WIMBLEDON, England — I am sitting with a yellow pad in the shade at an empty tennis court. I am trying to figure out where I went wrong as a child.
“Kindergarten?” I ask myself, nibbling at the pencil. “If I had only cut out kindergarten. Or bedtime stories. . . . “
I have just finished watching Michael Chang play at Wimbledon. I have just finished listening to Chang conduct a post-match press conference. I have been watching Chang for days here at Wimbledon. This is my overriding impression:
How old is this kid?
“Pizza,” I say, drawing a line through the word. “If I had cut out all the pizza in my childhood, I would have had at least 423 extra hours to devote to tennis. Pizza. Yes. And high school. High school could have been eliminated altogether. . . .”
Something must have been extraneous. Something that Chang, no doubt, has long ago exorcised from daily life. How else does he manage to challenge the top dogs here at age 17? Where did he find the time? At 17 I was mowing the grass, not playing tennis on it.
“Summer camp,” I say, drawing a big X. “And breakfast. Who needed breakfast? . . .”
Not that Chang has done anything wrong. His feats these past four weeks have been remarkable. He won the French Open — the youngest male to ever win a Grand Slam title — by beating the likes of Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl. And he won his first three matches here before being overpowered by Tim Mayotte Monday. He is maybe — and I say maybe — 5-feet-8, light as a cotton towel, and hairless on his face. I look at him and I expect to see a skateboard under his arm.
Of course there is no . . .
“Skateboards,” I mumble, scribbling on the pad. “How could I have been so stupid?” Listen to your mother
I am having what, I believe, is a normal reaction for a guy in his 30s watching apple-cheeked kids playing tennis for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wouldn’t you wonder why your life never made that big turn? I am told that Chang was coached by his father, Joe, a former Chinese diplomat, and that his mother, Betty, screens his calls and books his media schedule. The family moved from Minnesota to California, seeking tougher competition for young Michael. “We have a saying in Chinese,” Betty once explained. “Mung mu san tien. It means a mother will move many times for the sake of the child.”
My mother had an expression, too. It went like this: “I’m gonna slap you so hard. . . .”
But young tennis players, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of the rich, are different from you and me. For one thing, they have more money. And, surely, more time. Many spend their teenage years in tennis academies. Maybe they don’t sleep. Maybe they sleep with a racket.
There is no shortage of them, that’s for sure. There is Andre Agassi, 19, who, believe it or not, is now fighting a career slump. And of course the women’s French Open champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario — I hear that name, I want a vaccination — who is just 17, you know what I mean, and looks as if she should be shopping at the Gap.
A few minutes after Chang’s match, the ponytailed Monica Seles took Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Monica Seles is a challenger to veteran tennis queen Steffi Graf, age 20.
Monica Seles is 15.
“Piano lessons, girls, baseball cards,” I say, scratching them off the list. “The prom, comic books, driver’s ed. . . .” Growing older by the minute
But let us return to Chang, who, despite finishing high school through correspondence classes, seems as mature as a middle-aged professor. Here is a kid who rarely wears jeans, has a multimillion-dollar deal with Reebok, says he won’t have sex until he’s married, and claims he smashed only one racket in his life, when he was eight years old and losing a match to his father.
“What did your father say?” someone asks.
“Nothing,” he says. “He was winning.”
My father would have said something. This is what my father would have said: “I’m gonna slap you so hard. . . .”
But what can you do? In a purely selfish way, I am glad that Chang was halted on his Wimbledon march this year. A guy should have his driver’s license first. Besides, I am relieved that John McEnroe — who, at age 30 and no doubt suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, recently boasted, “If Chang makes the Wimbledon final, I’ll drop my pants at Centre Court” — is spared the embarrassment. Life is embarrassing enough for us old folks.
I look at my pad. This is what I figure: If I started at age 3, surrendered G.I. Joe’s, my Beatles albums, baseball, Sugar Smacks, high school, Saturday morning cartoons, Sunday afternoons at the bowling alley and all those dusks on my bicycle with my friends, waiting for our mothers to call us inside — then maybe I, too, might be trading hits with Michael Chang at the All England Club.
Not that I would do it.
“Do you feel much older now than you did a month ago?” I ask Chang before he leaves.
“I feel older than my age,” he says, making a face. “It’s hard to explain.”
No, it’s not.