Hail to the Chiefs

Thursday, February 14, 2008 /by

I’m heading out of town for the long weekend. Monday is President’s Day here in the States. I’m not sure what that means or what we’re supposed to think about. The Bushes? The Clintons? Andrew Jackson? At least he had a suitably august nickname: Old Hickory. Beats any of the last three: Poppy, Slick Willie, and Shrub. As for our potential future presidents, I’m already a little tired of trying to figure out what Obama’s talking about. It could be a frustrating four years if he wins.

I’ll be back Monday or Tuesday to talk about Antwerp and Delray. We’ve already had some news from Florida, where Donald Young chucked his racquet out of the stadium after losing the first set to Amer Delic yesterday (Young had been up 5-0 and lost in a tiebreaker). From the first time I saw him as a 15-year-old, Young was extremely volatile. I watched dozens of his junior matches for a feature I wrote for TENNIS Magazine and was amazed at how up and down he was—everything was an emotional roller-coaster. Young would routinely lose first sets at love to lesser players and then take the next two handily. More than any other very talented player I’ve seen, Young’s self-belief can blow away with the faintest breeze, or unforced error. And he takes losing hard. I tried to talk to him after he lost a doubles match at the Orange Bowl a few years ago. He stared at the ground and wouldn’t say a word. And that was doubles; he had already won two singles matches that day.

Until then, I’ll leave you with three recent finds on You Tube, which is becoming a treasure trove of tennis history (thank you krosero, whomever you are). At the top is a highlight reel from the 1969 Wimbledon final, in which Rod Laver beat John Newcombe in four sets (part 2 is here). The first thing that comes to mind watching this clip is how much Wimbledon has been defined not just by tradition, but by TV. Centre Court's wide green rectangular expanse fills the screen like no other, and the grass makes it all seem like a pleasant day in the park, the way tennis should be. It’s no accident that when the BBC was ready to show its first color broadcast—of anything—it chose Wimbledon in 1967. (Whether it was the real Wimbledon, or a professional invitational held later that summer, is something I’m currently arguing about with Joel Drucker; any help either way would be appreciated.)

As for the play itself, Newcombe’s forehand volley was judged, by Joel, to be the best ever, and it does look conspicuously good here. Check out the winner he hits with it from his shoetops on one of the first points. As for Laver, I’m struck by the simplicity and accuracy of his serve (the aces he hit then would be aces today); his combination of smoothness and explosiveness as he moved (Newk looks heavy footed and too tall by comparison); his sharp topspin forehand; and how about the lob volley he nestles in late in the fourth set? By the way, I recently learned that as a kid, Laver never took a private lesson.

In the clip above, we see the Rocket (no relation to Roger Clemens) six years later and a world away, in a winner-take-all challenge match with Jimmy Connors at Caesers Palace in Las Vegas. This time Laver looks even faster, though he was in his mid-30s by then. It's an entertaining match, and I’m reminded that Connors wasn’t called the Belleville Basher for nothing. Seeing him as the father figure to Roddick the last couple years I’ve had a hard time remembering that he was a power hitter in his day. But you can see that he’s upped the pace from ’69, and that he’s playing a game that’s centered firmly at the baseline. He’s also much more dangerous on the return. But Laver hangs with him and makes him sweat, eventually losing in four. Seeing their battle of the generations makes me think again that the best players could succeed in any era, without changing their games at all. Tennis isn’t just about serve speeds or bigger forehands, it’s a dynamic that doesn’t change through the years as much as we might think. Laver hangs with Connors even when he's past his prime; Connors makes the semis of the Open 17 years later, at 38; Andre Agassi duels with Connors as a teenager and then duels with Federer in his mid-30s. The game is a continuum, not a set of "eras." I know these clips are highlights, so they don't include the players' worst moments, but part of me thinks that if you gave the Laver of 1969 a midsize stick and had him practice with it for six months, he’d be in the Top 5 today.

The same goes for the final clip, of the 1980 French Open final, where Bjorn Borg rolls over his buddy Vitas Gerulaitis. This match doesn’t look all that ancient either: Borg generated a ton of spin and penetration with his old wooden Donnay. And just like Laver, he was an effortlessly explosive mover—up, back, and side to side, he didn’t just get to the ball, he was on top of it. Again, the pace of shots may increase, but I have faith that the best players could have handled it, because they share one trait: the ability to get to more balls, and hit them from a better position, than anyone else. That's what tennis will always be about.

Call it my President’s Day salute, to three worth remembering.

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