Friday, March 13, 2015

The Night James Ward's Dad Kissed Me

We're pleased to welcome back occasional On the Rise (a tennis blog) contributor Patrick Rourke for this essay on his experience at Day 1 of Davis Cup in Glasgow last weekend. Follow Patrick on twitter at @rourkeytennis.

As part of a trip to the United Kingdom, I had the pleasure of attending last week’s Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the United States. Although I have attended my fair share of tennis tournaments, I had never been to Davis Cup, and was excited for what I was sure would be a different experience. In the days and weeks leading up to the tie, I read numerous articles from prominent journalists about how Davis Cup was “dead” and how it needed changing. Although I didn’t agree with this personally, could I really say, given that I had never been to a tie? So not only was I excited for the tie, but I was eager to see if what I read was really true or not (hint: it wasn’t).

After my tour of Celtic Park, my friend and I made our way into the Emirates Arena, and it was there I noticed the immediate difference. This wasn’t your average tennis match. Not only was the entire crowd decked out in their Union Jack apparel, but there were chants and songs, and EVERYONE was joining in. I had created a few of my own chants (mostly stolen from soccer tunes), but for the most part, this is something that is entirely absent in American tennis culture. The Brits were singing song after song, and although I did my best to match their efforts, it was an exercise in futility. But this led me to wonder, why is this something that isn’t present in American tennis? The only chants we ever hear are “U-S-A, U-S-A,” it’s great, but can’t we be more creative? As I mentioned previously, most of these were stolen from soccer chants. Is that the reason why we don’t have these chants? If we had another sport where singing/chanting was a large part of the fan experience, would we see Americans act on par with their European counterparts? That’s a question I can’t answer, but I wish we did, that is for certain. I mean, who doesn't want to hear a Donald Young song to the tune of “Go Cubs Go”? (I actually wrote such a song, yes my life is that sad.)

It would be impossible for me to write this reflection without devoting a part of it to fantastic support provided by the British crowd. I repeatedly wondered “would James Ward be in this match/have won that match without the support of the crowd?” and I believe that the answer is almost certainly no. They were, in a word, incredible. The chanting/cheering was just a part of it, but the most remarkable thing was listening to the entire stadium singing “Loch Lomond” in unison, and singing and clapping along to “500 Miles.” As much as it pained me to admit it, they were incredible. That was something that you would only see at Davis Cup. I don’t care if it’s a Brit playing at Wimbledon, or an Aussie on Rod Laver Arena, you will never see that atmosphere outside of Davis Cup. The passion from the fans, the passion from the players, it is completely unique to Davis Cup. And that, if nothing else, is why the competition is just fine as it is, and is not “in crisis” as many suggest.

Another aspect which particularly impressed me was the knowledge of the local fans. These were not your die-hard tennis fans, I’m sure they don’t follow Futures, or even most Challengers, but they knew just about everything about everyone involved in the tie. Ross Hutchins was sitting in front of me, and I pointed that out to the older Scottish couple in front of me, half expecting that they would have little to no idea who he was. And as soon as I said “do you know who…?” the woman looked at me as if I was insulting her. OF COURSE she knew who Ross Hutchins was, how could she not? Again, this was a noticeable difference between the Scottish fans and your average American fan. Not to say that they are inherently superior to your casual American fan, but…how many casual American fans would know someone of Hutchins’ stature? Probably not many.

Mr. Hutchins himself.
Photo by Patrick Rourke
Perhaps my favorite part of the whole experience (and I can’t believe I’m saying this, it hurts to put these words on paper), was seeing James Ward’s dad enjoy the experience. Again, I can’t believe these words are coming out of my mouth. I’ve watched his son crush my hopes and dreams and destroy the only thing I’ve ever loved (I have a penchant for the dramatic), on not one, but TWO separate occasions. And naturally, as I settled into my seat last Friday, there was Jim, the London cabbie and Arsenal supporter (strike one…) sitting right in front of me. As I alluded to in some of my tweets, we spent much of the match trading cheers/celebrations back and forth. And this is where I make the case for Davis Cup, because what I witnessed would never happen at any other tennis tournament.

As the match progressed, Mr. Ward went from occasional clapping to being ready to play the match himself. Don’t believe me? Well let me tell you this: Every time his son was returning on the far side (where Jim and James could make eye contact), Jim would stand up in the aisle and start hitting shadow forehand returns. Not half swings, with abbreviated strokes, but FULL BODY swings. He was quite literally jumping up and down in the aisle before returns, motioning to his nearly Top 100 son how he should hit it. Of course he was only partially serious, I’m sure he wasn’t actually encouraging James to hit it like that, but James did, once. Off an Isner second serve Ward went for his biggest return of the match, and hit a blistering forehand, one that I’m not sure even he knew he was capable of hitting. And James simply turned to his dad and started laughing, to which Mr. Ward replied with something along the lines of “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

It’s these sorts of moments that Davis Cup affords us. Too often, in the week to week grind of ATP/WTA/ITF tournaments, we get too caught up in wins and losses. Especially at the lower levels, it’s a win-at-all-costs mentality, and we don’t have the opportunity to really appreciate the game. Now I’m not saying that people don’t/shouldn’t care about Davis Cup, quite the contrary. Because wins and losses don’t have paychecks or (significant) ranking points attached to them, it is easier for fans and players (see: above paragraph) to laugh a bit, to appreciate the moment, and most importantly: ENJOY THE TENNIS. Personally, I feel like in half the matches I watch, I am so caught up in the score that I couldn’t tell you what actually went on during the match. But with Davis Cup, it is impossible NOT to appreciate what is going on around you. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t in awe of the Scottish crowd, and that I didn’t appreciate how much they contributed to what was an incredible atmosphere. And although I walked out of the Emirates Arena absolutely devastated with the results, it was impossible to not take consolation in the experience, seeing the sheer joy on Stefan Kozlov and Frances Tiafoe’s faces as Isner fought through holds.

After the match ended, my first thought was getting out of the arena as quickly as possible. I couldn’t stand any more cheering. But given the interaction I had with Mr. Ward throughout the match, I thought it would be petty to storm out without congratulating him. As I mentioned on Twitter, I went in for the handshake, and Jim responded with a hug and a kiss on the head. Okay then… After recovering from this shock, he thanked me. Wait, what? I was cheering against his kid all match! Yes, thanked me for cheering against James. Why? Because of the atmosphere it created. As I’ve tried to convey throughout, the beauty of Davis Cup is that it is an experience unlike any other tennis tournament. The cheering, the flags, the face paint, the dancing in the aisles; where else would we see this? The answer is nowhere. It’s something that is uniquely a part of this competition, and win or lose, it is something that I will always appreciate.

Long live Davis Cup.

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