinecure not unlike the sinecure of a linesperson…
—down to the Earl’s chambers, who, like the Duke of Kent in his secret places, was terribly weary of his high station, preferring to spend time alone in his carpeted library…
—lower to his wife, who sleeps in a separate section of the castle altogether, and deals with all the heavy-masonry domestication with the lightness and wildness of her cats and birds, quite like how tennis players Alexander Bublik, Dustin Brown, and Alexandr Dolgopolov deal(t) wildly with on-court problems…
—and lower still to the kitchens, where the Jabba-the-Hutt head chef, Swelter, channels his relative unimportance with a fat, bullying hand that clamps down on all his subordinates’ egos, quite like Nick Kyrgios does with talented teenagers and lesser-known tennis names because he knows his own name has fallen into relative unimportance.
—and even outside the castle walls, in the community of carvers outside, who were like modern tennis’ claycourt artists, far more autonomously creative than all on the inside of Wimbledon, yet treated as lower class citizens of that peculiar world, allowed only a short while in the eternal annual cycles to display their wares.
It is a socially indifferent system, where social visibility is at a level of what you would find in China; it is partly based on the ekistics of the Forbidden City and Lhasa, near where Peake lived as a child.
Its ritualistic mores do not fall lightly on the psychology of the people inside, who develop strange, idiosyncratic, and frankly frightening ways to deal with the existential cards they have been dealt.
Lastly, and most importantly, it even influences the people outside the castle’s walls, forcing them to skew their perceptions of reality.
It is Ritual as a castle—castle-ified—that affects human behaviour and vice-versa.
All the people who encounter this strange castle internalize whatever mindfuckery they’ve been served with inside its walls—and reluctantly start believing that it is all there is i.e. it is The Case.
In the words of Morgan Freeman’s Red: “These walls are funny. First, you hate ’em. Then, you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s ‘institutionalized.’”
Sounds like Wimbledon’s effect on the fans?
The supposed capital of tennis, but, really, the pineapple-topped pinnacle of its pedantry, the big-headed bastion of its bone-headed bureaucracy.
A place that still forces its greatest performers to wear white undergarments, white apparel, and white shoe soles to their annual event.
A place where the general tennis rituals that ballkids and linespeople are supposed to perform, are taken to the next level of ridiculousness, almost as if to please the royalty that lurks nearby.
A place that tries to prettify, beatify, and soon, who knows, deify a playing surface that was originally designed for the 0.5x shotspeed of wood racquet tennis back in the late 19th Century!
In other words, a surface that was originally designed for the speed at which I, a shameless, useless pusher, play tennis!
A place that hosts a world-famous sporting event and yet legally complies, with its surrounding county, to curfew at 11 p.m.!
A place where 3-shot, serve-and-volley rallies were seen as the totem of a select tennis intelligence, only privy to a privileged few tennis players and fans, that was supposedly characterized by its variety—I shit you not, VARIETY—over “baseline tennis.”
A place where most TV viewers first experienced tennis, that stifled us inside what tennis was, rather than help us toward the greater potential of what tennis could be.
A place where I got to half-heartedly know tennis from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
And that’s probably why I didn’t really fall for tennis.
I barely wanted to watch tennis if I had access to a TV, in this period, preferring to live in the world of European club football.
Wimbledon was snooty, it was filled with boring 3-shot rallies, fake tinsel applause, and if some adult had it on TV—and it was usually adults who brought this ritual forward, asking you to love it, the idiots—you really, really wanted to be the kid that ran out in the middle of Centre Court and screamed that the grass-skinned emperor was wearing no clothes.
It was only wearing pointless, pointless ritual.
Peeling boards, worn-out grass, bad ball bounces, no rallies, crap commentary, overbearing manners, all the appurtenances of a tennis empire that took itself so seriously that, having lived so long on the excess of comfort and anglocentrism in the tennis world, a far cry from the mad race that sports have to run today to get the people’s attention, had simply thought that it didn’t have to evolve, that it could wallow around the stinking, golden-dust-sprinkled quagmire of its ritual and fool us that it was as fancy as Gwenyth Paltrow in kale soup, or whatever the fuck she bathes in.
Who had devised all this nonsense?
A bunch of bored, old, white philosophers in a room full of smoke?
Had these people missed the bus on world sport???
Did they not know that screaming hordes; sheer communal madcappery; the boisterous, Brobdingnagian tumult of the human circus; the sweaty, professional conflict between human and human was what really made the sporting bomb tick, ignite, and explode on the world stage???
The mountains of enthusiasm that rise up from Brazilian favela football, Indian gully cricket, and other grassroots sporting phenomena, that rise up from the depths of the proletariat—these enraptured the world stage in the 1990s, and inflamed the younger me.
Looking back on it now, it’s so funny to understand that the Wimbledon suits were selling something so different, so arrogantly.
Even in a strictly economic sense, their idea was to deviate from the poorer majority’s preference in sport?
Sport, the opiate of the 20th Century’s masses, where most of your viewers are bound to come from?
You would build a prohibitive, gold-curtained castle, one with just more brain-lulling gimcrack and pink, smushed-strawberry cream than the other, what you call, iron curtains in other nations?
I get that tennis is a play-pause sport requiring more patience than, say, football, but the Australian Open, French Open, and U.S. Open created more—in my eyes—sportsy atmospheres during this time—and so did cricket, the other British invention, at least in its one-day form.
I have thought about so many aspects of tennis over the years, and shamelessly ignoring any sort of short skirmish into TV statistics which would only dull down this as-I-am-writing-now indignance at their stubbornness to change, Wimbledon had to be the chief reason for the sport’s reduced influx of fans in the 1990s, my childhood years.
It’s what we were told was the best tennis place.
It’s where most of us, at least those of us who were kids in the 1990s, discovered tennis on TV.
It’s what we believed had the best tennis.
It’s what we bored off, but pretended to like, to seem cool—like ones who were cultured enough to have an acquired taste.
Wimbledon was the Adult, introducing the tennis world to the Child—its new viewers—through its own outdated Ritual.
It was the Adult, respected and revered for things before the Child’s time, showcasing stupid, silly rituals, calling it Prestige, and expecting the Child to follow in those footsteps.
It was the Adult, unaware that, or simply too arrogant to want to understand that, the Child didn’t give a flying Djokovician Boob Throw about its Ritual.
The Adult’s influences eventually reached the outposts of YouTube, where I first truly immersed myself into tennis in the late 2000s.
I had moderately played tennis in the mid-2000s, and moderately followed some tennis players through newspapers or the smatterings of TV from the late 1990s to the 2000s—chiefly, Pete Sampras, Venus Williams, and Justine Henin.
But the digital world was something entirely new to me.
Something which had a level of sinister, controlling malice I hadn’t believed possible.
Where the old boys and girls of the largely-white space of tennis were worried that their white sport was being muddied in the newly-globalized, newly-democratized tennis spaces on YouTube.
Whether it was…
—on the tennis court, where playing styles and player “personalities” were judged, as if one could judge personality from what is essentially a person’s office desk…
—off the tennis court, where journalists played upon their readers’ xenophobia or lack thereof, or…
—on the few tennis forums available back then, wherein the world was learning to watch and comment.
As I came onto YouTube, there was a new strange phenomenon: there always seemed to be this stiff-necked procession of Joshuas and Kyles and Johns and Thomases and Matthews and Susans and Dorises, the (I suspect) white upper echelon of Sunday School, the well-behaved cult children, the Inquisitorial Squad.
“Well-behaved” in the sense of how much they complied to their clergy’s cant, and in how ready and entitled they were to proselytize in those ritualized litanies to heathens like me, but not well-behaved in the sense of tolerating different opinions against their ritual language:
“Baseline tennis is boring, one-dimensional tennis. The best players are those who come to the net. You’re a rube for liking the opposite.”
“Serve-and-volley, a 3-shot combo, creates more variety than baseline tennis. Just see.”
“Clay is a surface for unskilled pushers who want to play boring baseline tennis. It always has those Spanish and Latin American idiots who do not know how to make tennis look great.”
“Grass is for skilled players with variety, who can serve and volley. It’s the true totem of talented players.”
…and such and such.
And I believed them.
Let me repeat: I believed this tripe.
Because they came in numbers.
Because they got more “likes,” which in that setting looked like the natural result of being right.
Because the whole structure of power behind them, the whole form of Nonsense disguised as sense, emanated so richly from the respected, golden Adult—the place of All That Is Proper—the castle of Hallowed Tennis Ritual—Wimbledon.
The inveterate white elders of the grass-sanctified church of tennis had made it into a far-reaching cult, and whoever they deemed—or seemed to have deemed—infidels were bearing the brunt of its otherism.
They had not only stifled everyone else, but themselves!
What this ungrateful place deserved was a desecrator of rituals.
A desecrator of the case, so that things could get moving.
A desecrator to break the religious spell, so that we stopped believing in its nonsense.
An impervious interloper, an Outsider, barely aware of his Outsidership.
A dark, benighted knight, too precocious and therefore too ignorant of the peculiarly xenophobic world of snobs, who subtly practised otherism on him for his clumsy English, his “improper” playing style, and his mesomorphic body, as elite men’s tennis, below their stupid noses, subtly transitioned toward mesomorphism into the 2000s.
A man who, with each lasso-whip follow-through of his heathen forehand, with each pinch of sweat-soaked polyester off his buttocks, crushed the false face of propriety that tennis showed on its supposed summit.
A tennis player of overpowering ritual himself, but also one whose ritual was antithetical to whatever ritual of filtered-down power, colonialism, and snobbery Wimbledon was selling for the last century.
Only ritual can only desecrate a deader ritual and replace it.
And that, Nonexistent Brave Reader Who Made It This Far, is pretty much how tennis bought my commitment.
The Outsider taught me it had hidden ways beneath the pretentious face, a wicked underbelly of gregarious fire; Brazilian-football-equivalent legs for speed, fun, and frolicking; Indian-cricket-equivalent arms for slapping and swishing at the pretentious kids; and a giant, flavourful smorgasbord of “boring,” baseline tennis.
So, I’m still here, watching the Swiateks, Medvedevs, and Alcarazes tear up the script.
The Inside can pervert the child with its pointless ritual, its pointless self-importance.
When it does, innocence will be swiftly replaced by insurrection.
This is the Way.
Or, rather, the next step of the way, before equilibrium is reached.
If you could meet your younger, helpless confused self again, what would you do?
You need to teach it how to desecrate.
You want to teach it how to desecrate.
You want to teach it how to tear down walls.
You want to dissolve the surrounding Nonsense Form of Behaviour imposed on it.
So that the Outside comes in.
So that you take some form of agency back.
“‘I like you being disrespectful, sometimes,’ said Fuchsia in a rush. ‘Why must one try and be respectful to old people when they aren’t considerate?’
‘It’s their idea,’ said Steerpike. ‘They like to keep this reverence business going. Without it where’d they be? Sunk. Forgotten. Over the side: for they’ve nothing except their age, and they’re jealous of our youth.’ ‘Is that what it is?’ said Fuchsia, her eyes widening. ‘Is it because they are jealous? Do you really think it’s that?’ ‘Undoubtedly,’ said Steerpike. ‘They want to imprison us and make us fit into their schemes, and taunt us, and make us work for them. All the old are like that.’”
Many thanks to Owen and Scott for their tolerance about what gets posted here. As soon as I saw “diverse content” on their homepage… I grabbed as only a greedy, hoarding dragon wishes it could. If you’re reading this, these two hard-working tennis bastards allowed my Nonsense Form of Tennis Writing a place on their website, profanity and all. I know, I know, my long-winded, pretentious language can—very ironically—be as prohibitive and ritualistic as Wimbledon. Still, for me—as I am sure it is for them, as their writing seems to reflect it—it is a fight to break into different forms of expression—better rituals, in my mind. A continuous fight. One that makes me cringeworthy often, but gratefully cringeworthy. And I’m not just being an asshole for assholery’s sake, though I often venture into that territory. Tennis is often boring. Tennis writing is often stilted and straightforward, like its commentary. Tennis players are often poopy-heads. Tennis tournaments are often pretentious. Tennis statisticians are often selfish, hoarding dragons. Tennis broadcasters will probably ruin the sport. Tennis fans, like me, are often blackholes of hot, stinking, shitposting garbage. And people like me want to point that out more. And people like me want to write about this side of tennis. If only for the long-distant comedic effect that screens can exude on us. If only to break ritual for a while, to defeat orthodoxy for a while, before we solidify into back-fucked, linesperson statues forever.
If I’ve posted something of yours that you want me to take down or do a better job crediting, backlinking, or whatever, let me know. I have no idea what I’m doing. Like Wimbledon, I’m just vomiting my own strange, narrative rituals out here, with the help of other geniuses. All quotes are taken from Mervyn Peake’s trilogy. I hope you guys understand that the “essay” wasn’t exactly criticizing ritual or Wimbledon. Rather, it was trying to find out how ritual forms, breaks, and reforms for the future. I do think Wimbledon is so much more fun than it was when I was a child!
So you’ve just finished your last year of secondary school and you’re looking to take your tennis career to the next level. Some would make an attempt to go pro, but you want to continue your studies and play tennis at the same time. You’ve decided your best option is to play university tennis. This is a great option for most and it allows you to still pursue a career but also work on getting a degree.
Choosing the right university for you can be the most difficult process, and I myself have experienced this dilemma. As you begin on deciding what you’d like to do, there are many things to consider: should I go to university in my home country? Do other countries offer a better program for me? What will the standard of tennis be like? The process can be rather tricky to navigate.
Today I hope to shine a light on one of those options for you so that you may better understand what it has to offer. To give you a little bit of background, I ended up going to Southern Utah University to play college tennis in America. I played for a Division 1 school which was very competitive. I did my bachelors degree in communications at the same time.
To say that making this decision was tough for me would be a serious understatement as I remember it being one of the most stressful choices of my life. However, don’t let that discourage you. I can honestly say it was the best decision I made and I do not have any regrets. Furthermore, it was a pivotal moment in my life as a young adult in helping me mature as a person.
There are many things I had to consider during my enrollment process. First was the cost: could I really afford to make this leap? Flights from the UK to America are not cheap and I would be making multiple a year. Another thing is that tuition can be an issue if it’s out of your budget. Nevertheless, I was determined to make this dream of mine happen and so it was time to knuckle down and set myself some goals.
I needed to think about what schools were offering the subjects I wanted to do. Also, did these schools go over the budget I set myself? Another thing I had to consider was the standard of tennis. Right before going to college I was playing at a very high national level so I wanted to make sure I went to the right place that offered strong competitive tennis. This meant doing a considerable amount of research into each of the schools in order to get the answers I needed.
After I had narrowed my options down to just a few schools which all fitted into my categories of budget, standard, and subjects, it was time to make my decision. But first I wanted to talk to the tennis coaches of each team because, after all, I would be working with these people for up to four years. Each coach that I spoke to was great, extremely friendly and all keen to have me on board. The defining factors that ultimately led me to my decision were again budget and what the program offered.
I was fortunate enough to be offered an athletic scholarship which aided in my decision massively as it would help with funds and make my life a lot easier. This was not my only reason for choosing Southern Utah University, however. The college offered the course I wanted to take and they would be flexible around my timetable. They also had a beautiful campus with many extracurricular activities. But one aspect that really solidified my decision was the response that I received from the teammates who were already attending. A few of the lads reached out to me just to be friendly and have a chat which was really nice to see, but they also seemed very genuine and were excited to have me on board if I did decide to go there. This for me was the defining factor as I knew then and there that if I was going to spend my four years at university so far from home then it would be there, surrounded by supporting teammates.
For Part 1, click here. Cover photo is courtesy of Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP and pictures Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland-Garros this year.
Last time, I unearthed the stats on the players that had lost the most times to a tournament’s eventual champion this year (there must be a catchier way of saying this? Shall we shorten “tournament’s eventual champion” to TEC?).
Though this was originally intended to make it easier to play the martyr when reflecting on Andy Murray’s season, there turned out to be players more hard done by than the dogged Scot.
Here are the three players with the most losses this year to a TEC (much better!).
Joint-Second: Six Losses
First up, we have Stefanos Tsitsipas with six losses.
Rublev in Rotterdam (SF)
Zverev in Acapulco (F)
Hurkacz in Miami (QF)
Nadal in Barcelona (F)
Djokovic at the French Open (F)
Zverev in Cincinnati (SF)
Similarly to Cam Norrie and Andrey Rublev in the first part of the article, many of Tsitsipas’s losses came in a final so we need not be overly sympathetic. Nonetheless, Tsitsipas fans can take heart in knowing it took the best in the world to beat their man for the much of the season.
There’s a profound tweet in there somewhere Stefanos…
Next up, we have everyone’s favourite/least favourite tennis-player-cum-rapper, Denis Shapovalov, who matches Tsitsipas at six TEC losses.
Hurkacz in Miami (3R)
Nadal in Rome (3R)
Ruud in Geneva (F)
Cilic in Stuttgart (QF)
Djokovic at Wimbledon (SF)
Paul in Stockholm (F)
Shapovalov got a lot of flack for not living up to his potential this season but perhaps this info puts his efforts in a new light. Early-ish losses to Hurkacz in Miami, Nadal in Rome (had 2 match points) and Cilic in Stuttgart may have stung at the time but they were good losses by all accounts.
Chin up Shapo fan! His numbers have gotta change at some point (on his W/L record, not on his Moutet-collab)!
First: Eight Losses
Finally, the most aggrieved of any ATP player, the man with eight losses to a TEC in 2021… Taylor Fritz!
Djokovic at the Australian Open (3R)
Basilashvili in Qatar (SF)
Sonego in Sardegna (SF)
Norrie in Los Cabos (SF)
Isner in Atlanta (SF)
Cilic in St. Petersburg (F)
Djokovic in Paris (QF)
Paul in Stockholm (2R)
Whether it was a third-round loss to Novak in Oz, a semi-final loss to six-time Atlanta-champ, John Isner, or a second-round loss to the inexplicably indomitable Tommy Paul in Stockholm, Fritz kept getting battered by that week’s best player in 2021.
Couple this with the fact Fritz had to undergo meniscus surgery midway through the year and fans have every right to feel aggrieved at their man’s lack of luck this season.
For my money, he was one of 2021’s most underrated players. His agility post-surgery was fantastic – it took a pretty impressive performance to send him packing in the second half of the season.
Stay optimistic Fritz fans – 2022 could be very promising for the young American…
Losing to a TEC in 2021
So, there you have it.
Stefanos Tsitsipas kinda fulfilled his own destiny here as the best of the rest with plenty of deep runs at tournaments but only two titles for his efforts.
Fritz and Shapo fans though, have at it – those two just couldn’t catch a break in 2021, arguably more so than the man that stemmed this discussion, Mr. wild-card-waving Muzzah.
If you’re interested in finding out your own favourite player’s record this season, shoot a wee tweet my way and I’d be happy to respond (@jackedward1994)!
As a Brit, it is difficult to describe the origins of my love for tennis without mentioning Wimbledon. So much of the genesis of my passion for the sport has its roots in this great tournament in Southwest London.
Nothing encapsulates the feeling of being a British tennis fan in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s more than the ‘Tim Henman teatime rollercoaster’. Recent British success in the form of Andy Murray’s outstanding legacy and Emma Raducanu’s unprecedented US Open triumph has perhaps spoilt — and unrealistically raised expectations — for the more recent generation of British tennis fans. Back in the late 90’s though, it was all about the annual ‘Henmania’ ride/ordeal! I vividly remember watching on TV as he beat Paul Haarhuis in 5 sets in 1997 to reach the fourth round. Hopes were raised further with a 4-set victory over defending champion Richard Krajicek to reach the quarter finals, but he eventually ran out of steam in a straight sets loss to Michael Stich. Henman’s 1997 Wimbledon run had my wide-eyed eight-year-old self hooked, and this was around the same time I picked up a racket myself and began playing at my local club.
The height of Henmania came in the next few years, with back-to-back semi-final losses in 1998 and 1999 to Sampras. The moment that lives longest, and most painfully in the memory, came in 2001. The ultimate ‘one that got away.’ That fateful semi-final against a resurgent Goran Ivanisevic, the previous 3 time losing Wimbledon finalist, who had torn through the draw as a wildcard, ranked a lowly 125th in the world. We can all argue what might have happened without the rain delays, which caused the match to be played over 3 days. However, for me, the most exciting aspect of the match was the fact that the delays caused the final to be played on ‘People’s Monday’, and I was promised by my Mum that we would join the queue for tickets outside the ground if Henman reached the final! Sadly, this wasn’t meant to be, and Goran went on to complete one of the sport’s most remarkable stories by defeating Pat Rafter over 5 sets in the final. I can’t begrudge him for it!
Despite not making it into the Wimbledon queue in 2001, it wasn’t long before I was badgering my Mum to be allowed to join the queue the following year. I love the Wimbledon Queue as a tradition. The fact that a number of great seats for Centre Court (and other courts) are reserved for the proper tennis fans each day (up until the quarter finals) really makes the tournament unique in my opinion. Queueing overnight (which is required to guarantee Centre Court tickets) isn’t for everyone, but every time I’ve experienced the Wimbledon Queue, I’ve always met fantastic people, had great conversations about tennis and the atmosphere is almost festival like with people from all over the world gathering to share their tennis experiences and excitement about attending the famous SW19 tournament.
Despite my early tennis education being shaped around Wimbledon, it wasn’t long before I discovered the whole tour and some of my early favourite players were from much farther afield. I remember being mesmerised by a 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt winning the title in Adelaide in 1998. The 1999 French Open final, with Agassi completing the career Grand Slam in dramatic circumstances also sticks in the mind. Agassi was my Mum’s favourite player, and we were fortunate enough to be in the crowd in 2006 for his last ever Wimbledon match, against a rampaging Nadal who would go on to reach his first Wimbledon final that year. On the same day, a young Andy Murray fully announced himself as a world class competitor with a clinical victory over Andy Roddick. It was well worth queueing overnight for the ticket on that occasion!
As well as an avid tennis viewer, I’ve always been a keen player since the summer of 1997. Never reaching a particularly high level, playing county level tennis as a teenager, I’ve always loved playing the sport, and still play 2 or 3 times a week to this day (aged 33 and when my shoulder allows me to!). I also try to travel to watch tennis whenever possible and have visited the Australian Open, Paris for the French Open (many times) and Monte Carlo on one occasion, with many more trips planned in the future. Anyway, thanks for reading my tennis origin story, and I hope you enjoy the picture of me with an oversized tennis racket and a (clearly) undersized shirt!
In 2019, Frances Tiafoe advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, his best result at a major to date. He beat fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson and former Australian Open semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov along the way. Tiafoe cited pickle juice as a helpful asset for him that fortnight, and Baseline Tennis has taken an in-depth look at how pickle juice can be beneficial to a cramping athlete.
Click here to watch, or you can watch on this page at the clip below.
Not the set of the year, which was probably the third set of the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal at Roland-Garros. Djokovic won it 7-6 (4), sealing the set with a point I’m starting to think is very underrated. The Serb hit a great slider out wide from the deuce court, and Nadal, from very deep in the back right corner of Court Phillipe-Chatrier (I’m talking around 15 feet behind the baseline and 15 outside the singles sideline), hit a deep backhand return. Djokovic tried to pin Nadal in his backhand corner, but the Spaniard escaped by immediately hitting down the line, then got some good depth on two forehands. After the second, which went inside-out and pushed Djokovic behind the baseline, Nadal hit a drop shot. Djokovic, ever the supreme anticipator, was running forward before Nadal had even committed to the shot. He got to the ball in plenty of time and nudged a deep forehand down the line, fooling Nadal, who had moved inside the baseline, expecting a dink. Nadal reached the ball and skied it into the air but couldn’t get it back over the net. It was a brilliant end to one of the highest-octane sets ever, with the set point getting overshadowed by countless other epic rallies. But I’m getting carried away here.
As good as that third set was, the Djokovic-Nadal match was not the match of the year. No, I think that exalted title belongs to a match many tennis fans didn’t watch. Namely, the Angelique Kerber-Sara Sorribes Tormo match at Wimbledon, played in the second round.
I know what you’re thinking. The second round? Who is Sara Sorribes Tormo? Yes, the second round. Sara Sorribes Tormo is 36th in the WTA rankings. She is a grinder, blessed with fantastic endurance and harsh topspin, cursed with a lack of any semblance of easy power on her serves and groundstrokes. Her endurance makes her a handful for anyone on tour — she will run down any ball and will do so for hours — but more importantly for today’s topic, her intensity translates into a knack for producing amazing matches.
In this match against Kerber, Sorribes Tormo did retrieve shots most would be crazy to even try running for, but she also scythed vicious slices and drop shots, and made her way to the net a few times. Kerber took the role of the aggressor, as all Sorribes Tormo opponents do, and did her best to lash the ball beyond the reach of her speedy opponent. Each player executed their strategy phenomenally, resulting in tennis heaven.
This match had no noticeable lulls. For practically the entirety of the three hours and 18 minutes (an average of 66 minutes per set, none of which went to a tiebreak!), both players were in the zone. More precisely, both players were refusing to miss. It was that I’ll build the point as painstakingly slowly as I have to, I’m not making an unforced error if I can help it mentality which results in points being won by a stunning series of shots or one player simply outlasting the other.
The tennis is dazzlingly attritional in this type of match, the players having to slog through the match point-by-point knowing they can never count on cheap errors from their opponent. The epic three-setter was made even more interesting by the high volume of breaks: Sorribes Tormo has one of the worst serves on tour but one of the best return games. Kerber isn’t a bad server, but Sorribes Tormo broke her seven times, more than Kerber had been broken in a single match all year. Most serves were returned well, resulting in grueling exchanges. The average rally length was over seven shots (and this was a grass court match!).
Sorribes Tormo made gets from so close to the back wall she looked certain to topple a linesperson like a bowling pin. Kerber sent missiles down the line from both wings, including her trademark shots made while squatting unbelievably low to the ground. Kerber fittingly sealed the match with a backhand winner down the line: 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. It had often taken no less than a perfect shot to end a rally.
The reason I’m gushing about this match, again, is because I don’t think anyone else viewed this match as the best of the year. It didn’t even make Tennis.com’s top-ten list for 2021. I find this baffling. Sure, the match happened in the second round of Wimbledon. Not that many people watched it. But I think the criteria for a great match are fairly straightforward and somewhat universal, and this match checks all the boxes. Let’s run through them quickly.
Both players have to play well, preferably for the whole match. This is a no-brainer. Simultaneous high-quality play is the key to a good match.
The match should be close. A closer match usually equals more tennis, and three great sets is a better outcome than two great sets.
There should be few lulls. All matches have dips, but the best ones have short dips. A lopsided set counts against the overall quality of a match since one player was significantly better than the other. A high-quality match with a big lull isn’t a great match, it’s a couple of great sets tied together.
Another criteria for some is that the match has to Mean Something. For me, the merits of a tennis match are way more aligned with quality of play than who is playing, but the stage can be important. Matches with tangible ripple effects or intense buildups are often more compelling.
Maybe Sorribes Tormo-Kerber misses that last criteria, but Kerber had won Wimbledon three years earlier, and with good form going into the 2021 tournament, was a popular dark horse pick. Sorribes Tormo had played a wonderful match with Bianca Andreescu in Miami that turned some heads. Had both players been, say, outside the top 50 and without a big tournament win on their CV, this argument would be more convincing.
And the match knocks the rest of the criteria out of the park, more so than the matches that made Tennis.com’s top ten list. Alcaraz-Tsitsipas, which was #3, had a bagel set: a big one-sided stretch which might have taken the air out of the match had the bagel not been sandwiched between excellent tiebreak sets. Neither Kerber nor Sorribes Tormo’s intensity ever wavered by a margin even resembling Alcaraz’s fourth set lull. The Indian Wells final between Badosa and Azarenka (#4 on the list) was of similar quality to Kerber-Sorribes Tormo, but the second set wasn’t close and Azarenka wobbled when trying to close out the match. And Djokovic-Nadal, the match atop the list, had its significant dips as well. Its peak, the third set, was the best tennis played all year, but Djokovic was poor for a three-game stretch in the first set and Nadal was poor at the end of the fourth, a combined time frame which lasted almost as long as that glorious tiebreak set. I don’t even think Nadal was on his game for much of the second set.
I get why Djokovic-Nadal got the top spot on the list, I really do. It’s by far the best and most historic active rivalry. That third set really was magical. The rest of the match, though, wouldn’t have seemed remarkable in isolation. I’ve rewatched highlights of that Roland-Garros semifinal something like a billion times and am glad the third set is being heralded as much as it is, but it seems a bit short-sighted to deem the match the year’s best. When ranking the highest-quality matches of an entire season, harsh analysis of microscopic lapses becomes necessary, and in the case of Djokovic-Nadal, it’s not especially hard to find the holes in the quality.
The same cannot be said for the Kerber-Sorribes Tormo match. There was a stretch when Sorribes Tormo won five of six games to claim the second set from 2-4 down, but she had to save a pair of match points along the way. Both players were simply exceptional for virtually the entire time. They played a winner-stuffed game lasting almost 15 minutes at 2-1 in the first. Sorribes Tormo couldn’t reliably hold onto her serve but broke Kerber to start the decider and broke her when Kerber tried to serve out the match. There were belief-defying gets made from the shadow of the back wall on Court 2; there were multiple cases of one player hunching over after a rally. And most importantly, the quality was unceasing.
The only explanation that makes sense as to why this match got so little buzz is that it was largely ignored, because the quality was so evident to those that did watch. My friend Vansh Vermani recently reminded me that part of the match overlapped with the Federer-Gasquet match on Center Court. That match had way less potential to be an epic — everyone knew how it would end — but sadly, it’s not out of character for tennis fans to pass up a great quality match to watch a couple pretty one-handed backhands.
Anyway, Sorribes Tormo won a bunch of hearts on Court 2 but lost to Kerber, who lost to Ash Barty a week later. Barty won Wimbledon, then lost to Sorribes Tormo in the first round at the Olympics. The wheel of tennis spins on, halting for not even the greatest matches, and for three hours and 18 minutes early in the first week at Wimbledon, the world largely failed to pay attention to the wheel’s most interesting spoke.