I spent the week at a psychology conference, in a place that was supposed to be warm and tropical but ended up being cold, dreary, and inhospitable. And I’m not referring to the psychologists. We generally put on the coolest conferences. We are nice people to hang out with because we enjoy a good party.
On the way to non-paradise, I of course attempted to do the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine. I was doing swimmingly until I ran across 28 down. The clue read “rival of McEnroe and Connors”. And for the life of me I could not remember the answer.
I started thinking of the contemporaries of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Both of these men took up a lot of the oxygen in the 1970’s, their unique rivalry dominating tennis in the pre-Sampras era. Who else was there at the time? Bjorn Borg? Could be. But Borg was only four letters. And the clue for 27-across was “Ironic singer Morrisette”. Alanis. I was looking for the name of a contemporary of McEnroe and Connors whose name started with “L” and was five letters long.
The name was on the tip of my tongue. I could see him wearing the tight white short pants that men wore in an era when sexual orientation was not inferred by how short or how tight pants were. My level of frustration grew.
But so too did my curiosity about what determines which tennis players we automatically remember and which ones we forget with the passage of time. I’m thinking of players like Marcelo Rios. In his home country of Chile he will of course never be forgotten. But I can imagine that there may be American players who have no idea who he was or how awesome his tennis was. It probably didn’t help that at the time of his transcendence, Rios represented such a threat to the established tennis order that the American media seemed to go out of their way to denigrate him. His surly dismissive attitude didn’t help of course. Nor did it win him any PR points when he once snarled that “grass is for cows” in explanation of his disdain for Wimbledon. But I will personally never forget him.
Yet I have already forgotten Nicolas Escude. In fact, I only realized this when he popped up on my TV screen recently as the new captain of French Fed Cup. I was like “wow, wasn’t Natalie Tauziat available”? I couldn’t (and still can’t) remember a single thing that Escude accomplished in his career. I know that he had a career, and apparently it was good enough to get him such an important job. But for me, he is entirely forgettable.
So what determines that? What makes some players last forever in our memories while others drop out so completely that running into them later triggers a kind of shock? Of course their level of accomplishment plays a significant role. Even if you despise Roger Federer, you will probably never forget him.
The degree to which the player is successfully marketed will also influence the indelibility of the memory trace he lays down. On the way back from the airport last night, I was having a chuckle with a friend about Andy Roddick’s disastrous American Express campaign some years ago. The one in which he kept looking for his mojo. The ads backfired horribly. But the fact of his being advertised at all had the desired effect. Andy Roddick will probably be remembered far longer than players who have accomplished a whole lot more in their careers.
So why could I not remember the name of the tennis player that started with “L”? This continued to niggle, even as the plane taxied to its berth. It couldn’t be Laver. He came before anyone. Pat Cash? That’s seven letters. Courier? Too long and never much of a rival outside of clay. I gave up and replaced the magazine. I started organizing my bags for deplaning. I waited my turn to exit. And then it hit me. “Lendl”. Of course. How could I possibly have forgotten him?