In the last few weeks, I have enjoyed watching Wimbledon on television. It’s not something I usually do, preferring to follow the matches vicariously through my husband. He played tennis in high school and follows along closely, especially because Wimbledon comes at that point in the summer when the roar of other sports has all but faded away. I have come to associate early July with green grass and bright whites on tv, drinking my weekend coffee to the background sounds of hollow “thwacks” and the gentle murmurs of announcers. They speak slightly louder than the golf whisperers, in mumbly accents of cultured Brits. It’s comforting noise.
Tennis, I realized, this week–in the midst of awful, violent news of people hurting one another around our world–is still a gentleperson’s game. Wimbledon is played on grass–a soft surface that makes even 140-mile-per-hour serves look visible. Players must wear white–the traditional attire of the game. The uniform is, well, uniform. Even the biggest egos are not allowed to strut their individuality all that much. It’s about the game; tradition rules…and older, more civil social conventions still apply here. In fact, they are insisted upon.
I grew up watching tennis in the ’70’s and ’80’s. I remember the stunts of McEnroe–the tantrums, the antics. Remember Ashe and King breaking barriers. Borg dropping to his knees, a beautiful sweat-drenched hero that every girl wanted on a poster in her room. Darling Chrissy Evert in her cute little outfits. (My father always commented on her looks and not her athleticism; arguing with him about it was my first foray into feminism.) For me, the tennis players of my childhood years seemed just like other colorfully interesting athletes–except that they played alone and not on teams.
It was only watching Wimbledon this month, with years of life experience and weary of the news around the globe, that I noticed how glad I was to watch these particular solo athletes take the courts. Watching them compete did not feel like sports-as-usual. Something felt different. Something about the civil, courteous, tradition-bound matches with attending crowds demonstrating restraint and self-control renewed my faith a bit. It sounds ridiculous that anything could take my mind off the killing of our citizens by racists, the hideous violence in Texas, the hate-filled speech of the U.S. campaign trail, the prejudice against “others” that has led to Brexit and Americans trumpeting tales of a mythic wall…but Wimbledon actually did.
For a few hours this week, I watched hard-working athletes compete with every ounce of courage and strength they could muster, and, when they were done fighting, come to the net and embrace or clasp hands, speak kindly and respectfully of one another in victory or defeat, and leave the court together–sometimes even assisting an aching opponent with his heavy bag. I loved these people this week; I loved their sport. I loved that they came together here from all over the world to play their game…hard…to try to defeat one another with everything they had…and when it was done, to talk humbly of hard work and admiration for opponents who gave them a good game.
Wimbledon is one of the only competitions where the champion and the person he or she defeats to get to the winners’ circle stand together to be interviewed by the press. Side by side, they share the spotlight for a bit before the runner-up gracefully exits to leave the champion to his/her due. When do we ever see that in sport? The two opposing quarterbacks of the Super Bowl shake hands like they’re touching something hot and move quickly on to the locker room to mope or the microphone to thank God that everything came together today for their victory. They make their obligatory comments about how the other team is great and played hard, but no one really seems to mean it. Their press agents have trained them to say this, and it rings falsely so often.
My favorite moment of the last week was watching Serena and Angelique Kerber standing together after their match, speaking with such sincerity and kindness about one another. We had just watched them compete fiercely for every point, fighting and grunting, frowning and intensely focused on beating each other. Now, one held the first place trophy; one the second. Both were champions–the trophies gleaming but irrelevant. They expressed their gratitude for the chance to play together, gracious admiration of the other’s game, acknowledgement of the hard work that had landed them both there, love for their families and friends and…surprisingly…for each other. None of the typical sports cliches passed their lips. There was no “we executed well but fell short” or “they were just a better ball team today than we were” or even “we just need to work harder” rhetoric–just a pure expression of the joy of competing, a candid recognition that sport is about the pursuit of excellence win or lose, and a civility toward one another that somehow refilled my reservoir of hope that people on opposite sides might actually learn to treat each other respectfully.
Not perfect, these athletes likely have egos off the court they did not flash during the time I watched. Perhaps if I Googled their private lives, I’d find evidence of moral failures and distasteful conduct. I don’t know. I have no intention of looking…because I truly need to believe in what they showed us this week. Certainly Kemper in her final speech to the crowd and the press acknowledged as she thanked her family, team, and friends that she is “not always the easiest.” Milos Raonic and Andy Murray did not show any genuine liking for one another, and Raonic was candid about his disappointment not to go home with the gold trophy, telling the crowd his goal was to work hard to “get back here because I want more than anything else” to return and win. OK. These are humans. I get it. Not one is wearing a halo, and I’m sure they are glad when they best their opponents and mad if they don’t. But their sport and this tournament in particular were the best example I saw in the media this week of people behaving humanely. Even the crowds follow the rules of civility at these matches–no shrieks or trash talking, just quiet appreciation for good shots on both sides, polite applause and cheers when appropriate, honor for both the victor and the defeated when the end comes.
I took tennis lessons as a kid, going early in the morning before my summer job to a local club where the high school tennis coach gave me discounted time for $5 an hour as a favor to my parents, fellow teachers. Left-handed and awkward, with an old Wilson racquet that needed its strings replaced, I tried my best to master the two-handed backhand and some semblance of a serve. I never got good at it, but I certainly learned enough to appreciate the complexity of moves and the quickness required to play well. In the same way, this week, I took tennis lessons once more. The sport these athletes dedicate their lives to was more than a game this week; it was a reminder that we can stand on opposite sides, each wanting something different, fight hard but within guidelines, and come together at the end with grace and appreciation for the greater picture of which we are only a part. These players showed us that whether they win or lose, the honor of playing at Wimbledon, the chance to strive to be the best at their game in this place steeped in the tradition of their sport…this effort is the glory, and respect for each other is the price of admission to their game. They made me wish that we could all just take a tennis lesson or two.