The Last Amateur

by: Steve Tignor | February 29, 2008

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Well, it's been a long week here. I just finished an article for TENNIS Magazine about the year 1968 and its frenzy of rebellion, including the beginning of the Open era in tennis. Researching it, I came across a book in our library called Sporting Gentlemen, by the late, bow-tied Penn professor and chronicler of all things WASP, E. Digby Baltzell. I’d heard his (rather memorable) name a few times from Pete Bodo, who says he learned a lot hanging around with Baltzell about 15 years ago, when Baltzell was writing this book. It’s an examination of tennis’ origins, its development during the amateur era, and its relationship to the WASP upper classes that played it. Baltzell’s thesis is that allowing it to become professional has forever lowered the sport from what it was meant to be. The pros have gone from being gentlemen—in the old sense of the word, which roughly meant “renaissance men”—to slovenly robots in shorts who barely make it out of junior high.

At first this sounded like the sour grapes of an old curmudgeon who has seen his lily-white sport trampled by the masses. And in part it is—Baltzell wears his class pride like a badge of honor. But he’s also honest about the anti-Semitism that was a given at old-line tennis clubs, and he makes interesting points about how the sport was discriminatory, but that the gentleman’s code—of playing for the love of the game rather making victory the only goal, taking pride in sportsmanship, and using tennis as a way to develop into a well-rounded person—were open to all people. (Amazing how corny those things sound today; but Baltzell is good at convincing you they were once core elements of the sport and should be today.) Harry Hopman and the Aussie greats were hardly upper crust, but they’re remembered as the sport’s finest gentleman, and Arthur Ashe himself was schooled in the amateur code—one of the last of a tennis breed.

Baltzell is also very interesting on John McEnroe. He basically considers Johnny Mac to be a sort of inside-out amateur, a person who played the game with absolute integrity but grew up in a much more permissive age. He quotes tennis writer Richard Evans on McEnroe: “One can see him wandering around Queen’s Club with his socks around his ankles, clad in the same pair of wrinkled shorts he’d worn the week before to whip his bemused opponent. I suspect McEnroe would have been much happier amidst the camaraderie of the amateur sporting world with its code of honor than the code of conduct he faces today.”

So in honor of the complex, one-of-a-kind Johnny Mac, I present two You Tube videos for you this weekend. The first, at the top, is a very funny highlight reel of his tirades—the artist at his most tortured. I’ll just point out one moment. After one long, whiny exchange at Wimbledon (1980 semis, I believe), in which Jimmy Connors ends up scolding him, McEnroe finally walks away from the umpire, goes directly to the baseline, and hits an ace up the middle, on the chalk. That was his genius.

The second highlight collection, below, is more of him at his best, straight-setting Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final. Notice how clipped everything he did was, from his returns to his volleys, even to his ground strokes—he barely swung, even on the forehand pass that won him the match. Compared to today’s game, McEnroe played for position rather than for outright winners, putting his returns at the other guy’s feet; moving him off the court with his serve and angling the volley away; returning serve low and down the line and forcing his opponent to hit up on the pass. He made up for his short strokes by always hitting the ball from the most aggressive possible position. It may look strange now, but I have no doubt he could succeed with it today. What would he have to say to Hawk-Eye? I don’t even want to know.

PS: After he shakes his hand in '84, does Connors wipe his off on the net-cord judges sleeve? Man, those guys hated each other.

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