I grew up playing tennis from about 7th grade onward. It became an obsession in early high school, as I simultaneously realized that even though I wasn’t very good at the sports my dad wanted to play, I wasn’t bad at this one.
I remember coveting a neon-colored Andre Agassi T-shirt with such intensity that even my bargain-hunter mom eventually caved and bought it for me. When I finally got a real graphite racquet — the most advanced technology at the time — I sometimes would just take it out of the closet and look at it before I went to bed.
This doesn't mean that I was all that good at tennis, mind you. I was all right — good enough to play on varsity my senior year of high school, knowledgeable enough to teach my kids to play, still decent enough to occasionally threaten to win the middle-aged men’s league I sometimes play in during the summer. The height of my tennis achievement is that I sometimes look around when I’m playing with my kids at the public park and realize that I might just be the best player there. My game has always been more dependent on doggedness than talent. Unlike Federer’s.
I remember watching Federer — still a teenager, I think — beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in what felt like at the time, and then turned out to be, the changing of the guard. No offense, Pete, but I never cared for Sampras. He was an incredible champion but his game felt mechanical, and his calmness — especially in contrast to the behavior of Agassi, my then-favorite — made him seem like a stick in the mud. I couldn’t wait to see Sampras to get knocked off of his pedestal by the next generation.
It’s funny to think about it now, but Federer had a bit of a reputation as a bad boy when he came on the scene. He threw tantrums and smashed racquets early on, which, let’s face it, helped him. Tennis fans have a complex relationship with “rude” behavior. The stuffy snobs who have social power in the sport clutch their pearls, but I think everybody secretly loves it. After all, some of the most beloved tennis players — Agassi and McEnroe, to name two — were so-called “rebels” who were accused of disgracing the game. But they have now become the sport’s most enduring ambassadors — I mean, McEnroe is basically the voice of tennis at this point.