The Joy of Sports

In the days before racing took over my life, I couldn’t wait for the end of August. Yeah, sure, it meant that summer was almost over, and school was going to start soon…but it also meant the U.S. Open.

My friend Susan’s family had had an Open subscription for decades, and beginning in 1999, I joined her in tennis junkiedom. We spent every spare moment at Flushing Meadows, and most Labor Day weekends, we were at the U.S. Tennis Center for four straight days from 11 am until the wee hours of the morning, staying until the last match had finished. One of my favorite memories is of rooting on a rain-delayed Cedric Pioline until nearly 2 a.m. on the grandstand court.

Though nothing will convince me that the immensity of Arthur Ashe Stadium was ever a good idea, I’ve never experienced anything quite like 22,000 people watching a tight, intense tennis match. The quickness of the points, the sudden momentum shifts, the collective intake of breath on a point well played, the appreciation of athletic artistry…it is, in a word, awesome.

Sitting at Belmont Park Saturday with barely 8,000 other people, I was reminded of that electric atmosphere as I watched the Federer-Djokovic five-setter unfold in dramatic fashion. And for the first time in many years, I wished that I were at the tennis center instead of being at the racetrack.

The match offered all a tennis fan could hope for: two elite players, an apparently resounding victory that all of a sudden wasn’t, an epic comeback, daring shot-making, a tie-break. And as the match neared its end, with multiple breaks of serve, the Arthur Ashe crowd rooted, as it so often does, for tennis itself, instead of for individual players.

I wished that I’d been a part of it, and I was envious of those who had. But even those of us who watched from afar could appreciate the magnitude of what we’d seen.

Except for those who didn’t.

Within minutes, the negativity erupted.

Federer choked. He’s done. Ugly match.

And I couldn’t really believe it. It reminded me of the tweets and the columns and the opinions that come flooding after big races. Yeah, but this is a lousy crop of 3-year-olds. Yeah, but she didn’t really beat anyone, did she?  Yeah, but look at those fractions. I could have run faster.

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I can remember, and some of the most transcendent moments of joy in my life have come from sports. Watching the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994. Watching Pete Sampras beat André Agassi in the U.S. Open men’s final in 2002.  Watching Afleet Alex win the 2005 Preakness. Watching Rags to Riches win the 2007 Belmont.

There have been crushing disappointments that can seem unbearable. Too many from the Rangers to enumerate. Watching Patrick Rafter lose in the fourth round in the 2001 U.S. Open. Ruffian.

But what feels like heartbreak really isn’t. Even the most devastating of losses gets soothed over time, while the glow of the elation lasts a long, long time.

I don’t get the people who want to tarnish the pleasure of athletic accomplishment, who in its immediate aftermath seek to diminish rather than enjoy, to distance rather than bask. In a world that offers far too much in the way of disappointment and distress, of sorrow and of grief, I’ll take those moments, as imperfect as they may be, and celebrate them.

9 thoughts on “The Joy of Sports

  1. There certainly have been crushing moments in all sports over the years, but the US Open is one event that certainly has had its highs and lows over the years. Among the most notable you left out was Jimmy Connors playing until 1:45 in the morning in 1991 when he was making a final stand and what is still considered the greatest day-night marathon of tennis of all time in 1984 when because of lengthy matches all over the place, the US Open blew through all of prime time and didn’t finish until after 11:00 PM (when Armstrong was the primary court that I believe seated 16,000 or so prior to Ashe being built). College football already has had that with some wild games as well (TCU storming back from 47-23 down to take a 48-47 lead before losing 50-48 to Baylor on the opening Friday for example).

  2. Beautiful article – Bobby and I completely agree. I am inclined to wax poetic that this mean tendency to take ugly shots to detract from winners(in all sorts of realms) rather than celebrate all they’ve achieved is running rampant – and I applaud you for calling this out as wrong and serving no good purpose. Can’t we all use a few more heroes to inspire us?

  3. Great piece, eloquently written and perfectly stated. Very Frank Deford-esque, can substitute for his weekly NPR segment. To your point Janikowski hit a 63 yard FG last night, ties the record with two other people, but it gets an asterisk because it was at the elevation of Denver (Elam, another Denver player also has the record and with an asterisk). I don’t undertand the reason for this trend where everything has to be scrutinized at a microscopic level, maybe it’s the sports talk shows or people have to prove they are correct and just can’t enjoy the aesthetics of an event. I am one of those people that still thinks you “win” the silver medal. But I completely agree, the joyful winning moments are better remembered and with more sentiment than the loses which all end up going into the same compartment. Well stated.

  4. Hi Teresa,

    I do not know what bothers me more, someone calling a race horse a “slow rat” or hearing something nasty about a jockey. During the past many years, I’ve heard a little too much of both. The tone is often crude. I prefer to congratulate the winners saying out loud, “Well done” and move on. I remember Martina Navratilova did the same thing. She would tap her racquet two or three times and say “Too good,” then move on to the next point. It is just bad manners and bad sportsmanship to be nasty at a sporting event.

    I too, go to the US Open every year and have seen these athletes play. Tennis players are like horses. Sometimes, the distance to the finish line is just a little too far. How about recognizing that, on that day and at that place, the opponent was just too good? Listen to who speaks. It is usually the boorish. My old Aunt Sally used to say, “Good manners are conspicuous to the unmannered, bad manners are conspicuous to everyone.”

    The Federer match was a beauty. The Nadal/Djokovic match was a crowning of a king. Federer ran into a polished player having a Hall of Fame year. True fans already knew that. Here, here. Thanks for bring it up. CML.

  5. Walt — thanks for adding your memory. I wasn’t a huge Connors fan, so that one doesn’t quite make my list. 🙂

    Not sure what you are Correcting, Corrector?

    Kim, KOW, and Christopher: thanks not only for the alliteration of your names, but for letting me know that there are kindred spirits out there. Now, just remind me of this in January when I am berating the Rangers, OK? 😉

  6. Unfortunately I think it’s a reflection of the negative attitudes in the world in general. There is no such thing as polite disagreement – everyone shouts, people can’t acknowledge another’s good fortune without adding a but…
    We don’t value the effort, winning is the only thing that matters.

  7. And speaking of the New York Rangers, I had gone out to get something at the fruit and vegetable store near me. While I was shopping and wearing my trusty Ranger hat, I heard someone asking for directions. I found what I needed and headed to the counter to pay. It was a Sunday night, so most of the stores were closed where I was. When I got to the counter to pay, the man who seemed to have been asking for directions, appeared pretty flustered, yelling out, “Doesn’t anyone know how to get to the Clearview Expressway?” I gave the man the directions. He started to leave but, as he was turning to leave he asked me, “Are you a Rangers fan?” I said, “Absolutely!” He then acknowledged that he had played on the Rangers championship team in 1993-94, and reminded me that he had scored a goal in the final series. He was Glenn Anderson. You never know who you’re going to meet.

  8. I had lunch with him, August, at a charity golf tournament shortly after he retired. Gregarious, friendly guy, a bit at sea without his playing career. A shame that his commentator career at MSG didn’t go further.

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