It was THAT French Open final. One of the great women’s singles matches I have been privileged to watch. One of the rivalries to rival the quality of play between Roger and Rafa was that of Graf and Seles, that elegant calm blonde German who I was in love with, and the brash, heart-on-the-sleeve grunting Slav who had her number, to my heartbreak and disdain. The year was 1992. Seles was off the blocks taking the first set so easily it looked another washout, but suddenly that favourite forehand crosscourt returned out of hibernation, the lines in the corner court were repeatedly pinged and my heart suddenly buoyed, sensing something special happening. I was not yet 12 and we had an Onida colour tv with a magical remote that had a slot for fitting INSIDE the tv itself. Later, sometimes it would stop working but it would always respond to gentle but firm tapping or sometimes not-so-gentle slapping on its head and start producing colour again. The third set was a miniature version of the first two sets, Seles racing off the blocks with a double break, her grunts becoming louder with every winner, her shrieks at every point won almost subduing the champion who only looked at her racket when she lost a point and confidently walked back to the service court or the deuce court without a sign of dejection or emotion. It’s always temperament, never skill or technique that decides your fate and I should have learnt that earlier instead of learning it in my late 30s. Temperament and fitness can overcome talent, not 9 times out of 10 but 11/10. Look at this link and tell me whether it was impossible to love Steffi, though the venue was her favourite Wimbledon, not the French, which was always the temple of the aggressive, the warrior, the slugger, the never-give-upper like Seles then and Nadal now.
It was 5-3 and Seles was serving for the match when the forehand suddenly returned. A double break and we were back at parity at 8-all, already one of the longest women’s matches in the open era. Each woman reaching deep inside the mine where they kept what mortals couldn’t ever reach, that Akkad, that Khadoosness, that refusal-to-accept defeat.
At 30-all on the Graf serve, maybe Seles was hungrier but I think it was the forehand which decided to forsake it’s lover for a point, just landing outside the baseline.
Game-Set-Match. Seles. 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.
I knew I had watched something special. It was 8.45 and dad was about to come home from work, I could recognize the sound of his scooter from the second floor. As often happens when you have this sporting experience, you can’t keep it within you, and we didn’t have Facebook to initiate conversations or pretend that people are listening to what we have to say. I heard the scooter sound and jumped down the stairs to catch him in the parking itself to tell him what I had witnessed.
“DAD WHAT A MATCH IT WAS!” I almost screamed out of the adrenaline rush I was feeling. “UNBELIEVABLE TENNIS” “sadly Graf lost” I added almost as an afterthought.
We often did this, and we still do it. Call each other whenever something special is cooking up on the sporting field, whether it was 1 am or 5 am. But that day seemed different. I expected him to smile and glow the way he does, asking me the details or sighing he missed it.
Instead, what followed was a unilateral, what I can only term as an outrage.
“WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS NOW? DIDN’T YOU THINK OF YOUR DAD WHEN YOU WERE WATCHING IT ALONE, OR GIVE HIM A CALL TO SWITCH ON THE TV? DIDN’T IT STRIKE YOU TO RECORD IT ON THE VCR FOR ME TO WATCH?”
He was mad. He was angry. He was shouting. And then as in now, we all know once he starts shouting he has trouble stopping. If you retort it might proceed right till hysteria and ugly contorting of a beautiful face which gets engorged with blood. I know that now. I know now too that it must have been something else and I was just incidental. But I know that now. I didn’t know about it then.
“You don’t think about me at all when I do so much for you everyday. How difficult would have been to simply call me? I just cannot believe it.”
I was shellshocked. How did it turn into me and him from Graf and Seles? I was literally shocked into a shell. Maybe that was the last time I showed serious emotion in front of him after witnessing a sport classic. Maybe not the last time, I think I have fist bumped and yelled often but only if he is present witnessing it too. Never after, never describe something with emotion that you alone enjoyed because his first thought wouldn’t be glad you enjoyed it would be I missed it.
I was literally shocked into a shell. A tiny incident, I don’t know why it has stayed with me but I distinctly remember standing on the first stair and just…blank while he shouted.
Later in the match interview, Seles graciously said that it was a match neither deserved to lose and even today pundits and tennis afficianados rate it as one of the best open era finals.
And unknowingly, Seles was right. She won, Steffi won hearts, the contest won immortality. The only two people who lost that day and kept losing for 25 years were across an ocean in a nondescript house, an angry raging father and a mean, unforgiving, unforgetting son.