I just witnessed a very strange event. In the women's final of the Australian Open, Amelie Mauresmo, a handsome Frenchwoman who has consistently been a top five player but had never before won a Grand Slam title, defeated Justine Henin-Hardenne. Henin, a Belgian who already had a handful of Grand Slam title, was underseeded at eighth in the tournament, having been out most of last year with injuries, but she won this event in 2004. Mauresmo had been widely seen as a choker in the big events, but as the best women's player never to win a Grand Slam. She always gets to the quarterfinals, is rarely injured -- a very even player. Henin is a pit bull, one of the toughest players, a 5'6" player who could hit with most power players. She has always been one of my favorite players because she is smart; she diagnoses her frequent first set losses, adjusts her game and find a way to win matches. She is like Martina Hingis with power.
Tonight Mauresmo won 6-1, 2-0 (ret.) to finally win that title. Henin made enough errors to lose 8 out of 9 games completed. Just before losing the ninth game, she called a trainer and a doctor to the court, who gave her something to calm her stomach. A few points later, she retired. The only explanation given was that she had an upset stomach.
An upset stomach? In her match against Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters retired when the players were dead-on in the third set because she twisted her ankle, which might seem comparable until it was revealed that Clijsters pulled two tendons and will be out for at least two months (which will make short-lived her tenure at #1, which starts Monday). Who hasn't seen the video of Pete Sampras puking on the court at the U.S. Open, then continuing to play? It certainly took the thrill out of Mauresmo's win, and Henin will be condemned for it. But I have to believe she must really have been that sick (and exhausted from her semifinal against Maria Sharapova two nights ago, one of the best matches I have seen in a while.
Less than nine days from now, Seattle takes on Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. I will probably watch, but next year at this time I probably won't remember who player or who won. So given what I said above, why do I think women's tennis is a better sport?
It's all subjective of course. No sport could ever be better than another (unless we include ice dancing). But it's my blog, and so in this blog women's tennis is better than football. Why?
I got interested in women's tennis in the late 70's because my fiancee at the time was a very dedicated and talented club player, and I was forced to follow the sport and became acquainted with the players and the game. Prior to that, I'd never really followed sports much at all. Neither of my parents had much interest in them, and I grew up as an only child and never really encountered sports until I got to school, by which time it seemed I was hopelessly behind. I was never in particularly bad shape physically (except for a brief sojourn as a fat kid) but I never really acquired sports-specific skills, and by the time I got to high school I hated the kids who played the sports so much that I could not only not bear to play them, I couldn't bear to watch them. At the University of Tennessee I remember clearly looking out my dorm window on hungover Saturday mornings and seeing oceans of middle-aged men in highway-cone orange shouting inanities and spending money. All through my twenties, I was convinced that sports fans were a bunch of idiots. But I started following women's tennis in 1980 and never really stopped.
You may ask, why women's tennis and not men's tennis? I certainly have as much respect for men's tennis, but I never thought it was interesting because it was more of a power game. I have followed it fairly well, and to this day I still think Boris Becker's unseeded win at Wimbledon in 1985 at age 17 was one of the most emotional moments in sports I have ever seen. But the women's game was all more intelligence and strategy, and infinitely more watchable, not just because the players were cuter but because men's tennis in Grand Slams takes the form of insufferable five-game matches. Very few sporting events are worth watching for four or five hours.
Obviously my choice of women's tennis as a sport to follow is idiosyncratic and from the point of view of the general population, random. It's really about (1) individual sports vs. team sports; for several reasons; (2) less popular sports vs. more popular sports, and (3) the particular decline in cohesiveness of teams sports, and football in particular, due to free agency.
So why the NFL? I'm not going to try to talk too intelligently about a subject I don't know that much about. Like I say, I was a late starter on any of this shit, but football as a sport is my favorite of the big sports, and I did follow it fairly closely through a period in the 80's and 90's (until this year I thought Jerome Bettis was a Ram). I really hate basketball; just the sound of the gymasium and those ridiculous shorts makes me run from the room screaming. And although I did play more baseball as a kid than any other sport, and it's fun in the park, it's death on TV. So football is my favorite of these.
Really my three reasons above break down to two since (1) and (3) wind up being pretty much the same, so let's knock out (2) first. Less popular sports are better because they aren't as subject to mass hysteria. Crowds are always stupid. So games are good, obsessed fans are bad (and for a counterexample from my own favorite, ask Monica Seles). Why? See my prior posts on George Bush and the Christian Reich. The Indiannapolis Colts may be a less harmful release of the same passions, but all these groups could be shot down like rabid dogs for improvements in population control, environment, and quality of life.
As for reasons (1) and (3), OK, it's good for kids to learn to play together and I admit I play with others less well than most. And a good sports team, like a chamber music orchestra, can be interesting and a source of pride for its integration and cooperation, and a source of fascination in the way the individuals interact. So any individual game can be interesting. But I am a little uncomfortable with for whom or what the crowd is cheering in the long run. It seems like such an obvious precursor to that same mob mentality that precurses nationalism. This is particularly problematic when the team represents a place or an institution, as it normally does. The free agency rule just exacerbated the situation for professional sports. When I was a kid, the players on the teams were a lot more likely to be the same from year to year. Yeah, I can see cheering for a group of people. But when the people change so frequently that there is no continuity to speak of, it's like cheering for one patch of ocean over another; its's all about the symbol. Hence, mob mentality, hence nationalism.
On the other hand, following the career of an individual athelete is just that. Particulary in tennis, where no coaching is allowed on court. When Justine Henin-Hardenne got sick tonight, she couldn't bring in Kim Clijster's stomach. Mauresmo won't show up at the French Open with Steffi Graf's forehand. What you got is what you got. And that's what it is to be human.
[Footnote: So why is college football not preferable to the NFL, since the continuity of players is greater with a fairly predictable turnover due to graduation or college exits? Just internal football reasons like the lack of a playoff system and the fact that the mass hysteria is at its worst with universities -- don't really know why.]
By the way, the pic at the top, if you don't know, is Martina Hingis, who is making a pretty successful return to tennis after a three-year layoff after "marginal players like Anastasia Myskina" (Hingis' words) starting winning Grand Slams. In the last year or so, women's tennis had returned to its former self after two self-promoting musclebound hooligans called the Williams sisters tried to turn it into men's tennis. Go Martina! I don't know about the doll.
Gee, was this really a sports blog?