Wimbledon 2012: A Tournament For The Aged

And so we come to the end of this year’s Championships.  For the first time since 1975 the men’s and women’s (or in Wimbledon parlance “gentlemen’s and ladies'”) champions were both in their 30’s.  Actually, both are 30.  By tennis standards this is ancient, and yet both Roger Federer and Serena Williams looked like they can go on for years.  They may be the greatest two players to have ever played the game.  If not, they are at least in the conversation.

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Serena Williams actually won two titles, the singles and the doubles with her sister Venus.  With these wins Serena and Venus joined the “5 and 5 Club,” which I had never heard of, but which was discussed a few times during the final couple days of this tournament.  To be in the 5 and 5 Club means that you have won both singles and doubles five or more times.  As of yesterday, both Venus and Serena have five singles titles apiece and five doubles titles which they won together.  (Just in case you are interested, the only other members are Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Suzanne Lenglen, William “Willie” Renshaw, and Lawrence “Laurie” Doherty.  If you never heard of these last two, they played before World War I.  Renshaw played in the 1800’s, almost at the very beginning of Wimbledon.)

Serena is perhaps the most fascinating player, male or female, since Suzanne Lenglen and quite possibly the only player whose personality could compete with that of La Divine.  Like Lenglen, when Serena turns on the competitive urge, she is practically invincible.  Unlike Lenglen, Serena does not turn it on all the time.  It is entirely possible that Serena is the greatest player ever (although Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova may dispute that) and also the greatest underachiever ever too.  Serena won her first major title 13 years ago at the 1999 US Open.  Now she has 14 singles titles.  Discounting the time lost to a severe life-threatening injury and the mental trauma of her sister’s brutal murder (neither of which could she be faulted for), Serena let a lot of her potential victories slip away by being distracted with outside interests–the acting career being one infamous example.  And yet when Serena plays her best, could even Graf or Navratilova compete with her?  I don’t know for sure, but it would be fascinating.

The Williams sisters are a tennis oddity.  The rules that govern how most players spend their careers just don’t seem to apply to them, especially Serena.  Look at the sisters’ doubles victory.  The last time they played together competitively was 2010.  Yet this fortnight, they swept aside the best doubles players in the world en route to the title.  For mere mortals this is impossible, but for the Williams sisters this is normal.  (One thing though that unfortunately cannot be overcome is that Venus suffers from the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome, which went undiagnosed for years, and which kept her out of the game for a significant period of time recently.  That also explains why Venus’s form mysteriously fell.  This is an immense loss to tennis.)  The sisters have practically owned Wimbledon.  Venus first won Wimbledon in 2000.  Of the last 13 tournaments at Wimbledon, the House of Williams has won 10.

As for Serena, if she can hold her form–which at 30 and with her history is never a sure thing–she could equal or surpass the 18 titles won by Navratilova and her arch-rival Chris Evert.  (The 22 of Graf and the 24 of Margaret Court is probably unreachable at this point.) How badly does Serena want it?  That is the eternal question.  But both Ever and Navratilova know that Serena is breathing down their neck.

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In the men’s tournament, Roger Federer ruthlessly broke the collective hearts of Andy Murray, his family, the nation of Great Britain, and Pete Sampras (probably) by winning his 7th Wimbledon title.  Not only has Federer now won 17 major titles, not only has he won a record-tying 7 Wimbledon titles (Sampras and Renshaw), not only has he regained the #1 ranking, but he is now going to tie and probably surpass the record for number of weeks at the top spot (286 weeks, held by Sampras).  Federer stopped chasing history a couple of years ago; history is now chasing him.

Federer’s game is the perfect combination of silk and steel.  Tennis has had a few (a very few) players who inspire art and poetry with their game.  It’s not just that they have all the shots and the intelligence to use them, it’s that their form is perfect while making those shots.  Freeze these players mid-stroke, and their position is sculpture-worthy.  The problem is that most of these players don’t have the mental fortitude or physical health to be truly great champions.  It is rare among the women, and practically unheard of among the men.  Federer is perhaps the lone man who was able to turn his perfect style into worldwide domination.  Even for Federer it took years to put it together, and along the way he had to suffer embarrassing first round losses and the dreaded “brilliant headcase” label.  But when he did put it together, it was like a bolt from the blue.  Nothing like Federer had ever been seen before, at least not in recent memory.  Silk and steel.  Perfection and utter ruthlessness.

That is why Federer inspires such awe and devotion among tennis fans.  It is also why his fans are ecstatic when he wins and devastated when he loses.

In all this, one has to really feel for Andy Murray.  This was his best shot yet to win that elusive major title.  The weight of his entire country  was behind him and unlike Tim Henman, he appeared to be able to deal well with the pressure.  Murray has grown as a player.  He is poised and composed.  His game was looking very sharp, and he did not get down on himself when things got rough.  Ivan Lendl was coaching him now, and the player he was meeting in the final is one that he actually had a winning record against.

But he wasn’t just meeting some top player, he was meeting Federer.  Federer, although Swiss not British, fully believes Wimbledon is his house and the trophy his property.  Murray actually played exceptionally well for the first set and most of the second, but then Federer remembered who he was.  He found a tiny opening and drove a truck through it, completely devastating Murray (who, to his credit, did not lose the match; he was just beaten).  To quote Omar Little of The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

Center Court at Wimbledon is where Federer is at his greatest.  It was where he met Sampras for the first and only time, and ended the champion’s reign in 5 tough sets.  It was the site of Federer’s first title.  It was the site of his apotheosis, where he won his record-breaking 15th title and made his case for best ever–a match made all the more dramatic by taking place under the stoic gaze of the other three major men’s tennis gods: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Sampras (with demigod John McEnroe commentating in the booth).

Roger Federer’s game is tennis’s gift to the world.  Wimbledon, the holiest site in tennis, is where we were given that gift and where we kept receiving it.  Long may the king reign.

Reasonable Debate

This post is not mine.  It is from the January 18, 2012 edition of Jon Wertheim’s weekly mailbag.  Wertheim, Sports Illustrated‘s premier tennis writer and an ally of the LGBT community, has for weeks been addressing the fallout from Margaret Court’s idiotic remarks about homosexuality.  This is not the first time Wertheim has addressed this homophobia in tennis (nor is the it first time Court has opened her big mouth in the past few years), but Wertheim’s answer to this question was so moving that I wanted to make sure that I did my small part to promote it.  I have reprinted the question and answer in full, save for the personal information of the submitter.  The question to Wertheim is in bold and his answer is in standard typeface.  

Since you reasonably endorsed the polite, understated protest of garnishing a rainbow flag at Margaret Court Arena, and you’re so skillful at juggling multiple viewpoints, could you comment on how one might disagree with the societal merits of a gay or lesbian lifestyle without being hateful about it? Unfortunately, the publicity machine only gets cranked up when someone pulls a ‘Margaret Court’ and is rude, depending on your perspective. Is there room at the table for someone who thinks those lifestyles are ‘just plain wrong,’ but voices their opinion in an appropriate way and at appropriate times? Perhaps you can remember an instance when someone disagreed the right way?

Thanks. I’ve had some private exchanges with a number of you about this issue and I guess here’s where I stand: there are some issues that invite debate and civil discourse. There are some views that fail to meet that standard and are, well, “just plain wrong” and should be treated as such. Giving rights to some and denying them to others based solely on their sexual orientation is not ripe for debate in my eyes. It’s just prejudice — deeply hurtful and offensive to so many within and out of tennis.

I do you think you raise an interesting point, both generically and specific to this issue: is there an appropriate way to disagree here? I struggle with that. We analogize at our peril here, but imagine if Margaret Court had said: “I love black people and pray for them. I just don’t think they should have the same rights I do.” Do we respect opinion and subjectivity? Or do we refute and attack? (While I respect the bible and religion, both, of course, are open to interpretation. The same value system that might condemn homosexuality also encourages tolerance and compassion and social justice.)

Inasmuch as there’s any discussion to be had here, you could start by showing some empathy, acknowledging your view/policy is causing great pain — and that this hurt is asymmetrical. When Margaret Court uses the word “abomination,” she has surrendered her boarding pass.

You could also stick to the facts. When Margaret Court speaks of converting gay congregants — “I help them to overcome. We have people who have been homosexual who are now married.” — measured discussion seems pointless.

I know some of you feel this issue hasn’t gotten sufficient attention, while others feel it’s gotten too much attention. Why don’t we enjoy the tennis and, barring a new development, throw this on the back-burner for a while?

 

Assessing Serena Williams

In honor of her 30th birthday, SI.com asked its formidable stable of tennis writers to assess the career and the legacy of Serena William, which is extremely difficult to judge, far more so than her predecessors.  On one hand Serena has been near or at the top of the women’s game since 1999.  She has won 13 major titles, which puts her the 4th most successful women’s champion in the Open Era and 6th all time.  Even when Serena’s ranking plummeted, everyone knew she was the best, and those pretenders (Sharapova, Henin, Clijsters) benefited more from Serena’s poor form than from their own superiority.  The last time that Serena actually was not the best player in the world–never mind the rankings–was a decade ago when her sister Venus was.

Nevertheless, for all her accomplishments, Serena is something of an underachiever.  The truth is that Serena could have done so much more.  (One once could have made the same charge against Venus, but having found out that she was plagued by an undiagnosed chronic illness for the past half decade or so, her decline makes more sense now.  If anything, she overachieved.)  In the era of the so-called Big Babes, Serena was the strongest, fastest, and most athletic Big Babe of all.  Her serve is one of the game’s best ever if not the best, and her mental tenacity is rivaled only by Graf and Navratilova.

Serena is unquestionably the best of her era.  Also unquestionable is that each era is better than all preceding ones it if only because success builds upon itself and athletic training only gets more advanced.  Following that logic, yes Serena is the greatest to ever play the game.  However, most of the SI writers do not use that logic.  Nor do the fans who argue about such things.  In truth, that’s how it should be because players from previous eras should not be penalized for being older.  The true standard is the way an athlete dominates her or his own era, and this is why Serena has underachieved.  Compare her to Graf and Navratilova who absolutely dominated their respective eras, and we see what Serena could have done.  (Having said that, it boggles my mind that anyone believes that this is a lesser era in terms of tennis talent.  As though the days of tennis when only two women dominated the entire field is shows greater player depth.  I’m looking at you, Bruce Jenkins.  You should know better.)  Because Serena could have accomplished so much more on the court than she did, the majority of SI’s writers hesitate to put her above either Graf or Navratilova.

I think that is a fair assessment.  Serena at her best is second to no one, but Serena is not often at her best, distracted by outside interests, most infamously an acting career.  The same cannot be said for the other greats of the women’s game, which is why they accomplished so much more.  What is remarkable is that even as a potential underachiever Serena is still among the most accomplished women of all time, just behind Court, Graf, Wills, Navratilova, and Evert.  On the flip side, I cannot imagine any other woman in history being as distracted as Serena and still accomplishing as much.  It is a testament to her talent, skill, and athleticism.  It’s why in tennis history she is sui generis.

On Monica Seles

I have no quantifiable data to prove this, but I suspect that if one were to poll tennis fans as to who their favorite player of all time was, across the world  the runaway answer would be Monica Seles.  Once a world-beating teenager, Seles, through no fault of her own, became her sport’s tragic heroine.  In doing so, she won over fans by the legion. and her name became a shorthand for dignity and class–a trait all too seemingly rare among famous athletes.

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Tennis matches are most enjoyable to watch when opponents’ styles contrast.  The classic example, the one that goes back to 19th century Wimbledon, is that between the baseline player and the serve-and-volleyer.  That contrast produced some of tennis’s most exciting rivalries: Navratilova/Evert, McEnroe/Borg, and to a lesser extent Sampras/Agassi.

There is another battle, less classic and far rarer, that has made the hearts of tennis fans beat all the faster, and that is the battle between athlete and artist.  The serve-and-volley game is nearly extinct, destroyed by modern equipment and training, but at least it had a good run.  The tennis “artist” on the other hand, a player of uncanny intelligence, near perfect shot making ability, and effortless mobility on the court (practically dancing), is as rare and as precious as a blue diamond.  For decades in the women’s game there was only the holy Trinity of Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno, and Evonne Goolagong.  In recent years, only Martina Hingis and Justine Henin could lay claim to an artistic ideal.  Although neither had the fluidity of Lenglen, Bueno, or Goolagong, Henin’s backhand and Hingis’s intelligence are easily the equal of their predecessors.  (In the men’s game, Roger Federer stands alone among tennis artists although lesser mortals such as Gustavo Kuerten and Manolo Santana have approached Federer’s Alp.)

In contrast to the rarity of tennis artists, there has never been a lack of “athletes”, players whose superior physical ability augment their formidable (but not Platonic) tennis abilities.  In any era, there will always be such athletes at the top of the game; Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are the quintessential contemporary examples.  This is not to say that the artists lack athleticism–although Hingis was harmed by her inability to cope with the physicality of her competitors–or that the athletes lack an aesthetic quality, but when the great artists meet the great athletes, then tennis fans are rewarded with great battles.

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It is these attributes that make for the great tennis players, yet Monica Seles was none, which makes her success all the more remarkable.  She preferred the baseline (perhaps out of necessity; her lateral movement was good, but ability to move forward left much to be desired), but she was no classic baseliner like Evert, Borg, or Connors.  She was not an athlete, certainly not like Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.  Fitness was never her strongest point, and it an Achilles heel after her return to the game in 1995.  From 1990-1993 her shotmaking ability was arguably the finest in the world, but if anything she completely subverted the artistic ideal.  Her ground strokes were just, and there is no other word for it, odd.

Seles had no forehand.  This is not a derisive remark about the weakness her shot; it is a factual assessment of the way she gripped her racket.  She held the racket with both hands, thereby creating a second two-handed backhand instead of a forehand.  It was a not a particularly attractive shot (especially to the tennis purist, who can barely tolerate a two-handed backhand), but it was an extremely effective one.  What she lost in reach, she more than made up for in power and control.  It also allowed her to hit angles that other players could not reach and with incredible pace and precision that opponents could not match.  This was such an effective tool for Seles, that one wonders why it was never copied.  Perhaps a lesser player could not get away with such unorthodoxy.  Nevertheless, Seles’s influence on today’s game cannot be overlooked.  She nearly single-handedly (no pun intended) initiated the power game in women’s tennis.

Seles was born in Tito’s Yugoslavia to an ethnic Hungarian family (her prime years coincided with the disintegration of her home country and the ensuing chaos and war.)  Her father Károly, a cartoonist, showed her how to play by drawing pictures for her–thus the development of unique style.  She joined the professional tour in 1988 at the age of 14, and beat Chris Evert in 1989 to win her first tour title.  Immediately afterwards, Seles reached the semifinals of the 1989 French Open where she met the reigning champion Steffi Graf and lost in a tight match.

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In 1989, Steffi Graf ruled tennis with an iron fist.  Graf conquered all in 1988, demolishing all opponents en route to a Grand Slam.  For good measure, she won the Olympic title too thereby achieving the Golden Slam, a feat unique in tennis history.  Although she lost her French Open title in 1989 due to the combination of another teenager (Aranxa Sanchez Vicario) and menstrual cramps, 1989 was actually a more dominant year than 1988.  Graf’s seemed completely unbeatable.

Then came 1990.  It started off well with another victory at the Australian Open.  Then the German tabloids discovered and revealed an extortion attempt against Graf’s domineering father Peter for allegedly fathering an illegitimate child with a model.  It was crushing for Graf personally, and the media was brutal.  Graf also suffered a host of physical injuries, including a sinus operation.  Seles was the first beneficiary, beating Graf at the 1990 French Open.  Graf’s year was not bad by mortal standards (a semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Zina Garrison was followed by a final round loss at the US Open to Gabriela Sabatini), but by Graf’s own exacting expectations, it was a horrific year.  However, the worst was yet to come.

1991 was the year Seles truly arrived.  She won the Australian Open, successfully defended her French title, skipped Wimbledon, and then won the US Open.  Her absence from Wimbledon caused a stir, particularly among the scandal-crazed British tabloid press (who sparked ridiculous “Seles is pregnant” claims), but the truth was far more mundane; Seles suffered from shin splints.  In hindsight, Seles probably regrets that she skipped Wimbledon, because it remained the one title she never won.  Graf benefited from Seles’s absence and won her first major title in a year and a half.

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There are two aspects of Seles’s early career that must be noted because–for better or for worse–she was the trailblazer in what are now ubiquitous to the women’s tour.  First, Seles a giggling teenager with an infectious smile, was a star as well as a champion.  She spoke openly of her admiration for Madonna and had a strange friendship with Donald Trump.  She was tailed by the paparazzi, and wore wings and sunglasses trying to escape them.  The tennis dress designer Ted Tinling claimed that Seles was the first legitimate star tennis produced since Suzanne Lenglen (a friend of his from his youth.)  To Tinling, all the other greats in the women’s game never transcended the sport the way that Lenglen did until Seles. Because of the stabbing, Seles never fulfilled Tinling’s vision, but she led the way for player/celebrities like Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.

The second important aspect of Seles’s early career was the grunting (for lack of a better word.)  Seles was not the first player to grunt, but she elevated it, she made it okay, and many of today’s players who grunt (including Venus and Serena Williams) cite Seles as a model.  Perhaps this is hypocritical, but while I detest the screaming of today, I tend to be less harsh on Seles.  Her grunting, a distinct “ungh-EEE!“, drove her competitors crazy, Martina Navratilova in particular, and not unjustifiably.  At the time, I always sided with Seles because (1) on television her grunts did not seem as loud as they actually were (to my ears, Sabatini was far worse), and (2) Seles took the #1 spot from Graf, a player whom I adore now, but did not care for at the time.

I also tend to be less harsh about Seles because, unlike today’s screamers, I truly believe that grunting was an important if inconvenient factor of Seles’s game rather than elaborate cheating.  Seles tried to stop after being mercilessly hounded by the British tabloids at Wimbledon 1992 (where the “Grunt-O-Meter” was introduced).  In the end she meekly fell to Graf in the final round.  Considering that Seles won all the other major tournaments in 1992, including a now-legendary three-set classic over Graf in the French Open final, it was pretty clear both to her and tennis fans that if Seles wanted to continue winning she had to continue grunting.

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Early on signs indicated that in 1993 Seles would continue her march to the title of greatest ever.  At the Australian Open she again beat Steffi Graf, in another three-set classic.  However, at a tournament in Hamburg, a madman literally stabbed Seles in the back (with a boning knife) and the phrase “deranged Steffi Graf fan” entered the popular tennis lexicon.  Günter Parche, a deeply disturbed man, distraught that his beloved Graf (whom he stalked at one point) was no longer the world’s top player, took advantage of the lax security at Hamburg and altered tennis history forever.  He destroyed Seles’s career; the physical wound healed, but she was sidelined for the next 28 months, plagued with nightmares, psychological trauma, and weight issues.  Graf, whom Parche also deeply traumatized by the attack, benefited the most.  With the absence of Seles and the decline and retirement of Navratilova, Graf had virtually no rivals left, and she swept all before her.  Graf’s only real rival over the next four years was her own body, which eventually broke down.

Seles returned for the 1995 US Open, but everything had changed.  She was no longer the same player.  Her giggling was replaced by a weary and wary reticence.  But Seles carried herself with quiet dignity that won her fans worldwide.  Whereas she had once been a divisive figure in the tennis world, she was now universally beloved.  Speaking ill of Seles was akin to blasphemy.  No matter what continent she played on, no matter who her opponent was, the crowd collectively supported her.  Even some of her opponents had very mixed feelings when playing her, probably none more so than Graf.  Sanchez Vicario beat Seles at the 1998 French Open final just after Seles’s beloved father died and publicly apologized to Seles for doing so.

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In Jon Wertheim’s book Venus Envy, there is a very poignant moment.  A random fan approached Seles and shared her own story of woe.  Seles, rather than trying to get away, listened to the fan’s story.  Wertheim indicated that this was not a unique occurrence.  Fans connected with Seles in a way that they could not before and on a very personal level, which was ironic because Seles was a far more private person than she had previously been.  In a way, Seles became larger than the sport; to tennis fans around the world she was the embodiment of a heroic ideal.  For all her seemingly supernatural talent, it was her humanity that attracted people to her.  It was made all the poignant by the understanding that there would be no fairy tale ending for Seles.  Nevertheless, she persevered, and she did so standing tall.

In his tribute to Seles after she announced her retirement, Wertheim wrote, “[S]he exited as perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history. As happy endings go, one could do worse. “

One wishes Seles happiness in life.  If any athlete deserves that, it’s Monica Seles.

Tennis Player Gone Wild

Throughout its history, tennis has struggled against its image as a country club sport, and not undeservedly so.  What we know today as tennis ( formerly lawn tennis) was developed in Victorian England, but adapted from racket games that are much older.  Because of the limitations inherent to tennis–space to play, equipment, etc.–tennis was initially a game limited primarily to the moneyed class.  (In the United States, this meant the East Coast elite, although that changed fairly quickly.)

As befitting its Victorian roots, tennis players were expected to comport themselves in a certain manner.  Be a good winner and an even better loser.  Men wore white buttoned shirts and white trousers while women wore white dresses that covered the whole body and corsets underneath.  (Wimbledon still retains the all-white clothing rule although mercifully the type of clothing has changed.)  Rigorous honesty and unfairly gentility.  This was the standard until World War I, but who remembers Willie Renshaw and Laurie Doherty, Lottie Dodd and Maud Watson?

After World War I tennis’s image began to change, and it started with the sport’s first superstars Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen.  They popularized the sport, taking it out of the domain of the posh and bringing it to the masses.  Lenglen, who eschewed the corset in favor of flowing, sleeveless dresses that scandalously went down to only just below the knee (she was French), was responsible for Wimbledon being moved to its current location; the old location simply could not accommodate all the people who wanted to watch her play.  Both Lenglen and Tilden were temperamental prima donnas, but for the most part tennis players were still expected to be behave in the Victorian fashion.  For the most part, the players did behave themselves in exemplary fashion, and the sport remembers the dignity of the greats such as Budge, von Cramm, Gibson, Ashe, Seles, and pretty much every top Australian men’s player prior to Lleyton Hewitt.

I am not sure when the behavior change started exactly.  Tennis did not lack players who marched to a beat of a different drummer or who were difficult personalities (Pancho Gonzales for example), but by the 1970’s the Victorian image was gone, and players like Connors, McEnroe, and Nastase were as famous for their bad behavior as for their success.  Additionally, with the rise of feminism, Billie Jean King, and the Women’s Tennis Association, female tennis players improved the public perception of their game and their own competitiveness.

Arguing with the umpire and on-court temper tantrums have become the norm, and for better or for worse there is no going back.  There are still behavioral rule, but those rules are used judiciously, perhaps too much so.  (It’s a shame too, because I would love to see an end to the shrieking that has ruined women’s tennis.)  What exactly constitutes bad behavior is, I guess, in the eye of the beholder.  McEnroe was correctly thrown out of the Australian Open in 1990 for his behavior, but at the 1991 US Open, Jimmy Connors got away with calling the umpire “an abortion.”  Umpires and other officials need to be treated with respect.  They fact that players can get away with so much abuse toward them (not just in tennis), is one of the dark sides of sports.

Which brings us to the US Open Women’s final from two days ago.  Sam Stosur of Australia beat Serena Williams of the United States 6-2 6-3 to take the title.  Stosur became the first Australian woman to win the US Open title since Margaret Court in 1973 and the first Australian women to win any major title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980.  Australia, once a dynastic tennis powerhouse, has waited a long time for another women’s champion, although I doubt Stosur will join the pantheon alongside Court and Goolagong Cawley.

Unfortunately, Stosur’s day was marred by her opponent’s behavior.  Where Serena Williams walks, so too does controversy.  Although Serena’s dedication to the sport has long been questioned (especially during her acting career phase), when she is on her day, she is one of the game’s true legends.  But Serena is also the architect of her own unpopularity.  Her behavior, which involved accusing and berating the chair umpire, was nothing short of disgraceful.

Unfortunately, this was no aberration, and Serena has gotten in trouble before at the US Open when a call did not go her way.  Two years ago in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, Serena threatened a line judge who called a foot fault on her at a key moment.  Serena’s tantrum resulted in a point deduction on match point, a highly undignified way to lose.  Even beyond such major incidents as this, Serena wears ungracious behavior like a fur coat and then calls her critics haters.  Particularly galling are her post-match press conference remarks where she inevitably belittles her opponents (win or lose, Serena will claim that she wasn’t playing at her best.)  On one hand we want to see that kind of supreme self-confidence from top athletes; on the other hand, too much of it is tacky, particularly when combined with a complete lack of self-awareness, as is the case with Serena.

Criticizing Serena though is never easy because it opens one up charges of racism.  For years, I have read the weekly mailbag columns of Jon Wertheim, one of Sports Illustrated‘s two main tennis writers.  Whenever he criticizes one of the Williams sisters, there is inevitably a slate of angry e-mails accusing him of judging them differently because they are black.  Wertheim is no racist, nor does he hate the Williams sisters (he is quite complimentary of both of them), but race is such a polarizing issue, that there are those people who cannot separate criticism of a black athlete from criticism of an athlete who is black.  Obviously race is a major part of the Williams sisters’ story, and I would not deny that there have been racist incidents (see: Indian Wells), but that does not give Serena a free pass for her boorishness.*

The story of Venus and Serena Williams is probably the most remarkable in the sport’s history.  It has everything a great novelist would want: growing up in the ghetto, black girls in a white sport, a crazy tennis father, the unprecedented dominance of two sisters, tragedy, injury, apathy, illness, stardom, and the psychological vicissitudes they displayed when playing one another.  It’s just a shame that Serena want this story to have such an unlikeable protagonist.

Footnotes: 

* I have always preferred Venus to Serena, being an older sibling and all.  Despite a wobbly first impression at the start of her career (mostly due to her father), Venus has conducted herself with grace and dignity.  I was very sad to hear that Venus has Sjögren’s syndrome, and I wish her the best.  The fact that so many have expressed sadness about Venus shows that, like many of her predecessors, she has moved from controversial to beloved.

The Lion In Winter

I have been a tennis fan for as long as I can remember.  Although my ability to play is nothing more than awful, I can watch and understand the ebb and flow of a march far better than I can do or ever will be able to do in football (which I arrived at relatively late.)  I have seen so many great players in my life, among them Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Navratilova, Graf, Evert, Seles, Nadal, the Williams sisters, Agassi, Sampras, and above all Roger Federer.  I have enjoyed watching the game, but because of Federer I find I can no longer watch tennis anymore.  While his own special style turned tennis into an art form, he has also spoiled it.  The reason is that Federer has met an unconquerable opponent: time.  As he falls into the throes of the inevitable and natural decline that all athletes face, I cannot bear witness.  The lion is indeed in his winter.

Before Federer turned professional, he was a top-ranked junior player, and he won the boy’s Wimbledon title in 1998.  His already advanced game was still a work in progress, and that hindered in his early professional years–as did his impatience.  Scouting reports on Federer suggested that if a player hung in with him and absorbed his shots, Federer would become frustrated, lose his composure, and blow the match.  That was why the young Federer consistently fell to his early rival David Nalbandian of Argentina.  Yet despite his frailties he could still show flashes of greatness, none greater than when he beat Pete Sampras in their epic five set duel at Wimbledon, a match that ended the great champion’s dominance at the All England club.  That match, the only time those two ever met, was traumatic for both.  For Sampras it was the end of his invincibility.  Although he would go one to win one last major title (the 2002 US Open), he was now an afterthought.  For Federer it was too much too soon, and he faltered under the weight of expectations.  Over the ensuing months, Federer seemed doomed to be another Xavier Malisse, an incredibly gifted player who never fulfilled his early promise.

In August 2002, Federer’s world was shattered when his friend and former coach Peter Carter, the man who coached him throughout his teens, was killed in a car crash.  Oddly though, in as much as it hurt him on a personal level, from a tennis perspective it somehow helped to make him whole.  The results did not show immediately, and the final humiliation was yet to come.  At the 2003 French Open, a journeyman player from Peru named Luis Horna upset the fifth-seeded Federer in the first round (in straight sets no less.)

To say that this loss created Federer would be entirely wrong.  It is however, fair to say that the loss somehow released him from his self-imposed shackles.  Two weeks later at Wimbledon, tennis gave its greatest gift to the world.  Federer, now a fully formed colossus, strode out onto the manicured court and dominated all in his path.  He was not the first player to overpower the competition, but this destruction was different from all that had come before.

Part of this is circumstantial.  The truth is that by 2003, women’s tennis had become far more interesting than men’s tennis.  With the decline of Sampras and (to a lesser extent) Andre Agassi, men’s tennis had become a bubbling, shapeless mess.  Rather than the comfort of a hierarchy with a few top players to create compelling rivalries and intricate stories, men’s tennis became a free-for-all.  Whenever a player won a major tournament, you could never be sure if he was for real or just a flash-in-the-pan.  From the US Open in 2000 (the first major after Sampras’s last Wimbledon) to the French Open in 2003 (the last major before Federer’s first Wimbledon) there were nine different winners in eleven tournaments.

Furthermore, the dominant style in men’s tennis was very dull.  There are competing theories, some circulating around the move to graphite racquets (Navratilova and McEnroe were especially vocal about this.)  The serve had come to dominate to such an extent that points were over as soon as they began.  To be fair, every style has its flaws; the serve-and-volley was not much longer than just the serve-only game, and a meeting between two baseline players could be interesting as a metronome.  The service-only game was different though because–fair perception or not–seemingly talentless hacks rose to the top of the world.  It also polarized the men’s field: either a player had a strong serve and performed well on fast courts or he was a retriever and succeeded on slow courts.  There was no overlap.

Federer changed all that.  Federer has a strong serve (and perhaps even more importantly, a strong second serve), but he was no Goran Ivanišević.  He could play defensively, but he was no clay court specialist like Gustavo Kuerten.  He won tournaments on all surfaces, and went deep into every major.  Yet that is not why Federer was so great.

On the court, he was like a god.

I do not say this lightly.  Nor am I the only person who has compared Federer to the divine.  The late author and essayist David Foster Wallace wrote a famous essay for The New York Times called “Federer as Religious Experience” in which he explained, not the player himself, but rather the fan’s experience of watching Federer.  Wallace began his essay as follows:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

Wallace, who played competitive tennis as a youth, wrote perhaps the definitive essay on Federer.  He captured in writing a feeling that so many, even those who (like myself) do not play, feel about Federer’s game.  Federer’s tennis was the manifestation of a Platonic idea.

Even that alone cannot fully describe why Federer is so unique in tennis history.  Although rare, there have been other artists who have had all (or at least most) of the shots in Federer’s arsenal and delivered those shots almost as pristine a manner.  The difference between Federer and other artists is simple to explain, but unfortunately entirely prosaic.  Federer has perhaps the most tactically astute brain in tennis history.  Former artists got paralyzed in tight matches because they were not sure which shot to play.  Federer always knows.

Federer has his detractors, and the “Greatest Of All Time” debates rages on tennis blogs and discussion boards across the Internet.  Most of the debate centers around Rafael Nadal, Federer’s only real rival at his height, and the man who may very well supplant his legacy.  I am not going to get into that debate here, although one can easily figure out where my sympathies lie.

Instead, I want to talk about the feeling of utter sadness that I and other Federer fans feel as we witness what we always knew was inevitable.  The truth is for the past year-and-a-half or so, I have been unable to regularly watch tennis because it is just too painful.  Watching Federer is less joy than a mixture of nostalgia, regret, and depression.  I want to enjoy his last years in the game (the man is not yet 30), but it is just too hard.  I tried to watch the final of this year’s French Open, and I could not even though I should be used to Nadal beating Federer at the French Open.

It happens to all the greats without exception; no one goes out on top.  The truth is that I am utterly removed from Federer on a personal level.  I know little about him off the court, and I want to keep it that way.  The only times he exists for me are those hours I see him play on my television.  Yet in those hours he was everything; he created an intimacy and beauty in sport that may never be seen again.  It is impossible not to be moved by his decline, inevitable or no; gods are not supposed to fall, they are eternal.  But perhaps we all to become atheists if we ever want to watch tennis again.

Requiem For A Heavyweight

Pauline Betz Addie died on Tuesday.

You probably never heard of her.  Addie was the great US women’s tennis champion of the 1940’s, the link between the brilliance of Alice Marble and the sheer dominance of Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly.  She was one of the fastest women out there too.

Addie (then Pauline Betz) won the US Championship title four times and reached the finals every year from 1941-1946 (he nemesis was Sarah Palfrey Cooke).  She also won Wimbledon in 1946 and reached the finals of the French Championship that same year.

Despite all that, she was extremely unlucky with regard to timing.  Because of World War II, many of the major international tournaments that she would have won were cancelled.  Because tennis blocked professionals from the circuit until the late 1960’s, she was banned merely for exploring the idea of turning professional (which she went on to do.)

Even in her old age, she could keep up with the kids.  From Helen Wills Moody through the Williams sisters, the US has produced some of the world’s finest female tennis players.  Pauline Betz Addie was among the best of the best.