A young Mark Czerniec plays tennis at  Froelich's Sayner LodgeI’m not a rabid, statistics-quoting sports geek. Growing up, I officially recognized only four sports: Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. My dad watched hockey; I didn’t. All I knew was Bobby Hull. I played a little basketball in school when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Milwaukee’s hero, but I was never a devoted fan until the Michael Jordan era. That left me with the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cubs.

Tennis always struck me as a precious, elitist sport. It didn’t help that I attended a prep school with kids who summered in Europe, idolized Björn Borg, and toted their Head rackets around as fashion accessories while I summered in Kenosha with my Wilson baseball glove.

Tennis on TV

Some time around 1995, though, I was in front of my TV and a tennis tournament was airing. I realized that I didn’t even understand the scoring (“15-Love?”), so I grabbed a reference book and reviewed the basic rules, which turned out to be very concise and only a little squirrely: “Love,” of course, means “zero,” and for some reason, successive points are counted 15, 30, 40. Whatever. Plus, it helps to know that the outside boundaries on each side of the court are only used during doubles play.

Armed with these secret insights, Amy and I sat down to watch what would be the first of many tennis matches together. I was quickly drawn in by the simplicity of the game. After a life of infield fly rules, intentional walks, intentional grounding, grasp and control, ineligible receivers, failures to tag, balks, offensive pass interference, and on and on, it seemed so crisp and clear to see two people confronting a basic rectangle and one bounce. I liked the one-on-one competition, with no poor-hitting pitcher or special teams placeholder to pollute the outcome. I liked the continuous output of athleticism. Tennis players are always either about to spring or already using both arms, both legs, both hands, eyes, ears, and lungs. There are no huddles, no two-minute warnings, no grazing outfielders, and commercial breaks are brief. There are, unfortunately, aggravating rain delays.

I especially like women’s tennis. The game they play relies more on finesse, strategy, and calculation than just sheer power. The women volley, carefully cutting off angles and working opponents into a corner, whereas some of the men may as well be shooting at each other with rifles. I quickly became a fan of Martina Hingis, but was not as crazy about Pete Sampras.

Now, every year, we try to watch the four Grand Slam tournaments of two weeks each. The Australian Open begins the season in January, and its location makes for a horrendous time difference. It’s very easy to have results spoiled via the news. Wimbledon, in midsummer, is the snootiest of the four and it is played on grass, which seems wrong because grass is not hard enough. By the end of the two weeks, the grass is all worn down to a lumpy thatch that causes strange bounces. Maybe the British royals find this charming, but I do not. My favorite Grand Slam is the U.S. Open. It’s played on a hard, flat surface in New York at a stadium named for Louis Armstrong, and it’s my official marker for the end of summer. On the last day, you can always count on a cold wind blowing garbage around and a chat with John Madden.

The French Open, which began Sunday in the fantastic city of Paris, is the bookend at summer’s beginning. It is played on gritty red clay, a fact which is yammered upon by the TV analysts during almost every minute of the tournament. The clay surface means that the ball does not bounce as hard, and the players must know how to slide a little. That’s about it. It requires more agility and finesse. Oh, and it leaves red dust marks on shoes and clothing. You’ve seen clay, right? Enough, already.

This year, ESPN2 (Channel 28 here on Time Warner Cable) has expanded its French Open coverage, and I really like the way it’s working out. They’ve been airing 10 hours per day, starting at 4:00 AM Central. This means that much of the action is live, not some preselected highlight package. I set my DVR to record the whole shebang, then watch it with Amy after work each night. We pick and choose what to watch ourselves, skipping through Andy Roddick‘s exit press conference, but lingering on Marat Safin‘s histrionics. We’ll see maybe two or three hours per night, plus more on the weekends, and it’s nice to be able to follow the players we’re interested in, which are not always the same ones the U.S. networks are pushing.

Martina Hingis is back, after a prolonged absence caused by injury. I would be happy to see her do well. I have always liked Justine Henin-Hardenne, and her controversial retirement from the final in Australia, although odd, hasn’t soured me. Much is made of Maria Sharapova‘s grunting, but I like to watch her plucking her racket strings between points. Sports is so psychological, and she really goes into her own little world lecturing herself. It almost seems a little dissociative.

The big story this year is the showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Frank Deford had a good summary today on Morning Edition. I guess I’ll be rooting for Federer.

James Blake is also a class act. They say he’ll have a hard time getting past someone named Nicolás Almagro. We’ll see.

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