Of Niners and Nole, Ravens and Rafa

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons, AP Photo
Wikimedia Commons, AP Photo

The calendar has been kind to those of us here in the United States who are football as well as tennis fans. I can remember sitting in my hotel room in Melbourne during Australian Opens of the past, watching a commercial-free broadcast of the Super Bowl, with a pair of competent but relatively unknown commentators, all the while shaking my head and thinking, “This just ain’t right.”

I’d glance at the coffee table, wondering, “Where’s the chips and sour cream-and-onion dip? (Best made from a simple French onion soup mix packet.) Why must I call room service and get hosed for 15 bucks for a lousy beer, when I ought to be spearing my fifth from the fridge? Isn’t Apple, Budweiser, or E*TRADE supposed to bust out the greatest commercial in the history of television right about now?”

Thankfully, for a few years now we’ve had the welcome break of a week between the Australian Open final and the Super Bowl. Just time enough to catch your breath and change mental gears. Soon we’ll be rolling our eyes at the very words, “wardrobe malfunction.”

Now we can focus on the inevitable controversies—will we have a critical time-out called late in the big game because Ray Lewis has a “locked rib?”—and numerous, rich subtexts. The latter is something tennis generally lacks because its major source of appeal is also its outstanding shortcoming as a sporting enterprise: It’s an individual sport, a tightly-packed cluster of stories or narratives that intersect only briefly and in pretty small ways.

In tennis, once you get beyond the relatively simple answers to questions like, “Can Djokovic handle Murray’s first serve?” Or, ”Can Nadal find Federer’s backhand?” the particular theme in question dries up, quickly. Tennis isn’t rocket science, but football is—or at least the closest thing there is to it in sports.

Football is the most strategic of all games, and success or failure really does depend on how well or badly all 11 of the moving parts on either offense or defense work together. Full disclosure: Football is the only sport besides tennis that I care about and bother to watch, although I think I would like hockey, too—if only I could see that danged puck.

Football is glorious, like war (think what you want of me, but ask first yourself if you were ever inspired or moved by a war story). Tennis, by contrast, has never shed the rap that it’s, well, genteel. But it always pays to poke around beneath the veneer of convention. Is Djokovic’s ape-like chest-beating and howling after he’s beaten Nadal (and himself) to a pulp in a five-hour match all that different from the bombastic end-zone dance?

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two sports as different as football and tennis. There’s that whole team-individual thing. Then, football is perceived, like soccer, as a sport for the “masses” while tennis, like golf, appears to be for the aspiring urban and suburban bourgeois. Yet they share some key features.

Each sport is a stop-and-start game, so strategy looms pretty large; the server, like the offense in football, gets to initiate the action, usually with some sense of what he/they wish to accomplish. Also, football involves full and generally painful contact, while tennis represents the most successful sublimation of physical contact in all of sports. Unlike golf, in which you play the course and individual competition really is incidental, tennis is all about beating the person across the net—yet you never actually touch, never mind “beat” your opponent.

Given the sociological territory staked out by the two sports, some of you might be surprised to learn that the roots of football and tennis are quite similar. It isn’t as if toffs in the late 19th century gravitated to tennis, while their working class brethren flooded the gridiron.

Both tennis and football were seen as conducive to “character building”—tennis because you were all alone out there, under significant pressure, and obliged to absorb defeat as well as victory with grace and dignity. Football was important because it taught you about teamwork (read: suppression of self) and, well, because it hurt. It rewarded and/or taught “toughness.” Both sports were supposed to create leaders, on the battlefield (for which every field of play is a stand-in) as well as in society.

Originally in the U.S., tennis and football were both extremely popular in the Ivy Leagues—meaning, at the time, to people of a certain class. At about the same time that Harvard student Dwight Davis dreamed up the international competition that would become the Davis Cup (the first championship was played in 1900), football was working out and embracing the rule changes that would finally and conclusively differentiate it from its progenitor, rugby.

If tennis has not been nearly as successful in outgrowing its patrician roots as football, it may be for two simple reasons:

First, you can mark out an ersatz football field anywhere; all you really need is a cheap ball, as few as four players, and open space (in my childhood, that meant almost anything, including the street, where we played on asphalt under the streetlights between the rows of parked cars on either side, pausing whenever a car came down the street).  

Second, you need to know how to throw, run and catch—and nothing more. There’s no bedeviling instrument to master, like a racquet, which costs more than a football and requires strings and regular maintenance.

Curiously, tennis and football have diverged dramatically, yet followed somewhat parallel paths. Both of them enjoyed a massive growth spurt at about the same time, although the storied “tennis boom” failed in what has always been, perhaps wrong-headedly, the grail—transcending class and race to attain universal popularity.

Interestingly, the great expansions in football and tennis took place in unison. And they were joined together in one individual, Dallas billionaire Lamar Hunt.

In 1960, Hunt helped found the American Football League as a rival to the already well-established National Football League. Hunt’s league was so successful that the NFL quickly agreed to a merger, and the best teams in the new American and National Football Conferences met in the first Super Bowl, in 1967—almost exactly one year before the advent of Open tennis (Hunt’s own team, the Kansas City Chiefs, lost the game to the Green Bay Packers.)

But even as that game was being played, Hunt was busy wooing and signing the “Handsome Eight” to contracts to play on his World Championship Tennis circuit, which made its debut in the first year of Open tennis, 1968. The group included John Newcombe, Tony Roche, and Cliff Drysdale, with Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase and others were soon to follow.

Hunt’s vision was to create something like an international NFL of tennis, with players under contract (like NFL players) competing in a strongly administered league run by a commissioner who made all the critical decisions. The WCT also had its own Super Bowl, the World Championship Tennis Finals, which had a significant role in tennis lore and legend.

But perceiving the obvious threat represented by WCT, a number of stakeholders, ranging from the ITF (which administers the Grand Slam events and Davis Cup) to small potatoes promoters and agents informally banded together to block and ultimately elbow WCT out of the way—clearing the way for the “Grand Prix,” or tour concept that survives to this day.

I sometimes wonder where tennis might have gone had Hunt’s league survived, the way his football operation did. Would it have made an appreciable difference in the still relatively narrow (sociological) reach of the game, or has tennis really benefitted from its sometimes maddeningly de-centralized nature?

I’m sure the NFL would just love to enjoy the kind of success tennis has when it comes to global reach, even as tennis must covet the degree to which football, like no other sport, transcends class and race. It’s something to think about during Sunday’s half-time show, because about the only thing I don’t like about the Super Bowl is the half-time entertainment.

*****

P.S. I’m for the Baltimore Ravens. I know they have a reputation as thugs (an east coast version of the old-school Oakland Raiders), and I’m not wild about that. But they seem to be in tune somehow with the nature of their gritty, stressed city, they’re an AFC team, and I’ve just never like anything San Francisco when it comes to sports.

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