Call me a tennis obsessive. In the course of writing a highly personal book about Jimmy Connors, I dug about as deep as you can go in exploring what I believe are the hyper-personal roots of many attitudes people hold towards tennis. For if on the one hand this is a sport with an idiosyncratic scoring system, tough-to-grasp skills, and petrified social traditions, on the other it is viscerally elemental, profoundly interactive and, if you’re willing to admit it, fundamentally combative. As Andre Agassi liked to say, “Two guys in the arena, trying to figure it out.”
Roger was un-Federer like down under but wasn't he forced to play that way by Djokovic?
But there are times I feel that essence escapes many, and with the North American version of Pete Sampras versus Roger Federer about to take place on March 10, I’ve been struck by a number of assumptions that to me border on the trite – and yet they hold power.
Here’s a look at trio I find quite disturbing. My stake in examining these isn’t to prove or disprove them but to ponder why they are worthy for so many of a personal, emotional investment. And make no mistake, these are concepts many tennis folk hold as close to their vest as the notion that lobs are for sissies.
The deification of the world’s number one man. Let’s call this part one of the Imperial Argument. I’ll start with a walk I took around the grounds of the Australian Open in the wake of Federer’s semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic. I’ll paraphrase a comment I heard frequently: He was so un-Federer like.
Even though he lost, I suspect somewhere in his heart Federer fully knows he was made to play badly by his opponent. That is the nature of the sport. In a macro sense, no one competes in a vacuum. Carrying this to micro levels, one could contend there is no such thing as an unforced error, as a great many mistakes are caused by the awareness of the person across the net – his speed, what he might do if the opponent doesn’t hit the ball well enough, the consequence of losing this specific point and so on.
Despite desires to the contrary, the world’s number one ranked player is not a king. The nature of sports is such that even Roger Federer must prove how good he is each time he steps on the court.
One fortunate by-product of hanging around tennis so much is that I’ve gotten to know many people who were not considered stars but certainly are great players. Veterans such as Sandy Mayer, Trey Waltke, Brian Gottfried, David Wheaton, Leif Shiras and Justin Gimelstob are a few that come to mind. These pros went toe-to-toe for a decade with the very best of their time – and earned their share of wins too. So it’s always striking to me that people are surprised by a Federer being beaten or even challenged by a lower-ranked player. Why shouldn’t this happen? After all, we hear frequently how insignificant any technical matters are, that the difference comes down to such ethereal matters as confidence.
In fact, a player becomes great by dint of working and competing with his peers. The tour is a competitive organism, not a kingdom or even an art gallery. Just as Jimmy Connors had to work hard to beat, say, Gottfried, so must Federer do so to take out the likes of Nikoloy Davydenko.
And so I wonder: Why are people staggered if he loses? What part of ourselves does this jar? And why does it prove jarring? Which leads to yet another commonly-heard comment:
Pete Sampras – or any other aging great – shouldn’t play more or he’ll tarnish his legacy.
If a 36 year-old Pete Sampras loses to the best player in the world, how would that diminish his legacy?
This relates to the notion that going out on top is a great way to go. Well, let me tell you this first: I intend to go out drooling.
Yes, it was nice to see Sampras earn that 2002 U.S. Open win and close his career. But that rarely happens. Though I strongly believe that Sampras will never again play an ATP event – he’s aware of how much work and energy it truly takes to compete in an individual sport – he certainly has every right. Even were Sampras to compete and lose five straight matches, would he be upsetting himself or more pointedly, as I see it, disrupting peoples’ attitudes towards mortality? “Embarrassing” is a word I’ve often heard to describe people who soldier on too long. But who is really the one being embarrassed?
For if Superman is vulnerable, what does that say about us mortals? Legacies are great, but nothing diminished my respect for the playwright Arthur Miller because over the last 50 years of his life he never wrote a play as popular as Death of A Salesman. While a team sport athlete could well drag down the performance of others, a tennis player is free to do whatever he so wants.
The great players would be great in any era
This is part two of the Imperial Argument, and to some degree it’s a subtle theme of Sampras-Federer – the notion that the great and powerful Sampras could compete in today’s tennis world, that all champions transcend time. The thinking goes that Rod Laver, given today’s equipment, would be right in the thick of things. For he is a champion.
But I wonder: Why? Just because they’re great? Just because we want to believe this? Why do we want to believe this? How do we know that Don Budge might not have found himself smitten with music? Or summoned up to military service? Pancho Gonzales might have felt less discrimination in another era and pursed what he told me was his passion for anthropology. Maybe you or I would have been great in another era. Who knows?
Don Budge (left) and Jack Kramer were both great champions but would they be today? Definitely maybe.
As a corollary, would the players ranked in the top 20 be in the top 20 of any era? Could yesterday’s player ranked 25 be number three since he might have more exposure to fitness? As the era of booze gave way to one of drugs, would the Aussies have succumbed to substance abuse problems? Now you’re perhaps laughing at me.
But why do we wish to keep the world in order this way? Do we feel the same way about Thomas Jefferson, that he would be just as effective running for office today as in 1800? Or Aaron Burr, who settled a dispute with Alexander Hamilton by shooting him in duel? Perhaps pedophile Bill Tilden might have run afoul of the law much sooner. Or perhaps he would have comfortable traveling with a male partner.
So as you contemplate this engaging Sampras-Federer exhibition, think twice before issuing a knee-jerk statement. The tennis life you save might be your own.
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