“Hosanna in the highest heavens”

Published on 23 Mar 2018
A tennis ball spinning

When I was a teenager, I grew up in Wimbledon – a village in South London that is famous for only one thing – every June there is a tennis tournament that attracts players and spectators from all over the world. It’s supposed to be the oldest tennis tournament in the world – I’m not absolutely sure if that’s true. But it is certainly the most prestigious.

And I remember particularly the first day I went there. It used to be that if you lived locally, you could walk up in the evenings, when most of the crowd would have gone and get in for free. And then you could walk around the outside courts and often see some of the big names playing their doubles matches. The first time I went, I went onto one of the outer courts and saw Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase. One of the matches had finished early and it was announced that Connors and Nastase would be coming out to play against two other players that I hadn’t heard of. There were huge cheers and suddenly loads of other people surged in from the other courts to see the game and even before the  players came out, there was cheering and shouting and singing. And then the players came out and there was a huge cheer. For the occasion, just for a laugh, Connors and Nastase had come in fancy dress, dressed as lords with bowler hats and tail suits. They came out and paraded in their finery to the cheers of the crowd. And then they stripped off to their tennis whites and prepared to play.

The game was amazing. I had never been to a top-level tennis match before and the pace and the power of shots was incredible. Having got there early, I was right at the front, by the side of the court. And the ball was being hit so fast that I couldn’t even see it. I could see the movement of the players and the rackets; I could hear the sound of the ball being hit; but it was going so fast that I couldn’t actually see the ball. And Connors and Nastase were magnificent; there were a class above their opponents. They played at the height of their game. Every ball went precisely where it was supposed to go; there were trick shots and amazing pieces of skill. It was a privilege just to be there. Jimmy Connors was so cool he even kept on his bowler hat throughout.  And every point was greeted with huge applause by the delighted crowd. And finally at the end, when they had won, six-love, six-love, six-love, they bowed to the crowd, put back on their lordly robes and left the court. And behind them trailed their two bedraggled, exhausted, devastated, defeated opponents, that nobody had ever heard of and had now been thrashed six-love, six-love, six-love by much better players who hadn’t even taken the game seriously.

On my way out, wondering about what I had just seen, I walked under the gates of Wimbledon Lawn Tennis club. You see, when they first built the place – a hundred and fifty-odd years ago – they knew something about victory and defeat. They knew that there are times in everybody’s life when we feel like Palm Sunday – exalted, exhilarated, the best there’s ever been – and everyone loves us.

And they knew that there are also times in everyone’s life when we feel like Good Friday – beaten, destroyed, hopeless, killed, annihilated, wiped out – and nobody loves us.

And they knew that sometimes both things can happen in the course of a single week. If you don’t believe me, just ask Andy Murray.

And so, when they built the place, they wrote over the gates a line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

and treat those two impostors just the same...”

It’s an important insight – because we do not always get what we expect or deserve in life. Just as in tennis, two people may play almost equally well, try equally hard, but one will meet with Triumph and the other with Disaster.

After every Palm Sunday, there comes a Good Friday. But after every Good Friday, there comes an Easter Sunday. This week, we will meet with Triumph today and Disaster on Good Friday and we will treat those two impostors just the same. Because our hope is in Easter.


Paul O'Reilly SJ