How pro tennis helped me come out as gay

For 25 years, HBO aired the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, The Championships, Wimbledon. For the last of those years, from 1996 to 1999, I planted myself in front of the television to watch as much as I could of HBO’s coverage of grass court tennis. I was 12 when I began my obsession and, though I was mostly going through the motions of my love by the time I was 15 in 1999, I still watched more often than a normal teenager should.

No one in my family played sports. If someone had chosen to pick up a hobby game, tennis would not have been the one. Tennis was too country club for our blue collar crowd. We cheered for football in the fall and then muddled the rest of the year sports-less. So, it wasn’t the game that initially drew me in to HBO’s Wimbledon coverage. Instead, what pulled me into the web of Grand Slam tennis, were the voices of the greatest trifecta of announcers to ever sports-talk about sports.

Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Mary Carrillo called the matches (along with John Lloyd, Barry MacKay, and Jim Lampley). The three of them, all former tennis stars themselves (Carillo never rose very high in the rankings, but did do well playing mixed doubles with her childhood friend John McEnroe), sat in a booth at the All England Club commentating on statistics, rules, rackets, and court conditions for hours every day. They proclaimed Venus and Serena Williams would be the next big thing in tennis, and debated about who was the better athlete. They bantered about grunting in the women’s game, joked about their old days on the courts together and described the condition of the grass on each court and how it affected play. Billie Jean King won me over with her melodic voice, strong opinions, and encyclopedic knowledge of the players. Navratilova mesmerized me with her thick eastern European accent and quick witted, precise commentary. And best of all was the self-deprecating and funny, Mary Carrillo, whose deep voice defied gender. While other kids developed crushes on boy bands or Britney Spears, I was instead enraptured by three middle-aged ladies opining about competitive tennis.

On any given summer afternoon I could be found locked in my bedroom, perched on a metal folding chair, pulled within inches of the small television atop my dresser. I had played tennis myself a few times with friends on the free courts at the park, but we mostly ended up loping about the court chasing balls. I was clumsy with the racket, always launching the ball well over the fence or lamely lobbing it and having it plop on the same side of the net I was already on. It was fascinating then, to watch the women on television smack a ball with all their muscled might and have it zoom in precise lines across the court. There was no shortage of talented and captivating women playing on the professional tennis circuit at this time. Women who, in a lot of cases, weren’t much older than I was. The athleticism and confidence of these women made them seem like superheroes to me. Gawky, brace-faced, and meek, I saw myself as the complete opposite of the idols on the court.

King, Navratilova, and Carillo knew so much, not only about the game, but about individual players. Carillo and King called a Steffi Graf match in 1999, when she battled Corina Morariu in the third round. Billie Jean King gushed about Graf: “The first time I saw her here, she was about 13 years old and I just remember thinking, feet. My goodness. First of all, she hadn’t even grown into her feet.”

Carillo added, “I was gonna say. They’re size elevens.”

“Doesn’t matter. Do you know how fast they were even then?” King countered.

Carrillo laughed and agreed.

“That footwork was just tremendous.” King continued, “I had never seen anything like it in my whole life…Just look at how much spring she has in those toots of hers!”

“She just turned 30, too.” Carillo said with a laugh.

Navratilova calling a different tennis match later, also had glowing things to say of Graf despite the fact that they were former bitter rivals. She stated, “She’s the best all-around player, regardless of the surface. Of all time.”

It made me giddy to listen women laud other women in such a manner. Not to mention when they talked what it takes to succeed at tennis (perseverance, strength, work ethic, confidence under pressure, a bully for a coach and/or parent, etcetera) it was like having three motivational speakers reminding me not to give up. I came away from the television feeling like I too, could maybe someday make something of myself, maybe.

My obsession with listening to King, Navratilova, and Carillo probably also hinged on the fact that the former two were openly queer. Both came out in 1981. King was forcibly outed in May of that year by a former lover while she was going through a divorce with her husband. Navratilova came out on her own accord as bisexual a few months later in July. They were some of the first major celebrities to be out at the time. During Wimbledon coverage the three would occasionally do on-screen interviews. These interviews did not reveal the typical big-haired, heavily made up female reporter. Instead there was Navratilova with thin blonde hair, minimal makeup, and her famous forearms roped with bulging veins. Billie Jean had short hair, almost trimmed into a mullet, and unfashionable wire rimmed glasses. They were so stereotypically gay, and it made me so happy. Even Mary Carillo with her short haircut, strong jawline, and husky voice didn’t look or sound like a typical television personality.

If I was a more self-reflective kind of kid I might have realized I was starving for gay role models. I was a budding lesbian growing up in conservative South Carolina. In my town, a civil war themed dinner show called The Dixie Stampede was the height of art and culture. As it was, I simply played the part of the good repressed Southerner, and ignored any implications of my obsession with listening to strong women discuss other sweaty strong women, until I roared out of the closet in college.

I’m sure my parents wondered where I pulled my out of the blue interest with Wimbledon. Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet in 1997, in real life and on her sitcom, which my family used to watch together. Once she came out my parents stopped watching. They were always open-minded people, and never said being gay was bad, but watching Ellen’s lesbian relationships on the show made them uncomfortable. I started to watch the show in secret, giddy when a storyline was about Ellen and a girlfriend. Tennis on the other hand, seemed so white-bread and straight, I didn’t worry about hiding it. I was also always a sensitive, anxious kid. Being around people made me nervous. I never felt good enough, or smart enough, or entertaining enough. If I kept to myself I didn’t have to worry about rejection, but I think my parents always thought I was a loner by choice. To them, tennis was simply a new loner hobby in a long line of loner hobbies; such as, listening to Motown albums alone in my room while drawing, or giving all my Barbie dolls asymmetrical haircuts. Television became a safe surrogate for human interaction. It was during these late night television binges that I learned about King and Navratilova.

In 1998, the summer I turned 14, a friend (let’s call her Ashley) asked me to go on a weekend trip to the mountains with her family. We could hike, whitewater raft, and sweat in a sauna (“It helps you lose weight!” Ashley had gushed). It was in the middle of the Wimbledon tournament and I wanted to say no. Jana Novotna, an aging player Navratilova seemed to have a penchant for because they were both Czechoslovakian, was serve and volleying her way toward the finals. I told Ashley I would have to ask my mother (even though I knew she would let me go) and get back to her. I had never been to the mountains before and always wanted to go white water rafting, yet I was wavering because I didn’t want to miss any excellent banter about a game being played 3,000 miles away. I asked myself what Billie Jean, Mary, and Martina would do. I called my friend back and told her I’d love to go.

Later in the trip, Ashley asked if I wanted a back massage. Everyone else had gone out to explore and we were alone in the condo. Ashley insisted I take my shirt off so she could rub lotion on me. This was more of what I had in mind when I considered my first naked interaction with a lady. I flung my shirt off and plopped on the bed. But then, after a few minutes of innocuous shoulder rubbing, rail-thin Ashley declared, “Ew, you have, like, kind of like, flab on your back when I rub it. Like the fat rolls up. Do you think mine does that? I don’t think it does.” I sighed and then Ashley said she was done and it was my turn to rub her back. She told me to be careful because her chiropractor said she shouldn’t have anyone but a professional mess with her back. I redressed, and unenthusiastically rubbed Ashley’s bony back, knowing Billie Jean King would never put up with crap like this.

When I returned home, Wimbledon was in its final days. Novotna was poised to take the women’s singles title after the previous year’s defeat to Hingis. The following year, 1999, was the last year HBO aired Wimbledon coverage. I felt like I was losing three friends.

I would still see Carillo, King, and Navratilova from time to time on television after Wimbledon ended, calling a tennis match or participating in sports documentaries. Mary Carillo’s thorough yet often lighthearted coverage, helped launch her television career. She would go on to announce many other sporting events including the Olympics, and reports for HBO’s documentary series Real Sports. To this day, if I manage to catch her deep voice calling a tennis match or Olympic double luge, I’m brought instantly back to my old Wimbledon obsession. There is no way I could sit in front of a television watching tennis all day now that I’m in my early 30s, but I’m oddly nostalgic for the happiness I felt when I did. Like many sensitive kids growing up in small towns, I felt trapped. And while some of my other friends were escaping into alternative music, or art, I found my own oddball escape in three brassy broads calling things as they were.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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