PERCEPTION, THE GREAT DECEIVER (Occasional Sports’ Moment: #30)

Some time in the past couple of years, someone ( I think it was Chris Fowler) asked tennis announcer, and former player, Mary Jo Fernandez, whether Simona Halep, who was playing that day, was faster than Serena Williams, who wasn’t.

Fernandez immediately and unequivocally said Serena was faster.

She specifically said she thought Serena was faster sprinting from the baseline to the net (which is the longest sprint routinely made in tennis).

In my lonely room, a world away, I immediately said: “That’s crazy.”

It’s been a common occurrence, over the last fifteen years, for announcers covering a women’s tennis match to talk a lot about Serena Williams, whether she is playing or not. It’s also been common for announcers to talk about Serena in terms that treat her as existing somewhere off the human scale.

Simona Halep is one of the fastest players in the history of the WTA (easily top five, possibly top three, which I can say with some confidence since I’ve been following the tour, which began in the late sixties, religiously since the early seventies). She is, moreover, in her mid-twenties’ physical prime and has had no serious injuries.

Serena, at the time of Fernandez’s crazy talk, was well into her thirties, has had numerous injuries to her legs, and several surgeries on her knees and feet. She was probably never as fast as Simona Halep and is nowhere near as fast now.

The question itself, who is faster right now, wasn’t even a sensible one–or wouldn’t have been, if tennis announcers were used to seeing Serena Williams through a human lens, rather than some combination of Super Woman and Spoiled Child.

So why was it nonsensically asked?

And why was it answered even more nonsensically?

Because Serena Williams is….black. That’s why. Oh, and Simona Halep is white.

And, you know, black people are faster than white people. At least across short distances. Look at those sprint results in the Olympics. Look at those receivers in the NFL. Look at those base-stealing records in Major League Baseball.

And, because black people (at least those of West African descent) are, in fact, demonstrably faster across short distances than white people (look again at those sprint records), it follows that the black woman you see playing tennis (a sport where sprinter speed is awful handy) at an elite level, must be faster than even the fastest white woman playing the same sport at the same level at the same time.

In other words, this person…

cannot be faster than this person (and significantly faster at that)…

…because that would be a confusing, if not unacceptable, narrative.

I only bring this up now because proof has emerged and because I have a small point to make.

Mary Jo Fernandez, whose observation basically went unchallenged (Fowler–I still think it was him–only expressed some surprise that she was so certain) and would have been accepted by ninety-nine percent of the people who cover tennis (Martina Navratilova, who has a knack for seeing things as they are and not being afraid to speak of what she sees, might be an exception) is crazy.

The linked article shows a study done at the Australian Open across several years.

The study shows, conclusively, that Halep is the fastest player on the WTA.

No duh.

Serena is in the middle of the pack–is, in fact, a touch slower than Maria Sharapova, who has never played a match without some “expert” mentioning that “movement is not her strong suit.” (Angie Kerber, the woman who incidentally took the top spot in the world rankings from Serena in 2016, has the most consistent top speed, but that speaks more to endurance than sprint speed…no one who has seen Kerber play, or even seen a snapshot of her legs, will be surprised that she endures like no other.)

It’s true that our eyes fool us, of course. But they usually fool us because we have something invested in what they can and cannot see. What Mary Jo Fernandez–and the legion of tennis announcers and fans who would have immediately agreed with her if they had been asked–has invested is simple enough.

She’s invested in the complex set of mythologies that don’t allow some white people–mostly Good Liberals like herself–to see black people in purely human terms.

Too bad. Because the reason Serena Williams is in the argument for the greatest women’s tennis player ever owes relatively little to her “athleticism.” Of course she’s a great athlete. No one gets themselves into the position of being called the greatest ever in a supremely athletic sport without being a great athlete.

But the sport is filled with great athletes. Simona Halep, a really fun player who has yet to win a major, being one.

The sport is tennis, so it’s always filled with great athletes.

You don’t become–or remain–Serena Williams, though, by being the “best” athlete, which she’s probably never been and certainly hasn’t been for more than a decade.

What you really need is a whole lot of qualities that can’t be measured by a stop watch.

Curt Gowdy once spoke of a conversation he had with a baseball scout, who told him that scouting would never be an exact science, because there would never be a way to measure the two things that mattered most: the head and the heart.

However much Serena is lauded for her toughness (often) or her tactics (occasionally) or savvy (almost never), such plaudits still fall under the shadow of the plaudit that is applied most frequently of all: She’s the best athlete!

Meaning, you know…. (whisper)...she’s black.

I don’t mean it’s only that. Other black tennis players have come and gone–and pretty much the first and last word on every one of them is that they were/are “great athletes.” But Serena is different because she has won to a level that means she has to be somehow explained.

And she has been.

That’s why, when Good Liberal white tennis announcers (the overwhelming majority–at least for the sake of public consumption), talk about the Serena Williams who has won twenty-two major titles, they speak of her as Super Woman. They speak of her as such, even when the evidence of their own eyes would plainly tell them otherwise if they only let it.

You know: She wins because she’s more than human.

And it’s why, when those same announcers talk about the Serena Williams who has failed to win the forty-three other major tournaments she’s entered (about the same percentage of failure experienced by other all-time all-timers), they speak of her almost exclusively as they might of a great Spoiled Child who has let them down by failing to live up to her inhuman potential.

You know: She loses because she’s less than human.

Or at very least, less than grown up.

They have eyes and they cannot see. Even a tennis match.

Thus they are eternally surprised.

Lest we forget: The same minds cover politics.

It’s the same minds, even if they don’t belong to the same people.

And they went a long way towards getting us into this mess, with their failure to see.

MANAGERS GONNA MANAGE…BUT CLUTCH IS STILL CLUTCH (Occasional Sports Moment #29)

I almost had to say I told you so again.

In the epic seventh game of the World Series played between baseball’s two most beleaguered franchises, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon took out his hot pitcher not once but twice, thus sparking not one but two rallies from the opposing dugout he insisted on waking and re-waking (or, as John Smoltz might have it, making happier and happier).

The beauty and absurdity is that he got away with it.

Cubs win! Cubs win!

First time since 1908. In case you hadn’t heard.

Which means these two men are the only ones in the 114-year history of both the National League Chicago team being called the “Cubs” and the major league baseball championship being called “The World Series” who have ever managed the one to a victory in the other…

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Jun 24, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) fields questions from reporters in the dugout prior to the game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Wonder if Frank Chance ever took out a hot pitcher in any game…let alone two hot pitchers in one game (one of whom had overcome a shaky start after he replaced the first hot pitcher) which happened to be the deciding game of a World Series?

I’m sure we’ll never know. Record keeping in 1908 wasn’t quite what it is today. Besides, there being scant, if any, video evidence of those years, a term like “hot pitcher” can only rest on the shaky evidence of stats. Stats don’t always tell the story. My definition of a hot pitcher is that I know one when I see one.

Part of the reason Joe Maddon got away with taking the two hot pitchers me and John Smoltz saw out of a deciding World Series game (the second being removed so he could bring in a “closer” who had been exhausted by extensive mop-up duty in a blowout the night before–did I mention that managers are gonna manage?), was he had David Ross on his roster.

I was not surprised, after Ross’s thirty-nine-year-old catcher’s body was inserted in the middle of an inning, that he struggled defensively, or that those struggles resulted in two runs. A glorious last name can only get you so far when your manager’s gonna manage.

But neither was I surprised that Ross, a .229 lifetime hitter with barely more than 100 career home runs, came back a short while later and hit a monster home run over the center field wall, or that the home run ended up being enough to keep the Cubs tied when Maddon took out his second hot pitcher (and that pitcher’s designated catcher, Ross), so that his exhausted reliever could give up three more runs. Meaning Ross’s home run was the only thing that kept the Cubs from losing in nine.

The only time I saw David Ross play in person was in 1997, when he hit a two-out, bottom of the ninth, game-winning home run against FSU in the driver’s seat game of a college regional in Tallahassee. His Auburn team went on to the College World Series that year. The next year he transferred to the even more hated Florida Gators and they went to the College World Series.

Did I mention he was a Tallahassee native? Yep. Born in Bainbridge, Georgia, but he went to high school here. At the FSU lab school no less.

So that game-winning home run was a “take that.” Kind of a “if you wanted to go to the College World Series, you probably should have given me a scholarship.”

Clutch is still clutch.

I don’t know where David Ross is going to live after he retires, or what he is planning to do. But it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if he came back here and coached our baseball team.

After he gets done being Mayor of Chicago.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was the first season I caught John Smoltz’s game analysis. It was akin to witnessing a miracle. He knows pitching, no surprise there. But he also knows every aspect–and physical or psychological challenge–of hitting, fielding, base-running, managing and selling popcorn. He even made Joe Buck sound intelligent. Plus he kept saying “Don’t make the other dugout happy,” which is even better than my longstanding “Don’t wake them up!” More than all that, I learned things from him. I think the last time I learned anything from a baseball announcer was some time in the early seventies, right before I turned thirteen. The only other announcer who has ever taught me anything about any sport I follow is Martina Navratilova, who provides similarly refreshing insights on the Tennis Chanel. I’m not sure if “well, there’s two then” is a sign of civilizational decline–after all, among hundreds, there’s only two–or a reason for hope to once more spring eternal. Maybe I’ll figure it out next season!)

A WORD ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #21)

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart blocks a shot attempt by South Florida’s Ariadna Pujol, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Of course, I was rooting for the other Huskies at the women’s Final Four (for reasons I explained here). But since they were eliminated in the semi-finals, I decided to go ahead and root for history in the finals.

The history was made.

I don’t actually watch more women’s sports than men’s but for a number of years I’ve tended to watch them with greater interest. Women haven’t reached their limits yet. And, for me, watching minds expand and expectations of exceeding limits defied and redefined is the best reason to watch a sport. Any sport.

The University of Connecticut just finished an unprecedented run: four straight championships. In the last three of those years, they lost one game. They won each of the other 122 they played by double-digits. Of course, this has led to the latest twist on Martina Navratilova’s old formula for the difference in perception regarding men’s and women’s sports: When men dominate, it’s about how great they are. When women dominate, it’s about how weak their competition is.

I’ve been following women’s basketball pretty regularly since the early eighties. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. Believe me, UConn isn’t dominating weak competition. They are dominating for the same reason any player or team dominates: They’re better than everybody else. They’ve set incredibly high expectations  for incredible talent and sweat blood to meet them. That formula never changes. And in any sport, that’s bound to breed resentment, even hostility.

But it’s only when women do it that it invites condescension. Heck, I root against UConn most of the time myself, and for the same reason I rooted against the UCLA men when I was growing up, which is the same reason people have always rooted for any David against any Goliath. It doesn’t have to be rational. To tell the truth, UCLA played the game I wanted to see played. And UConn plays that same game, just as well. I don’t care much for their coach, Geno Auriemma. From the outside, he seems like a typical autocrat, by turns nasty or obsequious as the moment requires.

But boy do his teams play beautiful basketball. And boy can he coach. He plans every game around choking off your strength and exploiting your weaknesses, Kind of like John Wooden used to do back in the old days…at UCLA.

It’s true he can recruit like nobody’s business. Nobody wins without players, and Breanna Stewart (pictured above), who just finished her college career by winning the Finals MVP for an other-worldly fourth time, is the most complete player I’ve ever seen of either gender. I generally hate comparing women to men (a sports commentary device that is always designed to deliver a reminder that men are better–see the Navratilova formula above–and is used by female reporters, who should know better, even more than men). But regarding Stewart, the best descriptions I can think of are these: Imagine if Lebron could shoot. Or if Bill Russell and Larry Bird had been the same guy. Imagine that the next really transcendent male player we see, really should be compared to her. If he can’t dominate the paint at both ends, throw every pass in the book, rebound like a demon, run the floor like a greyhound and shoot threes, we should keep looking.

I won’t hold my breath on any of that coming to pass. But I’d sure like to see that guy, whoever they compare him to.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the burning question on ESPN chat shows for the last month has been whether UConn’s dominance is “bad for women’s basketball.”

That’s where we’ve come to and I talk about it more than occasionally around here: The relentless drive for mediocrity and acceptance of same. Greatness is just an illusion, after all–or else a cheat.  It must be, because nobody’s ever really better than everybody else at anything, ever.

Having failed the fairness test everywhere it counts, in economics, politics, culture, we’ve decided to impose artificial “fairness” on whatever’s left and to question the validity of anyone who defies the formula. Everywhere but “fringe” sports, the endless celebration of conformity and coloring within the lines is universal.

UConn just lost three All-Americans. Their run of good old fashioned excellence-beyond-measure will, like all such runs, end soon enough.

It’s fine to keep rooting for David.

But we should never forget to celebrate true greatness while we can.

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…

CHRISEVERT1

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.