It happens every August: The month drags along, too long, too long, tourists swarm the city, cicadas drone in the suburbs, fist fights break out in the Hamptons over a Sunday Times … until, suddenly, at the end of the month, the U.S. Open pops out of nowhere, to wake us up and yank us, like a snap-the-whip, into the empire of September–early sunsets, cool evenings, heart-hurting nostalgia–and remind us of what tennis means to America.
Which is … what? Our national championship, unlike those of Australia, France and England, has always been an ambivalent phenomenon, mustering nothing like the TV audiences that accrue to the World Series and the Super Bowl. The fault lies with the game itself. It must be said that with the exception of its single boom–from the mid-70’s till the early 80’s–tennis has always been suspect here, lacking a blue-collar fan base, too hard to learn for the average weekend duffer, too patrician or effeminate to catch the national imagination.
Things are changing. Fast. Tennis isn’t what it used to be. Wake most any sports fan up in the middle of the night and ask who the most exciting figures (no pun intended) in tennis today are, and you’ll get the instant, sleepy answer: Venus and Serena Williams, no contest. O.K., Anna Kournikova–who can help it? But this is where things stand today. Say what you will about Sampras and Agassi and Rafter; as the Open comes around again, the old stars are fading, and new stars are rising. And right now, the women’s game–the Williamses’ game–is where the show is.
For a long time, as far as America at large was concerned, there wasn’t much show at all. Tennis was all white–balls, clothes, people–and polite. The Open era, starting in 1968, at least injected real money into the sport (it was the first time professionals were allowed to enter the national championship), and then, for that magic decade of ’75 to ’85 or so, we had solid show business: the camera-ready fury of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe; the rock-star remove of Björn Borg; the poetry of Guillermo Vilas; the brief, Nijinsky-esque flare of Yannick Noah. And holding up the women’s side all by itself, the fierce, psychodramatic mano à mano between the infinitely neurotic and fascinating Martina Navratilova and the unflappable but never unsexual Chris Evert. They all transited through New York at the end of every August, like comets, shedding their light and heat on us, and the city’s electricity returned the favor, giving their star-charge a boost.
And then, somehow, it all went away. Mr. Borg walked; Mr. McEnroe faded. The Big Game came along, in the person of Boris “Boom-Boom” Becker, and all at once the old style of tennis, with which the recreational player could vaguely identify, went the way of the wooden racket. Mr. Connors–rooster-strutting, low-rent, obscene–lingered to electrify our Flushing Meadow evenings, unbelievably, into his 40th year. But suddenly nuclear tennis was the rule, and we could no longer quite follow. He’s doing what? The ball is going how fast? Mr. Becker was charming, mensch- y–a good German, Gott sei Dank–but somehow too nice to be electrifying. The same could certainly be said of Stefan Edberg. And Ivan Lendl, as great as he was, was just plain … well, kind of icky.
It was the 90’s, and the game was in bad shape. Jim Courier was the future of American tennis, and Mr. Courier, for all his athletic gifts, had all the electricity of a utility infielder for the Columbus Clippers. Then came Andre Agassi.
Mr. Agassi stirred some interest. He was small, cocky, and–best of all, somehow–he came from Las Vegas. He was related by marriage to another Vegas-ite, Pancho Gonzalez, the angriest great American player of all time. And while Mr. Agassi didn’t seem particularly angry himself, he was agreeably strange: His ostensibly ingratiating smile appeared to bespeak a conflicted soul. We wondered about him. His hair and clothes, agreeably wacky, changed from day to day. Not to mention the fact that–always important–he was an athletic genius. The marketing people perked up: Product placement could re-commence! The cool evening air of Flushing Meadows felt charged again.
Meanwhile, Pete Sampras was coming on, too, and his tennis genius was even greater than Mr. Agassi’s. His charisma, though, seemed more on the order of his idol, Rod Laver’s. Translation: nil–it was Mr. Laver’s game that was electrifying; we didn’t care diddly about his personal life. The same was true of Mr. Sampras, who seemed pleasant, smiley, cute if slightly simian, and who did his best theatrics in pantomime: He let his racket do the talking.
Tennis, the only single-combat spectator sport besides boxing, has always been a kind of theater. From Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden to the present, the game’s brightest lights have been star performers. We come to watch tennis’ fight, its dance, but we must also see the faces. The great tournaments, the Grand Slams–the French Open, the Australian, the U.S., and Wimbledon–are, finally, great theater. And, of course, no theater is like New York theater. Patrick Rafter never looked comfortable in Wimbledon whites; he didn’t seem to truly come alive till he could wear his war paint, samurai ’do and mini-billboards at Flushing Meadows.
Yet even with his two U.S. Open titles, beneath the frippery Mr. Rafter was just a nice Australian boy, not the important transitional figure tennis needed until the Next Big Thing came to N.Y.C. While nobody was looking, the girls took over.
Ms. Navratilova had proved a woman could play like a man, but this wasn’t going to particularly impress anybody if, more and more, the woman grew to look like a man as well. But then along came the apple of Jerry Seinfeld’s eye, lissome Gabriela Sabatini; and then Steffi Graf and Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport and–alley oop!–suddenly the days of endless moonball rallies and lacy tennis suits and polite little feminine grunts were dead as a doornail. Suddenly women could hit the living shit out of the ball.
And nobody hits it any harder than the Williamses, who are the present and future of tennis rolled into one. With their incredible bodies, superlative athleticism and sunny arrogance (not to mention that juicy, tragically conflicted sister-rivalry), they’re precisely the wake-up call the game needed if it is to attract a wider playership and audience. And Arthur Ashe Stadium is the stage upon which they were born to strut.
The U.S. Open’s center court couldn’t have been better renamed than for the man who galvanized and organized American tennis in the Open era. And the great secret about Arthur Ashe is that, for all his seeming quiet modesty, he had his own brand of kingly arrogance. He could never have traveled as far as he did, or accomplished as much–largely alone–without it.
The U.S. Open is a fiesta of arrogance, show business on a Big Apple scale, and Arthur Ashe Stadium, from the Deco Turf 2 surface of the court to the upper bleachers, is its ideal venue: stadium and studio and theater all in one. It feels big and intimate at once. Importance hovers in its molecules.
And it’s social theater, too. As befits a New York venue, the near seats are sewn up by the machers; you can’t buy or luck your way in. And the machers are our machers. The cameras may zoom in on movie stars or TV stars, but we know who really has the juice at Flushing Meadows. If Ashe is the place’s genius loci, Don Hewitt is something like its presiding spirit. Who outside of New York City knows or cares who Mr. Hewitt is? But here he’s the squinty, flinty top of the media heap, the guy who holds the wires, knows where the bodies are buried, and gets to sit wherever the hell he wants. He’s the big boss of the big show, and at the U.S. Open, the show is what it’s all about.
What Alps remain for Mr. Sampras to climb, now that he’s broken Roy Emerson’s record of 12 Grand Slam wins and surpassed Mr. Borg’s modern-day string to conquer Wimbledon seven times? The case could be made that, at long last, the greatest tennis player of all time is out of gas. He was off the tour for three months last spring with a back injury. At Wimbledon this past July, fellow players thought he was dogging it when he complained about his sore shin–until they saw him limp up the steps. The truth is, at a geriatric 29, Mr. Sampras is starting to look his age. Tennis takes it out of you; just ask any weekend hacker. Then ask somebody, no matter how young and strong and talented, who guts it out six hours a day, seven days a week, week in and week out, through jet lag and bad hotel meals. And yet Mr. Sampras made it through Wimbledon on sheer heart and intestinal fortitude, and New York crowds can inject a huge adrenaline boost. Let us not forget, he’s the guy who puked, right on court, during a four-hour U.S. Open quarterfinal against Alex Corretja in 1996, and went on to win the match and the tournament. Now, that’s guts.
And speaking of tennis’ great Sick Men, what of the top-seeded Mr. Agassi, who, Freudianly, wrenched his back in a Vegas fender-bender right after returning from a disappointing Wimbledon, and just in time to avoid being pressed into Davis Cup service by Kommandant McEnroe? There’s always been something smarmy about Mr. Agassi–that shit-eating grin, those blown kisses, that worn-on-his-sleeve religion–and yet he never fails to be compelling, whether he’s marrying then quickly unmarrying Brooke Shields, cavorting on the beach with Steffi Graf, hanging enigmatically with that mysterious trainer-guru, or coming back to tennis’ heights after a long season in the crapper, losing to journeymen in the qualifying rounds. He was the guy, after all, who lost his hair and ballooned on a Big Mac diet–then came back as a sculpted, shaven-headed Superman, the fittest man on the tour. It’s those wild transitions that have always kept us interested in him, and he’s bound to go through two or three at this year’s Open alone.
Australia’s Mr. Hewitt and America’s Jan-Michael Gambill are tennis’ two new blond Beauty Boys–except that they can both really play. Nineteen-year-old Mr. Hewitt’s the one with an electrifying record this past year, with four titles and victories over those hard-serving Greek guys, Philippoussis and Sampras. The white-hot Mr. Hewitt’s been able to beat just about anybody these days, except the even hotter Gustavo Kuerten, the current world No. 1, who took him out earlier this month in the semifinals of the hard-court RCA Open. A token of things to come?
The gangly, stubbly Mr. Kuerten–“Guga” to his zillions of Brazilian fans, so insanely devoted they’re apt to start chanting his name at the drop of a shot–is living proof that you don’t have to be a prime physical specimen to be the best tennis player in the world. With his thin arms and legs, and that funky kerchief on his head, he looks a little like Buster Poindexter at a costume party. He sure can play, though. He’s got a big serve. He’s got a Web site (www.gugakuerten.com.br, “Site Oficial do Guga”). And, seeded second here, he’s got a good chance of taking the Open from Mr. Sampras or Mr. Agassi.
It’s a family affair: Serena beat Martina Hingis to win the Open last year, avenging Venus’ loss to Ms. Hingis in the semis. Then the sisters won at doubles. Venus beat Serena to take Wimbledon this year. Then they went out and won the doubles there, too. The third-seeded Venus has been trouncing everyone in sight over the past couple of months, but don’t count out fifth-seeded Serena in this year’s Open: Canny tournament organizers will no doubt put the most amazing siblings ever to dominate the game on opposite sides of the draw, thus setting up another possible finals showdown, and tear-jerker. And thriller. Pound for pound, ability for charisma, there’s never been anyone more exciting in the sport than Venus or Serena. Somewhere, Lenglen and Tilden are applauding madly.
She was named after Ms. Navratilova, which certainly spoke to destiny but said nothing to character. Has there ever been a less-endearing champion than the Swiss Miss? Oh, all right, Ivan Lendl—to whom Ms. Hingis bears a weird physical resemblance, buckteeth and all. But it’s not just her looks (actually, she’s kind of cute, if you squint), it’s her all-around coldness and arrogance, her general uneagerness to please, that put one in mind of Orson Welles’ great line about cuckoo clocks in The Third Man.
Where are the words to tell you how I adore Lindsay Davenport? The fact that she looks a little like Grady Sutton is, in my mind, all in her favor: She’s living proof that cuteness is only skin deep, that the spirit (and skills) of a great champion can underlie a less-than-cosmetically-perfect exterior. To these eyes, she’s a magnificent woman. Her tears, her sheer grace and magnanimity after her 1998 U.S. Open victory made me cry.
Maxim! GQ! Down, boys! Rrowf! Back! I mean … what can you say? Except that, the slaverings of college boys and the carping of other women on the tour aside, Kournikova really can play tennis: She’s seeded 12th here, in a reasonably deep field. Something tells me, though, that she’s cannon fodder early on. Something else tells me, though, that CBS’ ratings will mysteriously spike when she plays, in any case.
And speaking of CBS’ ratings, how about a nice, tournament-long spike for one of sports’ greatest broadcasters ever, Captain Davis Cup himself, Mr. Loose Cannon, the fabulous, piratical Johnny Mac? Forget sports broadcasters: greatest broadcasters, period. Never predictable–thank God!–and always penetrating, Mr. McEnroe refuses to toe the company line on anything, whether it’s political correctness (he’s still a bit of a chauvinist when it comes to women’s tennis, though I’d pay big money to see him play Venus) or on-air deportment (he used salty language during the Wimbledon broadcast!). And his shrewd analyses of tennis strategy, personality and business go far beyond what any other former player has dared to say on the air. Now if only he’d ditch that annoying habit of referring to players by their nationalities (“That backhand cross-court was a little too much for the Swede”)