It's Not About the Racquet

Monday, August 27, 2012 /by

Lance ArmstrongNEW YORK—This morning I walked the grounds at the U.S. Open, watching practices wind down and the first matches of the tournament start up. The crowds appeared, as they do every year, to be larger than ever. I tried to imagine what a tennis fan from the 1950s or 60s, one who had wandered through this event when it was still played at a private club in Forest Hills, might have made of the scene. After gaping at the Jumbotron, staring in wonder at the $11 pulled pork sandwich, and asking himself why everyone was holding a little rectangular black box, he would have been duly amazed by the tennis itself. That is, once he recognized it as the sport he used to watch. The racquets are bigger, the swings are longer, the grips are different, the players are stronger, and their shots fly faster. Our time-traveling visitor, if he watched from up close, would likely be stunned at how purely and powerfully even the lowest-ranked player in the tournament strikes the ball.

When I got to my desk, I was greeted by this headline on USA Today’s website:

SIMPLY THE BEST: THE GOLDEN ERA OF MEN’S TENNIS

“Sometimes the winds of historical change converge,” my friend and colleague Doug Robson wrote in the paper’s lead U.S. Open article. “Fifth century Greece produced the Parthenon and Plato. The Age of Enlightenment championed Voltaire and Isaac Newton. For the last few years, men’s tennis has inhabited a similarly rarefied moment—a Periclean Athens-like quirk in which extraordinary athletes, technical innovation, and historical circumstance create something special.”

History, as Robson says at the end of his article, will be the ultimate judge of just how good this era of tennis was. “But for now,” he writes, “go ahead: Froth over Federer’s effortless grace. Relish Djokovic’s rubber-band reflexes. Gush about Nadal’s grit. Marvel at Murray’s complicated moxie.”

We’ve done a lot of all of those things over the last half decade, myself included. The consistency, commitment, and maturity of the best players of this generation has been inspiring, and I’ve spent many columns extolling it. But this U.S. Open also begins at a sobering moment for any sportswriter, or at least those of us who try to find lessons and inspiration in our games, and who want to believe in golden ages and Periclean heroes. It begins the week after the most famous and, for a time, most inspirational American sports hero of the last 15 years, Lance Armstrong, gave up his fight against U.S. doping authorities.

Remember when it was “the French” who were out to get Lance for dominating their Tour? Quaint idea. Whatever you think of the USADA’s methods and goals, and the extra-judicial process that has led to Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, you can’t say that the U.S. protected one of it own. One line of thinking seems to be that all of these investigations are a waste of time, that we don’t need to find out the truth in these situations, don’t need to drag our idols down, that the Armstrong story is another pointless “witch hunt,” as Lance called it, because fans don’t care. To me, all sports lovers and sportswriters should think the opposite; we should care. Who wants to believe an athlete is heroic when he or she is really anything but? Sports is meaningful to us, as opposed to being merely entertaining, because it isn’t fiction.

Michael Specter of the New Yorker is dealing with these thoughts at the moment. In 2002, he wrote what he recently called a “lengthy and adulatory” profile of Armstrong for that magazine. At the time, after seeing Lance’s workout regimen, Specter was convinced that he was clean. This week, in a mea culpa post for the New Yorker’s website, Specter wrote of Armstrong, “He was the great American—a man of principle who also won. Now I am afraid he is nothing.” Nothing more than a man who “did not even have the decency to admit his guilt.” Specter refuses to feel sorry for Armstrong, because the cyclist vowed many times that he would never quit fighting.

You might think that the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins would feel the same way. She wrote two books with Armstrong, including the best-seller It’s Not About the Bike—the title, at least, still rings true. But Jenkins, in a recent column entitled “Lance Armstrong doping campaign exposes USADA’s hypocrisy,” begins by writing, “First of all, Lance Armstrong is a good man. There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that.” Jenkins knows him, it’s understandable that she likes him, and the story of how Armstrong beat cancer remains real enough. Still, Jenkins must wonder what the words she wrote about his character, hard work, and racing triumphs are worth now. The book currently has 783 reviews on Amazon.com, 561 of which award it five stars. The subject line of the second one is, “Truly inspirational—a must-read for all.”

Tennis, of course, isn’t cycling. Everyone in that sport really was doing it, and hitting a ball involves more hand-eye skill than powering a bicycle. But that doesn’t mean tennis players can’t benefit from the help these days. As we’ve been told many times, the game is “more physical than ever.” After baseball’s power surge of the late-90s was officially renamed the Steroid Era, any golden era in any sport will, unfortunately but necessarily, come with a degree of suspicion. In tennis, this is a time of unprecedented dominance and unprecedented performances, when records of all sorts—even the length of matches—have been shattered. None of these things by themselves mean that we should be suspicious of anything or any player. But, as Michael Specter found out with Lance Armstrong, it also doesn’t mean we can dismiss the possibility. The reason why I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of tennis players taking PEDs isn’t because of their builds or their stamina or their dominance or their titles or their improvement from one month to the next. It’s simply because they’re athletes, and humans.

The downside of the Lance Armstrong story is that it makes a mockery of drug testing—as the man who never failed one asked, doesn’t cycling believe in it’s own tests? That could change eventually; cycling has reportedly had success measuring an athlete’s biological markers for evidence of doping rather than testing for specific substances. But that’s a topic for another day and post. What I felt today as I walked around the Open thinking about Lance Armstrong, Michael Specter, Sally Jenkins, and the new golden era of tennis was that those who think that catching steroid users is pointless are underestimating what sports means to people.

Tennis fans watch Roger and Rafa and Serena and Novak not just for their dazzling shot-making and athleticism. We watch because we want to relate to, take something from, and join in their struggles and triumphs. Whether the athletes like it or not, they represent us, and show us things about human frailty and possibility. This group of tennis players has done that better, and more thrillingly, than any group I’ve seen. Doug Robson is right, we should relish and marvel at them. It has felt good just to be around to see what they’ve done, and to take a tiny part in it. Watching Lance Armstrong or Roger Clemens or Marion Jones or Barry Bonds wasn’t any less entertaining or amazing because they probably cheated to do it. But it didn’t tell us anything good about ourselves.

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