I became an avid tennis fan a few years ago after having had no interest in the game. Tennis, similar to golf for me was for others, not for my inner city upbringing. I didn't see a tennis racquet or court until I transferred high schools during my sophomore year to a predominantly white school, in the tony neighborhood of River Oaks. The other side of town that I was bussed to during the early morning hours under the cover of darkness.
I wasn't exposed to elite sports, and truthfully wasn't athletic beyond junior high track and field, and my first year of high school in the marching band. I didn't think I'd become a near-raving lunatic for women's tennis as an adult as I sat on the manicured lawn of Lamar Senior High School eating lunch, several blocks from the River Oaks Country Club. Men's tennis is a snooze for me. The women bare their emotions, are prone to drama, medical timeouts, and downright soap opera villainness cheating and scheming.
The white students in my adopted high school were the ones with tennis racquets, attire, and aspirations, although none went on to collegiate or professional sports. My only ties to the game was during Black History Month in February in the faces and lives of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, both of whom seem mythical, out of reach, and enshrouded in special access.
I don't remember my first Venus, Serena, or James Blake match, and it doesn't matter now. I admire tennis players because they are pitted against each other like a heavyweight boxer. Singles players have to rely on their own wit, not fellow team members. When I watch one of the African American players, I feel the pressure they might feel in this still lily-white sport. What must it feel like as a minority in those stadiums as all eyes are trained on your every move, perhaps waiting for an error to cheer?
I'm probably too emotional when I watch. Ask my upstairs neighbor who pounded her foot on the floor during the epic Wimbledon Ladies' Final between Venus and Lindsay Davenport, with Venus outlasting Lindsay in the third set tiebreaker 9-7. I felt she was playing to win, but also had the weight of Black America on her shoulders. Perhaps not.
Tennis is closest to writing for me because both pit the athlete and writer against himself and the opponent across the net or receiving editor and eventual audience. I'm not as fanatical as "La Agrado" in All About My Mother or Robert DeNiro in The Fan, but I've had my moments of outrage and disappointment when James, Donald Young, Venus, Serena, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, or Gaël Monfils gave away an easy win to a lesser opponent. Those types of matches were like watching a traffic accident. You know you should look away or keep on driving, but you stare, hopeful, that the victim will rebound and everything will return to normal.
One of my fondest memories was a live blogging event moderated by Sheila of Black Tennis Pros. I'd like to think I've settled into my tennis skin and knowledge as an armchair coach, and will no longer respond like a raving loon when the regular season starts, but that will depend on whose playing on any given day. Join me for the Australian Open beginning on January 18th.