December 26, 2010
December 28, 2010
Continued From Part One: When Tennis Really Mattered
So what was it about tennis in the 1970s that continues to linger in the minds and hearts of so many and incite such veneration and devotion? Well, the most stark and lasting impressions occur in childhood. Kids don't forget stuff.
It's all about subjectivity and instinct at a younger age. Logic is the enemy for most children. Humans are naturally opposed to change, and this is especially true of younger people.
Furthermore, children and young adults never forget when something is suddenly and wrongfully, or so it seemed, taken away. That is how it felt for many young fans when Bjorn Borg left, the racquets changed and a new breed of players stepped in.
For young fans, it was similar to suddenly becoming children of divorced parents. Things change - yes, that is part of life - but this was just too much of a shift in the sport. It seemed exponential and fake.
There were sides to be taken. With the (un)holy trinity of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Borg, it was serious business, this choosing of loyalties. It simply mattered. For Borg worshippers, Connors was the ultimate villain. For those who loved brash southpaw Connors, Borg was a robotic bore.
But the taking of sides was far more intense when it was Borg and McEnroe. There was something altogether sinister, a manifest arrogance about McEnroe that Borg disciples saw as almost evil. McEnroe's frightening talent seemed so nonchalant at times, and the way he rudely disposed of Borg in three of their four Grand Slam final encounters left Borg devotees struggling with an acute inferiority complex.
But figuring out why it all mattered so much more than in ensuing years is tricky. After all, if kids will always be kids, what made this era more special? Obviously, there have been other great rivalries since then, including now. Why did it seem so much more serious then?
To get to the heart of that matter requires dipping into the esoteric, to examine what has changed. It was far easier for a kid to imagine and create mythical attachment to those players. Why? Because independent thought was encouraged, as opposed to a homogenization of childhood that feels so rampant today.
I spent much of my childhood in that decade, and I see it as the time of the "last American childhood." I've been pondering this more since the birth of my son 10 months ago. It's difficult to articulate, but when I think of the freedom and excitement I experienced growing up just outside New York City in the 1970s and contrast it with what I see today, the differences are clear and sharp.
For the most part, parents weren't as neurotically overprotective as they are now. They allowed kids to explore more and find independence and a sense of wonder. That has been utterly - and sadly - lost today with unfettered hyperparenting. This includes overscheduling kids' activities and the paranoid obsession with safety. Let the kids play dodgeball or learn how to ride a bike without all the protective gear once in a while. It's OK to fall and get hurt. After all, isn't that how one learns?
It appears there's been a sinister trade of real learning experiences for knowledge by proxy. It's almost as if parents have hijacked their kids' childhood on some level.
But rather then get mired in my own theories, I asked young fans about the current rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to see if a tremendous passion exists over choosing sides. I've said this is the greatest rivalry of the Open era. Better than Borg, McEnroe and Connors. Better than Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. And, yes, better than Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. In fact, it can be argued that Federer and Nadal have the best rivalry in sports today.
While walking around the hot, steamy National Tennis Center during the first week of the Open, I conducted a wholly unscientific study of 12 random boys and girls ranging in age from 10 to 15. What were their thoughts on Federer and Nadal?
The answers proved telling. Among the seven who preferred Federer, Scott, 13, from New Jersey, provided a reply that several others echoed: "I love Roger because he's the best of all time."
(Hmm. Is he just repeating what the sports media insists on repeating, or is he thinking for himself?)
But what do you like about him?
"He's just awesome."
Do you make sure to watch Federer and Nadal on TV every time they play?
"Most of the time."
Myself, I told him, I never miss a second.
Sarah, 11, also from New Jersey, was the most vociferous Nadal backer.
"I can't take it when he's playing Roger," she said. "I get so nervous that it's hard to watch."
Ah, now that's more like it. I told her that's the way I felt as a kid her age, that I couldn't leave the room if Borg was on TV. But Sarah was in the minority with the depth of her passion.
If my small sampling had any larger legitimacy, is the absolute lack of animus between Nadal and Federer to blame for any tepid interest in their historic battles?
Connors pretty much said as much last week when he said: "I had to go out there with a killer instinct and try to do whatever it took for me to play the kind of tennis to win. What is a friendly rivalry?"
I don't think outward tension between the participants is needed for a rivalry to generate heat and cause a division of loyalties. Most tennis enthusiasts know this. They've been spoiled by having Federer and Nadal meet in Slam finals four consecutive years - and hopefully a fifth next Sunday at the Open.
I just hope kids are soaking this up as much as they should. They should be able to look back in 10 or 20 years and tell their kids how brilliant and magical a time it was when Rafa and Roger squared off. But I'm not fully confident this will happen.