Several of the past few blogs have dealt with the U.S. Open. Prior to my multiple back surgeries, I used to play tennis, hacking around on and off for years. When I got to the University of Tennessee as an assistant basketball coach in 1980, I became more serious because short time later, Mike DePalmer, Sr was named the head tennis coach. At one time, Mike and Nick Bolletieri started a tennis academy. The first year, there were six kids, all of whom lived in Mike’s house, a far cry from the IMG grounds that houses the students in Bradenton, FL today. Mike and I became fast friends and, up to 4-5 days a week, we’d play tennis at 7:00 am.
When I asked him to give me lessons, I remembering him tell me, “Jack, I’m on the court all day, basically, giving lessons of one kind or another. Let’s just play. I promise you’ll be getting lessons.” And he was right. When we started, Mike would hold his racket in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He would hit the ball deep to the corner, I’d run it down and return it to him. Then, he’d hit it to the opposite corner, and I’d run that down and return it to him. On and on until I’d miss or, not so often, he did.
One day a thought crossed my mind. “Why the hell am I constantly hitting the ball right back to him!” Displaying my ability as a student, I started returning his shots to the corners, rather than directly at him. The next day we played, I noticed the coffee cup was gone. “What, not thirsty this morning?”
“I told you that you’d learn,” he said, smiling. We continued to play the entire seven years I was at UT. Since I was a coach, I’d pick Mike’s brain as far as strategy and motivation went, figuring there had to be similarities in our sports, even though his was an individual sport while mine dealt with a team (side note: he also had been a highly successful junior college basketball coach). He would explain nuances of tennis to me. I’ve never watched tennis matches the same way again. Years later, Mike was inducted into the National Tennis Hall of Fame.
Which brings me to today’s blog topic. My wife, Jane, and I have been watching the U.S. Open the past few days. One of our favorite players is Roger Federer (not only because we’ve had numerous people tell us our younger son, Alex, looks like him - although those comments don’t bother us in the least).
Yesterday, we were watching his match against Gael Monfils. Prior to the match, one of Federer’s former coaches (as well as one of Pete Sampras’), Paul Annacone, who happened to be Mike’s #1 singles player for his early Vols’ teams and, not so coincidentally, one of the original six students at the DePalmer-Bolletieri Tennis Camp, had this to say about Monfils, “He is the best raw athlete in tennis, maybe ever.” If the moniker, “Human Highlight Film” wasn’t already taken by Dominique Wilkins, it would be apropos for Monfils.
Thus, it wasn’t surprising to see him take the first set from Federer. What was amazing was to see him take the second set - and with greater ease than the first. Wouldn’t you know it, we had a surprise birthday party to go to (happy birthday to loyal reader, and more loyal friend, Shawn Carey) just as the second set ended. Hearing the bleak commentary from the best tennis commentators, the brothers McEnroe, made it feel like were leaving a funeral early.
Late in the party, Jane turns to me and says, “You won’t believe this,” then shows me her SportsCenter update (which our Federer look alike installed on her phone but not mine - people tell me it’s easy but, as of yet, I haven’t found the time or interest). Sure enough, Roger did it again - won a match after losing the first two sets. For the ninth time. The mental and physical toughness might not be unmatched, but there can’t be more than a handful of athletes who are better at staring down adversity.
While it might be stretching the meaning of exactly what the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, there’s little doubt he would have admired the effort displayed by one of the all-time greatest tennis players, Roger Federer:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”