Posts Tagged ‘weakness’

Elena Dementieva: An Appreciation

October 29th, 2010 No comments

Dementieva stops Serena

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 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):

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Change — Don’t Persuade

March 5th, 2010 1 comment

With forces aligning in favor of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that has had untold economic and human cost on the military, into the breach steps former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak. McPeak, who served in that role in the early 1990’s (during the adoption of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy), has an op-ed in today’s NY Times where he ends up revealing more about his own biases than anything else.

There are so many weaknesses in McPeak’s argument that it would take more space and time than I can give to deconstruct them all. But the biggest problem is McPeak’s unexamined assumption that homosexuality is a kind of weakness, disability, or inherently disqualifying condition. Here he is on military fitness and exclusions:

The services exclude, without challenge, many categories of prospective entrants. People cannot serve in uniform if they are too old or too young, too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, disabled, not sufficiently educated and so on.

Note that each of the named exclusions, whatever their merits, focuses on something about the individual that renders him or her unfit for military service. The argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military, though, has been pitched — even by McPeak, in this same op-ed — as a question of unit cohesion. So here McPeak is making a different kind of argument — that gays are unfit to serve, not because of “unit cohesion, but because of something wrong with them. Worse, he doesn’t acknowledge that he’s shifting ground here. (He doesn’t tell, and hopes that the reader doesn’t ask.) Further evidence of this view of gays as somehow weak or inferior comes at the very end of the piece:

I do not see how permitting open homosexuality in the [military] enhances their prospects of success in battle. Indeed, I believe repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will weaken the warrior culture at a time when we have a fight on our hands.

Note the subtle elision of the unit cohesion and personal weakness claims here. “Gay men in combat will weaken the warrior culture” is a still-effective, virulently homophobic, view of gay men as less than fully male in a gender-stereotyped way. It’s clear that McPeak’s real problem with gays in the military is that it makes people like him uncomfortable. Indeed, he makes that point explicitly:

Thus allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion.

Twenty-first century to General McPeak: “Homosexuality isn’t an ‘idea’ or a ‘culture.'” It’s a basic orientation, a vital part of one’s humanity. In fact, McPeak doesn’t believe that all people are created equal. Anyone who doesn’t understand that one’s sexual orientation is fissured deeply into the core can’t possibly be an advocate for assimilation, so it’s no surprise that McPeak “didn’t know how to advocate” for “this particular form of diversity.” But that’s no excuse for the military’s throwing up its hands. No one is suggesting that the integration of openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be seamless, any more than the integration of female soldiers has been. But, like any change to any institution, it can and must be managed, just as racial integration was (better, I hope).

Speaking of the integration of women, it’s clear that McPeak is discussing gay men, not  lesbians. That’s because avoids saying anything about women in the military. Do lesbians undermine the “warrior culture” of female soldiers? Or are the women not warriors? Should lesbians be permitted to serve, even if gay men aren’t? McPeak, by the logic of his own argument, wouldn’t have a problem with this gay/lesbian division, because the military can justify exclusions and discriminations that wouldn’t be tolerated in civil society. So he avoids the topic altogether.

Then there’s the biggest elephant in the room: The plain fact that other nations, including countries whose militaries we serve alongside, like Britain, do allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly. If these population-wide, natural experiments aren’t applicable to the U.S. military, McPeak at least has an obligation to explain why. Instead, there’s only silence, broken only by the insistent murmur of homophobia (in the truest sense of that word) that misinforms this exercise in harmful sophistry.