WIMBLEDON: When Superstars Play Like Kids in a Park. Remembering Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Others

Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova on the Wimbledon practice courts

It’s the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, and everyone takes the day off. I decided to follow their example. But if you want to know that the place is like, here’s what I wrote from the practice courts on the middle Sunday last year, where the world’s best players either worked hard or messed around. It was like a tennis playground for superstars. This column ran in AOL FanHouse on June 27, 2010:

WIMBLEDON, England — Just two guys out playing tennis at the All England Club Sunday. Sure, their names happened to be Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling, and it’s very possible that seven days from now, those two won’t be on practice court No. 1, but instead a few hundred yards away, on Centre Court, playing in the Wimbledon final in the most important tennis match of the year.

But not today.

“I’m so nervous,” Djokovic said, teasing Soderling, who was about to serve. “It’s unbelievable.”

Soderling served, and then ran Djokovic around the court, back and forth, until Soderling finally crushed a forehand winner. When the ball got past Djokovic, who was on a full-out run, he wound up and threw his racquet all the way across the open court next to them.

“I mean, come on,” he said. “Really.”

The second Monday at Wimbledon, tomorrow, is the most exciting day of the year for tennis, with only the U.S. Open’s Super Saturday as competition. But on Monday, all of the final 16 men and 16 women will be playing. So the order of play includes Sharapova vs. Serena Williams, Henin vs. Clijsters, and also Federer, Nadal, Murray, Roddick.

So much tension, so much at stake.

On Sunday, it was the same characters, different setting.

The same beautiful, lush green club with vines on the walls and potted flowers hanging. But no stands. No fans.

Three practice courts together with no fences between them. On the left was Roger Federer hitting with a backward ballcap against some practice partner. Next to him in the middle, Rafael Nadal, doing the same. And on the right, Andy Roddick.

“How’s your leg?” Andy Murray said as he walked past a guy, who was seated and wearing a cast.

OK.

“Sorry about that,” said Murray, who then casually walked past an American.

“The U.S. (soccer team in World Cup) was disappointing yesterday.”

Yes. And he took the court on the other side of the fence from Federer.

So these were the six best tennis players in the world, all in one area, working hard, but also relaxing at the same time.

“Ace,” Soderling yelled from behind me, “and I have free lunch.”

Gambling scandal??!!!

Not today.

“No chance, man,” Djokovic yelled back. “Lunch? No chance.”

He was right. Soderling did not ace him, but did win the point. They were playing a tiebreaker.

Then Djokovic won the next point and yelled “Come on,” just to get under Soderling’s skin, and Soderling leaned back, “AAAHHHH!”

“The grinder,” Djokovic yelled out, giving himself a nickname.

There were lots of courts surrounding these guys. Caroline Wozniacki was out on one. Anna Kournikova, who is going to play legends doubles — Anna Kournikova in seniors? — walked past in a white sweatsuit, huge shiny ring on her finger.

“Yes, baby, yes,” Djokovic yelled on his court, as his forehand hit the tape and rolled over for a winner. Soderling pulled a ball out of his pocket and hit in into outer space.

It could land any minute.

“What’s the score?” Soderling asked.

“Seven-all. Eight all,” Djokovic said. “Something like that.”

This was tennis at the highest level, stripped of the business end. Just a bunch of kids out there mixing work and fun. Roddick was crushing overheads. Federer was serving from halfway to the net, smiling. Nadal was pumping forehands, very seriously every second for 40 minutes.

The sun was shining bright. It was 1:30 p.m. A guard kept people away.

And it made you wonder what kids might be out on tennis courts in parks today, and whether they could be on Centre Court someday together instead of in the park.

Soderling double-faulted, and it was over. Djokovic had won.

“Ten pounds and lunch,” Djokovic said as they came to the net. “I’ll give you my bank account number.”

Gambling scandal!

Nah.

Instead of shaking hands at the net, the players turned their racquets upside down, held them by the head, and tapped grips together.

There are stories out about how the players on the women’s tour bicker in the locker room, suffer jealousy and petty differences. On the men’s tour, the story is, the players might go have dinner together.

When John Isner had to stop his freakish marathon match because of darkness Wednesday at 59-all, Roddick ran out and bought all sorts of pizzas and chicken and everything else, then brought it back to Isner.

Djokovic walked past Soderling, who was sitting on the side of the court. Soderling opened his brown wallet, pulled out a 10-pound note, crumpled it into a wad and threw it into Djokovic’s face.

Djokovic opened it up, wiped both sides of his face with it.

Are you close friends with him, I asked Djokovic?

“Actually, I just met him today,” he said. “Nice guy, though. He pays right away.”

He laughed out loud.

Was it 10-8?

“Yeah, 10-8,” he said.

He pulled the money out of his pocket, wiped both cheeks with it, kissed it and said, “My work is done here.”

A hard day’s work at Wimbledon.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: