Serena Williams, Entitlement, and Tennis Hooligans

APTOPIX US Open Tennis

Feeling under the weather today. Had trouble sleeping Saturday night. Just too keyed up. I thought I’d seen it all in sports. Olympic medalists raising clenched fists. Taunting and touchdown celebrations. Steroid use. Temper tantrums.

But Saturday night was a new low. Why? Because this time, deplorable behavior wasn’t restricted to just the athlete. This time, it was boorishness by committee: player, fans, announcers, and association president.

I’m referring to the 2018 women’s tennis final of the U.S. Open in New York City.

As often occurs in professional sports these days, the Big Top was overshadowed by a sideshow. Although 20-year-old Naomi Osaka of Japan won the champions’ trophy by obliterating American Serena Williams in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, the vast majority of news stories are now focusing on Williams’ massive meltdown. Warned of being coached from the stands, she was then penalized a point for smashing her racket on the court, then penalized a game for verbally abusing the chair umpire for doing what he’s paid to do. The tantrum went on for, oh, maybe ten solid minutes, and continued in slightly milder fashion on the podium and in her news conference.

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Queen Serena lectures Ramos

Here are some quotes from Queen Serena:

“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose!” after being warned of coaching from the stands. (Though, after a history of angry outbursts at the U.S. Open, she seems to have difficulty losing.)

(And though cameras distinctly showed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gesturing her to move forward, and Mouratoglou himself later admitted he was, indeed, coaching.)

“You stole a point from me and you are a thief!” after chair umpire Carlos Ramos penalized Williams for destroying her racket by slamming it on the court.

“You owe me an apology!” screamed over and over and over.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the raucous, one-sided crowd was behind Williams the whole way, consistently booing Ramos, as well as poor Osaka, whose heroine is (inconceivably) Williams, and who played her heart out.

Then on the podium after the match, USTA President Katrina Adams actually said “Perhaps it is not the finish we were looking for today.” She followed this biased remark with the even more remarkable “This mama (Williams) is a role model and respected by all.” Loud cheers follow, as Osaka—again, the victor and champion—continued to weep, undoubtedly due to the ugly dramatics around her as to her unlikely victory.

Williams refused to praise Osaka for her tennis playing, and instead played to the crowd by pretending to console Osaka…for Osaka’s victory.

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A sore loser consoles a shaken victor

The jellyfish announcers, Mary Carillo and Lindsay Davenport, seemed stunned by all of it, offering merely token praise to Osaka, and not once criticizing Williams for her antics. I’m just guessing here, but perhaps these two are aware that Williams does commercials for Chase, one of the tournament’s major sponsors? Quid pro quo, anyone?

Today, the majority of U.S. tennis fans are, in a disturbing shadowing of our petulant president’s behavior, tweeting all over cyberspace that it was the umpire’s fault their Queen lost, and that she deserves congratulations for speaking out against sexism. The Queen’s supporters include official women’s rights spokesperson and former tennis champion Billie Jean King.

The Katrina and Serena show continues as well. They’re joining King in shifting the focus from Williams’ disgusting tirade to the nebulous yet safe and fashionable issue of sexism. (A nice little club here.)

Am I the only one who feels like he’s living in an inverse universe, where values and priorities are turned upside down?

With seemingly everyone congratulating Williams for speaking out against sexism in tennis—by behaving like a spoiled brat because she lost—the tennis court has evidently now joined the football field as a place to air social grievances. (Despite significant differences between the motivations of sore losers like Williams and idealists like Colin Kapaernick.)

If wagon circling of big-money, entitled, immature superstars is where women’s tennis wants to be in the 21st century, count me out.

Osaka

By the way…Naomi Osaka, 2018 U.S Open champion

Staring Down the Ugly American

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“Let’s see if we can find some shade,” Lynn says.

“How about over there, behind the baseline?” I respond.

We work our way around the tennis court stands. The south end has a large shady section that’s beginning to get filled. We find a small space midway from the top. It has a good view of the court. We’ll have a birds-eye view of the player on this end.

I unroll the match schedule and glance at the names. It’s qualifying day at the Western & Southern Open here in Mason, Ohio. The players today are lower ranked and are trying to win a match or two to qualify for actual tournament play, so most of the names are unrecognizable. But the name “Tipsarevic” jumps out. I’d seen him on TV, competing in one of the big Grand Slam events. I’m surprised he has to qualify here. But it’s not too unusual. Sometimes the big names get injured, their rankings drop, then they have to work their way back up again. Maybe that’s the case with Tipsarevic.

Tipsarevic is from Serbia. Same country as Novak Djokovic, one of tennis’s best and most well-liked players.

The other player is from the U.S. He’s a tall, thin, African-American named Chris Eubanks. I’d seen him practicing earlier on one of the side courts, and he looks good. Should be a fun match.

The emcee on the court says a few things, as the last spectators take their seats. It’s a hot day, so a lot of people head to our shady area. Lynn and I are packed in tightly. The guy next to me looks to be in his 60s. In front of him is a pregnant Asian lady with her husband or boyfriend. Just below us are two older couples holding small, plastic glasses of champagne. They’re conversing and laughing like old friends on a yachting excursion. I hear the name “Isner” mentioned several times. This would be John Isner, the second highest-seeded American player, ranked 19th in the world, a 6’11” power server who will be playing later this evening.

Other than Serena Williams, Americans haven’t done well in tennis lately. Especially the men. There are Isner, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Stevie Johnson… names known to tennis fans, but not the general public. Distant are the days of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Ashe, and Connors.

Just before the players are introduced, three men approach our section. The guy in the rear stands out. He’s pale and chunky, and he’s wearing baggy blue jeans. Not your typical tennis fan. His two companions, though, look more the part. They appear to be in their 40s. One is athletic looking, and has scruffy grey whiskers and wraparound sunglasses. He’s holding a drink and smiling.

***

“… from Georgia Tech, his first Western & Southern appearance, please welcome CHRISTOPHER EUBANKS!!” announces the emcee. The crowd cheers. Several young guys seated close to the court stand up and swing their arms.

“They must be college friends of his,” says Lynn.

The three men who arrived late take seats several rows behind us.

Then the other player, Tipsarevic, comes into view. He’s a tanned, muscular guy with a close-cropped beard and shiny black hair. He’s wearing a bright turquoise shirt. He also wears two large wristbands, and a pair of white plastic sunglasses. Looks pretty sharp, like he stepped out of a GQ ad.

“… and from Serbia, the former number 8 player in the world… JANKO TIPSAREVIC!!” The crowd cheers, but noticeably less than for Eubanks.

The players begin a casual rally, warming each other up. Baseline shots, some net practice, some soft overheads, then a few serves. Eubanks is closest to us. He’s extremely tall and wiry, looking more like a basketball than tennis player. But his shots are crisp and clean.

Tipsarevic looks good, too. Very relaxed. He’s seeded third amongst the qualifiers, whereas Eubanks is unseeded, so it should be an easy match for him.

But soon after the match starts, Eubanks breaks Tipsarevic’s serve. In these days of power tennis, that’s not a good sign. However, Tipsarevic appears unconcerned. He doesn’t push himself to chase down balls. His cool, relaxed manner seems to say “Hey, no big deal.”

“Come on, Chris!” several spectators call out, getting excited. “Looking good, keep it up!” Eubanks wins a few more games. He pumps his fist at the stands several times, egging the crowd.

The applause is very one-sided. But this is expected. U.S. tennis fans, like everywhere else, are partial, and they’re hungry for a homegrown star, another Sampras or Agassi. Eubanks is young, fresh out of college. Like many others throughout the years, he could be the “future.”

Like Isner, Eubanks is a powerful server. But his backhand looks weak, and he favors his forehand.tennis player

“I wish we could see his service speed!” says one of the champagne ladies.

“Me too, but I think the speedometer’s broken,” says her companion.

Behind us, the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses has kept up a loud chatter. “Yeah, I got some games off him, but I think he was deliberately hitting soft” he says to his companions, describing some match from his past. As the match continues, though, I hear him make a few comments about Tipsarevic, mispronouncing his name. It starts when Tipsarevic questions a line call.

“I’m surprised he could even see it, he has no depth perception with those awful sunglasses.”

Then, toward the end of the first set, Tipsarevic wildly mishits into the stands what should have been an easy return. The man claps.

This is considered dirty etiquette in tennis. Imagine a golfer missing a putt and a member of the gallery clapping. It just isn’t done.

Eubanks wins the first set, 6-3.  A few people leave our area. Lynn suggests moving up a row, near the aisle. Not because of the man, but because of her claustrophobia. We move.

Eubanks rolls through the second set. Tipsarevic doesn’t seem energized. When he should be chasing balls, he sacrifices points. About halfway through the set, he re-strings one of his tennis shoes. A few points later, he removes his shoe, walks to the sideline, then asks for an injury timeout. The trainer arrives and examines his foot.

“Just go ahead and forfeit!” comes the loud catcall behind us.

“I wonder if he’s faking injury to shift momentum,” says Lynn.

“You never know,” I reply.

After a five-minute break, Tipsarevic returns to the court.

“Come on Chris, make him move, he can’t even walk!” hollers the loudmouth. Tipsarevic wins a few points. Then Eubanks regains the edge. The score is 4-2. Only two more games for Eubanks, and he’s got the match.

Tipsarevic is now serving. His first serve goes into the net. I hear a slow clap behind me. Again, it’s the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses. He’s the only one in the stands to clap, so the sound is jarring.

I turn partway. I want to yell something like “Grow up.” Then I think, no, just explain that it’s impolite to cheer when a player misses a serve. But I stay silent.

Tipsarevic makes his second serve, but loses the point.

He serves again. The first serve, once again, goes into the net.

Clap…clap…clap…clap…clap…clap.   The only sound in the grandstand. Nobody turns around. Nobody tells the man to shut up.

Then something cool happens. Tipsarevic, who is right below us, turns around. I’m certain he doesn’t know who clapped. But he stares upward, straight at the man. His white sunglasses shield his eyes, so it’s hard to tell whom he’s looking at. But he appears to be staring straight into the man, who is maybe 20 rows up. He holds the frozen pose for a full ten seconds. Not long enough for a time violation, but just long enough to make his point.

I join him. I’m not sure if anyone else does, but I turn around and stare at the man. He makes a few nervous giggles. Then the match resumes.

There are no more hate claps from the man.

***

The tennis match in Mason, Ohio was no “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are many differences. But there are also similarities, whether hate-clapper didn’t like “the foreigner” or only his sunglasses. There’s always been ugliness in society. It just seems like we’re seeing more of it these days, more adults behaving like petulant children.

Humans are imperfect creatures. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, prejudice, religious intolerance, misogyny etc. will continue to taint society. But maybe we need to reassess how we react to such hatred when we see it, whether it’s on a large stage, or on a bleacher seat away from the cameras.

Maybe, instead of either ignoring hatred or freaking out about it, we need more long, cold stares.

 

people in US

 

Tennis and the Roger Federer Effect

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We wind through the parking lot while glancing at license plates. There are cars from all over the eastern U.S. and Canada. This year’s crowd appears unusually large. It’s a polyglot of young and old, white, black, Asian, Indian. We hear a few European languages. There are even some women wearing burqas. Not exactly a baseball or NASCAR crowd. Lynn and I feel lucky to live just a few miles from this popular tournament.

Each year in August, we attend the first day of the Western and Southern Open, an ATP tennis tournament located northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the last major tournament before the U.S. Open in New York, and a lot of pros use it as a “tune-up” for that Grand Slam event. This first day is qualifying day: unseeded players compete for a chance to gain a first-round spot in the tournament. We like opening day because the tickets aren’t pricey, it’s an all-day pass, and one can see some frenetic matches between the lower-ranked players.

Also, we get to rub shoulders with the top seeds, many of whom emerge to hit the practice courts.

We step inside the main gate and head toward the neon marquee displaying today’s scheduled matches and practice sessions. A few names we recognize: Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris), whom we saw in a tough qualifier last year; Urszula Radwanska, younger sister of former No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska; grass-court specialist Nicolas Mahut… but our eyes light up when we see who will be practicing on Court 8 at 3 p.m.: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

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Stan Wawrinka

We must find a spot for this one. Federer could be the greatest ever. He has won a record 17 Grand Slam events. He held the World No. 1 spot for an astounding 302 weeks. Now, at age 34 (geriatric, for tennis), he’s ranked No. 2. He recently reached the finals of Wimbledon, where he lost a close match to No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic. When Federer does finally retire, tennis may never see his like again.

Federer’s also fun to watch. He glides around the court like a low-flying raptor, and his serve and ground strokes are as smooth as butter. He never gets rattled, barely perspires, and his game has no weakness. Off-court, he’s just as smooth. He’s a devoted husband and father, has an easy smile, and speaks seven languages. So far, he’s avoided celebrity “foot-in-mouth disease.” Everyone loves him, including the players he regularly trounces. If there’s such a thing as a “perfect” athlete, it’s Federer.

Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka is no tennis slouch, either. Wawrinka’s steadily risen through the ranks. He’s currently World No. 5, and he won the French Open just last spring (he’s also tied to a recent controversy involving foot-in-mouth player Nick Kyrgios, which I won’t go into).

If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll overhear some tennis tips from former No. 1 Stefan Edberg, who now coaches Federer (and who has a sportsmanship award named after him, that Federer’s won 10 of the last 11 years). Lynn and I are in agreement: the practice session at 3 p.m. on Court 8 will be the highlight of the day.

But first on the agenda is the Becker match. It’s a quickie. Becker loses to a 17-year-old German kid, who could be a dominant force in years to come. Next, we swing by Court 8 to watch Serbian Jelena Jankovic, a former World No. 1. Lynn likes her distinctive facial features. I like other things about her.

Then it’s over to the food garden for some expensive cuisine and irritating music. As the clock approaches 2:30, we head back to Court 8 for the Federer practice.

stacks of hats

Brand Federer on display

The crowd is queuing up. We stand for about 20 minutes, until two chairs suddenly become available. I’m an inveterate people-watcher, so while we’re waiting, I scan the crowd. The first thing I notice are the hats. Baseball caps with a serif-laden “RF” on the front. It’s Roger’s personal brand, courtesy of his biggest sponsor, Nike.

A chunky African-American woman in front of me dons one of these caps. She’s sandwiched between a few other “RF” caps. The woman next to her has a button of the Swiss flag pinned on her purse. The word “Roger” is printed on the white cross. Then I see a skinny man wearing, not only an “RF” cap, but a faded “RF” t-shirt as well. He seems to be jockeying for a prime viewing spot. Then he sees the chunky woman and moves toward her.

The two of them begin talking. The man has a sort of New Jersey accent. I lean forward in my chair to catch some of the conversation.

“Where are you staying?” Jersey guy asks, with a large grin.

fed fanAt the Comfort Inn,” the woman responds.

“I’m at the (something),” says smiling Jersey guy.

The woman says something that I can’t hear. Smiling Jersey guy responds with “You just never know!”

By this point, all sitting and standing positions have been taken. I allow a boy and girl to sneak in front of me. They have difficulty seeing over the railing, so I offer my chair for them to stand on. They look at me suspiciously, but hop up on the chairs anyway.

“Be careful, guys,” says Lynn. “Those chairs can wobble.” But they stay on the chair.

Then I see a movement behind the outer fence on the opposite side of the court. It’s a golf cart. There’s a low drone from the crowd. The drone builds. There are oohs, aahs, then loud clapping. A group of autograph seekers behind the fence begins chanting “Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER!”

A volunteer wearing blue and yellow Western and Southern garb swings the gate open. Federer and Wawrinka emerge onto the court. They’re accompanied by two guys, probably trainers or coaches. No Edberg.stan_fed

The chunky woman is craning her neck. Smiling Jersey guy offers one more “You just never know!” then moves closer to the court. He squeezes into the viewing fence line, next to several kids holding yellow and pink, autograph-laden tennis balls the size of basketballs.

Federer is wearing a turquoise shirt and his trademark Nike headband. He’s at the far end of the court. Wawrinka is nearer to us. Neither has yet cracked a smile. They begin exchanging baseline shots. Some of the shots fly beyond the baseline, but they return everything. They remind me of boxers repetitively jabbing an overhead punching bag. Business as usual.

A couple of Federer’s shots skid off the top of the net. Wawrinka swings wildly at them. Now they’re both smiling.

Lynn and I watch for about 10 minutes, then leave to watch the Mahut qualifier. This match is on a stadium court nearby. As we’re walking, I glance at the top of the stadium. Maybe a hundred people are gathered on the top row. Brightly colored flags of various nations fly above them. The observers look like passengers standing along the railing of a departing ship. None of them are watching the Mahut match. They’ve all turned to see Federer and Wawrinka exchange practice shots.

genius at workLike the Becker match, Mahut’s is a quickie. He wins in straight sets. The match is just under two hours. We still have time to see Federer and Wawrinka finish up their practice session.

We cross the walkway. The crowd has grown even larger. Lynn has claustrophobia, so she hangs back. I manage to squeeze up the ramp toward the viewing fence. I can barely make out the players. Their shirts are now wet from perspiration. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Federer sweat. Cincinnati humidity.

Soon, they finish their practice and stride toward the opposite gate, near the golf cart that will whisk them to the locker room. They sit in their chairs, towel off their faces, and gaze across the empty court. They gulp some liquids. Then they stand up and slowly walk toward the viewing fence, toward the fans. The crowd erupts. The blue-and-yellow-clad volunteers smile benignly.

Federer begins at one end of the viewing fence, and Wawrinka at the other. In strategic but genial fashion, they sign their names at whatever is thrust toward them. Then Federer smiles and raises his hand. The crowd erupts again. Wawrinka’s cue. He stops signing, and both walk side-by-side toward the waiting golf cart. The volunteers adopt positions between the players and the crowd, hands behind their backs, military-like.

Many of the kids run down the ramp, fuzzy basketballs clutched tightly to their chests. They scoot down the walkway, hoping to skirt around the practice court and intercept the two pros before the golf cart departs. Two middle-aged men rush out with them. One of them is cradling a book with colored photos of Federer.

I look for smiling Jersey guy, but can’t find him in the mass of people. Maybe he found a new spot, at the outer fence, near the golf cart.  Did he snag an autograph?

You just never know.

western and soouthern

Tennis, Anyone? Why U.S. Men Can’t Win the French Open

agassi

The 2013 French Open began this past weekend in Paris.  The tournament is one of pro tennis’s four Grand Slam events, the others being Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.

The French Open is the biggest clay court tournament in the world.  When tennis fans think of this tournament, the first image that comes to mind is the red clay surface at Roland-Garros Stadium.  This surface can be unforgiving for even the best tennis players.  The clay is actually crushed brick that has an outer layer of loose particles, which causes a lot of slipping and sliding.  Because of this, and because of the tennis ball bouncing abnormally high, the tournament is not suited for serve-and-volley players.  To win the French, you have to be exceptionally fit and be able to persevere through long rallies.

Since the Open era began in 1968, American male tennis players have had a very difficult time winning the French.  While U.S. women have taken the title 13 times (seven times by Chris Evert), only three American men have won it: Michael Chang, Jim Courier (twice), and Andre Agassi.  Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras never won it.  And of these three, only McEnroe reached the finals.  Since 1999, when Agassi defeated Andrei Medvedev in five sets, no American male has won it.

***

Why is the French Open so troublesome to American male tennis pros?

Well, to be honest, America has only had a few top-tier male tennis players since Sampras and Agassi, whose heyday was the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Since then, America’s highest ranked player has been Andy Roddick.  But Roddick held the No. 1 spot for only a few months, and won only one Grand Slam event his entire career: the 2003 U.S. Open.  What helped him there was his powerful first serve.  But on the clay courts of Stade Roland-Garros, forget it.

Another reason is that clay court surfaces are far less common in the states than “hard court” surfaces.  Most of the clay courts are green or maroon “Har-Tru” clay, made of crushed basalt, but which are harder and faster than red clay.  Only one men’s ATP tournament in the U.S. is held on any type of clay: the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston.

And although it sounds silly, Americans really struggle with the French language.  Because of our proximity to Mexico, Central and South America, Spanish is the most popular foreign language in the states.  Americans can “Excusé moi” and “Merci beaucoup,” but beyond that, most have a difficult time.  The language barrier at the annual French Open can’t be downplayed.

It would be nice if tennis could be as popular in the U.S. as during its Golden Age in the 1970s.  For baby boomer Yanks like me, who can forget those exciting Battle-of-the-Sexes matches between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs?  Or the coolness and grace of Chris Evert and Arthur Ashe?  Or the explosive play (and cocky behavior) of Jimmy “The Brat” Connors?  How about the launching of World Team Tennis, assisted by Elton John’s tribute song to his favorite team, “Philadelphia Freedom”?  Does anyone remember the late, great Vitas Gerulaitas??

There are probably a dozen reasons why the U.S. lags behind Europe in tennis.  But I started talking only about the French Open, so I won’t digress.  I just have a few suggestions for improving our prospects at Stade Roland-Garros:

First, go back to wooden rackets and deemphasize the serve-and-volley style of play.  Second, destroy all the hard courts and replace them with bright red clay (they’re prettier, anyway).  Third, mandate that students learn conversational French.  And last: find out what Rafael Nadal eats for breakfast and make it required fare at all our junior tennis camps.

Vive l’Amérique!!