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

WIMBLEDON, England — It was raining lightly. Todd Martin wanted to keep playing. Andre Agassi did not. So when chasing down a forehand, Agassi slipped, and let himself go down like a Shakespearean soldier. He lay on the grass as if he’d been shot.

The crowd hooted. Agassi remained flat for several seconds. Finally, his point made, he slowly rose and wiped his leg.

Sure enough, the official came out and suspended the match.

“Nice acting job,” John McEnroe would later comment. But then, Andre Agassi has always been slick. And Todd Martin has always been the good soldier.

There are two worlds at Wimbledon. The first is a world of flashbulbs, limousines, bank accounts, TV cameras, gossip columnists, endorsement deals and high-profile romances.

That is the world in which Agassi lives.

The second world is a more normal place, where the player goes home to a small group of friends. Where he drives his own car. Where his only real paychecks are the ones for the tennis. If he wins, he does well; if he loses, he doesn’t. No Canon deals. No mega-rich shoe contracts. No gossip columnists. No famous girlfriends.

This is the world in which Todd Martin lives. Martin is 29, graying prematurely at the temples. Although he has done well in Grand Slam tournaments — and was a semifinalist here a few years ago — he couldn’t get a seed this year. On Thursday, while Agassi had his normal entourage in the stands — including current love interest Steffi Graf — Martin had only his coach, his trainer, and a couple friends who happened to be vacationing in London.

“The people who matter to me in life,” Martin told me before the match, “have their own lives to live. I don’t expect them to follow me around.”

Unlike Anna, Amy has won tournaments

Anna Kournikova played two matches here at Wimbledon. Her first was on Centre Court. Her second was on the high-profile Court One. She lost that second match, in straight sets, to a little-known Frenchwoman. Just the same, Kournikova’s departure, like her arrival, was saturated by media. Her exit interview was standing-room only.

Meanwhile, Amy Frazier has also played two matches at Wimbledon, both on the mostly ignored outside courts. She won both and plays a third-round match today.

Although Frazier is ranked nearly as high as Kournikova (and, unlike Kournikova, Frazier has won tournaments), Anna is surrounded by an entourage of supporters, including her parents, her coach and hockey star Sergei Fedorov.

The only person waiting when Frazier came off the court Wednesday was the only person over here with her: her mother.

There are two worlds at Wimbledon for the women as well. One is a world of magazine covers, endorsement deals, paparazzi and famous boyfriends — Anna’s world — and the other is a regular place, where you drive home with your mom and you get a late-night snack.

Amy Frazier is 27 — “Old age in women’s tennis,” she says — yet she still loves the game, still gets a charge out of seeing the Wimbledon grass every summer. Although Kournikova reportedly threw a fit at being “stuck” in a
$1.2-million townhouse — while Frazier is sharing a hotel room with her mom
— the older player doesn’t begrudge the younger. “Without people like Anna,” Frazier says, “I might not have a job.”

A Midwestern sense of balance

Both Frazier and Martin are from Michigan. I am proud of that, because they both embody a Midwestern sense of balance that is desperately missing on the pro tennis circuit.

Both are close with their families. Both play the game for the thrill of the competition — not the heat of the spotlight. Never mind that when I ask Martin if he earns even 1/20th of Kournikova’s $10-million endorsement money, he laughs raucously and says, “Keep coming down!”

Never mind that Frazier, despite a top-25 ranking, has no endorsement deal, only a clothing deal with Adidas, which sometimes sends her tight micro dresses that she would never wear.

Never mind that Frazier does not put her boyfriends in the stands. Never mind that, despite Andre/Steffi or Martina Hingis and Magnus Norman, Martin laughs off the idea of a tennis lover.

“I wouldn’t want to know that at dinner, when I was thinking about my backhand, she was thinking about hers,” he says.

Never mind that neither has an entourage. Never mind that neither is doing commercials. Never mind that neither has dated rock stars, movie stars or Barbra Streisand. Never mind that the average American couldn’t pick them out of a lineup.

What they lack is far surpassed by what they have. They have talent. They have longevity. What’s more important, they have manners and grace and humility and perspective.

They may live in the “other” world of Wimbledon, far from the spotlight. But tennis could not exist without athletes like them. They both play today. And win or lose, they will not need to lie in wet grass to make an impression.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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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