Alive and Well


Luke NovThe sport of tennis is still kicking.

By Luke Robinson

 

The May 9, 1994, Sports Illustrated had a cover that read, “Is Tennis Dying?” I remember seeing the headline and thinking, “I dunno… Maybe. Who gives a damn? I don’t play tennis. Where’s my beer?” (I had turned 21 not long before that.) That issue of SI was probably on to something, though. At least at the time. The sport had traded in the loud mouth rivalries of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors for the much more sedate matches of Pete Sampras and Todd Martin. Yikes. I almost fell asleep just typing “Todd Martin.”

Well, here we are, more than 20 years later, and what do you know? Tennis ain’t dead, and I have actually started playing. Someone get the band to play “Whoddathunkit.” I am not that good, mind you, but after tearing my Achilles tendon several months ago, I am just happy to be doing something that makes me sweat besides my taxes.

Even though tennis wasn’t my first (or second or third) love, much of my family has played, so I wasn’t going into this completely blind. I just considered it a relatively slow sport compared to the more traditional team sports I played. All the thanks goes to my fiancée, Krista, for my newest athletic endeavor. I had always been a basketball guy, but once I turned about 35, my hoop dreams went south. By the time I was 38, I feel quite sure Stephen Hawking could have beaten me in one on one.

So I was getting too old for basketball and I am too young to walk the upper level of the Galleria; where could I turn for exercise? My golf swing makes Charles Barkley cringe. Football only works for me in the occasional “flag” variety. My head is too big for one of those weirdo biker helmets. I was running out of options. I desperately needed some way to stay active and my bride-to-be and I wanted a sport we could play together. Tennis, her sport in high school, was a surprisingly natural choice.

I say “surprisingly” because tennis is still pretty boring on TV (and if history has taught me anything, it’s that I am influenced by what TV tells me.) Soaking in the second round of the French Open doesn’t exactly inspire America’s youth to find the nearest square patch of clay and work on their ground strokes. Unless it is Federer taking on Nadal for a major title, do you really have an interest? Watching two guys with seven Js  and four Ks in each of their names flailing around the All England Club sounds about as fun as…well, watching two guys with a lot of Js and Ks playing tennis. Without two big names in a big tournament, tennis on television is like listening to chess on the radio. It doesn’t translate very well.

I also didn’t know a ton about tennis. I knew how to keep score and that it is best not to buy your racket from Rite-Aid, but not much else. I certainly wasn’t well-versed enough to get into a Wilson-versus-Penn debate. But a funny thing happened while volleying that fuzzy green ball on that cracked concrete across a tattered net: I started liking it. A lot.

Oh, I am still not good. I doubt I ever will be. When your signature move is to rush the net in some misguided hope that your spastic lankiness will intimidate your opponent into a nervous mishit, it is easy to see why you keep falling victim to well placed drop-shots. In short: I usually get the crap beat out of me. My improvement is irrelevant, however. I just know I am more excited than Catherine the Great at the Kentucky Derby whenever Krista and I have an opportunity to play now. (Google “Catherine the Great/ horse” if you have to.)

So to you, 1994’s Sports Illustrated, I say tennis is most certainly not dead! It’s not even wearing a Life Alert bracelet yet! In fact, I could see tennis making a boot-cut-jeans level comeback. Just the other day my brother and I were playing when I saw two preteen boys in a spirited match. It warmed my heart to know the sport will live on in another generation. Then I heard one kid brag to the other after winning a point, “Ha! 50- love, baby!”

Well, at least they are playing.

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