Tennis Paeans

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@ K. 2005 04 03

Fed: the Man in Tennis

I just caught the Federer / Nadal final at Key Biscayne on TV. Nadal has taken two sets in a row off the normally imperturbable Roger Federer!

I grew up with the Yankees winning the World Series year after year. People lived and died with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Come October, they all died. Because the Yankees always won. Until the mid 1950s. And of course the Yankees have won again and again since then, the LA Dodgers also winning a few. Hell, even Boston now has one. Did Yankee fans ever live and die with the Yankees? No: they just lived. There was relatively little dying.
OK, now it’s 2013 09 08, the US Open is climaxing, Fed has shown his age recently: had to happen eventually. Still: class with nearly no peers.

In Lovew with Tennis
I repeat that I fell in love with tennis while in the army, stationed at the impossibly ugly Camp Drum. Compared to the Whitehall Street Recruiting Station which I’d been transferred away from, duty was easy, we could sleep through duty. Then, as fast as I could, I’d get off of the base and rush to the park in town: where they had grass! and trees! and human beings! even a pathetic little zoo, and tennis courts.

On Watertown’s public tennis courts I learned to hit a forehand and a backhand: pretty good ground strokes, from the baseline. That was the whole of my tennis. Whoever I hit with and I merely tried to keep the ball going, see how long we could sustain a rally. We’d hit the ball to be reachable. We were playing with a partner, not an opponent. Every once in a while either side would rip one intended to be unreachable; but the aggression was momentary. Sparingly raised voices in a marriage is healthy; continual bludgeoning is not.

We knew nothing of service, volley, lob, overhead … points, games, sets, matches. It wasn’t until I was teaching in Waterville ME that I ever watched tennis on TV. If you wanted TV in Waterville in 1967 and you wanted to actually see the channel, then you had to have the new-fangled cable: and with the cable came a Boston station, and with Boston, tennis: the priceless Bud Collins doing the play-by-play.

Thus I came to love and love and live and die with Rod Laver. Rod Laver was the Rocket. Rod Laver was the man!

I’d missed Bill Tilden: I was too young. I’d missed a bunch of them. I’d hear a word here and there about Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura … I even had a Pancho Segura racket as a kid: but I assure you, I never used it. Once I tried, the first thing I discovered was that no one can possibly have seriously intended me to use it: the grip was much too big. Still, I kept that racket, dragged it to Camp Drum, and that’s what I was hitting with: in my ignorance.

A parent who cares about the kid’s performance makes sure the skates, the glove, the pants … fit. The parent who buys some $2 entire freshwater fishing system for the kid is just pretending, fulfilling a duty. Don’t expect the kid to ever manage a successful cast, let alone catch a fish. Nevertheless I managed with my mismatched racquet, playing in the ’60s with the strings the thing had come with in the ’40s, until a pro asked me how I could even hold that thing. “You must be very strong,” he said. Hmm. Maybe, over time, over a lot of time, the wrong grip actually helped me develop something.

Anyway I lived and died with Rod Laver. As with the Yankees, I mostly lived. If the match was big, Laver won. Again and again. When he retired I lived and died with John Newcombe. Big John won a lot too. How come pk was so lucky in such things?

Then I got busy. I couldn’t get as excited by Tony Roche as I’d been by John Newcombe. Then one day, I’ll never forget it, there was a picture in the paper of some Swedish kid who’d impressed everybody at Wimbledon. The kid had long blond locks, looked like an angel, played like an assassin. Bjorn Borg! And I lived and died with Borg for the next half a dozen years.

Meantime, the American stars were just embarrassing. Jimmy Connors? I remember predicting that that brat, for all his talent, wouldn’t last. Boy was I wrong. Then came John McEnroe. How come these bastards didn’t get disqualified in every single tournament?

Federer just won the third set in a tie break. There! That’s part of my meaning right there. Federer might be the greatest player ever, but do we live and die with him? I’m writing this, thinking of Laver, thinking of Borg, enjoying my hatred of Connors and McEnroe, more than watching the great Roger. I am not riveted!

Watching a McEnroe match once — or was it Connors? — Jack Kramer was doing commentary. The play by play guy appealed to Jack as a model of decorum. “You never had a temper,” said the partner. “Oh, I had a terrible temper,” confessed Jack Kramer. “Wha’?”
Jack told the story: he’d been in a juniors tournament. He hadn’t liked the lines calls. He said so. He repeated it: in no uncertain terms. Finally, his father came down from the bleachers, approached the umpire in his chair. Finally, thinks Jack, his father is going to straighten out the officials for him. “Game, Set, Match,” announces the umpire, the other guy. Kramer senior dragged Kramer off the court by the ear and gave him what for. Poor sportsmanship. Kramer said that thereafter he kept his temper bottled: where it belongs, in any gentleman’s game.

Mary Carillo just commented that both Bjorn Borg’s and Roger Federer’s parents would take their rackets away from them when they got too excited. Stay calm: no matter what’s happening, no matter what is being done to you.
2017 04 02 I just saw a video on YouTube in which Mac comments (to Swedish TV) on the very subject. Mac said he did not have a bad tamper when he was 12: that Borg had had his racket taken away by Borg senior … But Mac defended his young-adult temper by insisting the officiating was terrible!
But Mac, understand one thing: tennis as an entity (like WTA) should discipline the umpires; not the player! The player should take whatever comes!]
Ditto all sports!
Jesus overturned the crooked money tables; but it should have been God cleansing the temple; not Jesus! Jesus should take the crucifixion; God should avenge it.

On the one hand, there’s baseball, football, basketball, politics, business … and on the other hand, there’s golf, and tennis: and better yet, things we can do alone: climbing, skiing, fishing …

Whew! Federer has just won the fourth set! Is the deal done? I don’t know. This Nadal is really showing all of us something. I sure hope Federer has a genuine rival in the coming years. On the other hand, if Federer won every single match for the next decade, I wouldn’t mind: any more than I’d mind if Tiger won every single tournament from now till he’s fifty. Of course Tiger won’t. In tennis though it’s slightly more possible than in golf.

Well, Roger Federer just went up 4 – 1 in the fifth. But Raphael Nadal is really impressing me. For one thing, he looks like a great athlete. Look at those arms! And his outfit shows them. Roger though, Roger is the calm center of the storm. His footwork reminds me of Joe Dimaggio in the outfield: he got to the ball: but how? we didn’t see him run! he wasn’t tripping over himself. OK, Nadal crumbled. Federer takes the fifth set 6 – 1. Down two sets to love, his unforced errors this rare time nearly matching his outright winners, he takes the second two narrowly, and blasts free in the fifth. Twenty-two match victories in a row! Safin beat him in the Australian final, but his stretch before that, last couple of years, was simply unbelievable.

So: Roger is the man. But is Roger the man? He’s so good, he’s so smooth. Great hands, perfect position. And he’s so strong! Not that it shows in his body. His body … is perfect: he looks normal!

But does he excite us? The way Rocket did? The way the blond assassin did?


PS Last week Annika Sorenstam ran away with a major, prompting Nancy Lopez to proclaim her more dominant than Tiger: given the competition of course. And a sports writer bitched about the LPGA lacking the support enjoyed by the PGA. He challenged us to name a few women golfers besides Annika (and Michelle Wie). I can. But I’m not sure that my nominees are all active, current players. I enjoy watching LPGA events; but not as avidly as I follow the PGA. On the other hand, I follow women’s tennis if anything more avidly than men’s tennis these days.

For one thing, women’s tennis is more possible to follow! Balls at 100 to 127 mph are more comprehensible than balls hit 120 to 140+.


2005 07 03 Aye, caramba: straight sets, the first at 6-2! This Wimbledon Roger Federer tied the fearsome Andy Roddick in knots. The audience was awestruck, spellbound.

I hated John McEnroe on the court. For me his bad manners eclipsed his considerable skills. But I’ve learned to love him in the booth: and now he says that Federer is the most beautiful tennis player he’s ever seen.

Well, Mac is too young to really remember Rod Laver (and I’m too young to have much of a clue about Bill Tilden (etc.)), but I agree 100%: for whatever it’s worth. (I also love Mac for appreciating Justine Henin out loud: before she started pushing everyone around in majors.)

And while I’m at it, let me say that this year’s women’s Wimbledon was special (as was last year’s, as was the French …) Maria was ruthless, as we expected her to be. But Venus made her game fall apart: and then stuck her supreme athleticism in the face of an inspired Lindsay Davenport. Wow. (Did you see how gracious Davenport was in defeat? Tennis, any sport, should have a special cup for character.)

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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