There is nothing in sport quite so public and naked as watching a tennis star trudging off the court after a first-round elimination.
Tennis fans have seen it twice in the past week, as Serena Williams and Andy Roddick were eliminated in the first round.
No place to hide. Just blindly stuff the gear in a bag, maybe manage a wave, and vanish from sight.
This is what draws people to tennis – the loneliness of the singles player, carrying a persona, a resumé, an expectation of still being able to dig something out of muscle memory.
In no other sport is the defeat so early, so finite. Tiger Woods failed to make the cut. Yes, the words still shock, but even the-artist-formerly-known-as-Tiger is performing in the pack, just another name on the board, his score outside the Mendoza line of the second-round cutoff.
Boxing? Yes, I’ve seen a very old Joe Louis training for what everybody (including Louis) knew was going to be a demolition by Rocky Marciano. (My dad took me to Louis’ training camp in New Jersey. Louis was solemn, and miserable, and old.)
Great boxers can run out of time in front of the world. But in that violent business, every fight has the potential for danger, for sudden ends. The first round of a tennis tournament? That’s no time for a star to be eliminated.
We all know that players go downhill. One of the most poignant – and funniest – columns I ever wrote was from Wimbledon in 1991 when Pam Shriver shared the shabby details of being an unseeded player, after all those years, and having to change in the No. 2 dressing room. This most human of players described the wallpaper in the locker room -- Stripes. Plaids. Flowers. Remnants. She made us laugh. She made us cry. That’s why she’s Pam Shriver.
I’ve posted it on this link.
As merciless as time can be, it is still a shock. Baseball players and basketball players can slip downhill, finish up on the bench, get released in a paper transaction in the off-season. But marquee tennis players are out there alone.
All right, so Roddick was – past tense, sort of -- a big-serve finalist at Wimbledon, a one-time champion at the U.S. Open. He still carries that aura, although clay was never his surface, even when he was a contender.
Williams has been a charismatic and powerful champion. It’s hard to see her without thinking of her outbursts at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011. That’s part of the package – an intimidator, who does not encourage sympathy.
That’s the thing about stars. We know them for their sarcasm and their bluster as well as for their victories. Then one day they are stuffing racquets into their duffel bags while the true fans give them respectful applause. Still a cruel sport, punctuated by those long steps off the court, alone.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)