Ten­nis’ utopia

Pam­pered? Oprah Win­frey’s five dogs, who have are ported $30 mil­lion trust fund for them, never had it this good.


If you en­joy peo­ple-watch­ing and ten­nis in equal mea­sure, there’s no greater place to be on Earth. Utopia, set in an English Gar­den. The week­end before Wim­ble­don starts, a small patch of turf above the me­dia cen­tre – within the hal­lowed grounds of a ten­nis club squashed be­tween real es­tate seep­ing with up­per-class deca­dence – is alive. Any­one who is any­one in this sport walks on by, stops for a chat, maybe a seat in the sun for a while. If you are sit­tng here with a player’s pass on, you’ve made it. Like­wise if you are sit­ting here with a player’s guest pass. No sport does an en­tourage quite like ten­nis.

Many a ten­nis hissy fit has been thrown here af­ter ac­cess has been de­nied, such as last year, when a hanger-on be­rated a se­cu­rity guard who was merely im­ple­ment­ing that sa­cred rule – thy must wear only white when thy steps onto the court. For the com­peti­tors, it’s all laid out, the play­ers’ gar­den cen­tral to the utopian sur­rounds. The free gym is down­stairs. The prac­tice court of­fice too, to or­gan­ise a hit. Up­stairs, there's the buf­fet. Through the glass doors, your free ride to wher­ever you need to go in Lon­don. The gar­den it­self is fenced by small of­fices. The ATP Tour and WTA Tour are there. A travel agent, too. Plus, the most im­por­tant en­clave on site – the prize money-of­fice.

Pam­pered? Oprah Win­frey’s five dogs, who have a re­ported $30 mil­lion trust fund for them, never had it this good.

For an out­sider, this scene at SW19 – of which the me­dia is al­lowed a glimpse dur­ing in­ter­views the week­end before the world’s most fa­mous tour­na­ment starts – is sur­real. For the play­ers it is no more than what is ex­pected.

They ex­ist in a bub­ble. And why not, given all the TV cash fly­ing around, hy­per-in­flat­ing rev­enue at the big events like never before? Right place, right time. There is no such place as utopia, even though Char­lie Sheen thought he found it a cou­ple of years back. The down­side to it all for the play­ers is miss­ing out on what many nor­mal ci­ti­zens take for granted: be­ing able to be nor­mal. As teenagers they show prom­ise of one day be­ing part of the gar­den scene at Wim­ble­don. They are feted by agents, spon­sors, tour­na­ment di­rec­tors, and yes, friends and rel­a­tives. They be­come their in­dus­try, and the en­tourage are ac­tu­ally em­ploy­ees. Be­havioural ac­count­abil­ity? That must come from within – as a teenager.

Only the strong main­tain a clear con­nec­tion to the real world they once in­hab­ited. Some fail mis­er­ably to ad­just, like a for­mer women’s world no.1 who gave a tour­na­ment driver such a bake for miss­ing a wrong turn on the way to the courts, it made the stom­ach of her coach turn. The more worldly coach ad­vised her to calm down. Not long af­ter, the more worldly coach was look­ing for another job ...

And even before they get a sniff of the big time, there is what got them there – a child­hood. A lost child­hood. And for some, therein lies the prob­lem. Life skills be­come secondary to get­ting more kick on a sec­ond serve. With­out know­ing fam­ily his­to­ries, you get a sense of what their child­hood was like, and what their par­ents im­posed on them, as the years go by.

An­dre Agassi ad­mit­ted he hated the sport thanks to the an­tics of his fa­ther, who made fun re­dun­dant in his younger years. Martina Hingis was 22 when she first re­tired. In­juries were blamed, as was her quest to taste the life of a nor­mal 22-year-old ...

Oth­ers, like Roger Fed­erer, are so com­fort­able in the strato­sphere in which they ex­ist, they treat all com­ers – from the door at­ten­dant to the man who owns the sta­dium – equally. When Fed­erer shot to su­per­star­dom, sight­ings of his par­ents were as likely as Don­ald Trump tour­ing Mecca in 2017.

Mr Nor­mal him­self, Pat Ra„fter, cel­e­brated his first US Open vic­tory with a party of those close to him in New York. A cake came out to cel­e­brate the achieve­ment. One of his older broth­ers promptly got a piece and smashed it into the new su­per­star’s face. You know, ’cos that’s what big broth­ers do.

We’ve seen less and less of No­vak Djokovic’s par­ents, as the Ser­bian has be­come king. He’s also be­come his own man, and is the CEO of his own cor­po­ra­tion – its sole mis­sion to get the man him­self phys­i­cally and men­tally pre­pared as well as any­one in the his­tory of the sport.

It’s a good place to be, the ten­nis world, be­cause the real world is as un­for­giv­ing a place as there is. It is not real, and it takes time get­ting used to. This is not about to change ei­ther, un­less the money tap gets turned off. So bring on this year’s ver­sion of utopia, set in an English gar­den.

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