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Jim Murray

Discreet Silence Suddenly Turns Into an Uproar

September 20, 1985|Jim Murray

Tennis is not a game, it's a subculture. It's supposed to be the last stand of snobbery in this universe. It's meant to be played in icy politeness by these guys wearing long white pants and a disdainful glare. Everyone talks as if he's terminally constipated and his horizons never extend beyond the ad court.


Tennis can make Dempsey-Firpo look like a pillow fight. It's been called "the Balkans of Sport" by more than one writer. Underneath that civilized veneer lurk the social instincts of a crouched leopard.

Nowhere in sport do athletes say and do the spiteful things to each other they do in tennis. Who can forget Helen Wills Moody, about to lose her first match ever to Helen Jacobs, suddenly defaulting three games into the final set rather than give her opponent the satisfaction of whole victory? Where is gamesmanship more ruthlessly applied than in center court of this cutthroat competition? The players were all named "Bunny" or "Bitsy" or were Barons or Earls, but love was only a score. There was very little other evidence of it anywhere else on court.

Still, even for tennis, no one was prepared for the quotes coming out of the Volvo tournament at the tennis center at UCLA the other day.

The world is used to tennis players criticizing linesmen, umpires, the press, the audience, cameramen, TV announcers, but heretofore they have stopped well short of breaking up historical alliances or teetering us all on the brink of World War III.

Ken Flach is not your basic household name in tennis. I mean, he's not John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg or Boris Becker. He's not even Johan Kriek. But he is, as it happens, at the moment, the reigning U.S. doubles champion since he and someone named Robert Seguso won that title at Flushing Meadow two weeks ago.

Flach and Seguso defeated the French pair, Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte, in that final, and you can't believe the things Flach (fittingly pronounced "Flack") had to say not only about his opponents but about France and Frenchmen everywhere--for all of Europe and Europeans.

I hate to think what this is going to do to the State Department and really wish you could keep it from George Shultz. And it's a good thing Charles de Gaulle isn't around to get wind of it, but Tennis Player Flach took dead aim at 225 years of Franco-American amity and comradeship and unloaded himself of the following opinion:

"In war, whenever the French were in trouble, they lay down and died. All the Europeans are like that--they're wimps when the pressure's on."

Take that, Lafayette. Put that in your scrapbook, Marshal Foch. Up your ear, Rochambeau.

Sacre bleu. Mon Dieu. Zut, alors. Why, it's an affaire of honor! It should be settled by pistols at dawn in the Bois de Boulogne. De Gaulle would have the gunboats out.

Whatever would Emile Zola say? Balzac? Voltaire? Jeanne D'Arc? What about the brave poilus of the Marne? Soissons? Malmedy?

Would even Marie Antoinette say that? Is there a rumbling from Napoleon's Tomb? Is this not unsupportable, this calumny on a noble culture? What of the Resistance? The Maquis? Could Victor Hugo be able to bear this insult to the France of Roland, Charlemagne, the Sun King, the Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Where would the U.S. Open be if France hadn't turned back the Saracens at the Pyrenees? What if Napoleon hadn't sold us the West, what if the French hadn't discovered the Mississippi? Wouldn't Ken Flach himself, who was born in St. Louis, be speaking French today? A subject he may have flunked? A French subject today?

Of course, Ken is no Arnold Toynbee. He knows nothing of the Three Musketeers or even the Count of Monte Cristo. And no one's told him Napoleon's grande armee of the Republic rolled over Europe in 1800 with no help from anybody.

So, why is he saying those terrible things about our friends, the French? Why did he keep the lights burning in the Quai D'Orsay, make every tourist on the Champs Elysees want to hide his passport and wing-tip shoes and pretend to be Canadian?

If you know tennis, it was easy. Not simple, but easy. The circumstances are the least bit complicated.

It seems, in the last set at the U.S. Open, each doubles team had won a set and the third was in a tiebreaker. The French pair aimed a volley at the Ami Flach and, as it skidded off the net, it appeared as if it might have ricochetted off Flach's forearm and out of bounds.

Now, if it missed Flach, it's an unforced error and a point to the Americans. If it hit Flach, it's the French pair's point.

They screamed at the chair in two languages that the shot hit Flach. Flach retained a discreet silence. He has to this day. He wasn't going to fink on his arm. That's un-American, too.

The Gallic temperament expressed itself in a peculiar way. They swiftly lost the fourth set--and the match--and the doubles championship of America--6-0.

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