Djokovic and Federer were arguing at the net and it was about to get ugly. The problem was one of identity: both of them wanted to be Federer. “You’re always Federer!” said Djokovic with a disconsolate swish of his oversized racquet.
“I want to be Federer!” But Federer was adamant: he was Federer precisely because he was always Federer. Besides, he had brought the balls and if Djokovic wasn’t careful he would take them straight back home.
Twenty-four hours and one Wimbledon final later both boys would no doubt want to be Djokovic, but right then, in the drizzle of a Cape Town winter, their hero was Swiss and their fantasies were on a collision course.
It’s a scene that plays out every midwinter as schools close and children are entranced by the stately goings-on at Wimbledon. They rush out into the rain to inhale the intoxicating chemical whiff of a freshly opened can of balls and to dance about, joyfully inept, on the Centre Court of their imaginations.
It seems incongruous to see the city’s waterlogged courts full of shivering children, dodging freezing showers to play a quintessentially summery game. But winter tennis has undeniable charms.
At school I was a proud member of the fifth tennis team, a happy band of profoundly unskilled brothers who each possessed just one great shot. I had an unplayable serve. Mostly it was I who was unable to play it, but when it came off, by God, it burned cauterised holes through chicken-wire fences and triggered air defence systems. Nick had a beautiful backhand, while Jacques could hit a topspin forehand and Raph was a tiger at the net. If only Raph had been a tennis player at the net. But I digress. Together and on form, we could beat any high school fifth team, except for the better schools and most of the worse ones. But there was one foe we couldn’t beat and that was summer.
My feet still remember the heat, bleeding up through my takkies, the flaying sun making shade something almost tangible. A pine tree casting a smudged column of shade across the court became as important as an umpire. And then there was the wind, imposing itself on every point like a stupid bully, grabbing the ball and tossing it over the fence or knocking it down into the net just to watch you despair.
I have never been more miserable on a court than I once was in Simon’s Town, watching my serves sail into the Atlantic as Raph was spanked by a billowing net. Summer demanded that we play properly and the more we tried the more it tortured us. But winter tennis, ah, that is a different game altogether; incompetent, soggy and kind.
Sometimes sport is compelling because it seems to be a neat metaphor for our lives. We strive to keep the ball of our existence inside the lines, playing by rules that are often arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous but which we seldom question. We choke when we’re ahead. We rally when we’re behind. We blame our losses on individual moments of bad luck yet attribute our victories to hard work. And always our two greatest opponents are ourselves and the passage of time. Yes, there are many similarities.
I’m not convinced that sport is a metaphor for life. Even at its most stirring it is far too contained and orderly to be a true reflection of the glittering complexity of the soul. I’ve always suspected that thinking up metaphors for life is a metaphor for life – spending time trying to understand the time we’re spending – but if I had to settle on one I would look to a river; a vast confluence of many streams that began long before the river was born; which flows fast with a gleaming surface and cold deeps, or which curls gently and lapping under leaves; which leaves deep marks on the world or none at all; and which, no matter how mighty or modest it was, ends in the same place: the sea, where it all began, and where it begins again every moment of every day.
Which is why winter tennis, played joyfully and badly, is such a pleasure. It defies that flow of life for a moment, upends the seasons, refutes the tyranny of the white lines and the riverbank, celebrates the arbitrariness of a ball bouncing off a pine cone or landing with a watery thock in a puddle. And when you whack that sodden ball, turning it into a tiny green planet spraying a ring of water off it like a tiny furry Saturn, you feel like a god of chaos.
And just so we’re clear, I’m Djokovic, Okay?
First published in The Times and TimesLive