When you grow up in the rural Midwest the only tennis court in town probably has knotweed growing through the cracks in the cement slab that may hold up a sagging net, often riddled with holes—that is if there is a net at all.
Youngsters may skate on the slab or try to leap the net as part of a daring afternoon challenge or out of boredom. You never see anyone playing serious tennis on such a court built with funds that some wealthy person in town has probably donated, hoping to elicit some interest in the genteel sport.
Growing up as I did in such a restricted environment, the world around me was attuned only to high school sports and college football bordered by Nebraska’s Big Red on one side and the University of Iowa’s Hawkeyes on the other. Tennis was considered nothing more than a rich man’s sport indulged in by pampered country club kids who could not make a tackle or take somebody down for the count.
There were no swimming pools or tennis courts or soccer fields in rural Midwest schools back then, or even now, if the truth be known. Given my socially stunted background, that I found and grew to love tennis remains a complete accident because I had no exposure to it or interest in it.
I just happened to be watching television one Sunday in 1980 and became fascinated by a match going on between Bjorn Borg from Sweden and John McEnroe from the United States.
I cannot recall how I happened to have control of the television that morning because normally the television remote was owned by the men of the house—but that particular Sunday I found myself mesmerized by the match, siding with the Swede whose movie star looks had me hooked from the get-go. By the end of the match, when stoic Borg sank to his knees in triumph, I had collapsed on the shag rug carpeting, hooked for life.
Yes, I am that old!
Since that day, I have become a tennis fan of the highest order. I followed Borg until he left the game after the U.S. Open in 1981. Stunned by Borg’s decision to walk away from tennis for good, I cheered Mats Wilander on, with sadness and regret when at age 17 he captured the 1982 French Open in Borg’s place. I wanted young Wilander to win but regretted the fact that Borg was no longer playing on his beloved red clay at Stade Roland Garros.
I followed and cheered for Wilander for the next seven years until he finally triumphed by winning the U.S. Open in 1988, stealing it away from the stern and stolid Ivan Lendl, becoming the No. 1 player in the world for his efforts. Then I watched in disbelief when the second mighty Swede began to fade away in 1989.
I became a Federer fan in 2001 after watching the talented Swiss hand Pete Sampras a shocking defeat during the fourth round at Wimbledon in five sets. I followed Federer through the great years and watched him grow and mature as a player and a spokesperson for the sport.
In 2008, along with everyone else, I expected Federer to fulfill his destiny by adding to his 12 grand slam trophies. The tennis world waited for Federer to equal or surpass Pete Sampras, who ruled with a record 14 grand slam titles. But 2008 proved to be something other than magic for the man who ruled the tennis planet.
Federer failed to make the finals of the Australian Open, falling to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. He later revealed he had contracted mononucleosis and suffered with it throughout the spring.
Although many suggested Federer take time off, he decided to play on. Watching the great man lose so often became torture for those of us accustomed to seeing Federer win.
For a while, Federer’s efforts seemed to be paying off. But after making the finals of the 2008 French Open, the Swiss was annihilated in straight sets by Rafael Nadal. Losing that match was the final straw for me as a fan. I could no longer go it alone.
The Midwest remains a no man’s land when it comes to tennis. None of my friends care about tennis or even consider it a sport.
So, in 2008 I joined Federer’s fan club located at rogerfederer.com. It helped. The final blow, however, came at Wimbledon in 2008 when Nadal took the trophy as Federer sought his sixth consecutive victory at the All England Club. The match has been called by many as the greatest in the history of the game. Not everyone, however, enjoys reliving it.
There were over 188,000 people who joined me in that arena, commiserating over that loss. I began writing there. I began expressing opinions and debating there. It proved to be the training ground for my decision to write about tennis.
The first article I published on Bleacher Report was called Roger Federer—Virtually Unequalled and I published it on August 22, 2008—exactly two years ago. It got 293 reads and no comments but I was thrilled that maybe 293 people had read my article.
This article is a tribute to my first, which was not exactly a work of art or in the least memorable. Since then I have written a few articles that were received better.
I hope that as an amateur, I have grown in my ability to appreciate and express myself about the sport of kings. Tennis is larger than Roger Federer.
It is also no longer the domain of the United States and Australia, as it once was. In fact, as I write this, there is no one from the United States or Australia in the men’s Top 10, although it looks as though Andy Roddick will ascend once again into that lofty group. Tennis has become a universal sport since I began watching it.
Federer has loosened his grip on the top spot of the game, understandably as he turned 29 in August, and is well on his way to 30 years of age. Not willingly, you understand.
His hand has been forced loose by the play of some much younger guys who now demand their turn at the top, like the current world No. 1 Rafael Nadal who is enjoying a splendid year winning two majors to date.
Federer’s fans and his website remain steadfast because Federer still demands attention. He won the Australian Open in 2010 and is hoping to win back his U.S. Open crown, going for his sixth championship in Flushing Meadows.
After watching him play Saturday evening to make the finals in Cincinnati, you have to admit that talk of his demise may be premature, once again.
As for me, I will be cheering for Federer again at the U.S. Open in 2010. It would be a fitting way to end 2010.
Thanks for the memories.