A Textbook for Tennis Nostalgia: An Ode to Tennis by Sumedh Natu
Guest writer Sumedh Natu of Buzzfeed and Shotgun Media is a video producer with a deep love for the sport of tennis, one which is inextricably intertwined with his childhood memories of his late father. The cancellation of the 2020 Wimbledon came as a devastating shock to fans across the world, who yearned to see what could possibly have been tennis-legend Roger Federer’s final appearance at the hallowed grand slam. For all those out there who share this yearning, this feeling of incompletion, here’s an ode to tennis, and to the champions of the sport.
I miss Pete Sampras serving. I miss the way everyone watching would know that it’s going to be an ace even before he tossed the ball. Everyone except Sampras that is. He was always the last one to know, checking for a split second before quietly walking from deuce to ad like routine. I miss his second serves even more mostly because they were actually first serves masquerading as seconds. Oh, the speed of the ball as it tore through the air with all the arrogance Sampras never showed in his entire career! I remember he was called boring by the press. I spent days wondering how exciting this journalist’s life must be if he called Pete motherf*cking Sampras boring. I thought there’s no way fourteen slams would EVER be broken. Okay…maybe a freakshow of a player might do it someday. Definitely not in my lifetime. Three players in the same era? Get out of here!
I miss the Steffi slice. It’s like time would stop when her racket cut through the ball and it would just sit on the grass like a well-trained dog. You could hammer the ball straight out of a shotgun at Steffi and she’d anaesthetise it with that slice. Everyone tried to tame it, everyone failed. Navratilova, Evert, Sabatini, Hingis, Arantxa Sanchez…all of them. Seles? Maybe Seles a little better than the rest. Steffi’s slice was the probably the most beautiful shot the world had ever seen till then, which was saying something because her forehand was the absolute best the women’s game has seen till now. My sister had the towel she used in Wimbledon, which I’ve spent a good part of my adulthood wanting to steal. Sometimes I’ll watch old uploads of her gliding around the court, trying hard to stop myself from shouting ‘Steffi! Will you marry me?’ because I know she’ll break the fourth wall, look at me through the screen and ask ‘How much money do you have?
Speaking of Steffi and marriage, I’ve spent days wondering what kind of exhibition tennis Agassi and Graf’s kids must have seen just growing up. Imagine being the worst tennis player in the house and being Andre Agassi at the same time. That’s some predicament. Agassi was everything I wanted to be when I was 10 and everything I knew I’d never be by the time I was 14. I wanted his eyes for just one day. I wanted to know what it was like to have the hardest, fastest, swingiest serves of all time just shoot across from the other side of the net and have balls big enough to stand INSIDE the baseline and pulverise them to bits. It was this split-second look of disbelief common to all the goats of the serve – Becker, Sampras, Ivanisevic, Karlovic and Roddick – you name them and watch as they’d whip-crack a hundred and thirty-something mile an hour serve and realise that Agassi’s shot it for a winner before they’ve landed on the ground. The guy saw things in slow motion. He definitely saw a cannonball instead of a tennis ball. I miss his Mullet. I miss him bald. I just miss him pigeon-walking on court. I miss tennis having an actual rockstar on centre court.
I’m still trying to figure out the enigma that was Marat Safin. You know that typical sports fan question – ‘On his day, who do you think would have won?’ Yeah, the answer is Marat – always Marat. On his day, Marat Safin was the best player in the world. Against anyone. Those groundstrokes were explosions. Oh lord, the backhand. Safin would coil up like a tiger waiting to strike and absolutely bludgeon the opponent with his backhand. It should have been illegal. The sound of that stroke would echo all around the stadium. He’d have the entire crowd held to pin-drop silence. I had a Safin poster in my room. He looked more like a movie star than a tennis player. I’d buy him as a Bond villain, I’d buy him as a part of Oceans Eleven, I’d buy him as the protagonist of any sappy rom-com actually. Anything to see Safin back on screen winking in the camera’s general direction.
I miss trying to pick my jaw up from the floor after seeing Venus and Serena romp in for doubles after fighting out a slam final between them. The ENTIRE player’s box was just their family. Their mother looked on like she owned the stadium – she absolutely did. Imagine being in the Wimbledon singles final just about fifteen minutes back and then warming up again with your sister (who you’ve just hammered/has hammered you) and then hammering two hopeful players who looked happy to just have the best seats in the house. The angles those two made with their groundstrokes were straight out of a geometry textbook. I miss Serena threatening to murder a linesman and then make big eyes at the umpire like there’s no way she’s done that a literal minute back. Venus looks on disapprovingly from the stands – shaking her head more like an older sister, less as a rival.
Have you ever professionally hated someone? I professionally hated Rafael Nadal in school. I miss hating Rafael Nadal in the morning and then spending the entire evening trying to ape his buggy whip forehand. I would write ‘Rafa sux’ everywhere. On my eraser, in the compass box, on the shirt of the dude sitting in front of me in school, in my rough book. It was a very wholesome schoolboy hatred of someone else’s success. Yet, I’d watch every single match of his. He was the first person I’d seen play like his life depended on it. For every single point. He didn’t have the best anything on the tour. He just played the best of them all. I remember entire summers to the background score of Nadal’s clay-court victories. All million of them and counting. Now I watch hoping his knees survive another season.
I miss reminiscing about tennis with my father. He’d go on and on about how lucky he was to have seen Rod Laver play at his peak and I’d be so jealous. For that brief conversation of an hour every Wimbledon, we’d become friends. He’d get all excited about the genius of John McEnroe and his sublime touch at the net, his tantrums and his angry monologues. My father told me he played like magic. He was right…it was magic. I’d have my unit tests in school around Wimbledon and my father would get out of character for just that fortnight and shut my books and demand I watch TV. “It comes only once a year – watch” And I would watch. I’m glad he was with me to watch Federer and Nadal play the greatest match of all time in ‘08. If there’s one way to end your love affair with the sport, it’s to see the best it has to offer as the last match before you die. He got that.
Fuck off, Covid. I’d like to see Federer on court again.
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