Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
In August of 2007, I was an insecure middle schooler entering my eighth-grade year.
Like any middle schooler, I didn’t know who I was. I spent most of my mental energy trying to avoid humiliation at the hands of my peers. My self-esteem was wholly dependent on small perceived social slights or victories that happened in the hallways at school.
But it was late in the summertime, and my guard was slightly down. I had attended a summerlong city tennis camp at a park near my house and succeeded in winning praise from my peers and coaches. You see that spring, my dad, with a Calvin College salary, had shelled out for private lessons and classes at a tennis club in Grand Rapids. This investment had given me more than just some new skills on the court. It gave me a thing. You know, like a thing that gives an insecure twelve-year-old more than something to do after school. A thing that gives him some identity, some self-esteem—something with which to impress peers and authority figures alike.
As the camp concluded, with my tennis enthusiasm at a high, my dad and I got in our 1996 Volvo and pointed it towards Ohio. More specifically, to Cincinnati, home to one of the premier international tennis tournaments in the world: the Western & Southern Open.
During the day and a half that we were there, amidst all the great tennis to be watched, there was one match that we (and most everyone else) anticipated above all else: a center court night match featuring Roger Federer at the very peak of his prime. Our seats were in the nosebleeds.
But aside from the big night match, I had another item at the top of my agenda: to join the other kids my age in the relentless pursuit of autographs. For every hour of tennis that I watched during those couple of days, I am sure I spent two or more at the practice courts, outside the locker rooms, or at the player entrance waiting for a famous pro like Rafa Nadal, Andy Roddick, or Lleyton Hewitt to walk by, notice me, and sign a picture of themselves in my tattered event program.
On the second day, after the day matches ended and the crowds were awaiting the night session, my dad and I were doing the same. While most other fans visited the food booths to fill up on twenty-dollar burgers and fifteen-dollar chilis from Skyline (a Cincy favorite), my dad and I ate whatever snacks my mom had packed for us in the backpack we brought along.
So we had some time to wander. Walking around the vast grounds of the tennis facility, the practice courts were mostly dead. We kept walking and eventually heard the faint sound of a practice session coming from a small side court with bleacher seating. The stands were completely empty, but there were no gates at the entryway. We poked our heads in to see if it was anyone worth watching.
There on the court, practicing quietly with a coach and hitting partner, stood Roger Federer.
In a trance, we silently walked down to the front row and began watching.
Watching the fluid mechanics of the Federer forehand, with no one else around, I was allowed to see up close the beauty of a game that I was only just beginning to understand. But the celebrity of the experience made an equal, if not bigger, impression on me at that time. I had only begun playing and following tennis a few years earlier, when Federer was already established at the very top of the tennis world. So to me, this felt kind of like meeting God.
As we watched the practice session, slack-jawed, and more fans finished their dinner and got wise, the bleachers filled up. By the end of the session, we were cramped on all sides by similarly adoring fans.
Afterward, Federer signed autographs for all who wanted them (including me), and many other boys my age crowded in around me to offer up their own programs, hats, tennis balls, and t-shirts to be signed.
As we left the practice court and walked towards the stadium to watch him play his match from the nosebleeds, I couldn’t help but feel a little special, as if I had shared a special intimacy—a kind of bond—with Federer simply because I was the first to discover the practice session. I think I told myself that I was “first” because my curiosity and my passion for the sport (or at least the celebrity of the thing) was somehow special, and because we had so virtuously eschewed the food booths for dinner we had brought from home.
In reality, if I had been the second, or third, or fiftieth fan to walk in I still would have gladly joined the adoring throng of autograph seekers and got mine.
But such is the mind of a twelve-year-old who has just discovered a thing.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. After five years on the East Coast, he now lives in Grand Rapids, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.