I was having breakfast in some hotel somewhere in the world -I can’t remember where; after so many years every tournament felt the same- while the 4-times world champion joined me at the table. The guy was ecstatic. ‘I’ve done it, LJ! Twice! In one week!’ he cried out. ‘Can you believe it!?’
I walked up to the buffet and wondered what Amr Shabana could possibly be so happy about. Had he won two World Series events in one week? Impossible, time-wise. Had he earned two business class upgrades in the last 7 days? The man probably flew business anyway. Had he gotten two good draws recently? Irrelevant. Any draw was ‘good’ to him.
Shabana was one of the most chilled out players on tour. You don’t see many champions in their sport remain so grounded and normal. And because he behaved so normal, like an old friend from high school, you forgot that he was special. He asked if your brother was still into tennis coaching, he showed Ben Hogan’s golf swing a million times on his phone, and told stories that were rebellious in character, the only kind that counts.
His eyes lit up when he told me about his recent achievement. Amr had successfully removed a grip from his old racquet and wrapped it around a new one. Now any squash- or tennis player knows this is an impossible feat. The glue of the replacement grip sticks to the underlying factory grip and rips its rubber off making it scratchy, unsmooth, unsuitable to be ever used again. It takes zen-like patience to remove a replacement grip without taking along half of the underlying surface. Amr explained how he then used the color difference caused by sweat as a guideline in order to produce the exact same thickness on his new racquet.
The champ seemed more content about this accomplishment than four world open titles together. ‘Not once, but twice,’ he assured me. ‘In one week!’
The passion of the man who dominated the sport was still ever-present and he found it in small things.