As a child I used to absolutely dread 60 Minutes. Something about that ticking noise just signaled the end of the weekend and on to (what I thought at the time was) boring programming. (Let it be said that I have since had it in my DVR recording list several times — my, how time changes our tastes.) But I do recall one episode getting my attention. It was that of two young females of color swinging tennis rackets in Compton, California. At the time I remember watching and thinking — even in my early teens — “how absurd a thought…to believe that you can will and practice your kids into someday becoming great at a sport. And in an environment where they have no competition!?! What a silly, silly man.
Goes to show you how much I know.
History will reflect upon that 60 Minutes story, but my guess is the emphasis will be placed more upon what they’ve accomplished. It’s an incredible story. And as much as it flies in the face of my campaign to get parents to stop living their sports dreams vicariously through their children and, in some cases, treating them like Thoroughbred horses more so than 10 and 11-year-old kids, you almost can’t argue with success.
I’m not a huge tennis fan. I understand the game and I can hold my own on the court. I remember the days of glory with Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Borg and Becker, but I don’t understand all of the nuances of the game. Moreover, I don’t really feel that tuned into the “culture” of tennis. What are the “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to players. There seems to be this code of ethics and behavior that tennis shares all to it’s own. The relationship with the line judge. The ball people running back and forth. When you can yell and when you can’t. Very strange. But there is one thing that is universal to all of sports: good sportsmanship.
I witnessed two extremes this year at the U.S. Open. The first was a rather chance viewing of Andy Roddick in and early bracket match against Justin Gimelstob. Of course I knew who Andy was. But who was this tall guy across from him? Can’t even pronounce his name. Gimelstob?? Turns out this was Justin’s last Open and Andy was a good friend. Andy turned up the heat, but Justin was playing to win. Every point. Every serve. Right up until the break. And when Andy scored the final blow, They met in the center court. As Justin extended a very gracious hand to Andy….Andy, in a true act of sportsmanship, reached across and hugged his good friend. They did a very warm, heartfelt interview afterwards and I felt a warmness for Justin Gimbelstob that was incredibly odd considering the fact that I couldn’t say his name an hour prior. But for me it was the sportsmanship. It was the incredible way of handling victory and the even better way of handling defeat. Some folks just have it — it takes a big heart to go and hug someone else who has what you want. To be genuinely happy for them. It’s a true act of selflessness.
On the contrary, I heard the news that Serena lost her match against what appears to be her nemesis in Justine Henin. From what the news folks are saying, she just can’t figure this girl out. And once again she went down in defeat.
Now, again — I don’t know much about the ‘pomp and circumstance’ as far as tennis is concerned. The interview that Serena had post-game was one of the worst that I’ve seen. She didn’t blow up. It wasn’t a Bobby Knight or Bill Parcells “show your butt” contest. But the way that she just carried herself in the interview — not acknowledging a great game played by her opponent, throwing sarcasm back at the media when they asked questions — it was just sad. It’s really a shame. For someone who’s so talented, you wonder whether Richard Williams might have been better off spending at least some of those hours investing in their sportsmanship. I’m all for reality in your feelings. Sometimes after a loss you just don’t feel like talking. And I can’t imagine the feeling of having a bunch of snickering faces after having lost again to the same person. But there’s a character issue that is very visible in the interview.
What makes the situation considerably more embarrassing to me is the fact that there’s a polar opposite personality that we see in victory. There’s posing and smiling and kinda brushing off your opponent after you’ve just frustrated them for 12 sets. It’s just frustrating to see sportsmanship lacking on both sides of victory.
Don’t mistake my intentions. I really dig Serena. I like Venus too. I’d actually like to see them play male counterparts. But there’s just something to be said about sportsmanship. Some days you just have to take your hat off to the other guy….well, the other “person”. One of the things that really used to bother me to no end about former Red and Yankee Paul O’Neil was the constant drilling of the bat into the ground after you fail to drive in the run. You don’t have to be satisfied in defeat. And just about every pitcher makes a “mess of things” after giving up key runs when they go to the dugout. But there are certain displays that just don’t sit well with me, and Serena’s was one of them.
Then again, maybe the difference between her conditioning, Paul O’Neill’s championship rings and Serena’s numerous Grand Slam titles are the fact that they feel the way that they do about losing. Perhaps for some athletes to be fueled to success, you need to “get angry…get mean”. You’ve got to have that killer instinct. And some fans won’t like you. Well, that’s ok — they’ll get on the bandwagon when you have those championships in your pocket. Perhaps it’s what lies in the heart of a champion — that will to defeat the person across from you — no matter what the cost. And if you don’t achieve that goal, you have to almost celebrate the feeling — stay in that defeated moment to know just what it feels like to be defeated. Maybe this is just the way that some champions have to be?
Then again, thinking back to the great many examples of great champions in defeat over the years, somehow I just don’t think so.