Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why you should care about tennis

It’s ironic that I would sit and make a case for tennis a few hours before a big Eagles game, having spent the last few days sending a shout out to avid followers, fair-weather fans, and the clueless alike to be part of a scream fest at a popular Philly sports bar.

But then again, tennis was the first professional sport I ever watched, one that I’ve been intrigued by since Pete Sampras arrived on the scene as a gangly teenager and aced his way to his first grand slam trophy. And then he had fourteen. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in clench-fisted panic during Wimbledon 2001, when a barely known, pony-tailed teenager toppled the-then indomitable god of tennis. Soon that teenager was swinging his racket with some flourish of his own. Now, he’s the god of tennis, better known as Roger Federer, fighting off dogged challengers to his four-year reign.

I wouldn’t arrange to go out to a bar to watch a tennis match, and not just because no bar in America would play one if the only other thing on TV was Jerry Springer. But because that is not how the sport is meant to be watched. In tennis, there is no unflinching devotion to your city’s team, no mob of screaming fans from your alma mater, no lithe cheerleaders waving colorful pompoms, and no mascots entertaining with cartwheels and flips.

In tennis, the only spotlight is on the ball at any given moment, and your only allegiance is to that single player, often one whose every hump and hollow you’ve followed through the years, one whose specific swings and angles you know as well as the back of your hand.

You have your pick of personalities...John McEnroe’s infamous inflictions on unfortunate linesmen probably earned him more glory than his seven grand slam titles (if nothing, it’s got him a lifelong endorsement with National Rental!). Andre Agassi’s flamboyance was certainly the talk of the tennis world during his two decades in the sport - from the loud hairstyles he donned in his early years to the clean-shaven veteran he came to be. Pete Sampras was best known as the player that let his racket do all the talking. And boy, did it talk.

And the styles...Roger Federer’s amazingly shot-enriched and smoothly artistic brand of tennis - that is often likened to a jazz musician on a court - is in direct contrast to his arch nemesis’ fist-pumping, grunting, scrambling fashion; Rafael Nadal’s game while by no means inherently pleasing to the eye – or the ear - is worth appreciation for the grinding relentlessness. There are the fierce players like Lleyton Hewitt who go after the ball with will power alone, and the dimunitive ones like Justine Henin who concoct miraculous shots with the sheer power of intelligence and quick thinking.

The turfs...In the professional tennis season, the lush green grass of Wimbledon’s Center Court immediately follows the harsh red clay of Roland Garros. But the colors don’t begin to describe the differences. The hours long, baseline battle on the much slower clay almost looks like a different sport when compared to the slick surface offered by the delicately pruned lawns of the All England Club. The high pressure and fast pace are perhaps the biggest challenges of the “glam slam,” also called the U.S. Open, since it comes with the razzle and dazzle of New York City. The long hiatus and the unforgiving heat of Australian summer that kick off the season early in the year ensure that players battle both the weather and their opponent with equal aplomb in Melbourne.

The rituals.....Two weeks of Wimbledon almost never go by without the familiar sight of hapless human beings scurrying over tennis’ biggest stage with that sophisticated piece of invention – the tarpaulin. Wimbledon is as notorious for its propensity to rain (often causing annoying delays and schedule changes) as for its strict adherence to age-old traditions. But it’s all part of the experience, like the strawberries and cream and the British insistence on pure white attire.

But most importantly, there is the invincibility.....the sheer mental toughness that allows these lone players to go out there and tackle all the odds against them, make and break records, supplement their numbers, and bag a few trophies along the way. In the unforgivable heat of Melbourne, in January 1995, Pete Sampras faced a two-set deficit to his friend and rival, Jim Courier, and when he received the devastating news that his long time coach and friend had a terminal illness. Sampras broke down and cried while the world watched - a very rare display from the usually stoic sportsman - before he reached up to fire an impeccable ace. Battling blistered feet, unrelenting tears, and a fierce opponent, Sampras came back to take the match, finally winning it an hour past midnight.

As Des Kelly writes,

"Tennis at its finest provides us with one of the few opportunities to see sportsmen and women pitted one against one in a gladiatorial contest. There is no hiding place, no team to help cloak your failings with anonymity. It is an examination of character. It is boxing without the blows and gore.”

Now that you’re convinced, the season starts tonight at 7 pm ET on ESPN2!