Small racquetball racquet in one hand, fuzzy green tennis ball in the other, I faced my opponent: the ever imposing garage door. Standing in the driveway separating our townhome from the garage, I bounced ball after ball back at the garage door until one of the neighbors would complain about the noise and I would have to call it quits. I eventually graduated to an actual tennis racket and, in the summer months, took tennis lessons through the local park district. At the same time, Jennifer Capriati, just 14 years old, was making waves as the next big thing in American tennis. Even though we were the same age and I was light years behind her in talent and experience, I still dreamed of following in her footsteps.
That dream came to a crashing halt when I made the semi-finals of a small tournament run by the local park district. The tournament coincided with Wimbledon and I, having my priorities very firmly in order as a young teenager, decided to skip my match so I could watch Capriati’s semi-final again Gabriela Sabatini. Capriati lost, but my future as a tennis spectator was firmly in place.
I don’t really know how I got into tennis. My dad played football and basketball and my mom was a cheerleader. I don’t really recall the first time I ever picked up a racket, although I do have memories of hitting against my dad as a teen. I don’t know when I watched my first match, but I remember the excitement I felt waking up for Breakfast at Wimbledon every July. I remember watching Jana Novotna break down in the Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. I remember watching Jimmy Connors’ incredible US Open run and the infamous yell from the crowd in his match against Andre Agassi – “you’re a legend, he’s a punk!”
Others may have their favorite concerts or movies; I have my favorite tennis matches.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in New York City watching a 17 year old Serena Williams beat world number one Martina Hingis to win her first Grand Slam title. I remember being at a bar in Nice, France in 2001 as they showed the first final between Serena and older sister Venus at the US Open on the big screen. I remember waking up to see Andy Roddick’s marathon match against Younes Al-Aynaoui at the 2003 Australian Open. And I remember waking up at the crack of dawn in Seattle to watch what became an epic Wimbledon final between Roddick and Roger Federer in 2009.
Loving both tennis and travel the way I do, I suppose it was just a matter of time before I combined the two.
I attended by first Grand Slam tournament in 2004, when my mom and I visited France at the end of May. In one day at the French Open, we watched a then unknown Maria Sharapova from the nosebleed seats and then worked our way down to the lower level to try to catch a glimpse of the legendary Martina Navratilova playing doubles. The experience was short but sweet and I was hooked.
Less than a year later, I would fly to Melbourne for the Australian Open. Knowing that one day would not be enough, I scored tickets for several sessions. I stalked former coach-turned-ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert around the grounds. I caught a glimpse of the alleged future of U.S. tennis, Donald Young, playing in the juniors. I cheered on Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in a comeback win against David Nalbandian that had the crowd going nuts. And I was on the edge of my seat throughout a semi-final showdown between Sharapova and Serena that went to 8-6 in the 3rd set, with Serena finally prevailing.
Later that year, I made it to the US Open, my “home Slam,” for the first time. I saw Kim Clijsters finally win her first Grand Slam and I almost saw Andre Agassi win his last as he bowed out in 4 sets to Roger Federer in a tightly contested final. I was torn wanting Agassi to push it to a fifth set as I would likely miss my flight if I stayed to watch. Alas, Federer made it a moot point.
I also made friends with two girls from Washington, D.C. who had great connections that allowed me to score courtside seats when I returned the following year. That provided me with one of my most vivid tennis memories: watching Andre Agassi’s final match ever. It should have been played on a Saturday, a day for which I had nosebleed seats, but which ended up being rained out. So instead, Agassi bid adieu on Sunday, when I had courtside seats, just feet from where Agassi would stand and address the crowd after his third round loss to Benjamin Becker. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
Then, finally, in 2010 I made it to the big one: Wimbledon. With tickets secured for Centre Court for the first Thursday of the fortnight, I joined the queue on Wednesday to get a grounds pass so I could catch a few matches on the outer courts. Just a few hours later, I was sitting in the front row as American John Isner took to Court 18 to conclude his match against Frenchman Nicholas Mahut. The match had been suspended at two sets apiece the previous day as they ran out of daylight. What happened next soon became one of the most famous (or infamous) matches of all time: an epic fifth set that finally ended the next day with Isner winning, 70-68. Words can’t even do justice to try to explain how cool it was to personally witness a record-breaking performance that likely never will be topped.
Two weeks from now, I will return to a Grand Slam for the first time in three years. I snapped up a ticket to the women’s final within minutes of Serena winning the French Open – if she had won Wimbledon as well, she’d be in a position to win her 18th Grand Slam title in New York, tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. She didn’t win Wimbledon, but I’m still thrilled at the prospect of seeing her go for number 17. And considering her recent matches with world number two Victoria Azarenka, the prospect of a Serena-Vika final is tantalizing. As an added bonus, I managed to grab tickets to the men’s semi-finals on StubHub. Given some of the great semi-finals in the Grand Slams this year, I should be in for a real treat.
What are you passionate about besides travel? Have you been able to combine that passion with travel?