John-Paul Flintoff




September 11, 2021: A Pindaric Ode

…on the Occasion of the Final of the US Open, between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, at Flushing Meadows


Well, the teens were in Queens, piff-paffing
the ball for the warm-up, all were massing
and rushing to the Meadows called Flushing
for a final that signalled a new era in tennis,
a frenzy for a new hero(ine)
the comely girl from Bromley, would she dare to win,
or would her rival from Canada
be the spanner in the works for her?

Back in London, Oliver Dowden, the minister of culture
said a broadcaster oughta put the game
on the screens of the nation
as it promised to be an historic occasion.
He got his wish, and the nation looked up from its dish,
its takeaway, on this day with so much at stake.
The nation changed channel, didn’t finish the Last Prom
(to miss the tennis would have been wrong).

Quiet please! Don’t shout. The ad screens are blacked out,
but see the names of our sponsors, who bankroll these games,
and I’ll try to convey what occurred, what I heard,
on this beautiful, terrible day, in broken rhyme,
when for the very first time a qualifier,
Amazon in her prime, won a Slam that’s called Grand.

.

Three months earlier, less womanly, much girlier,
Emma Raducanu was at school, her tool
not a raquet but a pen, her court a desk,
her rallies written answers in A Level exam papers.

And now she is sitting, well mannered, in a posture
that is fitting, for the Star Spangled Banner, in honour
and commemoration for the fallen we remember
from September the Eleventh, twenty years back,
in that terrorist attack on this city of New York.

Fernandez serves first, and each game seems to last
as long as a set. They can’t seem to get
the ball in that spot, make the shot, not at all,
to win the point, and put the other’s nose out of joint.

Both women look cheerful, not a cloud
darkens their brows, they’re larking about
enjoying themselves, as would any other teens,
finally allowed out, before an ecstatic crowd,
after months and months and months
of enclosure, in Covid.

Raducanu takes the lead. Though no seed, she’s ploughed
through the rest of her matches
without losing a set. “Out!”
says the umpire, and Fernandez catches up.
We get used to hearing “Deuce!”
They’re evenly matched, but the score
shows that Emma has more, and she wins
the first set six-four.

She charges ahead in the second, and
the eyes of Fernandez, if not scandalised,
widen as Raducanu gives her trouble,
gains double the number of games.

But the crowd favours Fernandez, and she savours
the love from the stands, smiles as she serves
at five games to two, to save the match.
Not once but twice she swerves at championship point,
The ball is in! The ball is out! At last it seems
to the people who scream for Leylah
that her skill won’t fail her, she has it still in her.

For the Brits, is this terrible news? Will the Londoner lose?
Has a tremor shaken Emma? Never! Is this
what the end is – Fernandez?
Leylah has the edge, holds the lash, sends the ball in a flash
around the court, a jumble of lobs and volleys,
golly, without a thought – and Emma takes a tumble,
rises, dusts herself off and finds, which is odd,
a gash and a trickle of blood.

She calls for a medical break, to stop the flow
and it’s hard to know, anyone’s guess,
what will come out of this mess, how the rest
of the match could unfold. Can it be Fernandez,
after all, who runs to her mom and her sis
seated in the front row, for a hug and a kiss,
plus the cheque, worth sacks of gold, and the trophy (of silver)?
Is Emma doomed? Or will she overcome her wound, and win?

To us, watching on telly, on Twitter, to those who had a flutter
on her, the chances look slimmer. It would sting,
to watch Fernandez take the trophy from Billy Jean King.

But wait! As the clock ticks down on the medical break
Fernandez gets heated, she can’t take it,
complains to the blazered official,
near where Emma is seated.
Leylah assails her, gives her what for, eyes blazing,
and filling with tears. The momentum was hers,
but now the gears have crunched, gone into reverse.
Doomed or not, Raducanu resumes.

.

It didn’t take long. In the US Open, in an hour
and fifty-odd minutes the commentator, quoting Schopenhauer,
describes the teen as a genius.

As her last shot zoomed past Leylah,
Emma hit the floor, shaking, or was it more of a laugh,
and arose at last, elated, relieved.
She got a wave from Virginia Wade
a handsome grin from Tim Henman,
a cheque from the sponsor and the title of champ -
the qualifier who was fated, as none before her had done,
to win the Grand Slam.


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John-Paul Flintoff headshot, with Yours Truly written across it John-Paul Flintoff is author of six books, in 16 languages, including How To Change The World and A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. He worked for 15 years as writer and associate editor on the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and other papers and magazines.


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