BE JOYOUS AND WALK GENTLY ON THIS EARTH
On the 35th anniversary of Inside Tennis, we salute the game’s great players and a few of its quirky delights.
THE METAPHYSICAL TRUTH OF ROGER FEDERER: The late writer David Foster Wallace noted that “Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner…[Then] there’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace…[He’s] a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to…
This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will – there’s real metaphysical truth here…Genius is not replicable…[but] just to see…aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
JOHN McENROE – A LATTER-DAY HOLDEN CAULFIELD: He was an inventive player like no other – craftsman, poet, magician. He confronted proper society and inconvenient rules with an explosive, at times mean-spirited intensity. He was a risk-taker, honest and straightforward (except, of course, when he was self-serving and hypocritical). A man-child who vented with a me-against-the-world angst – a white-fire rebel. Bottom line: There’s been just one Johnny Mac — a smart, insightful, enduring, contradictory icon. His ‘tude was cocky and he could be blinded by denial. Still, for decades, the New Yorker was the straw that stirred tennis’ milkshake.
To writer Tim Adams, he was “a latter-day Holden Caulfield, unable and unwilling to grow up, full of complicated genius and unresolved conflict, constantly rallying against the phonies – dozing linesmen, tournament organizers with walkie-talkies – in authority…[He] encapsulated the story of the ‘80s – the end of the deference in the most deferential of sporting arenas.”
GATE-CRASHER BILLIE JEAN: Frank Deford asserted, “There isn’t any question that in the 20th century the most significant athletic figures were Jackie Robinson and King…. [but] Robinson needed somebody to open the door for him. Billie Jean crashed down the doors herself.”
ANDRE AGASSI AND THE BEAUTY OF EVOLUTION: Few in tennis history have evolved more than Andre Agassi. At first he was a mere boy-brat in a free fall. Nick Bollettieri claimed that as his coach, my “main job was to keep Andre out of jail.” The frosted flake called Paraguayan foes insects and impulsively fired his chaplain. Later he used crystal meth. Tim Keown said Andre’s career “went from image is everything to tennis is nothing.”
Once, out of nowhere, Barbra Streisand told IT that Agassi was “a zen master.” Sorry Babs, not everyone bought in. Dan Le Batard wrote, “Chemistry is the second-most overrated thing in sports. Agassi is the first.” Tony Kornheiser mused: “I thought zen was about humility, and it didn’t come in hot-lava shorts and a frosted ponytail. But hey, that was zen. And this is now.”
But hints of depth emerged. Andre told us, “I can live with losing, but I can’t live without taking chances.” He said he treated tennis “like art.” He became an inspiring leader and family became a key element. “Nothing,” he explained, “can take your mind off Wimbledon faster than seeing your boy fall down and almost break his nose.”
Andre’s heartfelt goodbye was the greatest farewell speech in sports since Yankee Lou Gehrig’s. He told us his greatest regret was not starting his charity foundation earlier. His book was the most compelling autobiography since Arthur Ashe’s. He’s now the greatest humanitarian in our game. He told us that “[for] children not to have hope and a dream is a crime,” and he raised millions to create a huge school in Vegas’ inner city and is now trying to build schools across the country. Not bad for a kid whom Ivan Lendl dismissed as “just a forehand and a haircut.”
THE LIBERATION OF STEFFI GRAF: She was gifted with a surgeon’s focus, an unrelenting drive and the prevailing pride of a lioness. Throughout her storied career, she seemed to quietly growl until she won the ‘99 French Open. Then, in a moment of ecstatic celebration, all the probing paparazzi, her rivals’ silly jabs, her father’s self-destructive implosions, and the psychic pain that had shadowed her at every turn vanished. At some level, she must have sensed she was liberated.
JANA NOVOTNA – A GAME OF TENNIS FOR EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER MADE A GHASTLY MISTAKE: Tennis has long been crowded with poignant moments. After an 11-year exile, Martina Navratilova returned to her homeland of Czechoslovakia to compete for the US in Fed Cup. Pete Sampras wept and won in Melbourne despite knowing his cancer-ridden coach was probably doomed. The Cambodian Davis Cup team overcame a genocidal history to score an astounding victory.
Still, two Wimbledon moments stand out. After Jana Novotna’s game collapsed in the 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf she soon suffered the most infamous choke in tennis history. Yet she won our hearts when she wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. The London Times said, “Novotna played a game of tennis for everyone who has ever made an absolutely ghastly mistake. Or, to put it another way, for the entire human race.”
On a more upbeat note, when rains in 1991 forced Wimbledon to open its doors on “Middle Sunday” to the masses, Laurie Pignon reflected on the populist happening. “For more than half a century on Centre Court, I have had my emotions turned inside out, but there was never a day like this, when joyful youth sat in the seats normally filled by blue rinses and blue chips. Some had slept on the pavements outside, others came on dawn patrol by bus and train, and their…unfettered enthusiasm was like a breath of seaside air.”
BE JOYOUS WITHIN AND WALK LIGHTLY ON THIS EARTH: In a mean and macho era, elegant Stefan Edberg played with a simple “be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth” sensibility. Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and his rhythmic fluidity. His sweeping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at net.
A quiet introvert, Edberg was an anomaly: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline gene pool. Never had Open tennis delighted in a more balanced, “Aw-shucks” No. 1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame while playing with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.
ANNA KOURNIKOVA – PEEL ME A GRAPE: Anna Kournikova wasn’t tennis’ answer to Paris Hilton. It just seemed that way. She was a shapely beauty who never won a singles title but sure knew how to draw attention. It wasn’t so much that the Russian-American would host packed press conferences to talk about her new line of bras, or that she sued her parents over the $5 million Miami Beach home they jointly owned. It was more about the way she sashayed through the sport with a breezy arrogance. “I could snap my fingers,” she claimed, “and have any man I want.” She added, “People can look [at me] and wonder about…the sensuous delights of the dish, but they simply can’t afford such an expensive luxury.”
When she took off her warm-up, noted Dan Le Batard, Miami’s stadium was suddenly “filled with the sound of men whistling, reducing a charming tennis site to a construction site.”
To Frank Deford, Anna was “like a trim sloop, skimming across the surface, her long signature pigtail flying about like a torn spinnaker in the wind. Her lines are perfect – especially now that she doesn’t jam the second-service ball up her knickers.” But, despite some wonderful charity work, Kournikova was not universally loved. Mary Carillo said Kournikova feels “everybody’s there to serve her, everybody’s her underling. Her attitude toward everybody is, ‘Peel me a grape.’” Justine Henin bristled, “She is unapproachable: What should I be envious of? Her body? Her income? Her boyfriends?…I wouldn’t exchange anything with her. I feel good the way I am. I don’t need a boyfriend every week. I am serious and try to keep certain principles, to be generous and loyal and love. I don’t drink and I hate discos.”
THE BROODING MYSTERY OF PETE SAMPRAS: Before Federer, Pete Sampras was the game’s dominant player. Still he drew withering criticism. IT reader Doug Kruse was unsparing. “The current game.” he claimed, “is a drain on the psyche. There’s no catharsis…Those who closely follow Sampras most likely have simpatico ulcers. Insurance analysts, estate managers and contract attorneys might have an affinity for the stultifying guy, but the populace does not.” Ouch. Others claimed his pursuit of records was soul-deadening. Murphy Jensen said tennis was better off before Pete.
Hogwash, wrote Sally Jenkins: “It’s a sure sign of our moral decay that Sampras is considered boring…There is nothing boring about depthless ambition or utter all-time greatness. Nor is there anything boring about a guy who so stubbornly bucks his times and the prevailing culture…in this era of inflated reputations and surpassingly crude behavior.” Pete’s wife Bridgette Wilson told him, “Don’t believe this crap that people are saying…Stay strong, find your zone.”
Simon Barnes said Sampras was “seriously superb at tennis” and then asked, “But what of the inner Sampras? All is mystery…Sampras doesn’t have body language like everybody else. He is rather a rare thing: a top-level athlete whose body is nearly mute. There is just one instance in which he gives himself away…his trademark slam dunk shot…his one bit of flamboyance…The one clue that he is enjoying himself. He is a man of secrets. As others have used their theatricality as weapons, Sampras exploits his anonymity. You cannot read him, you cannot reach him. In his brooding mystery, he is disquieting, even slightly sinister.”
MUST BE THE SEASON OF THE TWITCH: On the debate about whether the imposing reign of a superchampion like Steffi Graf is “good” for tennis, the late Ted Tinling said, “Competition is grand, but people also like watching a victim twitch. In fact, some prefer it.” One Brit said of Agassi, “Agasino, oh, he’s scruffy. He needs a hair-wash and a bath, but he plays with a good sporting instinct. My old aunt is just potty about him. I just hope he doesn’t absolutely twitch off.” And IT noted that, “With all her tics and twitches, Mary Pierce is a reluctant swan: not clunky, yet far from graceful, a ballerina who’s not all that at home on stage.”
CHRIS EVERT NEVER NEEDED A NAVEL STUD: In 1997 Brit Lynne Tuss wrote, “Of all the bids for physical appeal at Wimbledon, the one that will stick longest in the mind is Chris Evert at the opening ceremonies for No. 1 court. She wore a short skirt and the sight of her long, brown, slender legs was breathtaking, inducing in me the reaction Piglet has to Winnie the Pooh when he sees the blue braces and has to go home and lie down. Here is a woman who never needed a diamond navel stud to get noticed.”
SERENA – ON THE EDGE OF A VOLCANO: Jon Wertheim wrote, “The Williams sisters wield authority like no others. Were they male, we would applaud their ‘intensity,’ their ‘competitive streak,’ their ‘ferocity.’ Because they are women – black women, no less – they are catty, and ‘trash talkers.’ To quote McEnroe, ‘They lack humility.'” Still, he noted, Serena “won over the hearts and minds of critics…Her ‘arrogance’ has been recast as ‘confidence.’ Her ‘brute force’ has been upgraded to ‘sleek power’…The consummate outsider has become the sport’s figurehead.” As Williams sees it, reality countered perception. She added, “It’s like Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘No lie can live forever.’ I was never controversial.” But, Mary Carillo noted, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.”
2.47 BILLION PAGES AND OTHER CRITICAL STATISTICS: Tennis has plenty of great stats. But at times some truly useless stats catch our eye. In 1999, Sue Mott noted that Agassi became the first ear-ringed American divorcé since Evert to win the French Open. After Andre married Steffi Graf, he collected more kids than Grand Slam titles. None of the last three French-speaking women French Open titlists – Justine Henin, Mary Pierce and Serena Williams – were born in France. McEnroe claimed he only won one of the 2,463 line call arguments he had in his career. Sampras was 2-0 in matches in which he upchucked. After Russia beat Germany in the Davis Cup, Mark Winters noted, “The loss leaves the Germans 0-3 against Russia in meaningful competitions (the last two Davis Cup titles and World War II).” Goran Ivanisevic is the only Wimbledon champ whose entire name alternates between consonants and vowels. Young Jennifer Capriati said, “you know” 47 times during a French Open press conference. Over 35 years, Inside Tennis has published 2.47 billion pages on tennis.
THE WINTER-DEEP LOYALTIES OF TODD MARTIN: In this world of “what’s-in-it-for-me” mindsets, Todd Martin was a towering (6’6″) oasis of sanity. Michigan-reared, with winter-deep loyalties, Martin noted, “Some players’ purpose is to win Grand Slams. For others it’s to show that you can learn to handle what successes and failures you have with as much dignity as possible.” This man, with his methodical goodness, lifted our spirits and inspired admiring smiles.
THE LONELINESS OF THE GAME: John Jeremiah Sullivan observed, “No other sport isolates athletes to a degree you find in a professional singles match. [There’s] not even a ringman or a caddie for comfort. So much time between each point – to think about what’s going wrong, to get nervous or mad, to doubt…And there’s the hush, the always imperfect hush – it’s a game that can be disrupted by somebody coming back late from the bathroom. Not, in short, a game that is friendly to head cases.”
RAFA NADAL – YOU CAN’T TRUST A CAMEL: Simon Barnes wrote, “As I watched Nadal vanish from Wimbledon in a blizzard of mistimed shots, I was reminded of the time I rode a camel. I am used to riding horses. It was not that I couldn’t ride the camel, it was just that it felt so peculiar. I wanted the camel to like me, but I didn’t feel in a position to trust it. The response time was different, the movement felt different, the motion of the animal felt different. I did OK, but it didn’t feel right. And I suppose Nadal did OK, but it didn’t feel right for him either. The stuff he was playing on was green and not red; it was fast and not slow; it was living and not dead. Nadal clearly wanted to make friends with it, but he never felt in a position to trust it. And so he lost to Gilles Muller.”
FREE SPIRITS FOREVER: Many a free spirit – from Ilie Nastase to Bethanie Mattek-Sands – has danced on tennis’ ample stage.. But we salute pizza waitress Missy Johnson, who streaked across Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court in 1996 and then told us what we already knew. “I am,” she confided, “a bit of a naughty girl, and I definitely have a wild streak in me.”
FAMOUS THROUGHOUT ZAMBIA: Tennis invites excuses. Our favorite came from Zambian Lighton Ndefwayl, who after losing to Musumba Bwayla said his fellow Zambian was “a hopeless player. He has a huge nose and is cross-eyed. Girls hate him. He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts, and that made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Zambia.”
ASHE’S TRUE HEROISM: Former NY Mayor Mike Bloomberg re-stated a core theme of Arthur Ashe and said, “True heroism is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATIONS: Spain’s Davis Cup Captain Alex Corretja said, “We have to be humble. It’s transcendental. We have to suffer, maintain and be quiet. I will sacrifice and think globally.” Similarly, Monica Seles said, “Sometimes you wonder about the whole state of the world and where human beings are going. It’s really mind-boggling what we do to each other. I really believe we are all the same, and I hope the consciousness level of the entire world will come to that. But it is hard to see that.” Yannick Noah said Brazilian champ Guga Kuerten, “has this look in his eyes. There’s love there. It’s almost religious. He’s not like, ‘I win, I’m the best.” It’s not an ego trip. It’s, ‘Oh my God, I won. I’m so happy for my people.’”
THE VARIETY OF SPORTING HEROES: Brit Terence Blacker wrote, “You can tell a lot about a country by its sporting heroes. The Germans like theirs to be truculent but effective (Beckenbauer, Schumacher, Becker), the French prefer zany individualism (Zidane, Leconte); while Americans tend toward characters (Ali, Jordan, McEnroe) who are complex and controversial. We [British] seem to go for nicely brought up bores, dead-eyed, even-tempered men who can be depended upon to say nothing remotely interesting…[and] have a required level of blandness…Just as the cheery, articulate enthusiasts at Wimbledon, with their picnic baskets, represent the smiling face of British sport…so their hero with his dreary sincerity and perfect teeth will remain the sort of boy that is a credit to his country.”
THE POWER OF SPORTS: Chuck Klosterman admitted, “The reason I need sports in my life is that it’s the only aspect of my existence that I understand completely. It’s the only subject that fills me with confidence and gives me any sense of control…I have no idea what we should do about North Korea. I don’t really understand the subtext of ‘Moby Dick.’ Every woman I’ve ever known has completely baffled me…[But] if I meet a stranger in an airport bar and the guy is watching SportsCenter…I can talk to this dude for 20 minutes. Sport is the only idiom that millions of Americans comprehend – or at least think they comprehend.”
TOO MANY RULES: France’s Yannick Noah contended, “Nowadays, there are too many matches where you don’t see emotions, where you don’t see the ultimate battle, man against man. There are too many rules…It is important we have boundaries, but now it is too proper, too politically correct. Tennis is unique, very raw. This is what we need to get back.”