Classic TW: NSHI

by: Peter Bodo | August 06, 2008

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[In Pete's absence, we are repeating some "Classic" TW posts from earlier times. Some discussions that have been going on in TW recently got me thinking about this post, originally titled 'a Night of Historical Importance', written by Pete during the 2006 US Open, on the night that the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was dedicated, and Andre Agassi played the first match of what was to be his last US Open - in fact, his last tournament. Which recent discussions was I thinking of? The perennial debate about the GOAT, naturally, male or female. And in particular, the thoughts that have been raised regarding the importance of certain greats in matters extraneous to tennis, as though that makes them more worthy - and conversely the way that others, such as Margaret Court, may be less well regarded for negative reasons that have nothing to do with tennis. --  Rosangel Valenti ].

2006_08_29_king So here I sit, watching images of Steffi Graf, puncutated occasionally by some coverage of the Andre Agassi - Andrei Pavel match. This kid Agassi looks like a pretty good prospect, no? I say he's got a future!

Actually, we're in the second set tiebreaker, and somebody in the crowd just hollered out, "There's only one Andre!" That's true, thank God. I'm not sure I could handle another iconic figure tonight. This isn't really that funny, I suppose, given that this is meant to be a NSHI, or Night of Supreme Historical Importance. Yet here I sit, minding the store, drifting in and out of Arthur Ashe Stadium (and don't I know you'd give that Borg-vintage Fila shirt to be in my place, which only makes me feel even more guilty), a part of me deeply resisting everything I've seen and heard tonight.

Maybe I'm having a Roger Federer Cincinnati moment; I just can't muster the enthusiasm and fire for the acrid smell of gunpowder or even the sublime resonances of the moment. Maybe I'm just shutting down, from overload. You know how that goes: I'm implicitly being told, left and right, that this is a NSHI and I'm supposed to be awash in deep thoughts and glorious feelings. Well, this is an appalling confession, but the only deep thought I've had is: Andre has a remarkably flat head. It looks like a helipad. That's kind of weird.

Am I a f-up, or what?

I guess it started with the dedication of what will heretofore be called The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The highlight for me was Chris Evert turning to John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and asking, "You guys are standing so close together and you haven't started fighting yet?" That was good for a belly laugh, but then, showing her customary killer instinct, Chrissie put the rehabilitated bad boys in a real spot by asking them, point blank, if they've actually come to like one another.

This kind of frankness, when it's supported by an inconvenient truth (thanks, Al!), is enough to throw even the most suave and media savvy character off stride. And that's just what it did. That it caught Connors, always a self-conscious and and somewhat uptight guy, by surprise was no surprise. But the fact that the generally nimble McEnroe also stumbled on it, albeit momentarily, spoke volumes.

I suppose I especially appreciated the moment because I'm bored to tears by being force-fed the party line about Billie Jean's revolutionary impact and "cultural signficance," and whether that happens to be true or not has nothing to do with it. I just hate being force-fed, and I especially hate being force-fed social consciousness. That I had to listen to that towering intellect, Diane Sawyer (our Solzhenitsyn) weigh-in on all this in the pre-game show  pre-disposed me to being a grump. I just think these sentimental, horrific middle-brow orgies of mutual backpatting and unmitigated adulation are unseemly, especially when they involve all the usual suspects. Cue background music: I am woman, hear me roar. . ..

2006_08_29_agassi And don't get me wrong. Billie Jean earned and deserves this honor (it would be oh-so-easy to write this if it weren't so). The USTA did its best to put together a fitting tribute, albeit one scripted too closely to the self-infatuated garbage regurgitated with such depressing regularity at awards ceremonies like the Oscars. Ultimately, I find there's something deeply phony - and strangely un-self-assured - about these aggressive posturings and strivings for deeper meaning. It's like the real thing isn't quite enough. I guess I'm uncomfortable with hagiography. I would have traded it all, all the breathless commentators, all the former champions sucking up the reflected light, like the flourescent, optic fiber cables that come aglow from retained light, for something much simpler - say, a dozen people speaking extemporaneously about how Billie Jean made them feel about tennis. Or a few words from her mom, Betty.

On the whole, I prefer ill-expressed honesty to artfully articulated hooey that's so predictable and on-script that it's very had to imagine that it means anything at all to the speaker, much less to me. I suppose this all may have to do with the politics of the 1970s women's movement, which seizes on anything Billie Jean to experience one more, orgiastic, Hear-Me-Roar moment. We heard all the talking points tonight, right down to the one about the secretaries who reputedly showed up for work the morning after the King-Bobby Riggs match adamantly refusing to brew coffee.

I don't especially like myself for thinking this way, but that's the truth of it for me. I would hate myself even more if I didn't express what I felt. I found it obscene that Mary Carillo somehow conflated Billie Jean and Dr. Martin Luther King in her opening remarks.

Well, in the time it took me to write the paragraph above, les deux Andres, one with a flat head and one with an upset tummy, have found a way to neutralize what had been the pending sentimental orgy of the NSHI, Part II. They did it by getting into a tennis match, and not an especially artful one at that. They've managed to convert service breaks and bathroom breaks and wildly shifting swings of momentum into the perfect antidote for the overpowering sense of falsity that I've been struggling with tonight.

What we've got here is a grubby tennis match. A messy affair with plenty of low comedy and all the huffings and wheezings we've come to expect from a couple of thirty-something warriors, sufficiently in touch with their Inner Tennis Player to somehow have forgotten that this is supposed to be a NSHI. Andre and his counterpart with the extra vowel are engaged in something refreshingly spontaneous here, I revel in its authenticity and I celebrate its utter and visceral simplicity, Agassi's grunting and groaning and Pavel's roundhouse cuts (is that a great backhand, or what?).

Thanks Andre, you're showing me something tonight more valuable than all the testimonials that are sure to come and that will be no less deserved than the honor Billie Jean King received today. Some day, perhaps here at Arthur Ashe Stadium, others will make of you someone who, in the eyes of some, may seem to be both more than you were and also somehow less - a person trapped inside icon-hood, your substance draining away as you become a brand - a better one, perhaps, than the Adidas brand, nothing so lofty as the feminist brand, but still a brand. Something other than a person.

On that night, Andre, I'll think of this one.

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