SIMONA HALEP’S MINI-REVOLUTION (Occasional Sports Moment #35)

The latest revolution in women’s sports (or maybe just sports–I don’t keep up like I used to), came full circle today when Romania’s 26-year-old Simona Halep won the French Open, her first “major” title after three excruciating finals losses since 2014.

The revolution has gone unnoticed by the tennis media, which makes a specialty of not noticing things, and the general sports media, which depends on John McEnroe to tell them what’s important in tennis the way rock critics depend on Robert Christgau to tell them what’s important in country music. If the guru hasn’t spoken, it hasn’t happened.

But, acknowledged or not, Simona Halep’s revolution has happened.

Five years ago, when she decided that running the baseline and playing like a backboard wasn’t enough, she had a breakout year, winning six tournaments.

People took notice, of course. They even commented on her change in attitude–backboard no more, she had become a true counterpuncher.

For those who don’t know, the history of tennis consists mainly of backboards, counterpunchers and attackers. Attackers used to serve and volley. Now they, too, play at the baseline and simply use modern racket technology (which Jimmy Connors once compared to giving major league hitters aluminum bats) to blast the ball by their opponent at the first opportunity.

Backboards have rarely won big, though they’ve often been competitive. They excel at “not losing”–or, as I like to say, “barely losing.”

As of five years ago, it was an open question whether true counterpunching–using angles, endurance, footspeed, redirection, guile, to do what slugging the ball cannot–would ever gain a real foothold again.

Then Halep’s big year happened and she started talking about “being aggressive.”

Before too long, players some of us had been begging forever and a day to be “aggressive” actually took notes: Result? Several of them upped their games and went on to win the major championships they had been seeking for years–Angie Kerber (twice), Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens.

The one who didn’t win until today was Simona Halep. Worse, Halep had committed the unforgivable sin of raising the tennis intelligentsia‘s hopes. They (the dread “They”) liked her. And she raised the question: Could a truly stylish, light-footed player without unworldly power actually become not merely a now-and-again contender but a real force out there?

Well, yes and no. Halep won a lot of tournaments, consistently contended at majors, even rose to #1 in the rankings. But she fell short in major finals. And those defeats were agonizing–finals of the French in 2014 and 2017, the final in Australia early this year, all in three close sets where, at some point, she held a late lead.

And because she had let the side down–the side that never expected much from her in the first place and were therefore all the more “disappointed” when she raised what seemed to have become false hopes–everything was questioned.

Her head. Her heart. Her will.

Why couldn’t she just do it?

The notion that what she was trying to do–trying to build, if you will, brick by brick–might be the least bit difficult was never once acknowledged.

To her credit she took it. She questioned herself in public. Blamed no one else. She was open about what she was working on, both mentally and physically. If she got mad on the court it was only at herself. She took greatest-ever counterpuncher Chris Evert’s dictum to heart: “It’s not the coach. It’s not your box. It’s not the racquet. It’s you.”

She worked, then. And she took the blows.

And she endured.

She even gave great press conferences–“So I lost three times until now, and nobody died.”**

Today she triumphed. Personally, yes. But also the revolution she will never get credit for. As of now, five of the last ten major winners on the women’s side won playing Simona Halep’s game rather than Martina’s or Steffi’s or Serena’s or (given changes in racquet and surface technology) even Evert’s. Often as not, as it was today, they beat someone else playing the same game in the finals.

If I were to compare Halep’s revolution to anything in recent sport it would be Steph Curry’s redefinition of the professional basketball court into a space where an additional two hundred square feet have to be defended. Like Curry, Halep, ballet dancing in the land of the giants, gets by on speed and guile, being stronger than she looks–and defying expectations.

And, as with Curry, they were the most demanding expectations of all–what everybody else thought was impossible.

She reached the pinnacle today.

Here’s to a long run. Let the chants keep ringing out, all over the tennis world:

“SI-MO-NA!”

(**Along the way, she also inspired. As my favorite tennis blogger, Diane Dees, who hosts the great Women Who Serve site, noted today, we have never seen a female athlete attract and hold a fan base that follows her around the world, through thick and thin, and constantly chants her name during competition….until now.)

MEMORIES OF LOST WORLDS (Occasional Sports Moment #23)

Here’s to the stoics:

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First, a fun fact, from an appreciation of Sandy Koufax that is worth reading in full:

A commenter at Joe Posnanski’s site who calls himself Moeball wrote that he had looked up famous pitchers’ best half decades, and none ever won half of his games in which his team had provided him with two runs or less…

Except for Sandy Koufax. From 1962–1966 he went 27–24 when given 2 runs or less of support. He’s the only regular starting pitcher in history to be able to do this. He’s the only one who even comes close to being .500. He did a better job of “pitching to the score” in a low scoring game than any other pitcher in major league history. And it’s not even close.

Of course, that raises the question of why the Dodgers played so poorly behind Koufax.

One reason is that the Dodgers weren’t terribly good batters in general. Their only .300 hitter in 1965 was Drysdale, whose seven homers put him close to the team leaders in that category, who hit merely twelve.

But another reason Koufax won so many 2–0, 2–1, and 1–0 games was that the Dodgers would go out drinking the night before he pitched.

If the starter the next day would be merely Drysdale, Osteen, Johnny Podres, or Don Sutton, they’d get their sleep.

But if Sandy were going to pitch tomorrow, well, you were a Los Angeles Dodger, it was the 1960s, and the night was young.

Reading the whole article, I realized that Koufax walked away from baseball at 30, after going 24-7 and winning the seventh game of the World Series on two days rest, for basically the same reason that Steffi Graf walked away from tennis at 30, two months after winning the French Open.

It was this: The only part of the game they liked was the game.

I write as someone who never had the good fortune to see Koufax pitch and failed to sufficiently appreciate Graf when she played (too damn good to root for…I’m trying not to make that mistake with Serena Williams, who enjoys and embraces the limelight Graf and Koufax disdained, and who will, at 34, attempt to match Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles this weekend).

But I still find it worth commending those for whom the fortune was nice–but no more than that. And for whom the fame meant nothing at all.

It was just something they had to endure to ply their trade and secure the life they really wanted. Not for them, I suspect, an Age where walk-off victories in major league baseball games played in June are celebrated like last inning heroics in the World Series and mid-round victories in tennis majors routinely end with players prostrate on the court, convulsed in sobs.

I don’t know either of them personally. But I like to think I know how they feel about this, the Age of Celebration. You know–of, by and for Celebrities Celebrating Themselves.

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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.