How (Not) To Talk To A Sports Hero

John Isner, a 6’9” graduate of the University of Georgia, won the longest tennis match in history yesterday, a Wimbledon thriller that lasted just over 11 hours and spanned the course of three days.  In fact, the fifth set alone was the longest match in history.  According to the London Telegraph, he went through 40 bottles of water, 12 energy bars, seven racquets, and three bananas during that marathon fifth set against Nicolas Mahut of France.

Isner graduated from Georgia in 2007 and turned pro.  In early summer 2007, he was ranked around #900 in the world.  Within three months, he’d worked his way into the top 200, qualified for the U.S. Open, and made it to the third round before losing to Roger Federer.

I was at that match.  My kid and I were in New York City for the Open, with daytime tickets to the matches. When we found out that Isner, the boy who’d played for Georgia, was facing Federer in a third-round night match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, I scrambled to find tickets to the match.  I vividly remember going to an ATM and withdrawing $400 to buy the tickets from a scalper.

It also cost me my reservation at Nobu.

But what a match.  This kid from Georgia took a set off the great Federer.  And he aced him 18 times.

Now, I can’t honestly claim to be a die-hard Georgia fan.  I grew up in Atlanta, and I love Georgia the state, but I’ve never actually yelled, “Gooooo Dawgs, Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! at any kind of sporting event.  Not even tennis.  Especially not tennis, and especially not after the unfortunate run-in my kid had with the son of UGA’s coach at the high school region tournament in April.  The kid, a senior who’s going to play for Georgia this fall, beat my kid, who’s a freshman, and promptly donned a plastic Burger King crown, thereby proclaiming himself “The King.”  Klassy with a K, right?

But even up to that point, I wasn’t the greatest Georgia fan.  Not even when I was at a Georgia Bulldogs game.   Not even in a suite as a guest of the most hard-core Georgia fans on the planet.

It was around 1999, and we were guests of some good friends who purchased a suite before they purchased season tickets to their own kid’s dance recitals.  This pair, neither of whom even went to Georgia, plans their calendar around Georgia football. Everyone was excited that night, of course, because the Bulldogs were playing well.  But adding to the thrill was the fact that John Rocker, then the star relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was in the suite right next to us.

Jimmy, one of the guys in our suite, made his way next door and came back bragging that he’d talked to John Rocker.

“What’d you say?” my brother-in-law, Kevin, asked him.

Jimmy, who was slightly high on Bulldog Football and Budweiser, answered, “I said, ‘Hey, John, I’m a Georgia boy, too.’”

Poor Jimmy.  He’s never quite lived that one down.  But I, for one, completely understand.  I’m pretty sure I’d be tongue tied in the presence of a sports hero.

Lewis Grizzard, the late great syndicated columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the writer I’d most love to emulate, used to say this about his alma mater, “I’m Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred, and When I Die, I’ll be -by God – Bulldog Dead.”  I’m not quite to that point, but  if I got the chance to meet John Isner tomorrow, after the incredible test of guts and endurance and nerves and determination he passed yesterday, even completely sober, I’d stumble all over myself and probably end up saying proudly, “Hey, John, I’m a Georgia girl.”

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