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Pliskova serving for the match with two match points,” chimed the two commentators together, as if they were singing a duet. Pliskova tossed the ball, and then caught it. There was an audible sigh throughout the stadium. Pliskova smiled like a nervous schoolgirl. One of the commentators, the great Martina, laughed gently. The other commentator said softly, “Deep breath, deep breath“, as if he was egging Pliskova on. Pliskova, of course, couldn’t hear all this. She was all alone in the middle of the court. She was serving for the match. On the opposite side of the net, her opponent nicknamed ‘The Tiger’ was waiting to pounce on her serve. There was pindrop silence. It was hard to believe that the stadium was full and there were thousands of people there. Pliskova tossed the ball again. Then she hit her serve. The ball soared into the opposite side of the court and zoomed past the Tiger at the speed of light. It was an ace. Pliskova raised her hands and then she smiled. This was a smile of happiness, of relief. The audience in the stadium stood up and gave her a standing ovation. I don’t think Pliskova has ever received such love from tennis fans before. Her husband screamed in their box with happiness. Her coach cried. I almost expected the other Pliskova, Kristyna, to be there, cheering her. It would have been fun to see one Pliskova in the court raising her arms and an identical Pliskova among the audience cheering.

Pliskova smiling nervously like a schoolgirl just before serving for the match
Pliskova raises her hands after serving an ace at matchpoint

Karolina Pliskova has been around for quite a while. She has been in the top 10 as long as I can remember. She has been one of the most consistent performers in the women’s circuit. She has also been one of the big hitters and she has regularly topped the aces count among women players at the end of the year. But she had never had much luck in grand slams. She reached one US Open final five years back, but outside of that, her grand slam record was quite patchy. It was odd, because she had a great serve, wonderful shots, a powerful game. It was strange that this was the first time she had gone past the fourth round at Wimbledon, because her serve alone was made for Wimbledon. As Pliskova continued playing consistently for a decade, she saw young upstarts coming out of nowhere going on to win a grand slam and then sliding back into obscurity. She must have wondered what it took to win a grand slam, and why these upstarts were doing it while she couldn’t, though she turned up everyday, played consistently, stayed in the top 10, and played the year end tournament every year. Maybe she thought of all this, when she was serving at matchpoint. But that is all in the past now. That serve soared over the net and it was one of the great moments of this year’s Wimbledon and now it is a part of history. Pliskova is on the other side now and today is a new day and it is a new match. Pliskova’s fans are getting a feeling that this time something is different, they are seeing a steely determination in Pliskova’s face and in her demeanor. Pliskova played the best match of her life to get past the game’s biggest powerhitter, Aryna Sabalenka, nicknamed ‘The Tiger’. Sabalenka didn’t play a bad match. She played a brilliant match. But it was not enough. Sabalenka will have her time under the sun. The Tiger will roar again. But this was Pliskova’s day.

Today evening, Pliskova plays the likeable Ash Barty, who is everyone’s darling, for the championship. The Wimbledon crowd is going to be on Barty’s side. I am not going to make any predictions, but my sentimental favourite is going to be Pliskova. I always love the underdog. If Pliskova gets her serve in, like she did in the semifinals, Barty is going to have a tough time. It is going to be a great match.

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When Swiss great Roger Federer was once asked about the essay that David Foster Wallace wrote about him, Federer said that he enjoyed reading it and it was beautiful and he loved David Foster Wallace’s writing. Or he said something like that. Roger Federer’s fans, many of whom were nerds, were ecstatic when they heard what he said. Among tennis players, a significant proportion of Federer’s fans seem to be nerds. When nerd fans heard Federer gushing about David Foster Wallace, they probably fantasized that Federer has read Wallace’s epic book ‘Infinite Jest’, and maybe he has read Jonathan Franzen and William Gaddis too. Being from Switzerland, he probably has thoughts on his fellow countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s memoirs and his philosophy, and maybe he has one or two insights to share on Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Something similar happened when the great Serena Williams read Maya Angelou’s famous poem, ‘Still I Rise’. (You can find the video here . It is beautiful and inspiring.) Serena’s fans were ecstatic. They fantasized that Serena has probably read the rest of Maya Angelou’s work including her famous memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Maybe Serena has also read the works of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and James Baldwin and she has one or two insights to share on the differences between Paul Laurence Dunbar’s and Langston Hughes’ poetry and the common themes in Jacqueline Woodson’s and Jesmyn Ward’s fiction.

Nerds have this fantasy about their favourite sportspersons – that their favourite sportsperson reads like them, and thinks deeply about intellectual issues like them, and has insights to offer on the finer points of philosophical debates. This is all just pure fantasy, of course. Successful sportspersons don’t have time to read, because reading demands long uninterrupted time. A successful sportsperson’s life is filled with training, keeping their fitness level up, playing matches and lots of travelling. When they are not doing these things, their lives are filled with interrupts, as they have to give interviews, make media appearances, satisfy their sponsors’ requests, go for ad shootings and other such things. There is no time for reading and deep contemplation. They probably have a nerd in their team who tells them in five minutes about David Foster Wallace or Maya Angelou and they probably work this into their conversations or any kind of public speaking they do. The logical part of our mind knows this, but the tennis-fan-plus-nerd part of our mind fantasizes that Federer or Serena or another favourite sportsperson is also a nerd and reads serious books and contemplates on the meaning of life and the fate of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If Federer or Serena spent their time reading, they wouldn’t be legends in their sport. Their sport demands action and that is what they are great at and that is what they do everyday. Reading and contemplating is for mundane people like the rest of us, who have the uninterrupted time and the patience to indulge in it.

Like everything else in life, there are, of course, exceptions to this. For some reason, there used to be nerds in cricket. The English batsman, Chris Tavaré, after retiring from cricket, went back to high school to teach biology. It is hard to imagine something like this happening today, but it did then. Another English batsman, John Crawley, also went back to high school to teach, and became a headmaster. I am not sure which subject he taught.

Mike Brearley, the great English captain, became a psychologist and therapist after he retired from cricket. Brearley was one of those odd cricketers. He mainly played as a batsman throughout his career but he was not great at it. To put it mildly, he was below average. Someone like him should have never made it into an international team. Brearley himself jokes about it in one of his books – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” By a series of extremely unlikely circumstances, Mike Brearley, who was a below-par batsman, became the English team captain. And that is where he realized his potential. He was a great leader, he inspired his team, and led them to great heights. He was still a bad batsman, but he became one of the greatest captains that the cricketing world had ever seen. After he retired, the English team got a new, young captain. But then things started going badly for them. The selectors invited Brearley back into the team. He came back. His hair was prematurely grey, he couldn’t bat or bowl or field, he came low down in the batting order because he couldn’t buy a run, and he stood in the slips, because he didn’t have to run around and field the ball. But he inspired his team with his direction and leadership and his smart decisions on the field and his clear communication, that within a short span of a few weeks, they performed some amazing deeds and went back to being world beaters again. When Brearley retired a second time, he became a psychologist and a therapist. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’ which is a nerd’s delight. These days Brearley continues coming out with the occasional book and they are unlike most other cricket books – they are intelligent, smart, have beautiful prose and are nerdy. Frequently, Brearley writes about sport and music and art and philosophy in the same breath. He is well read and well informed and clearly looks like the contemplative type – an oddball among sportspersons. He is the one sportsperson with whom you feel you can discuss Kant’s philosophy and Rembrandt’s art and Mozart’s music. Brearley cannot hold a candle to Federer as a sportsperson. But as a nerd, he is in a different league. If you are a Brearley fan and you dreamed that he was a nerd, you got exactly that.

Another nerd from cricket was Ed Smith. Smith was a reasonably successful county cricketer. He even got a couple of opportunities to play test cricket and he didn’t do badly, but he didn’t get picked for the English team again and ended up retiring as a county cricketer. But during his time as a county cricketer, he wrote a diary which he published called ‘On and Off the Field’. It was beautiful, intelligent, smart. It was almost like reading a Brearley book. He backed it up with more books including one comparing cricket and baseball. They were all wonderful, written by someone who was clearly a nerd. Ed Smith went on to become the Chairman of MCC, like Mike Brearley, and even served for sometime as the Chief Selector of the English team. It has been a while since he published his last book. Fans are expecting a new book from him anytime now.

In Indian cricketing circles, Rahul Dravid is regarded as a nerd, as someone who reads a lot and who contemplates on things. There was also an interesting incident which happened sometime back – Indian cricketer Mithali Raj was once caught reading a collection of Rumi’s poetry while she was waiting for her turn to bat in a World Cup match. There was a lot of buzz in social media at that time, as that picture went viral.

But even in cricket, nerds are rare. The above are exceptions.

In tennis, nerds are non-existent. Tennis players start playing by the time they are ten years old, and they continue playing till their middle thirties, that is for nearly twenty-five years. Many of them don’t finish high school, or probably they do homeschooling and most don’t go to college, because of the demands of the game. Tennis is a game of action and there is no time to be a nerd. Atleast that is what I thought. Till I discovered Mihaela Buzarnescu.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is a Romanian tennis player. She is around thirty three years old, so that means she has been around for a while. She is a left hander and she has the leftie’s natural elegance. Her game is so beautiful that I can sit and watch her serve and play her forehand for the whole day. She can also hit all the other beautiful shots, the drop shot and the lob and even the moonshot. She played Serena Williams in the recent French Open and took a set off Serena. There were many beautiful points in that match and at some point Mihaela and Serena were laughing at the way things were going. As luck would have it, Mihaela was drawn to play Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon. She gave a good account of herself and the match went into three sets, and Mihaela brought her beautiful all-round game to the court, and in my opinion, at one point she was in command of the match, but it was still not enough against a legend like Venus, and Venus’ power game prevailed in the end. Mihaela Buzarnescu’s beautiful game is good enough for one to become her fan. But that is not the only beautiful thing about her. There is more to her than meets the eye.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is ranked around 190 in tennis now. There is no connection between her beautiful, competitive game and her low ranking. I wondered why she was ranked so low. I discovered that she had been beset by frequent injuries in the past and sometimes those injuries led to long breaks from the game. But Mihaela was not one to be fazed by that. Once, when she was forced by injuries into one of her long breaks from the game, she told herself – “Okay, I’m going to do something fun. I’m not going to just sit and mope around. Let me go to university and study something. And while I’m at it, let me go all the way.” And she went and did that. When Roger Federer took a long break from tennis because of injury, he told himself – “I’ll get fit again, I’ll practise hard, I’ll get competitive, I want to play Wimbledon again.” And he did just that. When Mihaela Buzarnescu took a long break from tennis because of injury, she went to university and got herself a Ph.D degree. Yes, you are reading it right. She got herself a Ph.D. That is how she became a nerd. It is appropriate to call her Dr. Mihaela Buzarnescu now.

I don’t know any other tennis player who has a Ph.D degree. Forget tennis, I don’t know any sportsperson who has got a Ph.D degree. There are Indian universities which dole out Ph.D degrees to celebrities like candy. I’m not talking about that kind of Ph.D. I’m talking about the real academic kind in which you attend classes and study and build your expertise in a particular field and then research on a particular topic, extend the frontiers of your field, write a dissertation about it, and defend it in front of an evaluating committee – I’m talking about that kind of Ph.D. Mihaela Buzarnescu did exactly that. As a tennis nerd, Mihaela Buzarnescu hit the ball out of the park. I am a certified nerd, and even I don’t have a Ph.D. When I read about Mihaela’s Ph.D, I got goosebumps.

I don’t know how long Mihaela will continue playing tennis. She is thirty three now. And she looks pretty fit. I hope she continues playing for atleast a few more years. She has the game to reach the second week of a grand slam. I would like to see her play in the semifinals or the final of a grand slam one day. She will delight many other tennis fans with her beautiful aesthetic game as she has delighted me. She is waiting to be discovered by mainstream tennis fans. But I am more interested in finding out what she will do after she retires from tennis. Will she become the Fed cup team captain? Will she get into tennis administration? Will she coach kids to play tennis? Or will she nurture her nerdy side and become a professor at university? I hope all these are in the distant future, but I can’t wait to find out!

Mihaela Buzarnescu with the trophy after she won her first title

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When Alja Tomljanovic was playing fellow Australian Ashley Barty in the Wimbledon quarterfinals a few days back, Matteo Berrettini, who himself was playing the quarterfinal the next day, dropped by at Tomljanovic’s box and started cheering for her. This, of course, could mean only one thing. That they were both in a romantic relationship. Close friendships between active male and female tennis players are rare. I know of only one exception – the friendship between Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova. They both became friends during their teens and have stayed friends since. When Maria Sharapova was banned from playing tennis for a year for fake drug allegations, Djokovic was the only leading player, male or female, who stood by her. I am not a big fan of Djokovic as a player, though I am a huge admirer of his game, but I love him off the court and his friendship with Sharapova is one of the reasons for that. I am not a big fan of Sharapova on or off the court, but I love it when she and Djokovic hang out together. These two remind me of the leading characters in ‘Friends‘ and ‘Will and Grace‘. But outside of this one exception, I’ve never seen a close friendship between an active male and female tennis player.

One might conclude from this that romantic relationships between tennis players are quite prevalent. But tennis couples are rare. It is odd. Because tennis players start their careers in their middle or late teens and are travelling and living in a bubble most of the time, meeting mostly only fellow tennis players and tennis-related people till their early or middle thirties, when they call it a day, and retire from their sport. Spending around fifteen to twenty years of their life in this way, we would expect that tennis players would hang out with each other, have a drink, and fall in love. But it happens rarely. Many male tennis players get married to a model or an actress and many female tennis players get married to a rich businessman with a low public profile.

Fortunately, magic happens sometimes. I remember reading that in 1974 when Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert won Wimbledon as teenagers, they both confessed that they were in love and they were together. All tennis fans at that time were ecstatic. But it was too good to be true and it didn’t last long. Before long they had broken up. Many years later Connors wrote in his memoir about the reason they broke up and Chris Evert was upset with it, because she felt that he had revealed information which was private between them. Chris Evert went on to marry British tennis player John Lloyd, but that also didn’t last. I don’t think there were any tennis romances in the ’80s or ’90s. In the late ’90s though, one day Steffi Graf turned up in Andre Agassi’s box and cheered him during a tournament. There was speculation among fans and there was a buzz around. Agassi finally revealed that they were in a relationship. Many fans were excited. I was not. For me, Steffi Graf was a legend who was elegant and graceful, and Andre Agassi was a regular tennis player who behaved badly. Of course, I was wrong – Agassi was a tennis great himself and he had won eight singles grand slams and was the first player to win a career grand slam since Rod Laver did it more than thirty years before him. Not even Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg had that record. But for us Steffi Graf fans, no one was good enough for our favourite Steffi, not even Agassi. But unlike the Evert-Connors romance, the Steffi-Agassi story had a happy ending. They are both happily married now and have kids and they both seem to be doing well.

Sometime after this, it emerged that the Belgian great Kim Clijsters was dating Lleyton Hewitt and they were a couple. I think Kim Clijsters was the women’s World No.1 at that time and Lleyton Hewitt was the men’s World no.1. Whenever Kim Clijsters went to Australia, Hewitt’s home country, to play the Australian Open, the crowd regarded her as a local Aussie girl and cheered her whenever she stepped on court. The Clijsters-Hewitt romance continued for a few years, but like most tennis romances, it didn’t have a happy ending. Kim Clijsters went on to marry someone else, retired from the sport, became a mom and had a baby, and then came back a few years later. Her second innings as a tennis player was more spectacular than the first, as she went on to win multiple grand slams. One of my favourite moments was when she brought her baby to court after she had won the US Open and posed for pictures with her baby and with her trophy. It gave me goosebumps.

One of the little known tennis romances was between Swiss great Roger Federer and his wife Mirka. They were tennis players who met at the Olympics and they fell in love and they have stayed together since, being happily married now with kids. Mirka is well-known as Federer’s partner and for a time as his manager too, but not many know that she was a tennis player herself. This was a tennis romance with a happy and beautiful ending.

In recent years, tennis fans were excited by new budding romances. When it emerged that one of my favourite doubles players Kristina Mladenovic, and Dominic Thiem, one of the up-and-coming players in the men’s tour who was challenging the big three, were a couple, I was excited. I had never bothered with Dominic Thiem before, but after discovering that he was the partner of one of my favourite players, I started supporting him and following his matches with interest. That is what we tennis fans do, right – support the partners and family of our favourite tennis players? Of course, things didn’t go well after a while. The eventual breaking up happened and fans like me blamed Dominic Thiem for it. Surprisingly, though both the players must have been going through a difficult time emotionally as they were nursing heartbreaks, they seemed to have channelled their grief into their tennis, as Thiem went on to win his first singles grand slam, breaking the hegemony of the big three, while Mladenovic went on to win multiple doubles grand slams with her partner and friend Tímea Babos. Unfortunately for them, the slump happened later, and they are both in a tricky situation in their careers right now.

When I was watching the French Open a few weeks back, after a match which the Ukrainian great Elina Svitolina won, the interviewer Fabrice Santoro asked Svitolina whether she and her fiance Gaël Monfils talked about tennis at home. I screamed, “What!” I didn’t even know that they were together! This was big news! This was also the first interracial romance I have ever seen in the tennis world. Tennis romances are rare. An interracial tennis romance is like sighting a rare bird or a flower which blooms once in fifty years. It was amazing to think about. I don’t know how they got together (she is Ukrainian, he is French), but I think it will be a fascinating story. Svitolina laughed at Santoro’s question and joked that she was the boss at home. Then she said that it was wonderful to have a partner who understands her job and the highs and lows she goes through. It was beautiful to hear.

Alison Van Uytvanck is one of my favourite tennis players. I still don’t know how to pronounce her second name, but that hasn’t prevented me from falling in love with her game. She is big and looks like a power hitter, and she can hit powerful shots as much as the next player, but she is a tennis romantic at heart and she frequently plays soft dropshots and pulls them off. Sometimes she wrongfoots the opponent and gently swipes the ball to the opposite side of the court, a shot which has not been seen on a tennis court since the ’80s. She believes in caressing the ball rather than smashing it. It is like a huge lioness or a bear who treats her cubs gently with love. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that she was gay and her partner was also her doubles partner on court, Greet Minnen. Tennis couples are rare, but gay tennis couples, I’ve never seen one. There have been other gay women tennis players before. The legendary Martina Navratilova was one. Another legend, Billie Jean King, the founder of the WTA, was another. But women tennis players who are gay normally keep quiet about their orientation. I was surprised when I discovered that one of my favourite players, Australian legend Sam Stosur was gay, when she and her partner shared a picture with their new baby. I was delighted and got goosebumps when I saw that picture. I’ve never heard of a male gay tennis player till now. I’m sure there are some (or many) but it looks like they don’t want to talk about it. So I was very excited when I heard about Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen.

Now, of course, the Berrettini-Tomljanovic romance is the latest one to bloom in the tennis world. Or the latest that I’m hearing about. These are the three active tennis romances in the tennis world right now. History is against them. The past is against them. I am particularly worried about Elina Svitolina and Gaël Monfils because of the differences in culture – cross-cultural, interracial relationships go through lots of stress and pulls from different sides. Elina and Gaël have already gone through a breakup, but they have survived and have come back with a bang. Hopefully things will become more and more beautiful from here.

For romantics like me, the past is not a guide to the future, and I feel that we break new ground everyday and change life in beautiful ways. So I hope these three romances thrive and these couples have beautiful lives and have exciting stories to tell their children and grandchildren.

For Ajla Tomljanovic, Matteo Berrettini’s support didn’t help much during her match. She lost her quarterfinal to Ashley Barty. But the next day, when Berrettini was playing his own quarterfinal against Felix Auger-Aliassime, who do you think was there in his box to support him – surprise, surprise, it was Ajla Tomljanovic. This time things went the right way, and the support worked and Berrettini went on to win the match. There were even a few laughs at matchpoint which was shared by Berettini, his opponent and best friend Auger-Aliassime, and their partners Ajla Tomljanovic and Nina Ghaibi, who were cousins, and who were sitting in the same box, cheering on their partners. It was a beautiful family moment.

In the pictures :

Matteo supporting his girlfriend Ajla during her match at Wimbledon
Ajla returning the support with compliments while sharing a laugh at matchpoint

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