As a child, I took tennis lessons and even won ribbons. As I got older, I grew ever less athletic. By my early 20s, running was the universal obsession. I began to think of myself as the last unhealthy, sedentary person in the world.
Growing up In Chicago, I had been to occasional Cubs or White Sox games, but it was such a losing proposition that it was not an uplifting endeavor. Then in New York, I became a passive Yankees fan. For a brief time in the late `90s, I became obsessed as only I can be. I learned the names of all the players, and I spent most of my time at home watching the games on TV. Even at parties, I would melt away from the action and find the TV to watch the Yankees win another glorious victory en route to their amazing pennant wins. But after one of their players died, and their winning streak died with him, my interested waned, and I became as disinterested in sports as I had been before. Then I acquired a giant flat-screen TV and my home life transformed again.
One day some impulse made me and my partner turn the channel to a tennis match, The two of us became transfixed. This was not the game I’d learned and struggled vainly to play decades ago in Chicago. The rackets were lighter, the balls were faster, the odious backhand, which had been my undoing, had morphed into an amazing two-handed stroke, and the movements captured on TV were ballet-like in their fleetness and exquisite in their shimmering motion. My partner and I sat before the TV, month after month during the tennis season, and like the other buffs, I soon learned the players’ names and discovered my favorites, which made watching ever more exciting. My partner died in 2010, leaving me to continue watching tennis on my own.
To my joy, I found that a long-time movie-going friend is another tennis buff, and she has enriched my life by tipping me off to some fascinating books about the lives and struggles of Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi and others of these amazingly driven players.
Today I still sit silently for two weeks at a time during grand-slam season, rooting for my male and female favorites. In between, I devour stories and features on Google about the players as voraciously as I did as a child reading about my favorite movie stars in Star or other magazines. Will Serena ever capture her twenty-fourth grand slam prize? When exactly will Roger Federer finally retire and leave the world a poorer place? Will his long-time rival and my number-one favorite, Rafael Nadal, survive his injuries to remain number one, or will the slightly charisma-challenged Novak Djokovic finally surpass them both?
By the time I took up tennis watching, I was too arthritic to climb all the stairs in the new stadium in Flushing, Queens, much less to travel to Wimbledon or the clay courts near Paris. I’m strictly a TV tennis fan but no less passionate a viewer for all that. This last year was no exception. One night I was having dinner at my son’s apartment, and I asked my grandson to turn off his video game so that I could watch the tennis match.
“I didn’t know you watched tennis, Mom,” said my son.
“Yes, she really loves it,” my grandson said.
This last fall I hardly moved from my chair during the entire four hours and 40 some minutes in which 33-year-old Nadael eked out his win against the 23-year-old Russian, Danil Medvedev. Afterwards, when he had won, and briefly wept while watching a newsreel of his past 18 wins, my eyes grew moist with his. I googled Nadal and learned he was soon to marry his long -time beautiful girlfriend, Xisca Perello but wouldn’t have children with her for a while, thinking it unfair to drag kids around to matches like Federer does his two sets of adorable twins.
This seemed cruel to me. I began to wonder about the source of my obsession. Increasingly crippled by scoliosis, how can I sit for hours watching these astonishing trapeze artists defy gravity with most of their swings and battle back from behind so ferociously? As I sit, increasingly a lump of flesh and bone, just going out the door is becoming a growing accomplishment. So why do I remain so addicted to this sport?
It is of course its very oppositeness to my life that holds most of the appeal. Watching Federer at the advanced age of nearly 40 repeatedly hit shots that look impossible or Nadal battle back from almost certain defeat lifts me from the sinkhole of grimness of which my daily life consists. Watching tennis relieves that gloom. My friends and I are increasingly ill, housebound, and moribund, and tennis is the perfect antidote.
That and chocolate are the answers to the darkness.