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Posts Tagged ‘  Tennis Romances’

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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