Another week, another tennis tournament, another glamorous city.
This week it’s Rome, it happens to be a Masters, and the usual suspects will again battle it out for those valuable 1,000 points.
The media will be there in force, the beautiful people will turn out more to be seen than to see, and reputations will be burnished or tarnished depending upon who beats whom.
To one person, seated way back from the courtside, it represents the first birthday of the first step on a life-changing journey.
One spring morning, in an average house, in a standard street, somewhere in England, this woman made a promise to herself.
Heavy-headed from too much wine, heavy-waisted from years of child-rearing inactivity, heavy-hearted at the passing of years and of loved ones, the scales fell from her eyes.
You could call it serendipity. Onto the doormat dropped an envelope from Wimbledon containing news of her success in the ballot.
She’d watched Roger Federer—or rather had been hypnotised by him—in the US Open (thought the filter of a newly-installed Sky box: Another piece in the serendipitous jigsaw).
So captivated was she that, for the first time ever, she sent off the forms to SW19. The reward was tickets for Centre Court for semi-finals day.
That large helping of personal stagnation and a small piece of good fortune coincided, and triggered her first step.
She began to say no to second helpings. She began to play tennis again. She took up her old favourite, squash, and started to beat colleagues half her age.
One step led to another, like scrabble pieces making up new words, with each additional letter adding more value.
Then the writing began. Naturally it started with Roger: the games, the movement, the beauty. Then it tracked holidays, feelings, her love affair with tennis.
She discovered a sensation almost entirely alien to her: Optimism. A glass-half-empty kind of person, her family began to notice the change.
That bit of money her father left her suddenly had a purpose—to fulfil a few ambitions. If she was going to Wimbledon, she would need to record the occasion, so she bought and mastered a new camera.
To make the most of her words and photos, she needed to create artwork: The experiments with software were a challenge, but the first results eventually sat quietly in the most private recesses of her hard drive.
“Never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” (Salman Rushdie)
Writing for her own pleasure—preserving precious moments from Wimbledon, the tennis tour, Federer’s impact, her own drive to make up for lost time—was safe.
Exposing those words, her growing tennis obsession, and herself to the glare and criticism of others was terrifying.
Riding a horse is terrifying, but the breathless thrill—after years of careful lessons and sedate hacks—of taking off at a gallop across the Welsh hilltops is the reward.
Climbing even modest mountains in winter is terrifying, but the euphoria of hitting the top, surrounded by snow and invigorated by the purest of air, is the payback.
Opening up one’s deepest passions through the uniquely personal and indelible medium of the written word was as big a step as these.
Bigger still was the solitary journey around the world, to an unknown country, language and culture, but the reward was some of the finest tennis of the year, the Shanghai skyline and a story she couldn’t stop telling.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” (Mark Twain)
The inspiration to take the next step—the road to Rome—has come as much from the words of writers as from the peerless tennis of one iconic player.
A journey that started with the emerald and white of Wimbledon and took this writer to the pale amethyst of Shanghai is now—with the terracotta of Rome—completing the circle.
However, this particular road does not describe a circle. Like tennis, this personal journey continues by ever more urgent steps, over the brow of the next hill.
In her former guise, this woman regretted not seeing Bjorn Borg, nor John MacEnroe nor Stefan Edberg at their heights.
In her new guise, Clarabella has caught up with those three the second time around at the Blackrock events.
She can also say “I saw Federer in his prime”—and, in pursuit of that modest dream, took a small, scary step into the rest of her life.
“A journey of a thousand miles began with a single step” (attributed to Lao-tzu [c 604-c 531 BC], founder of Taoism.)