NEW YORK – For once, I'm rooting at the U.S. Open.
As a reporter, we are schooled to maintain objectivity, and for good reason. Praise and criticism must flow equally for the subjects we cover, and snuggling too close can skew the facts, or at least the propensity to dig for them.
I've covered professional tennis for a dozen years and have my go-to interviewees. I have players I prefer to watch for aesthetic or personal reasons. But I honestly don't have favorites. My mantra: If it's not going to be a great match, make it quick.
This year is different. I'm pulling for Roger Federer. Not for all the obvious reasons – the class, the flowing game, the agelessness, the authentic joie de vivre for everything tennis. I'm backing the 33-year-old Swiss because my mother, Margaret, adored him.
My parents met and wed in Chicago, where they started a family. Despite their peripatetic lives, it remained home. We weren't a tennis family in either passion or success like the McEnroes, Austins or Williamses, yet the sport resonated throughout our lives. We hosted lower-ranked pros with names like Trey Waltke and Rolf Thung and even Tracy Austin's older brother, John Austin, at our home in Washington DC, and Chicago when they were in town to play local tournaments. We all played, too, and one of my more excruciating childhood memories was enforced "family doubles" with my parents and older brother. Mixed doesn't begin to describe the complex feelings on the court.
My mother and I spent more than our fair share of time together. When I was a junior tennis player, she drove me to more tournaments than I dare to recall. In the summertime, we trudged around the Chicago area and other flat, muggy Midwest cities, sometimes with other kids in tow, sometimes just the two of us. We bonded. We battled. There were times when I refused to let her watch my matches, so she would hide behind trees to get a glimpse of what was going on. If I spotted her, I'd wave her away. Other times, I wanted her there to witness the triumph or the tragedy of the day's result so we could talk it out later.
To cheer me up after a loss, she would sometimes allow a stop at Wendy's for a chocolate Frosty. Ice cream in all its forms has remained a comfort food ever since. They weren't always easy times. I was a rambunctious kid on the way to adolescence and we were more or less stuck with each other. I remember the liberty – and the odd lonesomeness – when I got my driver's license and could travel to tournaments on my own.
On occasion, we'd travel to watch the Open. By dint of my father's corporate connections, we scored some fantastic seats for the penultimate day in 1984 when every match went the distance – the day that more or less gave birth to the U.S. Open's now defunct "Super Saturday." I remember stumbling out with my parents and two college friends at what seemed like the middle of the night – it wouldn't register by today's wee-hour standards – and finding our way to Midtown Manhattan's Carnegie Deli for giant corned beef sandwiches. My mother, father and I rehashed the experience for years.
Both of my parents enjoyed playing for much of their married lives. At some point my mother quit playing. My father continued into his late sixties. My brother preferred to ski and skateboard, and for better or worse, I was impacted most. A late bloomer, I split my time between tennis and hockey but eventually became competent enough to reach national-level events. I went on to play Division I college tennis. Later, but not by design, I began covering the sport for a living.
In some of the last few years when I was working, my mother returned to the Open for a day or two. We rode the #7 subway out together. I would pop out for a quick lunch and she would head back up to the stands. She was thrilled when I once brought her into the press center, where she mingled with other journalists, viewed the main interview room and got an up-close look at how we live and work during the long days and nights at Flushing Meadows. She spoke about it for years and some of my colleagues even remember her brief visit. She left that kind of impression.
I've felt her presence everywhere these last few days. The conversations we might have had about results. Who was playing well or looked vulnerable. What I was writing about. And Federer, her beloved Federer, or his arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal. Her interest was a welcome white noise during what I consider the toughest Grand Slam to cover.
I never delved deeply into my mother's affection for Federer, who on Tuesday reached another quarterfinal in New York with a clinical defeat of Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut. I know she liked his comportment, his grace, his controlled aura of excellence. For whatever other reasons, he was her man. As in most of her life, my mother was nothing if not loyal -- often to a fault. If he was on TV, she often tried to catch him, especially during big tournaments. Especially during the U.S. Open.
My mother's life, of course, was hardly defined by tennis. She was a devoted wife and mother, and through her ample energies contributed to many civic activities, primarily in the fields of health, art, and historic preservation. She collected self-taught art. She loved a vodka straight up, with ice. She derived a ridiculous amount of pride in my work and my writing (apologies to everyone she badgered with my bylines.) She would have hated the idea of interrupting my reporting, but there was no getting around it when her health took a sudden turn for the worse.
She died on Aug. 24, the day before the U.S. Open began. She was 82.
Tennis is an individual sport. But it is also a game you cannot play alone. I was reminded of this again and again by the generous outpouring of love and support I received from family and friends during the past week, as well as many members of the "tennis family" I now inhabit. It would have put my mother, rest her soul, at ease.
What can I say? Go Federer.