Coach's Corner

The Masters and Wimbledon

Wimbledon is a care-fully orchestrated affair, comparable to only the Masters in the way its image, its mystique, its customs, and its appearance on television are manipulated for public consumption, the myriad subtle ways in which these annual events are spun or sold, or however you want to put it, to the American public.

Running both events are a cabal of prehistoric white guys who, if they had their way, would like to return to the days when Britannia ruled the waves and drivers were made of wood. But, to give these geezers their due, though they'd be more comfortable with Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden than Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi, they've mastered the complex trick of turning a free and aggressive press into nothing more than a slick whore, happy to buy and distribute the party line from Augusta and a London suburb.

Both ooze pomp: In England, some ilk of bored royalty -- the odd prince, duke, or the Old Queen herself -- are prominently featured at every match. Even snotty American tennis brats, who think Sir is a new rock band, are required to bow to English royalty at the end of every match. The Masters has its own royalty -- the past champions, Snead, Nelson, one day Nicklaus and Palmer -- ceremonially starting the tournament. Green must be an important element of mystique; Augusta has its lush course, its green blazers. Wimbledon has its ancient Centre Court, with the dark old green bleachers and stands, to go with the grass courts. Both events prefer to be viewed as the ultimate tournament in their respective sports. A win assures that the winner will be discussed in the hushed tones reserved for the gods. Both venues are commonly perceived (the ultimate triumph for the geezers) as the most hallowed, sacred temples in their sports.

Yes, they have much in common, but alas, one of these sainted places is a fraud. A well-disguised fraud, but a flimflam game nonetheless. That place is Wimbledon. It hasn't always been thus, at least I don't think so, though with the All England Tennis Club's propaganda machine always in high, holy gear, I'm not so sure. Still, my instinct is that the full-fledged fraud didn't commence until 1985 -- when the expensive technology the Russians and Americans used to fuel a 50-year arms race finally filtered down to the simple tennis racket -- the year Boris Becker won his first title. Prior to '85, a check of the names in Wimbledon men's finals is a checklist of the great names of the Open Era: McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, Borg, Ashe, Newcombe, Laver, Kramer -- all players who could win consistently on any surface.

But then things began to change. Pedestrian names like Cash, Curran, Stich, Krajicek, Pioline, Henman, and the likable Ivanisevic began appearing, every year, in the finals at what the English would have us believe is the world's foremost tennis contest. If these names don't exactly conjure memories of tennis lords, it's because these guys are one-trick ponies -- generally, big, strong men with graphite/kryptonite enhanced sticks, producing serves (when they go in) that are virtually untouchable. Each year, legions of these guys advance through the draw, playing a dull, sledgehammer game best appreciated by German discus throwers. Though Pete Sampras was a great all-court player, he had to dispense with these imposters by playing their power game just a bit better than they could. A three-shot rally is as extinct at Wimbledon as the woolly mammoth. The game became hit a serve as hard as possible and charge the net. Ace totals now commonly soar into the hundreds by the time a champion is crowned.

There's no better example of this breed than the affable Croat, Goran Ivanisevic, who has been to the finals four times in the past decade, only to quietly vanish again until the next June. Ivanisevic had virtually disappeared from the pro tennis circuit. His world ranking had dropped, due to age, many injuries, and limited tennis ability, down into the gloomy sub regions of 21-year-old satellite tour players. He was washed up, finished … a career deader than a week-old mackerel, not even qualified to enter Wimbledon, getting in on the whimsy of a wild-card entry. But he could still serve. And for two weeks, with a few volleys and even fewer groundstrokes, Goran, a tennis Dracula, came back to life.

But this isn't a feel-good Goran Ivanisevic tale of redemption. It's the tale of a shuck and jive tennis tournament, still hidden behind the Papal tapestry of the All England Club. Pretenders don't succeed at Augusta. To win, a player must drive, putt, chip, and deal with the pressure of playing on some acres of grass and hills those cagey old racists in their seersucker suits have convinced us are as sacred as the battlefields at Gettysburg. The brown grass of Wimbledon has become a dressed-up circus -- a game of chance where a sharply conditioned body and skill with the racquet becomes a secondary consideration, a diversion where a player with a big serve and a two-week run of good fortune can be king.

The Wimbledon title should be viewed as it really is, the least meaningful of the four majors.

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