Silverberg: A simple reason for loving sports we can all relate to

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

The date was Sunday, March 30. It was around one in the afternoon in Orlando. Temperatures were easily above 90 degrees. Let’s not even start with the humidity.

I was 22 and five weeks away from graduating college. All my significant coursework was complete. All that was left was to enjoy my final few matches as a student athlete before venturing out into the real world to start a life after tennis.

Before I go on, this story really isn’t about tennis and it isn’t meant to be a forum celebrating my highs as an athlete, but it is one of my most fond reflections as to why we love sports and why we invest into the pro stars who end up driving us in our own careers.

It was the last day of a tournament our team was playing in Orlando. Thanks to the dominance of several of my teammates already, we had already clinched the match with a 5-2 lead with myself and another one of my teammates remaining on court.

My teammate was a freshman playing on one of the show courts right in front of the bleachers. My match was down a couple courts on the opposite end of the complex with no shade and no seats for spectators.

That didn’t stop a couple of players from the opposing school from loitering around the fans and making themselves heard. From the very first point they never stopped chirping from behind my side of the court.

The day started at 9 a.m. with doubles play. Singles began at ten. I took the first set of my singles match in a little more than in hour. My opponent took the second and then jumped out to a 4-2 lead in the third.

I responded with three unanswered games and held a 5-4 lead. Then worked my way to match point. Twice. My opponent saved both with big serves and tied the set at 5-5 before breaking my serve to go back up 6-5. I broke him right back to level the final set at 6-6 and force a seven-point tiebreaker.

By this point the match has hit the three-hour mark. Making it nearly four hours of tennis total played in central Florida during the hottest part of day at one of the hottest times of the year.

Halfway through the tiebreaker my opponent started cramping. He was suffering severe tightness in both of his calves and his quads. On my third match point he pulled a forehand wide and the match was over.

Call it three hours well spent.

***

Years earlier I was a high school tennis player with very little talent and even less power. I grew up playing sports all my life, but had only played in recreational or church-based leagues until I was about 14. I never had any formal tennis coaching until I was a sophomore in high school, but I still had a dream of being a college athlete.

When it came to the ATP Tour I was a fan of the usual favorites. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, etc. There was no denying those were some of the biggest names in the sport.

Then there was a string bean up-and-comer from Scotland by the name of Andy Murray.

The first time I saw Murray play he quickly became someone I rooted for. Murray didn’t have the biggest serve or the most powerful forehand, but he was fast and resilient. He was willing to dig a seemingly sure winner out of the back corner of the court to extend a point. He was essentially a human wall. Every ball was coming back.

For a high school kid without much natural ability, it was all I needed to see to believe I could find a way to win matches myself. Work your tail off, stay in shape and keep trying to find a way.

The aforementioned match in Orlando wasn’t the biggest win of my career, or even the longest match I had played, but it most defined who I was as a tennis player. I kept working and found a way to win in the end.

And that’s largely due to watching Murray do just that time and time again.

***

In 2008 Murray was struggling to be a mainstay in Grand Slams. At the Australian Open in January he was the No. 10 seed, but was upset in the first round. He still hadn’t advanced to his first quarterfinal despite having beaten Federer earlier in the year.

He had shown the talent to compete with anyone, but hadn’t put it together yet on the biggest stages.

At Wimbledon that same year Murray was in the Round of 16 trying to finally reach his maiden quarterfinal in a major. He dropped the first two sets and Frenchman Richard Gasquet was up 5-4 and serving for the match on Centre Court.

Murray broke and the two traded holds to force a tiebreaker for the third set. The Scot needed to win it just to force a fourth set. With a set point for Murray, Gasquet approached the net and hit a volley at such a sharp angle it bounced off screen. Murray chased down the ball and managed to float it over his opponent and into the back of the court.

Centre Court erupted. Murray himself exploded in celebration. The shot had carried him into the flower pots that aligned the sides of the court. Murray cruised over the next two sets to win the match in five. He had finally reached the final eight at a Grand Slam, which he lost to Nadal, the eventual champion.

As I watched the match unfold all I could think about was that shot in the third set. I thought of how many players simply let a shot like that go and get ready for the next point. How many players concede when the odds of a point appear to be slim.

All I could think of when that image of Murray’s fire and drive popped into my head was “I want to do that. I want to be like that.”

***

Last week before the start of the 2019 Australian Open Murray announced that he will try to make it to this year’s Wimbledon before calling it a career. He missed most of 2018 with a severe hip injury that has brought the end of his career to imminence.

In his first round match earlier this week Murray dropped the first two sets, but rallied back to win the next two and force a deciding fifth set, where he ultimately succumbed to defeat. A fitting end for a guy, who, if he was going to lose, he was going down swinging.

Five years after that breakthrough match in 2008, Murray finally won Wimbledon, ending a streak of 77 years since a British man had won the tournament. He had long been heralded as the Kingdom’s hope to end that drought and eventually he did.

Murray won back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic Games, becoming the first man to do so. He finished his career with three Grand Slam titles and in 2015 he helped Great Britain win the Davis Cup for the first time since 1936. In 2016 he finished the year as the number one ranked player in the world.

***

We all have those athletes we consider our favorites. Whether it be simply for the fact they compete for our favorite teams or they inspire us to be better in some facet of our lives, our favorite athletes mean something to us despite the common fan never getting an opportunity to meet or thank any of them.

After his loss earlier this week Murray expressed a desire to try to be back in Melbourne in 2020. Whether that happens is way up in the air. What we do know is the former World No. 1 is on his farewell tour.

So cherish those athletes while you still can and remember why they won your fandom to begin with. At the end of the day it’s a game, but the proper appreciation for professional stars goes a long way in inspiration.

As for Murray, he inspired a nation in the pursuit to end a long drought. Playing in the same era as Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic he’s had to contend with arguably the three best players in the history of the sport. Of the 11 Grand Slam finals he played in, Murray was favored in only one. His story could inspire athletes everywhere with a classic underdog tale.

And he inspired a scrawny kid from Knoxville with a dream.

Thank you, Andy. Cheers.

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