Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Facing (down) the next generation

Watching Jennifer Capriati and Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten becoming recently and tearfully inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I found myself thinking about the whole business of generational transition. I am referring of course to the inevitable movement of tennis time from one generation of players to the next generation of younger upstarts nipping at their heels. We all age; we all get supplanted. It is the natural order of things, both within and outside of the world of tennis.

It is her hell-bent defiance of this that makes us cringe at the ghastly sight of Madonna unveiling her almost 54-year-old stank nipples on stage, or pretending to shoot a gun at her audience even as the rest of us remain wracked in consternation and grief over the senseless actions of a Colorado killer. Age is supposed to bring with it the twin gifts of wisdom and grace. The refusal to accept the reality of aging, of transition, only makes one look pathetic.

Watching Capriati at the ceremony, all grown up and crinkly round the eyes, it was poignant to recall the days when she represented tennis youth and potential. Today she is a woman, but apparently one still struggling to find self-definition away from a sport that she wasn't ready to relinquish. Sometimes we are forced into accepting the reality of finitude long before we are psychologically ready to do so. Guga seems to have adapted better to also being forced out of the sport by injury – not that you can ever really tell what Guga really feels. His easy-going nature has always functioned like a mask.

But several recent matches also got me thinking about the psychological aspects of generational transition. The first was the match between Serena and Coco Vandeweghe at the Bank of the West tournament a week ago. Another has been the delightful experience of seeing a resurgent 34-year-old Tommy Haas give both Cilic and then Monaco more than they ever expected to handle in Germany. And then there was the finals between Tipsarevic and Bellucci at Gstaad.

And it would be fair to point out that there is a larger age gap between the 30-year-old Serena and the twenty-year-old Coco, than between 28-year-old Janko and 24-year-old Thomaz. It would even be fair to dispute whether Bellucci is from a different generation of tennis than Tipsarevic, given their relative proximity in ages. But I believe he is. Bellucci turned pro in 2005. Tipsy has been a pro since 2002. That's a lot of years in the world of tennis. At 24 Bellucci can still safely be categorized among the next generation of promise. In their finals, Tipsy looked like an Old Fart who had no idea what hit him.

At one point during that match, as Tipsarevic was about to serve, someone in the audience made a loud noise. Instead of stopping the movement and starting over, Tipsarevic continued to serve, calmly. When he lost the point however, he then decided that it was the audience member's fault and sent a tennis ball flying into the crowd. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do. Given his years of experience on the tour, he should have known better. But like I said, age doesn't always bring grace or wisdom.

Sometimes age brings only the painful awareness of decrepitude, the knowledge (and sometimes, resentment) that the person on the other side of the net is fresher, younger, fitter. Tipsarevic seemed always to be keenly aware of the younger Bellucci. When the latter finally missed a deep forehand, Tipsy held up an index finger to his box, apparently signaling that that was the first time that his opponent had missed that particular shot. Perhaps he was also pointing to an implicit explanation for his pending straight sets loss. If I were his coach I would have told him to be less focused on his opponent, pay more attention to his own game, and let his opponent keep track of his own damn points.

Between Serena and Coco, I noted no such hypersensitivity in Serena's body language. In Coco's non-verbals, I detected only that she was thrilled to be there, in her first tour final, motivated to do her best. But the commentators were having a field day celebrating Coco's amazing achievement. You'd think that a 20-year-old making it to her very first tour final was a bigger deal than Serena winning her fifth Wimbledon, her 43rd singles title, and cementing her status as World #1. The way the commentators were carrying on about Coco, it seemed as if they were desperately hoping for an unseating, a declaration of transition, a movement from one generation of women's tennis to the other.

And don't get me wrong, I am as proud of Coco as the next person. This Lucky Loser who made it all the way to the finals of Stanford and the 69th ranking in the world, deserved much accolade. But it was a little too soon to pass the torch. That was a little premature. Serena isn't going anywhere just yet.

Sometimes transitions just need to wait a few moments longer. Both Federer and Serena, now in the prime of their 30's, seem to still have some dominating to do. And Haas, at 34, has resurrected his career phenomenally. Dude is just not yet ready to go into that dark night. And really, sometimes the next generation just needs to chill for a few moments more. Their time will come, guaranteed. Serena, Haas, and Federer can't play tennis forever. They will one day be replaced by the Cocos and the Monacos.

But instead of always looking so eagerly to the future, sometimes we just need to just pause for a moment and appreciate the awesomeness of the present while it is still here, while it is still with us, vibrant, lively, age-defiant. Because, too soon, this present, late-blooming, will become the past, celebrated forever at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Andy Murray's 17 Shades of Negativity

I'm not referring to the tears. Tears are just fine. They suggest you care, deeply, and that you wanted it so bad that you could taste it. In the same way, I didn't mind those Federer tears after a painful loss to Nadal, or Serena's tears signaling her happiness to be back on court after her health challenges, or her tears of frustration over losing so early in a tournament that everyone expected her to win. Those kind of tears I get, I understand, and sincerely appreciate. Those tears make me admire a player more.

Indeed, Andy's post-match tears touched me so deeply that were he playing against any other opponent, I might have rooted for him. And when his mother started sobbing, I just about lost it. She loves her son, and he is clearly a mama's boy. And I am down with both as long as neither interferes with the player bringing it when he needs to bring it.

And the bringing of it is a distinctly masculine affair. It speaks of confidence and potency, of deliberateness and intentionality, the kind of masculine qualities that the very best male AND female players boast. There's testosterone coursing through all of our blood, regardless of gender. And when a player needs to, he or she must know how to access that masculine space and simply bring it.

Andy didn't. He simply never did. He was so damn negative. It was especially bothersome to observe the negativity of his body language after he lost that second set. In response to that loss, and even more so the loss of the third set against Federer, Andy Murray became all hang-doggy, his head listless, his shoulders drooping, his manner self-critical and self-berating.

And understand that I am not calling these qualities feminine because they are not. They are simply negative. And there is no room in professional tennis for the seventeen shades of negativity I detected in Murray's body language. Trust me, I counted.

In addition to the hang-doggy manner, and the drooping shoulders, and the listless head, and the self-critical manner, and the self-berating, I also noted the following: looking up to the heavens in dismay; looking down to the ground as if hoping a hole would open up and swallow him; squinting in emotional pain; trudging his feet and almost falling over them (when he wasn't literally falling over them); clutching his back; grabbing his thighs; grimacing; groaning; shouting in disbelief; rolling his head; shaking his head from side to side; and looking miserable, bleak and lost. Actually, come to think of, I'm pretty sure there were far more than 17 shades of negativity in Murray's body language during that Wimbledon finals. I'll just stop counting at seventeen, for obvious reasons.

As a psychologist friend of mine afterward observed, any player truly caught up in the excitement and focus of playing a match, would not have noticed pain. Just ask Youzhny who once whacked himself in the forehead, drawing blood, and continued to play the match until the Chair made him stop. But Andy never stopped clutching at this back, his leg, his groin. And I found myself wanting to shout to the TV that if he was that hurt, why didn't he just give Tsonga the damn chance to win his first Slam?

I've tried my hand before at analyzing what's wrong with Andy Murray. Around this time last year, I summarized my opinion of him as follows: “...in order to achieve his self-stated goal of getting to the next level, Murray will need more than improvements in his tennis technique. His primary problem seems to lie between his ears. He needs to work on becoming mentally stronger. His slump-fests after losing in majors are nothing short of embarrassing. The great ones are resilient; they bounce back. They don’t go off and lick their wounds for months on end. And most of all, they don't blame others for their losses. They man up and take responsibility.

A year later, I stand by that assessment. There is no room on a tennis court for a petulant slump-fest, neither during a match nor after it. But that was all I could see in Murray's body language. Almost every single time he made a mistake, instead of shoring himself for the next point, he would start becoming all hang-doggy and slumping. And after he lost the third set I knew that he would lose the match because his body language forecasted it.

Let me be fair to Murray. At least he didn't stop playing to curse out Lendl in the box. At least he didn't blame the coach for this loss. And surely if there is one thing that Lendl can teach Murray it's how to persevere in spite of loss, how to dig deep and become even more determined to win, how not to go into a slump-fest and start licking your wounds when the damn match isn't even over!

To be fair to Murray, I personally gave him no chance against Federer. Sure he had a winning head-to-head against my Fed, but that only counted if you included lesser, non-Slam events where Federer was still tooling his game. In a Grand Slam, when it matters, against Murray, Federer brings his A-game. He has beaten him twice before. I went into this third Slam final confident of a Federer victory.

Already I had taken my RF “FIFTEEN” T-shirt which I had bought some years ago, and had crossed out the letters “FIF”, replacing them with the letters “SEVEN”. The red sharpie scrawl was not too artistic but hey this was not about art but about certainty. Yes I was that confident. You can't be a proper Federer fan without some of his arrogance rubbing off on you. It's a fandom hazard, and truly I relish it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Serena vs. Aga: Brawn vs. Brain?

Already I can hear the comments, can't you? I'm anticipating the pre-match prattle which I fully expect to feature themes of how large and powerful and aggressive Serena Williams is, and how slender and lithe and frail Radwanska is, so that the only reason why Serena will crush her in the finals is because of Serena's brute force. The commentators – several of them American – will say that with her big serve and huge groundstrokes, Serena will dominate the more finesse-driven game of the Pole. It's the Hingis era all over again, isn't it?

Already the New York Times has chimed in with pithy comments about the “precision” and deft “touch” of Radwanska's game, as opposed to the way that the “muscular” Serena prefers to “bludgeon” the ball. The underlying message seems to be that Serena just hits wildly, going for broke with no accuracy or precision, blasting the ball with abandon. While Radwanska of course is the “tidy” and precise player who uses “subtlety” as she constructs points, all while being “shrewd” and “practical”.

You get the picture. It's Jill vs. the Beanstalk all over again. And really, it pisses me off, because underlying these comments is a deeply racist tone that you may have to be Black and/or have minority blood coursing through your veins, to appreciate. History is littered with the corpses of Black athletes whose success was reduced to a matter of brawn. When a Black athlete happens to be intelligent as well as big and strong, it is assumed that she wins not because she is the more strategic of the two players, but because of the sinews and muscles in her body. And that assumption is deeply offensive.

There is NO tennis player currently on either side of the tour who wins tournaments entirely because of brute force. If that was the case, Roddick would have won a gazillion Slams by now. Really I can think of no better example of a player whose game was based on brute force with little underlying intelligence in his shot selections. And Roddick, when last I checked, was not only White but also still looking for his Mojo. His big serve and bigger forehand have yielded decreasingly few results on the tour. If he wasn't already rich as dirt, he'd probably be playing Challenger events this time next year.

My point being that brute force does not a top player make. The best players in the world have the ability to combine physical force with brilliant intelligence. It is the combination of brawn and brain that causes players to rise to the top. That is as true for Radwanska as it is true for Azarenka. Fact.

Wozniacki is a (relative) failure because she lacks both. Lindsey Davenport became successful after she dedicated herself to become physically fitter and stronger – the tennis intelligence had always been there. And Aga Radwanska is in the finals tomorrow not only because of the intelligence of her tennis, but because she dedicated herself to becoming fitter and stronger. Her serve may still be pathetic when compared to Serena's, but it is on average only 12mph slower. And her groundstrokes can be lethal and penetrative in their intensity. She has made it to the top tier of tennis because of her combination of intuitive precision and unexpected explosions of power. It is insulting to her to suggest otherwise.

But come Saturday morning, I anticipate that commentators will start drawing lines in the sand. They will start spouting nonsense about Serena's brute strength. They will offer plaudits to Radwanska's intelligence and finesse. And they will piss me off.

So maybe I'm writing this entry in part to purge myself of the anger that this will induce in me so that I can settle back and watch the match, which I expect to be thrilling because both women seem to be at the top of their game. And may the best woman win.

And if I have managed to make you thoroughly uncomfortable by this point – and talk of race invariably provokes this response – somewhere deep within your gut is the awareness that the Brain-Brawn divide rarely enters the picture when two White women face each other. No-one compared Steffi and Monica in terms of Brain vs. Brawn. No-one did it when Davenport faced Capriati. Nor was this dichotomy a conversation point during the Navratilova vs. Evert era. At least not until Martina hooked up with that man's wife and the world discovered that she was gay, at which point he Brain-Brawn comparisons were calculated to marginalize her for being gay and fo daring to spank the ultra-prissy Chrissy Evert.

But when Aga spanked the ass off a most athletic Kerber, no-one mentioned strength vs. finesse. The subject never came up as she dominated Vesnina and Kirilenko in earlier rounds. But put her up against Serena Williams and all people will talk about is how Aga will need to use her craft and finesse in order to beat Serena.

And really, this is also offensive to Radwanska. She is at the brink of becoming #1 not because she is some kind of frail wall-flower cowering in fear of an American monster, but because of her discovery that simply keeping the ball in play is her best line of defense. And, yes I admit that Serena hits the ball really really hard. But she does not do so mindlessly. Her returns are intentional, focused, and yes, precise. Or does she need to start relying on drop-shots to convince you otherwise?