Reading the Readers: Oct. 3

Thursday, October 03, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

To politely paraphrase Keith Richards, the players keep playing, the readers keep reading: What else can we do? If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

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Steve, I’m sure you’ve heard Andy Roddick said he pushed Novak Djokovic up against a locker at the U.S. Open in 2008. Were there any other locker-room fights in tennis that you know about?—Tracey

I have heard Roddick’s story, and I remember that there was talk of a confrontation after his match with Djokovic. But I never knew that it went that far. One funny thing about Roddick’s version is that he kind of blames his trainer, Doug Spreen, for not being big enough to handle Novak’s trainer; that’s why, Andy says, he had to back down. Also notable was the way Djokovic played that match: Angry, yes, but with a real sense of purpose. I’ve always wished he would play that way more often. As it was, Djokovic took a lot of static for the incident and end up sheepishly losing in the semis to Roger Federer a few days later. (Click here for the original "SARS" presser that got Andy into hot water in the first place.)

These types of stories always make us look back to the good-bad old days of 70s tennis, and that’s where I’ll go for my favorite locker-room contretemps. It involved, as you might guess, Ilie Nastase. At the 1976 U.S. Open at Forest Hills, he played a wild early-round epic against Germany’s Hans Pohmann. The German cramped, but he did it so often and with such over-the-top histrionics that Nastase finally flipped out—Pohmann was obviously stealing some of Nasty’s thunder, and the Bucharest Buffoon couldn't have that.

The overflow New York crowd booed, jeered, and heckled as Nastase ranted around and began to mimic Pohmann’s cramping antics. At the end, after Nastase had beaten him in a third-set tiebreaker (yes, this Grand Slam match was best-of-three), Pohmann refused to shake his hand. So Nastase spat at him. The umpire also refused to shake Nastase’s hand, so Nastase banged his racquet against his chair. The Romanian stalked back to the locker room, heckled all the way. There he encountered Pohmann. Nasty, trying to let bygones be bygones, held out his hand again to Pohmann—Nastase was famous for winding his opponent up on court and then suggesting they go out to dinner afterward. But Pohmann wasn’t having any of it. Again, he refused to shake his hand. So Ilie Nastase said the only thing that Ilie Nastase could say to a German player at that moment: 

“F--- you, Hitler.”

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Hi Steve,

I loved your "Battle of the Sexes" piece, though I was astounded that SI put Bobby Riggs on the cover after the “Mother's Day Massacre.” Please tell me Billie Jean got her due with a cover after her win?

I would be curious to know what else was happening in sports during those weeks, which stories didn't make the cover.—Cristina

Yes, Bobby got his cover for the Mother’s Day Massacre, as you can see here. And no, Billie Jean didn’t get hers. The Battle of the Sexes was written up in the Oct. 1, 1973 issue of SI, which featured running back Anthony Davis of USC, then the No. 1 team in college football, on the cover (see it here).

The King-Riggs write-up was done by Curry Kirkpatrick under what I can only think was a semi-mocking headline: “THERE SHE IS, MS. AMERICA.” To Kirkpatrick’s credit, though, he treated her performance with the same respect that he would have given any other that had been executed under that kind of pressure. A few months earlier, Billie Jean had appeared on the cover after she won Wimbledon.

What’s interesting is that the week after the Riggs Massacre issue, SI ran a cover story under the headline, “SPORT IS UNFAIR TO WOMEN.” The writer, Bill Gilbert, began his article this way:

“There may be worse (more socially serious) forms of prejudice in the United States, but there is no sharper example of discrimination today than that which operates against girls and women who take part in competitive sports, wish to take part, or might wish to if society did not scorn such endeavors.”

Title IX had been passed the previous year, but it had yet to have any effect on women’s participation in sports. The topic was obviously in the air, and you can see why King’s win meant so much.

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Steve, they’ve tried to make the players play faster, but what do you think about banning the towel? Everything about the towel is bad for tennis’s image—(this is my recollection of a reader email that I now cannot locate)

I know what you’re saying. First, there’s the time it takes, which can interrupt the flow of a match, and be used as a stalling tactic. Then there’s the way the whole process accentuates the pros’ prima donna sides. You have the pretend face-wipe to let the kid know you want the towel (though that might actually be preferable to the Ryan Harrison-style finger point into the corner after every rally). Then there’s the visible annoyance from some players if the kid doesn’t understand the signal or fetch the sweaty rag fast enough. Finally, there’s the post dry-off toss back into the kid's face. I also don't love the way, on changeovers at some events, the ball persons are forced to run at top speed, with the towel spread out wide for the player’s convenience, and hand it to them as they walk off the court. None of this makes the players look more friendly and relatable to the average person, and none of it makes me like them more. Except Roger Federer: I’ve never seen him get irritated or act lordly with a ball kid.

But I don’t think you can ban the towel. Players sweat. When you watch matches from, say, the 1980s, there’s definitely less toweling, which is a positive—I seem to remember that Jimmy Connors, in his run at the 1991 U.S. Open, was the first to make it into a form of stalling. But the alternative back then was having to watch John McEnroe compulsively rub his sweaty forehead on his shirtsleeves, or Mats Wilander give his face a good going-over with his sweatband. That’s not better than watching a player use a towel.

The important part to me is that the pros do whatever they need to do in the time allotted. If they can pull that off, I’m not going to complain about anything else.

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