Okay I’ll do it. I’m not even sure I like the idea but I just can’t resist. Everyone else has a “best of the year” or “worst of the year” or “most notable of the year” and that means I have to do it too. Here are some moments, and notable trends, from the 2006 version of professional tennis.
Maria Sharapova waltzed into the media session after beating Henin-Hardenne … and expected a coronation.
- Three match string of superlative over the top magnificence. First round: Andre Agassi versus Andrei Pavel. A four set first round throw down at the U.S. Open following the emotional and beautiful dedication ceremony of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. After three tiebreakers – one of them to 10 points – America’s retiring hero finally won the match. We might have been surprised by Pavel’s showing unless we’d forgotten that he has a Masters Title to his name and was once the thirteenth ranked player in the world. Round two: Agassi versus Marcos Baghdatis. Agassi came back from two sets down to win a close five setter as the younger Baghdatis fought cramps for what seemed like forever. Somehow, the old man’s cortisone shot outlasted the young man’s endurance. This was Baghdatis’ coming out party on the biggest US tennis stage and the New York crowd fell in love with him as only they could. They heaped boos and cheers onto Baghdatis until the evening finally ended and the two performers took their final bows. It was a late night raucous and loud lovefest. Round three: Agassi versus Benjamin Becker. Time finally ran out on Agassi. He looked like me when I get out of bed in the morning: stiff and bent over. But Becker was having his own problems. He got into the draw through qualifying so this was his sixth match of the event and cramps were threatening. Becker is one of those rare players who went to college for four years before turning pro and it paid off. He’s a smart cookie. Up two sets to one, he focused on holding his serve and barely played in Agassi’s service games until the score was 5-5. Becker then ramped up his game, broke Agassi, held his serve and that was that. Agassi’s transcendent twenty-one year career was over.
- Billie Jean King at the center of the tennis universe. The National Tennis Center became the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on opening night at the U.S. Open. All of my favorite players were there: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, and my biggest favorite of all: Billie Jean. What is more appropriate than naming this huge public park after the tennis player who’s done the most to bring the game to the people? Big props to the USTA. They could have raked in millions by selling the naming rights but they didn’t. And they could have caved into conservatives who complained about Billie Jean’s sexual preference by alluding to “lifestyle” issues. Instead, they did the right thing and Billie Jean was right where she belonged: at the center of the tennis universe.
- Pulling out too soon (or not soon enough): Henin-Hardenne ended the Australian Open final by retiring due to an upset stomach and the Fed Cup final by retiring after aggravating a long-standing knee injury. We could scream at her because she messed up the ending of two signature tennis events or we could applaud her for making it to the final of all four grand slams – winning one of them, the French Open – and ending the year at number one by winning the year-end championship. More likely, we’ll forever be on the fence about her because she’ll always push her fragile body to its limit and she’ll always be on the edge of failure. Maybe H-H’s dilemma is a reflection of the modern athlete’s drive for perfection. Too much training and too much playing and too much desire for one body to manage. She reminds me of a marathon runner who gets to the finish line but has to crawl over it. It’s gut wrenching and you admire the bravery but you wonder if it’s really worth it.
- The crowning of a Queen: Maria Sharapova waltzed into the media session after beating Henin-Hardenne in the US Open final this summer and expected a coronation. Fair enough. She’s been the most consistent performer in the last few years and plays with a mental toughness that never left us wondering if she’d win another slam. We knew Maria would win another slam; it was just a matter of when. Instead of a coronation, though, a few brave reporters dared to ask her about the “Bedtime for Bonzo Banana Incident.” Her practice partner (and part time valet, does he dress her sometimes too?) Michael Joyce sat in her box and held up a banana and gave her hand signals such as holding up four fingers. He was reminding her to eat her banana and, presumably, signaling that she should attack her opponent’s forehand in full view of television cameras despite the rule against on court coaching. A few brave reporters persisted with their questions despite Sharapova’s haughty attitude. How’s this for attitude: “I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I’m gonna talk about is some fingers or a banana, all right? I hope you got that one, thanks.” Finally, a not so brave reporter bailed her out with a softy question and the moment passed. The WTA bailed her out too. They’ve made on court coaching legal thereby bestowing upon Maria her rightful crown.