Liz Farrell

40 years after incredible McEnroe-Sadri NCAA tennis match, a love story is born

Judy Fogarty fell in love with tennis in the most epic of ways.

It was 1978, and she was a student at the University of Georgia, where the NCAA Tennis Finals were held that year.

If you’re a fan of tennis, I probably don’t need to tell you any more. But for those of us who were 3 that year and who own a racket we never use, I’ll explain.

John McEnroe, then a freshman at Stanford University and already a big personality in the sport, went head to head with John Sadri, an unknown player from North Carolina State — for 4  1/2 heated hours.

McEnroe ultimately won the tournament by a single point (144-143), and the match went down in history as “the” match, the greatest of all time in NCAA tennis.

“Sadri,” an announcer noted at the time, “is playing like a champion. The champion he wants to be. It’s a test of everything. Stamina, character, emotional balance, everything.”

Fogarty was hooked.

To her, the sport is dramatic, metaphoric. Even its language thrills her.

Love, double love, serve, fault, break, hold.

“Those words really relate to tennis,” she said. “But they relate to life as well, and they really begged for a story.”

Soon after her first match, Fogarty began to write a novel with a female protagonist who becomes involved with a McEnroe-esque tennis player.

The book was good enough to get an agent, but it was never published.

And then life went on.

Her 300-page manuscript went where 300-page manuscripts do.

It sat in Fogarty’s attic for 30 years until the day of another epic match, one that reignited the literary fire within her: the 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“It was the greatest match of all time,” she said before expertly rattling off match-ups in other tournaments that came close or later surpassed it.

The Federer-Nadal match prompted her to go up to her attic, grab that manuscript and start the inevitable cringe-fest that happens to anyone who re-reads what they wrote in their 20s.

The novel she had written a short lifetime ago seemed young to her now, of course, ridiculous even. But every so often she’d read a paragraph and go, “Oh. That’s really good.”

She knew she had something there in terms of the writing, so she started to tweak the old book in hopes of trying again.

However, years of life experience and an evolving world view told her she needed to strip the plot down, save the best stuff and begin again.

There was a different story to tell with these characters now. One that would reflect what life was like for women in the 1970s, one that would honor a woman’s search for a successful career, fulfilling relationships and herself.

Over the ensuing years, and in between her commutes from Savannah to Beaufort County where she worked in real estate marketing, Fogarty rewrote the book entirely.

When it was done, she sent it out to 100 agents.

One hundred agents.

Sixteen agents read the manuscript.

Zero agents took it.

The attic seemed to be calling Fogarty’s manuscript back home.

But she wasn’t having it.

Just five more, she thought at the time. I’ll send out five more, and if no one bites, well, I did it. I loved it. I tried it.

Five agents got the book.

One agent responded.

And in six months Fogarty’s book was sold.

This past August — nearly 40 years after the first words were written — “Breaking and Holding” was published.

The book, set in the Lowcountry, is a love story, but it’s also a portrait of two friends searching for courage — Patricia, who falls for a tennis player on the verge of turning pro (just as she’s trying to extricate herself from a bad marriage), and Lynn, who is caught in the middle.

“It’s almost like a ‘Gatsby’-ish tale,” Fogarty said. “Lynn is Nick Carraway, the character most people relate to ... and it’s not her love story.”

Like in “The Great Gatsby,” Fogarty wrote the book with an affinity for a particular era, something she did out of nostalgia and with a desire to introduce her daughter to what life was like for her then.

But what tickles her the most about taking on a book set in the 1970s is how different the story would be if it took place now.

“(The 1970s) just wasn’t a time to let someone you love walk out of your life,” she said. “The climax never would’ve happened (now). Google would’ve solved a lot of problems.”

Fogarty’s first foray with having readers beyond friends and family already has her feeling the success of being a published author. The book has been circulated in tennis crowds and was featured as the only work of fiction available this year in the U.S. Tennis Open’s players’ lounge, something that still seems unbelievable to her.

“It’s so cool,” she said.

As for her own tennis hobby, I’m about to surprise you.

There isn’t one.

“I don’t play tennis,” she said, laughing. “I watch it nonstop. I follow it nonstop. I’ve never actually played. ... I’ve hardly held a racket.”