Saturday, March 21, 2009

Middlesex on the tennis court?

Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” is a fictional account of the life of a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who discovers in adolescence that she is actually a boy. Calliope is the grandchild of a brother and sister who secretly marry after escaping a Greek island attacked by the Turks in 1922. Calliope’s confusion grows after she embarks on an erotic relationship with “the Object”, a striking teenaged girl in her class. Caught in the act by the girl’s brother (who himself is lusting after our hero/ine), Calliope starts off running and gets hit by a car. The true nature of her sexuality is discovered in the emergency room, and sets her off on a trek to find himself.

And now comes news that we have our own Calliope in the world of tennis. German tennis player Sarah Gronert (photo left) was apparently born with both male and female genitalia. Three years ago, at age 19, she underwent surgery to remove the male organs and has been legally certified as a woman. Gronert successfully petitioned the WTA to be allowed on the women’s tour.

But some in the tennis world are now asking, is this fair? And, is she really a woman? Coach Schlomo Tzoref thinks that she is not. After Gronert handily beat his player, Julia Glushko, eventually winning the ITF Raanana tournament in Israel, Tzoref observed, “There is no girl who can hit serves like that, not even Venus Williams…This is not a woman, it's a man. She does not have the power of a woman and no woman has such a technique.”

Tennis is not without its history of gender-related controversies. Back in 1977 the former Richard Raskind successfully sued the USTA to allow him to compete as a woman following gender reassignment surgery two years earlier that resulted in his new identity as a woman named Renee Richards. Richards’ legal success was hailed as a landmark victory for transsexuals everywhere.

As a young man, Raskind had had significant success as a tennis player, even captaining the Yale team to tennis victories. As a woman, Richards also enjoyed success as a professional tennis player, particularly in doubles where she made it to the finals of the US Open (with Betty Ann Stuart) and to the semi-finals in mixed doubles (with Nastase). Her highest rank was 20.

But part of the problem for Richards (photo right), as it may also be for Gronert, is that the public never fully accepted her as a woman. She was forever the “transsexual” Renee Richards. And this is not just a semantic issue. It has to do with the subtle distinction between embracing versus acceptance.

Furthermore, Richards found out that once public interest in her as the world’s most famous transsexual started to fade, she was left to deal with the tatters of her life which included an ex-wife and three adolescent children whose father had suddenly become another mother well into his 40’s. Richards has gone on record as having many regrets over having lived the second half of her life as “a second-class woman” who never found fulfillment. She discourages others from pursuing her path.

Although their situations are not identical, the one facet that Gronert shares with Richards is the growing publicity over her situation. And while we have made great strides in the arena of gender awareness, there is much about which we remain ignorant. How does the brain switch gender? How is one’s self-identity affected by hormones? Is it just biology that makes a man a man and a woman a woman? How do the Calliopes of this world navigate the morass of gender confusion to define a healthy feminine (or masculine) self?

Gronert is currently ranked 619. With each tournament win, her situation will attract more allegations of unfairness, the assumption being that her masculine musculature gives her an advantage among the other women. Of course she could point out that there are women like Amelie Mauresmo who are far more muscled and masculine-looking than she may ever be. But that does not silence the critics because Mauresmo as a gay woman has attracted her own share of snide commentary.

I hope for her own sake that Gronert is not only a strong woman but that she also has the support of people who love her. She will need it as she will undoubtedly face the kind of derision experienced by Richards before and after her brief phase as a media darling. Already the sporting website, Fanhouse, is claiming mistreatment by other players. Gronert’s wikipedia page had to be deleted because of the number of abusive postings it attracted. And this is probably just the beginning.

Friday, March 20, 2009

What is it about Indian Wells and Black female tennis players?

Of course I could just as easily have called this entry “What is it about Indian Wells and Black female tennis players with names starting with ‘W’”? First it was the Williams sisters. Well actually specifically it was Serena but of course Venus is as loyal as they come to her baby sister so if you hurt one, you hurt both.

I remember taking part in some fierce arguments at the time of BOO-gate. Some folks tried to convince me back then that all tennis fans boo players and what was the big deal if Serena got a little booing, after all she was a big girl, they said, no tongue-in-cheek, no pun intended, dead serious about defending the right of fans to boo whomever they see fit.

And I’ve said before, probably somewhere on this blog, there’s a huge difference between “booing” and “BOOOOOOOOing”. Serena getting booed was not the problem. Serena getting booed because she had done something to upset the crowd would be absolutely fair game. But Serena had done nothing wrong. She was slated to play her sister in the semi-finals of the tournament. At the last minute, Venus called in sick, saying that she had tendonitis in her knee. The crowd had every right to be upset. I would be upset too if I had paid my money to fly out to California and then a professional tennis player announces just before the match that she could not play. Disgruntled fans everywhere find their own way to express themselves against players that piss them off. That is their right.

But there were two things that went wrong in Indian Wells back in 2001. First, the crowd waited until Serena showed up at the finals against Kim Clijsters and they started to boo her. In other words, Serena was made to pay for her sister’s behavior. If they were not sisters, that may never have occurred. I say “may” because they are not the only siblings in the world of tennis, but it was the first time that a disgruntled crowd took out their anger against one sister on the other. At the time I argued that Venus and Serena are separate individuals and that it was unfair of the crowd to treat them as if they were interchangeable.

The second thing that went wrong in Indian Wells was the perception by many that the crowd’s negative and sustained hostility towards Serena in the finals match was the result of racism. Richard Williams claimed to have overheard racist slurs. I have no idea if this occurred or not and have never argued one way or the other on this issue.

What struck me at the time, and what has remained crystal clear ever since, was the fact that lost in the controversy over Richard’s claims was the fact that Serena herself never accused the crowd of being racist. She never has. She has gone on record as saying that she herself never overheard any racist comments. What upset her was the level of sustained hostility. What upset me was the potential in the situation for violence. An angry crowd of thousands, alcohol flowing, frustration mounting because Serena was thrashing Clijsters who suddenly became the favored darling of the crowd, (and I will go to my grave believing that Serena gave Clijsters that second set in an unconscious bid to pacify the crowd), and yes, possibly some folks that wear white sheets in the dark of night mixed in among the angry bunch — all of these elements combined to make for a situation that must have been absolutely terrifying for the then 20-year-old Serena. I entirely support her decision to never go back to that traumatic place.

And now comes this week news of yet another strange event involving yet another Black female tennis player, this time with the name of Washington. News reports claim that Mashona Washington, sister of Mali Vai Washington (gorgeous tennis player and utterly boring tennis commentator), daughter of William Washington (who for a while there seemed to be competing with Richard Williams to see who could make the most outlandish claims of racism against the tennis establishment) — yes that Mashona Washington, just done gone and got herself arrested in Indian Wells.

Some reports claim that she was arrested on Monday and charged with felony vandalism to the tune of $5,000. However she played tennis as usual on Wednesday, losing in doubles to a pair from Spain. So if these facts are correct, her possibly trashing her hotel room seems unrelated to her loss in tennis two days later. The WTA has of course remained unsurprisingly closed-mouth, claiming that they are “monitoring the situation”, whatever that means.

Look I don’t know what went down but of course I wish Mashona well. I hope she hires a great attorney and begins the process of clearing her name. Until then, I think we need to consider putting out one of those travel advisories. You know like the ones telling you not to cross the border into certain parts of Mexico if you value your life. Maybe we need one saying not to travel to Indian Wells if you’re Black and female.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s the doubles man children all over again

For the uninitiated, "doubles" is not just a tennis game. It is also the name of a Caribbean (Trini) snack that easily becomes a meal. Two fried patties sandwich a large spoonful of curried chick peas dotted with your choice of tamarind sauce, coconut strands, pieces of shado beni (cilantro), and/or slight pepper, among a smorgasbord of other condiments. Yummmmmm.

Developed by the descendants of East Indian indentured laborers, and infused with Afro-Caribbean flavors, doubles is probably the most popular form of street food sold any where in the Caribbean. But it is a Trini staple.

Vendors who sell doubles are called doubles-men. This is actually a misnomer as the product represents the early morning labor of scores of unpaid women. It is the women who do the cooking, but mainly the men who become the public face of vending, and of course controllers of the resulting financial success. There’s sexism in the doubles world as there is everywhere else.

Doubles vendors can be found at most main street corners. The better ones do not need to advertise — success spreads rapidly by word of mouth. I can’t really begin to capture how incredibly popular doubles are on the island. A few weeks ago a Trini friend sent me the following piece of Carnival and political commentary that perfectly captures the insane popularity of this very common street food. The occasion was an expensive all-inclusive Carnival fete with the hoi polloi of society — and someone forgot to bring a doubles-man. I’ll quote it verbatim:

“Party-goers at the NGC all-inclusive fete at the Trinidad Country Club a few weekends ago paid a high price, but were not completely satisfied. They lamented, with more grief than shock, that there was no doubles man. Yes, the people wanted doubles. Ladies and gentlemen, this is where our country has reached. There is so much affluence, so much disposable income, so much wealth-induced lunacy, that we, Trinidadians and Tobagonians, are finally and officially and proudly okay with paying up to over $1,000 to eat doubles—looking forward to it, too, and disappointed when it’s not there.”

Doubles as a treat has become so incredibly popular that, after years and years of thrift and sacrifice, many vendors eventually manage to garner incredible wealth. One hears stories about doubles vendors who die and leave millions. And of course the true mark of success is the ease with which many have become the target of kidnapping attempts.

Most doubles vendors grew up in poverty. Most sacrificed, literally working their fingers to the bone so that their children could have better lives. And so many of the children of doubles vendors often grew up in great wealth. Many quickly acquired visible signs of affluence. Fancy cars. Prada handbags. Gucci shoes. The children of doubles vendors consumed at a pace that made their hard-working parents’ eyes spin. Shopping trips to Miami became de jour. And even if they often returned with clothes that were way too hot for the island weather, who cared as long as it was purchased with a black Amex?

But the worldwide economy in on the decline and the price of doubles keeps increasing. Even the children of doubles vendors have had to make sacrifices. Less shopping has become the order of the day. Less spending so that there might be something left over for tomorrow. And it’s no longer easy to make money selling doubles because American fast food is now competing in the same market.

I thought of this as I saw the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine. It features a picture of Uncle Sam pointing to the reader and blaring: “I Want You to start spending!”

And this of course is part of the problem. Americans have stopped spending and have started saving. We’ve re-discovered the kind of thrift that our grandparents and parents took for granted during their lean years. But having been deprived, these parents encouraged their children to consume. We’ve built an economy based on the massive consumption of things that we do not need. It’s good to become aware of this. But that awareness is bad for the economy.

So here’s the conundrum. In order to fix the problem, we have to keep doing more of the things that helped to cause it in the first place. We have to keep buying and spending so that our children will not inherit a massive burden of debt. It’s a vicious circle.

And somewhere there are doubles vendors who probably wish that they had not allowed their years of sacrifice to be so misspent. Who wish they had taught their children that saving is always OK, and that it is possible to create a good enough economy based on purchasing what you need instead of a bloated system based on narcissistic wants. But the horse is already out of the barn.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Federer’s search for a coach continues

Let me say straight up that the good news is that Federer realizes that he needs to hire a full-time coach. I think that that is wonderful, and I am holding desperately onto that as I contemplate the disappointment he must be feeling at being bailed on by Darren Cahill.

I must admit that I had mixed feelings about Federer’s choice of Cahill. Not that Cahill wasn’t up to the job because he was. And he has certainly enjoyed winning runs with the likes of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, both of whom performed their best under his expert tutelage.

But both of those assignments came at a different stage of Cahill’s career. He was younger and hungrier then. Now he enjoys the kind of general acceptance that has translated easily into a gig with ESPN, commenting on Grand Slams and analyzing live play.

The commentating job in particular makes for a cushy assignment. It comes with few competitors -- let’s face it, Patrick McEnroe is kind of lame and boring, John McEnroe has way overstayed his welcome, Brad Gilbert is graying faster than George Bush did while in office, and Cliff Drysdale has his fancy resorts to run. Among the women, Mary Carrillo remains the sharpest and most astute. But the camera is becoming less and less kind to her facial lines. Which leaves a space that Darren Cahill can easily occupy -- at least for some time.

So when I heard that Cahill was considering becoming Federer’s coach, I must admit that I was more than a bit surprised. Coaching a top player is a huge commitment of time and effort. Just ask Uncle Toni whose life has been radically changed by his nephew’s stellar success. Sure the job pays well, but it is best suited to an individual who is in a position to relinquish his other interests, including periodically abandoning his family in order to make sure that his charge remains in top physical and mental shape.

Coaching a top player requires a tremendous measure of sacrifice. On my way home today, I saw a car with a sticker that fully made this point. The sticker read: “There’s Army strong, and there’s Army Wife strong”. In other words, an Army wife makes as many if not more sacrifices as does the soldier himself. Similarly, a top player has to commit himself (or herself) to a tremendous amount of sacrifices in order to achieve a top berth. But so too does the coach. It’s a committed relationship in which both parties elect to subjugate other interests to the mutual desire for the player’s singular achievement.

So when someone in the Cahill or Federer camp made it known that Cahill was being interviewed for the privilege of coaching Roger, I must admit that I was more than a bit surprised. Not that Cahill couldn’t do the job. He can. He would have done it well. No, I was taken aback because coaching Roger requires a level of sacrifice that I was surprised that Cahill, at this stage of his career, was actually prepared to make.

So I was not at all surprised when I read the announcement today that Cahill has changed his mind and no longer wishes to be considered for the job. And other than the negative impact on his alternative career as a commentator, I can’t help but wonder what Cahill’s other motives might be. Is it possible for a coach of his caliber to be daunted by the prospect of trying to help Federer achieve his consuming ambition of besting Sampras? Is the challenge of one or two Slams more actually so improbable that it is just not worth the sacrifices? Could Cahill have encountered his own fear of failing? We may never know.

In the meantime I feel badly for Federer. I would have preferred that Cahill had analyzed his schedule and level of interest before his name even got publicly announced as an option. I would have preferred him not to even bother to make the trip to Dubai if he knew that he would be letting Federer down. I would have wanted Roger to be spared the tinge of embarrassment that accompanies being publicly rejected.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is Anna Kournikova still relevant to tennis?

I’m asking because I ran across some K-Swiss ads featuring her over the weekend and I found myself wondering if this company had lost its mind or was I possibly missing something. Why would anyone think that Anna Kournikova could still help any brand sell tennis shoes?

I remember once going to the US Open back when Ms. Kournikova was still trying to be relevant to the sport. I noticed a massive crowd hanging around a practice court and assumed that it had to be someone of the caliber of Steffi Graf or Martina Hingis practicing. It was neither. It was Anna Kournikova.

Can I prove that she seemed unduly aware of her audience, that she preened and posed just so, as cameras whirled and flashed? No I can’t. But I remember that she was escorted like royalty off the practice court. And I noted that she had played more confidently during the practice session than she would in the match that followed. The match itself was typical Anna, yet another embarrassing loss. But every seat in the stadium was sold out as the blonde Russian took centre stage. Few paid attention to the match itself -- all eyes were on Anna. Girls fantasized about being her and boys salivated openly as she reached under her skirt to retrieve tennis balls.

There was a time when Anna could sell her body like no other. Not literally of course, unless one counts those questionable marital arrangements for financial benefit. I ain’t sayin’ she was a gold digger, but you never saw her messin’ with no broke hockey playa. Tabloids blared lurid details about the latest scandals surrounding whom she may or may not have married. She became internationally famous.

But Anna’s fame was always minimally because of her tennis. Outside of the doubles arena where she tagged along as Hingis pushed them to achieve the #1 berth, Anna was pretty much an idiot on the tennis court. But she was a beautiful and sexy idiot and people lined up to watch her play and to buy the products she promoted.

I never bought one but my personal favorites were the bras. The ones with the tag line: “Only the balls should bounce“. The double entendre was lost on no one. Neither were the message of the workout tapes that seem to have been bought mainly by pubescent boys, thanks to their being practically indistinguishable from soft porn.

Every other female Russian player who has followed Ms. Kournikova has had to struggle against the image of the young woman with the blonde pony tail and not much else between her ears. Women like Dementieva and Safina have worked hard to prove to the tennis world that they cannot be dismissed as mere fluff. Because that was the essence of the Kournikova legacy. Fluff and fame and paparazzi fodder.

Anna disappeared from tennis for a while following a series of injuries that offered her a graceful path to exit from the sport. But she remained in the limelight as a print model, her annual calendar shots commanding top dollar.

And then along came World Team Tennis which hauled her out of tennis obscurity and provided a safe space in which her individual losses could be obscured by team results. Her fame probably helped sell tickets. The exchange was symbiotic. Everyone benefited.

And now K-Swiss would have us believe that serious tennis players will buy their shoes and clothes because of Anna Kournikova. Because Anna is apparently "classic", like their shoes. [Yeah, that's the most important thing to me when buying new tennis shoes.] Maybe it’s a question of relevance. With Nike just about dominating the market in all sports, it makes a kind of ludicrous sense for two irrelevant brands to team up and promote each other. And who knows, somewhere out there might be a few nostalgic fans who still fantasize about getting a piece of Anna.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The disappearance of Lleyton

My favorites were the 'Lleykis'. For the uninformed, Lleykis were those adolescent girls (and some boys) who idolized the relationship between Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters, spending hours online mooning over them and posting photo evidence of their love. When Lleyton and Kim broke up, some Lleykis probably had to be put on suicide watch.

There was a time when Lleyton Hewitt was all the topic of conversation. He seemed to have a knack for making himself the center of attention, both positive and negative. In one corner, you had hordes of Lleykis planning every detail of his anticipated wedding to Kim. In the next corner, you had his monstrous fights with the media (both American and Australian), and allegations of racism. (The words “look at him!“ have never been screamed with such venom or followed by such an ugly fallout.) Then there were his legal battles with the ATP over his refusal to do certain pre-match interviews. Not to mention his recent legal drama with his former management company. All this in between posing for the camera with his wife and children.

There was a time when you couldn’t open the sports page without reading some new development in the chaotic life of Lleyton Hewitt. His engagement to the soap star seemed to come out of the blue, occurring as it did mere six weeks after he broke the collective hearts of Lleykis everywhere by ending his relationship with Kim Clijsters. Or maybe she broke up with him. I never cared enough to ferret out the details of their story.

I always felt that the publicity around their relationship spoke volumes about the true nature of the man himself. He seemed to be the type of man who could only be involved in a relationship that was constantly being talked about.

Some men seem to choose their partners as much for love as they do for the publicity. Such men thrive in relationships that are constantly spotlighted. Some women do too. One gets the sense that women like Madonna and JLo would shrivel up and die the day the cameras stop following their every move. That was my sense of Lleyton Hewitt. I always felt that the cameras mattered more than the tennis, the publicity more than the form, the notoriety more than the commitment.

Which is not intended to imply that Lleyton Hewitt was ever anything other than committed to his tennis. What his detractors criticized as arrogance, his fans relabeled as passion. Where some saw him as boorish, spoilt, and rude, just as many saw him as feisty, aggressive, and committed. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Lleyton’s battles with Tennis Australia were the ones I found most fascinating. He argued that Tennis Australia was not doing everything within its power to help him win. He felt that they should have adjusted the surface used in the Australian Open to better suit his aggressive counterpunching style. He argued that similar adjustments had been made in other countries to help players have an advantage on their home surface. I remember thinking that his argument would have more weight if Tim Henman ever won Wimbledon. Fat chance.

But Lleyton seems to have disappeared. Not from the front pages of gossip rags where he remains a best-selling presence. He was even once accused by an Australian psychologist of exploiting his children. No, Tabloid Fodder Lleyton is alive and well. But Tennis Lleyton has been slowly fading. Once the youngest player to be ranked #1, now he barely scrapes into the top 100.

I mentioned to a friend recently that Lleyton's slow disappearance seems to have coincided with his decision to get married. My friend replied that it was the loss of testosterone. He believes that unmarried tennis players perform better because they remain pumped up by testosterone. He started checking off the number of players whose downslide seemed to start with their decision to get married and start a family. “Marriage is a passion killer”, he concluded. “It’s hard to continue to care. Who wants to be in a locker-room with other naked men belching and farting when you could stay home and cuddle your beautiful wife?” I found it hard to disagree with him.