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10 July 2024

Dreams of tennis and the best job in the world

Also: Pep Guardiola at Wimbledon and the fine margins of greatness.

By Jason Cowley

I spent some of election day, as I waited for the polls to close, at Wimbledon. There I watched Jack Draper, the new British men’s number one with the formidable lefty serve, in action against Cameron Norrie, until recently the British number one. Jack is the 22-year-old son of Roger Draper, the former head of the Lawn Tennis Association. Some have unkindly called him a “nepo baby”, a gilded and privileged insider, fast-tracked to the top of the game. But you can’t reach his level without rare talent and unrelenting dedication and hard work. Plus, I hear only good things about his sportsmanship on tour and courtesy to those who cover the game.

Norrie is something of an outsider. The son of a Scottish father and Welsh mother, he was born in Johannesburg and spent much of his childhood in New Zealand before he moved to England aged 16. He was a tennis scholar at Texas Christian University and a champion player on the US college circuit. After a few years in London, he now lives in Monaco. One wonders why!

He seems a reticent fellow and is largely unknown here, perhaps because he is not a charismatic player. He has a one-dimensional game: an extraordinarily flat “bunt” backhand and repetitive, looping top-spin forehand and not much else. Like Draper, he has a lefty serve but no one would call it formidable. He compensates for his lack of power through stamina and extreme fitness. “I like to keep the rallies long,” he says.

Norrie has been slipping down the rankings* but against Draper, who seemed distracted and irritable, he played as well as he could, winning in straight sets. He lost in the next round, however, to the lanky German Sascha Zverev, watched by Pep Guardiola, among others, from the Royal Box on Centre Court. “Bayern Munich need a coach, man,” Zverev called out in his post-match interview. Fact check: they have hired Vincent Kompany, formerly of Burnley, who were relegated from the Prem last season. Perhaps that’s why Zverev feels Bayern still need a new coach even though they have a new coach.

My interest in tennis has been revitalised by our son, who is 15. He plays the game and closely follows the men’s and women’s tours. Most days he greets me not with “good morning” but, “Draper lost again, 7-5, 6-4 in a 250 in Bulgaria”; or, “Raducanu has injured her wrist”; or, “Tommy Paul is now the top-ranked American”. He then peers intently at the BBC Sport website, or at the live rankings page, or at that day’s schedule for a tournament somewhere in the world.

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We even keep watch on the second-level Challenger Tour, the self-described “stepping stone to the ATP Tour”. But for many players the Challenger is less a stepping stone than a stepping down: hey buddy, this is who you are, where you belong! Imagine how good you must be to be playing on the Challenger, and yet one suspects this is not the level you wanted to be at when you started out as a brilliant junior. 

In 1996, for Esquire magazine, David Foster Wallace, who was a gifted teenage tennis player, spent several months on the road with the American “journeyman” Michael Joyce. Wallace was haunted by the fine margins that separate the very good from the great. Joyce never made it into the world’s top 50, and yet he was for a time a top-100 player. “Try to imagine,” Wallace wrote, “what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”

Yet life on tour was also hard for Joyce: the constant travelling, the near-continuous losses, the struggle to make decent money. It was not a glamorous life.

When I was a child my mother’s newspaper of choice was the Daily Mail. I loved the sports pages most of all and particularly the pieces by the tennis correspondent, Laurie Pignon. (Thank you to Leo McKinstry for reminding me of his name.) He seemed to have the best job in the world. One week he would be in Palm Springs, then Madrid, then Rome, then at Roland-Garros in Paris and then at Wimbledon. Later in the summer he would be at Flushing Meadows for the US Open. And then he’d spend January in Melbourne. There was no internet back then, no demand for “hot takes”, or blogs, or spoken analysis self-recorded on a mobile and uploaded to Twitter/X. He travelled (presumably business class), wrote his daily piece, dined well in his hotel, and moved on to the next tournament, the next city. Or that was how I imagined his life to be. As I said, the best job in the world.

* Draper is at 27 in the live ATP rankings, Norrie at 42

[See also: The last days of Andy Murray]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change