The hyperbolic sportswriters of the day credited Cobb with bringing psychology to a game previously packed with Bunyanesque bumpkins swinging rough-hewn clubs at saliva-sodden spheres–and hailed what he was doing as “scientific baseball.”
Or at least some of them did, some of the time. Journalistic standards were different then, and wildly inconsistent. Scandalous or embarrassing off-the-field incidents might be overlooked or played down as a favor to one of the participants. That Cobb’s mother had shot and killed his father a few days before Ty’s major league debut, that the minor league player the Tigers wanted over Cobb, Clyde Engle, was hampered by gonorrhea, that Cobb missed time early in the 1906 season because he had what was then called a nervous breakdown–such things were obscured by euphemism if they were writtenabout at all. In other cases, though, controversies might be concocted or exaggerated to please the sports editor and the reading public. Quotes were frequently manufactured, or so polished you could see the writer’s face in them, throw-pillow-worthy aphorisms and corny jokes, sometimes coon jokes, were credited to players who had never said such things, and almost everyone seems to have shrugged this off as just the way things worked.
On a slow news day, some of the same scribes who usually showered Cobb with hosannas might depict him as a maniacal base runner who preyed upon innocent infielders and hapless catchers with his ferociously filed spikes. His own hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, once said that he was dangerous to the point of “dementia” (which is exactly what he wanted his opponents to think), and at least one editorial page writer opined in all seriousness that by tearing around the base paths in such an aggressive manner he was exacting revenge for General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through his beloved home state fifty-something years before.
(Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, 2015)
This is for fun. I just picked this up and, at first glance, Leerhsen’s revisionist bio of Ty Cobb the Savage Racist looks like it’s going to be a fantastic, revelatory read.
I’ve already sensed that Cobb’s approach to the game he played would have made him one of my favorite athletes–not only bearing strong resemblance to, but long predating, the “psychological” approach of not-the-most-physically-gifted give-no-quarter spiritual compatriots like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Penny Taylor, Chris Evert, Tim Duncan, Greg Maddux.
Such qualities certainly made them my favorites to watch in their respective sports and eras (I just missed Russell but I’ve seen enough highlights to know how I would have felt).
That said, it’s always funny when somebody starts out lamenting the past absence of something like “journalistic standards” before demonstrating how much things have changed by providing a thorough-going litany of how much things have stayed the same.
[I mean, I wish I had a dime for every time a modern Yankee “journalist” has explained the actions of some Red State Republican politician (or group of voters) as revenge for Sherman’s March…the bloody-mindedness of which was itself a myth seeded in the national memory by the Plantation South’s newspapers, owned and edited, lock-stock-and-barrel, by Democrats-to-a-Man tired of Sherman’s army targeting their precious cotton crop and setting their slaves free when he should have been slaughtering the Virgil Caine’s of the world like the West Point manuals said!…But I digress.]
I was going to provide some modern day examples of journalism at its finest. But why bother.
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:
*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.
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.
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.
I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.
“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”
I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.
I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.
If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.
During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).
I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).
I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.
But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.
Just win. Any which means. Any which way.
Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:
For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.
There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.
When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.
When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.
When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.
Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.
Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.
He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.
Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.
I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.
If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.
Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.
He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.
He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.
One of the few modern developments worth applauding has been the mainstreaming of women’s sports. After Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, no one was more important to that process than Pat Head Summitt, who just passed away, at 64, from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s.
She was hired as the University of Tennessee’s basketball coach in the fall of 1974. She was 22, fresh off an All-American senior season at UT-Martin. In the early years, she drove the team van, sometimes to places where they slept on the floor of the opponent’s gym because they couldn’t afford a motel.
These days, no major college women’s team sleeps on anybody’s floor. Thank her for that.
She won in her first season and, thirty-eight years later, she won in her last. In between she won in every single other season. There were eight national championships, an Olympic Gold Medal (back when American dominance of international women’s basketball was far from assured–thank her for making that an ongoing reality, too) and a record number of wins overall. Along the way she graduated one hundred percent of her players.
Near the end of her career, cut short a few years ago by the diagnosis of the disease that took her today, The Sporting News ranked the top fifty coaches across the history of all sports. Exactly one woman made the list, at #11. If you followed sports even a little in the last half-century, and somebody told you there was only one, you would not have needed to be told who.
Like I always say: When there’s only one of something, there are reasons. In this case, chalk it up to the fire within. Not just the ability to coach a sport, however considerable that was, or even the most extraordinary capacity to lead, but to imagine that every single person who plays for you really and truly matters. You do that, and there will be a reason why every single person who played for you across four decades cries when you die, something that probably could not be said of any of the other forty-nine coaches on that list because, frankly, coaching at that level isn’t really supposed to be like that.
Thank her for proving that idea wrong, too.
Sounds like dedication time, so here’s from the Maryville in me to the Clarksville in her:
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 offer no opinion except one I’ve noted before…in the sports’ world, and maybe just the world generally, female tennis players are uniquely destabilizing, even when their images are being used to hold the world at arm’s length by defining the distance between being stupid and being lost. And, yes, you can flip these images back and forth and run that equation either direction:
For the record: In the years before and between, only track star Mary Decker who, in 1983, was given a perfectly conventional cover in line with those accorded male winners, was awarded the honor on her own, i.e. without a male figure to balance the ticket. Mary Decker was clearly not a threat who needed managing.
I don’t cut Evert or Williams much slack on this BTW. They should have known better. Still, as I’ve also said before, you can understand why women go crazy sometimes.
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…
…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.
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.
…Think I’m gonna go watch the 1985 French Open final.
Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.
Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines. That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.
To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)
So without further adieu:
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)
Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc. and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.
The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)
Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.
Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)
Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)
Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.
Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.
Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.
Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)
Raspberries Starting Over (1974)
Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?
Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)
Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.
Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.
Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.
Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.
Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)
Wow. Didn’t realize it had been so long since two elements informed and enlightened each other on the same day in just the right way! And, since it happened during Wimbledon, it pretty much had to be related to tennis.
I usually think I’m jaded enough to not be surprised by much, especially when it comes to sports “journalism” and most especially when it comes to commentary on tennis, the one major sport where men and women compete for public attention on a more or less equal basis and, therefore, the one major sport where even the sport’s nominal sponsors (who might have something to gain by promoting it unabashedly), are dedicated to the relentless protection of male privilege.
Heck, they’ll stick with it even if it costs money–which, in this case, it does and which they know it does.
I know how this works. We all know how this works–right down to the routine denials by all parties involved of there ever having been even a thought of doing any such thing!
And–sad but true–I’m no longer young.
So I’m used to letting it roll off my back. Life’s too short.
If, say, Tony Kornhiser, co-host of a show called Pardon the Interruption (and life-long card carrying member of the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade, Sports Division), spends a week mocking his partner Michael Wilbon’s tickets to the Ladies’ Semifinal at Wimbledon as being “worthless” because Serena Williams was knocked out of the draw on Monday, I hardly bat an eye. That Wilbon, if indeed he decided to use those tickets, would end up seeing the match of the tournament to that point (contested–on a knife edge throughout–between Sabine Lisicki, the enormously gifted young woman who beat Serena by outplaying her at her own game and very well might be a breakout star, and Agnieska Radwanska, the tennis player’s tennis player) was as predictable as sticking your hand in a bucket of water and having it come out wet.
As I say, I’m used to all that.
But there was a kind of twist on the theme during the 4th of July Wimbledon coverage.
The Lisicki/Radwandska match was covered by Chris Fowler doing play-by-play. (Chris Evert provided color commentary but really isn’t germane to this.)
I noticed throughout that Fowler–high-level DBCCB material himself–was remarkably subdued, almost as if he had started working for the BBC or something. (With them, understatement is a style. It’s a style no one has ever heard of at ESPN.)
Not only was the match filled with the highest tension imaginable (three-set matches generate such from the get-go, whereas even the closest high-stakes five-setters contested by the men usually don’t start raising anxiety levels unless and until there’s a fourth set between the small handful of actual contenders), it featured a bundle of the very sort of indelible, athletic shot-making under pressure that normally tends to make Fowler’s voice rise two octaves.
For Thursday’s match, he sounded like he was in church, wondering if he should nudge the deacon sleeping next to him in the pew, or just let him go ahead and sleep through the sermon.
“Gee, what happened to Fowler?” I wondered as the match came to an end (Lisicki winning 9-7 in the final set–that’s several extra innings of a World Series game, with everything on the line and no teammates to help you, for those of you who don’t follow tennis.)
I mean, I thought maybe MI6 had got to him. Possibly even turned him against us? Maybe promised him British citizenship if he proved he could keep his heart rate level throughout?
I started thinking, yeah that must be it.
We’re finally gonna get rid of Chris Fowler! This time next year, he’ll be doing soccer matches for Man U! Tennis and College Football will be free at last!
Then, just as I was breaking out the wine and cheese and preparing to celebrate, ESPN started running a partial replay of the men’s match from the day before between Brit Andy Murray (one of the men’s “Big Four” who have been dividing up the tennis slams between them for about three hundred Klingon years**) and persistent underachiever Fernando Verdasco.
And there was my man Fowler, in all his glory, calling Murray’s comeback from two sets down–an event that was surprising in the way that Russian Roulette ending badly when it is played without an empty chamber is surprising–and the comforting signs of hero-worship, heart-throbbery and man-crushery and all those other, more or less unmentionable, things that keep America strong were fully present and accounted for. The hyperbole! The two-octave rise! The persistent encomiums to how magnificent and “amazing” it all was!
So I had to put the wine and cheese back in the cupboard and accept that, alas, he is still one of us and that his palpable lack of enthusiasm for the genuinely exciting match that happened to be played by women a day later was just the same tired old double-your-standard-double-your-fun narrative being served up in a new bottle.
Almost got me there Chris. Well done!
And please do hold your breath waiting for it to happen again…
NOTE: Below is the best highlight package I could find on the net from the Lisicki/Radwanska match. Not ideal, perhaps (it leaves out many of the best points) but gives at least some feel for the match. The announcer who appears in audio snippets throughout seems to know a bit about building drama and calling a tennis match. In any case he has a great voice. There’s an ESPN logo in the corner, but, rest assured, this is not Chris Fowler.