by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — I whiz into customs on my skateboard, the Walkman blaring in my ears.

“Your destination, sir?” asks the customs man.

“Wimbledon,” I say.

I open my suitcase filled with stuffed giraffes and fuzzy teddy bears. I unzip the bag containing 14 copies of the New Kids on the Block album, and the latest issues of Tiger Beat magazine.

“Where did you say you were going, sir?” the agent asks again.

I repeat, ‘Wimbledon.”

Once upon a time, I used to come to Wimbledon with notepads and tape recorders. I used to lug press clippings of veteran players and media guides to recognize the foreign tennis stars.

Now that is no longer necessary. Now all you need are windjammer beach shorts and the latest from AC/DC. You want stars? Just look for girls with braces and boys who don’t shave. This is no longer a tennis tournament. This is a slumber party. You don’t report it. You baby-sit.

“Wimbledon,” I say again to the puzzled agent. “You know. Jennifer and Michael and Steffi and Monica and Boris? The tennis version of ‘The Breakfast Club’?”

“What’s this?” he asks, unfurling an oversized T-shirt with a goofy cartoon figure on the front.

“Bart Simpson, dude!” I say. “Come on, get with it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t have a cow, Hoover.”

I am not sure when tennis actually went pubescent. It had something to do with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, who were sort of West Germany’s answer to Donnie and Marie. They won a few tournaments. They won Wimbledon. Next thing you knew, everybody was getting carded at the players’ lounge.

Now, they laugh at you if you’re 24 years old, and they wonder how you still have your hair. Every time you turn around, some teenager is setting the record for youngest winner in this tournament, youngest winner in that tournament.

“Can you tell me the purpose of this object, sir?” the customs man asks, examining the hot yellow roller skates with the plastic wheels.

“That’s for Michael Chang,” I say. “You know, the American kid? Looks like he stepped out of a ‘Family Ties’ episode? He needs something to do between knocking off the best players in the world. He likes roller skates. Go figure.”

“And this?” he asks, twirling a hot pink Walkman with the antenna earphones.

“For Monica Seles. Teenager from Yugoslavia? She asked for it. Said the matches were, like, super boring, you know, and she needed some really excellent music before she barfed.”

“Barfed?” he asks, slipping on the headphones. He turns on the tape. His eyes bolt open and his teeth begin to rattle.

“Motley Crue,” I say. “Sorry.”

This is what the world’s greatest tennis tournament has come down to: rock
‘n’ roll and Reeboks. The most exciting part is no longer bowing to the Queen, but the chance that George Michael might be in the audience. They still serve strawberries and cream, but they may add Cap’n Crunch and milk.

It is the new era of tennis. Once, players used to wave to wives and children in the family box. Now, everybody waves to Mom and Dad. Mom is usually squeezing her hands together and blowing kisses, and Dad is usually barking out instructions on how to stay aggressive at the net.

“And who is this for?” the customs agent asks, holding up a box of Nutter Butter Sandwich Cookies and a carton of milk.

“Jennifer Capriati,” I say. “She says she misses home. Hey. She’s only 14.”

Of course, when we were 14, we were not winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in international tennis tournaments. When we were 14, we were in high school, trying to slice open a frog.

But this is the new era. Frogs are out. High school no longer seems very important, nor does hanging around the mall, or riding bicycles or giggling on the phone at night. Allowances have been replaced by endorsement contracts, and the prom has been replaced by the press conference. It may not make sense to me. But what do I know? I used to listen to the Monkees.

And so I zip up the bag full of Madonna CDs and close the suitcase full of swatch watches. I repack the Tom Cruise posters in their cardboard tubes, and tuck away the Whitesnake concert, which I taped off MTV. I have come to fit in. However young I have to act.

“Very well,” says the customs agent. “You may close it up and go.”

“Thanks,” I say, hopping back on my board.

“By the way,” he asks, “who’s going to win this year?”

I say I don’t know. But whoever wins will be an awesome dude. I’m sure of that.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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