After watching all the US Open semi-finals singles matches today, I was asked by a student, “Why and when did our sport get so ugly?” My first response was that ratings and money have compressed sports behavior into MTV sound bites that are often undignified. Then I started to think more about the question and what was behind it.
These dramatic on court antics certainly don’t reflect the honorable background of tennis from its days as a gentleman’s game. I noted the sport’s most honorable exceptions like Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer. Each contributed their own character to the tennis legacy. Kim’s friendship and graciousness was beloved and admired in/out of the locker room and around the world. Li Na for her outgoing spirit and candid nature. Pete was famous for his low-key public persona and for letting his racket do the talking.
Roger Federer brings a multitude of facets of enrichment to the tennis industry that will linger well beyond his competitive career. The crowds that are drawn to Federer are there for many reasons. At the top of the list are his historical perspective, poetic motions, and respect for the sport. Yes, he is a wizard’s assortment of skills and he makes teaching tennis easier, but there is something more.
He is a throw back; a reminder of what tennis was like when Laver, Rosewall, Smith, and Ashe strode the grounds of the majors. Perhaps if players like Marty Fish, Tim Henman, and Coco Vandeweghe got to number one, he would have enough company at the top of the sport to bring back the behavior of yore. The dignified times for which so many purists yearn.
Serena should watch how Roger handles the “pressure” of winning when you are expected to win. His approach to high expectations is that he far prefers that to the alternatives. A pretty simple reply to a vexing issue for many right?
Most psychologists would agree that consistent, over-the-top emotionalism is harmful to athletic performance. It needs to be carefully metered out so that the athlete’s level of arousal can be kept constant. This is as important a principle of competition as that of “temporary amnesia” for the loss of a point, game, or match. So, we come back to Roger.
He has held the flag for elegance in temperament, for athletic amnesia, and for grace under tremendous athletic pressure for many years. Will tennis swing back toward net rushing if he prevails in the finals? I don’t know. I hope so. One thing I know for sure, he won’t scream so loud and so often that he might break a blood vessel in his neck and he won’t tear his shirt off.