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Published on September 28, 2021

The View from my Seat

Young tennis stars, their stories, tempting me to pick up a racket

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

One of my goals in retirement was to play in tennis tournaments for us old guys.

I had kept myself in shape and practiced hard. I figured by the time we reached our ‘60s all the teaching tennis pros who had embarrassed this newspaper editor on the court through the years would now be out of shape.

What I lacked in skill I would make up for in conditioning. I would beat them by outlasting them.
But it wasn’t to be. Just months before my 66th birthday, I was stricken by a spinal cord disorder that put me in a wheelchair.

So much for retirement plans.

I tried wheelchair tennis but, to me, it just didn’t seem the same.

No longer playing, I withdrew from tennis almost entirely. I lost contact with tennis buddies. I no longer was glued to the Tennis Channel. Other than household names like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Serena Williams, I couldn’t name the top players.

So, I had little interest as the U.S. Tennis Open approached.

With Federer, Nadal and Williams sidelined by injuries all at once for the first time in 25 years, this year’s Open seemingly lacked the star power the tennis world - and I – needed.

Not even Novak Djokovic’s quest at the Open for tennis immortality by winning the Grand Slam victories in all four major tournaments in the year sparked my interest.

Then, out of nowhere, a series of dramatic and unlikely events not only rekindled my interest but may have produced fresh faces needed to renew interest in a sport that had suffered through the pandemic.

Two unheralded teenage girls, Emma Raducanu of Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada, created one of the most exciting and unlikely Open tournaments in history. On the court, they exhibited skill, athleticism and joy. Off the court, they displayed poise, grace and respect.

Raducanu, an 18-year-old ranked 150th in the world, became the first player to win a Grand Slam title after surviving the qualifying tournament. In only her second major tournament, she won 10 matches without losing a set.

She defeated Fernandez, a 19-year-old ranked 73, in a finals match filled with drama, power and precision.

Nobody could have predicted these two telegenic teens would be Open finalists.

Raducanu, a good student, was so certain that tennis was not in her future that earlier this year she took entrance exams for college and a career in finance.

Her victory made her the toast of Britain. Queen Elizabeth praised Raducanu for “a remarkable achievement at such a young age.”

Raducanu, whose parents have roots in Romania and China, spent part of the night after her victory recording a video message in fluent Mandarin for the Chinese audience. I suspect that is not the type of thing most touring pros do after winning a tournament.

Fernandez, until the Open, was known as an undersized battler. A teacher once told her to give up the game because she would never amount to anything.

Although she lost, Fernandez will be remembered for the speech she gave to the New York crowd after her loss.

Holding back tears, the poised Canadian, whose mom is Filipino and her dad Ecuadorean, acknowledged that the match was played on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years,” she said. How many 19-year-olds would think of 9/11 after losing in the Open finals?

As for Djokovic, his chase for the Grand Slam ended with a loss in the finals to Russian Daniil Medvedev.

But even Djokovic, often viewed by New York crowds as a villain, rose to the occasion after his defeat.

Sensing a moment in tennis history, the crowd had supported Djokovic in this match. He noticed.
“You guys touched my soul,” he said. “I’ve never felt like this in New York.”

Two wheelchair players did accomplish what Djokovic couldn’t.

First came Diede de Groot of the Netherlands, who won the wheelchair competition to complete a sweep of the year’s four Grand Slam tournaments to go with her Paralympic gold medal.

Then, Australian Dylan Alcott completed the same feat in the men’s quad event. The quad event differs from the wheelchair division in that quad players also have loss of function in at least one upper limb.

All in all, the events of the Open have me thinking about tennis again. Who knows? I might even pick up a racket and find some wheelchair players.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)