Sports Monks

A summer without the French Open: Reflections on growing up with tennis, in a world that cannot afford sports

When you are seven years old and you are watching the French Open, and you don’t know better, you simply support Steffi Graf. It’s 1992, she is up against Monica Seles and she is about to lose. My grandmother is cheering for Seles. This is less, I suspect, out of some studied appreciation of her style, and more because “someone else should get a chance, I say”. As if tennis is not a ruthless meritocracy but a feel-good yoga retreat.

My sister and I are at my grandparents’ house in Bangalore in front of the TV. The broadcaster is Doordarshan, and the transmission is granular. It’s not perfect, but it’s the summer. We will go back to Bombay in a week, the season of chickenpox and train travel, holiday homework and clay court tennis behind us.

Same place, two years later: Sergi Bruguera is up against Alberto Berasategui. Ah, Berasategui! A man whose polysyllabic name I have been rolling around my mouth, savouring its ineluctable foreignness. In vain. His name will be a footnote, not a headline, a mere passing ship in the years of tennis watching to come. Still, this is the summer I will accrete other, more lasting pieces of my vocabulary: lobs, volleys, smashes.

The French Open has been to my summer what a Rafael Nadal victory has been to the French Open: an inevitable, intractable fact of life.

So when the prospect of the year’s second grand slam being postponed, or even cancelled, first came up several weeks ago because of COVID-19, my initial reaction was a frisson of excitement. Let me explain. No French Open, meant no Nadal victory, and as a Roger Federer fan, what could be more delicious?

But that momentary twinge of misplaced delight was quickly replaced by the proper response: the five stages of grief. A month later, having gone through the denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance cycle, I am now in the hitherto undocumented sixth stage: “will consume all content posted by players on social media”. So far this has included a volley challenge from Federer, a cooking video from Nadal, and an Instagram live with Djokovic and Wawrinka. It’s not the typical ATP highlights reel for the clay-court swing, but it’s a warming brew of levity in an aborted season. The stars are sessile, and so are we.

The French Open was always a perfect slam for a child because it took place at the perfect time: school holiday season. In later years, doomed to the ignominy of television-less college hostels, the May-June scheduling again allowed for a grand slam reprieve.

Catching a teenage Clijsters losing to Capriati, just before a teenage me left for boarding school. Rejoicing as Henin snuffed out the Serena slam in a newspaper office as an intern. Streaming Federer’s only title win in a friend’s neo-Gothic dorm room. Watching Nadal, Nadal, Nadal every year, everywhere; in bars, restaurants and other people’s homes.

Except in 2014. That year I showed up at Roland Garros itself, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, twenty-something journalist on holiday. Shivering in the overcast weather, I saw one future champion play doubles on a side court (Ashleigh Barty) and another future champion lose on a show court (Garbiñe Muguruza). Maria Sharapova won for the last time, Nadal won for the eleventy billionth time and everyone else went home. I watched him one Paris afternoon as he out-muscled David Ferrer in the quarters after a rain delay. I saw Kim Clijsters team up with Martina Navratilova in the women’s legends event and Goran Ivanisevic play some tennis, and the fool, in the men’s. Attending that edition was already a form of nostalgia. The eighties, nineties and early 2000s all pushed up against each other in a kind of torrid tennis bacchanal.

That was a high point. The low points have been plentiful, courtesy intransigent cable operators and scratchy set-up boxes. Sports fans believe their lives are a series of heartbreaks. Sometimes those heartbreaks happen before the game ends, and if you are unluckier, even before it starts.

Last year was especially cruel. The worst bus journey of my life dovetailed neatly with the best (match-up) and the worst (possible outcome) of the French Open: a Federer-Nadal semi-final. I had planned my return from the hills to Delhi with what I thought was immaculate precision; even if the bus was three hours late, I’d still make the coin toss. But UPSRTC had other plans. Two hours in, the sound of fire-crackers and the acrid stench of smoke erupted; the vehicle shook, and resigned to a flat tyre. I flagged down another bus on the highway in the 40-something heat. An elderly, confused co-passenger followed me on to it.

This one, more decrepit than the first, was hell-bent on taking the scenic route. It was not even scenic. Many hours passed. I whipped out my computer, tried to connect my phone, and live stream the match on 3G. Goats roamed outside. They were not the ones I wanted. Those came into view intermittently on my screen, pixelated and frozen. Battery life ebbed away. It had already been several hours since we set out. My elderly co-passenger started to cry. I started to cry alongside her.

Time was suspended in that strange place where it was both passing very quickly, and yet not at all. Or like my favourite tennis writer Geoff Dyer said of a different match: “I wanted the match to be over, so I wouldn’t miss any more of it; I wanted it to continue so that I might have a chance of getting in and seeing it.”

Eventually, I reached a cool, dry place, with a large, working television. Eventually, I got to watch the next semi-final. Eventually, I resigned to the idea that I may have missed the last Federer-Nadal match at a slam.

It was not. But it may yet be the penultimate. Of course, it is a triviality to mourn a sporting event in the middle of a pandemic. It is chastening to think, as someone said, that the coronavirus did what the younger players could not: defeat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Fifty-six collective grand slams never stood a chance against a protein sequence.

The summer will be long. It will give way to the monsoon, when there will be no Wimbledon, no whites, no strawberries; neither sport nor the artisanal affect around it. This June without tennis will be an ersatz version of every June since the late 1800s when the French Championships and Wimbledon were first held.

Every year before this, even if you couldn’t watch tennis, it was at least still there, a calendrical certainty in a shifting universe. You could wake up in any city, in any country, and be sure that between the last week of May and the first week of July, a brew of the magic and the tragic would be there for the taking.

Now suddenly, it is not. The language of the game though still is €” challenges, upset, broken, war minus the shooting €” reverted to merely describing the world we inhabit. A world craving the distractions of sport at the precise moment when it can least afford it.

When I spoke to the squash player Saurav Ghosal last month, he was resigned as an athlete to not be playing, but frustrated as a fan, to not be watching. He barely switched on the television any more. We spent two minutes wandering into a dark place: what if Federer never won another slam?

For now, they have rescheduled the French Open to September; it may not happen even then. But Rome, Madrid, Monte Carlo; a whole dirt-court season has gone up in a poof of dust. This summer there will be no rallies, no trophies, no Nadal victories. And though it hurts my fingers to type this, everyone €” Federer fans included €” will be the poorer for it. We have all lost.

Source: Yahoo

Leave a Reply