Get Into the Game


By Kristy Barry

Photos by Karen Sterling.

When I was younger and more foolish, I thought that tennis was dull and designed for stuffy kids with rich parents who didn’t have any friends to play with. My twin sister and I avidly pursued traveling volleyball and softball teams, fanatically rooted for the Cleveland Indians, and it wasn’t until college, at Rutgers-Newark, when my friend Wilfred brought me to my first match at Arthur Ashe Stadium that I become engrossed in tennis.

It’s like seeing an awkward, pimple-faced dweeb with a personality of cardboard, who you swore you’d never go out with in a whole new light. He’s none of those things. He’s a gorgeous jock with big muscles, a clear complexion, and a dazzling joie de vivre. I can’t believe I was so wrong about him, and I want to see him as often as I can.

I am instantly mesmerized by the tranquility of the crowd before each serve. Dumbfounded by Serena Williams’ huge thighs. Amazed at the tact of the crowd, especially in New York, in leveling out cheering for both contenders and keeping jeers to a minimum. A far cry from games at Yankee Stadium where drunken fans are often hauled away by security to the chant of “Asssss-hollllllle! Asssss-holllllle!”

There’s a soft-filter glow around Arthur Ashe Stadium–fans are bustling, there’s this feeling like your life won’t be greatly impacted, or even slightly, by the result but at the same time, something monumental is about to happen.

With its electric atmosphere, the glitz with spunk, the peaceful starts and thunderous finishes, the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center is now the place I adore just as much as I did Jacob’s Field in Cleveland.

Tennis is no longer boring. It’s now like Ultimate Ping Pong for type-A personalities with killer bodies and flashy sponsorships for luxury cars, watches, and clothes. It’s a game of Gladiator Chess. The players have extremely impressive fortitude, to play five-hour matches in choking heat, into the wee hours of the morning, without a teammate to buoy your spirits or take over when you’re cramping or downtrodden from repeatedly bombing balls out of bounds or into the net.

They have the resilience of champion boxers. They’re gymnasts with racquets, who can slide into the splits to track a hard line drive to the corner then pop up to charge the net to fetch a ball dropped short and somehow finagle to win the point. In split seconds, they determine velocity, positioning, and will already predict their opponent’s next move, choosing whether to slap their enemy with a backhand, forehand, a slice or an overhand slam.

While I’m still fanatical about all sports, my perception of other athletes has changed. Baseball players, while still strong enough to hurl a 100 mph pitch or knock that pitch 400- feet, now seem lazy. Tennis players are repeatedly swinging racquets, for several hours at a time.

With research emerging about concussions and the lethal effect later in players’ lives, hard hits and fights, in both football and hockey, aren’t even as entertaining anymore. They can skate and bust through brick walls, but chances are they’ll abuse painkillers, kill others or themselves, or spontaneously drop dead at 40.

And unlike my fandom with Ohio sports–none of my friends will chide me if my favorite tennis players get eliminated. I don’t have to root for mediocre players with days until their next DUI, only because they happen to call Ohio home. I can root for whomever I want and my allegiances can change, depending on the match, and my beloved tennis players can never be traded. They will never get dogged in the media as much as the Cleveland Browns have.

And I like Djokovic–this handsome, supremely athletic Serbian angel. He floats on the court, bouncing lightly on his feet yet delivers these devastatingly powerful serves. He appears to be respectful to referees (unlike Serena Williams), he invites a ball boy under his umbrella during a break to toast drinks, and he often dances on the court post-game. At Wimbledon, he took off his shirt between games in a funny striptease-style and called out opponent Grigor Dimitrov to do the same.

And, I witnessed with my own eyes Djokovic walking over to his opponent’s aide when Janko Tipsarevic twisted his ankle and plopped down on the court in pain. Sure, Tipsarevic is a fellow Serbian but sportsmanship like that is rarely seen but is even sexier than him stripping off his sweaty shirts.

The women are equally as ferocious. Maria Sharapova, with her giraffe legs, porcelain skin and shiny blonde hair–looks like a little Russian doll. In her time off the court, she’s hawking her candy business, Sugarpova, and modeling swimsuits and expensive watches.

Yet when she’s on the court, heaving a serve with her characteristically unladylike grunt, she becomes this formidable assassin of an action-packed blockbuster who slays her enemies then smiles sweetly and blows kisses to the crowd. I want to have her legs, her money, and her grace.

For the doubles competitions, I support the Williams Sisters and the Bryan Brothers because family should always stick together. For the Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, to be playing together in majestic harmony–can there be any partner more intuitive than someone you share the same DNA with?

After attending a few days of the US Open last week with my twin sister, we decided to drive out to the John McEnroe Tennis Center on Randalls Island and battle each other. We ripped through buckets of balls (some balls are probably still wedged in the fence, in the grass behind the court or will never be seen again). Our swings are unrefined yet brutish, reminiscent of softball swings. A friend calls my backhand a “broken arm technique.”

Even when Katie and I mutually declare that a solid volleying is in order, one of us pounds a ball to the bleachers. Yet, we talk about how our lives would be different if we vigorously pursued tennis in our youth and dream about life as a dominant doubles team together moving in sync with each other, with a deep-seeded awareness of shared enemies and equal training dedication to the sport.

Andy Murray would crack up laughing at my botched British accent, Djokovic would surprise us by jumping out of our birthday cake and doing a humorous striptease, and Sharapova would refer to herself as our triplet in the media. We’d be rich parents, married to the Bryan twins–with exciting careers, bikini bodies, and good friends with Roger Federer and his two sets of twins.

How life often plays out, his twins will probably turn out to be professional baseball players and Olympic gold medal-winning beach volleyball players. And they’ll be just as happy as I am.

For more, check out Kristy in conversation on the BTR Sports podcast, every Sunday on BreakThru Radio.