I know this is too small but I don’t know how to make gifs! Try zooming in!
I know this community has some varied opinions about sports. Some of us think they’re a microcosm that illuminates the human condition while others would rather walk around in wet shoes for a month than watch a sports game. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer a recap of the 2017 Wimbledon finals, and maybe give some insight into why I think it’s worth caring about.
On Sunday, Roger Federer won a record eighth Wimbledon title and a record-extending 19th major, all without dropping a set. Allow me to translate: the men play best-of-five-sets matches at majors (also called grand slams, albeit imprecisely in most cases). So the first player to win three sets wins the match; if you win the first three sets, you won in “straight sets.” That’s a feat to do for all seven matches of the tournament because it means you were always in control and never ceded ground to an opponent.
Federer has been the face of men’s tennis for nearly 15 years, and one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. His diplomatic Swiss personality, debonair persona, and elegant playing style earn him millions in endorsements. At almost 36 years old, he’s now the elder statesman of tennis and many counted him out of the conversation for winning big titles. But he took six months off to recover from injury earlier this year then came back with a vengeance at Wimbledon.
Last month I had a chance to talk to Andre Agassi in Paris. Side bar: Agassi has a star quality the likes of which I’ve never experienced before in person. He actually seems pretty cool and down-to-earth, but his mere presence creates a buzz in everyone around him. I was covering the Longines Future Tennis Aces tournament, a great event that brings 12-year-olds from 20 countries together to promote player development. In a stroke of luck, Agassi strolled in and stood directly behind where I was sitting, allowing me to overhear his running commentary on the boys’ final. I then had the good fortune to be one of two people allowed to photograph him in the sponsor lounge, and one of a handful of print media to conduct a quick interview.
I asked Agassi what he thought about Federer skipping the French Open to prepare for the grass season (tennis is played on different surfaces throughout the year: hard court, then clay, then grass, then back to hard court). Here’s what he told me:
“I’m going to guess that he is better at making decisions for himself than I would be from this vantage point. [Editor’s Note: touché, mon cher] At first glance, it does seem like a lot of time away from the game; in my experience, playing a little bit of the clay helped me prepare for the grass just because it kept me in my mindset and it kept me disciplined. But he’s proven me wrong so many times. He’s stopped surprising me, but he continually amazes me. And to watch him go into Wimbledon, it wouldn’t shock me if he goes in there like nothing’s ever happened.”
How very prescient! So flash forward to this weekend, and Federer strolls to the win with same ease with which I make late-night purchases on Amazon.com. The only real drama was that his outmatched opponent, a nice guy in his own right, had a meltdown mid-match that may have been related to an injury but also may have been anxiety-related. Everyone watching the match felt terrible for the poor guy, except for a certain British commentator whose name rhymes with Blierce Blorgan, who felt the need to make idiotic comments about it on social media. Cry baby cries about an athlete showing real human emotion: news at eleven.
The women’s final was similarly anti-climactic, but there’s a story there worth touching on. The graceful and accomplished Venus Williams, who first won Wimbledon in Y2K, made it to the final. She’s 37 years old and battling an autoimmune disease called Sjögren’s syndrome. The first set was competitive, but she got absolutely dismantled by the young Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza in the second set, failing to win even one game. When you lose a set 6-0, it’s called getting “bageled,” because the 0 is like a bagel, get it? Anyhow, it’s a terrible embarrassment to experience even on the public courts with no one watching, much less on Wimbledon center court under the watchful eyes of people with royal titles that I don’t understand.
In this case, though, the mere act of reaching the final was a great achievement. In addition to all the other difficulties, Venus has been embroiled in a tragedy regarding a car accident last month. Video evidence shows her car was stuck in an intersection because someone made an illegal left turn in front of her, and she was unable to get through before the light turned. Then a car from the cross traffic t-boned her, and the passenger in that car died. The whole thing is awful, she is clearly devastated, and being in the right after weeks of people blaming her clearly doesn’t take away the pain she feels over it, as shown in a press interview that she had to walk out of.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope I’ve shed some light on the human aspect and drama involved in following professional tennis. I didn’t even get into the years of training, the difficulty of traveling the world and switching timezones constantly, or the mental strength required to be on the court by yourself. Not to mention the fact that tennis players eat what they kill: there’s no annual contracts or guarantees except for the top players, who earn sponsor money. The lower-ranked players are often scraping by, trying to qualify for tournaments each week so they can get the first-round prize money and hoping to finally gain some ground by stringing together a few wins. Viva la sport! Sports are life!