Tennis During Troubled Times

Rob YorkSenior Writer IDecember 4, 2008

Mired in a slump of more than one year, Pete Sampras finally started to come alive at the 2001 U.S. Open.

He mowed down three consecutive former Open champions (Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin) before advancing to the final against the young Australian, Lleyton Hewitt.

For Sampras, who had not so much as won a title since the previous year’s Wimbledon, this seemed the perfect way to end the year. The marksman was hitting the bull’s eye with his serve again, and hadn’t been broken by any of his opponents since round two.

He seemed destined to win this title; my only disappointment was that he’d be facing Hewitt, whose on-court theatrics grated on my nerves, and whose five-set win over Andy Roddick in the quarters had prevented an all-American final.

Destiny, however, doesn’t always cooperate with the narrative we have in mind. Hewitt easily defeated an aging Sampras, who was worn down by his earlier-round heroics.

The result prepared the Australian for a run at the top of the rankings and created fresh doubts about Sampras’ ability to win majors.

I was crushed by this turn of events; fortunately, as a college senior I had many means of distraction: namely, my full load of classes, plus my ongoing internship with a local news source in Chattanooga, Tenn.

That Monday evening, I was sent to cover the funeral of an area sheriff’s deputy who’d been shot to death while on duty during the previous week.

There’s nothing quite like the story of a life ending prematurely, and the sorrow of surviving family to cure one of sports-related angst.

I wasn’t finished learning the lesson, though, because the next day was Sept. 11.

In New York that day, nearly 350 firefighters died in a manner just a tragic as the sheriff’s deputy in Chattanooga. They represented only about a tenth of the lives ending prematurely because of this event.

Meanwhile, I and the rest of the my school newspaper’s staff holed up in our office, trying to make the best paper possible, all the while waiting for new details that could help us make sense of what was taking place and give us a hint of the events to come.

I carried on with my studies, my work on the school paper, and my internship. I followed the rest of the tennis season, as Sampras’ struggle continued and Hewitt completed his rise to the top of the world rankings. I didn’t know how much attention to pay to any of those things, though; I was afraid that soon none of them would matter.

The terrorists could strike again. The freedoms that America was founded on could be taken away in a climate of fear. The safety and security we’ve grown up taking for granted could disappear.

One war, and then another began taking my countrymen to distant lands that some of them would never return from alive.

And yet, stability returned for most Americans. Sampras’ continued to struggle until he won the 2002 Open; thus Destiny wrote an even better final chapter for his career than I’d imagined. Life resumed its equilibrium, and the fear receded.

The sport of tennis had a charmed year in 2008. A new star in Novak Djokovic broke through in Australia. Rafael Nadal, a reliable champion who once seemed fated to play Roger Federer’s undercard finally proved that he has what it takes to be No. 1.

He and Federer gave us the match of a generation at Wimbledon, finally placing our beloved game on the front cover of Sports Illustrated.

Federer ended the year by proving that he could rise to the stiffening competition, winning the U.S. Open. Young players like Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro reached the top 10 and look like threats at the majors.

Because of all of these players, 2009 looks to be a season of great promise for tennis fans. We will certainly need to get hope from somewhere.

Americans have just found out that they’ve technically been in a recession for a year. Its automotive companies beg Washington for help; Washington, in turn, deliberates, fearing that letting these companies fail risks a depression, but wondering if government bailouts only spend taxpayer money on delaying the inevitable.

Terrorism in Mumbai claims the lives of 183, damaging already tense relations between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. Experts say Iran can have enough material for a nuclear weapon in 2009. A bipartisan panel in Washington just warned of the likelihood of a biological or nuclear attack by 2013.

There are times when one feels almost guilty for caring about any sport, as they all feel insignificant in times of trouble. And all of us do have duties as citizens, as neighbors, as family and friends that we can’t neglect.

The love of any sport should not distract from those roles. And with so much else in doubt, a sport certainly should not add to our troubles, no matter if our favorite player is losing.

But in these times, if a Federer forehand, a Nadal passing shot, or a Djokovic impression can bring you joy, let it. This game, like others, was designed to lift spirits. As David Foster Wallace said, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”

Destiny has not revealed the next chapter for us yet. Until then, we need all the human beauty we can get.