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Mailbag: Random Encounters with Tennis Pros

Readers share stories of their most meaningful and memorable interactions with players, coaches and more.

Hey, everyone, happy (somewhat) normal resumption of pro tennis….

Housekeeping:

• Our most recent podcast guest was Dr. Renee Richards. And she was fantastic.

• Next up: previewing the 2021 Australian Open.

• Check back in a few days for the 2021 Australian Open seed reports.

• The tournament has the misfortune—at least in terms of opening audience—of beginning around the time of kickoff for the Super Bowl. But then we have two weeks on Tennis Channel and ESPN. Tennis Channel pregame starts a 6 p.m. ET each night (10 a.m. local, the following day).

Here’s the piece on Pete Axthelm—a tennis lover—a few of you asked about.


Meanwhile, instead of a conventional Mailbag Q/A session, I turn this week’s column over to you guys. We had more than 100 entries for our “Random Encounters with a Pro” contest. (Thanks to our friends at Dunlop for providing rackets to the winner.) These were wonderful. Two points really stuck out to me:

1) It must be an immense source of pressure on celebrities….Every action (or inaction) is noted and recalled. It would be the equivalent of going through life and every line you ever spoke was on-the-record. And yet what a gift. The smallest interaction, the simplest gesture of kindness (or simply acknowledgement) has such a meaningful impact on someone’s life. Some of these anecdotes are recent. Others are recalled—with real specificity—decades later.

2) What, on balance, a thoroughly diverse and thoroughly decent community we inhabit. It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to stress the dysfunction and the conflicts of interest. It’s easy to pick on bad optics (this season’s pilot episode: Tennis Crashes the Australian COVID-Free Party). But all things considered, this sport is overwhelmed by fundamentally good people. The vast majority of the interactions you recalled were impromptu encounters, free of handlers or agents or publicists…or time to choreograph and curate a “correct” response.

The entries are organize below, by player, in alphabetical order. The grand prize winner is last.

Arthur Ashe

Ed Shelton: My wife and I were at a fund-raiser at a Manhattan hotel for the United Negro College Fund. Her college roommate worked as an event planner and got us invited. It was a cocktail party and there were at least 200 of us in the hotel event room. We were the only Caucasians in the room.

We mingled with the guests and I noticed Arthur Ashe and his wife as they made their way through the crowd. They came over and we introduced ourselves. He then asked very politely, “Excuse me but I’m just curious—why are you here?” Naturally we said, “We wanted to meet you!”

He and his wife were very gracious. Very sad to have him pass away at age 49.

Kim Clijsters

Arlene Ligh: I was in NYC for the U.S. Open in 2001 with two friends who weren’t big tennis fans but along for the experience. As we were walking on Fifth Ave before the tourney started, one friend saw someone pass us by with a chocolate covered strawberry and wanted one. So we headed to the Godiva store. While in there, Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters walked in. I asked Kim if we could take a picture, and she said yes while Lleyton was purchasing chocolates. This was when our big cameras were in bags. One friend took a picture of the four of us. Kim graciously asked us if we wanted another picture with the other friend. They were in the store less than 5 minutes. After they left, my friends asked me who they were…! LOL. Lleyton became men’s champion that year, and we all were happy for him. Thanks for letting me relive that experience.

Jimmy Connors

Josh Lockwood: I proudly represent the American Red Cross. Hurricane Harvey tragically struck during the U.S. Open in 2018. We got a call from the USTA on a Saturday that they and Jimmy Connors (my childhood idol) wanted to drive support for hurricane relief. I dropped everything and took the 7 train out to the National Tennis Center with my eight-year-old son. Along the way I explained to Teddy how I worshipped Jimmy Connors, his 1991 semifinal run, etc.

We ended up standing alongside Jimmy Connors with a megaphone atop a makeshift platform on the crowded grounds of the NTC, and Jimmy Connors is yelling like a carnival barker for folks to drop cash into a bucket. Stunned and thrilled bystanders realize its Jimmy Connors pitching for Hurricane Harvey relief and I’m having an out of body experience just being in Jimmy’s presence.

At the end of the pitch, Jimmy puts out his hand and graciously says something like “thanks for all you and the Red Cross are doing for Hurricane relief.”

My son takes Jimmy’s hand, shakes it and says, “Thank YOU, Mr. Harvey.”

Sigh.

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Jim Courier

Nikhil: Until a few years ago, I used to visit Indian Wells for the first weekend of the tournament. The drill on Saturday and Sunday is to wake up early, get some breakfast and enter the complex at 10 a.m. to see the players practice. It is also a place where you just bump into the pros. Among many casual conversations that I have had with them, the most memorable one was with Jim Courier in 2015.

I went to a Starbucks nearby before the day's proceedings that year, and I saw that Jim Courier was waiting for his order. As a kid of the ‘90s in India, I remember almost all of his big matches, beating Michael Stich and Agassi to clinch the ’91 French Open, to the heartbreaks against Bruguera at the French, Sampras and Agassi at the Australian Open.

I walked up to him and said that I remember all the great moments and the not-so-great ones, because I celebrated when he won and moped around when he lost. I asked him if he would pose with me for a selfie. He happily obliged. In fact, he took my phone to work the camera. He tried a few times because the shots were all wobbly. I had a crappy phone camera back then, so we gave up after four shots. The photos themselves may not be great, but the encounter was my highpoint of 2015. I brag about it to others even to this day.

Chris Evert

• Victor Marquez: It was 1990, I was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground (north of Baltimore) that spring/summer. I wanted to go the U.S. Open for the first time that year but alas, I did not have any takers from my fellow soldiers to buy tickets when they went on sale. Of course, on the second weekend of the Open (Super Saturday!!), three of my buds wanted to go to New York for the Open. Having no tickets, we decided to drive up anyway and scalp. After realizing our combined scalp budget would barely get the four of us ONE ticket, we decided to walk around the outside, take some pictures and hit a bar. Upon our circumnavigation of the tennis center, we found two other guys who were trying to sneak in via the catering entrance. The four of us decided that we were in—we grabbed supplies from a nearby truck (I had a box of straws) and proceeded to enter. Safely inside, we ditched whatever we were carrying and ran to a nearby practice court and pretending nothings happened. We made it! As I recall, we watched Agassi vs. Becker, Graf vs. Sabatini and McEnroe vs. Sampras. My encounter with pro occurred on the way out as I was walking with my buds, yapping excitedly about our day and not looking where I was walking. I slammed in to a lady walking towards me, knocking her to the ground. Apologizing profusely, I helped her up, begged for forgiveness and admitted to being a super klutz. The lady could not have been nicer, said it was not problem and forgave me. As she walked away, my friends stood there with frozen look on their face while one said, “Dude, you just plowed over Chrissie Evert.”

Roger Federer

Advait: Here's a brief of my run-in with my idol Federer at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals (doing my best to keep it to 250 words or less!)

I'd turned 16 and my mom agreed to fly us to London for the World Tour Finals where we had tickets for the final. There's zero guarantee as to who the finalists would be, so we spent the week at the O2 cheering Federer on through the group stages and the semis. We managed to snag some tickets to watch Djokovic-Murray and Federer-Del Potro during the group stages, so all wasn't lost for sure. The day of the final arrives, and I'm grabbing breakfast at the O2 with my mum when Mohamed Lahyani walks in. He also happens to be my favorite chair umpire, so we had a short chat with him, and he told us Federer would be practicing on Center Court prior to the doubles final, and our ticket allowed us to enter before the crowds got intense. We entered and lo and behold, there's Federer. He came by and autographed all of our memorabilia and even had a word with me. I told him it was my 16th birthday present to come see him all the way from India and he gave me a hug and said he hopes it's a worthwhile present. He did lose, but not before he hit one of the best shots I've ever seen (5-6, first set tie-break). And of course, I thought I was blessed having shaken his hand, and refused to wash my hand for the remainder of the day. Needless to say, my mum wasn't very pleased.

Goran Ivanisevic

• Pratik Basu: My sister and I were at a small tennis tournament in the Middle East, years, er, decades ago. She was a massive fan of Goran Ivanisevic (as was I, but we couldn’t have the same favorites at that age) and managed to get a picture with him at a pre-tournament practice. She asked for a keepsake; he promised her one if he won.

Fast-forward to a heartbreaking loss to Becker in the finals and Goran’s making the rounds with the runner-up trophy. My sister managed to work her way to court level and shook his hand. Goran actually recognized her, ran back to his chair, grabbed his shirt, and—fending off the mad rush for it from the other, older fans—made sure my sister was the one who got it safely.

The shirt—never once washed in the intervening years, er, decades—still hangs on the wall in my sister’s home in India (much to the puzzlement of my seven-year-old niece)!

Gustavo Kuerten (sort of)

Dan. M: So, the year was 2001, and at the time I was still living in Rio de Janeiro and working as a producer, and luckily enough I was invited to work the Davis Cup, Brazil v. Morocco in Clube Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca.

Guga and Meligeni (and Alami, for that matter, awesome guy, I believe he's married to a Brazilian) would always stop and talk to the staff, and one day Guga was telling stories about the tour to about 10 of us. Someone asked about his rivalry with Safin, and he told us the story about the Paris masters the year prior (I believe), where after Guga's loss in the semifinals, he ended up going to dinner then drinks.... and bumps into a vodka-drinking Safin late that evening.

Guga goes: "Safin, you're playing the final tomorrow, what are you doing man!?" 

Safin replies: "Don't worry, I'm going to win.".... and stays for another drink.

He went on to win, but it was funny to hear the story from a smiling Guga.

Rod Laver

• Craige, Downingtown, Pa: In 1972, I was a 15-year-old ballboy for a Rod Laver/Roy Emerson doubles match at the Philadelphia Pro Indoor, at the time a major tournament attracting the world's top players. Laver played poorly, but Emerson carried him through to the win. After the match, I worked my way close to the two players as they prepared to leave the court. Try as I might, their accents were so thick I couldn't understand a word they said. But, I watched Laver unwrap his left (playing) hand. There was white tape between every knuckle on all four fingers and thumb. As the tape came off, I saw his fingers were bright pink and raw. I can't imagine how painful it must have been. I wondered why the man, three years from his second Grand Slam, would bother playing such an inconsequential match with a hand like that. Today, I watch Rafael Nadal with similarly taped fingers and I always think back to that image, a quiet detail common to two champions.

John McEnroe

Dave Lu, Seattle : As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., I was always an avid tennis fan. When I was a high school freshman in the mid-’90s, I was part of an urban arts outreach program and visited museums and galleries throughout the city with artists and educators. On one occasion, us group of kids were invited to collaborate on an art project that involved taking pages from a book with MLK Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and painting abstract mountaintops onto them. The pages were later hung up en masse as part of an exhibition. The event took place one evening at John McEnroe’s Manhattan apartment. I’m not sure how that was arranged but he must have volunteered his space to the organization. I still remember sitting at his dining table covered with newspaper and painting triangles onto the disassembled book pages when John McEnroe came home and said hello. He asked if we were all having fun and that we could help ourselves to anything in the kitchen. He later retreated to his bedroom and let us commandeer his living and dining rooms for the rest of the evening. I recall thinking, “He looks just like he does on TV!” We were all too shy to say much to him, but I distinctly remember how welcoming and nice he was to a bunch of awkward 14-year-olds in his apartment. I just hope we didn’t leave too much paint on his dining table or floors!

Rafael Nadal

Eugene Whitlock: My story is a simple one. I happened to be in Paris when Rafael Nadal won his first French Open title. I remember that there was a ton of excitement about him and lots of "Who is this guy?" chatter. I was leaving from CDG airport a couple of days after Nadal won the tournament and who do I see at the airport, no other than Rafael Nadal himself, standing next to me in line, with his ever-present Uncle Tony. I said a brief, "Congratulations, you played very well," in my best Spanish and he was very gracious and humble. What stood out most about the encounter was the fact that (1) he was carrying his own tennis racket bag, in a bag that looked just like mine, and (2) he was in the economy class line, just like I was. No one else seemed to recognize him and no one was trying to get his autograph. He was just a guy getting on a flight. Oh, how things have changed!

Martina Navratilova

Keith: One of the last years the U.S. Open was played at Forest Hills, I went with a friend who had passes to the clubhouse. We were standing outside having a drink and chatting with a group of people, and I gestured with my left hand while talking, which led me to bump my elbow with a person standing next to me, but not in our group. I looked over to apologize and it was Martina Navratilova—and thankfully I had bumped her right elbow.

Guillermo Vilas

• Shonn Moore: This is a blast from the past, but I attended a local, midsized college, Towson State University in Baltimore, around 1981, when it was hosting a tennis tournament. While working out at the otherwise unoccupied gym, I noticed that a court was set up for the weekend. As I did my sprints and such, in walked in Guillermo Vilas and Kevin Curren. They smiled at me, returned my hello and seemed pleased to be recognized in this out-of-the-way venue. My workout came to an end and I stood by and watched them practice. It was fascinating to a so-so player like myself. Sure, I had been to a couple of tennis tournaments before, but while live tennis is nothing like tennis on television, watching two players at court level, within feet of them is an altogether different perspective. I was both inspired and dejected by their athleticism, but it was fun. That competitors could also be friendly practice partners was also a revelation to my 20-year-old self. Vilas had probably entered the latter half of his career but Curren would go on to be a runner-up in the 1984 Australian Open and the 1985 Wimbledon. We said our goodbyes, as I headed off to class, pleased to see a couple of players in such a close encounter.

I also love—and find just as poignant—stories about lesser-known player. Consider:

Phil Lorenzo of Milford, Conn.: I was attending the old Pilot Pen tennis tournament in New Haven, Conn., with my nine-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son. After watching Svetlana Kuznetsova defeat her opponent, my daughter ran down to courtside alone for an autograph. Svetlana gracefully obliged my daughter and she returned satisfied. My son sensed a missed opportunity, but the moment was gone. We next watched Fernando Verdasco defeat his opponent and sign three tennis balls to launch into the crowd. Balls Nos. 1 and 2 sailed into the crowd and then he turned and spotted my son jumping up and down. Fernando hit the ball directly to him. I watched the arc of the ball heading to my son, expecting the worse. He’s five and there’s no way he’s catching this ball. I’m expecting this ball to ricochet into the crowd hopefully not off his head. Turns out the ball lands directly in the vacant seat in front of him and wedges itself in the folded-up seat. He reaches down and plucks the ball triumphantly into the air. Fernando gives him the thumbs up and he still has the ball prominently displayed in his room. He’s 20 now!

• Jonathan Kohn: I had an opportunity to meet and hit with Aaron Krickstein a few years ago in Florida. I am in my 40s and Aaron was my idol when I was 15 years old. I assumed that after we hit that I would leave and say goodbye, but Aaron was incredibly gracious. For 30 minutes he told me stories from his youth and from his time on the tour, stories about his relationship with Jimmy Connors and other detailed accounts from matches with Stefan Edberg, for example. All stories I'm sure he has 1,000 times but his willingness to share them again with me was amazing and says something about him as a person. Aaron never got enough credit for how good of a player he was or how good of a person he is because of all his injuries and his decision to live a low profile life after tennis.

• Noah Baerman, Middletown, Conn.: I have a real soft spot for underdogs, especially those who are on the fringes of career-viability. Maybe that’s because I’m a jazz musician, where some truly great artists exist on comparable fringes, I don’t know, but heck I even wrote a song (maybe I’ll record it someday) about Matwe Middelkoop after seeing him lose in the U.S. Open qualies (and before the poetic justice wherein he became a successful doubles player). For years, in that regard, I particularly followed the career of the Belgian Dick Norman, to the point where I would read his blog, translated from Flemish. I finally got the chance to see him live in 2009, winning a doubles match at the U.S. Open (partnering with Moodie, defeating Benneteau/Chardy) on a side court. After the match, people who presumably didn’t know him well were thrusting oversized souvenir tennis balls at him to sign. I had no swag and it was before the era of selfies (never mind that he’s a good foot taller than I am) but waited in line to be able to tell him he was my favorite player and that I so appreciated seeing him compete. When I finally did so he looked at me in total bewilderment and it seemed clear that he did not take my words literally, though he was gracious nonetheless. One of the most instructive of my many jazz/tennis-crossover moments, seeing how the non-stars become accustomed to relative anonymity.

And the winner of the contest—a new Dunlop racket—is…

Rex Lam: My friends and I are avid Pokémon Go players. In 2019, after watching a full day of tennis at Indian Wells, we had some free time the following morning before our flight. We decided to do some raids in downtown Palm Desert (a raid is when Pokémon Go players congregate at a certain Pokémon "gym" at the same time to defeat a big boss Pokémon.)

As we pulled up near the gym, we noticed another car stop behind us. The guy got out, and we started chatting. We learned that he was the local Discord organizer for Pokémon Go. He told us to join some others who were about to raid a gym down the street.

When we got there, we found Dominik Hrbaty! You can always tell when someone is playing Pokémon Go: the portable charger cord and (sometimes) multiple phones. Even though he had retired years ago, he was coaching Martin Klizan at the time. It was one of those rare moments when seemingly disparate interests came together. I got into tennis around the time Hrbaty’s career peaked, and of course now he is somewhat infamous for being one of the only players to have a winning record against Federer. My only regret is that I didn't add him as a friend on Pokémon Go.

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Shots, Miscellany

Tennis Channel’s two-week telecast of the 2021 Australian Open will take place Feb. 8-21, with more than 25 hours of live matches from the sport’s first major of the season. The network will devote more than 175 total hours to its 14th year of carrying the annual event in Melbourne, with same-day encores, nightly commentary and analysis in addition to live competition. Live matches begin Monday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. ET, and continue throughout championship weekend.”

• FILA has extended its sponsorship of World No. 1 Ash Barty, whom they have sponsored since 2016. FILA and Barty are commemorating the re-signing by creating the "Barty Bundle," an exclusive, limited promotional offering available to female junior tennis players at various tennis academies in Australia and the United States, as well as via Barty’s social media channels. The gifting will include a custom-made Ash Barty practice tee and a face mask. Both pieces will leverage Barty’s brand-new “AB” logo.

• Tennis players around the world can now “Do It Like Davis” as smart tennis wristband company NeuroTennis, Inc., has announced that American WTA player Lauren Davis has been signed to an official sponsorship deal to represent the popular wearable in 2021.

• With the Australian Open kicking off in just one week, Motorola and Australian Open defending champion Sofia Kenin have officially formed a new brand partnership. As part of this partnership, Kenin will sport the iconic Motorola “batwing” logo on her uniform and warm up jacket for all matches and appearances. In addition, the 22-year-old American tennis player will be utilizing the iconic Motorola razr throughout the course of the partnership. 

• In honor of Black History Month, the Tennis Hall of Fame is hosting a special lecture series.

• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation: Endpapers, by Alexander Wolff.

• A new tennis book: Doubles Domination by Bob Allcorn.

• Here’s Joel Drucker on tennis and The Queen’s Gambit.