Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Championship Season

Every year around this time, I get a little tennis bug. It lasts from late June to mid-August, from Wimbledon to the U.S. Open. Only started about seven years ago, and I don't even know why. I think I just sat down and started to think about tennis, as an actual sport. Once you get past the silly method of scorekeeping (why is having nothing but love a bad thing?) and the cultural-etiquette holdovers only surpassed by golf, playing tennis at a championship level is a wonder to behold.

We can all agree that trying to hit a Major League fastball is one of the hardest single feats in all of sports. 98 mph worth of ball hurtling at you, trying to make contact with an object that's just a hair wider than the ball itself. I'll give you that. But try doing the same thing, but while sprinting. Yes, we'll give you an instrument significantly bigger, but we'll ask you to hit a ball back in the opposite direction, deciding in a split second where to hit it, and ask you to place the ball in a zone inches wide. And then recover to do the same thing again, when the ball comes whizzing back. For hours.

That's tennis, and that's why I watch it. No other sport has that same combination of power, speed, finesse, reflexes, and skill. (Yes, asking which sport is harder to play well is like asking who'd win in a fight, bear or shark, I know.)

That's why I was watching Wimbledon the other day, and so saw one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen on the sporting stage.

Serena Williams was playing some Russian chick—Hantucova or something (all those tiny Russian chicks sound the same). And Serena was playing well. She'd won her first set and was battling to win her second and finish out the match. She was walking away from a point, full of energy, bouncing on her toes like a prizefighter, when she suddenly dropped to the ground in pain. Her left calf seized up on her, cramping like a steel trap. Crying, screaming, pounding the ground in both agony and frustration, Serena looked to surely be out of the match. Her father knew it, watching from the stands, as did her mother, who wiped away a tear or two. Her sister, Venus, knew all too well what this could mean, and she pulled her jacket tight, as if warding off the cool, humid London breeze would somehow keep her safe from the same ailment.

After a few minutes, Serena was helped to her feet, where she stood ramrod straight as Hantucova served out the balance of her game, watching the serves just fly by. Now, Hantucova was up 6-5 in the second set, and Serena had to serve her game or forfeit the match. During the TV time out, the trainer taped up Serena's calf and sent her out there. She couldn't jump, could barely run, and for a tennis player as agile as Serena, that's a crippling predicament. But she went on court, the pain still evident on her face, and started to serve. Like so many other things in sport—from a baseball swing to a boxer's punch—the power of a tennis serve comes from the legs, from the jump and twist. But Serena couldn't jump.

And still, through sheer force of will and arm strength, she muscled in a 100 mile-an-hour serve. A couple of aces. And she won her game to force a tiebreak.

When people say that athletes are like warriors, I usually dismiss it as hyperbole, as something announcers say to fill the time during a three-hour broadcast. But this woman fought, against her body, against time, against her opponent. And it was clearly a losing fight, but she picked up her racket and walked onto the field and refuse to surrender. It was an amazing thing to watch.

But there was no way she could win that tiebreak. She shouldn't return a serve, and when she did, couldn't engage in a volley. She was absolutely on her way to losing that match, unless fate swooped in to save her. Which it did.

It's as if God himself was watching that match and, impressed with Serena's valor, granted her a reprieve. With the tiebreak slipping away, and the rest of the match on its heels, the sky opened and it started to rain.

I'll admit, there was a tiny frog in my throat when this happened, when the rains that had plagued this year's Wimbledon saved Serena from defeat. It was as perfect a story you could imagine, one that if it hadn't actually happened you'd think was fabricated. Of course, there was talk of divine intervention, that the Almighty had stepped in to give Serena—a devout believer—a second chance.

Now, I'll ask you, which is worse, not believing in God (my default position), or believing in a God that not only watches tennis, but takes a break from his laisse-faire policy to, of all possible things that could benefit from His attention, intervene in the course of a match?

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