A Warm Embrace

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Novak Djokovic of Serbia searches desperately for form through a questionable opening three tournaments of 2018. Source: Getty Images

I rediscovered two activities this week that I really enjoy doing but that I haven’t really been able to indulge myself in for a while. One is reading. I love it. Growing up with dyslexia, books and I weren’t always on the best of terms. We battled hard throughout my early years of primary school. I waged a personal war on words. Lined words on paper. Words scrawled on blackboards. Letters peppering the borders of the classroom, inked on a strip of plastic, the ordered alphabet mocking me from on high, pinned on the walls, looking down from a pedestal of importance. Then Harry Potter came along and transfigured me into someone who could appreciate the written word and furthermore, enjoy interacting, creating, inventing stories of my own.

But there are still times, weeks on weeks, where I lose interest in reading and writing and fall out of love with the art of imaginary narrative. I find it difficult to sit down and enjoy books, enjoy writing, enjoy indulging in the creative process. I overthink and lose focus. The motivation is lost, the desire gone, the love lost. These are low moments marked consistently and personally whenever I manage to pull myself out of them and once again find myself able to relax into the warm embrace of storytelling.

The other activity is tennis. Novak Djokovic and I don’t have much in common but what we do share is a love of this sport and both of us are returning to the court after an absence of a fair few months. Whilst my reasons were primarily down to the weather of London treating outdoor courts with utmost disdain and my bank balance laughing at me with a similar level of disgust at the mere suggestion of the possibility of booking indoor courts, Djokovic’s reasons for not playing came as a result of injury.

Wildly uncertain and lacking his usual consistency, the Serbian former world number 1 had not played since Wimbledon last year where he was forced to pull out of the event with a longstanding elbow injury.  Making his return at the 2018 Australian Open, Djokovic fell relatively early for a player so used to being the one left holding the trophy in past editions of the event. Losing at Melbourne Park in the 4th round wasn’t a bad result and nor was it particularly surprising given his half year absence from the tennis world but question marks lingered, critics leered, eyes watched as Djokovic then proceeded to splutter, stutter, falter in his opening matches at the ATP Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.

A three match losing streak beside Djokovic’s name looks alien to those of us who have witnessed his domination at this stage of the year on multiple occasions in seasons gone by. Indeed, there was a time when Djokovic winning the Australian Open and backing it up with the Sunshine Double was a mere formality. His fellow players would bow their heads and focus on the upcoming clay season as Djokovic slid, stretched and ultimately elasticated his way to victory at the biggest opening three tournaments of the year. That was then and this is now and that was the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 Djokovic and this is 2018.

Even the best fail. Djokovic is no exception. But it is not the fact that Djokovic has lost more matches at this point in the year than he did in the first three quarters of his record breaking 2011 season that should cause concern. It is the way in which he seemed accepting of his fate on court, lacking in energy, lacking in faith, lacking in Djokovicness. In his pre-tournament interviews, he seemed despondent, distant, openly questioning. Doubtful.

“I’m trying to remind myself of how fortunate I am all the time.”

His words hardly screamed of internal joy at being back on the tour injury free and his movement on court only reinforced a sense that perhaps his mentality was elsewhere as he dragged himself around between points, head down not in an image of courageous warrior-like focus, rather a portrait of a man lost in a sea of rising expectation. The internet armchair experts went into overdrive, dropping ugly suggestions of depression, marriage problems, general arrogance and lack of proper preparation as potential reasons for the Serbian superstar’s uncharacteristic lack of character on court.

Multiple predictions of no more Nole Grand Slams.

Multiple predictions of a fear of Federer and Nadal.

Multiple predictions of incoming retirement.

Bleeding through all of these reviews and rumours whipping around Djokovic’s admittedly questionable 2018 performances was a sense that he could not possibly rediscover his enjoyment for tennis if that was indeed the lead-weight issue behind all of this. If it was gone, it was gone for good. If he isn’t enjoying playing tennis now, he’s done all he can. He can call it quits and call it a day and call it a career.

But enjoyment can be seized, rediscovered and remains wildly temperamental. Moods swing high and fall dangerously low, fogging the future, blurring the past, impacting the present. Whatever Djokovic is experiencing off the court may well be damaging his performance on it but while his lack of confidence is shining through currently, his career achievements, his ability, his talent, his valuable stature all stand on a pedestal of importance within the history of the sport.

And if there’s still room for chapters to be written in the Djokovic book, we owe him the time to do so.

If Djokovic requires a warm embrace, tennis owes him that as well.

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Tennis Twitter

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The whirlwind of social media continues to cover tennis with a pressure-cooker-like intensity. Source: Pinterest

The rise of social media has been near cataclysmic in the past few years. Indeed, the influence of twitter alone had an undeniable weight behind forceful punches when it came to the war of politics engulfing the globe in relation to the 2016 Presidential election.

News, instantly available in seconds, instantly consumed in seconds, easily digested in seconds, available for all to see, read, listen within seconds. New news, instantly following the first wave within seconds, instantly consumed in seconds, easily digested in seconds, available for all to see, read, listen within seconds. And on it goes, wave after wave, 24 hour coverage, all available through tweets, FB posts, Instagram updates, snapchat stories.

Tennis twitter is a beast entirely of its own, one that on the surface appears calm, friendly, nice to be around. You’ll log on each morning, check on your favourite player’s twitter feed, check recent retweets from them, check recent interactions they’ve made. Check they’re scheduling. Check where they are in the world currently. Check if they’re injured.

Tennis twitter. Calm, friendly, nice to be around.

And then you’ll interact with other fans of that same player. Agreeable retweets exchanged, pleasantries passed back and forth, banter made, sarcastic comments traded in relation to the relatable and undeniable heartbreak you all share when your men or women are on the injury watch-list. You bask in glory when your favourite lifts titles, cry in unison when your favourite falters, trips or stumbles, engage in friendly war of words when your favourite makes career changes to their coaching setup.

“But he/she shouldn’t have parted ways with him/her.”

“But he/she knows best though, we have to trust that they know what they’re doing.”

“But he/she had the most successful period of their career with him/her, how can they be ending their coaching partnership?!”

“But we have to have faith!”

And on it goes, in endless circles, sharing in despair and triumph together forever, bound by the common goal to somehow impact via the means of social media the career of the one you all hold dear.

Tennis twitter. Calm, friendly, nice to be around.

And then there’s the other side of tennis twitter.

The war of words, not friendly this time, embroiled in toxic debates of the meaningless variety.

 “My favourite is better than yours.”

“Who’s won more titles though?”

“Who’s more consistent though?”

“Who’s older though?”

“Who’s made the most money though?”

“Who leads the head-to-head record though?”

And on it goes, in endless circles, sharing in despair and triumph forever on opposite sides of the fence, to the bitter end when injuries impact all and differences of opinions cannot be debated when your favourites are playing each other because they’re both consigned to the sidelines.

Watching.

Waiting.

Biding their time to step back on the court, step back into the social media spotlight as a figure of hope for their fanbases, a figure of fear for their rivals, a figure of distaste for the fanbases of their rivals.

It all comes part of the package of committing to the tennis twitter community. It’s all part of the fun until perhaps it’s not so much fun anymore and perhaps tweets become a bit nasty and perhaps people take it too far and perhaps it all seems a bit over the top, exaggerated, ridiculous.

Players get threatened for losing matches from people who’ve lost money, players get insulted, critiqued, dragged.

Tennis twitter. Calm, friendly, nice to be around.

Female players get ridiculed for supposedly not maintaining high standards of play week-in-week-out, male players get held to such a high standard that they can only consistently disappoint in quality.

Journalists call out players for lack of commitment.

The equal prize money debate.

The court speed debate.

The best of five sets debate.

And on it goes, always morphing, changing, twisting itself in wave after wave of consistent controversy and controversial consistency.

Tennis twitter.

Calm, friendly, nice to be around.

My Box

 

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The box.

I have a box. Just a plain old cardboard shoe-box, sitting high on a shelf in the corner of my room. I call it my “Box of Stuff” and have even brazenly inscribed this in a bold titular syntax across the lid with a black sharpie as though the combination of these three simple words in some way summarises what exactly this box means to me.

Bernard Tomic, the 25 year old professional tennis player, walked out of the Australian version of the “I’m A Celebrity” jungle on Tuesday. He had skydived from a plane to get there and just three days in, called it quits on the experience to the surprise of no-one and to the criticism of many.

In truth, the box is filled with an assortment of junk to anyone who looks in it. Scrap bits of old note-paper, old drumsticks, old birthday cards, old cinema tickets, old small cuddly toys, old key-rings, old pictures, old Lego figurines, an old friendship bracelet, an old camp wristband, an old mug and more, all piled in, angled, dis-organised, higgilty-piggilty. Old.

Controversy and Tomic are undoubtedly on first name terms with each other by now. Good friends, even. Indeed, they’re often seen hand-in-hand in the press, splashed across the Australian sports pages like a comedy double-act to be looked at. Laughed about. Chastised. Lambasted.

I’m a bit scared of my box to the extent that I very rarely look through it. In the event of a fire, it would undoubtedly be the first thing I grab in my rush to get out but even if the rest of my possessions burned to the ground, I do wonder if I would dare open it.

The thing about Tomic is that he has a habit of admitting to boredom during tennis matches, of maybe not giving his full effort, of not trying his best, of being a bit lazy. He sits in press conferences after and appears lost for words and lost for motivation and just lost. “Tomic the Tank Engine” they call him to the amusement of the masses.

To open my box would be to confront memories. I am by no means old and I am by no means important but I do have old memories that are important to me and this box is where I keep them. Closed up in a flimsy cardboard prison, dusty, dark, cold. Old and important.

And the masses love him because they can hate him. Because he’s young and immature and is good at tennis and simultaneously maintains that he doesn’t love tennis. Because he drives fast cars a bit too fast and gets arrested for it. Because he brings a lot of it on himself by saying silly things to journalists, by acting out on tennis courts, by representing Australia and not acting Australian.

I love and hate change. I left school and went to college because I wanted a change. I left college and moved out of my parent’s house because I wanted a change. I went to university because I wanted a change. I went to a summer camp in America because I wanted a change. I left university and came to London because I wanted a change. I’m not sure where I’m going to end up in life because I crave change, difference, inconsistency. My box represents all of these things.

The Australian Open is known as the “Happy Slam” and Tomic fell in qualifying, a former top twenty player, bags of wasted potential. He fell with an ugly, bitter, sad arrogance painted across his face like a macabre mask as a barrage of questions came at him. He walked off the court in defeat and he swatted journalists away like flies with the now iconic sound-bite: “I’m just going to count my millions, that’s what I’m going to go and do now.”

I love change because it’s new and fresh and gives me a chance to forget the mistakes I made. A blank slate, a fresh canvas, a clean sheet of paper. New people, new places, new chances.

Going into the jungle just a week after his exit from his country’s biggest tennis tournament, Tomic said he was striving to try something different. He wanted to show a different side of himself to the public.

I hate change because it often means the end of what came before, at least for me. It’s a line in the sand, the full-stop. And rarely do I look back because it reminds me of the mistakes I made along the way, of the lack of motivation, of not giving my best effort, of laziness, of anxiety, of fear. I rarely look back because it reminds me of that sense of loss.

Leaving the jungle, Tomic spoke of feeling uncomfortable and alone. He spoke of a barrage of thoughts going around in his head. There was a wave of isolation in his words. He took full responsibility. He knew he’d made a mistake going in. He needed out. He wanted help.

I like to imagine that everyone has their own version of my box even if they’re unaware that they have one. Maybe it’s not a physical box but a mental box, one to store past mistakes, past embarrassment, past low moments. One to store happy times that are over now. One to store friendships in that can no longer be maintained. I like to imagine everyone has their own version of my box to store their past in. I like to imagine that everyone has their own version of my box because how else can anyone handle the anxiety and bitterness and happiness and brilliance of devastating nostalgia?

Leaving the jungle, Tomic spoke of his temperamental, fearful motivation to get back on the tennis courts. He spoke of feeling like he’d wasted everyone’s time. He spoke of feeling like he’d wasted his own time. He spoke of past mistakes. He spoke of needing to talk to someone. He spoke of feeling like he’d never had a childhood. He spoke of feeling depressed. He spoke of feeling alone. He spoke of feeling lost. He spoke of feelings.

I’m not a Bernard Tomic fan. And I don’t think I need to be a Bernard Tomic fan to applaud him for speaking about the rollercoaster-ride that is emotional inner-turmoil. I don’t think I need to be a Bernard Tomic fan to be happy he’s out of a situation that was making him feel uncomfortably terrible about himself. I don’t think I need to be a Bernard Tomic fan to be in awe of him leaving the jungle of reality television to confront the jungle within his box.

 

Tennis Moments

2018 Australian Open - Day 14

Roger Federer of Switzerland struggles to hold back tears after winning his 20th Grand Slam title over Marin Cilic of Croatia. Sourch: Getty Images

My first term in a London university is in the books and I’m already into week three of my second one. These past few months have passed by in a haze of excitement, awkwardness, tiredness, laziness, dark nights, dark mornings, dark down moments, lighter moments, happy moments, laughing moments, all of these moments and tennis moments.

Tennis moments are a variation of my happy moments. My time to step on court and forget the world and remember the game I love. I’m unsure what exactly I’d do or how I’d respond if people repeatedly informed me that I shouldn’t be playing anymore.

This past weekend, Roger Federer won a sixth Australian Open title, a 20th Grand Slam title overall, a 96th career title overall, another chapter in his legacy overall and tomorrow, I step back onto my local tennis court, winner of last year’s local London tennis league group two, a local group consisting of 8 players overall, a local tournament consisting of 27 players overall, a local event covering only the surrounding Haringey area overall.

To win the Australian Open, Roger Federer was required to win 7 tennis matches in a row.

To win the Haringey local tennis league group two, I was required to win 7 tennis matches in a row.

We’re more or less the same person.

Where we differ, aside from his obvious millions of fans, his millions in prize money, his millions of future opportunities, his glorious hair, his regular sized head, etc, is that Federer’s love for his career, his work ethic, has seemingly never wavered even when many thought that it had. Federer has taken his personal tennis moments and carefully, meticulously, subtly crafted his career, his own personal happiness, around it. We all dream of having a job that we love. Federer has built his around the sport he so blatantly adores as much as his adoring fan-base adores him.

In a tournament with very few standout men’s matches, it was a refreshing and much needed five setter that ended the Australian Open 2018. Marin Cilic came, got unanimously criticised across social media throughout the first set and spent the next 3 and half making the internet armchair critics feel horrifically guilty for their damning put-downs in regards to his early nervous ticks. For Cilic came and he fought well, winning the second and fourth sets, playing Federer and all that comes with that.

Federer’s aura.

Federer’s fans.

Federer’s tennis.

In the end, Cilic came and had to settle for a runner-up position, going down 2-6 7-6 3-6 6-3, 1-6, experiencing what oh-so-many that have played Federer have experienced, second place, almost-there-but-not-quite, just short of the finishing line. Cilic came and he will be back but for now, this is Federer’s tennis moment once again.

Federer is generally loved the world over by his fans and fellow-players alike. The Swiss attracts with his style, his game, his looks, his Swiss-ness. There are detractors as there always will be in sport and perhaps there always should be in sport. Competition, fan-base rivalries, are consistent keys to the warzone of the sports world. There are those that say that arrogance flows through his body like blood flows through everyone else. Those that say he’s good, the most consistent, but not the greatest. Those that say Rafael Nadal stands above him in humility and good-grace.

Long may these debates continue.

Long may our sports idols continue to prove us right and wrong.

I told my friends a couple of years back that I thought Federer should retire because he wasn’t winning, he was falling in the rankings, he wasn’t the player he was back in the day or the player that he is now. I thought he didn’t care anymore.

This is my admission and this is me right now saying that I was wrong and I am sorry, Roger Federer.

Because you came back to tennis when you seemed down and out and I know, on a much smaller scale, how hard that is to do.

Because you really do still love the sport that I love too.

Because you still care.

Because tennis still makes you happy.

Upon stepping up to the microphone to deliver his winners-speech, Federer faltered, floundered wildly, tripped over words and in the end, couldn’t succeed in his battle on the podium as he had succeeded wildly in his battle on the court and so the telling tears fell all around his Nike printed trainers.

And it was nice because he’s done all this 95 times before, went on seemingly endless winning-runs. Record setter. Jet setter. Trend setter. And yet, there was admission in his eyes and his tears, that he does know that this cannot and will not continue forever. An admission that he had spent time doubting in his darkest moments, like we all do at times, that he wouldn’t be able to continue. That he was done now. Finished now. That his tennis moments were over now.

The end is coming at some stage but Federer, and only Federer, will decide when that may be.

Never has Father Time had a bigger problem in claiming a victim.

In between now and the eventual, the inevitable, the final end, Federer isn’t quite done creating his tennis moments.

 

Sink or Swim?

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Marta Kostyuk has defied the odds to become the youngest person in two decades to reach the third round of the Australian Open. Source: Getty Images

My biggest life achievement to date was accomplished as a 15 year old and that was discovering that I could touch my nose with my tongue. I am now 24 and only just starting to comprehend that I may have peaked a bit too early.

While you sit there, letting the full weight of my unbelievable talent wash over you, inwardly debating how in the world I managed to achieve such dizzying heights as a mere 15 year old, let me blow your mind even further: there are teenagers out there with greater levels of talent than even I possessed at that age. Marta Kostyuk is one of those 15 year olds.

While most people her age are just about finding their feet in the world by trying to figure out how things work and sometimes don’t work both socially and emotionally, Kostyuk has taken an alternative path and has simultaneously claimed a spot in history as the youngest person in two decades to reach the third round of the Australian Open. The achievement is mind blowing, especially when viewed alongside the facts: this is the Ukranian’s first main draw Grand Slam event, this is the Ukranian’s first main draw Women’s Tennis Association event on any level, she is ranked 521 in the world, she had spent over six hours on court throughout her three qualifying matches before her main draw debut and, this is a big one, she spent vast amounts of her junior career disliking tennis.

“I always want to win, no matter what. If I was losing, it was a tragedy. It was, like, I don’t want to play anymore.”

This sense of not particularly enjoying the sport of tennis while climbing the professional rankings appears to be a familiar feeling amongst many of the next generation of tennis players, something that hardened fanatics may find difficult to comprehend in an era where enjoyment of professional sport is heralded as the norm and everything else is met with a raised eyebrow, a smirk, a sigh of dislike.

Indeed, it was not love for the game that drove Kostyuk to tennis. A talented acrobat as a child, she decided it would ultimately be worth it to give it up to pursue tennis if it meant that she could spend more time with her mother.

“My mum was always working a lot as a coach, and the first time I went to the courts to train, I just understood that if I started doing tennis, I’d get to spend more time with my mum. So that was kind of my motivation – if I played tennis, I’d be around her more often.”

That decision was made as an 11 year old. That decision was made just 4 years ago.

That mother/daughter bonding time alongside an insane work ethic, a normal life sacrifice and undeniable passion to succeed in a sport she found difficult to fully enjoy ultimately carried Kostyuk to the Australian Open Girls title last year. This was a blatant confidence booster, a trigger pulled, a finishing line crossed. Her junior career was all but over as Kostyuk lifted that trophy. Tennis is an ocean peppered with junior slam champions who have found it difficult to replicate their success on the big stage and Kostyuk risked being just one of those statistics if she decided to ride the tsunami of success all the way down to a ripple on the junior circuit, only to flop ashore on the main tour.

Sink or swim?

3 3-set qualifying matches to reach round one of the main draw.

6-2, 6-2 win over 25th seed Peng Shuai of China in round 1, becoming the youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1995 to win a main draw match at the Australian Open.

6-3, 7-5 win over Australia’s own Olivia Rogowska in round 2, becoming the youngest player to reach this stage of a Grand Slam since Mirjana Lučić-Baroni achieved the same feat at the US Open in 1997.

Fellow Ukrainian and number 4 seed Elina Svitolina stands tall in the third round, casting a shadow, a vision of the future, an indication of what career success looks like with enough dedication.

Whatever the eventual result of that match, whatever the eventual result of this tournament, there’ll be expectations that follow. There’ll be pressure. There’ll be raised eyebrows, smirks, sighs of dislike. There’ll be tougher matches, bigger matches, tougher crowd reaction, tougher crowd expectation, tougher media reaction, tougher media expectation, all of that, more than that. Career defining moments.

“Now I start to enjoy it. Finally.”

Marta Kostyuk is swimming.

RafaAAAAAR Nadal

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Rafael Nadal of Spain wearing a newish, oldish sleeveless style shirt in his opening round victory at the Australian Open 2018. Source: Getty Images

Now that Johnny Depp has tainted the image of pirates for a vast majority of the public with both his horrific life decisions and his not-quite-so-horrific-but-still-pretty-horrific talents as an actor, I was at a loss for where to look for my loot-plundering, bandana wearing, sea sailing icons. I wanted my all-or-nothing, free-spirited characters back. I wanted my pirates back.

Enter Rafael Nadal.

The reaction to the news that the best tennis player in the world would be reaching right to the back of his wardrobe for a sleeveless variation of his regular tennis playing tshirt for the 2018 Australian Open reached palpable levels as the main tournament draw began this past Monday. Indeed, Nadal might have thought he’d won the entire tournament due to the sheer level of noise that greeted the unzipping of his Nike tracksuit jacket and the reveal of a greyish blue shirt, minus the sleeves, before the warm-up for his opening match against Victor Estrella Burgos of the Dominican Republic.

Nadal won the match 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

I should clarify before I continue here that I am no fashion connoisseur. The idea would make all that know me well pass out with the sheer ridiculous of the notion and for good reason. I’m wearing the same Coke stained white tshirt today as I have for the past three days and my flatmate kindly informed me just in this past hour that I was beginning to smell a bit. And yet, even I bought into the hype surrounding this bold call from both Nadal and Nike to dust off the sleeveless shirt from years gone by.

For this is not the first time that the Spaniard has ditched the sleeves. Oh, no. In fact, this was a key staple in brand Nadal all the way back at the beginning of his now legendary career, a career that has included a record breaking 10 French Open titles to name just one of the ridiculous achievements that pepper those 16 years.

Alongside his sleeveless shirts, Nadal used don a pair of three quarter length shorts, an unruly amount of shoulder length brown hair and a vast bandana to wrap it all up into an image that quickly became iconic. The look would have been ludicrous on just about anyone else but it worked for Nadal, it suited his boundless Duracell bunny energy, his passion for the game displayed in his lion-like roars of celebration, his hulking-like muscular arms, even just his youthful-like presence.

Everyone has a favourite “pirate Nadal” memory.

Maybe it’s his first French title won while wearing a sleeveless shirt at the age of just 18, an achievement that amazes me, blows my mind, stuns me, all of these things and simultaneously depresses me to think about as a 24 year old as I compare it to my own life achievements up until this point.

Perhaps it’s his early matches with Roger Federer, a contrast in absolutely everything down to the outfits they wore on the court. Federer, the gentlemen, the class, the collared polo-shirts, the perfect hair, the perfect game-style. Nadal, as if trying to be everything that Federer was not, right down to his passionate, brutal, punishing heavy topspin shots, his sweat-greased bandana, his sleeveless shirt.

When Wimbledon rolls around this summer, ten years will have gone by since The Match. That Match. The Final. The one that everyone remembers, the one tennis fans cry in memory of the beauty displayed, the one non-tennis fans nod about in knowing appreciation. For even they remember it. The 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Championship Match.

Won in five brutal, mesmerising, hypnotic sets by Nadal.

Won in five brutal, mesmerising, hypnotic sets by “pirate Nadal”.

Won in five brutal, mesmerising, hypnotic sets by a man wearing a sleeveless shirt.

That’s my memory. That’s the one I remember. The Pirate finally taking the captaincy from The Maestro. The image of a victorious Nadal flat on his back, in the fading light of centre court, in the fading glow from Federer’s seemingly endless reign as the Men’s Singles Champion at Wimbledon. The dust, the sweat, the passion, the sleeveless shirt, all conglomerating to form an image of the driven, all-or-nothing, free spirited and victorious Rafael Nadal.

The long hair might still be gone and the three quarter length shorts may still be folded up in his drawers and Nadal may no longer be the image of the young, the youth, the endless levels of energy. But if he fancies a throwback to those moments, if they help in any way imaginable, if they help to 6-1 6-1 6-1 opponents or if he even just really hates sleeves, why not rock a sleeveless?

 

The Death of Kings

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An awful “artsy” photograph of King’s tennis courts taken by me. Using it here due to there literally being so little photos available of the place that did so much for me.

The city of Aberdeen in Scotland and I have a love/hate relationship. Aberdeen did most of the loving to a slightly clingy level at certain points, dragging me back repeatedly when I was sure I wanted to drop out of the university I was attending there. I finally managed to break up with the place but only after four years of repeatedly trying and only after I had tumbled across a graduation stage and only after it had sucked all the life out of me that it could possibly manage and I was a mere graduate, a survivor just about, a walking student statistic with horribly average grades and horribly questionable future potential.

Known as “The Granite City”, I found Aberdeen a difficult place to exist in my worst moments. For existing in these moments is exactly what I was doing, the absolute bare minimum of living a life, and I found the endless colourless buildings unhelpfully claustrophobic. I found the streets difficult to seep any semblance of happiness from. I found the shelter of my bedroom preferable to the dreariness of the architecture offered by the world outside of my student flat. I found myself in a bubble, one made not of liquid but of hardened anxiety and sadness, providing just a view of a grey landscape of greyness with added grey to fully emphasise the greyness.

Before my inbox is filled with angry Aberdonians, riding in on horseback, pitchforks in hand, ready to provide me with a list of reasons for Aberdeen being the best place on Earth to live, please remember that my mentality during these aforementioned moments almost certainly attributed to how I feel about the city then and now. It is undoubtedly a better place than I will ever be able to properly give it credit for but the ugliness that is depression means that I will probably be unable to ever really appreciate any of the things it has to offer. My view of the place is tainted a fair bit but that’s OK. I’ve accepted that and I hope you can as well.

That’s not to say there weren’t positives about my experience living there. Alongside the plethora of people that I met throughout those four years, that helped me, cared about me when I needed them to, hugged me when I needed a hug and ultimately stood by me when I stumbled a bit, there are actually a few other things about the place that I remember fondly. I hold onto these tightly whenever I get frustratingly bitter thinking about the time I spent within the walls of that city. Kings is one of these things.

King’s tennis courts, located just off University Road, just off the side of King’s College and just off everyone’s radar in the corner of the much more grandiose rugby and football pitches, provided me with a way to play the game that I loved. I’ve spoken in this blog at length about the numerous ways tennis helped me to get through times when I didn’t really want to help myself but King’s courts deserves some of that credit as well.

Make no mistake, they were absolutely awful tennis courts. Doubling up as five a side football pitches, it pained me to witness tennis courts being used for something other than tennis. My talent at tennis was not high at all but my talent at football was entirely non-existent and due to this inherent and obvious bias, I will forever see them as tennis courts and nothing more.

But no, really, they were absolutely awful. Due to rain being the only option of weather available in Scotland, the courts were made of an astroturf material, carpet-like fibres over-layered with too much, too little, never the right amount of sand depending on the sheer level of rainfall consistently dampening the surface. Astroturf is supposed to be quick to absorb, quick to dry, and so was supposed to provide a relatively decent defence against Mother Nature. It didn’t.

And so anyone who’s ever played tennis on a damp tennis court will be shaking their heads in sad understanding of exactly the kind of experience you might expect to get playing on King’s courts. The ball would skid through unexpectedly, leaving you under-hitting, over-hitting, missing the ball altogether, leaving you resembling someone with little experience whatever the level you may actually be at, leaving you ultimately questioning your decision to ever pick up a tennis racket. Or else the ball would mis-bounce off the endless amount of indents left by the previous night’s football players. The court speed was never consistent, a roulette wheel spinning day-to-day, allowing for humorous guess-work as you approached the court, racket in hand, fragile dignity ready to shatter at your attempt to play on the minefield that was King’s tennis courts.

And I absolutely loved the place.

For it was Scotland and all of this was expected. It was part of the fun of attempting the sport of tennis in a country where the weather was as temperamental as my mood-swings were. Kings provided me with a setting to meet many people that I became long-time friends with. It helped me to play, enjoy, have fun, interact with the outside world when all of those things were hard for me to do. It helped me to get out of my comfort zone when the comfort was my bed and the zone was whittling away the hours doing absolutely nothing. It helped me to play tennis.

At times I thought I might actually hate Kings alongside the rest of the city of Aberdeen when a match didn’t go my way and when I blamed the whole damn world for playing terribly and just feeling terrible. But I always came running back, tail between my legs, a box of chocolates in one hand, flowers in the other, begging the courts for forgiveness and asking for just one more opportunity to play tennis on them.

Kings is dead now.

Freezing weather and driving rain do not mix and a friend of mine who still lives in Aberdeen delivered the news to me the other day. It was unsurprising. King’s tennis court staff had clearly been flirting with the idea of unplugging the life support machine long before this eventual royal death. Slippery courts. A broken ankle, arm, skull and the potential lawsuit that could follow were very obviously playing on their minds every time they tentatively walked towards the courts and it soon became not at all uncommon for the place to be closed altogether for days on end as the cold, long winter nights got colder and longer.

As far as I’m aware, the three courts are dormant now, an open grave for all to walk past, to glance in on the open body, to reminisce about the ghostly days gone by when the “fortress of Kings” served as a setting for universities to settle long-time rivalries. University tennis matches have been cancelled for now while other venues are sourced but this is proving difficult due to the few other Aberdeen city courts being block booked by coaches. All well and good if you can afford a coach then.

I’m not really sure what I would have done or even where exactly I would be right now had I not had somewhere to play tennis or a place to meet people or a motivation to get out and about in my time in that city. And I only hope that any unfortunate first or second or third or fourth or postgraduate year student or anyone at all in Aberdeen right now who is scared or worried or anxious or just sad about things can find somewhere to go and play tennis if tennis helps them in the way that it did for me.

And so King’s tennis courts helped me a lot throughout my four years in Aberdeen and if this really is the end, I tip my admittedly large hat to you and thank you for the memories.

Rest in peace.

 

Court Continually Courting with Controversy

margaret court

Margaret Court’s refusal to create a welcoming environment for everyone who wants to play tennis continues to impact both her legacy and those within her firing line. Source: AP

The downfall of a sports icon can happen in a vast variety of different ways and at an array of different times. Perhaps it’s a physical injury, sustained in the heat of the moment and long-lasting enough to ultimately impact the career of a great? Maybe it’s a lack of motivation, having won everything there is to win, claimed all the silverware, taken to all the podiums, what is there left to do? It could be father time, forever present and forever undefeated by all those that have tried to conquer it?

Or it could be a moment unrelated to the sport altogether?

In the case of Margaret Court, her outspoken and derisive dismissal of gay marriage has left her tennis playing career resembling something that you might get if you let a toddler take a box of crayons to the Mona Lisa. The brilliant artwork is still there, somewhere, somehow, near unrecognisable beneath the new scribbled multi-coloured mess.

Evidenced prominently in her 24 grand slam singles titles, 19 doubles slam titles, 21 mixed slam crowns and her reign as world number 1, you could very easily make a solid case for Court as the greatest player of all time. Despite her career spanning across the introduction of the Open era (meaning that many of her titles came at a point when professionals were unable to compete in the established version of the game), Court’s monumental achievements as a player are still mightily impressive.

That must be a pretty big box of crayons then.

Just last month, Australia’s first same sex marriage took place. I find it a valuable moment to reflect on one of the country’s most prominent athletes and her opinions on such an event.

It would be intriguing to look at the number of bookings made with Qantas airlines around March last year and whether or not they suffered any sort of backlash from their core customers. The Australian company found itself with a target painted across its face at this time by an angry, bitter and frustrated Court. Central to her intensity was Alan Joyce, the company’s openly gay chief executive, and his passionate support for the legalisation of gay marriage. Penning a letter to The West Australian, Court expressed her blatant disappointment in the airline, maintaining that she fully supported and backed “marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible.” She’d be booking with other airlines in the future. Quantas must have been devastated. Undoubtedly they cried themselves to sleep that very night at such a loss.

This was only the beginning of Court’s freewheeling nature when it came to speaking her mind and in the direct aftermath of the aforementioned letter, she doubled down on her divisive opinions. Maintaining that tennis is “full of lesbians” and comparing transgender children to the work of the devil and Hitler, Court’s position as one of the greats the game gave leverage to those like her that would have walls, barbed wire fences, warning signs around the sport of tennis to keep out everyone who shows the slightest sign of daring being different.

It would be difficult for me to ever be able to accurately put into words or even personally begin to comprehend the amount of damage that Court’s words do to those within her firing line. It’s important to properly understand that opinions such as hers continue to leave ugly impressions on those that she undermines and shuts-off from a sport that has had an unhealthy history with refusing to help minorities.

Tennis is still fundamentally an elitist sport, pandering to the rich, the white, the male, the straight, the privileged. Those with enough money to buy tickets, book courts, purchase equipment. People unrestrained by the colour of their skin or their sexuality or where they live. Court’s opinions are both unsurprising and hold weight given her stature and career achievements within the game. She stands tall and her words fall far, hitting, damaging, breaking all of the branches on the way down.

It was inherently pleasurable to watch the broad and varied tennis community respond in a primarily negative way to Court. For the community is both broad and varied if you look closely and this is all despite the game being cemented, nailed, super-glued to upper-class roots. People have been successful within the boundaries of the game despite having societal expectations working against them.

The greatest of these has to be Billie Jean King, a figure indicative of the strength of difference and a defender of diversity. Winner of 39 Grand Slam titles across the board, King’s work post-playing career continues to be of a valuable asset to creating a welcoming atmosphere for those that need it. A consistent campaigner for gender equality both in and out-with her own sport, King appears aware of her elevated position of respected power, seems forever willing to speak out on matters of prominence, forever unwilling to let silence continue to act as acceptance for lingering clouds of dated toxic opinions.

“Having a stadium or a tennis facility named after you comes with responsibility— including a responsibility to be welcoming and hospitable to all people.”

Tennis has to strive to be inclusive, it needs to work to help those who need it and it needs people like Billie Jean King to sledgehammer it past the walls that Court and those like her seem forever willing to build around it. Because if a game, something created for the sole purpose of enjoyment, pleasure, happiness, cannot create a fun, welcoming atmosphere for absolutely everyone who wants to play or watch it, what hope do we have?

The rich, the white, the male, the straight and the privileged people in prominent tennis governing bodies around the globe were quick to pour water on Court’s flames and yet it is hard to accept their general apparent disdain for opinions such as these when Court continues to hold the distinction of having an entire arena named after her at one of the most prominent tournaments in world sport. The fire may be out at the moment but the smoke climbs higher still.

As players take to Margaret Court Arena next week for the opening Grand Slam of the season, the world will be watching and Court herself will not be there. Having already confirmed she will not be attending the tournament this year, she will undoubtedly remain a subject of interest throughout regardless.

Court’s crayons are absent for now though. Let them stay that way.

Being Extra-Terrestrial

camp life

Camp has helped me in many ways but my awareness of fashion is probably not one of them. That shirt? With those shorts?…

I was called E.T. in high school.

It’s both hilarious and frustrating to look back at the extent of which I really and truly cared. Throwaway stupid comments made by walking irrelevances. Human nobodies. But back then, they were somebodies and I did care. Make no mistake about it, I can entirely see where the comparisons were coming from and I say that with a broad smile on my face as I write this now and with no bitterness at all. It’s one of the reasons I laugh so willingly regarding my appearance as a 24 year old because I realise how much time I wasted not laughing about it when I was younger. My dark, sunken eyes, oddly shaped facial features and long, gangling arms certainly somewhat resembled a caricature drawing of the popular extra-terrestrial character. It didn’t help that I was ludicrously socially awkward, a hanger-on, desperate to fit in with my peers. Looking back, I think that’s all anyone was trying to do at that age but to me, wrapped up in my own little self-obsessed world, it seemed like my efforts were continually in vain.

I don’t think I had it the worst or even close to it. I don’t even think I’d call what I experienced bullying as it never escalated to anything other than brief, passing name-calling, but it certainly did nothing for my confidence at an age when confidence equates to happiness, relaxation and a smile.

Fast-forward a few years and I stood at the end of my first year of university. 20 years old and largely surprised by my ability to have somehow survived what at times had felt like self-sabotage, my unwillingness to study, lack of motivation to work, general laziness. All of these things and yet, I’d passed my exams. Just about. And so I took up a summer camp counselling job teaching tennis in the state of Vermont in the United States.

It was a decision I’d made a year in advance, determined not to waste another entire summer working behind a bar or restaurant in my home town. I’d never went abroad on my own before and I’d never been much of a camping kind of person, usually resorting to feigning illness to mask my homesickness when I went to Scout camp when I was younger. And so this was a big step and it came with pressure. Better enjoy this, Scott. This has cost your parents a lot of money, Scott. This is supposed to be an experience of a lifetime and if you don’t enjoy yourself it will all be wasted, Scott. Better. Enjoy. This.

It was a move into the unknown in more ways than one as well. For starters, I would be working with children on the Autism spectrum. When I first received the email offering me a position, I was more than a little uncertain. I’d never worked with children of any sort at that point, let alone children with any kind of… condition?! My mind raced with the possibilities, primarily the negative. What if I was awful? What if I did a terrible job? What if I turned up, did everything wrong and drowned in floods of children’s tears?

I needn’t have worried.

My experience as a summer camp counsellor was a wonderful, rewarding, ludicrous, difficult, heart-warming, heart-breaking, spectacular experience all wrapped up in a box stamped with the cliché but accurate phrase, “Summer of a Lifetime”.

My ability to coach tennis was questionable but it almost didn’t matter with the kids that I worked and lived with throughout those eight weeks. They took to the sport because what kid doesn’t, on a base level, love hitting a ball as hard as they can with a racket? And so it was that we played stupid team games, barely resembling actual tennis. That’s not to say some of them weren’t massively talented at the game. In fact, there were multiple children who I thought could probably rather easily beat me had we ever played a full match-up. I was too scared to test this theory, fearful that a hard loss to a camper would lead to a hard loss of my job. It was intriguing to watch how each individual child embraced the game I cared about, some with absolute disdain, some with curious interest and some with a competitive fire that far out-burned my own. Someone with more coaching skills than I had would undoubtedly have done a far better job than I ultimately did but I loved tennis and what I was doing and I felt that if my enthusiasm shone through, it would at least be somewhat impactful on how these children experienced the game.

Away from the tennis side of things, I learned that these children were different. But that was absolutely OK and that the beautiful camp setting emphasised, embraced and welcomed all of these ticks, quirks and moods that came with being on the wide spectrum that is Autism.  It was fun and eye-opening to work alongside them and realise that underneath all these differences, they wanted exactly what every other kid wants: to have fun and to have people to have fun with. There were difficulties that came with that of course. Behavioural issues, sense of self-worth, bullying, anxiety to name but a few. But that was part of the ultimate aim of the job in hand, to be able to tempt these children to work on their social and communication skills but also to learn that just because their minds operated somewhat differently to everyone else’s, this didn’t mean that they needed to isolate themselves from their peers. This was different for each and every child too: some didn’t talk at all, some wouldn’t shut up, some had questionable eating habits, some wanted to play the same damn game all the damn time, some you wouldn’t really be able to tell that they were on the spectrum at all unless you looked closely enough.

Just about all of the children I met in my time there were far more intelligent than I am now and I write that not with a sense of self-deprecation but with a firm belief in painting an accurate picture of the sort of young adults that I was working with. They were brilliant and different and smart and annoying and friendly and funny beyond anything else.

I say with as close to absolute certainty as I can that it was by far and away simultaneously the most difficult and the most intensely enjoyable and rewarding job that I will ever undertake. I made friends with all of my co-counsellor and now have contacts all over the world. They changed my life, they helped me become less socially adverse, they helped me relax on days off. They helped me to act weird and look odd and be different and stand out and sing the Fresh Prince of Belair theme song in front of the entire camp and embrace all of that and have fun with the children we were looking after. I owe them more than I can ever really put into words. I remember everyone. You go through an experience like that with a group of people and you hold onto them and never really let go.

One of my favourite memories was towards the end of that first summer when an older camper came up to me. He was 17, the age limit. He would not be returning next year.

“Well, good luck with your future, you’re gonna’ be fantastic in whatever you decide to do!”
Quick as lighting, without missing a beat, he replied:
“Thanks, Scotty, but I’m going to wish you luck as well. Because sometimes I think you acted far more like one of us than you did a counsellor.”

As I watched him walk away, I think it was at that moment I realised that I could probably have done with a place like camp when I was in high school. A place to come and get away and not care at all. My hair was stupidly afro-like, my face was unshaven, I was sunburned, I smelled awful and I absolutely did not care because I was at camp and I felt like I belonged there. I felt at home, at ease with my surroundings. I felt that I had family in the people I was there with and I cared about them and I think they cared about me and it didn’t matter that I was wearing the same t-shirt for a third day in a row and it didn’t matter that maybe I wasn’t the best tennis coach in the world and none of that mattered because I was happy, I was relaxed and I was smiling.

I would ultimately work at that summer camp a total of three times. I was privileged enough to be able to experience camp life multiple times and I am aware it’s not an option for everyone. But if it’s an option for you, if you think you can handle it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The summer months of 2014, 2015 and 2017 changed my life in a majorly positive way and my experiences during those times will stay with me forever.

 

Uncertainty and the Value of Time

injury wimbledon

Andy Murray suffers from a hip injury that has sidelined him from professional tennis since Wimbledon 2016. Source: Daily Express

One of the most difficult things for me to deal with personally is the uncertainty that comes hand-in-hand with not knowing. Not knowing or rather, not being able to plan for what is coming for me. As a postgraduate student enrolled on a journalism degree, the competitive whirlpool looks set to swallow me up unless I’m always moving, always looking for opportunities, always searching for what’s next. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around as someone who consistently sits in his chair, in his room, worrying, panicking, scared of the future and of the changes that come with that. To do all of this but with the world watching is difficult for me to comprehend.

Andy Murray announced to the world his own uncertainty regarding his own future today. Admitting to emotional heartbreak is a rare beast in the world of professional sport and the British number 1 emphasised his in an Instagram post highlighting his anguish at still being unable to play the game that he loves due to a hip injury that has had him side-lined since Wimbledon last year. His fans took to social media in their droves as if responding to some sort of nuclear apocalypse and even his most ardent supporters couldn’t help but air their doubts, their worries, their fear as to the rocky, messy, uneven journey into 2018 that their hero now faces.

Anyone who has ever felt lost, alone or confused by the future must in some way be able to relate to Murray’s predicament. Those that have committed themselves to something only to realise that the future may not be set out for them in a way that they hoped. Those scared to look forward for fear of realising that perhaps what they really want to do may now no longer be an option. All of these things face Murray as he struggles with the weight of his injury coupled with what he has achieved in the past and the expectations that come with that. The media hype train will continue to inflict pressure on him until the day he officially hangs up his racket. They demand straight answers.

Retire or play, Andy.

Retire.

Or.

Play.

But then, when has Murray ever responded to his doubters with anything other than ultimately proving them wrong on a tennis court?

And even at this, arguably his darkest hour, Murray sets himself apart from his contemporaries by talking about his issues in detail. He spoke of his options and even referenced his fear with undergoing surgery and what it could ultimately mean for his tennis playing future. He spoke of his emotions. He made it clear he was, on a base level, sad. He did not brush off his feelings, he did not hide from questions and he openly talked of his own personal attachment not to winning trophies, not to reaching number one in the world, not even to his fans. But to the game that he loves.

“I just want to enjoy playing again. I’ve really missed it the last six months or so. I don’t mind if it’s 30 in the world level. I would love it to be number 1 in the world level, but I just want to play.”

Make no mistake, Murray now faces a period of real uncertainty. A professional athlete not competing for over half a year is dangerous for any who wish to return to the top level of their sport. But Murray has already covered all of this. He’s not delusional, he knows what he can and cannot put his body through. As long as he can play on any level, he’ll be happy. And who are we to tell him to do things any differently when he is going through a time in his life that we must all have been entangled in on some level at some stage in our own? Maybe not on a professional sports level but on a confused and foggy future level.

Take your time. Embrace the uncertainty. Look at your options. Do what is needed. Then come back.