It’s a bright, sunny day with the temperature at a pleasant 24°C and a gentle breeze. You stand on the neatly trimmed grass court of the Steffi-Graf-Stadion at the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club in Berlin. The last time you were here you were 11 and the courts were all clay.
Your opponent today, Italian Jannik Sinner, wasn’t even born then. He’s 18 years old and one of the brightest stars of the new tennis generation. With the face of a cherub and short locks of curly hair peeking out from under his cap, he looks like he’d just escaped from Versailles. He reminds you a little of Andy Murray in his early days, which is yet another reminder of how young he is—he wouldn’t know what a young Andy Murray looked like.
You’re 42 years old and although you retired just 2 years ago, you’ve spent the majority of your twilight years running away from the sunset. It had caught up with you, eventually, as it does to all of us.
You don’t play professionally anymore, but you do compete in various exhibitions where, most of the time, you are one of the youngest players. Today, however, with an opponent more than half your age, you’ll be playing through the dusk.
You start off sharply, holding your serve in the first game and then making him work for his. The muscle memory kicks in and you almost feel as if transported back to your playing days.
A few more points and it’s all coming back now. Your serve has lost some of its pop over the years but you’re still able to rain down 110mph bombs. You’re solid off both wings, no fireworks but it’s more than enough to get you by.
Occasionally, when you get the chance and find yourself with enough time on the ball, you crack a monster of a backhand as if to show that there’s still life in the old dog.
The kid packs a punch, though. He serves hard and with precision. He plays a very mature game for his age using his side of the court to move well and yours to push you around. When he’s in position, the ball seems to disappear off his racquet and, before you even have the time to move, teleport across the net without actually travelling the distance across.
His backhand routinely tops 85mph. He’s hurting you off his forehand, too. And he doesn’t seem to tire which is to be expected given his age. You’re going to have to run.
Still, you put up a fight. Youth versus experience. He may be good but he’s still a kid. You’re able to draw a few errors out of him. At 15:30 in the third game, you miss an easy forehand. You’re annoyed. You give yourself a stern talking to.
This is not just an exhibition match to you. You’re here to prove something, more so to yourself than to others, and these kinds of errors cannot be happening. At 2:2 and serving, you play a couple of loose points and suddenly you are 0:30 down. You dig in on the next point, determined not to give up without a fight.
You engage in trench warfare. After a lung-busting rally, the boy pushes you wide to your backhand, and as you’re trying to salvage the point with a slice, he stealthily approaches the net. The ball bounces short making it a difficult half volley for him, and he slips on top of that, too, unable to recover, setting you up for a ruthless forehand finish.
It feels good. The point gives you confidence. But then you miss the first serve again and grimace in disgust as if the music you’re trying to play just hit a false note. Your second serve is not good enough to control the point and, for the nth time today, he blasts you off the court.
You’re now 15:40 down and on the brink of falling behind. You crack a good serve into the corner and attack the net, hoping for an easy volley, but his return is just too good and your footwork is not what it used to be, either.
The ball bounces off your racquet and flops meekly into the bottom of the net. You pick it up and let the anger out by whacking it out of the stadium.
You play a good game for the rest of the set. In fact, it’s some of the best tennis you’ve played in years but it’s just not enough. You push yourself to the limit and your body creaks and whinges in response.
Meanwhile, the kid doesn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. He finishes the set with an ace to your backhand corner and nonchalantly walks off towards his seat with barely a glance.
At changeover, you sit down and close your eyes. You think back to your playing days when you’d take matches like these by storm, gobbling up the inexperienced pretender without much of a thought. It wasn’t that long ago.
But it’s not just the age that caught up with you. Throughout your career, you had undergone nine surgeries, each one taking a toll on your body and each requiring lengthy recuperation.
You’ve come back every time until the next injury struck, the last one in your right foot four years ago. That’s when you realised it may mark the end of the road for you. Both shoulders, rotator cuffs, elbows, hips, ankles and now feet.
Then, there was also that horrific accident in 2002. You were number 2 in the world at the time, flying high and aiming even higher when you got the phone call. Some scars are not visible to the outsider but you carry them with you regardless.
When you picked up the phone, the voice on the other end told you that both your parents were in a motorcycle crash leaving your mum in intensive care for four days and your dad in a coma. That’s when the goalposts shifted and tennis became just a game.
There are days when you let your imagination wander, and you allow yourself a little “what if”. But you’re not complaining. You never have. You don’t let yourself dwell on what could have been—you simply observe the thought as it floats for a few seconds and then bursts like a soap bubble instead.
You’re not bitter, either. As horrible as the accident was, it put things in perspective. It allowed you to appreciate other things in life even more—some of them, like the smiles on your daughters’ faces, the way they reach out to you when they want you to pick them up, were yet to come.
Grass had never been your favourite surface. Out of the 15 titles you had won during your career, only 2 came on the green. Both in Halle, not far from here, three years apart.
You try to relax and your mind decides it’s a good time for a highlight reel. It’s not half bad.
15 trophies over a career spanning 22 years, quarter-finals or better at all Slams, a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. That last one got away from you. You pushed Kafelnikov to 5 sets over a gruelling 3.5-hour final but in the end, it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite the loss, it’s probably the one that you cherish the most and the proudest moment of your career.
You maintained a winning record against some of the best players in the game’s history and, on occasion, bruised the inhabitants of the Olympus, too. Three wins against Pete, three against Novak, four against Roger. The only one you could never touch is Rafa, not in five attempts. None of them even on clay, a surface he’s near-untouchable on by definition. The guy’s just too good.
The umpire calls time and you come back to reality. Enough reminiscing. You grab your racquet, towel yourself off and return to the court. You’re not dead yet. Your entire career is a story of perseverance, stubbornness and comebacks.
You’ve never given up before and you’re not planning on starting now. You silence the whining in your muscles and push the pain out of your consciousness. Mind over matter.
You’re serving to start, and from the get-go, you’re determined to go down swinging. You’re laying down fire with your groundstrokes, pushing the boy deep and making him cover the whole width of the court.
But he’s not giving up either. He’s young, so young, and he will run all day long if he must. A combination of brave returning from the kid and a lapse of concentration on your own part, resulting in an uncharacteristic double fault, sees you go down 15:40.
You play a more careful game now, employing your signature slice a bit more to control the point, and manage to save both breakpoints. Then, after a crazy forehand return from your opponent, you save one more. You hold.
The boy holds his serve to love and you’re locked at 1:1. A couple of points later, you rush the net and he lobs you. You chase the ball down managing a tweener which he volleys to your backhand. You lob him back and now he is scrambling to get to the ball. He plays a tweener of his own and you easily put it away with a forehand volley. The crowd goes wild. They’re German, true, so rooting for you, but this was a great exchange and they appreciate it all the more.
At 2:2 the boy cranks his game up a notch and breaks your serve. You don’t let it get you down and break right back with a brilliant backhand passing shot. You serve out the game to love and then break him once again to go 5:3 up.
Suddenly, the momentum has shifted. The crowd senses it and so does your opponent. He seems taken aback, deflated, almost lost. Light on your feet and determined to keep up the pressure, you whip him into submission. You hold to love yet again and take the set 6:3.
With a Champions tiebreak, to 10 points, it’s anyone’s match now. The boy clearly had a word with himself, though, because he starts off as if the last 4 games didn’t happen.
You noticed early on the maturity of his game. Now you see that it extends to the mental side, too. He’s found his rhythm again and it’s not long before you fall behind 0:3 and then 2:5.
You fight hard for the rest of the tiebreak but those early points hurt you, and battle as you may, you’re always a couple of steps behind. In the end, you succumb 8:10, more to his youth than to his tennis.
You’re drenched in sweat, but so is he. Your limbs ache, old niggles awoken, and yet you’re happy. It feels good to be back.
You left your heart out on the court today, as you always have in the past, and that’s all you can ask of yourself. Winning and losing is of a secondary matter.
After a certain age, every time you come out on the court, it is to compete against the passage of time as much as the opponent. And you’ve done well today, Tommy…
Can I call you Tommy?
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