Last week, someone asked if I was Yankees or Mets. I’m a native New Yorker, and should have a ready answer for such an important question. I told them the truth, Mets all the way, despite the fact that I couldn’t name a single player on the team since Mookie Wilson. Pathetic? Sure. But I did not grow up in a baseball-loving household. The only sport I ever watched on television with my family was tennis.
Pete Sampras’ giant tongue and Andre Agassi’s wig were the big topics of discussion. We loved Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Jim Courier was a dweeb and John McEnroe was the hothead, the most fun to watch, always. My mother played tennis a few times a week with her friends in the park, and my brother would be pressed into service at least a few times a summer. Everyone understood that I was useless at anything athletic and they left me alone.
In recent years, my family has fallen into two clear camps: Federer and Nadal. My mother favors the former, as steady and beautiful as a Swiss timepiece, whereas my husband and I favor the latter. I like Rafa so much that I wrote him into my novel in two different ways, not even counting the fact that the book takes place on Mallorca, where Nadal is from. The creepiest thing I did was turn Rafa into a Spanish tutor and deliver him as a devirginating savior to my teenage heroine.
What is it that I love about him? His face. His grunts. His wedgie-picking. I like that he’s coached by his uncle, and that he has a totally unguarded, sweet smile. I like his Facebook page, where he posts pictures of himself in his swimming pool with his entire family, as if that’s a normal thing to do. I like the slightly deer-in-headlights look he gets whenever he’s in front of a camera and not in motion with his racquet extended.
There are, of course, other likable tennis players. Novak Djokovic’s Ice Bucket Challenge video shows him dancing around to “Ice Ice Baby” before dousing himself, something that neither Federer nor Nadal would ever do. Tennis hasn’t seen a sense of humor since McEnroe! A few years ago, I was riveted by the endless Isner/Mahut match, and I was delighted to see that Lena Dunham and Andy Samberg are making an HBO mockumentary inspired by it. Maybe we’re on the cusp of something great, where people realize that it’s easier to pretend to be a tennis player than a junkie. I can see it now: Christian Bale gaining three pounds to play an aging star on the circuit.
Rafa Nadal just dropped out of the US Open due to a wrist injury. It makes me sad for him, unable to defend his title, but it also makes me sad for me. I’m 34 now, a mother myself, with less time to spend hours watching a tennis match. How many years is it before Rafa Nadal is my new Mookie Wilson, a symbol of how out of touch I am with the sport? A couple of years ago, I saw Nadal walking down the street in Manhattan during the Open, and he seemed so small, so human-sized. I prefer him on television, where his forearms are the size of my thighs. Rest up that wrist, Rafa. I’m not ready to give you up just yet.
Emma Straub is a bestselling novelist. Her latest book, The Vacationers, is out now, and available everywhere books are sold. More information about the book can be found at www.emmastraub.net.