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.