On Valentine’s Day, my husband is at work, my young kids are home with my dad, and I have braved a snowstorm to reach Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. For the next few hours, I’ll be playing the part of spectator as four former tennis stars—John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, and Mark Philippoussis—treat us to an exhibition of the game that made each of them famous.
The fieldhouse is sadly underfilled for this PowerShares Series event—apparently not everyone in Indianapolis throws themselves bodily at any chance to get out of the house. Mom thing.
To my left, an overly giggly pair of middle-aged women chatter and laugh as much as is acceptable within the constraints of tennis event decorum. A too-good-looking-for-his-own-good 20-something guy four or five rows in front of me stands up in his seat between one of the matches and, hand on his hip, dazzling teeth flashing, has his picture taken with the court in the background.
It’s becoming clear that this may not be the most serious tennis crowd ever.
Tonight’s agenda is pretty straightforward: there will be three matches of one set each, leaving a winner to battle another winner to become the winner winner. But before the players take the court for the first match, we are treated to Jumbotron montages of each guy’s career, the best parts of which are the unintentional forays through Each Man’s Fashion Story, including His Hair Styling Choices. (Please, please, pause reading for a moment and Google Image Search “John McEnroe headband.” And enjoy.)
Jumbotron tells us that the first match on court will be one that revisits a classic rivalry—John McEnroe v. Ivan Lendl. Now my mind is paper-doll-cutting the images of young Lendl and McEnroe from the screen and plopping them, diorama-like, onto an imagined 1980s tennis court.
Now-Ivan and now-John stride onto court, depositing bags on benches, taking possession of their respective sides of the net. They look like I’ve been expecting; I know Lendl as the serious face filling a spot in Andy Murray’s box—and McEnroe from the commentator’s box, as he’s a mainstay in major-network match coverage.
There’s this weird collision of my understanding of the roles these guys currently fill with my pro athlete expectations, and it doesn’t all make sense. In dark blue shorts, a light blue polo, white socks and tennis shoes, the 53-year-old Lendl looks more like he’s about to go out in his backyard for a bit of grilling or light gardening than play in a professional tennis exhibition. And McEnroe, in bright blue, baggy, past-the-knees shorts and a comparatively tight two-tone gray wide-striped polo top accessorized with a thick, shiny chain dangling some kind of ring or charm, seems by virtue of this outfit to be completely unconcerned with the small detail of his 55th birthday, happening in two days’ time. It’s just goofy looking.
But then again, this is John of “John McEnroe headband.” And it’s not like I’m here for the fashion—I don’t really care if Lendl and McEnroe disappoint me in the apparel category; I came for the tennis, and I’m practically salivating as I wait for play to commence. Thankfully, I don’t have to wait long. McEnroe and Lendl start bashing balls from one side of the court to the other, rolling through the paces of the standard tennis match warm-up.
I lean forward on my knees and feel the giggly women to my left looking my direction but don’t turn my head as the warm-up ends and the match starts. Lendl tosses up a ball and serves to McEnroe’s backhand. He returns it and Lendl is ready, waiting.
I’m probably not the only one who has come here with expectations—what are Lendl and McEnroe thinking about right now? Have they let their minds wander back to the many great matches they’ve played against one another? Or maybe they’ve compartmentalized it all in the remarkable way that top tennis players can compartmentalize, never focusing too long on any one rally or game or set or match, but instead finding a way to always live in the now, and it’s just me who is caught up in a swirl of memories and romanticism as I recall the past.
Me and the event planners. They set up this “classic rivalry.”
Soon something I suspect was never a part of the historical matchup starts flying over the net: jokes. What I can only assume are groan-because-they’re-so-bad jokes, too, because from my seat I can barely hear what they’re saying, but the crowd is reacting with that “oh, you guys” kind of half-laughter. Lendl’s pointing a racquet toward the line. Something something something ball is out. McEnroe quips, and we’re expecting it: “You cannot be serious!”
Tonight isn’t just about tennis players bringing their characteristic skills to the match—the way McEnroe serves by almost completely turning his back on his opponent, or Lendl’s overly high ball toss—but also the mannerisms that we’ve come to associate with them. Lendl hits some beautiful shots, but McEnroe wins the first match 6-4. Exeunt, Lendl.
Mark Philippoussis and Jim Courier take the court for Match 2. I barely know anything about Philippoussis except that I need to carefully check the spelling each time I type his name. Courier’s voice is at least in my head from his post-match interviews with current stars. It seems a tad Little Mermaid-y, how I’ve heard a voice and now I’m finally pairing it with its person. Phili— Mark is completely unknown to me, though I do like the tall, dark and handsome thing he’s working, and I imagine the event planners do, too. It has been milked elsewhere: A bit of Googling on smart phones during the warm-up reveals that Mr. Philippoussis starred in the 2007 show Age of Love—think The Bachelor but specially designed to let MP choose from “kittens” (20-somethings) or “cougars” (women in their 40s). How apropos that a retired athlete’s second act drew stark lines of distinction between ages.
We learn that Mark is a bit under the weather for tonight’s exhibition, but his big serve keeps him in the match till 6-5, when Courier is finally able to close it out. Courier’s movements are eager and earnest. I like that about him—he really seems like he cares about doing a good job this evening, and he handles illness-impacted Mark graciously. Exeunt, Mark P.
Because the final match is between McEnroe, American, and Courier, American, we get to see that angle worked over as we are prepped for the return of both men to court, but it feels a bit like invoking Vonnegut’s granfalloon—that though they’re both from here, whipping up the American correlation into something of frenzied significance is pretty meaningless and really has very little to bear on what we’re about to see. McEnroe and Courier were making an impact on the tennis world about 6-8 years apart (during their respective heydays, they squared off in only three matches), so it’s not like we’re really summoning to the present something from a bygone era, like with Lendl and McEnroe.
It’s pretty clear from their behavior that the rest of this is just for fun: McEnroe is drinking SODA POP. Courier and McEnroe seem to stage as many comedic pauses in the final match as they set up points, placing tennis balls on their respective sides of court to indicate just how far a ball was in or out—whichever is comedically pertinent.
I’m at the circus.
Between jokes, McEnroe and Courier rack up enough games to get the score to 5-3, McEnroe, and at this point there won’t be a battle back from games down to take the match—McEnroe wins it easily in game nine.
There’s cheering and whooping and we rise to our feet for Champion McEnroe as Courier grabs his bag and waves himself off the court to the locker room. McEnroe steps to the edge of the court to talk with the evening’s announcer, and in short order we’re not hearing about the match at all but about McEnroe’s birthday, and then the entire arena is attempting to sing “Happy Birthday” to John. I feel oddly privileged to be part of what is in truth a pretty miserable musical effort, but then it occurs to me that we’re all letting ourselves be distracted by the quaintness of this moment in order to forget what birthdays mean, especially for our favorite athletes: time’s passing, and it’s passing fast. How many more tennis matches will McEnroe play before that’s it?
I’m suddenly almost sick with relief that I was here tonight.
McEnroe thanks us for the song and says what a great tennis city Indianapolis has always been. There’s nothing left to do at this point but take one last look at McEnroe, the court and the crowd, after which I make my way out of the fieldhouse into the cold night.
I walk head-down along dark streets to keep the wind out of my face. As I near the parking garage where I’ve hidden my car from the snow, I hear and then see through the door of a restaurant a KISS-esque band playing shirtless and made-up on a tiny stage. At first I’m fixated on how weird it is to see this much bare skin in the middle of winter, but then I get it: these imitations, these incomplete facsimiles of the great things we love—cover bands, tennis exhibitions—that’s how we hang on to them. That’s how we make sure they don’t ever completely go away.
So we find ways to repackage and repackage and keep them, however we can, slowing down their passage through time by incorporating them into our own.