QUEENS, N.Y.—Sir, I am sorry that I missed your U.S. Open tennis match on Monday evening. I missed it because I saw the first two sets and you looked dead in the water, an expression I’d assumed was about fish until looking it up last night and learning it had to do with boats. Anyway, down 6-1, 6-2 to No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem and hardly moving, you looked like a dead fish.
I am sorry I gave up my seat, that I slunk away in the exodus of nonbelievers, even after you broke Thiem’s serve in the third set. I am sorry that after watching you lurch around the court for two sad sets and after the calls for medical treatment, and even as you began to refocus the laser beam of your forehand, I thought you simply could not string together three sets in a row, because sets are big fat enterprises. I am sorry that I was not there to watch you take the third, and then the fourth, and—my former seat by now totally impossible to reclaim, warmed by a new bottom—then the fifth. It was the best match of the tournament, they say. One of the best of the year. The texts still trickle in.
I will never again leave you at your direst moment just to find better seats at something else. I will never give up on your messy emotional odyssey just to watch the Swiss nerd go about another straight-sets day at the office. I will never follow the ebb and flow of your journey by the sounds emanating from Grandstand, still audible from my new seat at Arthur Ashe some 1,000 feet away. Never again will my understanding of your tennis match rely on my ability to grasp the emotional information encoded in distant roars. Or the faulty, flickering stadium wifi as I refreshed the live score. Or my intermittent over-the-shoulder view of some guy livestreaming your match from within earshot of Roger Federer.
I am sorry that I had to rewatch your win via sofa highlights.
When the Argentianian sporting body flies out throngs to populate your matches, which really must be the case given the crushing and absolute devotion of the crowd—some 100 Delpo stans for every lonely Thiem supporter—I will greet them on the airstrip with blue-and-white flags. I will prevent my eyeballs from rolling even one quarter-rotation in their sockets the next time you are given the full-throated futbol-style Olé treatment merely for holding serve while down two sets.
I will permit myself a few outbursts of emotion because perfect press box decorum is a thin farce, a balloon easily popped by any real piercing feeling that good sports raise up.
I am sorry that I was not there to see you drop your racket in grateful release, weep (you are always quick to tears), cast out both arms in a victory V that’s now in my brain and that might one day hopefully coalesce into a false memory of having been there.
I will stop mourning your two-handed backhand, depleted by years of bad wrists and three surgeries, even when the tennis ball poofs up meekly into the air to be spiked by some fiercer, fresher competitor. I will learn to love the one-handed slice that has partially replaced it. I am sorry that before your unlikely resurrection last year I had already started talking about you in posthumous terms. I will stop fantasizing about what your career could have been if granted a a clean bill of health, and start appreciating what your career still is, and can be. I will stop chasing aimless hypotheticals and start appreciating the thing in front of me, which is:
• A serve that can still nullify two match points with on-demand aces, exactly as you needed it to do in the fourth set.
• A shotgun forehand that comes with a gut-thumping kthwunk, a sound that ought to make venue security whip around in concern every time it goes off; a sound that every human being deserves to hear at least once up close in their lifetime; a sound that always has an odd echo—the involuntary whimper of the crowd. I am sorry I missed every forehand you struck, flat and savage. I am sorry I missed this:
Sorry about it all, you doleful lunk. You prolific hugger. You empty threatener of racket violence. You infuriating counterexample to the notion that “Heart” could be relegated to the bin of vapid sports cliché. You 6-foot-6 teddy bear who must hurt all over anytime you step into competition—half-limp, half-swagger. In the quarterfinal, you’ll play the guy I watched instead of watching you. He is the same man you beat here in the 2009 final, breaking his streak of five straight, when you were just 21 years old and hinting at a kind of generational promise that your glass wrists never let you deliver. On Wednesday I’ll be there, sitting in the correct stadium.