Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tennis Notes: Sameness

1) The players and corporate sponsors have succeeded in equalizing all surfaces for major tournaments at last. The "clay" at the French Championships at Roland Garros has been reduced to a fine brick dust atop a granite-like clay base, and the balls are now smaller and less fuzzy. Gone are the long, long baseline rallies of yesteryear on the annoyingly slow (for some) courts. Faire du homogene.

Now, Wimbledon continues its own homogenizing of the game, with some green fuzz on what could just as easily be concrete instead of dirt. Rafael Nadal's first round opponent, Michael Harris, hurled himself Becker-like around the court. Instead of the old soft landings, we could see in the TV close-ups that few players will make similar attempts. It looked as if he had jumped from a second-storey window onto asphalt. The US and Australian Opens had already paved the way, literally, by dumping grass and Har-Tru along the way in favor of hard courts.

Parity has come to tennis, as it has to major league baseball and the NFL. Is parity another word for b-o-r-i-n-g?

Many players have complained over the years about having to adjust their games to the idiosyncracy of Parisian dry mud and Wimbledon's uneven bounces. Well, worry no more, boys and girls. You can reduce your Paris hotel laundry bills and stick to the baseline all day long in what passes for sun in London.

But, real fans will notice the difference, the expanding lack of artistry in today's game. Now, players need only have one kind of game, never really have to rush the net, if they don't want to; and they do not have to suddenly invent a shot to overcome a weird bounce or put an end, finally, to a marathon clay point.

I saw my first major matches in 1956 on the super-soft grass at Forest Hills, where Hoad, Seixas, Rosewall, Savitt, and Gibson were prancing. It had rained a little, and some players donned special spikes, with permission from the umpire, which further aerated the courts. The balls began white in those days, then slowly turned a light green over the nine games of use. It was beautiful to watch all of this athleticism and creativity on display. Hoad, in particular, moved around like a blonde Nureyev from Down Under.

All gone now. Only Federer still has the classic strokes. Only Federer could truly compete with the greats of the past. Only Federer has the magic of the artist in addition to being a great athlete. Only one single surface exists so that everything conforms, as if the players were coming from the same assembly lines producing the sponsors' automobiles. Ho-hum.

2) American tennis? One word: Williams. Check that: two words, Venus and Serena. And what about the men? Please.

There are two American men among the 32 seeds at Wimbledon 2011. Two. There are 5 from Spain. That's Spain, folks, where they used to produce players who could only play on that interminably slow stuff in Paris. Et, mais oui, there are also 4 seeds from France itself. Sacra Lacoste!

Didn't America pretty much invent the assembly line? Where are these guys? Answer: playing basketball, football, or wearing braces from injuries developed by trying to hit every single shot as hard as they possibly can. Every shot. Like Nadal, who is wonderful, of course, but destined for a short career.

Check out the names of the women seeds at Wimbledon and you can read a history of the Cold War thaw and the growth of freedom in the east: Wozniacki, Zvonareva, Sharopova, Kvitova, Stosur, Petkovic, Kuznetsova, and my favorite, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Not to mention, Na Li, the reigning French Champion. Ah, the Chinese know a thing or two about homogenization.

3. Gee whiz, what a coincidence that Isner and Mahut, they of last year's longest match in history, meet in the first round this year! No, really, the folks who pick the draw swear that it's just pure luck, pure chance.

That's luck, a four letter word, spelled ESPN. Duh.

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