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Matteo Berrettini’s Brilliant Double Is a Sign of Things to Come

Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Luke Walker / LTA through Getty Images)
Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Luke Walker / LTA through Getty Images)

There are moments when the racquet feels a little bit heavier”, Matteo Berrettini confessed during his Queen’s Club Championship run. 

Sometimes in order to flip the match around, or the energy level, or your mindset, you have to scream, he said with a smile. You have to do something that gets into your body, into your mental mindset in that moment. I don’t feel comfortable throwing racquets or throwing balls—it’s not something I like to do. But sometimes screaming at yourself helps, because you, maybe, let the bad stuff out, and focus on the good and [the] today.” 

Matteo Berrettini’s handsome face and piercing, hazel-brown eyes beam with happiness, even if, at the end of a brilliant two-week run, they betray signs of fatigue. Having lifted two trophies within a fortnight, he is undoubtedly tired. But the wear is offset by a sense of relief, not only to be winning again, but to be competing. Flashing an attractive smile, Matteo Berrettini is happy to be back.

Following his fourth round loss to Miomir Kecmanović in March at the 2022 Indian Wells, Matteo Berrettini, feeling discomfort in his right wrist, decided to undergo surgery. An athlete’s body is their most valuable asset—the equivalent of a Formula 1 race car, the more finely—tuned, the more of an advantage over their opponents. But unlike a McLaren or a Mercedes, it is non-replaceable, a lease of life with a limited capacity for strain and hardship. 

Even if modern medicine offers solutions to stave off the inevitable, with a tennis career compressed to a single 24-hour period, those solutions amount to mere, and uncomfortable, minutes (“He’s number one in the world and I’m playing with a metal hip”, said Andy Murray about facing Novak Djokovic at this year’s Madrid Open). While most players hope to make it at least to dinner, with a few lucky ones able to grab a midnight snack, Matteo Berrettini worried when his wrist started to hurt just after lunch. 

I think it was maybe ten days before Stuttgart, a week before Stuttgart, he said during a press conference after successfully defending his Queen’s Club Championship trophy. My hand was hurting. Not the part that I got injured, but the rest of the hand—the callus, the wrist—the hand wasn’t strong enough, Berrettini added. I wasn’t used to hitting as many balls as I was doing, as I was hitting, and I was like: ‘What if it’s not going to hold? What if it’s not going to be strong enough?’

Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Clive Brunskill / LTA through Getty Images)
Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Clive Brunskill / LTA through Getty Images)

After the surgery took place, the long road to recovery meant that Berrettini had to skip the entirety of the European clay court season. The long layoff wasn’t so much about the prospects of his ability to play tennis in general—although he did admit there were moments when “I didn’t believe I could come back”—it was about how the injury would affect his game. It is difficult (impossible?) to find a tennis player who didn’t have to, at some point or another, adjust their game due to the wear and tear inflicted by the physical demands of the sport. Over the course of their careers, the Big Three (and in this context, even more so the Big Four), accumulated months of moulding their games to fit their ageing bodies—a sign of the relentless march of time is that, back in their prime, they would impose their bodies onto the game, changing the way tennis was played, with their skills, titanic physique, and seemingly-endless supply of stamina (“Is he going to play every point like that?”, John McEnroe cooed in the commentary box over 16-year-old Nadal upsetting then-world-number-4 Carlos Moyá in the 2003 Hamburg Masters).

For Berrettini, the questions he suddenly had to face came early in his career. “I actually thought, what if my technique has now changed because I had surgery on my hand? What if my service will not work as well as it used to?”, he admitted. 

When I was at home, and I was injured, I was doing rehab, I was watching the matches at tournaments, and I was hurting, Berrettini said after his round of 16 win against Denis Kudla. I told myself back then, ‘When you’re going to be able to play again, you’re going to fight even harder,’ and that’s what I did today. And that’s why I think when you get injured it’s really bad, but it teaches you so much. Sometimes, you take it for granted that you can play, defend your points, win matches and lose matches. When you don’t have that chance, you really understand what is missing.

Having recovered, Berrettini travelled to Germany for the start of the grass court season. The unfortunate timing of his injury and, as a consequence, not being able to defend his results from the 2021 clay swing, meant that, as he was recovering fitness, he was also losing points. Week by week, the hard-earned victories in Belgrade (win in ATP250), Madrid (final of a M1000), Rome (third round in a M1000), and Paris (quarterfinal of a Slam) dissipated into nothing. The ATP’s decision to strip Wimbledon of points, where Berrettini made the final the year prior, was another gut punch. Asked whether he would prefer to face Nadal or Djokovic (why not both? Looking at you, Carlito) at the upcoming Championships, he made a level-headed assessment. “I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to beat Rafa there, but I think Novak will be tougher, Berrettini said before adding, but, anyway, to play against them I think I have to reach a certain result before. I don’t know my ranking, what it’s going to be in Wimbledon, whether I’m going to be seeded or not.

His comeback tour began on the grassy courts of Stuttgart at the BOSS Open, an event sponsored by Hugo Boss, which, incidentally (or not?) is a brand with whom Berrettini has his own fashion line. Stepping out on court to face Radu Albot, a tour veteran and former world number 39, Berrettini was undoubtedly nervous. What followed was a hard-fought win in three sets, then another one versus Lorenzo Sonego, a straight set win (albeit in two tiebreaks) against Oscar Otte, and yet another three-setter against the toughest opponent yet, ultimately injured, Andy Murray—a man who knows a thing or two about comebacks. “I arrived in Stuttgart, Berrettini said a week later, after lifting the Queen’s trophy. I played just one set, practice, and there was a guy, a junior, so I didn’t really have a lot of match training. It was a moment like, I’m going to be here in Stuttgart, maybe play a couple of rounds if I’m lucky, and let’s see how it goes. And look where I am now!

Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Luke Walker / LTA through Getty Images)
Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Luke Walker / LTA through Getty Images)

 

Winning back-to-back Stuttgart and Queen’s trophies, Berrettini strung together nine consecutive wins in 12 days. It is an indication of readiness, if not an outright declaration, both physical and mental, for the demands Wimbledon places on a player—the mind gets just as rusty during prolonged periods of inactivity, and whereas the body can be checked for signs of rust, the mind less so without real-match pressure.

Berrettini’s recent run of results, combined with his game’s natural predilection for grass, mean that, once again, he is at the front of the pack heading for Wimbledon (“I figured that I could play good on grass in 2019 when I played the Davis Cup against India” he said when asked about fondness for the surface. We are still joking about it with [Rohan] Bopanna because they were like ‘Okay, we’re gonna play Italy on grass because they don’t like grass.’”). His desire to do well, points or no points, is further entrenched by the loss to Novak Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final. And while Berrettini may not necessarily feel like he has anything to prove to others, there are things he would like to prove to himself. 

Probably beating him [Djokovic] in a Slam is one of the toughest things you can ever think to do, he said of that match. Last year, he won three Slams and made the finals in the fourth. So it’s not easy to find a way. But one thing is for sure—every time that I play him, in a Slam, I feel I am getting closer and closer because, obviously, the more you play against someone, the more you learn about him. Also every time I play against these players, I am improving, even if I am losing a match. So I think it’s about time.

Berrettini, like all his peers in the upper crust of tennis society, honed his game over years of ascetic devotion. The technique, chiselled from the marble of potential through endless hours of court time (and there is something of a Roman god in Berrettini—if he stood idly at the Foro Italico in Rome, you could easily mistake him for another statue), and the stamina, built up with a decade of brutal gym work, equip him with the required physicality. But the mental resilience his game shows today is something that he had to learn the hard way. 

That’s why I improved because I got burnt, he said after a bruising encounter with Denis Kudla at Queen’s. I got hurt mentally in a way. I was able to digest the loss, but wasn’t able to digest the fact that I didn’t try to the very end. So I said to myself today, let’s try to the very end so, at least, when you wake up in the morning, you will love yourself a little more.

Going into Wimbledon, Matteo Berrettini is ready to make a statement. But even more so, he is ready to hurt and suffer in order to improve. Over the course of his, still young, career he has learned to take the good with the bad and enjoy himself just that little bit more. At the end of the day, winning matches, or even playing tennis, is not something he can take for granted, and Berrettini, as if taking a leaf out of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, is ready to treat triumph and disaster, those two impostors, just the same. 

I remember one of the change-overs, I look at the glass like [it’s] half-full. I said, ‘OK, you’re here, a lot of people are watching you. Two months ago you were home doing your rehab, your pinkie wasn’t even moving, so don’t complain. Fight. Enjoy it. This is what you live for and worked for all your life.’ So that’s what I did.

Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Clive Brunskill / LTA through Getty Images)
Matteo Berrettini, Queen's 2022 (© Clive Brunskill / LTA through Getty Images)

 

« Life in plastic, it’s fantastic »…

et féministe !

© Mattéo Colson

Cette petite effigie de plastique, au visage adolescent et à la silhouette invraisemblablement féminine, est aujourd’hui sexagénaire. Véritable référence de la pop culture au symbolisme fascinant, elle est plus qu’un simple jouet. En effet la Barbie incarne notamment toute l’évolution de la société américaine depuis les années cinquante, mais aussi, et cela malgré tous les stéréotypes qu’elle peut projeter et auxquels elle est associée, une certaine idée progressiste de la femme.

La première Barbie a été créée par Ruth Handler, qui était à cette époque vice-présidente de Mattel, pour sa fille Barbara surnommée « Barbie », alors qu’elle revenait d’un voyage en Allemagne. L’ingénieuse maman y avait découvert « Bild Lilly », une poupée adulte à taille de guêpe, à la poitrine généreuse et aux jambes dont la longueur semble infinie. C’était une poupée tout droit sortie d’une série de bande dessinée à succès présentée alors chaque jour dans le quotidien Bild Zeitung. Elle représente maintenant le « motif warholien ultime » et les valeurs par excellence de la société américaine : la jeunesse éternelle et l’opulence. Le succès de sa fulgurante commercialisation est un coup de génie marketing et son histoire est en quelque sorte une leçon de mondialisation de l’économie.

Le féminisme selon Barbie

Si l’immense succès commercial ne peut se démentir au fil du temps, c’est que Barbie, à « l’expression coulée dans le plastique », a néanmoins su s’adapter aux tendances et aux évolutions, et notamment à l’inévitable inflexibilité politique. Ainsi elle s’est transformée en astronaute quand il a fallu calmer les remontrances féministes autour de l’image de passivité qu’on lui donnait. « Nous les filles, nous pouvons faire tout ce que nous voulons », clamait-elle dans les années 80. Mais, lorsqu’on regarde les choses de plus près, on se rend compte que Barbie a toujours été libre et indépendante, elle « ne confine pas les fillettes dans une fonction nourricière, dispensatrice de caresses. Barbie est une femme de pouvoir qui ne cède pas aux avances de Ken », affirmait l’écrivaine Marie-Françoise Hanquez-Maincent dans son essai Barbie, poupée totem. 

D’ailleurs, explique Elisabeth Moet, directrice marketing de Mattel France et Belgique : « Au départ, Barbie est un flop. À l’époque, dans la société américaine des années cinquante, la priorité pour les mamans était de faire en sorte de trouver un mari à leur petite fille plutôt qu’elle se projette dans le monde de demain avec un métier. Dès l’origine du projet Barbie, l’idée était qu’à travers ce jouet, la petite fille s’imagine devenir une femme qui a le choix et une certaine liberté. D’où les multiples professions qu’elle exerce. Il existe aujourd’hui une Barbie juge, par exemple. »

Effectivement, avant Barbie, la poupée servait à apprendre à la petite fille comment devenir une bonne mère. Avec le bébé, la petite fille apprend à materner… et avec la maison de poupées, elle s’entraîne à faire le ménage ou la cuisine. Avec Barbie, que nenni, elle a un rôle émancipateur et si elle doit s’entraîner quelque part c’est uniquement sur les courts de tennis ! En 1962, seulement trois années après sa naissance, Mattel décide de coordonner Barbie et Ken avec la création de deux collections dans le thème du tennis : « Tennis for Anyone ? » pour Barbie et « Time for Tennis » pour Ken. Jouant des tons iconiques de la marque et du blanc emblématique du tennis de l’époque, c’est une dizaine de pièces qui mélangent habillement l’univers de la poupée mythique avec celui de la balle jaune. 

La liste complète de leurs vêtements et accessoires :

  • Robe de tennis blanche
  • Cardigan blanc avec bordure orange
  • Lunettes de soleil bleues
  • Cardigan blanc avec bordures bleu marine et rouge 
  • T-Shirt en coton à manches courtes blanc
  • Lunettes de soleil vertes 
  • Chaussettes blanches
  • Chaussures de tennis blanches
  • Livret des règles du tennis
  • Balles de tennis blanches 
  • Raquettes de tennis jaunâtres aux manches noirs 
© Mattéo Colson

Real « Sheroes »

Au début des années 1960, une grande partie des Etats-Unis souffre encore énormément de la ségrégation raciale. Cependant la société évolue grâce à la pression exercée par le mouvement des droits civiques. Une nouvelle et importante législation étendant les droits des Noirs est votée, et en 1967 la Cour suprême juge anticonstitutionnelles les lois interdisant les mariages mixtes entre individus de couleurs différentes. Malheureusement, Martin Luther King est assassiné l’année qui suit. Pour lui rendre hommage et en même temps afficher son soutien à la communauté afro-américaine, Mattel créé la première Barbie noire. L’entreprise a toujours fait preuve d’un certain militantisme, et aujourd’hui elle continue encore. En 2018, celle-ci décide de suivre le mouvement féministe de l’ère #MeToo et se lance dans la lutte contre les stéréotypes sexistes en finançant une chaire à l’université de New York, autour du programme « Dream gap » (le plafond des rêves) sensibilisant le public aux facteurs qui empêchent les petites filles d’atteindre leurs pleins potentiels. Même objectif pédagogique pour sa chaîne YouTube où Barbie donne des conseils aux fillettes et aborde les sujets de la dépression et du harcèlement à l’école.

La même année, pour la journée internationale de la femme, l’entreprise produit une collection rendant hommage à des femmes qui ont marqué l’histoire dans leurs domaines respectifs. S’y trouvent l’aviatrice américaine Amelia Earhart et Katherine Johnson mais aussi l’artiste mexicaine Frida Kahlo, ou une mathématicienne afro-américaine qui a participé à la réussite de la mission Apollo 11. Viendra s’ajouter à la liste l’iconique Billie Jean King, dont la poupée vêtue d’une robe bicolore bleue et turquoise est un clin d’œil explicite à son match d’exhibition légendaire face à Bobby Riggs en 1973.

Ce n’est évidemment pas anodin. Au-delà d’être un simple match de tennis c’était aussi une vraie bataille idéologique. Cette année-là King vient alors de remporter trois titres de Grand Chelem, mais les primes accordées aux femmes restent bien inférieures à celles des hommes. Révoltée par les inégalités entre sexe, King fait partager au monde son ras-le-bol et exige de nouvelles conditions financières. Sous son accoutrement d’agitateur ultra macho, Riggs – par ailleurs plus attiré par l’argent et l’idée du pari  que soucieux de réellement prouver sa théorie – met au défi la joueuse américaine de remporter un match face à lui et ainsi de démontrer qui de l’homme ou de la femme est le plus fort. Il sera battu en trois petits sets et deux heures de jeu. Cette victoire symbolique – et médiatique – marquera un tournant dans l’histoire du tennis féminin puisque dans la même année l’égalité salariale entre en vigueur à l’US Open – décision fortement influencée, il faut le souligner, par la création la formation du syndicat des joueuses, la WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) créée par Billie Jean King, elle-même.

Naomi Osaka rejoint quant à elle le groupe de femmes inspirantes qui font partie de l’initiative « Sheroes » (héros au féminin) de Barbie – qui inclut notamment la gymnaste Laurie Hernandez, l’escrimeuse Ibtihaj Muhammad ou la mannequin Ashley Graham. La joueuse collaborera une deuxième fois sur une nouvelle édition nommée « Role Model » dans laquelle la Barbie revêt un ensemble Nike semblable à celui qu’elle portait lors de l’Open d’Australie en 2020.

« C’est un tel honneur de faire partie de la série Barbie Role Model et de rappeler aux jeunes filles qu’elles peuvent faire une différence dans le monde. Je veux que les jeunes filles du monde entier se sentent habilitées à rêver grand et sachent que si elles croient en elles-mêmes, tout est possible, avait-elle expliqué dans un communiqué de presse. C’est quelque chose de fort, car quand j’étais enfant, je jouais beaucoup à la poupée Barbie ». Née d’une mère japonaise et d’un père haïtien, la joueuse s’est dite fière de « représenter les gens qui pensent qu’ils ne le sont pas ». « C’est vraiment un objectif important pour moi », avait-t-elle insisté.

Comme Billie Jean King, il n’y a pas que sur les courts de tennis que la joueuse engage l’échange et impose son style. En témoigne cet acte fort lors du tournoi de Cincinnati en 2020, quand elle a refusé de jouer sa demi-finale pour protester contre les violences policières aux Etats-Unis après la mort de George Floyd et les tirs par balles sur Jacob Blake. Elle avait réussi, le temps d’une journée, à mettre  le monde du tennis en pause, et obligé  les organisateurs à suivre le mouvement en reportant finalement la rencontre au lendemain. On l’a aussi vue entrer sur le terrain avec des masques au nom des personnes afro-américaines victimes de ces mêmes violences policières lors de l’US Open de la même année. Après avoir reçu une amende et avoir été menacée d’exclusion par la direction du tournoi de Roland-Garros 2021, la Japonaise avait finalement choisi de se retirer de la compétition et avait partagé, sur les réseaux sociaux, un long texte dans lequel elle faisait part de sa détresse psychologique. Rouvrant ainsi le débat (ultra tabou) autour de la santé mentale. 

Barbie n’a jamais cessé d’évoluer avec son temps. Au commencement, ses hobbies sont semblables à ceux des adolescentes : elle fait par exemple  du baby-sitting, elle sort en discothèque… Puis elle entre en faculté dans les années 1970 et fait carrière la décennie suivante. Elle a toujours pratiqué du sport et suivi le style vestimentaire de son époque, la mode étant effectivement l’un des fils conducteurs majeurs de son évolution. Aujourd’hui, elle est le reflet du monde que les enfants – et les plus grands – voient autour d’eux, un monde de diversité et dans lequel on peut devenir qui l’on veut. En somme, Barbie est bien plus complexe et utile que la simple image de bimbo à laquelle elle est assimilée alors il serait peut-être temps de la prendre au sérieux et de parler d’autres choses que de ses mensurations.

Article publié dans notre Courts no. 3 anglais, été 2022.

© Mattéo Colson

Wimbledon Qualification

Day 4, All to Play For

© Anna Britton

You are a Wimbledon qualifier“, on day four this is the end goal for everyone, the strive to hear these words is the motivation. This is it the final day of Wimbledon qualifications where one more result can help change your tennis life, you can say I played a grand slam.

Spectator participation was high again, the stands were packed. Today player interviews were being conducted after each match knowing there would be higher emotions with that main draw slot being the prize.

Even though this was an important day there was still a calm over the Roehampton complex, high pitched screams could only be heard over one court otherwise only the calling of the scores could be heard.There were no easy matches today, you could see by looking at the scoreboard this was hustle day!

After some mild drizzle in the morning slightly delaying the start of the day the high temperatures were still there and the sun was starting to show itself again.

Umbrellas up over the players at change of ends as they sat there contemplating their next move of the chessboard. The thought process trying not to get ahead of themselves and visualising entering that main draw. Talking it point by point, tactical move by move how could they exploit their opponents weakness to give them that end prize that they so badly wanted.

The confidence was now increasing on grass more slice was being used off both sides, the drop shots ever increasing and staying at the back of the court was becoming less of the main preference. The volley was becoming more of the players friend realising that this could be the clincher, a way to shorten the rally and help close out the point. I could hear some coaches comments “Wow ! I’ve never seen her come to the net like that.” Grass forces you to change your patterns and go to shots you sometimes use little on other surfaces.

© Anna Britton

The results coming in it was great to see new mum Yanina Wickmayer qualify, Wickmayer said “this is honestly an amazing moment for me its been a hell of a ride.

Australia came out well with four Australian woman qualifying for the main draw, this hasn’t happened since 1983. For Astra Sharma the qualify was especially sweet as last year she had been a set up and a break up before loosing, qualifying is always exciting but this year she realised just how much it meant,. For Australia this has proved a good tournament having eleven players in the draw and converting four into that converted main draw place , the goal of course is to have 11 in the main draw without having to qualify! Having Ash Barty as a role model seems to have had a golden effect !

The most emotion has to have been shown from Mexican Contreras – Gomez she beat Timea Babos in a long tough battle to get that illustrious main draw place. As she realised this was it she had done it she let out a scream and fell to her knees embracing the grass. Her native flag came out and lots of hugging was to be had from family and friends, her grandfather having played at Wimbledon made it extra special. He had reached the last 8 at Wimbledon and was part of the famous last 8 club enabling him to come and watch her in the main draw.

So there we have it as the last match was completed around 6.30 pm and those golden tickets had been handed out we come back to “the stage awaits!

As this centinery year begins and homage is paid to centre court the proceedings will begin on Monday.

Wimbledon will enter its gates once again with no covid restrictions and the celebrations can begin. We look forward to this unique tournament beginning, the amazing atmosphere and that English heritage showing itself again, Wimbledon we embrace you and your centinery year.

© Anna Britton

Wimbledon Qualification

Day 3, Inspiration

© Anna Britton

Everyday new ideas and innovations are appearing at this tournament. As the sun continued to shine and the temperatures continued to soar, the All England Club had taken pity on the melting spectators. Today on entering the grounds a big screen had appeared next to the innovative mini grass courts where spectators were able to watch the tennis on the big screen under teepee style tents. Young kids were able to glance at the screen to get inspiration and motivation dreaming of playing in the famous historical event whilst buying into this years theme of “the stage awaits“.

You get a strong feeling this year of inspiring the young. With the mini grass courts and the commercial advertising the BBC are using of animation to promote the tournament. In addition to this the second week of the championships will include an u14 exhibition tournament to inspire and encourage both the competing young and the next generation.

Though the qualification event is fiercely competitive outside the courts the atmosphere is relaxed and calm. With the extra seating on all courts and courts having been spaced out everybody gets a clear view . There is no hustle and bustle as there can be on the outside courts at the main event and no standing on tip toes to get a glimpse of you favourite player, it would go under the hashtag of #spectatorsatisfaction!

Day 3 provided both a mix of male and females players and with the dry weather there was little sliding and slipping around the court, a firm grasp was felt under foot.

© Anna Britton

I sat most of the afternoon with my friend Paul Kilderry from Tennis Australia as we watched the Australians compete of both men and woman as they fought it out next to each other. Both players we watched had come back from some serious injuries and surgeries, 4 knee surgeries for one of the players, but the lure of the famous grand slam had pulled them back in to compete, after all Aussies and grass historically go together!

Players famously try and make their comeback at Wimbledon but on the other side they also like to retire there, history and the final page plays a big part in a person tennis career.

As I leave I see a coaching colleague playing mini tennis on the grass courts with his son.I am happy to take pictures and videos of them playing tennis together, who knows if in years to come his son will be playing at Wimbledon,either way we made memories for the family album.

We look forward to Day 4 the testing day when everything is on the line to have that gold(or green!) qualifying place and be part of ‘the stage awaits’.

© Anna Britton

Wimbledon Qualification

Day 2, Ladies Day 

© Anna Britton

Yet again we were blessed with more glorious blue sky and radiant sunshine to start day 2 of the Wimbledon qualification process.
After entering the vast expanse of rolling green grass courts, first stop was to look at the new Centre Court that is being seeded and built for next year. A new practice area will also be built at the front of the club so spectators get to watch the warm ups of their favorite players again increasing spectator participation.

With ladies day always being Wimbledon Tuesday and in this special centenary year more female history was in the making. It was very apt that British player Sarah Beth Gray became part of Wimbledon history. Having been 1 set and 3-5 down, Beth as we know her clawed her way back to play the first 10 point tie break at 6-all in Wimbledon history to clinch the victory. Having had heart surgery only a few months ago it was also great to be part of history in a positive way. Exciting for me having known her and her tennis journey for a long time and to see this result .

Also on an injury comeback was previous doubles runner-up Timea Babos. It was good to see her return to the court having sustained the injury in last years at Wimbledon. She had a convincing 6-1 6-1 win over Katharina Gerlach. On a positive female theme It was good to see mothers competing, one of these being Yanina Wickmayer who in her 13th year playing Wimbledon confessed that she found grass her favorite surface to play on and just loved the special atmosphere that surrounded Wimbledon.

Around the courts various conversations were had about the lack of points this Wimbledon but everyone agreed that Wimbledon still came out the worthy winner of being a unique event that players wanted to compete in and of course there is still the prize money! With players from around the world competing 7 Australian women progressed to the next round strengthening their pool of players.

© Anna Britton

Spectators were delighted and grateful with the new spectator tents where some shade could be taken and sun lotion reapplied as the temperatures continued to soar. Though there is not so much pimms and strawberries consumed at this event you will see more enthused tennis fans not wanting to waste much time away from the competitive court. The tents provide another welcomed addition provided by the all England club for people to take a quick rest bite before heading back to the courts to watch more high quality tennis.

It was interesting to see some great grass court tennis from the likes of Argentinian player Nadia Podoroska, where you would expect to see higher clay court tennis being played. Great tactical awareness could be seen of the bounce of the ball, increased slice work and the charging of the net.

Especially pleasing for me was to see a young player I had formerly coached, Ranah Stoiber aged 17, being given a wild card into the event . Having had a good run at her first junior Wimbledon last year and a couple of good grass court weeks leading up to the qualifying she tried to make the most of her debut but narrowly missed out 7-5 in the third set. It’s always nice to see the younger ones coming through when it only seems like yesterday you were starting their journey!

Day 3 looks likely to provide another filled day of tennis with both the men and women playing their second rounds and the sun yet again shining down on the courts!

Ranah Stoiber (à droite) et Anna Britton (© Anna Britton)

Virgil Abloh

the reinventor, Quote Unquote, Remembered

Trailblazer, visionary, polymath, genius.

2018 US OPEN © Ray Giubilo

These are just some of the words that have been used to describe the late, brilliant fashion designer and entrepreneur Virgil Abloh. His passing on 28 November 2021, after battling a rare form of cancer at the tender age of 41 has created an inextinguishable void in the art and fashion world. But the void is also felt in the tennis world, particularly through a short but impactful collaboration which produced some of the most iconic and dramatic tennis outfits to grace today’s professional tour. 

Fast forward to March 2022, when Abloh’s final collection from his luxury label Off-White was unveiled posthumously at Paris Fashion Week to emotional applause. Showcasing his final designs on the catwalk were names from fashion’s aristocracy: Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Kendall Jenner, and Karlie Kloss. Amongst them, walked none other than tennis’s aristocracy, Abloh’s dear friend and muse—Serena Williams. On her Instagram account, Serena shared a clip, commenting that “it was truly an honor being part of my good friend Virgil’s last Off-White show”.

Abloh and Serena had become close friends since their first Nike collaboration for the 2018 US Open. Just 4 months earlier, Serena had worn a black Nike catsuit at the French Open to much controversy debating whether it was suitable tennis attire. The outfit choice was based on her health. After a history of blood clots and experiencing life-threatening complications during childbirth, the catsuit provided body compression. However, it was later banned, as announced by the French Tennis Federation president. Serena’s stylish response to the criticism materialized 4 months later, thanks to Abloh. The collection was aptly named “The Queen collection”, which was unveiled (of course), in Queens, New York. The collaboration had been much hyped throughout the fashion press. Abloh was the man of the moment. 2018 was his year: the year that he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. It was also the year that Abloh became Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton menswear. His stock was rapidly rising.

 

This marked the beginning of Serena’s revolutionary and emblematic look, breaking the boundaries of what defined tennis wear. These on-court outfits became a metaphor for the way she felt at the time. As she walked out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena sensationally emerged from the tunnel to rapturous applause. She wore a dress, the skirt of which had—of all things: a tulle tutu. This was an outfit unlike anything previously seen on tour. Unlike the other outfits that year at Flushing Meadows, this did not look like tennis wear. Was it fashion, or was it sport? It was both: a fashion-sport hybrid.

The dress was a homage to Serena’s love of dancing and ballet. It was about having fun, whilst showcasing her personality, passion, and strength. Cut asymmetrically on the body, the outfit had Abloh’s recognisable nuance: quoted words. The Nike swoosh logo on the chest had the words “logo” printed above it. “Serena” was embellished on a single sleeve. Fishnet compression tights completed the ensemble. Abloh had designed two colourways: lilac for daytime matches, and black for night. As with many of Abloh’s creations, this was a tennis dress reimagined, as he explained: “I was trying to embody her spirit and bring something compelling and fresh to tennis…So the dress is feminine but combines her aggression. It’s partially revealing. It’s asymmetrical. It has a sort of ballerina-esque silhouette to symbolize her grace. It’s not about bells and whistles and tricks. It’s just about it living on the body and expressing Serena’s spirit with each swing of the racket.”That tutu was the embodiment of Serena Williams. It represented grace, power, and determination. Its beauty lay in its silhouette whilst in motion. Nobody else could have carried it off as perfectly as her. The photographs of a balletic Serena in action wearing that dress are breathtakingly dramatic. Only Serena could do it. Only Abloh could do it for her. And together, like some of the world’s best artist/muse collaborations, they did. 

Their second collaboration happened the following year, for the 2019 French Open. In true Abloh style, this outfit also seemed inconceivable on a tennis court. The black and white press preview photographs showed Serena and Abloh together; Abloh in ripped jeans and a Nike hoodie, Serena in a black and white zebra print ensemble including a floor length skirt with a high side split. It had a matching crop top and jacket. When she walked onto the French red clay that May, the floor length skirt was replaced by a short skirt, paired with the crop top and jacket. Mesh netting showcased her impressively toned abs. Once again, Abloh had embellished the outfit with his signature quoted words. Serena’s superhero style caped jacket shouted female empowerment, with “mother, champion, queen and goddess” in French. This was a direct response to her previous year’s critics. The point was made, stylishly and clearly. When Jon Wertheim asked Serena post-match what she thought of the outfit, she said “it’s all positive reinforcement for me. And I kind of love that”.This, she said, made her feel like a warrior. She later commented that “it talks about me being a mom and me being a queen, as all women are. A champion”.3

2018 US OPEN, Serena Williams (USA) © Ray Giubilo

In tennis, there was no better partnership. Both had much in common: unorthodox, breaking boundaries, and successful upon their own merits. Abloh considered Serena a leader for future generations. He wanted to work with people like him who saw no limits, who could help lift and inspire others. He once said, “What I’ve learned … with design is that there is an inherent style and focus that exists amongst athletes and designers alike: What propels them to be the best comes from deep within.”Like Abloh, Serena has always been a moderniser. Her unconventional fashion sense goes back years. Think back to the short micro jumpsuit from US Open 2002, or the denim skirt and knee-high (yes, knee-high!) biker style boots in 2004. Nobody had quite dressed like this before on court. Their collaboration was destiny. 

But Abloh’s foray into the tennis world didn’t start with Serena. He had always wanted to work with Nike. So, in 2016, he collaborated with Nike to design ‘The Ten’: a range of Nike’s classic sneaker styles. But rebuilt and ‘remixed’ by Abloh. They were an outstanding success, quadrupling the retail price in the secondary market, making them highly collectable. The following year, Abloh redesigned an Off-White x Nike Air Jordan 1 pair, in a classic red and white colourway for Roger Federer. They had Abloh’s trademark flourish. Right there, unmistakably on the midsole, was a hand scribbled “Federer”, quoted and in permanent marker. Federer wore the sneakers at the 2017 US Open’s Arthur Ashe Kids Day. Last summer, Abloh designed wedding outfits for the lavender-themed wedding of Elina Svitolina with Gael Monfils, in custom Off-White. Svitolina wore a cream gown with lavender tulle. Monfils wore a 3-piece lavender suit to match. Upon the news of Abloh’s death, Monfils paid a touching tribute on Instagram: “I am so devastated by the news and still can’t believe it. I had the privilege to talk with you during those years and you were a true inspiration for me. Only a few months ago you gave us the honor to design Elina wedding dress. I’m forever grateful for our connection. My prayers go to your family”.

On 8 April, Nike released a posthumous collaboration sneaker with Off-White, “in accordance with Abloh’s wishes”.5 Unsurprisingly, it sold out immediately. Only a month later, on 21 May, another posthumous sneaker was unveiled at an exhibition at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse in Brooklyn, USA. Abloh had masterminded one of his most ambitious projects just before his death: a collaboration between Nike and Louis Vuitton. The product of that marriage is the “Air Force 1”, with 47 editions released for Spring/Summer 2022. The pieces are museum collection worthy, showpieces in their own right. We can certainly expect these investables to be traded and re-traded for years to come in the grey market. Described as “a heritage Nike design, tweaked with Louis Vuitton iconography, and manufactured in the Louis Vuitton atelier in Venice6”, this sneaker is pure Abloh: a juxtaposition of streetwear and luxury. 9 of the 47 editions will be on sale from June.

 This July marks another milestone in Abloh’s chronology. Coinciding with Wimbledon, 1 July 2022 will also be the opening day of the exhibition that Abloh will sadly never see. Before his death, Abloh had been meticulously planning every detail of his retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech”. What began as a travelling exhibition, was scheduled to culminate in its final iteration at the museum. And to appreciate the concept of this exhibition is to understand the man behind it. 

Abloh named his successful label Off-White, because it is “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.”7 Perhaps also reflective of himself, who wanted no compartmentalisation. He was much more than a fashion designer. In a sense, a jack of all trades. Trained as an architect, Abloh had an unconventional start in the fashion world. He didn’t go to fashion school, but worked in street fashion, with young creatives, graffiti artists and hip-hop DJs. Through an internship at Fendi, Abloh met and eventually collaborated with rapper Kanye West before setting up his own labels, including Off-White and becoming the groundbreaking artistic director of Louis Vuitton, where he wanted to “define the title of artistic director for a new and different era”.His very first collection made an impact, blurring the lines between fashion, art, music, politics. His collaborations through the years have showcased his diversity, from Ikea furniture to Rimowa luggage to music. Abloh once collaborated and DJ’d for Pioneer, designing transparent DJ consoles, which were then exhibited at the Chicago Museum for the Figures of Speech exhibition. 

Roland Garros 2019, Serena Williams (USA) © Ray Giubilo

Arguably, the quoted words in his creations are amongst the most recognisable characteristics. They were to provide irony, make people think, and to strip things back to their basic function. He labelled some of the most prosaic things, like shoelaces (with the label “shoelaces” in quotes), plastic zip ties, furniture and even bottles of Evian water! Rihanna once wore a pair of $1,000 stiletto over-the-knee white leather boots embellished with “For Walking” up the back of the boots. She wore them on stage, but they were for anything but walking. To Abloh, these ordinary objects were sculptures or pieces of art9. 

And art was everything to Abloh. In some respects, he was today’s Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, he brought a fresh new look and value to everyday objects by reworking them into new pieces of art. Much like Warhol’s soup cans, this reworking caused controversy throughout his career but also brought great success. Like resampling an old song in hip-hop, Abloh was the DJ of his creations, remixing images of old masterpieces, and showing them in a fresh modern light. He loved 17th century baroque paintings as much as he loved graffiti art. Each season became a lesson in art history, as he focused on a single artist, from Édouard Manet to Leonardo da Vinci to Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Naomi Osaka has been spotted wearing one of the Mona Lisa Off-White hoodies when off court)! But the most referenced artist in Abloh’s collections was the Italian master of chiaroscuro, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 

Abloh printed Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, Madonna of the Rosary, Annunciation, Narcissus, Saint Jerome Writing and The Seven Works of Mercy across his collections—on t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies. Perhaps one reason why Abloh liked Caravaggio so much was because, like himself, Caravaggio was controversial. Michael Darling, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago wrote in the Forward of the “Figures of Speech” exhibition book, that “Abloh was “blown away” by Caravaggio’s innovative use of the painting technique known as chiaroscuro and how it changed history … Abloh says that studying the Renaissance “rewired” his brain and that chiaroscuro made him realize that art wasn’t just for rich people”10. Intriguingly, there is a tennis connection. Allegedly, Caravaggio was so passionate about tennis, that shortly before his death he was on the run from killing a man over a tennis match!

The July exhibition is about much more than just design or fashion. The pandemic and 2020 racial protests in the US made Abloh rethink the plan to make it more political. Consequently, the museum’s centrepiece will be a black house. The house has been constructed with unmatched doors/windows. Although everything works, nothing fits. The construction is symbolic of “negritude architecture… Or the way Black people make things, houses or magazine stands in Harlem, for instance”.11 Things are deconstructed, and re-designed, like converting a tutu into a tennis skirt. This transformative approach was applied at Louis Vuitton. He once repurposed a classic Louis Vuitton trunk into a boombox. Louis Vuitton’s origins were as a trunk maker. Abloh’s reinvention attracted a new demographic. This exhibition is certain to make a lasting impact.

 

Both collections that Abloh designed for Serena show his profound understanding and respect for one of the greatest athletes of our time. Only an artist who knows their muse well can bring out the best in them, and vice versa. Art history has shown us the best examples: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar or Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick amongst others. Likewise in fashion, collaborations between Ines de la Fressange and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, and Audrey Hepburn, Azzedine Alaïa and Grace Jones have produced the most iconic looks still admired today.

Amongst the most notable tennis muse collaborations from the past were the creations of fashion designer Ted Tinling, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Like Abloh, Tinling created tennis dresses that were considered daring and ahead of their time. He too had deep rapport with his muses, who were champions: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert. Over 50 years later, the tennis world was treated albeit briefly, to Abloh-Serena. There could have been many more outfits to come. 

Virgil Abloh had so much more to give to the world. Whether we hear of an imminent posthumous tennis collection or not, one thing is certain: Serena and Abloh had only just begun.

 

Story published in Courts no. 3, Summer 2022.

Wimbledon qualies

The start up of “the stage awaits”

© Anna Britton

As you approach the club you instantly see the difference since the All England Club has taken over this venue. Smart signs and Wimbledon borders guide you into the club. The layout has changed with grass mini tennis courts available for kids to get their first taster of the hallowed turf. New food and canteen areas are available and there is definitely more of a professional Wimbledon vibe to the tournament.

Day 1 starts with the mens draw and both players and spectators were blessed with fantastic weather. Some players still struggled to find whites and even at this level there can be a mad dash to find white kit if you have no sponsor. As you would expect the quality of the matches was strong but you could see the majority of the players that had come off the clay courts struggling to adjust to the different bounce, speed of the ball and different footwork patterns needed. A couple of the matches only lasted 45 mins as some struggled more than others.

© Anna Britton

As the sun bounced off the crisp whites which are obligatory for both the Wimbledon qualification and main draw the style of slice, drop shot and volley was there across all matches. Larger practise areas and player tents make the whole complex seem bigger with more seating which also gives spectators a more comfortable watch. The crisp bounce of the ball and linesman’s calls could be heard across the open spaced  complex.

Matches were able to continue right through to 7pm which is always a great start for the tournament director. Let’s hope the good weather continues throughout the week and it will be interesting  to see extra additions that the All England  club introduces. Roll on day 2 the woman’s draw .

© Anna Britton

Halle en état de grass

ATP 500 de Halle 2022
ATP 500 de Halle, 2022 (© Juliette Boffy)

Du béton à l’horizon. Au milieu d’une zone industrialisée aux routes cimentées, jonchées de garages pour camions réfrigérés et agrémentées de parkings bondés, il est tout de même parvenu à s’y faufiler. Au bout de la « Roger Federer Allée », que le futur revenant a remporté à dix reprises sur seulement treize participations, il se dévoile. Depuis une trentaine d’années, un petit écrin tissé de verdure, enveloppé par l’Owl Arena et sa structure immaculée, vient rivaliser avec les plus prestigieux tournois sur gazon d’ouverture de la saison.

La rue Roger Federer, menant au stade de Halle (© Juliette Boffy)

Le roi soleil, gardien de la chaleur suffocante se faisant assassin du vent bienfaiteur en cette semaine caniculaire, n’aura cependant pas empêché la dizaine de milliers de spectateurs quotidiens de venir agiter leurs éventails à cette nouvelle édition du Terra Wortmann Open d’Halle. En transpirant peut-être tout autant pour leurs joueurs favoris que sous le plomb météorologique, les aficionados présents ont pu se délecter – entre quelques boissons cuivrées et les traditionnelles crêpes aux fraises – de la fraîcheur hebdomadaire d’Hubert Hurkacz. Le Polonais, envoyant au tapis vert le géant et numéro 1 mondial Daniil Medvedev en finale, a confirmé une possible traversée héroïque dans le borough londonien de Merton.

Daniil Medvedev, au service lors du tournoi de Halle en 2022 (© Juliette Boffy)

Balayant la solide frappe d’un Nick Kyrgios résistant lors de la demi-finale et survolant l’irritabilité du Russe dans un ultime combat abrégé, Hurkacz a pu conforter ses supporters rouges et blancs : le désormais 10ème meilleur joueur mondial n’en a pas fini d’infliger de robustes volées de bois vert à ses futurs adversaires.

 

 

An Ode to Surbiton

andy Murray, Challenger Surbiton 2022
Andy Murray, Challenger Surbiton 2022 (© Cristina Puscas)

The ball hit the net. It wasn’t supposed to but it did. Jordan Thompson blinked twice, as if in disbelief, then snarled and chuckled—a sequence of emotions he took a mere second to display. “It’s a joke“, he uttered under his breath. Minutes later, he whipped up an impossibly angled forehand at a full stretch, picking up the ball from inches above the ground, with spin that threatened to send it careening into the stands, but ultimately dragged down to a foot within the baseline. Superhuman as the shot seemed, it was routine, which made the errant forehand from the moment before all the more jarring. In the symphony of a professional tennis match, a missed shot is a false note—it rankles and unnerves. It’s shattered glass. Nails on a chalkboard.

To watch Jordan Thompson in action, the 82nd best male tennis player in the world, is to glimpse how miniscule the technical differences can be between the spotlighted tennis elite and the lower-ranked players that often, and unfairly, make for a backdrop to the matches you see on TV. But to watch him run around the green courts of Surbiton is also to glimpse the essence of grass-tennis in general.

Thompson darts across the baseline with a faint patter of footwork. His game, loaded with looping topspin groundstrokes and cunning slices, extends shots into gruelling rallies.

Inside one such rally, there comes a grunt of strain—his body tenses up for an attacking shot, arm extending—he hits a blistering forehand that wraps around his neck. A quick split step follows, then a gasp, and a sprint across the green for a skilful, put-away volley. The ball slides off his racquet and grazes the side-line of the service box. Or maybe it doesn’t. He freezes, all momentum gone. A linesman shrieks “out!, and as his voice echoes away, Thompson looks to the spot the ball had just hit, then to the umpire, with a look of utter disbelief on his face. He snarls, irritated, and demands to inspect the ball for signs of chalk which would indicate that the ball had in fact caught the line. He tosses it over in his hands. With his eyes suddenly growing wide, he theatrically drops to his knees. “Oh, come on, he shouts. This is such an important point! You can’t do this.” The umpire shakes his head sympathetically. There’s nothing I can do, he seems to be saying.

Thompson huffs. He shakes his head. He walks over to the service line. Years—decades—of tennis-trained two-second memory doing its work, he’s already pushed the point out of his mind. He’s focusing on the next one.

Thompson plants his feet on the baseline, and looks over to his opponent. He tosses the ball up, and with his gaze fixed on the yellow comet trailing an arch over his head, he hits an ace.

There is no denying that Surbiton is a far cry from the manicured perfection of Wimbledon. But it’s also where grass court tennis gets distilled to its most basic ingredients. It’s a place for the fans to fall in love with the game rather than the sport.

Surbiton Trophy is an annual event taking place in the first week of June. Serving as the entry way into the British grass-court swing, for many players the tournament is often the first contact of the season with grass. Located on the outskirts of London, over its history, the 137-year-old venue has hosted a parade of promising youngsters looking to break through, tour veterans searching for game time, and stars trying to get the feel of the surface they will be playing on for the next month. The ATP website notes that, “Past champions in Surbiton include former Top 10 stars Mardy Fish (2006) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2007), with Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer contesting their first professional grass-court matches there in 1998 and 1999, respectively.” The list is not conclusive—Andy Murray competed on multiple occasions, and in 2018, NextGen prodigy, 19-year-old Alex de Minaur, lost in the final to Jérémy Chardy in a three-set thriller. 

It takes four minutes and twenty-six seconds to make a full round of the Surbiton Racket & Fitness Club where the event is held. With wet gravel crackling under my shoes, I walk into the tournament grounds past a small and unassuming media centre, then a cordoned-off, low-roofed building serving as the players’ restaurant, and a red-brick clubhouse with bushy, verdant tree line towering over. I go deeper, snaking around the centre court, its makeshift stands creaking under the weight of tennis-hungry fans, and into the open space packed tightly with seven tennis courts—their grass trimmed neatly to three-quarters of an inch. “Please don’t throw stones on the courts“, warns a sign. Which is fitting, seeing as at Surbiton, everything is a stone’s throw away.

Andy Murray, Pierre-Hugues Herberrt, Challenger Surbiton 2022
Andy Murray, Pierre-Hugues Herberrt, Challenger Surbiton 2022 (© Cristina Puscas)

I start noticing things—familiar details that one learns to recognise after following live tennis for a while. Groups of ball kids frolicking around as they wait to be called on court (I want to believe that a collective noun for a group of ball kids is a gaggle—it evokes the right kind of sound), officials casting nervous glances at the ominously grey sky, players, easily spotted from the crowd, with their tanned complexions and well-toned frames.

The tournament’s dates fall on the cusp of the British Summer, it is therefore irritatingly cold most of the time. As the week progresses, in a cruel rock-paper-scissors game of weather, I am forced to apply sunscreen just for the rain to wash it off and for the wind to blow the umbrella out of my hand. The lack of glamour of the Surbiton Trophy, and the lower rungs of the tennis tour in general (Surbiton is a Challenger level event—a tier below the ATP Tour), is inescapable—manual scoreboards, chemical toilets, overpriced food. And yet, it has a certain charm to it.

It doesn’t feel like a Challenger“, Denis Kudla, this year’s finalist, remarked. He is right. This year’s lineup, despite Surbiton Trophy’s modest ranking points offering (however, still more than Wimbledon’s), was packed with tennis-heavyweights. Surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, Andy Murray pinged away volleys on a practice court, tour veterans Radu Albot and Denis Kudla strutted around the grounds, newcomer Brandon Nakashima languidly watched another player’s training session, promising youngster Jack Draper and multiple Slam doubles champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert stretched out on benches and chatted with fans, in a display of access that would be unthinkable just one train-stop away at Wimbledon. 

The courts play differently, too. Both Andy Murray and Denis Kudla mentioned it—Murray saying that, “[Surbiton grass] is different to Wimbledon and Queen’s“, and Kudla noting that the courts play “closer to old-school grass than the perfection of Wimbledon.” Over the course of the tournament, the conditions were not always conducive to great hitting, with strong winds and showers interrupting play (“It was a pretty good match considering the ridiculous winds“, said Thompson of his win over Otto Virtanen), but when the elements eased off, and allowed the game to be played, it produced tennis at its most entertaining.

The clay swing was a little bit rough for me so I was really keen to get started on the lovely green stuff, and it couldn’t have started any better“, Jordan Thompson said of his start to the tournament. In a way, that was my feeling, too. Surbiton Trophy marks the start of the grass-court season, and just as its close cousin, clay, it makes for a unique part of the tennis tour. After the Australian sojourn, the American Sunshine Double, and the Mediterranean clay-swing, I was looking forward to the stoic beauty of “the lovely green stuff“. It seemed fitting, too, that this year, the quintessentially British tournament took place on the Jubilee weekend, an occasion marking Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years of reign. 

On the semi-finals day, with the Jubilee flags fluttering over the centre court, I watched Sir Andy Murray battle it out with Denis Kudla. The fans, quieter and more composed than their clay- or hard-court counterparts, applauded genially the low-bouncing rallies, the slices, and the forays to the net. They Ohhd and Ahhd at the falls, slips, and bad bounces, and whispered incredulously at the double faults. The ping and the pong of the ball echoed around the stadium, and Murray’s monologues entertained with a background of constant self-criticism. 

At one point, the sun briefly peeked out from behind the clouds, and bathed the Surbiton grass with a golden glow. And as Murray and Kudla went deep into yet another one of their rallies, a smile crept up on my face. The “green stuffis lovely, I thought.

Andy Murray, Challenger Surbiton 2022
Andy Murray, Challenger Surbiton 2022(© Cristina Puscas)

« Tough opponent »

© Antoine Couvercelle

Même lorsqu’il affronte un qualifié au premier tour de Roland-Garros, Rafael Nadal, en amont du duel, va louer les qualités de son adversaire. Le décrire comme dangereux – le fameux « tough opponent » – et se montrer prudent en affirmant s’attendre à un match difficile. De l’extérieur, on peut penser qu’il en fait trop. Qu’au fond, c’est du blabla. Qu’il sait que ça va se finir en 6/2 6/2 6/2. Et pourtant, il semble le penser profondément. Parce qu’il a besoin de ça, d’un peu de doute, pour pouvoir se battre corps et âme à chaque instant passé sur le court. 

 

« Je crois que, tout simplement, je l’ai fait voler en éclats. J’ai explosé son jeu. Je crois qu’il n’y a pas plus de commentaires à faire. » Interviewé sur le court après son huitième de finale de Roland-Garros 1996, Cédric Pioline n’est plus joueur de tennis. Il est producteur de fruits et légumes et nous propose son plus beau « melon ». Parce que le Français peut fanfaronner. Il vient d’écrabouiller – 6/4 6/1 6/2 en 1 h 35 – l’étoile montante du tennis mondial : Marcelo Ríos, 20 ans, 10e du classement ATP. Alors, plutôt que de raconter des salades pour donner dans la fausse modestie, il dit ce qu’il pense vraiment. Un franc-parler qui tranche avec les discours des temps actuels. Ceux pour lesquels il n’est nul besoin de se mouiller la nuque avant de les écouter. Ceux à l’eau tiède. Dans un monde où le duo médias-réseaux sociaux peut agir comme une loupe, parfois déformante, sur chaque propos lâché, les joueurs se protègent. Pas de vague. Au moment de s’exprimer sur un adversaire-collègue du circuit, on ménage la chèvre et le chou.

Entre cadors du circuit, les piques sont rares. Aussi rares qu’un passing de revers signé Ivo Karlović. L’époque des clashs aux punchlines à faire passer Booba et ses attaques, contre la quasi-totalité de ses rivaux du rap game, pour des blagounettes de pacotille à peine bonnes pour le papier des carambars est loin. Très loin. Plus loin encore que le positionnement d’un Daniil Medvedev par rapport à sa ligne de fond au retour. L’une des plus célèbres remonte aux années 1980. Quand John McEnroe, en mode plus « Big Mouth » que « Big Mac », donnait à manger aux journalistes en se comparant à l’un de ses ennemis honnis : « J’ai plus de talent dans mon petit doigt qu’Ivan Lendl n’en a dans tout son corps. » Lors du Masters de l’année 1980, joué en janvier 1981, Jimmy Connors avait quant à lui publiquement raillé le Tchèque en le qualifiant de « poule mouillée ». La raison ? Il l’accusait d’avoir volontairement perdu son dernier match de poule, face à lui, afin de terminer deuxième et d’éviter Björn Borg en demi-finale.

Dans les années 1990, quelques bouches ont continué d’envoyer des scuds. Comme celle de Ríos, faisant rarement chou blanc quand il s’agissait de se montrer un « tantinet » provocateur. En conférence de presse à Rome en 1998, alors qu’on lui demandait comment il allait pouvoir battre Thomas Muster, son prochain adversaire, qu’il n’avait jamais vaincu en trois matchs, le Chilien ne s’était pas démonté : « Le gars serait déjà content s’il pouvait mettre un ou deux jeux. » Le lendemain, le garnement remportait le duel de gauchers en faisant passer le monument de la terre battue pour une vulgaire ruine ne valant plus un radis. Victoire 6/3 6/1 en 55 minutes. Depuis, l’aseptisation s’est poursuivie. Lissés par l’ère actuelle, les réglementations ATP et WTA cuisinées à base d’amende au moindre écart, les caractères – du moins, à froid, loin des tourments d’un court pouvant parfois rendre fou – sont contenus, tenus en laisse. Même les plus fougueux comme Nick Kyrgios ne se sont jamais laissés aller à balancer des châtaignes verbales pour rabaisser un adversaire avant une rencontre.

© Antoine Couvercelle

« Chaque personne que vous lui présentez, Rafa lui montre un grand respect. »

Rafael Nadal est devenu l’incarnation de cette courtoisie. Avant chaque joute, sourcil gauche haussé, accent propre à la langue de Cervantes, il nous a habitués à son fameux « tough opponent » pour décrire son prochain opposant. L’une de ses expressions fétiches, que vous pouvez coller dans une grille de bingo avec « try my best » avant ses conférences de presse. Pour transformer le stylo – à vrai dire, le clavier de nos jours – en crayon de caricaturiste : même s’il affrontait Fernand Verdalcol, 30/3 vedette d’un club champêtre, au premier tour d’un tournoi de village perdu au fin fond du Poitou, il se montrerait méfiant en louant ses qualités. Pour mettre du beurre dans leurs épinards, certains de ses détracteurs se sont régulièrement appuyés sur cet aspect de sa personnalité pour le dépeindre comme un « faux modeste ». On peut ne pas apprécier ce pan de caractère. Libre à chacun d’aimer le charisme d’un homme pour son humilité, ou celui d’un autre pour son côté plus « provocant ». Ce n’est pas une affaire de bien ou de mal, seulement une question de préférence personnelle.

Mais affirmer avec aplomb que « l’ogre de l’ocre » surjoue ce respect du rival est pour le moins osé. À moins de s’appeler Charles Xavier, de vivre dans un château et d’avoir des pouvoirs télépathiques. Or, dans la réalité, cela n’existe. Si vous pensez être le chef des X-Men capable de lire dans les pensées, c’est un autre problème. Votre château est sans doute un asile, et vous vivez entouré de Napoléon, Jules César et Bernard Tomic. Réciproquement, certifier que le surnommé « Rafa » pense à 100 % chacune de ses déclarations serait tout aussi fou. À part lui, nul n’est dans sa tête. Mais tous ceux qui le côtoient le décrivent comme quelqu’un de très humain, d’une grande sincérité. Avec lui, et bien au-delà des limites du court, nul ne compte pour des prunes. « Ce respect, je l’ai constaté à plein de moments différents », nous confie Jean-Christophe Verborg, directeur de la compétition internationale et chargé de superviser les détections chez Babolat, qui connaît l’homme au 21 titres du Grand Chelem depuis ses 14 ans. « Quand il entre dans une pièce, il ne fait pas un ‘coucou global’, il salue individuellement. »

« Chaque personne que vous lui présentez, il lui montre un grand respect, il ne surjoue pas », poursuit-il. « En repartant, il dit toujours au revoir et merci à tout le monde. Pareil avec ses sparring-partners. Même s’il n’hésite pas, s’il le peut, à leur mettre 6/0 6/0 – parce que c’est son mode de fonctionnement, toujours à fond –, je ne l’ai jamais vu ne pas aller saluer son partenaire d’entraînement. Lors des séances de dédicaces avec les enfants, par exemple, si après le temps initialement prévu il voit que plein de gamins sont encore en train d’attendre, il dit : ‘Non, je reste.’ En 2008, à Monte-Carlo, nous avions organisé une séance de dédicace à notre stand. On annonce la venue de Rafa, et trois heures avant les gens étaient déjà là. Monte-Carlo (l’enceinte du stade), c’est petit. Le tournoi était bloqué tellement il y avait de monde. C’était dingue ! La séance a duré un certain temps, et Rafa voulait continuer, mais on ne pouvait plus… Il fallait que nous arrêtions, j’avais l’impression que tout le stade était devant le stand. »

 

« Je ne serai jamais trop confiant » – Rafael Nadal

Touché, Nadal, pas du genre à ne penser qu’à sa pomme, va alors avoir des mots gravés dans la mémoire de Jean-Christophe Verborg. « Ce jour-là, Rafa m’a dit : ‘Je ne veux pas créer de frustration pour ceux qui viennent me voir. Il vaut mieux voir plus petit pour que je puisse satisfaire tout le monde, sinon j’ai l’impression de faire de la peine’. En Australie (en janvier 2022), je discutais avec son chauffeur, et il lui a donné cette même impression de gentillesse et de respect. Celle qu’il laisse partout où il passe. S’il vous aperçoit au loin, il traverse toute la pièce pour venir vous saluer. Alors que parfois, à l’instant T, avec toutes les sollicitations qu’il a, il pourrait en avoir marre. Mais non. Il donne ce petit truc, ce petit geste, cette petite attention à tout le monde. Toutes ces anecdotes, en privé, loin des caméras, me font dire que ça ne peut qu’être sincère. Sinon, ce n’est pas possible (il ne pourrait pas jouer constamment un rôle). Mais attention, je ne dis pas qu’il est le seul. Plein d’autres le font. »

En amont d’un duel, ce « rite » de louer les mérites de son futur opposant, « c’est aussi une manière de se protéger », pense Jean-Christophe Verborg. « De garder cet état d’esprit de tout donner sur chaque point, même quand tout le monde pense qu’il va gagner les doigts dans le nez. » En raison du style de jeu de ses jeunes années – notamment un service alors plus faible, peu de points gratuits – le Majorquin, à la combativité forgée par « tío Toni », a toujours eu conscience d’avoir besoin d’être au maximum contre chaque adversaire. Dans son esprit, partir gagnant serait prendre le risque d’une légère baisse inconsciente d’intensité ; soit la fin des haricots. Même lorsqu’il gagne en trois sets secs en Majeur, ses matchs durent rarement moins de deux heures. « Je ne serai jamais trop confiant », expliquait-t-il en 2018 après une victoire 6/3 6/3 7/6 en 2 h 57 face à Simone Bolelli au premier tour de Roland-Garros. « C’est pour ça que j’ai eu autant de succès dans ma carrière. Je respecte la compétition et chaque adversaire. Quand je vais sur le court, je sais que je peux perdre. Tout peut arriver (contre n’importe qui), c’est le sport. »

Car cette intensité a toujours été l’un des murs porteurs de son jeu, dont les briques ont été posées depuis ses plus jeunes années. « La première fois que j’ai rencontré Rafa, c’était en avril 2001 », n’a pas oublié Jean-Christophe Verborg. « J’avais vraiment été marqué par son engagement sur le court. C’était incroyable. Il s’entraînait avec Feliciano López, Carlos Moyà et Sergi Bruguera. Il n’avait que 14 ans, sa coupe un peu au bol (sourire), et c’était déjà le Rafa qu’on connaît. Les premiers entraînements auxquels j’ai assisté, j’avais cet ‘effet wahou’. C’était du bam-bam pendant parfois quatre, cinq heures à fond. Vraiment intense. Je me suis dit : ‘Ah oui, quand même…’ » Une force de travail qu’il n’a jamais perdue. Sur le terrain, pendant les échanges, pas le temps de se fendre la poire. « Je me suis entraîné avec Rafa, dans son académie à Majorque, fin 2018, pendant l’intersaison, l’intensité était vraiment très élevée », a raconté Casper Ruud, proche de fêter son 20e anniversaire et 113e mondial au moment de cette préparation, pour Tennisportalen fin 2019. 

© Ray Giubilo

« L’intensité de la préparation avec Rafa était vraiment très élevée, j’en suis revenu épuisé » – Casper Ruud

« J’en suis revenu épuisé, a-t-il complété. Beaucoup de choses se sont ensuite améliorées dans mon jeu, mon intensité a considérablement augmenté. » Au moment de préparer la saison 2020, ce fut au tour d’un autre jeune Scandinave, Emil Ruusuvuori, 20 ans et 123e du classement ATP à l’époque, de vivre la même expérience. « La façon dont il (Rafael Nadal) frappe la balle et l’intensité tellement élevée qu’il maintient tout au long de l’entraînement, c’est quelque chose de réellement différent », a relaté le Finlandais pour le site de l’ATP. « Je n’avais jamais vu ça. C’est l’un de mes meilleurs souvenirs sur un court. Dès la première balle, c’est incroyable de voir à quel point il frappe fort, l’intensité qu’il met. Et à chaque entraînement c’est comme ça. Sa capacité à toujours rester extrêmement concentré est extraordinaire. À chaque session, il en tire quelque chose. J’ai beaucoup appris en le voyant. » Et pour maintenir cette envie de faire bouffer les pissenlits par la racine à son rival sur chaque point une fois en compétition, Rafael Nadal a besoin de douter. De ne pas se croire vainqueur avant que la balle de match ne soit gagnée.

Même quand il affronte un joueur déjà vaincu 16 fois en autant de confrontations, « pas d’excès de confiance. En étant honnête, je suis entré sur le terrain avec le plus grand respect, parce que je sais à quel point Richard est fort », expliquait-il l’an passé après s’être imposé 6/0 7/5 6/2 en 2 h 14 face à Richard Gasquet sur l’ocre de la porte d’Auteuil. Pour ramener sa fraise au détour d’une conversation entre passionnés de tennis, ce 17e succès en autant de matchs face à un adversaire constituait alors un record*. Détenu à égalité avec Roger Federer (17-0 contre Mikhail Youhzny et David Ferrer), Novak Djokovic (17-0 contre Gaël Monfils), Ivan Lendl (17-0 contre Tim Mayotte) et Björn Borg (17-0 contre Vitas Gerulaitis).* Lors d’un entretien accordé à Jon Wertheim pour 60 Minutes en janvier 2020, le « taureau de Manacor » a détaillé son besoin essentiel de douter.

– Jon Wertheim : Vous m’avez dit une fois : « Si je ne ressentais pas de doutes, j’aurais des problèmes. Le doute est très important dans mes succès. » Que vouliez-vous dire ?
– Rafael Nadal : Si on n’a pas de doutes, ça veut probablement dire qu’on est arrogant.
– Jon Wertheim : La plupart des athlètes pensent l’exact opposé, que le doute est mauvais. Vous, vous pensez que le doute est presque un pouvoir, une force ?
– Rafael Nadal : Je crois que oui. Je pense que c’est bon pour moi, ça me permet de rester en alerte. Parce que le tennis est un sport où le vent peut très vite tourner. C’est aussi ce qui en fait toute la beauté.

 

« En voyant jouer Rafa, j’ai pris conscience de l’énorme lâche que j’étais » – Janko Tipsarević

Pour ceux préférant les actes aux paroles, Gilles Simon, dans son livre Ce sport qui rend fou, a raconté à merveille comment l’humilité « nadalienne » est traduite sur un terrain. L’exemple choisi : le huitième de finale d’Indian Wells 2016 remporté 5/7 6/0 7/5 par le roi du « VAMOS ! » devant Alexander Zverev. « Zverev rate une volée facile sur balle de match en sa faveur », a remémoré le Français aux mollets-phasmes. « Normalement c’était fini. Mais il la met dans le filet. Nadal se fait accrocher comme pas possible par un joueur qui a onze ans de moins que lui, et une fois le match remporté il saute partout comme s’il n’avait jamais été aussi heureux de gagner, il est comme un gosse. À aucun moment il ne s’est dit que c’était normal de battre ce petit jeune, malgré tous les trophées exposés dans son musée à Majorque. (…) À la fin, Rafa donne l’impression qu’il a fait une prestation hors du commun, ça c’est une vraie preuve d’humilité quand tu as un palmarès comme le sien. Croyez-moi, ils sont rares les joueurs du circuit qui ont cette réaction-là quand ils se font accrocher par un joueur supposément moins fort qu’eux. Tout le monde n’en est pas capable. »

En voyant jouer le Baléare, le Serbe Janko Tipsarević a lui compris que son humilité sur le court, gangrenée par une « coolitude » à la noix, laissait à désirer. « Avant d’atteindre mon potentiel, j’étais un lâche, a révélé l’ancien 8e de la hiérarchie planétaire pour Behind The Racquet en janvier 2020. Il m’a fallu du temps, en sortant des juniors, pour prendre conscience que je ne jouais plus contre des garçons (mais contre des hommes) et que l’époque où j’essayais de paraître cool sans me donner à 110 % était terminée. Je me souviens avoir vu Nadal jouer contre Tsonga, qui était alors une jeune étoile montante, lors de l’Open d’Australie (demi-finale 2008). Nadal était en train de se faire exploser, quelque chose comme deux sets à zéro contre lui et 4/1 dans le troisième. Pourtant, sur un point insignifiant, il a crié ‘VAMOS !’ aussi fort que possible après un coup droit gagnant. On pouvait voir qu’il croyait encore profondément à la victoire. Au final, il a perdu le set et donc le match (6/2 6/3 6/2). Mais, à ce moment, j’ai vraiment pris conscience de l’énorme lâche que j’étais. J’essayais de me la jouer cool, pendant que Rafael Nadal n’avait aucune gêne à montrer, devant le monde entier, qu’il pouvait se faire écraser même en donnant son maximum. »

Depuis qu’il est haut comme trois pommes, le roi du banana shot est entraîné à mettre une pêche maximale dans chaque échange. Peu importe le scénario et l’antagoniste. En prenant l’un des matchs de l’Espagnol en cours de route sans que le score soit indiqué, il serait presque impossible de dire, en se basant uniquement sur son attitude, si l’empoignade est serrée, s’il gagne nettement ou si les carottes sont cuites. Considérer, toujours, son prochain adversaire comme un « tough opponent », c’est aussi ce qui fait de Rafael Nadal un battant plus « tough » encore. Peu importe le nombre de patates qu’il peut prendre sur le ring, il ne reste jamais au tapis avant que le dernier coup soit frappé. Une qualité qui lui permet régulièrement, lorsqu’il est au bord du gouffre, de chausser ses bottes de sept lieues pour faire un pas en avant. Un pas si grand, comme en finale de l’Open d’Australie 2022, qu’il parvient à enjamber le précipice pour écrire son conte de fée et voir le monde du tennis lui tirer son chapeau. Et si les bottes peuvent être en cuir, le chapeau n’est jamais melon. 

 

*Depuis, Gaël Monfils s’est incliné une 18e fois contre Novak Djokovic

Article publié dans COURTS n° 12, printemps 2022.