Well, “huge upset” probably does not take into account Rafael Nadal’s recent struggles at Wimbledon, where today he lost in an early round for the fourth year in a row to a player ranked in the triple digits. Still, Nadal is a two-time champion at the All-England Club and the owner of 14 grand slam trophies overall. Still, Nadal is the yin to Roger Federer’s yang, and along with Andy Murray and Novak Djokivic, one corner of the best quartet of tennis players to be simultaneously near their best since the late 70’s/early 80’s. So a loss by the handsome Spaniard is big news. Or it should be.
In American sports bars tonight there will not be much discussion of the match. Sports Center will roll the video; the wild hair-do of Dustin Brown, the German-born but of Jamaican heritage victor, might elicit a comment. But the real passion will be reserved for NBA free-agent signings, NFL suspensions and baseball games. Even money says there is more talk about Laura Bassett’s own goal than Nadal’s departure. In a sports-crazed country, less of us care about tennis. As the fortnight got under way, about 40% more people were watching ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption than were tuned into the action on the court.
Of course it was not always so. I came of age in tennis’ golden era. Breakfast at Wimbledon was appointment vieiwing even if you never actually saw the white ball on your 27-inch Sony. Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Ashe were certain to create a passionate rooting interest. So were Evert, Navratilova and King. Throw in a crazed Romanian, some likable Aussies and Bud Collins and you had an event. The five-set epic morality play contested by Borg and McEnroe in the 1980 finals remains in my personal top-ten sporting events of all time. Played at that level, tennis demands everything sports should be about: coordination, speed, stamina, strength and strategy. More than those characteristics, tennis is a contest of wills between the players and within a player’s own mind. I imagine that Centre Court at Wimbledon can be a lonely place. July 4th weekend was for the Wimbledon finals just like Labor Day weekend captured the U.S. Open; because sports drama could reliably be found there.
Over the years that drama waned. Some have argued that the lack of American stars caused the slide, but that idea does not account for Sampras and Agassi being among the best while people were losing interest or Serena being the dominant force on the women’s side. Instead, without McEnroe and Connors, there were no black hats for the white hats to gun down. On the women’s side, it would be hard to match the Evert-Navratilova rivalry; there has never been anything like it in women’s sports. As players and equipment kept improving, serve-and-volley ceased to be an option because anyone in the field could rifle shot a winner past even the biggest wingspan. As a result, everyone played the same style or at least a variant of it. Automaton’s hammering ground strokes at each other for two weeks, culminating in a soulless Pete Sampras trophy presentation was just not good for the game. In the United States, fewer people played even though the population, and particularly the number of female athletes, grew at a robust pace. Between 1999 and 2004, the Tennis Industry Association reported a 15% drop in frequent tennis players. Viewership and attendance reflected the sagging participation rate.
Whatever the reason, we have Roger Federer and Serena Williams, each arguably the greatest to ever play the game, laboring in relative obscurity. Both as polished off the court as they are on it, yet only on the periphery when it comes to “sports legends” talk. The question then, is brilliance just not good enough for us? Are the all white outfits and cherubic ball girls and boys unbearably quaint? Can we not stomach an event that develops over hours and fails to employ violence as a selling tool?
I have no answers, but the good news is that after years of decline, tennis is crawling back with modest gains in the number of people playing. Watching tennis on a high-definition television is an enjoyable experience. Playing tennis is inexpensive, a great workout and a social opportunity to boot. So this week I vow to make Wimbledon appointment viewing again. When it is all said and done, I might get out my Bjorn Borg headband, dust off the racket and try to find a match. But I promise to avoid the short shorts. Better for all concerned.