Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

For those of you who frequently read my blog, it might seem strange to find this title among reviews for books written by award-winning authors like Marquez, Swift or McEwan, however, I enjoy reading all kinds of books! It’s more a matter of coming across different titles: some books never reach me because of my long reading list, which is keeping me from actively looking for newly published books.

Having received this book as a gift, I was intrigued just by reading the title: Moldovans and tennis in a single sentence didn’t make much sense to me. As far as I knew, Moldova didn’t have a strong tennis culture like other countries. So I googled some facts about Moldova’s results in tennis: their best tennis player is ranked as number 124 in the ATP list at the moment. I, thus, figured out that the book won’t be based on Moldova’s achievements in this engaging sport.

Besides having a puzzling title, it was also a gift from a dear friend, so I gave some priority to reading it. And as soon as I went through the first chapter, I realized that this short novel stands on its own merits. The narrative is, first of all, pleasantly funny: I haven’t read something so funny in a long time. I definitely had a good time and kept laughing quite a lot.
The book is more about Moldovans and their home country rather than about tennis, although tennis is part of the reason the book was written in the first place.

I don’t know much about the author, other than what he wrote about himself in this very book. The main character of the story is supposed to actually be Tony Hawks (the author). Describing himself as a journalist/comedian, he signs up for an unusual challenge while watching a football match with a friend of his in England. The bet has Tony, who at one point considered becoming a professional tennis player, trying to win at tennis against Moldova’s national football players. The challenge begins with Tony and his friend arguing about whether or not being successful in one sport means being good at any other sport. If Tony completes the challenge by winning all the tennis matches, his friend has to sing Moldova’s anthem while naked in a public square, otherwise Tony will become the subject of that same punishment 🙂

Tony travels to Moldova, staying there for some months while trying to complete the challenge. He recounts his visit to the heart-warming Eastern European country, as well as his struggles to complete the challenge, which proves to be far more difficult than he anticipated. Simply tracking down and convincing the football players to play against him turns out to be an adventure. And Tony has to play each and every one of the Moldovan team members in order to avoid public embarrassment.

The challenge itself doesn’t seem to be that difficult, since the chances of a professional athlete who is actively training in a specific sport to excel at a completely different sport are slim. In my opinion, what sounded impossible to accomplish was finding those players and convincing them to be part of a challenge that, at a first glance, doesn’t have a humanitarian angle to it, nor does it contribute to the public image of those players in any way. But without the author’s adventurous spirit, or the hassle of finding the best football players of a relatively small and unknown country, there would have been no once-in-a-lifetime story to tell, nor an engaging book that has since been made into a movie.

Reading the book, I had mixed feelings about the author and his reasons for writing the story. From the onset, just by reading the back-cover description, I didn’t expect anything nice. Moldova of the 90s wasn’t going to be a nice picture. This is a small, poor country in Europe, and even though it has declared its independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it is still struggling to find its place in the world, stuck at the border between the EU and the East, and caught up in political and military struggles, as well as scandals of corruption. Still heavily dependent on food and wine exports, and on the little tourism it receives which has made the Moldavian people world-renowned for their hospitality, this country needs all the publicity it can get.
So a book depicting Moldova during its worst times wasn’t going to be something I would enjoy reading, but I was relieved to find out in the closing chapter that the author feels that a lot has changed for the better in Moldova since then, and that he donates half of the royalties he makes from selling the book to building a children’s hospital in Moldova. It is a kind gesture, one that I’m sure is well received: giving something back to the community that inspired the story. You can read more about his charitable activities and the story on his website:
http://www.tony-hawks.com/books.php?id=2

I quite enjoyed discovering the author’s point of view on the Moldavian people, and reading about their way of thinking and the differences between the British and Moldavian society in the 90’s. I always find discussions on cultural differences to be inspiring. Besides, “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” is an easy to read, entertaining story, with funny characters.

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