Great sports a celebration of life

Jul 7, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Human spirit reflected in fierce battles

Anyone who ever messed with a tennis racquet, as I did as a kid until the girls started beating me and I quit, had to sit transfixed for almost four and a half hours last Sunday morning, watching NBC’s exceptional live coverage of the Wimbledon men’s final, certainly one of the greatest tennis matches ever played.

As Roger Federer and Andy Roddick struggled for five grueling sets, trading point after point with superb strokes, and finishing out their marathon with a 16-14 game fifth set, it was clear why the thousands on hand, and the millions watching around the world, were enraptured.

These were two warriors battling, and it was not difficult to understand – or any reflection on his manliness – why Roddick sat and cried after fighting so valiantly and coming so close.

These two, the best in the world at the moment, played like bloodless robots, without expression or emotion except for occasional fist pumping after winning significant points. Then, when Federer prevailed and won his record 15th Grand Slam championship after the long ordeal, he danced like a ballerina, as Roddick, having seen the championship that at one point late in the match seemed to slip away, wept.

Part of Federer’s joy was because the win sent him one ahead of the previous titleholder, Pete Sampras, in Grand Slam victories. Sampras, who had 14 and sat, impeccably suited, in the hot Wimbledon sun, applauded his successor.

Before all that, the magnificent Williams sisters, exemplary spear carriers for American women’s tennis, faced one another in Wimbledon’s women’s championship final for the fourth time.

As they fought it out in their friendly but dead serious family feud, with Serena soundly beating her older sister this round to lead the sibling rivalry 11-10, I couldn’t help recall the reader, five or so years ago, who wrote that I was an idiot for calling the Williams sisters the best players in the world, and claiming they were not the overpowering champions I had described.

Racial prejudice seemed the only explanation for his stubborn refusal to recognize their huge talent, and I wondered as I watched them play for the singles championship and then win the doubles last week at Wimbledon, if he was still out there ranting.

Going into the finals last Saturday, Venus had won 20 straight singles matches and 34 straight sets, but her kid sister ended Venus’ bid for a third straight Wimbledon title. She has won Wimbledon’s singles four times, and Saturday marked Serena’s third championship.

They play with power and class, and they carry our flag with them around the world.

While Wimbledon produced great tennis in England, events here at home in Nashville produced great sadness with Steve McNair’s death.

Returning to tennis, where I started this essay, I should tell you why I really quit the game. My last serious match came in high school, playing the standout end on our high school football team. His name was Walt Griffith, which matters to no one but me. Shortly after we played, we both headed to war, promising to play again when we returned. Walt went to the Pacific, I went to Europe.

Only I came back. Walt was blown to bits when a mortar shell landed in his foxhole on Guadalcanal.

The memory of Walt, and our high school tennis game, stayed with me the rest of my life. Like thousands of others who fought and survived, I wondered – and still do – about the mysteries of life and death, how some are spared and others are not.

Contemplating those mysteries, tennis – even great tennis like last week’s in Wimbledon – loses all importance, and jolts us into reality and thoughts of how and why we live.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein