The Sport of Opportunity: A Night of Memories and Missed Chances at Arthur Ashe Stadium

Roger FedererI am not a naturally inquisitive person. Sometimes, this leads to situations that could easily be avoided with questions like “Where are we going?” and “Is the blindfold really necessary?” Occasionally though, it’s the source of a steady stream of surprises. As I rode the train to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Monday night, I realized I knew only three details about the next few hours.

1. Our U.S. Open tickets said seven o’clock, so we would be late.
2. The tickets were provided by Heineken, so there would probably be beer.
3. The beer would most likely be Heineken.

The dearth of knowledge was perfect — not because I only wanted to drink and watch tennis, but because my trip to the U.S. Open was about 20 years in the making. I’d spent the majority of my life taking in Flushing Meadows by way of my television, so now that I was here I wanted it all to unfold as organically as possible. Then, just before we exited the train, my friend Matt casually mentioned how excited he was to see Roger play in person.

“Wait, we’re about to see Federer?” I said too loudly for the quiet car. “Yes,” said Matt. “It’s Federer and Clijsters on Ashe tonight.”

“Wait, we’re going to be at Ashe?” I shouted, unable to control my voice at this point. “I think so, man,” he replied. “And Federer’s playing Donald Young.”

I froze up. Young, the kid I watched and reviled in my hometown of Atlanta, was facing the champion I had idolized from far away. A few seconds later, our subway car came around its final turn. There she was.

From 1993 to 2004, from May through September, I played tennis every day. As with most kids at the public J.D. McGhee Tennis Center in southwest Atlanta, my first summer camp was simply something productive to do during the non-school months. Originally, that diversion was supposed to be baseball. My first team practiced in the grassy area outside the center, but when a missed fly ball smacked me in the nose early that summer, my mom rushed me inside for some ice. There, we happened upon my future coach, local tennis legend William “Coach Wink” Fulton, who told her about the camp. So yeah, my tennis career began because I was a lousy fielder.

It took only a few weeks before I was bitten by the tennis bug, and as age 6 became 9 became 12, tennis was no longer something to keep me in impeccable shape while turning my complexion to a deep, almost burnt brown. It remained fun, but it also became my first job, one that eventually became the defining activity of my adolescent years.

We got off the subway near Flushing Meadows and joined the crowd making its way to the massive tennis facility. The first long stretch felt like some national monument, with American flags going on seemingly forever.

It took a minute, but after asking around, we got our bearings and made our way into Arthur Ashe Stadium. Before trying to find our suite, I caught a glimpse inside, leading to the first of my many childish moments that evening.

You see, this was not only my first time in Ashe and my first time at the U.S. Open. It was the first time I’d been to a professional tennis match. After years of televised Grand Slam moments representing benchmarks in my life (I will never forget where I was for ’96 Sampras-Corretja) and dreaming of one day playing in the U.S. Open, it was almost comical that I had never witnessed tennis in a setting like this.

Initially, the glimpse was all I got, but we quickly backtracked and I asked a security guard if we could take a longer look. Feeling like a nervous tourist, I started in with a “I’ve never been here before, we’d really appreciate it for just a few seconds” — not realizing until my sentence was over that he’d already given us the OK to walk inside.

Even with a B-side dance squad, a red carpet complete with amplifiers and microphone stands, and not a single tennis player in sight, Centre Court was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

We eventually made our way to our ticketed area, just in time for the opening ceremony. After a leadoff by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, United States Tennis Association president Jon Vegosen made his way to the microphone, followed by a trail of little black children. Fearing the worst — I’ve become jaded by things that look like diversity brochures — I turned my attention back to my beer. As the video on the Jumbotron panned across the kids’ faces, all of whom looked to be between 8 and 12 years old, and as Vegosen talked of tennis as “the sport of opportunity,” I couldn’t help but shed every fiber of cynicism from my body. He was right. While most see tennis as an upper-class sport with many barriers to entry (because in many circles, it is), I understood how significant a few tennis courts and a few invested adults could be for a community in dire need of opportunity.

As high school started, tennis began playing drastically different roles in the lives of us campers who had played since we were young. We had all seen examples of black tennis success stories from people around our age. To some, they were a point of inspiration. To others, a sign that tennis just wasn’t going to happen. The trend started in Compton with the Williams sisters, who spearheaded the spike in young black kids playing tennis in Atlanta (and all over the country). Closer to home, there was Scoville Jenkins, who began playing alongside me at tennis camp before leaving to train at a different facility. He became something of a mythical figure of black teenage tennis among my fellow campers, many of whom had never seen him but knew of his roots and where he was headed. By 2004, he was the youngest champion ever of the famed boys 18-and-under tournament in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For some, stories like these made both teenagers and parents alike see the sport as a golden ticket. That manifested itself in different ways. Some saw professional tennis as the ultimate “opportunity.” For others, like the cohort from my camp, tennis equaled college. I could list 20 kids who might not have been interested in going to college — whether it was doubts about their own intelligence or fear of financial burdens — had tennis not been in the picture.

For yet another group, myself included, working hard at tennis camp also meant that one day we might get to go to the U.S. Open — not as a player, but as a spectator. From when I was young until when I became a counselor, the rumor, started by my motivational master of a coach, was that the hardest workers would potentially be rewarded with a trip to Flushing Meadows. Even in my earliest years, I couldn’t figure out how this would happen financially. This wasn’t the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, after all. This was McGhee. I didn’t know how it would happen, but the mere chance made me work hard every summer, in case that was the year the trip to Ashe finally happened.

After Jordin Sparks’s rousing national anthem ended the opening ceremony, it was time for Kim Clijsters to take the court. True to form, I hadn’t researched to find out her opponent, but I had to assume it would be a cakewalk of a match. But when their names were announced and the two women walked onto the court, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Across the net was a 16-year-old black girl named Victoria Duval.

While it’s no longer startling to see young black teenagers playing high-level professional tennis, at the moment Duval walked out, I was struck by how my emotions were so disconnected from champions Federer and Clijsters and completely invested in their opponents, both of whom were living my onetime dream.

I might not have believed either Duval or Young would win, but it wasn’t about that. Their mere presence was proving that “sport of opportunity” wasn’t just a catchy slogan. It was something to keep young kids at my tennis camp believing in themselves for yet another generation, and that was something I couldn’t help but smile about.

As was to be expected, Duval started out nervous, quickly losing the first three points. Down 0-40, her support from the crowd grew. The next point was hers, her first point of her first U.S. Open. She had officially arrived. The two traded games, with Clijsters proving to be the better player but giving Duval glimpses of hope as the score came to 3-3. With every game won, Duval increasingly became “Vicky” to the crowd. Going from an unknown named Victoria to “Vicky, the future of American women’s tennis?” wasn’t too shabby for one night.

Her confident backhand kept rallies competitive, but the nerves in her forehand and Clijsters’s grown-woman strength turned the end of the first set and majority of the second into a clinic. Vicky won only one more game, but as the last point ended, I stood up, yelled “Vicky” in my “GABBYYYY” voice, and welled up with pride.

Vicky trotted to the net with a giant smile on her face, looking for a hug from one of her heroes, and in an amazing, motherly way, Kim embraced her. There were no handshakes to be had. This was an amazing moment for both. It was the biggest match of Duval’s life, and the beginning of the final Grand Slam for Clijsters. Everyone had something to be proud of.

Once Vicky exited the arena and Clijsters finished her postgame interview, I knew it was time to prepare for the main event. I had about 20 minutes to do all things bathroom/more food/more beer, because once Federer and Young walked out onto the court, I would be incapable of moving until the end.

At the same time that my serious tennis days were ending — due to my refusal to ever entertain home schooling, quitting basketball, or being an abnormal teenager — a new family moved to town. They were the Youngs — Ilona and Donald Young Sr., and their son Donald Young Jr. When news got out that they were moving from Chicago, it was a big deal in the Atlanta tennis world, especially among the predominately black tennis centers. We all knew who the kid was — in 2003, at only 14, he won the 16-and-under Orange Bowl — but there were still questions. Where would he train? Was he better than Scoville? Would we get to play against him?

When they arrived, some of those questions were answered immediately. For one, the family took control of the sprawling 24-court South Fulton Tennis Center, one of the largest tennis facilities in the Atlanta area and one of the most frequented places of my childhood. A once-bustling place with courts full of juniors and adults suddenly became the training ground for Donald Young. It also became a place where the less talented among us could watch but not touch or speak to the young phenom.

Being the late teenager that I was, I found it impossible to ogle someone two years my junior. I despised everything about the place, and that quickly spread to what Donald and his family represented, and what they were doing to the tennis community in the city.

I saw him as everything I loathed about serious junior athletics. By no fault of his own, he wasn’t allowed to be social, wasn’t allowed to do many things outside of tennis, and in my mind, wasn’t allowed to be a teenager. For me, college was approaching, and soon, I’d be leaving Atlanta and my tennis world. I felt as if I had helped promote a new path that younger kids could follow if they wanted: Play tennis, love tennis, but don’t depend on it to make something of yourself. Still, my decision to not play collegiate tennis was met with blank stares. I was told by some that I was a waste of time and money.

On the other end of the spectrum was Donald Young — younger, more talented, obviously headed to make something of his life. I didn’t hate him, but there were certain people who seemed to go out of their way to make me ask “What if?”

When Donald came out on the court, it reminded me of 2007, when Scoville Jenkins walked onto that same court to face Federer in the first round of that year’s U.S. Open. Five years ago, there were still relatively few non–Williams sister black Americans breaking through. So seeing yet another one who felt so close to home walk out to play Roger was, again, an important moment.

Roger Federer is my favorite non-Sampras player of all time, but as soon as the first ball was put into play, I found myself completely on #TeamDonald.

Yes, he is an American, and yes, he was the underdog, but it was deeper than that. Watching someone fail to become great, especially after watching since that greatness was all but assured, is heartbreaking. At age 23, he wasn’t supposed to still be searching for that first tournament win. In 2012, he wasn’t supposed to have just ended a 17-match losing streak, the third longest in the Open era. It was supposed to go differently for him, and while he may not be on his way out, time is running out on that push for greatness.

The match began and it became very clear that pure talent isn’t what separates the two. Watching Federer in person made that difference obvious. It’s founded in the way each deals with mistakes. Federer’s missteps are merely misspoken syllables in an otherwise flawless monologue. Young’s, on the other hand, bring a perfectly practiced speech to a screeching halt.

His body language remained pretty positive during the first set, but after eventually losing it and going down 4-2 in the second, it became increasingly clear the mistakes were starting to take their psychological toll. On numerous occasions, Young would look up at his box, containing his mother and coach, almost in the hopes of communicating telepathically for answers.

Toward the end, Roger simply kept balls in play until Donald made a mistake, which more often than not happened after a few shots in a rally. The final score: 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, the same as Scoville’s defeat by way of Roger five years earlier.

Donald’s postmatch approach to the net was quite different from Vicky’s. There wasn’t a smile on his face, nor did he and Federer exchange a hug. While Vicky seemed intent on soaking up the moment before having to leave Centre Court, Donald seemed intent on getting away from it all as quickly as possible. It makes sense. Vicky’s the kid now. Simply making the tournament is reason to be happy. That used to be Donald’s role, but somehow he’s now 23 years old, a grown-ass man. For him, just sneaking in is a point of failure.

In my eyes, Donald Young is a success story, but with that said, I’m glad he doesn’t feel the same way. What used to irk me about what he represented years ago — that uüber-serious, not-fun side of the sport — is the thing that now makes me respect him more than most. While I’m satisfied with his position as a symbol of opportunity that will continue to advance the sport, he doesn’t seem to be interested in that role. He was supposed to be the one who wasn’t simply the symbolic black tennis player, and he still seems intent on a legacy of more than that. And I love that about him.

I love it because he was the good and bad of the hoop-dreams-filled subculture of junior black tennis that I grew up in. There was a limited number of success stories that could stem from those blisteringly hot Atlanta courts, but still, many a kid believed, even if only for a year, a summer, or a few weeks, that he would be the next one to make it. Like any Kool-Aid-drinking subculture, this occasionally came at the expense of other, better-laid plans. The good was that despite all that, there was hope, hope for a better future, and that’s something no amount of unmet expectations can fully overshadow.

Filed Under: Rembert Browne, Roger Federer, U.S. Open, We Went there

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert