Flushing Meadows- To make it to the top in sport, you need the opportunity. Some take it; some don’t but right at the beginning sheer chance; nothing more than the roll of the dice, determines whether athletes have the chance to develop the talent they were born with.
Two young players illuminated the first day of the US Open, offering more than enough evidence of great things to come. Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, arriving from the absolute opposite ends of the American spectrum, showed their growing public just what you can achieve, given the opportunity.
Both lost in five sets – Tiafoe from two sets up against John Isner and Fritz from two sets down against Jack Sock – but, by the time their matches ended, we had seen enough to bolster the argument that either one of them or both, could lift this title in a few years time.
Fritz is on the road to the top because it’s in his genes. His mother Kathy May was ranked No 10 in the world in 1977 and won 7 WTA titles while his father, Guy Fritz, was also a ranked player and coach. Young Taylor played a lot of sports, including basketball, but tennis was always going to be his route to stardom.
Not so for Tiafoe whose family emigrated to the States from Sierra Leone in West Africa. I asked him if his father had known anything about tennis before arriving in America. “No, nothing at all,” he replied. “Never even held a racket before he came here. No relation to tennis whatsoever.”
But, it just so happened that Constant Tiafoe got a job as custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center at College Park, Maryland. When his wife, Alphina, produced a couple of twin boys, guess where they played? The tennis courts were there, along with the rackets and balls. They might have played soccer had their father been offered a job somewhere else. But tennis was on their doorstep.
There are numerous examples of how opportunity knocked for tennis players who, otherwise, might never had got near a court. In Bucharest in the 1950’s, Ilie Nastase’s father worked for a bank. When he was promoted, the bank needed to find him a house to live in. There was one available in the grounds of the state-owned Progresul Tennis Club. Mr Nastase had never played tennis. But the courts became a playground for his two sons as they grew up and Ilie found wielding a tennis racket to be the most natural thing in the world. He proceeded to prove it by winning the French Open and beating Arthur Ashe in the final of the US Open at Forest Hills on grass.
Had the family house been somewhere else, Ilie – whose elder brother Constantin played Davis Cup level tennis himself – would almost certainly have gone on to become a top soccer player. There was magic in his feet as well as his hands.
Going further back, Manolo Santana would never have set eyes on a tennis court had not his father been grounds man at a typically upper-crust club in Madrid. Santana, honing his skills with daily practice simply because he was allowed to use a court when the members had finished, could not be held back, such was his talent. He went on to win Roland Garros in 1961 and 1964; Forest Hills the following year and Wimbledon the year after that. Before then, no one from his strata of society played tennis in Spain.
Manolo’s incredible success and endearing charm changed all that and tennis burst out of the snob-ridden confines of Spanish country clubs to become a sport for everyone.
But let’s bring the story of opportunity up to date. Novak Djokovic provides the outstanding example. His parents, who knew nothing of tennis, happened to run a pizzeria in a small town in Serbia. Right across the street there were public tennis courts. Not only did young Novak notice the courts but he watched Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg winning titles on television and said to his parents, “I want to play that game”.
So they bought him a racket and a pair of tennis shoes. And, as Chris Bowers describes in such carefully crafted detail in his book “A Sporting Statesman” the five year old boy then took it upon himself to walk across the street, racket in hand, and stand at the perimeter of the courts, staring, waiting, until the lady giving a lesson on the adjacent court finally walked over to him and asked if he wanted to join in.
With all the directness of a five year old who knows what he wants, the future world No 1 replied, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”
The opportunity had been presented by the proximity of the courts. The roll of the dice came in the form of Jelena Gencic who happened to be rather more than your average tennis coach in a small Serbian town. She had worked with Monica Seles before she left for the States and was an exceptional tutor.
Her keen eye detected something in the little boy and after just a couple of days, she asked Novak to introduce her to his parents. “You have a golden child,” she told them. “If you trust me with him I guarantee you I can turn him into one for top five players in the world.”
Mr and Mrs Djokovic were aghast but, on checking out Gencic’s background, they agreed and for six years she tutored Djokovic in all manner of things; in Serbian poetry and literature and, overriding his desire to listen to pop music, made him listen to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. One day, Novak admitted to getting goosebumps and Gencic knew he had become attuned to the emotional core of classical music.
“When you find yourself in trouble in a match, remember the crescendo of the overture and use it to uplift you,” she told him. We have seen the results.
Fritz and Tiafoe, and the other young Americans who are beginning to make their mark, may find other inspirations. But they all have one thing in the common. Fate decreed that they would have the opportunity – and they grabbed it.