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Tennis Chauvinism: Old Glory Over World Glory

October 05, 1986|Naomi Bliven | Naomi Bliven is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

NEW YORK — It started more than a year ago, about the time Ivan Lendl won the 1985 U.S. Open, this whimpering in the American tennis world: Why are foreigners dominating tennis? Why isn't an American No. 1? The moaning became a roar during the ensuing tennis year, after the four grand-slam singles titles went, in succession, to a Swede (Stefan Edberg, Australian), a Czech (Lendl, French), a German (Boris Becker, Wimbledon) and a Czech (Lendl, U.S.). To be sure, throughout the year, American women, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova, upheld our sway on the international scene, but No. 1 seems to be an issue, not exactly of male chauvinism, but of chauvinism about males, as if our athletes were substituting for armies.

This attitude strikes me as vulgar and foolish. Although I realize that, amid the fury, fear and confusion that assault our sensibilities in all the media, a roar in the tennis world makes as much impression as a kitten's meow in a steel mill, I'm enough of a patriot to want Americans to look good in little matters as well as grand contentions.

The other three nations that host the major opens all had epochs when their players were supreme; now years pass without a native finalist in their national opens. Somehow the countries themselves survive and flourish, and their respective tennis associations take pride in holding tournaments that attract the greatest players of the day. Why can't we take pride in giving a great open?

Back home, the Swedes are breathing Chernobyl smog and their harbors are choked with Soviet nuclear submarines, while the Czechs are choked by the Soviets. Do we begrudge them their superb ground strokes and crackling net games? If you think of all the trouble Germans have caused since Frederick the Great invaded Silesia in 1741, isn't it a relief that, in 1986, their young people are blitzing tennis courts instead of countries?

I'm not sure I want to think about tennis nationally. This may be heresy on a Davis Cup weekend, but I'm not sure that, in a world crammed with national rivalries, I want to add our diversions to the list of discords: trade wars, armaments, terrorism and so on. Sport, like art, is an abstraction or a condensation, a display of intensity and virtuosity, a pleasure for its own sake. And tennis is a game of people, not peoples. There is some agitation to change the rules to permit coaching during a match, but most fans like the game as it is: We like the idea that the moment the match starts, players are entirely on their own, making tactical decisions amid the emergencies of the game.

Our ideal is a close match, well thought out and executed, between two individuals with talent, skill and concentration. One of the most thrilling matches I remember was the Wimbledon final of 1980 (the one with the breathtaking, long tie-breaker) in which John McEnroe lost to Bjorn Borg. I didn't feel dismayed that a Swede beat an American; I thought I had seen an unparalleled demonstration of tennis greatness by both men.

Those of us who watch tennis find enjoyment in a variety of styles: We like the suspense of wondering how a brilliant but erratic player will hold up, for instance. The exuberance of Becker is as enchanting as the perfection that, over the years, we have watched Lendl work for and achieve. (This past year I thought Lendl was playing tennis the way Jascha Heifetz used to play the violin; the critics were invariably stuck with the adjective "impeccable.") I don't think it matters where players come from, where they live, what language they dream in. The goal is great performance. We know better than nationalism in the arts. There's a record of the Quartet from "Rigoletto" that has been rerecorded and re-pressed and reissued for about 70 years. All four singers are Italian, but I have never heard anyone suggest we dub an American tenor in place of Caruso.

The muttering goes on nonetheless. Some say that the reason our men no longer dominate tennis is that American boys insist on going to college; others point out that talented American athletes are snapped up by the coaches and managers of more popular sports--baseball, basketball, football. What we seem to be discussing is the abundance of choices and opportunities for Americans--a good reason to be grateful to, to be proud of and to love this country.

Still, with so much going for us, must we be No. 1 in tennis, too? Anyhow, people who live in the Northeast, as I do, and tune our television sets to watch the Top 10 gypsy around the globe from sunshine to sunshine, find that tennis players--husky young people with permanent suntans and dressed in natty sports clothes--all look like Californians. Than which there probably is no look more American.

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