Methods to the Madness

Friday, March 28, 2014 /by
Novak Djokovic moved into the Miami final (AP Photo), while Tyler Ennis and Syracuse experienced an early exit in March (Wikimedia Commons).
Novak Djokovic moved into the Miami final (AP Photo), while Tyler Ennis and Syracuse experienced an early exit in March (Wikimedia Commons).

For those of us who follow tennis and other sports in the U.S., March is the month when we get the most practice with our TV remote controls. We spend the better part of three weeks flicking back and forth between broadcasts of the NCAA college-basketball tournament, and the big tennis events in Indian Wells and Miami. These days, the NCAAs are played during Miami; once upon a time, they happened two weeks earlier, during Indian Wells. One of the pleasurable challenges of working in the press room there was trying to concentrate on a tennis match on one monitor, while keeping an eye on a basketball game on another nearby. The effort, of course, was mostly futile. As you scribbled some useless tidbit about a double fault, a shout would go up from a group of people who were crowded around a screen in the next row, watching hoops. You had obviously missed the buzzer beater.

To fans in the States, the NCAA tournament, which determines the Division I national champions in basketball, is known as March Madness. To the players, it’s known as the Big Dance. I can’t say that tennis’ version quite measures up to those classics of sloganeering hype. As fun as Indian Wells is, the word “madness” doesn’t come to mind when I walk the grounds there—unless an occasional senior moment qualifies. And as important as these tournaments are, most would agree that if tennis has a Big Dance, it still takes place at the All England Club in the summer. 

But there are similarities. In the 1960s, tennis was a last bastion of amateurism. Looking back, it’s difficult to grasp that as late as 1968, the winner of the U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe, received $280 in expense money, which he used to make a monthly payment on his Ford Mustang. Yet today, college football and basketball players are still playing for scholarship and expense money, even as they help bring in millions for their universities. If you’ve been following the news in the U.S., you know that this week, for the first time, athletes at a college were deemed to be employees, and thus theoretically allowed to unionize. Perhaps in the years ahead, collegiate athletes will look to the struggle of tennis players in the 1960s and 70s for inspiration.

At a less serious level, I’ve always been amazed at the capacity of both tennis and college basketball to generate hate. It’s no coincidence that in 2011, the NCAA tournament inspired an article in Slate entitled, “Teams We Hate: Duke, Akron, and Five More Odious Schools in the NCAA Tournament." That was followed last year by Grantland's “The Most Hated College Basketball Players of All Time.” The latter was written as a bracket, with seeds, and voted on by readers. If you know anything about college hoops, you know who the winner was. Even my mom, when I asked her to guess the champion, immediately said, “Oh, it has to be Christian Laettner.”

She was right. The much-reviled Laettner led Duke to back-to-back titles in the 1990s, and his miracle buzzer-beater jump shot against Kentucky from ’92 still haunts us, like a horrible recurring national nightmare, in NCAA promotional ads every March. Seriously, I can still remember where I was when it happened, and the searing pain it caused. 

By now, Duke-hating is a sport in itself in this country. Grantland filled a full quarter of its villain-bracket with players from the school, and sportswriter Will Blythe wrote an entire book about its basketball team called To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever (the cover pretty much sets the tone). Despising Duke is a class-based activity; it’s an elite, expensive, smart-person school that also happens to have the most successful basketball program of the last 30 years. What’s not to resent?

Tennis-fan hate reminds me more of the partisan divide in U.S. politics. First, you instinctively choose a side in a rivalry—Rafa or Roger, Chris or Martina, Borg or McEnroe, Serena or Justine. From then on, you give your unconditional love to the player you’ve chosen, and despise everything about the player you’ve rejected. You always think the best of your favorite, and find whatever his or her rival does suspicious (at best). After a million close-ups on TV, your favorite player becomes a virtual member of your family—no one understands this person the way you do. His or her rivals, as threats to the family member, must be destroyed. Or at least highly disliked.

Yet it’s virtually impossible to explain the appeal of college sports to tennis fans from other countries. Last year at the U.S. Open, London tennis writers shook their heads at the sight of 110,000 people, all in one color, gathering to watch a football game between Notre Dame and the University of Michigan. And when you see it from that point of view, it does seem slightly ludicrous. My only explanation is to compare college athletics to another event that retains some of its old amateur spirit, the Olympics. During the Games and the NCAAs, you get briefly but intensely involved in the lives of people you’ve never heard of, and whose names you will have forgotten two weeks later. And that's the nature of the excitement: It comes from the fact that everything is on the line for them right now

Part of the appeal of college sports and the Olympics is that this particular type of excitement feels old-fashioned. For most of the competitors, it has nothing to do with money or a future profession. Sports is something they’ll move on from, and that strikes part of us as the way it should be. The opposite feels true for tennis, at least in March. In our now-highly-professionalized sport, there’s always another match, another tournament, another chance coming down the pike. In fact, this month there are two tournaments that are exactly alike. Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova went out early in Indian Wells? No problem, there’s always Miami next week.

At the same time, though, the now-ness of the Olympics and the NCAA tournament is absurd and unfair. Neither is a good way to decide who’s the best at any skill; these events just tell you who was the best at it on a single day. That makes for heart-pounding viewing, but it’s no way to structure a year-round professional sport. Tennis fans often lament that the game goes too far in the other direction, that it has no climactic tournament or moment. And it's true: The year-end No. 1 can be decided, and is usually decided, by the tour's computer, after a random match that takes place months in advance of the end of the season. 

Yet I think tennis, once amateur, now professional, has stumbled upon something close to an ideal balance between thrills and fairness. The Grand Slams function as four NCAA tournaments each year; for the players and their fans, winning one of them is always going to be a do-it-now-or-you-may-never-have-this-chance-again kind of moment—think of Andy Murray in the last game of the 2013 Wimbledon final. But determining who's the best in any given tennis season never depends on just one match. Recent reductions in the schedule, however minor, have also made the year-end No. 1 ranking feel more prestigious. The top player owns that title for a little bit longer now, and each season feels more individuated, like something worth winning in itself.

As for this weekend, we can enjoy the best of both worlds. There will be madness on the basketball court, but we can return to sanity on the tennis court in Miami, where the world’s two best women, Serena Williams and Li Na, will face off, and the world’s two best men, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will be in action. And we can love and hate whomever of those people we choose.

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