tennis

Queen of the Court

This is a review of Queen of the Court, Serena Williams’s autobiography, penned with Daniel Paisner. She gives us rare insights into her childhood, training regimen, among other curious details in the life of a champion. The book was published in 2009, when she had “only” 11 Grand Slams to her name. Today she holds a record whopping 23!

When I picked the book up, the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew very little about what Serena Williams is made of; what kind of person is she? Is she as tortured as Agassi was, as hard on herself as Nadal, or as perfectly naturally athletic like Roger Federer? What is it about her, the sinew and guts, that make her the Queen of the court?

Legend has it that Serena and sister, Venus Williams, were born because of some happenstance by which their father was watching the 1978 French Open on TV. The announcer mentioned that the player, Virginia Ruzici, had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play, more than Serena’s father earned all year. He was stunned and inspired. The story goes that he went up their mother and said, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

They made tennis their life. The older Williams girls were trained along with the young potential protégées. In their household, every little game was about tennis, and every day, needless to say, was spent hitting balls, or practicing form, or watching a game. This tennis regimen involved a lot of homework for the parents, especially their dad, who was their coach in the formative years. For him, training the girls included learning the game, the tricks involved, game play, coaching methods and juggling his day job with the tennis-life. The focus with which the girls were brought up, and the up keep of that spirit – with love and respect for the game – is commendable to say the very least.

The Williamses’ dedication to the sport, bordering on religion, is almost unthinkable, given that they literally practiced in courts while next door there raged gun violence. They hopped from public court to public court, with an old car loaded with balls, racquets and brooms to clean the court (of dry leaves, if they’re lucky, and drug paraphernalia, if not). The girls themselves were driven and passionate, with abundant conviction and confidence, from the beginning, that they would be tennis stars one day. Their father kept the improbability of that away from them, though.

As a child, Serena sees herself as the spoilt brat in the family; the youngest one who is spoiled with love and affection, the one who hides under the shadow of the big sisters, and the one that gets away with all sorts of mischief. One such mischievous act got her career as a professional tennis player started. When Serena was 8, her sister Venus entered a professional 10-and-under tournament, as per her father-coach’s plan. Serena, who always wanted what Venus had (and who believed she was ready!), demanded that she be allowed to play too. Her father felt she was not ready yet, and so turned a deaf ear to her. Come tournament day, the family travelled together as usual, and Serena was tagging along with Venus and her father. When they reached the courts, however, Serena slipped away. Her father noticed, only a little later, that she had wandered off. He asked one of the referees if he’d seen Serena (who was a known face, there, being dark skinned and being a part of the Venus entourage and all). “She’s playing her match, out back in court number..” he said. Apparently, Serena had taken the liberty to enter the tournament by herself! And she proved her father’s fears wrong.

This spunky young lady, though, is besotted with self-doubt. But, due to the criticism of the nay-sayers, who had pinned her down to forever be no more than “Venus’s little sister”, or despite it, she rose through the ranks and held her own. She suffered through injury, the loss of a sister to gun violence, vicious hatred and racism on and off the court, and still came at the top of her game.

Although the book was a quick read, it dwells on many aspects of Serena’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches upon many facets too, from family to training to sponsorships to fashion. It also has some family pictures and some entries from her journal, which make the memoir all the more personal and stirring. (Although I would have liked very much if the textese were corrected.)

But the book didn’t fully satisfy the curiosity that I picked it out with. Now I know what she wrote in her little Match Book, one that she leafs through during matches, like, “U will not be afraid. It is not in your vocabulary. It is not in your nature. It is not in U, period. NO FEAR!!!” I also know how much she loved fashion and thrived on the looks she created for each tournament. I know, too, that she was moved by her visit to Africa (a Roots-esque visit, I’d say). But I don’t know how she really battled her poor self-image, how she remained efficient even as her haters grew louder, and I don’t know the little details of her practice and cross training, or diet, and I am fully blindsided on her childhood outside of the tennis courts, which, I reckon, made her into the tough lady we see on court.

Also, since the book was written in 2009, I had no way of learning about her journey since (duh), which has only been more inspiring than not.

In 2017, she won the Australian Open when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. What wouldn’t I give to know what she wrote in her Match Book for the finals? Here’s a picture of the Queen at the 2017 Australian Open –

serena.png

One of Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

For someone who plays tennis, Queen of the Court is a must read. 5/5. For the rest, who hope to learn how to hit a top-spin, the book is no good. For a tennis or sports fan, the book is worth a slow weekend. 3/5.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

(Queen, Killer Queen)

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Rafael Nadal’s Rafa

“I don’t really understand his decisions and choices. It was weird for him choosing to play despite the pain, but he really gave all he had. He gave his best.” – Roger Federer, on Rafael Nadal playing at the Swiss Indoors, Basel, upon recovery from a wrist injury, but with appendicitis.

Rafa: My Story, Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

rafa

Rafa, the book, is moulded around the 2008 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. As for how close that match was, how thrilling, I can only tell you that as I watched it Live, my sleep-deprived young heart nearly failed. In Spain, Wimbledon was not a tournament that they wanted their heroes to go after. For the Spanish, Roland Garros was Sanctum Sanctorum, Davis Cup was their Moksha. But they didn’t see that this young man called Rafael from Mallorca would one day stand to be a serious contender of the Championship, not once but more than three times; and each time, the matches were juicy, adding to his glory.

Rafa is an awfully contradictory person. He is terrible at making decisions off court, but he nears perfection on court. He cannot function without his family off court, but will do everything in his power to isolate himself from reality and people, in the moments before a match begins in a bizarre ritual (during which he bellows “Vamos! Vamos!” in the changing room; and sprints up and down the cramped space). He works out in the gym with crazy intensity (“each and every time” – this is drilled into you by the time you finish one-third of the book), but he cheats on his diet by eating chocolate cake (his uncle, Toni Nadal, gives him hell for it).

Speaking of hell, Rafa’s training regimen is hell. It is so intense that the hard work he puts into it is relied on more than his talent, during a match. This insane hard work gets to him eventually, when injuries surface. He plays through pain, and he says so in the book in a disturbingly casual fashion. With a note of anguish, though, he says: “being a professional sportsperson is not healthy.”

The injury department is overcrowded. He has a rare condition in his left foot which forces him to “kill” the foot before he goes to play, because the pain is too great if he does not. Due to this foot condition, the sole of his shoes is an on-going experiment, so as to soften the blow his foot takes; and due to this continuous change in shoe sole shape, other parts of his body suffer injuries (his knee and back). But the guys who treat him make him invincible, despite these bodily failings and his mind makes him the Goliath on court. The book gives you an insight of this. In my opinion, the tenor of the chapters that explain and analyse Rafa’s moves on court at tough situations is the most captivating part of the book.

His team is close knit and is very close to Rafa. He is a person who simply cannot live away from his family and team (which he treats like family) for too long. Rafa’s biggest strengths are his parents, his team of physicians and friends and most importantly, Uncle Toni (he’s ruthless, partial against his nephew, crazy about his nephew’s constant improvement (constant vigilance!), and is often unreasonably critical of his nephew. But he’s immensely loved by this tennis great).

The book shows you how Rafa is a hard working, dedicated, and supremely disciplined tennis player. His modesty is explained the Mallorcan way in the book. His success is attributed to the Nadal family. This is a book for every sportsperson. It teaches you the best kind of lessons about discipline, perseverance, humility, love and hard work.

3.5/5

Not quite Federer

Chris Bowers, John Blake Publications Ltd, 2013

federer

After having read through glowing reviews about this biography, here is my take on it:

What should a book about your greatest role model be like? It should be able to have you riveted to the anecdotes and to the words and ideas of the mind behind the force you are so dependent on. Chris Bowers fails to impress. With the book being divided into five parts, of which one of them is called “Nadal the nemesis”, I was put off. For someone who has followed Federer’s life with as much adoration as I did, having Nadal feature in a substantial part of the book was irritating, to say the least. While Federer won titles, and worked on excelling upon the perfection of his game, I would have loved to know how he dealt with life off court, at practice and with his role as being IC President and the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and not only on how his matches against Nadal panned out; no thanks, I watched them Live.

It is unfortunate that Chris Bowers could not access more information. Indeed, this is a biography that has been written independently, as Federer turned down requests to contribute towards an authorised biography.

The good thing about the book is that it feels like an interesting article in a sports magazine. With quirky quotes picked from press conferences and sports magazines, the quilt made by Bowers about Roger is endearing. But, I’m willing to bet my last penny that Roger’s own account  will eb superb; especially those of his childhood, those days he spent blasting through opponents in the junior and the ATP level, when he courted the love of his life, when he injured himself, his work with Roger Federer Foundation and the epic battles at the Majors!

Being an ardent Roger Federer fan and someone who followed his career, I could keep up with the names thrown about in the book. Also, the book made me relive those days when I would scout the newspaper for an article and picture of him. Unfortunately, that is mostly all it does. It is neither earth shaking, nor quotable. This is a book for his fans. His fans will read it, and enjoy it while it lasts. I don’t see myself reading this one again. But I’ll keep it, simply because it probably is the best account of the tennis life of the man I have looked up to. I might even read it again, who knows; for, the title itself will make me.

Chris Bowers, if you’d chosen any other subject for a biography, you would not have sold.

Ebook friendly? I read the paperback. But the language is simple, so it should be okay.

3- Give it a read.