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Joel and Joan

Joel Drucker: To the Ends of the Earth - Love, Loss and the US Open

It might well be my fatal flaw that I treat life too much like tennis, and tennis too much like life. But when you ponder the intersection of passion and tragedy that tumbled and collided seven years ago today, you might understand.

Picture a 12-inch black-and-white TV. It had cost $69. This was how I watched the 1982 US Open. More important was the person I watched it with. Joan Edwards and I had met earlier that summer, she the art director, me the managing editor of Inside Tennis, an Oakland-based magazine. We’d first gone to lunch on the second Monday of that year’s Wimbledon. By August, just prior to the start of the US Open, we’d become a couple.

Forget the Internet. How about not even cable TV? Each weeknight at 11:30, Joan and I watched the 30-minute CBS highlight show. The lead analyst was Tony Trabert. Having spent six summers with Tony at his camp, from 12-year-old beginner to 21-year-old instructor, I watched this show with deep devotion. Weekends, of course, featured much more – the stars of the day, from John McEnroe to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova to Ivan Lendl, Tracy Austin and, my personal favorite, Jimmy Connors.

Connors had long held my attention. He’d been tennis’ first rock star and, for reasons largely visceral, the player who’d provided the rocket fuel not just for my tennis, but also for my life. Energy, ambition, footwork, hustle, opportunism, autonomy, tenacity, intensity; these he had in abundance and these would be my touchstones. “I was taught,” Connors often said, “that lines were meant to be hit.” As a student at UC Berkeley, my quest was that every paper I wrote and every exam I took would be one for the ages. There was no other way. And Connors had also said this, “Lose today, but I’ll play you tomorrow. And I’ve followed guys to the ends of the earth just to play them again.”

“One day,” I told Joan after Connors won the ’82 US Open, “I will write a book about him that will tell the world what tennis is really all about.”

“You will.”

Bear in mind that at this point I was 22 years old, less than three months out of college and also no longer working for Inside Tennis.

Joan had put all her chips on faith. This was different than confidence. Confidence is based on data. If you’ve beaten someone six straight times, you are confident you will win a seventh. Data had betrayed Joan. At 16, her mother had died. At 27, she’d lost her father. A month after that, she’d been diagnosed with lupus, a debilitating auto-immune disease. Data? Dispatch it like Connors attacking a short ball to his backhand. Faith is belief in hope, in the unseen, in the mystical, in the chance to play yet again. Perhaps most of all, faith is love. Faith is the approach shot. Cast your fate to the wind. Cover the line. React to the crosscourt.

It was Joan’s faith that nurtured my dreams to continue the pursuit of a life in tennis. For a decade, from 1983 to ’93, I worked in San Francisco for several public relations firms, none of which handled anything related to tennis. But during that time, I kept a pinky in the sport, freelancing, taking two trips to the US Open and intermittently to other tournaments.

“When will I write the Jimbo book?” I’d ask Joan.

“When you’re ready.”

“When will I be ready?”

“When it’s time.”

In time, it did. “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life” was published in 2004. The dedication read: “To Joan, always.”

This upset her. While Joan’s lupus had mostly been in remission, its presence was near at hand, a nearby volcano that could randomly erupt. Lupus can severely curtail how much energy a person can exert. Short work days. Not dinner and a movie, but dinner or a movie. Arthritic pain and even mental confusion. Rashes galore. Dozens of drugs. Multiple doctor visits. Spinal taps and 90-minute MRIs. And, quite tricky, avoidance of the sun, lest a flare be triggered.

A Michigan native, Joan took on all of this with the stoicism and no- nonsense manner associated with the Midwest. But three words were a whole other matter.

“It can’t be always,” she said. “One of us is going to die, and it’s probably first going to be me.”

Six years later, as I worked at Roland Garros, Joan entered the hospital, the result of an infection that made it impossible for her to walk. All that summer of 2010, she bounced back and forth between the hospital and a skilled nursing facility.

“Things will work out,” she said. “I’ve always had faith in you, so now it’s your turn to have faith in me. It will all work out.”

She’d also said many times that she was aware that part of things working out was that she would die.

Now if you’re a tennis goon like me, you might know the meaning of September 2. It’s Jimmy Connors’ birthday, an occurrence made most vivid in 1991, the year he turned 39 and beat Aaron Krickstein in a match that has been shown so much on television that it’s become tennis’ version of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Joan and I had watched it too, by that time on a color TV.

By late August of 2010, Joan had been in the hospital for more than three months. Events had taken such a turn that I’d told Tennis Channel I was unable to attend and work at that year’s US Open. On Thursday the 26th, I received a call from Joan’s doctor.

“The antibiotics aren’t working.”

By Saturday, she was in the hospital’s hospice.

As the 2010 US Open got underway two days later, I recalled a trip I’d taken there 20 years earlier (my first US Open with a media credential). “It could be Jimbo’s last Open,” Joan had told me. “You have to go. Go to the Open. Be open. Good things can happen.”

She was right. I’d bumped into Connors that day in 1990, spent the better part of the afternoon and evening with him as he practiced and walked the grounds like an exiled CEO. As we exited past 10:30 p.m., Connors cast his eyes at Louis Armstrong and said to me, “If I ever get back there, that place is going to rock and roll.” As the world found out 12 months later, Connors was true to his word. The whole experience jump-started my quest to write the book.

By September 2, 2010, Joan was unable to speak.

“The war is over,” I told her early that morning.

Barely an hour later, she drew her last breath.

And I’ve followed guys to the ends of the earth just to play them again.

This marks my seventh straight trip to the US Open without Joan. Does it get easier? Harder? Less pain? More pain? Are these even the right questions?

It is powerful and meaningful to mark this anniversary and draw on the support of so many, on the vast friends and colleagues, acquaintances and numerous faces that comprise the tennis world. It was an odd thing: Connors had shown me the value of fierce self-reliance, of maniacal lone wolf-like independence that bordered on the paranoid.

But maybe there was more to the tennis than that. The data of the sport could warrant that everyone was a potential opponent. Faith showed something else, that just around the corner from solitude was a community.

For surely, somewhere, somehow, deep, deep, deep, even Connors and McEnroe must know that they in some odd way even love one another for all they mutually created and helped one another find inside their own hearts and souls. And if that’s true for those two warriors, surely it’s a viable notion for all others who are part of this crazy sport of supreme individualism. We build community, a good friend told me the week after Joan died, when we share our wounds. Lines are meant to be hit.

As we watched that ’82 US Open on that 12-inch TV, I turned to Joan. “I want to be a part of that world,” I told her.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “You already are.”

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