Out of Left Field
FOR THE AGES
A sport that demands 'inTENNISstal' fortitude
By STAN ISAACS
Tennis is the toughest game. There is no sport that inflicts pressure-packed situation after situation on the competitors. Time and time again a player has to withstand the possibility of a double fault at crucial times. Almost every ball a player hits can cost a point if not hit in the court. It is almost as excruciating to the spectator rooting for a particular player as it is for the athletes in a tight match.
There is pressure in baseball, football and basketball, particularly in the closing moments. But none of them tests intestinal fortitude from beginning to end of a match as tennis does. This was evident the past two weeks of the U.S. Open championships in New York that ended with victories by Kim Clijster and Andre Agassi.
This tournament produced one match for the ages: Agassis five-set defeat of James Blake in a tumultuous night-time quarter-final match. It doesnt make sense for a big-time sports event to get started at 10:30 PM eastern time. But thats what happened with the much anticipated Agassi-Blake pairing of sentimental favorites of the huge crowd in Ashe Stadium.
Agassi was the old-timer at 35, a man who deserves even more respect than he was given all week. It should be emphasized that Agassi has done what only Don Budge (1930s) and Rod Laver (1960s) have done: won all four major tennis championships (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S.). Not Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe or even Bill Tilden has done that. And especially not Pete Sampras who commentator McEnroe keeps yapping as a great player in a class with Laver. Sampras never won the French tournament because it is on clay and Sampras, who relied on a big serve, never had the all court game that would have enabled him to win the long rallies that clay court play demands.
Blake was the young man that night--an exceedingly nice guy said all who knew him-- who had come back from tennis oblivion because of injury, sickness and the death of his father. He had fractured his skull running into a tennis post and he developed a paralysis of the face as a reaction to his fathers death. In the end the crowd pulled for Agassi who had to come back from a two-set deficit to pull the match out in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
The late start led to a late finish and that made the event so much more memorable. Many people were so caught up in it that, much to their surprise, they stayed with it to the end.
If you heard it once you heard this half-a-dozen times from people the next day:
I dont like tennis that much, but I got caught up in it and I couldnt turn the set off. I watched to the bitter end.
And even Rick Sutcliffe, the former pitcher working the Yankee-Red Sox game on ESPN Friday night made a few references to the tennis match. Im not into tennis too much, he said, but I stayed up and watched that match. What a match. It was one of the five best sports events I ever watched."
The final between Agassi and Federer had the scent of the Agassi-Blake classic when Agassi came back to win the second set after losing the first. But he petered out after dropping a third-set tie-breaker and it never had the nuttiness of a full house of red-hots cheering at one in the morning.
The Williams$ $ister$
The tournament underscored an increased lack of appreciation of the Williams sisters. They are outstanding tennis players, but a combination of immaturity and poor advice has put them in a less-than-attractive light. Their head-to-head match won by Venus lacked excitement because Serena was not in the best shape; because they almost always dont play their best tennis against each other; and also because they have been coming off as somewhat mindless, narcissistic young women.
By showing up on the U.S. Open court wearing $40,000 earrings Serena Williams flaunted exhibitionistic wealth. This was so even though they were not her baubles, but were lent to her. Poor taste at any time, even more so when set against the tragedy befalling so many poor black people devasted by Hurricane Katrina.
There is an air-headed quality to such actions, and this was compounded by sister Venus saying that she did not know about what was happening in the Gulf because she didnt watch news on television. In the face of criticism about such boorish behavior, she tried to explain the next day. She said, I dont watch the news because there is so much violence. All you see are murders and rapes. It makes me sad.
I heard one wags response to this. He said, I dont watch tennis, because it makes me sad.
A few years ago, Venus was at a party with then President Bill Clinton and had a few words with him. What did the millionaire-earning black player say to the President? She said, Cant you cut taxes?
The first-round upset in three sets of Andy Roddick by the unknown Gilles Muller, the first player from Luxembourg to play in the U.S. Open, underscored the fact that Roddick is an overrated player. The result crushed Roddick and jolted the two advertisers who hoped to ride a Roddick march through this tournament. The Roddick debacle was compounded by the incessant, excessive repetition--particularly on USA cable--of the Roddick commercials during the first week or so of the two-week tournament. I still dont know--or care--what the hell that guy cackling about mojo was talking about.
Roses and Onions
A pat-on-the-back and a tch-tch to the U.S. Open officials.
It was an inspiration for them to inaugurate a policy of having each matchs Ashe Stadium winner autograph three balls and whack them up into the stands. The fans loved scrambling for the balls and the players, smart enough to aim for the cheap (well, relatively cheap) seats enjoyed this, too.
The U.S, Open bull-headedly did not use television instant replays to rule on contested calls. The officials pointed out that the system was not perfect. No, it wasnt but 95 per cent is better than allowing some of the miscalls that could have been corrected. The officials were lucky there wasnt an egregious miscall like one that marred last years tournament.
©2005 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Sept. 12, 2005.
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