Anyone who thinks the big story of the Australian Open is that top tennis player Novak Djokovic is nearly banned for not being vaccinated is missing the real headline. The real scoop down under is the saga of American tennis star Reilly Opelka vs. the bird.
Before I go any further, etiquette commands me to reveal that I am Mr Opelka’s uncle. But I would probably write about this story even if I wasn’t related to the main character.
Playing tennis professionally during a pandemic is hard enough without additional obstacles thrown in, or in this case flown in. the second set and Mr. Cressy serves. (Mr. Opelka, currently No. 26 in the world tennis rankings, won the first set 6-4.) Suddenly, a bird went to the bathroom on the edge of the young American’s white cap.
What followed was one of the strangest and most entertaining stoppages ever in a major tennis tournament. Mr Opelka, who complained to the referee that “I don’t really want to play with s- on my head”, pulled another cap from the sidelines. The problem was that the replacement lid was decorated with a Red Bull energy drink logo, which was too large by tournament regulations.
Then began a hurried jostling for another hat. Enter the cherubic ball boy, who stepped forward to offer his headgear and bravely save the day. But sadly, standing as seen on video footage of less than 1.5 meters high, the ball boy was a lilac compared to the six-foot-tall Mr. Opelka, one of the tallest ever to practice the sport, and the cap of the boy was hopelessly too small. Playing without a hat was not an option – Mr. The luxury locks from Opelka need some kind of harness. Finally, a hat that met both the rules and the player’s skull dimensions was found, and the game resumed after a delay of at least three minutes. My cousin eventually lost the second set and then the match in a tense tiebreak in the third set.
Some, including the commentators covering the game, believe that a bird relaxing on your clothes brings good luck, and others added that Mr Opelka should have just wiped away the offensive remains and finished the match. More than a few Twitter critics blamed Floridian’s skyrocketing demand to re-accessories as a sign of pickiness.
I see it differently. Pro athletes in any sport are known for their devotion to certain rituals and superstitions. In tennis, for example, many players wear their caps turned upside down, with the brim at the back. During competitions, my nephew always wears his hat brim out. The slightest deviation from these rituals or disruption of the routine can throw a player off his game. Mr Opelka was right when he demanded a new cap.
Furthermore, his desire to wear a flawless hat for the rest of the match was a sign of respect for both the tennis game and for himself as one of the brightest new ambassadors. In the first act of ‘Hamlet’ Polonius advises his son, Laertes, to dress as elegantly as his means will permit: ‘Cost thy habit, as thy purse can buy . . . / for the clothes often proclaim the man.”
Polonius was right. Better to lose the match dressed to impress than to win with, well, guano on your head. At least the young athlete kept his dignity. Aside from the entertainment the Australian Open bird break provided, it gave us a little glimpse into what made tennis, originally called jeu de paume or ‘game of the palm’, the elegant sport that has delighted devotees for nearly a millennium.
One last important acknowledgment: luckily for both him and protennis, Reilly Opelka did not inherit my athletic skills.
Mr. Opelka is a music theater composer and lyricist.
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