Tennis, Anyone?

Thursday Thunk

Each Thursday, I post some thoughts or bits of books or poetry I am working on.

—I call them “thunks.”

When you accomplished a hard-won goal, how did you celebrate? By jumping up and down? Draining a glass of fine champagne? Screaming for joy?

Or did you eat grass?

Me neither. But that’s how tennis player Novak Djokovic, ranked number seven in the world, prefers to celebrate a big win. Granted, he chews the green stuff only at Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world and the only Grand Slam event played on grass.

After each of Djokovic’s seven wins in the gentlemen’s final (his first was in 2011), he quickly squatted at the net, plucked a bit of lawn (trod upon by many a tennis shoe but likely no dogs, thankfully), and ate a wee bite of Wimbledon salad.

He says the grass is delicious, by the way. Chomping on a bit of the 100% ryegrass (the only type grown on Wimbledon’s nineteen courts) is his unique (#strange?) way of celebrating his achievement.

It’s been a few years since I have seen a Wimbledon match or any tennis match, for that matter. I don’t have cable and I dislike sitting around watching television when there is decent summer weather to enjoy. In high school and college, I loved watching tennis for hours. I miss those lovely, lazy days. Those were the glory days of tennis: Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Boris Becker (weren’t the seventies and eighties the glory days of everything cool?).

I also enjoyed playing tennis. My then-boyfriend-now-husband bought me a nice silver racket and we often headed to the courts. I had a decent serve and a killer return, but a fatal flaw: I disliked exertion. Hit the ball to me, don’t make me run.

Image: Wimbledon’s women’s event. Click image for source.

Two weeks ago, I flipped on the telly (as they call it in England), intending to have a home renovation show on in the background while I worked. Instead, shades of college days, I gave up typing, riveted by the Wimbledon quarter-final between Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

I had never heard of either player but received an education on both in that hour. (I kept confusing the two at first because Kyrgios is of Greek origin but is the Australian player, and Tsitsipas is half Russian but is from Greece).

Spoiler alert: they don’t like each other. Each has accused the other of having “issues.” I missed the part of the match when Tsitsipas hit a ball into the crowd and tried hitting Kyrgios with killer returns multiple times, but I did witness Kyrgios’s misbehavior and vile temper—and his breathtaking ability. It was their talent, not their tempers, that sucked me in. It was the best match I have ever seen.

When you are witness to greatness, it’s an unforgettable moment. Kyrgios is likely to become one of the best, if not the best…maybe.

This past Sunday, after reading that Kyrgios was playing against Djokovic, I skipped church (gasp!) to watch the gentlemen’s final (in England, one refers to the men’s final as the gentlemen’s final; whether the players are truly gentlemen is neither here nor there).

My aim was to see if Kyrgios, not a highly-ranked player, could pull off a win against Djokovic (him I know about) but was ambivalent about whom to root for. Djokovic’s popularity took a tumble last December when he knowingly went to several public events, including a children’s tennis event, while infected with COVID.

As the final match progressed, my admiration for both players’ abilities grew, but I was transfixed by Djokovic’s steady composure compared with Kyrgios’ evident emotional instability. Kyrgios ranted at the umpire (who was amazingly calm throughout), at his support box (the announcers made light of it—“Don’t we always take out our stress on those closest to us?”—but I didn’t find it funny), and angrily demanded a drunk woman in the stands be removed (this I agreed with—while I doubt she consumed 700 drinks as Kyrgios told the umpire, she taunted him more than once at tense moments toward the end of the match).

Krygios was angry on the court and on the bench. In fact, every time Kyrgios was on his bench after a set, he was usually yelling at someone. Djokovic never did that. The competition was like watching Obi-Wan Kenobe battling the petulant upstart Anakin Skywalker.

In the end, Djokovic’s calm focus won the day. Both men were under intense pressure at Centre Court—and each provided a glimpse into how emotional well-being can help or hinder success.

Imagine my surprise when the camera turned back to the announcers who were discussing Kyrgios’s temper—and there was the tennis bad-boy of the eighties himself, John McEnroe (I wonder if millennials know who Tatum O’Neal—his first wife—or Patty Smythe—his current wife—are?).

Having someone like McEnroe—who perhaps left dozens of innocent tennis rackets crumpled in his fits of rage—pass judgment on the 27-year-old Kyrgios may seem the height of hypocrisy, but I don’t think so.

If anyone knows the dark side of dealing with fame, career pressures, and needing to be the best amidst family strife, emotional and mental health challenges, and a garden variety of poor choices, it’s McEnroe. At 63, he is a far less angry person now. Maturity (he says aging has helped tame his temper) and therapy have helped.

Turns out, McEnroe has reached out to Kyrgios many times to have a chat. Kyrgios is yet to meet with him. I hope he does. It would be like Anakin finally listening to Obi-Wan’s wisdom instead of slicing him through with a light saber.

I will say that the handshake between Kyrgios and Djokovic after the match was 100% warmer and friendlier than the cold shoulder Tsitsipas gave the Australian after their match on July 3. Kyrgios and Djokovic had nice things to say about one another; in particular, Djokovic about Kyrgios. He was a picture of grace and gentlemanly behavior.

Back to the grass. Having missed Djokovic’s other six wins at Wimbledon, I was confused when he ate grass—is this a recent tradition after the gentlemen’s final, sort of like the Pope kissing the ground out of respect in a foreign country? I hoped for his sake that he was not a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who thought he was the champion and creator of everything cool in Babylon. God did not look kindly on that. Nebbie’s power and position were stripped away, he went insane, and “ate grass like the ox.”

I was relieved to discover it was all in fun for Djokovic. I know exactly how I would celebrate my very imaginary win at Wimbledon: strawberries and cream (okay, I’d also drain a champagne flute). Wimbledon spectators consume strawberries and cream by the tonnage (38.4 tons of strawberries over two weeks), and it looks glorious: vendors take ten strawberries handpicked at dawn in Kent (it’s true!) and place them in a paper carton; then, from an old-fashioned pitcher, thick Cornwall double cream is poured—a generous pour, mind you—over those luscious berries. All for under five dollars.

But as I’d be the champion, surely they’d give them to me for free, since Djokovic never pays for his salad.

3 thoughts on “Tennis, Anyone?

  1. I think if John McEnroe hadn’t stayed in tennis as a commentator and had nothing to do with the sport after his playing days were over, he’d still be thought of as…well, Kyrgios is now. But between the passage of time (when attitudes can soften) and his continued role as a face of the sport, his past transgressions are looked upon with a wink and a smile…while Nick is a maniac. Ah yes, the days of John, Chris, Martina, Bjorn and Boris. That was appointment television for many of us at the time!

    1. Good point. I’m interested in how some tortured champions/celebrities/creatives (you name it) don’t survive their darker impulses and others pull through (though it’s usually not a solo effort). McEnroe seems to have done the latter. There’s a documentary coming to ShowTime in September about him–looking forward to that!

  2. This is new info about you to me! Lets play tennis! I play every year at Linwood and on the high school team 😂. I too loved watching Chrissy, Billie Jean and especially Arthur Ashe! Or at least we should watch Wimbledon together.

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