When Maria Sharapova won her first round U.S. Open match against the world’s No. 2 ranked female player, Simona Halep, she dropped her tennis racket and sunk to her knees in disbelief. Commentators Chris Evert and Mary Joe Fernández remarked that the match, which clocked in at two hours and 44 minutes, looked like it could have been the women’s final. When ESPN asked what Sharapova had learned from the match, she told them, “That behind this black dress with Swarovski crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”
It was Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match in 19 months, the majority of which was spent serving a 15-month ban for violating anti-doping rules. The drug Sharapova tested positive for was meldonium, a heart drug that can assist in improving endurance and recovery. Caitlin Thompson was curious whether taking the drug could improve her tennis game while she competed in recreational tournaments, and she reported about the experience for Deadspin:
Serena Williams is planning on returning to the Australian Open next year to defend her grand slam title a mere three months after she gives birth. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she told Vogue’s Rob Haskell from her home in Florida.
Williams has also learned to embrace what it means to be a powerful player on the tennis court:
Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”
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…
With Wimbledon well under way, it’s the perfect time to talk about one of the more shameful aspects of the sport of tennis: unsportsmanlike conduct in the form of racket abuse. Earlier this year at the tournament in Indian Wells, American Ryan Harrison, ranked 41 in the world on the men’s tour, destroyed a total of five tennis rackets after losing to a competitor.
In the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas has a profile of 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, ranked 20th in the world, and a reluctant rising star who has beat the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios has been known to sour when matches don’t go well, and joins a long list of players who take out their frustrations on their rackets.
Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.
Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.
The cathartic act comes with consequences: Players are often fined several thousand dollars for racket abuse. At last year’s Wimbledon tournament, Serena Williams was fined $10,000 for repeatedly smashing her racket out of frustration.
Carey on 19-year-old Nadal, freshly off his first French Open win.
“I hope all this won’t change me,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “I would like to stay the same as I’ve always been. I hope that I will pull it off, and I believe I will be able to pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year-old youngster and play my tennis.”
Nadal, at 23 and the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world.
Yandell chuckled. “Federer is hitting with an amazing amount of spin, too, right? Twenty-seven hundred revolutions per minute. Well, we measured one forehand Nadal hit at 4,900. His average was 3,200. Think about that for a second. It’s a little frightening to contemplate. It takes a ball about a second to travel between the players’ rackets, O.K.?” He grabbed a calculator and punched in numbers. “So a Nadal forehand would have turned over 80 times in the second it took to get to Federer’s racket. I don’t know about you, but that’s almost impossible for me to visualize.”
Roger Federer has been Nadal’s greatest rival. They are practically equals on the court (though one clearly dominates on grass; the other on clay). But Wertheim tells us that Federer earns three times as much in endorsements, and Nadal’s playing style is frequently compared to Federer’s:
Roger Federer is such a graceful tennis stylist that Nadal has been cast in the role of the grinder, Hephaestus to Federer’s Apollo. The contrast is entirely too facile. There’s artistry in Nadal’s capacity to go from defense to offense in a single stroke, and in his ability to generate ungodly spin on shots whose angles defy the laws of geometry. “The nuances aren’t past him,” says Andy Roddick. John McEnroe calls Nadal the most skilled net player this side of Federer.
It’s difficult to compare the women’s game with the men’s game, but we like to do it anyway. While Rafa continues to dominate on clay on the men’s tour, Tignor reminds us that Chris Evert also dominated on dirt.
At 30, Nadal is still going strong. He could be on tour for another five years and end up winning a dozen French Opens. Even so, it won’t be easy for him to leave Evert behind. The American won seven French Open titles, the women’s record. But that still isn’t indicative of what she did on the surface.
To be in the backseat of a car, the cyanotype night on some minor highway, and pass at a distance of one or two hundred yards a rectangle of total green under pooled white lights is to see North American heaven. A community baseball field, a high school football field. A tennis court, occasionally. Say you’re a tennis-playing child from an oil town in Siberia where there are no courts, and no oranges, and in photographs of home it’s always snowing or sleeting or for another reason it’s gray. Around the age of 6, having first picked up a secondhand racket on the clay courts in Sochi, off the Black Sea, you arrive in Bradenton, Florida, home of Tropicana Products and IMG’s Bollettieri tennis academy. Will you ever get over it, the way the green lies shining against the dark? Maria did not. Maria Sharapova was, for a brief lambent time between 2004 and 2006, when she was 17 and 18 and 19, the best female tennis player on grass.
She was trained by Nick Bollettieri at the IMG Academy on mostly hard courts, to hone her technique absent variables. She moved on clay, she said later, jokingly, like “a cow on ice.” But on grass she was a dancer, a ballerina. One other body moves like hers, and it is that of the actual ballerina Sara Mearns, who shares with Maria a fissive mix of rigor and bounce. Some of Maria’s best serves in the middle 2000s are unbelievable when seen in slow motion. The extension of the right, working leg, reaching à la hauteur. The high toss followed by a hyperbolic swing of the racket, almost dismissive of the ball. Richard Williams, a former chief sportswriter for The Guardian who happens to share his name with the father and former coach of Venus and Serena, wrote that a poem about Maria “might start with a description of the moment when she tosses the ball up to serve and, as it reaches its apogee, a line through her left arm and right leg forms a perfect perpendicular.” Which is to say, the girl knew her angles.
Green clay and grass showed Maria to advantage in early photographs. The verdancy made wonder of her coloring, brought out the complementary flush of her cheeks, the gray-green in her cat’s eyes, the analogous streaks of gold in her long straight hair. She looked like a sixth Lisbon girl in Grosse Pointe, as if she’d been away at summer camp while the other five virgins were suiciding. She wore tank tops and little A-line skirts in white or pink or powder blue, obviously from Nike, and a simple gold-plated cross in the Orthodox style. No makeup. Quick-bitten nails. Goody-brand snap clips in her basic ponytail. Before each serve, she paused to brush back the newly escaped baby hairs with her ball hand, and the down on her forearm snagged the light. In 2003 she won no matches on the hard courts at the Australian Open nor on the clay at the French Open, but when she got to Wimbledon, to the grass, she beat the 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic and reached the fourth round, where she was beaten by fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The tour made her Newcomer of the Year. A talk-show host began to compare her to Anna Kournikova, and she was ready, saying, “That’s so old.” Read more…
Last week, I had the privilege of watching Roger Federer beat his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer went on to win the tournament.
Tennis has long been a young person’s game, with the majority of the top players from both the men’s and women’s pro tour being in their 20s. At 35, an age when many tennis players have retired or considered retirement (Pete Sampras, for example, announced his retirement at 32), Roger Federer is finding success again with his latest wins in Indian Wells and at the Australian Open (his first grand slam win in five years). His resurgence has garnered him a GQ cover and a profile by Rosecrans Baldwin in the magazine’s latest issue. Baldwin asked Federer about what it felt like to win his latest grand slam title:
So how did it compare with the others? The 2009 French Open stands out, Federer said, when he clinched the Career Grand Slam and also tied Sampras’s record of 14 Slam titles. Then he beat Andy Roddick at Wimbledon a few weeks later—during the same summer that Mirka gave birth to their first children, their twin girls—and the record was his. A magical summer. But still, he said, “this one feels very different.” Less about legend, more about legacy. After a silence, Federer mused, “You have a better perspective when you’re older. You’re more at peace.” A second later, “Sometimes you want it more because you know time isn’t on your side.”
It’s a lovely profile of an athlete reaching the twilight of his career. Unfortunately, GQ undermined the story with a single tweet: Read more…
Michael Joyce climbs into his father’s station wagon on a Sunday afternoon, the light of southern California glowing soft and gold. Joyce is tiny and cherubic, his face freckled and full, his hair a shock of strawberry blonde. He is 12 years old and has already spent six of those years playing competitive tennis, and he’s become very good at it.
In another six years, Joyce will become the junior national champion. After that victory, he will hoist a heavy trophy overhead and cameras will pop and flash and reporters will shout questions in his direction, and his ascension, as a professional tennis player, will begin. In an especially vibrant era for American tennis, Joyce’s cohort will include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier. He will play each of them, with varying levels of success, and at his peak he will be ranked as the 64th best male singles player in the world.
During his playing days, David Foster Wallace will write about him in his seminal tennis essay, “The String Theory,” later republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and through that work, Joyce’s career will persist, a blip of his existence anthologized in pop culture. In the years that follow, at every tournament Joyce attends, someone will ask him about that story, about Wallace, and about that period in his life.
A wrist injury will end his career early but not his successes. He will coach Maria Sharapova for six years and two Grand Slam titles and become a known commodity as a coach and mostly forgotten as a player, a fact that will annoy him greatly, but also be inarguable.
On this day, though, none of that yet matters. Defeat had been meted out by another prodigious talent, another boy born with a natural inclination towards the sport. Joyce, at 12 years old, was not yet thinking about his professional future, he was not yet aware that his youth and working adulthood would blend together without interruption; he just knew that when he won, everyone around him seemed happier and he liked that. He liked the way his view of the world, from the back seat of the station wagon, seemed to grow larger and brighter on those days, the family joyful and contented, his father sometimes pulling off the road for a post-match ice cream.
This would not be one of those days, though. Joyce had lost. His opponent, a lefty, put heavy topspin on the ball. It was a style that Joyce had yet to encounter, and when his opponent walloped it back, deep into the corners, a distance, both literal and metaphoric, grew between the boys.
The resulting defeat was felt so strongly and shared between Joyce and his father, also named Michael, that they diverted from their regular route home, drove out to the edge of town, and pulled to a stop at a factory that manufactured ball machines. Joyce didn’t know this factory existed, he didn’t know how his father knew it existed, but soon enough a new ball machine was rattling in the trunk, and they were on their way home.
Years earlier, in the family backyard, Joyce’s father had torn down the tree house, filled in the swimming pool, and put up a tennis court. Joyce received instruction from famed tennis technician and legendary hard ass Robert Lansdorp and his father, who taught tennis in the army, would replicate the lessons at home.
Now, in the backyard, the machine stood in his father’s place, rapid firing balls that sliced and hooked and spun through the air, mirroring the shots that Joyce had missed earlier in the day. Joyce’s task was to remain there, outside, until he understood how to play every shot. For three hours, Joyce batted at the air, fought through fatigue, and ignored his body that was wilting with exhaustion.
Later, when his mother and sister returned home from a day of running errands, his mother stormed into the backyard. “What are you doing?” she shouted at his father. “The poor kid is exhausted.” It was then that Joyce took his first break, his hands now raw and red and blistered over, his frustration giving way to tears.
This is an unseemly side of athletics: the labor that is overlooked in the delirium of mass mediation, the absurdity that we ignore because it is ugly and alarming and unhealthy, but also necessary. It is very hard to go pro in any sport, and few sports are as isolating as tennis. On the court, there is nowhere to hide, no teammates to mask individual deficiencies. As a result, the life of an athlete, even a young one, has to be dwindled down to a singular focus, and then refined over and over again. Joyce did not yet fully understand why this level of sacrifice was required—but it wouldn’t be much longer until he did.
“When I was younger I almost felt like the happiness in the family depended on how I was doing in tennis and it probably did a little bit and that was the sad reality of it,” Joyce says. “If I won we went out for lunch and everyone’s happy. If I lose, my dad’s kinda pissed and my mom’s pissed at my dad. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid. It’s not a normal childhood.”
That day, in the backyard, with his mother’s help, Joyce learned that he had to stand up for himself. He had to be able to say no, his mother told him. He couldn’t please everyone, not all the time, and his self-worth couldn’t be dictated by wins and losses. This was a hard lesson to learn, of course, and Joyce describes that day, and his father’s course of action, as “a bit nutty,” but it worked. A few months later, Joyce played that same boy and won in straight sets.
Through the cursory nature of their careers, athletes learn of life’s brevity earlier than most and at another angle and a different depth. Joyce is now a father and husband, and the things that used to matter to him, matter less now. The priorities of his life have shifted, but tennis remains near the top and so does what he loves most about the sport: the game’s simple binaries, that there is one winner and one loser. On a tennis court, you are exposed and vulnerable, and you have to face whatever comes your way and face it alone. Joyce has come to enjoy that. He has viewed his life through the lens of tennis, his ambitions and desires distilled through its filter. His experiences have shaped who he is, sometimes in small, indiscernible ways, and other times in larger, sweeping turns. He grew up in the sport, and in public, and now, at 43 years old, Michael Joyce begins his second act. Read more…
Our latest Exclusive is a new story by Stephen Tignor, co-funded by Longreads Members and published in Racquet magazine’s premiere issue. Racquet is “a new quarterly tennis magazine that celebrates the art, ideas, style and culture that surround tennis” and we are excited to be able to feature them.
The fifth edition of the ESPY Awards, held in 1997 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was a celebration of the African-American athlete. Michael Johnson won Best Male Athlete, Tiger Woods and Desmond Howard received honors, black celebrities were on hand to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, and Ray Charles performed.
But the loudest ovation was reserved for Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight champion was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, which for more than two decades has been given to a recipient who “reflect[s] the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
It was the evening’s melancholy high point. The spirits of Ashe and Ali were alive in the room. Yet the voices of these two heroes of the 1960s and ’70s could no longer be heard. The tennis player had died four years earlier, at age 49, of complications from AIDS. The boxer was only 55, but Parkinson’s disease had muted this most verbal of athletes. The man who introduced Ali at the ESPYs, Sidney Poitier, spoke for many of his generation when he said, “The first thing I remember is his voice.” But on this night, Ali could muster just two words for the audience: “Thank you.”
It would be hard to imagine two people, let alone two sportsmen of the same era, whose personalities diverged as much as theirs did. Ashe was cautious and cerebral, Ali brash and outrageous. Ashe excelled in a genteel sport, Ali in a brutal one. Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War; Ashe was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ali joined the separatist Nation of Islam and befriended Malcolm X; Ashe dedicated his life to the cause of Martin Luther King and integration. If we think of Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even their surnames—Clay and Ashe—represent opposing states of matter.
Yet it was fitting that they should be honored together on a night of African-American celebration. During the same tumultuous period, they had proved what a powerful impact engaged athletes can have on the world. Ashe had once said of Ali, “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe was one of those who had followed Ali’s lead. Read more…
What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.
Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.
—Poet Claudia Rankine, writing in Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine’s book—a form-shifting treatise on race, primarily composed of prose poems—includes a lengthy essay on Serena Williams’s place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. Citizen has been hugely lauded since its October 2014 publication, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2015 Pen Open Book Award, among others. Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday and is currently the top-ranked female tennis player in the world.