TWGH - Wither Diversity?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007 /by

[Ed. Note: Peter Bodo is on vacation until March 5th. In his absence, we are proud to present TennisWorld's Greatest Hits (and Misses). We hope you'll find these entries as relevant today as when they were originally posted. --S.]

DATE: 9/13/2006

Howdy, Tribe. So my (presumably) well-earned day of rest lasted for, oh, five hours and 42 minutes - long enough to take Luke to his first day of school only to find myself having to get back to the office to write a recap of the U.S. Open for the website (it's on the home page) as well as my regular TennisWorld column for Tennis - a  column meant to create more crossover between TennisWorld and the mother ship, for the benefit of all. So the question is open: how many ways can you interpret a tournament and how much can you say about it that's really relevant without repeating yourself?

That's my dilemma.

BffOne of the things I haven't breathed a word about yet was a thought process that began when Tiger Woods showed up as a guest in Roger Federer's box. Many of you have posted comments on this already, and I largely agree with the camp that finds it absurd that Woods more or less stole the Federer show, underscoring once again the fact that for the mainstream media, tennis actually is the proverbial chopped liver. For Tiger to be so lionized that The Mighty Fed can bask only in reflected glory is a pity, and all the more because tennis and golf are more alike than different.

They're both bourgeoisie sports pursued and beloved by the upwardly mobile, or those aspiring to be so.

But never forget that tennis is the sport that people love to bash, and does anybody really think your typical sportswriter is an original thinker? On the second Thursday of the U.S. Open, I was guest on a cable television sports show (and just wasted half-an-hour trying to track down, via Google, the call numbers for this Comcast broadcast). I sat patiently, all miked up, waiting for my turn to field questions in a cross-fire type of format. So I happened to hear my old pal, Popular Best-selling Author and Godless Left-wing Nut John Feinstein, expound on the state of tennis while he was shilling for his new young-adult mystery novel, which is set at the U.S. Open).

John trotted out one of hoariest of sports cliches, saying that the tennis was in such great trouble that Arlen Kantarian (CEO of Professional Tennis for the USTA) was flagging down motorists on the L.I.E. in an attempt to get them to attend the Open. Apart from being right up there with "he puts his pants on one leg at a time", this bit of hyperbole was, of course, patent nonsense at ever angle you care to examine it from, even though the success of the U.S. Open isn't necessarily a great way to judge the popularity, or lack thereof, of tennis in general, either here or abroad.

Then John - mind you, he's hawking a book based in tennis, and at the U.S. Open this entire time! - went on to wax nostalgic about the days of old when knights were bold and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors really lit up the arenas of this world. . .  So there you are. By this time, John was sounding like pure self-parody. I mean, when are people going to let go and move on? John reminded me precisely of those aging hippies who walk around grousing about the fact that nobody has made a decent record since Workingman's Dead (the Grateful Dead). Yeah, right. And there's never been a football player out there since Johnny U. hung up the cleats.

All of this annoyed me enough so that when I went on the air, I talked about it a little, pointing out what a success the U.S. Open was, and that, actually, Connor and McEnroe non withstanding, the game is immeasurably better these days, and it features a cast far more accomplished and fun to watch than ever before.

Which brings us back to the typical, upwardly mobile sports fans, administrators and, yes, sharp-elbowed sportswriters. In that crowd, diversity - real or imagined - rules. It's the ultimate form of affirmation for them, partly because the most damaging charge critics customarily bring against golf and tennis is that they're "elitist" sports played by toffs and spoiled rich kids. It's comforting (mostly to toffs and spoiled rich kids, many of whom are in influential positions in the media) to think of themselves as "diverse" or "vertically integrated"; it somehow appears to justify the things of which they're so routinely accused: complicity in social injustice, conspicuous consumption, gross materialism.

The allure of diversity partly rests on the illusion that if your sport can kick out a Tiger Woods or Arthur Ashe now and then, you're helping to create a more equitable and egalitarian sport (and society). The underlying logic, of course, is that it's preferable to get the less fortunate to hop over to your side of the fence than to have to divest yourself (or let the government do it for you) and find yourself on the other side of the fence, dressed in a barrel instead of  a shirt sporting a giant polo pony log. It isn't a bad way to look at it, either, because let's be honest here - wouldn't you rather that everyone were prosperous instead of everyone being poor?

But really. In what precise way does Tiger Woods represent a true and deep-rooted diversity?

DaddywilliamsOne guy who understands all this pretty well is Richard Williams, Serena and Venus's pop.

When I bumped into him at the U.S. Open and asked how he was, he beamed: "I'm doing great for a little old country boy. Things couldn't be better!" He then proceeded to tell me about the flashy sports car he'd been driving around, and how all the "white boys" who espy him tooling around Palm Beach Gardens  (didn't you know that Richard lives on a Monopoly board?) either look on enviously or want to race him for money.

Richard is very relaxed about race, which makes a lot of people, especially white people, unrelaxed. Loose cannons are even more menacing on yachts than frigates, right?  Do you really think Richard Williams cares about diversity? I don't. I think he worries about the diversity of his portfolio.

Maybe it's because he's the son of a "po' sharecropper." Maybe it's because he don't want to be no po' anything and doesn't care who knows it. Just think of liberal guilt as the handicapping system that gives guys like Richard a very small head start in a very long race.

At any rate, the Woods-Federer partnership made me think of these issues because both men are what I would call "Icons of the Haves" rather than what we secretly wish they were, "Inspirations for the Have-Nots" (although they must be that, too, at least for the small percentage of Have-Nots made of the same gritty stuff as Richard Williams). And that's something that always bothers me, probably more than it should. Let's face it, the Woods-Federer mutual admiration society represents an athletic outbreak of Donald Trump disease: These are the best guys, they're super good and they're really super best friends because each of them knows how super good the other guys is.

I feel bad, in a way writing this (not that that would stop me), because at some fundamental level, these guys really do have some things, starting with their mind-numbing talent, in common. Besides, they both seem like decent guys. But the "pile-on" effect here is a little too much for me to take, especially because they share a management team (and I'm not talking about Kofi Annan and his crew) and major sponsor, Adidas (heh,heh,heh).

Beyond for our more immediate purposes, consider this. Despite featuring a parade of up-by-the-bootstraps, wrong-side-of-the-tracks stars, tennis has an amazing capacity for resisting the kind of diversification dreamed of by legions of social engineers and impassioned seekers for equality. Nothing demonstrated this more vividly than the recent American championships, which presented four singles finalists who personified and helped further the stereotype of tennis as a game locked in a neck-and-neck race with golf for bourgeoisie sporting supremacy.

Let's start with The Mighty Federer. He has, on an accelerating curve, evolved into the Pan-European Sophisticated Man. This doesn't mean that he isn't a great guy, because he appears to be that - and more. But like any great guy, he's a great guy of a certain kind, which is something both within and outside of his control. Take your typical NFL football player. He wins the a playoff game and what does he want to do? Go bass fishin'. Federer wins the U.S. Open and he goes to Fashion Week, as a personal guest of Anna Wintour, a woman who probably drops a couple of grand every week on dry-cleaning. Now doesn't this tap into exactly what people think of when you say the word "tennis pro"? Can you think of a person who's bumped along the image of the tennis player as, oh, a man of the people, or a symbol of diversity, any less competently than has Federer? (Headline: Runway model presents U.S. Open champ Roger Federer with bouquet of flowers. Silly me. All this time I've been thinking it's the guy who's supposed to get the flowers for the girl!).

CornfedOne irony in this is that as different as the Mighty Fed is from Andy Roddick, they represent two dominant themes in the traditional tennis demographic, much like their games represent two very different but time-tested ways to win.

Come to think of it, Roddick is the perfect foil for Federer - the yin to his yang, when you take in the entire athletic and cultural landscape of the game (Rafael Nadal doesn't bookend quite as well with Federer, because he is fundamentally an exotic, in almost all respects). And Andy is an especially juicy symbol for all the America bashers out there (some of whom are actually from places outside the  U.S.).

Andy isn't  exactly seen as the Ugly American - he's merely the Uncouth American. Troll around the Internet and the term "frat boy" is never positioned too far from Andy's name. Beyond that, though, Roddick seems to represent the classic American obsession with power and youth; he's the Muscle Car of tennis players.

He doesn't exude privilege the way some aquiline-nosed guy with a funny first name might; he is, after all, Andy.

But Andy still represents something equally unsavory and capable of driving jealously: the absolute well-being and sense of entitlement radiating from your typical, well-fed, marginally educated, happy-go-lucky American suburban kid. The world looks at him and thinks, "nobody should have it so good," from which point it's pretty easy to read all kinds of things into his persona: he's arrogant, he's a bully, he's smug. He also happens to be an ideal example of the typical tennis demographic.

How about Maria Sharapova? Is there anyone, man or woman, who so effectively represents a girl fleeing headlong from squalor (in her case, the chaos that was Russia after the fall of Communism) into unimaginable wealth and celebrity? Sharapova is a walking, talking rebuttal to anyone who clings to the quaintly naive notion that tennis is an "exclusionary" sport, something that many people are keen to do for no better reason than that tennis has a specific and fairly narrow demographic profile.

Tennis is not exclusionary, but it is exclusive; that is, you have to pony up a certain amount of capital (emotional and mental at first, then material) to get into the game and stay there. And, as countless folks who had expected that the USTA - or some other sponsor or institution - would  grease their way to the top have learned, making it in tennis is not an enterprise for the faint-hearted any more than it is for the merely rich. You earn your way into tennis through mostly individual (or family) effort and sacrifice.  That's the reason why Venus and Serena may not have any more of a long-term impact on the participation of minorities in tennis than did Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe. African-American are not flocking to tennis from what i can see because tennis has grown more diverse; the ones who have are those who understand what the game is about and what it asks. And they're more likely to be transformed into "tennis people" (here we are, right back a the mainstream typical tennis demographic) than they are to transform the game into a "people sport."

The last finalist, Justine Henin-Hardenne, is probably the one who most closely represents the vision of tennis as a broadly democratic game, capable of producing champions who could just as easily be practitioners of some under-the-radar and far less glamorous sport - water polo or team handball, anyone?

Among these four, she's the one who least represents the conventional wisdom about the tennis demographic. It's hard to hang labels on her, or to make assumptions about who and what she is because of the game she plays, the image she projects as a tennis player, and even the way tennis appears to have shaped her own tastes and personal preferences. You won't catch H-2 hobnobbing with Bono, working a producer for a bit part in a sitcom, or flying off to Monaco to party with a bunch of Formula One drivers. In this, she reminds me of the fleet of Swedish players who sailed into the game powered by the wind created by Bjorn Borg. H-2 reminds me less of Serena Williams than of someone who might have been in the U.S. women's soccer team, in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with race.

So there you have it. A few fairly abstract speculations on the nature of the game, based on the nature of the combatants. The finalists were a cast of familiar characters that can easily make you wonder, wither diversity? If there's a lesson in all of this, it may be that it's the nature of the game, not that of the people administering or marketing it, that doesn't change. And that's a valuable distinction to keep in mind. Trying to bring diversity to a game that draws from a fairly small pool of highly motivated people (and, as such, people of not particular racial or social background) is a daunting task.  The game attracts a certain kind of person and in general it molds the players far more than the players end up molding the game.

The game has a great deal of character, and that's one of the reasons it can be a flash-point for so many conflicting feelings. People of great personal force, including Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, have sought to alter that character, and often with the best of intentions. As the four finalists at the U.S. Open demonstrated, that mission has not been accomplished. The more things change, the more they remain the same.This isn't necessarily a bad thing, for you could do lot worse in life than end up being Federer or Sharapova. 

Tiger Woods knows that, and so does Richard Williams.

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