OLD SCHOOL (Bud Collins, R.I.P.)

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Bud Collins, for a long era, the hardest working man in tennis (and not just among the journalists), passed away last week while I was in the hospital. Tennis is just about the only sport left that I follow religiously and, though Collins hadn’t been active for a while, he’ll never stop being missed.

Imagine a reporter who revered the sport he covered without laboring under any illusion that its greatest players were worthy of obeisance or idolatry? Imagine somebody who believed everyone could stand to be taken down a peg yet managed to remain on friendly terms with

nearly everyone he skewered?

Imagine someone in a broadcast booth who was capable of being both witty and insightful about the sport he was covering?

Imagine someone who was part of every major moment for nearly thirty years in what turned out to be a revolutionary sports moment (tennis is still the only non-Olympic sport worldwide where women command something like equal attention with men) and yet wore his own legend lightly?

Imagine someone who was a fount of history and still managed to be fully invested in whatever match he was covering that day?

You probably have to be a tennis fan to really understand how refreshing all that was once upon a time and what a vacuum exists now, when announcers routinely report on a narrative that has been predetermined in their own minds while neglecting any and all evidence of what is actually taking place in front of their eyes.

Collins had his faults to be sure. He never quite accepted, for instance, that anyone could be a truly elite champion playing the style of tennis that Chris Evert made popular. I used to get mad about that and some other things back in the day. Now that a set of ever-lengthening rear-view peepers have brought me closer to his perspective, I can see how easy it was to be fooled. The sport has gone through monumental changes in the last thirty years–probably more than any major sport in the world–and, even as it’s now become a power-mad, tech-aided version of her own game, Chris Evert is still the only person who made her style work so long and so well. You can be forgiven, I think, for getting something wrong if it was truly unforeseeable..

The rest I got used to.

He was colorful, cranky, opinionated, whip-smart and merciless in the face of pretension and bogosity. As the sport he loved has descended into competition with Olympic level track and field and the NFL as the most corrupt in the world, it’s become clear that it could only have happened with him on the sidelines. When he was around, you could bet that at least a few cheeks would go unkissed and at least an occasional rock would be overturned, irrespective of what might be lying underneath.

I say let’s bring back cranky and merciless.

Even if it comes with those pants.

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THE OLD, NORMAL AMERICA (Jimmy Evert, R.I.P.)

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When Jimmy Evert’s sixteen-year-old daughter turned up at the U.S. Open in 1971, she was all of five feet tall and maybe weighed a hundred pounds. Whatever her prodigious gifts, her string of stirring, come-from-behind victories there (ended in the semi-finals by Billie Jean King) were so obviously a product of extraordinary training that the “well she’s not a great athlete…but-t-t-t” canard which attached to her immediately, even as she put her supremely athletic sport on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers for the first time, has lasted to this day.

That training was provided by her father who, as a result of her success, became one of the most famous and respected coaches in tennis history. Product of an older world that he was, he kept his day job because, well, he liked it and he was good at it.

His day job was tennis coach.

His famous daughter has always insisted he didn’t train her for fame or fortune but simply because he wanted to pass on his love of the game and the life lessons inherent therein. That’s easy to believe because when she took to the tennis courts some time around 1959 there was no professional women’s tour either in existence or in the works. The result was nonetheless revolutionary.

Some of that result–the revolutionary part, not the tennis part–was serendipitous timing, of course.

It might not have happened had she come along a generation later, by which time women’s tennis would have almost certainly been safely and permanently shuffled into the slot where much of the world’s sporting establishment would prefer it to reside–somewhere next to the LPGA, WNBA and every other women’s sports’ league which has failed to “break out” in the four decades since.

It certainly would not have happened had she come along a generation sooner, for reasons that are all too obvious.

That it did happen, though, was testimony not merely to timing, but to Chris Evert’s unique combination of marketing appeal and genuine greatness at playing her sport. If you think this can be manufactured on demand, you can check the careers of Michelle Wie (markets well, doesn’t win enough) or Danica Patrick (ditto) or Diana Taurasi (wins like crazy, can’t sell her for beans) for a reminder of just how hard it is to actually be “the one” as opposed to being merely anointed.

Jimmy Evert’s daughter was “the one”–the one who mainstreamed women’s sports in the western world–because she was a great tennis champion. And because she was her father’s daughter.

If her extraordinary gifts and unmatchable will were the biggest components, her father’s training, on, and, perhaps even more crucially, off the court, was still a necessary ingredient. For Middle America to receive a non-Olympic female athlete as someone to not only admire and emulate but, finally, accept to such a degree that the acceptance could be transmuted to future generations, she had to achieve and sustain an almost impossible balance between this…

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and this…

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…to have every fierce quality expected of a male athlete while retaining every quality thought of as “feminine,” or anyway suitable in “the girl next door.”

In other words, she had to overcome a degree of unfairness that was specifically designed to be insurmountable.

She made this impossible task look sufficiently like something she was born to carry in her bones that it’s now been sort of conveniently forgotten how rocky and tenuous the the road actually was. That, beyond the usual resentment directed at a champion who dominates too much (and which is always far more intense when it is directed at a woman who dominates too much, meaning any woman who dominates at all), “Chris America” endured plenty of open and painful enmity from both a contemptuous Left who thought she was too representative of “normal” to be a fitting pioneer for their revolution and a deeply suspicious mainstream who wanted so badly for women’s tennis to stay in the shadows they latched onto the “not a great athlete” memo with a grinding discipline that was maintained as impressively as any Politburo Directive. (Just as an aside, my favorite example was the standard Bud Collins’ post-match interview, which, in memory, has been boiled down to something like: “Well, Chrissie, now that you’ve won your fifth U.S. Open, when will you begin venturing to the net more and finally amount to something?”)

Of course, Evert herself absorbed the memo, which she still deploys (“I wasn’t a great athlete….but-t-t-t”). And it’s possible she believes it. It’s possible that she believed it even then.

But I’ve always thought it was also possible she saw it as an advantage, a bit of psychological rope-a-dope learned from her devoutly Catholic dad on the upper-middle-class Lauderdale clay under a baking Florida sun, the shared memories of which gave me, a working class, baseball playing Protestant kid living in a smoke-stack community a hundred and twenty miles up U.S. 1, who never picked up a tennis racket outside of school (junior high and junior college if you’re keeping count), a bond with her I’ve shared with no other athlete.

What she got from dad, then, along with all that peerless technique, was a useful demeanor.

Little Miss Poker Face they called her.

Ice Maiden.

For the media and much of the public it was a means to dehumanize her. But she never cracked open for them. Never gave in. The life lessons held.

Dehumanize me all you want. I’ll talk it out in retirement. Discuss it freely in my memoir. Right now, I’m not giving my opponent an inch.

On that front I’m not speculating. Chris Evert was always open about taking that refusal to give anything away, or let any opponent inside her thinking, from her dad.

It was a big part of why she was able to be the bridge from Tennis Past to any future tennis can presently imagine.

Why she was able, at fifteen, to beat twenty-eight-year-old Margaret Court a month after Court completed the Grand Slam (winning all four tennis majors in a calendar year).

Why she was able, at thirty-four, to beat fifteen-year-old Monica Seles (then nine months short of winning her first major, the first of eight she would win as a teenager in the early nineties before being stabbed by a deranged fan who had developed his own ideas about how to keep women in their place) before she walked off into the sunset.

Why, when her sport was in a phase where it could only be mainstreamed if its most mainstream star was Always There (the nickname I gave her when I was a kid and realized, for the first time, just how far the Sports Media was from being a group of people who could be trusted to take any pride in their work), she was, literally and to a degree no one else approached or likely considered possible, always there.

Why nearly all of the records for mad consistency (my own standard for the highest level of greatness which, these days, she is rarely accorded, Always There having quietly morphed into Never Forgiven, and, if it happens you have other standards, peace be upon you) are hers.

Why there was never anyone else like her and why her place in tennis history, and the history of women’s sports, can’t be replicated or erased by anything as straightforward or simple-minded as the setting of new records.

These days, the material benefits of her once having been, year after year, Always There, surmounting the insurmountable, maintaining the impossible balance, are hardly confined to tennis. A few weeks ago, Forbes published its annual list of the highest paid female athletes. Seven of the ten were tennis players. That’s about average. They can all thank Jimmy Evert’s daughter directly. The others can thank Jimmy Evert’s daughter for there even being a list of highly paid female athletes. Before her, the idea was basically unimaginable.

No, she did not occur in a vacuum.

All hail Billy Jean and the other WTA pioneers who strove and sacrificed mightily to build the foundation…(Though if you think Billy Jean or Martina–or Margaret or Evonne–could have truly mainstreamed women’s tennis, or that Peter Graf or Richard Williams would have been any way interested in directing their daughters toward a sport that wasn’t already raking in the cash, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.)

Yes, Title IX was/is a big deal.

There’s no women’s soccer craze without it.

But Chris Evert was her own Title IX and Title IX is way more than nine times as powerful and effective as it would have been otherwise if her dad had, by chance, been dedicated to ballet or football.

Jimmy Evert lived long enough to see the style of play he taught his daughter become the dominant style–for serving and volleying to become as unimaginable as the foundation of a great tennis champion’s game as double-back-handed base-lining was when his daughter showed up at that first U.S. Open and started doing this…

It’s a game and a style I love….exemplified here, where you can see the “non-athletic” thirty-four year old Evert running with the fastest player in the history of the WTA:

But, these days, when men’s matches, in particular, often resemble thirty-round heavyweight fights in which no one ever gets tired, it’s certainly ripe for change.

The particular revolution in women’s sports and, by extension, society, that couldn’t have happened the same way without Jimmy Evert’s daughter’s ability to maximize every tennis or life lesson he taught her (a revolution which, for all I know, he may have had no interest in whatsoever or even lamented), can almost certainly never be replicated.

The kind of revolution his daughter’s abilities created on the court almost certainly can be.

No doubt that revolution will come, and, with it, who really knows what consequences that reach far beyond the field of play.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it started with some crazy tennis parent’s belief in a daughter who doesn’t want to settle for this New America’s idea of normal.

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…Think I’m gonna go watch the 1985 French Open final.