HARDCORE…ON MARIA SHARAPOVA’S RETIREMENT (Occasional Sports’ Moment #38)

Like most people, even most tennis junkies, I first became fully aware of Maria Sharapova when she stormed to the Wimbledon title in 2004 at the age of seventeen. I pegged her instantly as a double-digit major winner with the usual caveat: Barring injuries.

The injuries began at the Australian Open in 2007 and, absent a three-month false dawn at the beginning of 2008 (when she stormed back to form, winning the ’08 AO without dropping a set), they never really ended. By June she was slated for major shoulder surgery.The tennis world kept insisting the injuries shouldn’t really matter, I suppose because there was a perception that her star power was needed more than the obvious truth.

After several years of struggle she gutted herself to a couple of French Open titles on her least-favored surface (for those who don’t follow it, surface is a big deal in tennis) which proved to all those pretenders, who of course had been writing her off the meanwhile, that she must have fully recovered.

What it really proved was that eighty percent of Maria Sharapova was still a Hall of Fame player.

It’s those old sad words everyone will continue missing today after she announced her retirement at age thirty-two: What might have been.

I’ll leave that alone. There’s no point in arguing with idiots. The lies didn’t bother her for more than a minute so there’s no reason they should bother me.

She was a big favorite of mine, though, not least because the only words that ever suited her were “She fights.” That quality was so obvious even the tennis press couldn’t miss it and is much, much rarer in the age of big money in sports than we are led to believe.

More important to me, raised to cherish stoicism, she was the same in all weathers: Poker-faced, intense, unsmiling, not concerned with making friends. The image was all glam. The reality was a hard-nosed immigrant who used an insane work ethic to escape poverty, refused the soft out of American citizenship, took and gave no quarter, and became the only person, male or female, to claim a career Grand Slam (winning each of the four major tournaments at least once) in the world’s supremely athletic sport, without being a great natural athlete (if anyone tries to tell you Chris Evert or Andre Agassi weren’t great athletes, just laugh at them).

For all she did on the court, though, my favorite Maria moment was a quote from the period after she became a spokesperson for Land Rover in her early twenties. It was apparently the vehicle of choice among the hot young things in L.A. where she spent a good part of the year. She remarked that when the rich girls pulled up next to her at a stop light, she would look over, smile, and think:

“Daddy didn’t buy mine.”

AS USUAL, THANK CHRISSIE…AND, YES, COME HERE FOR THE NEWS BEFORE IT’S NEWS (Occasional Sports’ Moment #37)

Forbes has put out its annual list of the ten* most highly paid female athletes in the world

They come from everywhere:  The U.S., Japan, Germany, Romania, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela (by way of Spain).  Nine different countries and four different continents.

 And they have one thing in common. They are all tennis players. 

Chris Evert mainstreamed women’s tennis in the 1970’s. As I mentioned here, she was the only one who could have done it and the only woman who ever has. She was her own Title IX, only ten times as productive and a hundred times as efficient.

I only bring this up because a) she’s never gotten credit for it b) she’ll never so much as hint at deserving the credit and c) when I wrote my previous articles about her (the first is linked to the one I’ve linked above), tennis players were only 7 of the top ten.

All the other revolutions have stalled or receded. Hers alone keeps growing.

*actually 11, there was a tie for tenth place.

SI-MO-NA…UN-BE-LIEV-A-BLE (Occasional Sports Moment #36)

Remember folks, you can always come here for the news first. Today, Simona Halep’s “mini-revolution” reached a peak that stunned even me.

I’ve seen Serena Williams play at least four hundred tennis matches. I’ve seen her lose occasionally, even be blown out occasionally (once by Simona Halep…the only time in ten previous meetings Halep had beaten her**). The 2019 Wimbledon final played today, which Halep won 6-2, 6-2, was the first time I felt her will break–saw her simply reach a point where it was palpable that she no longer believed she could win.

All it took was Halep playing the finest match I’ve ever seen on a big stage. She made only three unforced errors (a record for a major final and almost unthinkable against a hard-hitting all-time power player on grass…and double again for a player who comes from a tiny country that doesn’t have a single grass court to train on). She out-served the greatest server in the history of the women’s game (and the greatest clutch server in the history of the game, period), despite possessing only a solid serve herself. And, most of all, she used the foot-speed which, among other things, I wrote about here, to shrink the court to the size of a postage stamp.

Serena has a pattern so well-known even tennis commentators, the least observant people on Planet Earth, have noticed it and marked it down. Get her down and she starts to hit big, produce winners, and let loose long primal screams that allow her to dominate the available space psychically as well as physically. If, by chance, her big shots miss and she gets in real trouble, she dials it back, plays safely down the middle with depth and precision and hangs in enough rallies to get her feet back under her.

She tried both tactics today…only instead of missing big shots, those big shots–the ones that, time and again, have announced Serena Has Arrived–came back.

With interest.

Time and again.

And dialing it back (which Serena admitted in her post match press conference she tried as well) is never going to be a tactic that works against a red-hot Simona Halep.

One of the announcers said it must feel like Serena was “playing two Simonas.”

That’s certainly what it felt like watching.

Who knows. Maybe it isn’t a “mini” revolution after all.

Maybe it’s like “minor” genius and there really is no such thing.

Judge for yourself:

**Quote of the tournament from Halep, when asked how she had prepared herself mentally for the match: “I thought about the time I beat her…The other nine times didn’t count.”)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Long may she run.

(For additional insight into Halep’s physical and spiritual journey, here’s my favorite tennis blogger on today’s match.)

HONDO (John Havlicek, R.I.P.)

I never played basketball anywhere except the back yard and phys ed. In the back yards and school gyms of my high school years I mostly played with and against black guys who almost always took a game or two to accept I might belong with them–perhaps even be better than them. For whatever reason, several different guys, independently of each other, took to calling me “Havlicek” which, in those pre-Larry Bird days, was their idea of the baddest white boy around. Eventually, it stuck.

He wasn’t my favorite player, even when I rooted for the Celtics (which I did after Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain retired from the Lakers, in deference to Boston being my dad’s favorite team).

But I was always happy to be compared to him, however tangentially. He epitomized personal and athletic class while winning eight NBA championships. He was the best player on about four of them, including a couple that still had an aging Bill Russell. Early in his career, he elevated the role of the “sixth man” to enough of an art form that there was bound to be a day when they gave a seasonal award for it. Once he made starter he became one of the twenty best players in the history of the NBA.

He passed away yesterday after a long, quiet retirement which he spent fifty miles from my sister’s place. Who knew? That he–the most tireless player in the history of one of the world’s most physically demanding sports–was taken by complications due to Parkinson’s is only the latest proof that all glory is fleeting.

But, oh what glory…

HOW “HISTORY” IS MADE…

Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is turning out to be one of the more eye-opening and quotable books I’ve read in years. Here’s Leerhsen on the famous/infamous batting race of 1910, between Detroit’s Cobb (left, above) and Cleveland’s Napoleon Lajoie (a player so popular the Cleveland franchise in those days was called the Naps in his honor), which was not-quite-settled when Cobb sat out the final day, perhaps seeking to protect his seven-point lead, while Lajoie went eight-for-eight in a double-header in St. Louis and ended up hitting .384 to Cobb’s .383.

Seven of Lajoie’s eight hits were bunts down the third-base line, all with the Brown’s third-baseman playing in the outfield grass—and making no adjustments. From pages 239-240:

“Lajoie later said that he received a telegram of congratulations that evening signed by eight members of the Tigers. He never revealed their names, but presumably none was Ty Cobb. The story of the 1910 batting race has often been used to make the point that Cobb was widely disliked, and that many of his own teammates, as well as the St. Louis Browns, were pulling for Lajoie, who, though he had a temper—I’ve already mentioned the famous fight with (Elmer) Flick, and he once spit tobacco juice into an umpire’s eye—also had the decency to be not quite so outlandishly good as Cobb, and therefore to not attract so much attention, which he could in turn be resented for. Sports in 1910 still bore traces of nineteenth-century notions about honor and manliness and team play that, for some people, made standing out as an individual problematic—it was a little like standing out in Garrison Keillor’s not-so-imaginary version of small-town Minnesota. The president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, Charles William Elliot, thought that ball-carriers in football ought not search for holes in the line that could lead to gaudy breakaway runs, but should do the modest, gentlemanly thing and plow headfirst into the nearest man-pile. (Eliot also didn’t like baseball because he believed curveballs and other deceptive pitches to be unsportsmanlike.) Cobb stood out on purpose—it was an essential part of his “psychological” approach. Meanwhile the Frenchman was by all accounts avuncular and unpretentious—he wanted you to call him Larry; he carried a needle and thread to repair his (and other people’s) clothes, and, if you sat next to him on the bench, he might talk to you about his chicken farm. Probably even Cobb conceded that Larry was more likable than him.

But, Cobb aside for the moment, it was almost certainly not a universal outpouring of love for Nap Lajoie that led to the spectacle at Sportsman’s Park. One must also consider that many people, including players, gambled on baseball in those days, and that the Chalmers race (i.e., the batting race—then named after a company offering s new car to the winner) was a hot proposition with the bookmakers from coast to coast. (Peach Pie O’Connor [Browns manager] told the press he was leaving town soon to attend—and bet on—the World Series.) Many thousands likely wagered on who would win the car. It would be naïve to assume that money didn’t play a larger role in the Chalmers scandal than anyone’s pro-Lajoie, or anti-Cobb, feelings.

I’ve read a lot of pretty good history books where I didn’t learn as much as I did in those two paragraphs. And I was reminded of other things—like, for instance, the Black Sox scandal that happened nine years later did not spring from a vacuum.

The kicker to the above–and to how history is made–is that the subsequent stink resulted in the American League mysteriously finding a game that had been “missed” in the previous record-keeping in which Cobb had conveniently gone two-for-three, restoring his batting average lead by a fraction of a point and allowing him to be declared the official American League batting champion of 1910.

The Chalmers company gave both Cobb and Lajoie automobiles (probably a bigger deal to both men than who won the crown). Research conducted decades later concluded that the American League office had simply duplicated a game in which Cobb had a sufficient number of hits to allow him to win the batting title without looking too closely into what had transpired in St. Louis on the final day of the season. It took another decade and a thrown World Series for baseball to get serious about gambling.

As for Cobb being especially unpopular with his teammates (one of several canards Leerhsen debunks in this bio), one finds out a few pages later that they liked him sufficiently to stage baseball’s first player strike when they felt he was unjustly penalized for going after a crippled fan who had mercilessly heckled him during a game in New York. (How merciless? The New York fans took Cobb’s side–even though his heckler had no hands.) The strike lasted one game before Cobb himself begged his teammates to take the field because he knew how crippling the fines being threatened would be to them and their families.

You really should read this book.

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 concurrent 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 (and, once upon a time, Chris Evert), they were the most demanding expectations of all–what everybody else believed 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!”

*Now three times. Kerber has since added a WImbledon title.

**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.

AT LAST…NO REALLY! (Occasional Sports Moment #34)

Coming into this season, between them, the FSU baseball and softball teams had made thirty-one appearances (22 for the men, 9 for the women) in the College World Series and the Women’s College World Series. The women’s softball team had won two national championships in the early eighties when the sport was slow-pitch and not sanctioned by the NCAA but neither team had won the big one–a record of futility that stretched back to the sixties and has been carried like a lead weight by both programs for decades, felt to the present day by players whose parents weren’t born when “next year” first became a rallying cry.

Until now.

Monday and Tuesday night, the women lifted the curse:

I missed it all of course. No TV this year….maybe that’s all they needed!

But I still feel it. And I’d feel it even if they hadn’t done what most of us always suspected it would take–one comeback after another, staving off elimination six times, and becoming the first team to win the WCWS after losing on the first day:

 

STUPID FINALLY GOES ALL THE WAY TO ELEVEN (Occasional Sports Moment #33)

I don’t think you have to follow tennis to read this story and wonder if we shouldn’t just all run wild in the streets, killing and looting. Civilization had its good points and all, but what has it really brought us?

For the record I think Serena (who probably assumed she had heard every possible moronic question that could ever be asked a thousand times over before today) should have deadpanned it and said: “Yes, Trump nailed it. I’ve been frequently intimidated by my opponents throughout my struggling career. It defines me, really.”

Here’s to the free press:

ALWAYS THERE (Occasional Sports Moment #32)

Chris Evert was the most important female athlete of the twentieth century.

Some people would argue Billie Jean King was more important. I’d say that’s a little like suggesting Branch Rickey was more important than Jackie Robinson, or John the Baptist was more important than Jesus. Yes, someone must clear the path (and Billie Jean, unlike Mr. Rickey or The Baptist, was great in the arena).

But it’s the one who walks through the last gate who fulfills the final, most vital task–the thing that cannot be done by the world simply asking or allowing a new thing to be given a chance or even by the very best people with the very best intentions dedicating their own lives to making it so.

Jesus and Jackie have gotten their due. Evert has not. (There are reasons. I discussed some of them here.)

Jesus’ job was to sacrifice his life for mankind. Jackie’s was to excel on the field and take all the guff that came with breaking the color line in the only sport where, in 1948, it mattered.

Evert’s job–one I doubt she wanted any more than Jackie wanted to keep his considerable temper–was to put butts in the seats and keep eyes glued to the tube and to do it for a long enough period of time that taking a non-Olympic women’s sport seriously would take hold for good.

This is something she alone has ever done in the history of day-to-day women’s sports. Today’s women, playing her sport only reasonably well, routinely make more in endorsements than those playing other sports do for winning like crazy–and that’s on top of their sport, in good years or bad, already being a long way tops in competitive prize money.

Thank Chris Evert for all that. Without her there would be a tour. And it would be every bit as popular as the LPGA or the WNBA. (Or Billie Jean’s real passion, World Team Tennis. Not even Chris Evert, who, at the peak of her career, sacrificed the records that would have made it impossible to dismiss her in the Greatest of All Time** argument to support it, could make that dog hunt.)

The best moment in this very good interview (conducted by Steve Flink, a rare good tennis journalist and one with whom Evert has a strong enough relationship to keep her appointment even with what sounds like a terrible head cold) about her U.S. Open career, is Evert describing the two weeks when, at sixteen, she burst onto the scene with a series of improbable upsets and comebacks against the tour’s best players. The professional tour was so new it wasn’t even an idea when Evert took to the Lauderdale public courts ten years earlier, deploying her signature, revolutionary two-handed backhand because her six-year-old hands were otherwise too small to wield the racket.

Although it would be a worthwhile interview in any case because it’s a rare case of a long interview sticking almost entirely to tennis (these days, most tennis “journalists” don’t even bother with this when they are calling matches), the real kicker is when Evert and Flink revisit the moment she put not only women’s tennis, but tennis, on the front page of the paper.

Not the sports page.

The paper.

Up to and including the New York Times…and the one in my home town and yours, too.

They don’t say it so I will….

No one else, then or since, could have done that. And then backed it up with a career so consistent I–doubtless not alone–endured mild but lasting trauma eighteen years later when she retired and I was forced to confront the cold, harsh reality that there really was no rule that said my favorite player had to be in the finals every single week.

Still not sure I’m over it. All I can say is tennis is now the last sport I follow with any regularity. Not because of what it is. But because of what I know it can be.

**True, only fools do so now. But the world is run by fools. I’m sure you’ve noticed.

NOW WAIT A MINUTE…(Occasional Sports Moment #31)

From the third round of the U.S. Open last night. The point of the tournament so far….provided by a couple of Wild Cards who were both born in Russia and grew up in Florida. It must be the Meldonium! (Inside joke for tennis fans….the rest can just enjoy the moment)…And boy do I wish I could hear more matches in some language other than ESPN English. I could sit through three hours of this without my ears bleeding once.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMm-1V8cVzM

There’s now a very good chance that Maria Sharapova can win this tournament. In which case, many heads will explode.