As the Australian Open gets underway, my thoughts naturally turn to…the Margaret Court homophobia controversy??
Yes. Would that it were not so, with so many interesting plot lines developing in the actual tennis itself. But a brightly colored group of gay fans (and their straight allies) have made their presence known at Margaret Court Arena, protesting Court’s recent, mean-spirited comments about LGBT people. I wrote about it for The New Civil Rights Movement.
And then the latest British hope (and therefore likely doomed never to win a major tournament), Laura Robson, stepped onto court wearing this:
Rafa Nadal, the greatest clay court tennis player in history — and one of the greatest ever, period — will retire from tennis sometime during 2012.
Here’s what he said, just today, in discussing his preparation for Davis Cup (which at this point seems like an experiment on the players’ bodies, a torturous coda to a season that will never end):
“[M]ore than a lack of passion, it is a weariness from many years of playing at this level, week after week.”
Just tired because it’s the end of the year? No. Here’s what he said earlier this year, right in the middle of the French Open, which he’d then won five times:
“It’s my ninth year on the tour, and its completely the same feeling every year. You don’t have the chance to stop, never. I think for that situation we have a shorter career. So having a different model of ranking, of competition, I think we can have longer career, no? I [am] almost 25, but seems like I am playing for 100 years here on the tour. I didn’t spend a weekend at home since the week of Davis Cup before Indian Wells. That’s too much. Tennis is a very demanding sport mentally and physically. I won Roland Garros five times, but next Monday I am practicing on Queen’s. So that’s makes the career shorter for everybody.”
“We have four Grand Slams, we have nine Masters 1000, and the year is 12 months. I know that they’re gonna reduce two week but, seriously, is not enough. [We are not ] gonna have these changes for my generation, but hopefully for the next generations to have a better sports life. Because I think you need two months, two months and a half of rest at the end of the season. You have to practice. I never able to practice and to try to improve the things during the off-season, and that’s something I think terrible. Sometimes it’s like work. And, in my opinion, tennis is not work. It’s passion.”
Does this sound like someone who’s going to be around for long?
Borg, another player who had prodigious success at an early age, walked away at age 26 when he lost his single-minded focus, and, coincidentally, when he could no longer defeat John McEnroe. Now Nadal, age 25, has been thoroughly thrashed by Novak Djokovic all year (0-6, all in finals) and just got hammered at the WTF (World Tour Finals; get your mind out of the gutter) — 6-3, 6-0 — by that other guy in the top three. Federer was as up, and relentless, as Nadal was down, and despondent. With the possible exception of Serena Williams (who has taken some long breaks from the tour), I’ve never seen anyone so hard-working or passionate about tennis as Nadal. And that can’t last forever.
Rafa’s light is blinking red. He’ll be gone within a year. It’s easy to blame the length of the season (let’s!), but I just think that his style of play isn’t suited to a long career. I’m hope I’m wrong, but I doubt that I am.
The New York Senate — more specifically, the Senate Republicans — have been dithering over a marriage equality bill for a week now. They need better religious protections, they want it tied to other deals, they will allow a vote, they won’t allow a vote. On and on it goes.
As of 10:45 on Thursday night, it’s still unclear what the bill looks like (how extensive are the proposed protections? are they too great a concession to religious beliefs, allowing discrimination in their name?), whether the Senate Republican leader, Dean Skelos, is going to let his caucus vote on it, and what its fate will be should it come to the floor (as of now, it’s one vote short of the majority it needs).
Meanwhile, Obama appeared this evening at a gala gay fund-raiser and, it turns out, still hasn’t fully “evolved” on marriage equality. Would his eleventh-hour endorsement help push the measure through? Who knows, but I’m tired of waiting.
I’ll have a lot to say about this, one way or another, once something…happens or doesn’t happen, decisively. For now, I remain a slave to the computer and to Wimbledon.
The frozen land to our north is busily laying the groundwork for world domination. On Sunday, Arcade Fire became the first Canadian band to win an ATP tour title in over fifteen years. Or something like that. Here is their victory cry, after match point:
That was the aptly poetic description of Roger Federer’s game by sometime-rival Novak Djokovic, whom the impeccable Swiss utterly thrashed in their mercifully brief semifinal match in the ATP World Tour Finals. Djokovic is an extremely gifted tennis player, who’s been as high as number two in the world (although his permanent residence is at number three, locked out of the top two by the stingy Federer-Nadal oligopoly). When he’s on his game and Federer is just a tad off his — as was the case in this year’s U.S. Open — you’ve got a match. But when Federer is scaling the sublime heights that fill up my DVR, Djokovic is the tennis equivalent of the Washington Generals to Federer’s globe-trotting excellence.
Then Federer, who has been playing with merciless purpose and precision all Fall, put paid to arch-rival and chief tormenter Rafael Nadal in the final, raining down a hail of unplayable serves, forehands and even backhands (Nadal’s usual advantage) to seal the decisive third set, 6-1. A new coach and a few off-color performances in the Spring and early Summer appear to have worked a rejuvenation, and given the 29-year-old artist a springier step.
Nadal, of course, is only the guy who won three of the four major titles in 2010. So as the Australian Open looms in just over a month — after the sport’s criminally short “off season” — Federer will defend his lone major title from the past year, while Nadal will try for four in a row. (Are there other players with a shot? Sort of; since the 2005 French Open, twenty-one of the last twenty-three majors have been won by either Federer or Nadal, with only Djokovic (2008 Aussie Open) and Juan Martin DelPotro (2009 U.S. Open) breaking through).
2011 should be another great year. Expect more of this from Federer:
Today, perennial world top ten tennis player Elena Dementieva abruptly announced her retirement from the sport. She’s 29 years old, and I guess the passion to keep running around the court and hitting all of those screaming line drives just wasn’t there any more.
I read the news just before I was scheduled to pick up the kids, and it took me by surprise — and I was further surprised to discover that I had an emotional reaction to her departure. I’m a rabid tennis fan, but why will I miss her, in particular?
This wonderful piece on the tennis.com site sums up my feelings pretty well. (Read some of the comments to see how much hard-core tennis fans love her.) Dementieva has (had?) a relentless ground game, with her sturdy legs as often unbreachable foundation. Gifted with astonishing speed, timing, and athleticism, she could stand toe-to-toe with anyone, as her titanic battle with Serena Williams at 2009 Wimbledon showed. Running Williams all over the court, Dementieva was a match point away from sending the iron-willed American crashing out of the tournament she eventually won. As was too-typical of Dementieva, she’d given the sport a great match (probably the best of the year) but fallen just short.
Indeed, except for the Olympics — a gold medal in a 2008 and a mostly forgotten silver medal from 2000 — Dementieva’s career is already being summed up as “almost.” Because she had made it to two Grand Slam finals, seven semifinals and a few more quarterfinals, most of us kept waiting for her to bag one. (Please, just one!) She had one last chance this year, with a relatively weak trio of women standing between her and a French Open championship, but she was forced to retire with an injury during her semifinal against eventual tournament winner Francesca Schiavone.
She was the classic underdog, and that status was given epic stature by the one shocking weakness in her game: her serve. For years, it was, well…it was terrible. I can recall watching a U.S. Open semifinal she played against Jennifer Capriati where her second serves were floating in — or out — at a speed that would have embarrassed some weekend players (not me, though). People were actually laughing. Yet she won that match, and developed the amazing ability to shrug off the worst kind of serving woes — including numerous double faults, many at the most crucial times — and soldier on. Her ability to thrive in such a competitive environment without the most reliable weapon — the only shot the player completely controls — was the subject of endless fascination, and tended to humanize her in a way rare for top athletes.
She won’t make the Hall of Fame. No Grand Slam titles (tennis snobs don’t care much about the Olympics), and a career-high ranking of three aren’t quite good enough. Yet she’ll leave a void. As she announced her retirement at the year-end tournament followed only by real tennis nuts, all of her top fellow players stood on the court — and cried. So did the two women in the broadcast booth, Lindsey Davenport and Corina Morariu, who’d played against her and watched her long and impressive career. A more honest, intelligent, and likable player you won’t find.
Tennis will miss her, and so will I. Let’s end on an Olympic high note (her victory screech is so heartfelt):
This just-published preview from Sunday’s NY Times Magazine is entitled “How Power Has Transformed Women’s Tennis.”
Based on its length, I’d guess that it’s the cover story. That’s potentially good, as the Times is one of the few major media outlets to give tennis the coverage it needs (and deserves). They also ran a long-form piece on Nadal in the Magazine a year or so ago, and featured Elena Dementieva — of all people — on the cover of their since-discontinued Play Magazine.
Good, that is, until you actually read the story. I could find no organizing narrative, no effort to make sense of interview comments that were all over the place, and no sense that the author actually knew anything about tennis. Fans, read it and tell me I’m wrong.
Roger Federer has just crashed out of Wimbledon, losing to the clobberin’ Czech, Tomas Berdych. After reaching 23 straight semi-finals or better in Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has now lost in two consecutive quarterfinals. And this one was at Wimbledon, where he’d reached seven straight finals(!), winning six of them.
By now, we can discern a pattern: Federer, from now until the end of the career, will likely lose more than he’ll win against super heavyweight hitters like Berdych, Juan Martin DelPotro (who overpowered him in the US Open Final last year), and Robin Soderling (who torched him at the recent French Open). Today’s defeat, I saw coming down Broadway. Berdych beat Federer earlier this year, and the big Czech isn’t the same mental case he was until quite recently.
What’s going on? Some combination, probably, of an otherwise imperceptible decline in Federer’s great skills, and the emergence of this new generation of ball-whackers. They’re not especially young in tennis terms, but they’ve all come into their own at about the same time.
Federer will probably win another major or two, but he’s not likely to regain the No. 1 position, and will therefore fall one week short of Pete Sampras’s record for most total weeks on top. And I wonder how much he cares, really: There’s not much else he needs to accomplish in tennis, and he might be content to spend the back-end of his career (which might be quite a few years) as a Top Five player whose best shots still elicit gasps, but who can no longer be counted on to be standing at the business end of tournaments. (Indeed, after winning the Australian Open in January, Federer hasn’t won another tournament this year.)
There’s a nice piece on Federer in this week’s New Yorker (not available on line). Here’s a line from the Calvin Tomkins article that might console some of his fans. It did me:
“For five years, his more besotted admirers have counted on him to [win every tournament], and our expectations, as I’m coming to realize, have interfered with the unique pleasure of watching him play. Whether he wins Wimbledon or not this year, he will us…moments…when a ball in flight becomes more than a signifier of victory or defeat.”
This is better than I expected. I’ve figured out how to make my enchanted iPhone transmit the live tennis broadcast from Wimbledon, and I’ve been listening to it in the car on my commute.
Tennis on the radio? Yeah, I’ve got a case. And no, it doesn’t work — at least not in terms of play-by-play action. But the British commentators are worth the price of admission (free Wimby app!), as their comments seem spouted by John Steed and Emma Peel from the Avengers. A few of my favorite comments and exchanges:
“And then she hit the ball into the half of the court where her opponent simply…wasn’t.”
[Steed]: “This is some stiff competition for her. Too bad she couldn’t start out by playing someone a bit easier.” [Peel]: “Like a British girl.” [The eight British women all flamed out in the first round. Would American commentators have been equally mercilessly funny about a similar flop at the US Open? You tell me.]
[After a primal scream by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga]: “He seems slightly perturbed.”
The very best exchange took place late today, when play had been stopped on most of the courts. Steed tried to convince Peel that she must hie herself to the last remaining court, to report on the action. The courts were adjacent, but Peel kept trying, playfully, to bow out, claiming, variously: not to know where the court was; not to be able to get there in time; unable to comprehend what was being asked of her; and so on. (Of course she gamely soldiered on over.)
In this era of idiotically besuited sports anchormen, shouting out their opinions as though the fate of the Gulf depended on them, this charming, love-of-game approach won me over — right away.
Try it. You won’t miss talk radio as much as you think you might.
Now I have to go read some poetry by the official Wimbledon poet. There really is one, and his name is Matt Harvey.