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Losers’ Lunch

Illustrations by Paul Lacolley

Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | August 2018 | 31 minutes (7,863 words)

This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine and appears in issue no. 7.

Losers are a fixture of my workday as a sportswriter.

Talking to a person coming off court who was just dealt a crushing defeat, and offering some vague, platitudinous comfort to assuage their raw battle wound, is a necessary task in the job. On rarer occasions, I’ve talked to those who have just suffered a defeat so harrowing and derailing that it has them visibly doubting the viability of their career. But for most losers, even in down moments, there’s the credibility and dignity of having just performed for an appreciative crowd of some size in a respected, aspirational pursuit like professional sports.

There’s nothing remotely aspirational, though, about the Applebee’s restaurant I found myself in during day 6 of the 2017 US Open. And sitting across a table bearing mozzarella sticks and glasses of tap water, these were not my normal losers.

Rainer Piirimets, a three-year veteran of the tennis tour from Estonia, was knocked out of the US Open the day before, exiting Arthur Ashe Stadium in the early afternoon. His partner, a fellow Estonian who has been on tour for 10 years, sat beside him.

Piirimets left the stadium not through the tunnel to the locker room, but out a side gate. His wrists bore no sweatbands, only handcuffs.

The request for this interview was not made, as most I do, through the tournament media desk, but rather through a Facebook message. Piirimets eagerly accepted. Meeting at Applebee’s was his suggestion, but he wasn’t hungry—just eager to set the story straight after spending 10 hours in police custody the day before.

“We’re not criminals,” Piirimets said, a phrase he and his friend would use as a refrain over the next two hours.

Piirimets had sure been treated like a criminal the day before. While watching the third-round match between Petra Kvitova and Caroline Garcia, he was spotted in his seat in the upper deck (Section 331) by tournament security officials and escorted out. He was then arrested in a small room just off the concourse by police, who then perp-walked him out of the stadium. The cops steered him through a dense crowd of staring, perplexed tennis fans and ducked him into a waiting police car outside the tournament gates.

Piirimets, a competitive high jumper in his youth, was then put in a jail cell at the 110th Precinct in Queens, which he shared with, he said, an agitated, profane homeless man. After several hours in the lockup, he was brought to a court for arraignment before a judge. He was then released and given a summons to appear in court again seven weeks later. He doesn’t plan on attending.

His friend, who I’ll call Pete, was equally animated about the treatment Piirimets had received.

“To keep him for 10 hours in prison, for doing what?” said Pete. “He made a little mistake, no big deal.”

His crime was trespassing. Piirimets had also been kicked out of the US Open the year before, and during that first ouster he was given paperwork acknowledging that he was to be banned from the tournament grounds for 20 years. He said he didn’t think that threat was serious, and that he didn’t think he was bound by the forms because he didn’t sign the line at the bottom. Nor did he understand that trespassing was a crime that could get him arrested in the United States. After all, he said, he’s been kicked out of lots of tournaments, all over the world, and nothing like this has ever happened before. Because why would it? He’s not a criminal, he said, flummoxed.

What Piirimets is, he admitted, is a member of a rogue, impish species in the tennis ecosystem: a courtsider. But with their hunters getting more and more adept, courtsiders—arguably justifiably so—have become an endangered species. Only the most stubborn of their breed persist. Even though sports betting is becoming legalized in the United States, they will still be persona non grata at this year’s US Open, which they will attempt to attend again.

Though only the second courtsider ever arrested at a Grand Slam event, Piirimets was the eighth caught in the first five days of the 2017 US Open, according to the USTA—which prides itself on “vigorously combatting” courtsiding and was quite excited to alert the media to his arrest. Twenty courtsiders—17 men and three women (none American)—had been caught during the 2016 tournament, hailing from as far away as Sri Lanka, each thinking they had the skills to beat the system. All were given notice of a 20-year ban from the tournament. Read more…

Family Band

Illustration by Luke Shuman

Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | August 2017 | 9 minutes (2,122 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by tennis writer Ben Rothenberg and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

To hear Alexander Zverev Sr. tell it, the tale of how his younger, golden-haired son began to play tennis has the simplicity of a fairy tale involving the Three Bears.

“It was all natural for Sascha,” he said. “Mama played, Papa played, brother played. And so, he started to play.”

While the Williams sisters have made family reunions in the finals of Grand Slams feel normal, multiple branches of a family tree breaking through to the top of the sport remains a rare phenomenon. This is particularly so in the men’s game, where brothers have rarely shared space in the top 200 together over the past decade. But in a sport that demands individualism, the Zverevs have managed to become the archetypal tennis family, a story line that’s become increasingly prominent in professional tennis, where the various methods of grooming top players are hotly debated.

Spanning generations and cultures, the Zverevs travel the tour together as four: father Alexander Sr., 57; mother Irina, 50; older brother Mischa, 29; and younger brother Alexander Jr., called Sascha, 20. The group is completed by Lövik, a toy poodle who does not play tennis himself but seems to enjoy the sport.

Under the guidance of their parents, both Mischa and Sascha became world-class juniors and now top 30 ATP players. Their biggest successes yet came in early 2017: Mischa reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating top-seeded Andy Murray, and Sascha made his top 10 debut after winning the Italian Open, the first Masters title for a player his age in a decade.

The younger Zverevs had their courses charted by parents who also achieved tennis success—though by different metrics, as Soviet athletes were rarely able to compete outside the U.S.S.R. during what would’ve been the heydays of their careers.

Family friend Olga Morozova at Wimbledon, 1970. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Olga Morozova was wary that the elder Zverevs might downplay their pedigrees. Morozova—perhaps the best-known player of the Soviet era, reaching the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974—had ostensibly joined our table in the players’ garden at the Italian Open to be a translator for Alexander Sr. and Irina as needed, but she quickly turned into a booster instead.

“This gentleman in front of you was one of the best tennis players in the Soviet Union, and I think he was unlucky not to be here and doing it here,” she said of Alexander Sr. “And that lady, Irina, was on the national team. I have to start, because sometimes they don’t know how to say it about themselves, but they both are very good tennis players. And that’s why their sons are playing so well, because they have very good knowledge about tennis.” Read more…