2014/10/31

Dear Guillermo Vilas, My Father Thanks You and I Thank You

 

By Karen Pestaina

(AUGUST 23, 2013) NEW YORK, NY – It is rare that I write anything personal on this website. I’ve been working in media since I was in High School and as primarily a broadcast journalist, being objective in reporting is my job. I’ve worked in places from ballparks to war zones so I take being media very seriously. I see my role of that of a journalist as that of a public servant in which I report facts and not opinion. I always tell people to read as much as they can from all types of sources to form their own truths. As they say – don’t believe everything you read.

This is one day I can’t be objective. Last Saturday, I was about to make my way out the door to cover the New Haven Open. About two blocks later, my mother called me to tell me that my father had died twenty minutes earlier. My father had been ill for a long time, almost two years, I’d been expecting it. But even though I expected that the day when the horrible news would come, I was still in shock when it actually happened.

I’ve been a tennis fan all of my life and the love of the sport was instilled in me by my father – a physician who would never play golf, but tennis on Wednesdays. My father hated golf and turned on golf if he wanted to take a nap. I must confess, I have done the same thing. My love for tennis came in earnest when as a child my father took me to the Men’s Finals of the 1977 US Open which was the last one played at Forest Hills. It was my first live tennis match.

Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas upset American Jimmy Connors in four sets. The one thing I remember from that match was Vilas being picked up and carried around by fans on the court as though he were some sort of hero. I remember thinking, if this happens at the end of every match this is some exciting sport. I did not know what the significance of this match was, I just know that it was exciting to watch. Needless to say that after this match I became a huge tennis fan. My father was a huge Vilas fan before this, not so much about his tennis or his work ethic but about his personality. How many players today write books of poetry as he did.

Let me tell you about my father, all of his life he was a loyal subject of the British Empire, despite becoming a citizen of the United States a few years after I was born. I was the first American in my family. He always said to others that he spoke “the King’s English” and not the Queen’s because when he was born a King was on the throne. My father kept his British accent until the day he died despite having lived in the US for 50 years.

Being the American Brit as he was, he rarely showed any emotion. The only time I ever saw him come close to crying was when my oldest brother died as a teenager. He ruled our household like a monarchy, sometimes like a benevolent dictator, but he was always up for a debate on any subject in the book. He had an IQ higher than Marion Bartoli, but he rarely ever spoke about it. It was not his way to brag or boast – about anything. He was a firm believer in Judeo-Christian values which meant being humble.

Having grown up in a British territory my father loved three sports – Cricket, football (soccer) and tennis. He came to love baseball, basketball and football when he emigrated to the US but that never altered his love for the big three – Cricket, football and tennis.

After my first visit to the US Open, it became a family ritual to attend the US Open every year. We always would attend the first few days of the tournament in order to see all of the players. Back then in the late 70’s and early 80’s not as many people attended the early rounds, so more times than not, we would sit in the sponsor’s seats to watch some of the matches. In those days those seats were left unfilled in the early rounds of the tournament.

In those days my father would take myself, my second brother and a sister to the matches, and one thing we were forced to do was to watch at least one match which featured a British player. I remember one time that a match with a British player was taking place at the same time as a Bjorn Borg match! My sister, who was a huge Borg fan was furious, but there was nothing she could do, we all had to be together as a family – end of discussion.

One year when one of my Aunts came to visit for the US Open, we went up to the ticket booth to buy “day of” tickets. A British player that made it into the main draw (I don’t remember the name of the player) heard my Aunt speaking in her British accent and asked us if we would like his extra tickets. Of course she took them and we sat in what was the equivalent of the player friend’s box then and cheered him on, sadly he lost that day.

My father and his family were seriously tennis fanatics – I was too young to remember this but my mother told me when Arthur Ashe took out Jimmy Connors to win the Wimbledon title, my father was on the phone with one of my uncles in London for the entire match! A two-hour plus phone call from New York to London must have cost a fortune. So why did my father do this? Wimbledon was not shown live in 1975 in the US back then. He wanted to witness history in “real time,” even though it meant “watching it” with one of his brothers through the telephone.

My father often discussed his favorite players in tennis history. Above all for him was Rod Laver. My father said that if someone else can win two real grand slams, then they’ll be my favorite player. His second favorite male player or as he would have said, his favorite player of the “modern age,” was Pete Sampras. My father loved the serve and volleyers. In fact although he enjoyed watching Roger Federer play, he felt that the Swiss should come into net more. He also would speak so enthusiastically about Pancho Gonzalez, how when he played it was though he was “fighting to save his life.”

As for the women, my father admired Althea Gibson for her spirit and drive in a world which did not want to accept a black woman playing tennis. He also enjoyed watching Billie Jean King and Chris Evert and had a crush on Evonne Goolagong. Serena Williams may have the most major championships in her family, but Venus won my father’s heart. My Dad used to tell me that she reminded him of Althea Gibson and wished that Venus would come to net as much as Gibson did.

As Wimbledon has many traditions, we had a Wimbledon tradition in our household. Our family would all sit and watch the men’s final on TV. When I was little, the men’s final took place on a Saturday. Due to the power of television contracts over the years, the final was switched to Sunday. With the Sunday men’s finals this would mean that we would have to miss church – and we would never miss church. ONLY for the Wimbledon men’s final would we ever miss church on Sunday.

As we were blessed to have a major in our backyard, the US Open, it meant no family events could be planned during those two weekends within the tournament. Our family friends and extended family knew that none of us would be attending barbeques or parties if it was scheduled during the US Open.

As much as my father loved the game, he did not want it to become anyone’s profession – especially his children’s. At one point I was a decent player as a child and played a few tournaments, not that I wanted to become a pro someday. This was not what my dad wanted. He had higher aspirations for his children and that was the end of my days of competition as a junior. I forgave my father about this years later when I came to understand why he was that way.

Since the late 70’s with the exception of one year when I was beginning graduate school, I’ve attended the US Open. Needless to say I’ve kept up with news of Guillermo Vilas through the years and had the chance to actually meet him and speak with him about 10 years ago at the US Open. When I told my father about it, he was absolutely thrilled.

Although he is old enough to be my father, I’ve had a crush on him ever since I saw him win the US Open. Just ask my husband – it must drive him crazy when I talk about the man who should have been No. 1 in 1977, but he never lets on.

Today when I think of Vilas I think about my  happy childhood and my father teaching me to love the game of tennis. Indirectly I have Vilas to thank for my love of this sport.

I have taught that love of tennis that my father taught me to both my husband and my son and they both are as almost obsessed with the sport as I am. Now my husband and I fight over which one of us will attend the next Davis Cup tie as our son begs us to take him with us.

I guess it is fitting that my father should pass on during the week before the US Open as it was “our time” of year.

As my father had Alzheimer’s for almost the past two years, he “missed” Andy Murray win the Olympic Gold medal for singles, the US Open and more importantly Wimbledon. Despite now being an American, my father, a former British subject who never lost his “Britishness,” would have been so proud of him.

During my father’s wake, I spent hours talking to tennis-obsessed relatives about today’s game. My uncles are also major Venus Williams fans and don’t want to see her retire. Despite my dad’s body in full view being there in his coffin right in front of the room of the funeral home, I held back my emotions like the daughter of a good citizen of the British Empire – stiff upper lip and all that.

During the funeral on Friday, I began to give my testimonial about my dad. My dad was so proud of being able to live his dream of becoming a doctor that I had to speak about his pure love and joy of his profession. He knew he wanted to be a doctor since he was eight years old. It was then that my tears finally flowed for my father. He taught me and my siblings to stand on our own, to fight for what we want in this world, and the importance of social responsibility, regardless of our professions.

How fitting that after the funeral on Friday, my father was buried in a cemetery less than a mile from where I learned to play tennis.

Incidentally, the day that my father died last weekend was Guillermo Vilas’ birthday. My tweet wishing Vilas a happy birthday on the Tennis Panorama News’ twitter account came at the exact time my father was declared dead at 5:37 a.m. Eastern Time.

 

A tennis journalist friend relayed this to me after he heard about my dad’s passing on Vilas’ birthday: “….truly one of those coincidences that leads us to contemplate providence.”

As I prepare to cover the US Open as media next week, I do so with a heavy heart, but I never would have been here in the first place if it were not for love of the game my Dad taught me and of course Guillermo Vilas.

 

(I want to personally thank those who ran the site, the twitter and covered tournaments and events for me in my absence, while I had to deal with my father’s passing – Josh Meiseles, Vito Ellison, Jack Cunniff and especially Junior Williams.)

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