Monday, March 28, 2016

CAN THE DJOKER CARRY TENNIS?

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.", 

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare (Act III, Scene I)

First, it was the big story that wasn't - Serena Williams, poised to win her record tying 22nd major and the calendar slam, suffered a collosal case of nerves and lost a match that nobody thought she could.  ESPN did their best to turn the 2015 US Open into the Serena Show, but somebody forgot to tell Roberta Vinci, and instead of her coronation, we got a whole lot of very disappointed celebrities.

Then the Australian Open came with an attachment:  a story on BuzzFeed about the continuing problem of match-fixing and the (intentionally) dormant effort on the part of tennis authorities to address it.  There was no specific evidence, other than ill-defined, poorly explained statistical analysis that points to the likelihood of match-fixing, or compromised betting patterns.  But the stain is not easily removed, and in many ways, we're all still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Next Serena Williams lost the Australian Open final, and the Indian Wells finals - two tournaments that you probably couldn't have placed a bet on her losing if you wanted to.  One title lost to Angelique Kerber, who has since collapsed under the weight of expectation, and the other to Victoria Azarenka, who seems to have shed some of the excess baggage she'd picked up since winning the Australian Open in 2013.  Suddenly Serena doesn't seem so invincible, and the running story that isn't a story, makes another appearance at Roland Garros before genuine questions will start to be asked, which at the moment, everyone is too afraid to ask:  what's wrong with Serena?

Then Maria Sharapova, the most marketable female athlete in the world, a woman who is reviled and admired the world over, in equal measures, for looking like a prom queen who happens to play tennis, failed a drugs test?  There had been, for years, unjustified suspicion of Serena Williams, because...well..she looks like Serena Williams.  After all, it was Andy Roddick who joked that she was benching small dump trucks at age 11, so it shouldn't really come as any surprise that she looks like this today.  That's why it was all the more shocking that of these two racquet toting divas, the one snared in a drugs fiasco was Her Siberianess.  What the penalty will be for her failed drugs test, which she has neither disputed, nor satisfactorily explained to any and all, is as yet unknown.  But that has been a story that is just waiting in the wings to come back and haunt the game.  

Mark this space...

Rafa Nadal continues to struggle, despite making some progress in Indian Wells before losing tamely to his nemesis.  He has no titles in 2016, his last title was on clay in Hamburg after Wimbledon, and his spring clay court career victory lap around South America has elicited no silverware to bite, and little confidence on the part of his admirers around the world.  Most assume that his best bet to win his last another major will be at Roland Garros this year, but few would count on that given that somebody out there appears to be the best player in the world on the surface, and incredibly he is not from Spain.  If you're holding your breath for Nadal to add to his tally of 14 of the crowned jewels in the kingdom of tennis heaven, I would suggest you grab a canister of oxygen until you can find someone else to support.

Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are still in the mix; two-time winners at the two majors that the other has not won (together they make an "other slam"...as in someone other than the real big 3).  But neither of them has exactly been burning down the house lately.  To be fair to Wawrinka, he is still the holder of the title at Roland Garros, but we see how heavy was the crown in Australia last year when the third installment of his Aussie trilogy went the way of God's chosen one.  Does anyone get the feeling that Wawrinka's best chance to win a major is to surprise everyone - not the least of whom, himself - lest he crumble under the immeasurable pressure to prove himself anew to the history of the game?  Don't look now, but Murray hasn't won a major in almost 3 years - it doesn't sound like much, until you remember that the likes of John McEnroe, Mats Wilander didn't win any majors after the calendar ticked off it's 365th day from their last.  Lendl and Edberg, by far greater champions than His Irascibleness, didn't go more than 2 years before adding to their major tallies, once they'd figured out how to win a big one...any big one.

Finally, after doing his best Serbian disappearing act 4 times on the trot, Roger Federer, who hasn't won a major in 4 years (that's four years), just had...wait for it...surgery on his knee (cue the melodramatic gasp and clutching of the chest).  Now that doesn't seem like much to shake a stick at, but I can tell you that one of the reasons the tennis world has continued to delude itself into believing that what passes itself off as a rivalry still walks like a duck, is that we are yet to be convinced that what we're witnessing is anything other than the dominance of one at the expense of the other.  We've done so because the unique combination of Federer's athletic prowess appears to persistbut for one glaring exception.  Not so much anymore, following a surgery that for a younger man would be difficult to recover from - let alone a man old enough to be his drunk uncle who just doesn't know when to quit.

When Ray Moore fell on his sword (in more ways than one) I was of the opinion that his comment was not directed at women playing professional tennis, so much as it was a diatribe against the leadership (or the lack thereof) at the WTA.  And when he said that the women ought to be down on their knees thanking God that "Fedal" are still making a nuisance of themselves, I tended to agree with him, or at least accept the proposition as a disconcerting one.  But something just occurred to me that ought to be way more disconcerting for the whole game of tennis, let alone the WTA:  exactly who will be minding the store when the Roger & Rafa show takes a permanent hiatus?

That's where the really scary question comes:  can Novak Djokovic carry tennis?  

It's not a scary proposition because of anything he has done...well, not exactly.  But it's not as if the man isn't playing tennis at the highest level it's ever been played.  He has, after all, contested 5 major finals in a row, won 4 of them - actually he has gone around the world and basically won everything he's entered since January of 2015.  He still makes jokes, he's still the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, the kind of guy that would help you change a tire in the snow...literally.  He'll do any talk show you can think of, in any language you can imagine, including a couple that you can't.  He's a young, handsome 28 year old newlywed father, his parents (with fleeting exceptions) have largely removed the target from his back, his coach has shockingly done a job that I didn't think he had in him, and there are even jokes being made about the inevitability of his victories on that bloody 36 by 72 foot rectangle with the funny lines?

So why can't he carry tennis?

Is it a conspiracy against him?  Are the grey men of tennis looking down their noses at him, like the jury on Krypton, passing judgment on General Zod?  Has the (not yet) dominant PR machine of Roger Federer, Tony Godsick and Team8 laid the groundwork for his denial from the kingdom of Mount Rush(the net)more?  Does his messianic father still get under people's skin with one idiotic proclamation after another - causing even his own son to distance himself from the craziest of the crazy things he says?  Does he himself put his foot in his mouth, when a more nuanced, more diplomatic, more neutral and...dare I say...more Swiss approach would serve him better? 

My theory is this:  no single star can carry tennis.  It has never been the case that one single player can carry the game of tennis to greater heights, nor bear the weight of the tennis world on his shoulders like a racquet wielding Atlas.  

Big Bill Tilden had little Bill Johnston, Budge had von Cramm, Gonzales had Hoad, Laver had Rosewall, Billie Jean had Margaret Court, Chrissie had Martina, Connors had Borg, Borg had McEnroe, Becker had Edberg, Agassi had Sampras, Federer had Nadal.

But who gapes for the crown of Novak Djokovic?  Competitively, he has in the past been the chaser, and he has had rivalries that are currently diluted where an unjust escape and one competitive set in two played constitutes a good week, but can he alone carry the sport as it appears he may have to?  There is a myth out there that pencil pushers, marketing mavens and sporting bureaucrats can steward the game to success.  That there's some magic formula out there of sex, jokes, celebrity friends and fireworks that can make the game something that it isn't in spite of what it is.  But I have my doubts...I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't a little like the way the real star of the Star Trek franchise isn't James T. Kirk, or Jean-Luc Picard, or Kathryn Janeway...the real star is the Starship Enterprise.  

It survived years of going where no man has gone before, several captains, battles with Klingons and the Borg, and everything in between, and even in another space/time continuum, it survives.  And the guys Ray Moore and the rest of us are looking for to steer the ship are a bit like the passengers on the Enterprise - they may know where all the buttons are, but their fate is really in her hands.

Well, the rivalries, not the players, are the enterprise.  Try as we may to heap all the credit and responsibility on those at the head of the table, it's the ones at the foot of the table that make the ship sail.  And as it stands today, Novak Djokovic is alone at the top of the pyramid competitively, and may also find himself alone figuratively as well.  The throne is an enchantress for the boy who would be king, but as the saying goes:  be careful what you wish for.  There is an old Czech joke about an old man chasing a beautiful and seductive young woman being like a dog chasing a mail truck - even if he catches it, he doesn't have the first damn clue how to drive.  

And with Djokovic's missteps at Indian Wells taking over the news cycle, and subsequent apology and brief PR campaign tour to make up for it, there have to be more than a few people in the halls of tennis' bureaucracy that are wondering if Ray Moore's comments about the WTA could just as well apply to the ATP?  The truth is, they are no more responsible for the success of the game than he is, but the welcome perception, and indeed the unjust expectation, that Novak Djokovic will be, now that he is by far the best player on the planet (male or female), could prove a crown too heavy for his head.
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