Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Wow. Just wow. If you have not Amir Weintraub's column what life is like when you're ranked #270-odd, READ IT NOW. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

When we write about tennis, when we talk about it, when we think about it, we think of it as a rich sport. We think of Federer and Nadal and their massive entourages, of Sharapova and Ivanovic and Wozniacki with their huge endorsement deals... of rich people who got rich by being great at sport and who basically attract money like giant magnets. We see them on red carpets, on billboards, at fashion shows, at soccer matches... modelling Armani, driving in Mercedes Benz cars, wearing Tiffany earrings. And we see them holding aloft massive trophies with massive cheques shoved in their back pockets, and this is normal.

What we don't think about is the guy for whom playing the first round of qualies and picking up eight ranking points and $3000 is a massive, massive achievement.

"In the next few weeks I'm going to tell you about my life, about the life of a pro tennis player, and how it is nothing like you would imagine." This is the first sentence of Amir Weintraub's first column and he is dead on the money. I don't know about you, but this is not how I imagined the life of a professional tennis player.

He writes about getting to Brisbane for his first ever 'big' tournament and then learning he has no hope of getting into the qualies... so turning around, going back to the airport and flying to Noumea for a $75,000 event. So that he can get free accommodation, he has to play singles and doubles (after a night or two crashing on the floor in another player's room). "You need to understand that a big part of the considerations players in our level make have to do with how to save costs," he writes. "Sometimes those considerations exceed the professional considerations."

I'd heard that life was hard on the satellite tour. I didn't know how hard.

He gets injured in his victory in the second round of qualies for this tournament and the doctor and physio tell him not to play today. He replies, "I didn't make all this way from Israel to this hole so someone could tell me whether I'm healthy or not." He plays - injured. He loses second round in both singles and doubles. He doesn't even break even on the whole trip, but, as he says, "what's money in comparison to the chance to earn a few more ranking points?"

To do this - to live the life that Amir Weintraub does - takes guts, chutzpah, dedication and heart. Huge amounts of each. But most of all, it takes a great love for tennis. How much do you have to love a sport to keep living flight to flight, no certainty, no surety, never knowing what will happen next?

And alone, too. "Me, like other players in my status, are a one man industry," he writes. "No family, no coaches, no nothing. I don't want to make it sound like an excuse, but I have too many thoughts about things other than tennis, about the future and about procedures, like flights. In general, flights and flight arrangements occupy about a third of a player's time." I cannot even begin to imagine how intense living in that kind of uncertainty must be.

And why do you do it? For the chance, that one, small, tiny chance, of playing in Slam. Weintraub doesn't even know if he'll make the cut for qualies - he's two spots out - but he's so excited about being an alternate and getting two cans of new balls for practice (instead of three old balls) that it all seems worth it. But damn it, he wants that badge that says 'player' on it - the alternate badge brands him as an outsider.

And he gets it! He's the last player to make the cut for qualies. He gets his player badge and access to all the facilities that go along with it - including a locker next to Andy Roddick's.

He loses in the first round of qualies, but he's pleased with his performance. He's exhilarated by the whole Slam experience. And he's determined to get back next year. "Leaving Australia. Swearing I will do everything, but everything everything, to be back here sometime. This can't be my first and only time." I hope it isn't. Because if you're back in Australia next year, Amir, I am going to come to at least one of your matches - and I'm going to cheer my freaking head off.

Because this dude clearly loves tennis so, so much. Listen to this:

"For the very first time I able to understand what fellow tennis players and friends are talking about when they tell me, 'Come on, Amir. You haven't seen a thing. The day you reach a Slam you'd understand'. Understand why people won't give up their careers, why they are willing to hold on to this dream by their fingernails, why they won't retire even when they know it's over."

Hot damn, Amir Weintraub. You can write. Someone get him a book deal, stat.

He goes on to write about playing a Futures event in Eylat, Israel - which he describes as like leaving a Champion's league game to play a C league one. I won't spoil it for you, because you need to read it yourself. Seriously. AMIR WEINTRAUB. His column. Read it. I cannot emphasis this enough.

It's so easy to forget that under all the glitter of the upper echelons of Slams is this world, where players play week in, week out, where getting one ranking point is huge, where players live or die by tournament cutoffs - to quote Weintraub, "'The Cut' is the term players in my level die by". To get to the top, you usually need to go through this world - but not everyone makes it. Some people stay here, in the dogfight, for their whole careers - Weintraub talks about a guy he once played whom people were saying was destined for the Top 20, but he forgot how to hit a forehand literally overnight and gradually lost all his ranking points. It's a hard life - a demanding, stressful, full-of-pressure life. I think Weintraub says it best when he says this:

"I'm back to the reality where victory is worth one ranking point (how can you move ahead like that? It's like trying to conquer Everest when you're only allowed to take one step every day) and to a financial reality where I spend more money than I make."

And why do this? Why live this life? Why live like this, with all this pressure: "The pressure to get ranking points. The pressure not to mess up in small tournaments, the pressure not to mess up in Davis Cup. The pressure to start and make some money. Pressure." Why do it?

For the love of the game. For the chance to go to a Grand Slam once again. The chance to play the qualies. It's a mountain, one that Amir Weintraub and hundreds other like this are trying to conquer. "Point by point. Game by game," he writes.

And that love - the simple love of tennis - is enough. Enough to keep fighting. And that is something else indeed.

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