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No draws in tennis

| Friday, February 10, 2017

The 2006 French Open was the first time Roger Federer played Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam final. Nadal won the game after four sets. It was also that sizzling summer I first started to practice tennis. The elegance of Federer and the persistence of Nadal kept me practicing each serve, forehand, backhand and interception. Again and again — 200 hits at a time. Playing their images in my head was one of the very few motivations for me to keep running and saving the ball, the others being my coach’s cheers, the Coca-Cola I had after each training session and my own self-respect.

At the age of 11, the sky was the limit; at the age of 11, I dreamt about standing on Roland Garros’ red clay court one day. At the age of 11, I wrote a letter to Federer. I entered Federer’s official website URL into the browser and gently hit the enter key on the dusty keyboard, as if pressing the nuclear button that would end the world. The green and purple color theme of his 2006 website filled every molecule of my body with a kind of tantalizing excitement that only came with make-believe fake hopes. When I saw his home address in Switzerland, I felt so close to a foreign place and a foreign person that I could see Federer sitting by his window and feel his breath against the bright windowsill. I chose a piece of vintage yellow paper, and against the deep blue ink, I carefully wrote the letter, using a brand new fountain pen I bought that morning from the international supermarket in Beijing. I checked the grammar and spelling three times. Everything needed to be perfect — it was almost a religious ceremony. At the end of the letter, I wrote down my home address so that he could return my letter.

My mom and dad had said I should never go onto the streets by myself. They said it was dangerous, and so I did not tell them my plan. I brought all the pocket money I had been saving for a month, put on Queen’s “We are the Champions” in my earphones and mailed my first-ever international letter from Beijing, China to Bottmingen, Switzerland. I imagined Switzerland to be sunny, with Federer smiling under the bright sunlight, writing an equally long letter back. It would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I even rehearsed what to say and do when he invited me to meet his then-girlfriend and now-wife Mirka. I would agree to meet her, of course, and I would tell her she was a lucky woman.

Then there was the waiting. And the waiting was long, very long.

From 2006 to 2017, life happened. Federer became a father of four children and Nadal had multiple knee injuries. With the bouncing of tennis balls in the background, I grew up from a fan girl in China studying natural sciences, determined to take gaokao and become a scientist, to a young woman studying English literature in America.

On Jan. 29, Roger Federer once again played Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, a championship title Federer had been craving since his 2012 Wimbledon victory. Same people playing, same person watching, same sport, same passion, same elegance; the only difference was what Wordsworth so quietly and powerfully described as the irreversible passage of time — “These wild ecstasies shall be matured / Into a sober pleasure.” In the replay of their game, I saw Federer jumping up after his victory. My friends were cheering and posting on Facebook, but I was crying inside. A great age was officially ended for me. As Federer said in his speech after the winning, in this cruel sport of tennis, there was no draw. There needs to be a winner and a loser. However, these 10 years were a big, mesmerizing draw. So many tennis matches they have played and so many of them I have watched. Yet, time went by, like the beating drums in a Beethoven symphony, whitening Federer’s hair, improving Nadal’s English and touching my soul. Then I heard Wordsworth again — “While here I stand, not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years.” Suddenly, the irreversible time reversed, and although I could not relive the past, I tasted the same kind of crazy, ecstatic, honeydew-sweet hope that was embedded in that very letter I sent to Federer in 2006.

Maybe Federer did receive my letter. Or maybe it was lost on the way from Beijing to my new world. If it were lost, I hope it is now lying on some clean ground of a quiet, faraway village — unopened and untainted.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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