I’ll admit: I was drawn to tennis as a kid in part because I had crushes on Björn Borg and Chris Evert. I could not decide upon whom I had the bigger crush: I tried to convince myself it was Chris even though I had a nagging feeling it was really Björn. But he retired very early in his career, and Evert played many seasons thereafter.
By the time Evert left the professional circuit, I had long ago branched out as a fan: Hana Mandlikova, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Lindsay Davenport, Gustavo Kuerten, all of whom won major titles. But I also rooted for the underdogs, a constant theme in my life.
In 1999, Alexandra Stevenson became the first female player in the Open era to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon as a qualifier. She lost to Lindsay, but she landed endorsement deals from Nike and others as a teenager and was interviewed by Barbara Walters. Her game, bolstered by a strong serve, was fluid. By 2002, her place in the top 20 seemed secure. She was a high flier.
In the years that followed, though, injuries and perhaps a concomitant loss of confidence brought her back down to earth. By 2004, her year-end ranking was 282. Currently it is 633.
Why do I sometimes find myself going onto the International Tennis Federation homepage to check results for tournaments in which players like Alexandra have to compete just to keep a ranking? Because the lower-tier tournaments for players outside the top 100 or even top 500 are as intriguing as the highest levels of tour tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour for the men, and the Women’s Tennis Association.
The lower your ranking is, the better the chances are that your tournament schedule may be less than glamorous. I’ve seen matches on show courts at the U.S. Open. I’ve also watched tournaments where total prize money is $10,000. To put it mildly, the amenities are not the same. But at age 35, Alexandra is still competing. She hasn’t made the main draw of any major tournament since 2004, but in an interview last May, she said she still hopes to reach the top 50. Last year, she earned just over $10,000 in prize money. It must help that her father, whom she met for the first time in 2008, is basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving. Alexandra has stated that when she is 45 or 46 she wants to look back and know that she gave it her all.
The professional tennis satellite circuits are full of players in their late 30s and 40s who are still chasing their dreams. To compete even at this level, they have to be world-class athletes. As a late bloomer in many regards, I will always follow the career trajectories of players you don’t usually see in featured matches on TV. I admire their tenacity, their love of the game, their belief in themselves.
I don’t know if my daughter will even play on a high school or college team, but I’m glad she already likes tennis. It’s a game that will teach her a lot about life.