|the soapbox @ benturner.com|
"Tennis: WTA vs. ATP", an Essay
Before this article begins, I just want to clear up something brought to my attention from feedback regarding the July 5th Soapbox. While you may be able to find information on the latest Clinton scandal, or what Daryl Strawberry did THIS time to get himself in trouble, that info is filtered through journalists and editors before it gets to you. And there ARE plenty of diarists writing about their lives (and doing it exceedingly well, at that), but there aren't many regular people expressing their opinions on world issues and current events. What I was seeking from the Web in the July 5th Soapbox was the opinion of the regular Joe to counter the vague, ambiguous terminology thrown at us by politicians and press gangs.
So let's begin. I used to play tennis quite regularly back in high school. Went to most of the area tournaments, played up to four days during the summer, the whole nine yards. And although I don't hit the courts that often anymore, I still try to keep up with the professional tennis tours, the Association of Tennis Players (men's) and the Women's Tennis Association.
And I distinctly remember a time perhaps three years ago when all of the tennis purists and critics of the game itself declared tennis as being dead, washed up in failed youths and improved rackets for serving at 130mph.
How could we fix a sport overcome by power? To stop big servers from dominating, maybe we should get rid of the second serve. Maybe we should institute wooden rackets again. Maybe this, maybe that.
But nothing ever came of all this talk. The big hitting players like Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek are still playing, still banging away their aces on the tennis court. The game is still the same and, debatably, is extremely successful right now.
All the talk above, however, circles around the men's tennis tour. And while I'm not going to sit here and say that I think men's tennis is as fun to watch as it used to be, I do think that the men's game has evolved in the only way it should.
Yes, men are hitting the ball harder and faster, such that every point only lasts about 4 hits of the ball before it's over. One man serves up a 135mph smoker and the returner whips it back down the line. The server has prowled into the net and puts away a volley in the opposite corner.
No, this isn't Connors vs. McEnroe. But it is a good example of the mentality that goes into men's tennis. End the point as quickly as possible. Open up angles and put the ball away. Could the game evolve from the long rallies of old to anything different? Like any competition, it's all about ending the point as quickly as possible, conserving your energy while mentally frustrating your opponent. Even though the men are whacking the ball around at obscene speeds, their angles are still as crisp as ever, and you just haven't lived until you've seen a guy lift the ball barely over the net in the corner serving box, full-run, pinned in the corner, passing his opponent who came up to the net.
Watching men's tennis requires the understanding that these guys react as fast as cats and can do just about anything they want with their rackets. For me, returning a 90mph serve was just about getting the ball back in the court. For a pro, a 90mph serve should be hit for a winner.
Bottom line is that tennis doesn't need any revisions of its rules to make the game more competitive again. The men are playing on an equal level and the tradition in place is fine enough. While the fancy rackets and lighter tennis balls encourage faster serving, this doesn't mean men are volleying more -- in fact, most men play from the baseline. Hindering the effect of the serve won't change the fact that men are still slamming the ball on groundstrokes alone.
But surely Ben wouldn't write a boring Soapbox just about such issues as this, would he? No.
Although I admit to a certain lack of inspiration in my life because of some real life shit, I am TRYING to get back into the swing of things. ;)
The enthusiasm and energy now returning to tennis is happening in the women's game. For a long time has the men's tour been the only gender people have watched for tennis, but things are changing. Everyone would stick around for the men's final match between Becker and Edberg or whatever, but no one could say who was playing on the women's side of the tourney. That's why no one ever expected women's tennis to be more entertaining to watch than the men's side. It's worth a look in the least expected places when you lose something.
Women's tennis didn't have the raw excitement and nitty-gritty of the men's scene for a long time. The points were long and drawn-out, slow and tedious. Yawn. And while Steffi Graf is a great woman and an excellent tennis player, she didn't have the charisma to make women's tennis popular.
Enter Monica Seles. Even though she wasn't liked by everyone because of her off-the-court actions, she really sparked some debate and hotheaded opinions into the game. It's really a shame she got stabbed. I mean, yeah, bad for her, too...but that's a given, even from someone regarded as heartless.
Okay, so then came Jennifer Capriati, but she was a burnout and didn't reach her full potential. Martina Hingis eventually became the new kid to draw all eyes upon her, being a very young, proud, and outspoken #1 player in the world. She's still winning virtually everything, and she's getting on magazine covers like GQ (should minors be allowed to wear skimpy white dresses with slits on the side, in a men's magazine?). And she's not the only woman drawing attention. The USA's own Venus and Serena Williams, carrying on the American tradition of having the only black tennis players, are, in my opinion, strong contenders to put Hingis where she belongs...which is at #10. Monica Seles is back from her recovery too. How can you not enjoy watching Venus and her white-beaded hair crushing the ball at her opponents? Wasn't it at least somewhat good to see Venus and Spirlea, an opponent in last year's US Open, fiercely competing and talking trash to each other? How good is it to see Martina Hingis lose at Wimbledon after she publicly said no one would be able to challenge her?
And even after all this hullaballoo about how 1998 was the year of the youngster (since most of the new phenoms aren't even out of high school yet), guess who appeared in the finals of Wimbledon? Pete Sampras vs. Goran Ivanisevic and Natalie Tauziat vs. Jana Novotna. No young players there. Raw youth lost out to the wiser, more experienced players. Tennis at its best.
The women's game has the personalities now, and men's old personalities are now either retired or should be retired. Boris Becker and John McEnroe were great to watch, regardless of how they played, simply because they just oozed energy. Andre Agassi used to be a gas to watch too, but his inconsistency's just a pain in the ass now. Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Petr Korda...they were never really all that interesting in the flamboyant, outspoken sort of way. I admire them all, but nice guys don't increase spectator turnout.
So it's the women's game that draws more conversation these days. I think that's a good sign. Frankly, I was getting tired of people saying tennis was dead.
When the US Open is on in the fall, plenty of people I know keep track of the results, and they're not even tennis folks. Just friends and people who go to the same dorm -- they enjoy watching the matches. I can't vouch for gains in tournament attendance, but I'd say that more and more people are watching tennis these days. I know if more tournaments were hosted in Dallas or Austin, I'd go visit them. And it's a bloody shame that the time I go to Stockholm and London usually JUST misses the Stockholm Open and Wimbledon, respectively.
One of the best things about the reemergence of tennis is that US tennis programs (such as the USTA) and US-based organizations (like Nick Bolletieri's tennis academy) are showing their impact on the tennis game. Williams, Seles, Agassi, Sampras, Chang, Kournikova, Courier, and many others... No one teaches hardball tennis better than we do. ;) And it's not like the US is the only country gaining pride from tennis. Spain has a hellacious clan of clay courters that dominate clay court season. Brazil even has Kuerten (?), who has been doing well lately. Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski are giving England some shimmer of hope for tennis success. Australia has (of course) had some of the best doubles players ever. And so on and so forth.
That's why Davis Cup is such a cool idea. The best players from every country square off against each other to play for their motherland. But I've already discussed this before, long ago. But it's good to see it's not just US tennis players who skip the national team because they're too selfish with their own affairs. Now our gloried professional NBA players are jumping out of the boat for their silly strike (we need more money...$11 million a year barely gets the bills paid). The US basketball team lost to Russia this year in some basketball contest or another -- but don't fret -- we still managed to kick Greece's butt. Ooh. Hats off to the amateur guys who DID play in place of the professionals. They're not assholes...yet.
Long live the sport of tennis...fie upon thee, critics...foul-breathed Narcissistic banes of respectable magazines and news programs. Just because the sport isn't the way it used to be, doesn't mean it's not exciting to watch anymore. Just seeing the youth and vitality springing into the women's game, the least expected savior of tennis, is evidence enough of tennis's comeback.
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