Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tennis: My Luv and Hate of the Sport

So I have a bone to pick with the sport I played in college.

Before I get there, though, some context.

I began playing tennis as a kid. It's the perfect sport for a guy with a twin brother; I always had someone to play a set against. By the time we were maybe eight years old, we were riding our bikes to local courts. There's something beautiful about the sport's simplicity: If I get the ball over that net and into that box one more time than you do, I win the point.

By the time I was in ninth grade, tennis had become the sport I was best at and, therefore, to which I gave most of my time. In college, tennis gave me some of my best friends. It gave me a chance to play against the best from other small colleges in the Midwest and even, on spring-break trips, from across the country. I loved every minute of it.

And it's not just as a player. I grew up with Breakfast at Wimbledon. With Pete Sampras and his voice immodulation. With Andre Agassi's several careers and superhuman ball striking. With Jim Courier and his predictable-in-hindsight short-lived career (as no one with that goofy little swing can last for long, right?). With raucous US Open night matches. In college, I would set my alarm and wake up in the middle of the night to watch the Australian Open matches between Federer, Roddick, Agassi (shinily bald now), and scrappy Lleyton Hewitt (a personal favorite despite his reputation for being a real jerk).

In other words, the sport has been good to me as a player and as a fan.

I say that knowing I missed tennis in its heyday, the late 70s and early 80s. When people ask me, though, why the sport doesn't capture America's interest in the way that others (football, baseball, basketball, hockey, even . . . ugh . . . golf) have, I never have any trouble answering.

Tennis has absolutely no clue what to do with tradition.

Tradition, here, means lots of different things. Let me give you an example.

Minutes ago, I was watching a dazzling slugfest between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. They were in minute twelve or so of a nearly fifteen-minute game, the third game in a fifth set. There had been many game and break points when Wawrinka miss-hit a ball, removing its pace so that it landed short to Djokovic's backhand. The Djoker lunged and hit his backhand into the net. And then he threw his arms up and screamed in complaint. You might guess he was mad at himself. You would be wrong. Well, then, with whom?

He was mad at a fan.

Really? Yep.

Did someone throw something at him? you might ask. Did someone take out a large mirror and reflect sun into his eyes? No and no. What did they do? They yelled something. Not anything obscene or particularly coherent. Just something loud enough that he could hear them. That's right: The fan had dared to make noise as Djokovic was about to strike the ball.

The announcers (including one of my favorite players, at least from old highlights: John McEnroe) agreed there was nothing that could be done about it now, but that it was unfortunate the fan had yelled.

I have no idea why tennis cares if a fan yelled. I really don't. At baseball games, fans stand and cheer and boo at any time they darn well please. At basketball games fans stand near baskets and raise giant signs, giant cardboard heads, and anything else they want while screaming their heads off as an opposing player shoots free throws. I could go on and on, right? We all know this.

I remember being in college, playing a tennis match (in front of probably fifteen people--why so few? you might ask) that went to a super tiebreaker. That happens when both players have won a set so, instead of playing out the third set, they play a game to ten points instead. I've lost my share of these in life--this one, however, I won. I couldn't help noticing that those few people watching were much quieter the last half of the match. Afterward, I learned that my opponent's mother had lectured my friends (who had shown up when no one else does to small-college tennis matches) about when it was appropriate to cheer and when it wasn't.

I have no idea why tennis cares when people cheer.

Have you ever met a teenager (or person in their early twenties or, heck, early sixties) who has played almost exclusively tennis in his/her life in place of team sports? Too many of them, from my experience, have a hint of spoiled brat in them. The fanciest equipment is important to these people. They sneer at opponents who don't look right to them, whose forehand or backhand don't have the same smooth balance as those taught to players by club professionals. Such opponents are especially hated when they beat club-taught players. The more unorthodox players are called, disparagingly, "pushes". Meaning they get the ball back in the court one more time than the well-groomed player does, therefore winning the point (which is the goal, right?), but they don't do it the right way. A great way to invite new participants, let alone an audience, isn't it? My brother has such unorthodox strokes and, therefore, has been labeled a "push" all his tennis life. I'm a small guy like he is, and I play similar game (without a lot of pace but with precision and hustle), but I have smooth, conventional strokes, so I haven't had to deal with this foolishness. By the way, my brother won a few more tennis matches in his career than I did in mine.

Do I still dream of visiting Wimbledon--of watching the world's best players play in the game's most storied venue? Of spending evenings in New York watching players slug away under the lights? Of course I do. I just wish tennis would get its priorities straight.

It's a game, people. It's supposed to be watched and enjoyed. It's supposed to bring out passion, rivalries, and all the fun that sport can cultivate. That means fans need, you know, to cheer.

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