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Advantage Steve

I love tennis. I leave the playing to my husband and kids but I’m an ardent tennis watcher. I’ve had a few favorite players over the decades but for 24 years I was one of those crazed and wild-eyed Federer fans. Since he retired in 2022 I’ve been trying to find a new player to stalk and hang all my hopes on…but it’s useless. There is and will forever after be only one tennis GOAT in my life and that is HRH Roger Federer.


That doesn't mean that I am not looking for someone, anyone, to root for. Currently my heart belongs to Daniil Medvedev in all his goofy, gangly, evil-Russian-prince majesty, but I can’t cheer for “Fedvedev”, as I call him, the way I once cheered for Roger. Fedvedev is not well-liked in most tennis circles so when I do hoot and holler at one of his magnificent shots I usually get boos and that restrained yet withering brand of tennis stink-eye from the people seated around me. This almost makes me love him more. Medvedev is the current villain on the tennis scene. He is the anti-Roger.


Last year I went to see Fedvedev play at the Miami Open with my husband and youngest son. It was hot and sticky and I was grumpy. “So…what?” my husband said, “now that Roger is gone you no longer love tennis? After years of watching the sport on TV and going to the U.S. Open, you’re just going to stop?” “Yes!” I wanted to say. “I’m done. Without Roger in action, watching men hit a ball at each other over a net means nothing to me.” But I knew that Daniil was expecting me at the match to cheer him on (a girl can dream of such things) so I put on my sun hat and my big girl pants and walked into the stadium.


We entered at a changeover and scrambled to sit in seats that were better than the ones we had purchased. The stadium was about 80 percent full so there were several good seats available, but they were all singles. We decided to split up and reconvene after the match.


During the next break the woman sitting next to me left, and a man who had been waiting in the aisle rushed, or should I say wobbled and then crashed, into the seat next me, spilling water and popcorn on me as he squeezed in. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he mumbled. I assumed he was tipsy and decided to ignore him.


The day was brutally hot and both players were sweating bullets, as was I. One of the players needed a bathroom time-out, during which time I sat in my chair and glowered in the heat of the stifling stadium. I picked up the newspaper that I had brought with me and fashioned a somewhat useless fan out of it while I waited for the player to reemerge from the cool gloom of the locker room. “Hot, huh?” the man next to me said. I nodded in agreement and turned away.


When the player returned there was once again a mad rush for seats as most people had taken the opportunity of a time-out on court to grab a drink or some food. When we stood up, the man who had so rudely showered me with his beverage and snacks stumbled and then grabbed on to my arm for support. He clung tightly while I stared at him, appalled. He let go of my arm, apologized profusely, and then fell, almost violently, back into his seat. 


“I’m so sorry,” he said as I took my seat, “please forgive me.” It was the first time I had really looked at him and as we were smashed together in those tiny uncomfortable plastic stadium chairs I saw that he had large, brown, expressive eyes. Melancholy and kind.


During a pause in the on-court action the man turned to me again. “Do you play tennis?” he asked. Although I had tried to make it clear that I was not interested in conversation, he was persistent, and since he didn't actually seem that drunk, we started chatting.


He, like me, was with his son watching the matches. He pointed out his son to me a few seats down and over from us and I pointed out my son who was in the same area but on the other side of the court.


We talked about the match we were watching but also about New York and Los Angeles and Miami - all places where he had lived and I had worked. We discussed our love of Federer, and although he thought Medvedev’s game was “hideous to watch” he, like me, enjoyed his bad-boy antics.


At yet another changeover we had to get up again and once again this man, whose name I had learned was Steve, stumbled a bit, trying to find his balance, and blocked the aisle. The mob, trying to squeeze by us and into the adjacent unoccupied seats, was pissed. “Jesus Christ,” one of them growled at him, “get your shit together, dude.”


Steve sighed as we sat back down. It was a long, weary sigh and I felt a little bad for him. “Do you play?” I asked him softly during one long and messy rally. “I did,” he said, “before all this happened.” At that he waved his hand below his knees in front of his shins, which I could not see, tucked as they were beneath his seat. “Before what?” I asked. “Oh. This,” he said, retrieving one of his legs from beneath the chair the way one might move a knapsack or a purse, as if his leg was not even attached to his body. He needed his arms to pull his leg out from under the seat.


He displayed his right leg to me as he fumbled to grab hold of his left leg which he also hauled out from under the seat and presented to me as evidence, pulling up the legs of his shorts several inches.


Steve was wearing a long pair of cargo shorts - the type that end right past a man's knee, and as he pulled the shorts up I saw, somewhat horrified, that Steve's calves were nothing more than skin and bone. Steve was a normal looking man but his legs below the knees did not look normal at all. They looked like bones, with no muscle, no fat, no tendons. There was just a thin layer of pale and blotchy skin stretched taut and shiny over them. “Oh my God!” I said loudly and then was suddenly ashamed. “What happened to your legs?” I assumed he must have been in a fire or a car accident. He smiled ruefully and told me the story.


Steve had a twin brother and up until their mid-thirties they had both been very active and competitive tennis players. But then, out of nowhere, right after Steve's only child was born, both brothers started to suffer joint pain and weakness. They thought it was the arthritis that their parents developed later on in life but doctors ruled that out. Steve and his brother were living in Chicago at the time and none of the doctors there could figure out what was happening. Both men had weakness, then pain, then trouble balancing, and finally what appeared to be an alarming rate of muscle atrophy happening in both of their legs below the knees and it was getting worse every month.


After three long years of seeing “every doctor known to man in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles” the brothers were sent to yet another specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who figured out what was wrong with them. Both brothers had a “wasting condition” and eventually would be completely crippled, confined to wheelchairs. I don’t remember the exact name but the disease starts below the knees and then once that area is completely gone the atrophy will start to move up. Into the thighs, then the hips, and then, usually in about ten years, into the spine. This was a rare disease, an obscure, incurable, and progressive condition, that somehow both men had developed.


“Oh that's terrible! I’m so sorry!” I said to Steve. “Is there no hope?” “No. None. But my brother and I will at some point be able to play wheelchair tennis together so that’s something.”


I was stunned by Steve's equanimity, and very impressed. “You are so accepting of this,” I said softly. “Well,” Steve laughed, “what other option do I have? And besides,” he said, pointing at his son who was motioning to his father wildly as an empty seat had opened up next to him, “we did some genetic testing and he doesn't seem to have it.” Steve smiled, his eyes bright and optimistic. “Better that this happen to me than my son…right? He plays a ton of tennis and I really enjoy watching him play.”


“My son has a seat for me,” Steve said at the next changeover. “I’m gonna go grab it.” He was trying hard to stand up, balancing his average size build on legs that looked more like toothpicks than anything else. I stood and gave him my arm, which he gladly accepted.


“Nice to talking to you,” Steve said, “enjoy the match.” “I will,” I called after him, “and good luck to you too.” I watched as Steve lurched and bumped and crashed his way down the aisle toward his son. I was afraid he would fall flat on his face onto the hard concrete floor but he did not. As he made his way to his new seat I could see that people, not one of them looking down at his withered calves, were irritated, pissed off, aggressive. “Come on, man! Get in your seat!” a burly man yelled and I wanted to cry and dump my Coke on the man’s head but I refrained. Steve just smiled and said “I'm tryin’ man, I’m tryin’.”


I tried for the rest of the match to watch Medvedev, to get into the game, but I couldn’t. I was ashamed of myself and everyone in the stadium who, like I had been, were so rudely impatient with Steve and the way he moved, knowing nothing at all about his disease or that he would “in the next decade or so” be completely unable to walk at all.


As the match reached its conclusion I watched Steve and his son leave the stadium, Steve leaning heavily on his son's shoulder and wobbling his way through the crowd. He turned around to smile and wave at me once, and then disappeared into the dark mouth of the stadium entrance, swallowed up by the hot and thirsty crowd.


I’ll never forget Steve and the grace with which he comported himself in the brief hour that I was in his company. I learned a valuable lesson from him about judging anyone before knowing their true “story”.


At match point, the words “Advantage Medvedev” thundered through the stadium. Having witnessed his acceptance and good humor in the face of real adversity, in the game of life I’m pretty sure it will always be “Advantage Steve”.


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