By Giri Nathan
They’re out of quarantine. They’re emerging from their caves! (Well, most of them.) And they’re on the courts. Tennis is back, as exhibitions in Adelaide today showcased all the sport’s luminaries: Naomi Osaka, the Williams sisters, Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Rafael Nadal…possible future luminary Jannik Sinner…and also world No. 79 Irina-Camelia Begu. Serena beat Naomi, Novak had a blister, Rafa beat Domi, and Australia, which has not seen a local COVID-19 infection in 12 days, got to pack a stadium full of maskless fans. Ahead of the main event in Melbourne, tennis’ stars have done their best to get the masses thinking about their sport when there are a handful of other things vying for our attention, like a pandemic, its new variants, and its vaccines. But I think they pulled it off. I can confirm that I am now thinking about tennis. Consider some highlights from their press blitz.
Serena Williams talked to Stephen Colbert and disclosed her cavalier method of housing 23 Grand Slam titles. “My first Grand Slam I left at my dad’s place at the time, and I said, ‘You keep it because I’m going to get another one,’ and that was at the US Open. Of course I was able to get another one…my coach has a few in France…there’s several in my house…I think one or two or three are missing and have been taken.” File under problems that I wish I had. “Honestly I feel like I had a house party a few years ago and someone got a little too happy at it. I always wonder, like, wait, is that where one of my Wimbledon trophies is? Fortunately I’m not really attached to things.” I like the idea of loaning someone a 2005 Australian Open title the way you might a paperback. Colbert also suggests putting Michelobs and chips inside the hardware, and it seems like these ideas may have gotten some traction.
Rafael Nadal gave a wide-ranging interview to Christiane Amanpour at CNN. The Big 3 have all slotted into their natural roles over time: Roger the fashion uncle showing off his new cardigan, Novak the New Age uncle who wants you to see his latest crystals, and Rafa the philosopher uncle who leaves you chewing on a dinner-table insight. A decade and a half into Nadal’s career, we might’ve gotten the most insightful comment on his famous in-match tics and rituals. His response to Amanpour: “That’s all about…in some way, it’s stupid. In the other hand, for me, I am not doing no one of this stuff when I am practicing, or in my normal life, but when I am competing and in tennis. In our sport, we compete a lot of days. In some way, it’s a way to make a difference between practices and matches, and when I am doing all of these routines, I feel 100 percent focused on what I am doing. It’s an extra focus. And probably these routines when you are playing a lot of matches per year, for such a long time, these routines in some way help you to be focused or to be under self-control—to feel more secure about yourself.” Separating work from play! What a thought. They all happen from the same sofa now. But that does make sense. And I can understand, and am enchanted by, using these rites as a way to demarcate Serious Business from the rest of reality.
Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka announced her purchase of a stake in a National Women’s Soccer League team, the North Carolina Courage. As part owner, Osaka intends to act as a “strategic advisor,” identifying with the team’s commitment to grassroots development of women’s sports and community service. “I love that young girls can now look to professional soccer as a realistic sporting career,” Osaka told People. “When I was young it felt like tennis—and maybe golf—was the only option.” I will once again note how wild it is that Naomi Osaka was just a few years ago mumbling about SpongeBob memes and mesothelioma ads, and now she is an international fashion plate and sports team owner out here talking about “encouraging the next generation.” All that transformation in three years. Life comes at you fast. If you have a discernible talent, that is. I’ve just been sitting here typing words the whole time. Enjoy the tennis!
Above: Serena Williams arrives to face Naomi Osaka in the ‘A Day at the Drive’ exhibition match in Adelaide on January 29 (Getty)