I have been watching the U.S. Open for a long time. As a former high school teacher, it was the alarm bell that meant summer was over. No more tennis games on weekdays, followed by hamburgers and cold beer, only time for lesson plans and parent conferences. Over the years, I have seen men’s tennis shorts go from short and white to long and black, while women’s styles went from Tracy Austin’s gingham to pearl ruffles designed by Stella McCartney (her father, Paul, attended this year’s matches). From grass to clay to hard court, from Forest Hills to Flushing, from Chrissie to Martina, from Steffi to Monica … it has always been an “educational” experience.
Here I am, for the first time in a long time, watching the entire event in high definition. Bud Collins (who often dresses as if he was first in line for a fire sale at Three Mile Island) once described a tennis match as “Gladiators in short pants,” was a color commentator, and John and Patrick McEnroe were providing point-by-point coverage. Martina Navratilova was eclectic and Brad Gilbert was speaking English as a second language (“He is serving unbelievable,” what happened to the “ly” in an adverb?). I particularly enjoy Cliff Drysdale, because he has seen it all. He played against the likes of Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and Ken Rosewall. He was there before tennis could make you a millionaire by the age of 30. Indeed, he wore a glove before Michael Jackson.
Every Open has its drama. The unknown who is either a flash in the pan or the next great player, the journeymen who slug it out on Court 746 with their parents, friends and practically no one else watching. One year, when a friend of mine was playing doubles on an outer court with about a dozen spectators, I was asked, “Is he your son?” “No,” I responded, but I would be proud if he were. This year was no different. If all the world is a stage, this year qualified as a multiplex. Melanie Oudin played the part of David, slaying Goliaths left and right, until she ran into a backboard named Caroline Wozniacki. And then there was Roger Federer, impeccable and implacable as he marched toward an anticipated meeting against Rafael Nadal, like Sherman marching on Atlanta. And then IT happened. The Serena Slam.
There has been so much talk about old school versus new school brands of tennis. We have heard endless comparisons of how Rod Laver would have done against Pete Sampras, or how serve and volley is dead. Racquet technology and different string combinations, coupled with serious weight and cardio training, has made any comparisons impossible. In the 30-plus years I have been watching this sport, it has evolved in many directions. There really is no way to compare the generations. Even a few years ago, who would have predicted that the 2009 U.S. Open Champion would be considerably over six-feet tall. Back in the day, Stan Smith seemed to tower over his opponents, and the little fellows seemed to be the mammals that scurried between the legs of dinosaurs. Memory is life as it should have been, not how it is, and I promise no more tales about the good old days. Some of them were good, all of them were old.
I remember the 1979 Ilie Nastasi-John McEnroe circus that broke out while a tennis match was supposed to be taking place. I remember Frank Hammond, a competent referee, having a legitimate ruling rescinded. It was not exactly a shining moment for the sport of tennis. This year, tennis got it right.
In the woman’s semis, deep into a second set, a linesperson made a call. It led to an outburst by one of the sports’ premier players and drawing card, Serena Williams. There has been a great deal of discussion over whether the linesperson should have made such a call at such a crucial time. This is absurd. I have no way of ascertaining if the call was factually correct and Ms. Williams foot-faulted, but rules are rules. How would you feel if, late in a set, if your opponent hit a ball that was one millimeter out and the ball was called good because it was “late in the second set” of an exciting match? Tennis got it right this time, and supported those who try their best to enforce the rules.
This is “professional” tennis, and as such, there is an obligation to act in a professional manner. Serena’s outburst may have been in the heat of the moment, and forgivable for that, but taking nearly two days to actually say the magic words “I apologize” is unconscionable. She has given an immense amount of energy and passion to this sport, which, in turn, has made her a millionaire several times over. I would prefer to remember the days when players let their racquets speak for them. One of the reasons the players earn as much as they do is because people, thanks to television, ARE watching. Our players owe the worldwide tennis community more than slashing forehands and topspin backhands. Like it or not, they are role models whenever the camera is on them.
I prefer to remember this Open as one in which Rafael Nadal fought gamely to overcome injuries and, after a straight set loss, still took time to thank the crowd. I prefer to remember the graciousness of Federer in defeat and Juan Martin Del Potro in victory and, above all, I look forward to seeing it all happen again next year.