Tennis is a lonely sport and an excruciating one at that. The time gap between the last tournament of the year and the first of the next season is at best eight weeks – that is if you don’t go into the finals of the team events or play any exhibition events – which most of the players do end up playing. It is quite arguably the loneliest sport you could imagine and it starts off at an early age. Unless you have the means, you travel alone and play alone from the formative years in the sport. It is mind against the body, mind against self, player against player. Everything is brutal and it gets tougher as the level rises. The level of expectations, the costs, the hounding press spiral into one’s mind. Thus it becomes natural for players to show their nerves on court – in wide variety of ways – even to the point of cracking. “In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement,” wrote Andre Agassi in his autobiography Open.
At Wimbledon which concluded on Sunday, the highlight of the two weeks probably wouldn’t be Roger Federer lifting a record eighth Wimbledon title or Garbine Muguruza winning her first at the All England Club. The lasting images and storylines are more underlying than that of the glorious trophy lifting for Federer with his family and 15,000 at Centre Court watching. Or of Muguruza asking “Donde esta Conchi? (Where is Conchi?) and then seeing Conchita Martinez – her coach and the only other Spanish woman to win Wimbledon in 1994 – in the hallway and hugging her proudly. The sheer joy on both Federer and Muguruza’s faces was there for everyone to see. But there was more to Wimbledon which probably stood out.
Marin Cilic breaking down into tears in the middle of the second set would go down as the most memorable image from the final day at the Championships. With the pain from his blister getting worse, the impact it had on him physically and mentally started to show in his play. And it all came out in the third game. Later he said that the tears were less out of pain and more out of not being able to perform at his best. And you can’t really question his emotional status considering he had been at SW19 eleven times and never reached the final. And here he was, playing the final at one of the best venues in the sport and he couldn’t even make a dent on the greatest on the surface. “It didn’t hurt so much that it was putting me in tears. It was just that feeling that I wasn’t able to give the best,” he said in the post-match press conference.
This wasn’t the first time a final at Wimbledon had seen tears from the runner up. Over the years, there have been multiple examples of it but none more prominent or heart breaking than Jana Novotna sobbing uncontrollably in 1993. Playing against Steffi Graf, Novotna led 4-1 and 40-30 in the final set with just five points separating her from the trophy. She had been edged in the first set in the tiebreak but stormed right back to lift the second 6-1. She had continued her momentum into the third and looked destined to beat Graf. Move 15 minutes forward and it had all come crashing down for the Czech woman. Later she wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent while earning herself the unwanted moniker of “choker”.
Back to 2017, there were more moments that further solidified the belief that things inside the tennis courts are just temporarily and life exists outside of it. Steve Johnson broke down during a change of ends in the third set and finished the match in tears, This was the first Wimbledon he was playing since the sudden death of his father. His father, Steve Johnson Snr, was a well-regarded tennis coach and played a crucial role in Steve’s tennis career – being ever present at all of his son’s matches before his unexpected passing. He had died just three weeks before the French Open and still Steve came on to play at Roland Garros.
Then there is Bernard Tomic’s comments following his first round loss to Mischa Zverev. He admitted to feeling bored during the match and lacking that drive to go for it all. “I think I don’t respect the sport enough. You know, I’m going to play another 10 years, and I know after my career I won’t have to work again,” he said after the defeat. Following the comments, he was fined $15,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct and lost out on his racket sponsor. Legends of the sport condemned his comments while missing out on the larger issue at hand – that Tomic needs help – a sentiment shared by Australian tennis coach and commentator Roger Rasheed. He has nearly $5 million in prize money and been a professional player for nine years or since the age of 15!
Possibly the most gut wrenching moment from the last fortnight would be the injury to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. After popping her knee during the third set of her second round match, she screamed aloud “Help me! Please help me!” and such was the graphic nature of the injury that Sorana Cirstea – her opponent – initially moved forward but then had to take a step back with the position that the American’s knee was in. Her plea for help and immediate attention grew louder as she yelled “Sorana! Help me! Sorana please help me!”. As she was taken off the court twenty minutes later on a stretcher to a private hospital, she exclaimed “If anyone straightens my leg I’m going to kill you” to her husband Justin. It turns out that she dislocated her patella and ruptured her patella tendon which will force her to go under surgery and keep her out of competition – she announced in an emotional Facebook live video.
However, it wasn’t all tears and sadness at Wimbledon. Even though they couldn’t make it beyond the fourth and second round respectively, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova left reasonably content with their showings. Azarenka was returning to only her second tournament since giving birth. She had little Leo by her side during Wimbledon and acknowledged his presence. Following her third round win she wrote on Instagram, “Long day today but I got to put my son to bed which is the best part of it!”. She was equally happy to see things that matter following her exit on Manic Monday to Simona Halep. “It’s fun. I mean, it’s much more fun than being by yourself. With my family, you know, it’s whole other soul, soul feeling than you just come here and I don’t go to empty house after my loss and just cry there. I go home and spend time with my son. Regardless if I won or lose, he’s still gonna smile when he sees me,” she said in the press conference following her 6-7, 2-6 defeat.
Kvitova continued her journey following a knife attack last year at her apartment in Czech Republic. The incident hurt her left playing hand forcing her to get surgery. She returned at French Open and continued the joyous and remarkable journey to Wimbledon. She admitted that she still couldn’t feel two of her fingers but acknowledged that just being able to play again was a miracle and a fairytale.
“Tennis is my job, but it’s not my life,” said Serena Williams once. And she nailed it bang on.