The title is both accurate and untrue. It’s accurate because Pelé was both famous and a tennis player. It’s untrue because he wasn’t famous as a tennis player. But that’s how I remember him.
The year was 1984, a few months after I moved from Houston, where I had played tennis almost every day, to New York, where the game was unaffordable, at least for me.
That created a serious problem for I have an emotional dependence on exercise, and tennis is the only exercise I’ve ever known as a grown-up (this side of something I’d rather not talk about). Driven to desperation, I widened my search to the low-rent boroughs and finally stumbled on a small club in Astoria, Queens, where the hourly fee was a third of Manhattan’s.
The pro hit with me for a few minutes and was satisfied that I could hold my own at the exalted Astoria level. He then told me that three chaps needed a fourth for doubles. Would I be interested?
By that time I was getting so stir crazy that I wouldn’t have turned down a game of wheelchair tennis. Okay then, said the pro and led me to the adjacent court where the knock-up had already started.
“This is your partner,” he said, and my jaw dropped. I was about to find myself on the same court with Pelé, my childhood idol. We shook hands, and I said: “Sir, I don’t know who you are but I still remember that goal you scored in 1958.”
He flashed a megawatt smile and asked me to be patient with him: he had only been playing for a few months. Fair enough, as it turned out Pelé hadn’t yet mastered the finer points of doubles strategy. But on a purely athletic level he was astounding.
For example, I’ve known many experienced players who, after years in the game, never learned to hit a volley way in front. Yet Pelé did that naturally, with an ease that put me to shame.
He humbly begged my forgiveness whenever he missed a shot. I myself missed more than my usual share – it’s hard to be consistent when, instead of watching the ball, you can’t take your eyes off your partner.
I don’t remember how the game went and who won. But I do remember the perfect gentleman playing next to me, with a shy yet radiant smile never leaving his face. I’m not a professional physiognomist, but one thing for sure: a man whose smile can both light up and warm up a whole tennis club has to be kind and good.
We shook hands at the end, with me hoping that some of the stardust would rub off on my palm. It didn’t, but the memory has survived.
I lied to Pelé: I hadn’t seen any of the goals he scored at the 1958 World Cup. But I had heard them. Because we had no TV set (few families had them in Moscow at the time), I appreciated the man’s genius aurally, through the wireless.
Suddenly, instead of just a profusion of names ending in ‘-ov’ or ‘-in’, the radio waves flooded our room with exotica like Vavá, Garrincha, Didi, Santos – and Pelé. “Look at that!” screamed the commentator. “Pelé stopped the ball dead with his instep! Chipped it over the Swedish defender’s head! Caught it in mid-air! And half-volleyed it in! Goal!!!”
My 10-year-old imagination was excited by the audio picture so vividly drawn. As years went by, the excitement abated. But it never disappeared completely: the idols we worship as children never quite leave us.
A few years later we did acquire a TV, and I got the chance to see Pelé’s magic, not just to hear it. For example, in 1965 he singlehandedly destroyed the USSR team in a friendly. The score was 3-0, with Pelé scoring two and making the third.
At that time I had grown up enough to go in for self-analysis. Specifically, I wondered how it was possible that a trivial spectacle of 22 men kicking an inflated leather balloon could be so aesthetically pleasing even to someone who knew the difference between Bach and Beethoven and had tried to read, if without understanding a word, The Critique of Pure Reason.
There was a simple, single-word answer to that long-winded question: Pelé. For few human pursuits, no matter how trivial, are incapable of growing an artist in a field of artisans. For what is art if not an argument for man’s vicarious divinity? And what is an artist if not walking proof of the argument?
The argument can be made and won even in areas not ostensibly conducive to such debates. And even a game largely dominated by unsmiling chaps with nicknames like ‘Chopper’ or ‘Razor’ is still occasionally lit up by a true artist touched by God. Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Best, Messi, Ronaldo. And the greatest of them all, Pelé.
True art elevates, makes us better, regardless of where it’s practised, including on a football pitch. Beauty always comes from God even if it’s not explicitly created in His name.
Football is an intensely tribal game, with rivalries on and off the field often touched with rancour, borderline hatred. However, not only opposing fans but even opposing players sometimes applauded Pelé’s touches – his genius helped their spirits soar above tribal rivalries and quotidian concerns.
His actions were indeed trivial in the general scheme of things. But their effect on millions wasn’t.
They sensed Pelé wasn’t just a ball-kicker. He was an envoy from, or at least a reminder of, another world, one of pure beauty divorced from the drab reality of physical life.
I mourn the death of my one-time tennis partner and an all-time artist among footballers. Whatever his human failings mentioned in so many obituaries, I’m sure God will recognise His own when welcoming Pelé to eternity. RIP.