US Open 2005: the love-in

A lot of comparisons have been made between Andre Agassi’s run in this year’s US Open at age 35 and Jimmy Connors run to the semifinals in 1991 at age 39. It’s not just the age thing. Jimmy Connors had always been respected as a tennis player but he was hardly a beloved sports figure. Crass and outright unsportsmanlike behavior could not be ignored.

I always knew that Connors had wiped out a ball mark on a clay court before the umpire could come down out of his chair and look at the mark. But I didn’t know that Connors’ ball had made the mark. This meant that he had to run all the way over to his opponent’s side of the net to erase it. The linesperson had called the ball in but Connors probably knew that he had hit it wide and he wanted to make sure the call was not overturned.

Connors was at the end of a long career in 1991. He’d survived a history of legal tussles with the tennis establishment and a host of injuries to fight and scrap his way through tough matches to get to the semis. New York loves a fighter and an entertainer and this was the final crowning of the tough American champion from the rough town of East St. Louis, Illinois.

Agassi’s struggles have been personal but no less dramatic. He survived an image problem and a confidence problem to become one of only five players to win all four grand slams. He transformed himself from a punk to a wise elder and the 2005 Open was a love-fest in celebration of Andre.

There is, however, a major difference between Connors’ era and the current version of the men’s professional tennis tour. Most of the players seem to like each other. Connors and John McEnroe respected each other but they certainly didn’t like each other and they didn’t pass time chitchatting in the locker room. You didn’t hear anything like the mutual admiration club between James Blake and Agassi after their late night, five set thriller in the this year’s semis. “I know if I were in the stands, I’d be cheering for him to. Because he’s a great champion in every sense of the word,” said Blake of Agassi.

McEnroe interviewed Roger Federer in a Manhattan sidewalk café during the Open. Federer tweaked McEnroe about the sour relations between players during McEnroe’s time on the tour. McEnroe asked Federer how he managed to remain so calm under the pressure of maintaining the number one ranking and winning grand slams. Federer replied: “I was too anxious to win. And I said, every guy who had a game which I couldn’t beat, I thought, ‘This guy is an idiot.’ And then when I became number one, I was beating the guys, I started to understand. Well, it’s not about how they play or whatever. It’s how they are in person. And in the locker room I really feel like we get along very well.”

That’s an interesting statement. It’s a repudiation of much that McEnroe stood for. Federer is not concerned about his opponents, except tactically. He not only respects them but he’s figured out that it’s not about them.

Of course, Federer doesn’t have to play against Ilie Nastase. McEnroe and Nastase once played a match at the Open in which Nastase behaved so badly that the chair umpire defaulted him. The tournament director, keeping in mind that the stars are more important than the umpire, defaulted the chair umpire and allowed the match to continue so that McEnroe could win it honestly.

Federer doesn’t throw a tantrum with the hope of unsettling his opponent if the match is not going his way. Neither does Blake, Agassi or any current player except maybe Lleyton Hewitt or Guillermo Coria.

It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

This is an unusually harmonious time in professional tennis. The doubles players are unhappy because the ATP is trying to phase them out but there isn’t a rogue group of players trying to start up their own league and very few players get defaulted. I’d like to say that this is a good thing except that tennis continues to be mired in a long slump. It’s not a popular sport, at least not in the U.S. Does this mean that we need tennis players who act like professional wrestlers before people will tune in or turn up at tournaments?

Golf has the most similar fan base to tennis meaning that it fights for the same advertisers. But look at the golf tour. Its popularity is at an all time high. Put Tiger Woods on television on a Sunday afternoon within striking distance of the leader and you’re guaranteed a good rating. Yet there’s nothing controversial about Tiger Woods’ behavior. He has a temper but he’s hardly crass. He probably doesn’t say much to Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh in the locker room but he also doesn’t run over and kick their balls off the fairway. He’s not even a good interview. Ever since a journalist printed his off color comments in a GQ article early in his career, Woods has kept his personality under wraps.

So we don’t need Hulk Hogan or Goldberg to pick up a tennis racket. But we could use an honest-to-God rivalry and it would help if one of the rivals was a colorful American.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to be satisfied with soaking up the love and watching exemplary tennis. Could be worse.