Sports Arena

Baron Coubertin and 16th Street Tennis

It's not if you win or lose, etc. -- or isn't it?

By 8.3.12

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Sloane Stephens sends a backhand down the line from the corner, flummoxing the young lady on the opposite side who expected a cross court shot back to her. She is rattled and goes on to lose the game and the set. That was a gritty and brave shot Miss Stephens sent over, her backhand had been troublesome earlier at the beginning of the match, but now she is calm and steady and has got Eugenie Bouchard badly rattled.

This is the last match of the night at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center on 16th Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C. For a Thursday night, the Carter-Barron Stadium is pretty well attended. A few blocks away gray men in gray suits pretend during daytime to think about tax policy and the American economy, but in this site of sport and culture, two very pretty teenagers with playing styles so alike they could have studied the sport together are battling to determine which of the two will move on to the next round of the City Open.

Miss Bouchard holds her serves and keeps the pace, 2-1. Mardy Fish was here earlier, dispatching a young man from Lithuania, Ricardas Berankis, and before that Sam Querrey beat Benjamin Becker from Germany. There are still two Germans in contention, Tommy Haas, who outfoxed Leonardo ("No Curls") Mayer, and Tobias Kamke, a feisty and quick player not well known here who fixed Marinko Matosevic, an Australian of Yugoslav origin. Among the Americans there remains also James Blake, who has been playing quite impressively after hard luck with injuries last year. He goes up tomorrow against the mighty Ukrainian Alexandr (as he spells it) Dolgopolov, who is from Kiev and who demolished a classy but outclassed Spaniard, Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo. Tennis is an international sport.

As such, it scarcely needs the hoopla of a quadrennial event costing billions of pounds sterling, like the one going on this very week in another time zone. However, tennis was on the program when this event was re-instituted in 1896, thanks to the efforts of a sports-minded Frenchman, the baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had been taught in school that the Greeks, not the contemporary ones who repress freedom of speech but the ones of yore, included this in their civilization.

Miss Bouchard and Miss Stephens not only play the same way, they are nearly the same size. The Canadian lass is a little taller and slighter. In their movements and demeanors, they could be sisters, carved from ebony and ivory. They hit hard forehands and use two hands on the backhand. But Miss Stephens is clearly tougher -- grittier. She breaks Miss Bouchard in the seventh game, heightens the pressure now, smacks powerful winners (shots the other player cannot reach), rattles her with shots all over the court that she can only watch.

Coubertin, who was rich and had time on his hands, admired English public schools (like Eton) and in particular noticed how well sports fit into their curricula. He wrote and agitated for the introduction of sports, what became "physical ed," in France's public schools, to little avail. The French public school system at the time, the 1890s, was a religious issue, so to speak, for the republicans, intent on wresting the education of children from the Roman Church. France was on the razor's edge -- would it remain the First Daughter of the Church, with all that implied for the kind of civilization it would transmit and foster and nurture, or would it become a militantly secular Republic, whose values were Reason, Tolerance, Freedom of Thought? During this passionate decade France as we knew it until very recently was forged on the anvil of the Dreyfus Affair. But here I am slipping into purple prose. It matters, though. The Turks, among others, followed the example of France's militant republicans. The Chinese as well. Of course, they also drew on other traditions, including their own.

Coubertin seems to have sensed that the republicans had the wind in their sails, notwithstanding their reverses in the initial stages of the Affaire. Which was to modern France what the confrontation between Progressivism and Conservatism was to us, at least as Mr. Jeffrey Lord explains it, so it was not small beans and it is understandable that it is one of the Historical Moments that the French still consider a Defining Event and part of their National Narrative, and they often write and talk about it. The baron figured if the republicans were going to have their way, the days of the old order to which he belonged were numbered. He would have identified with the aristocratic officers, German and French, in Renoir's classic film, La Grande Illusion. Actually he died at about the time the film came out and I am unaware that he saw it.

Coubertin viewed sports as a way to mitigate the extreme rationalism of the educational project of the militant republicans. Their leader, Jules Ferry, viewed education as a way to civilize France's rural masses, who often did not speak French. It is probably not surprising, and Mr. Lord would understand this instantly, that Ferry also was an ardent champion of colonialism, who took it for granted that France's occupation of large swathes of Africa was in the interest of the stone-age barbarians who would thus be raised up and civilized.

Coubertin, like many Frenchmen of his time, may well have thought some of these ideas had merit. But given his own background, seeped heavily in inherited privilege and traditions and accepted manners, he sensed you needed something, in the formation of young humans and citizens, that was not rational, though its pedagogy might certainly benefit from the application of rational analysis. The something he latched on to, when he fell in love with English public schools, was of course sports: rugby, soccer (both English inventions), track and field, gymnastics. He believed that through sports boys and young men learned qualities needed to sustain civilization.

In his best known essay on the subject, Coubertin remarks that the spirit you bring to the competition is more important than whether you win or lose. This sort of thing was much in the spirit of the times; Teddy Roosevelt expressed a similar idea, though by no means the same, in his "man in the arena" peroration. For my money, it could be they were all scared stiff of being overwhelmed by the Prussians and they were saying at least we shall put up a good fight, what. But maybe it went deeper.

Now it is 5-4 and Miss Stephens is serving for the match, and she is pulling out the stops. She goes up to 40-15 in a matter of minutes, sends a deep return-of-return that the nervous Miss B. whacks well over the baseline. A fine match, if a bit metronomic. Both girls -- they are still adolescents -- are, you can see, works in progress. They will grow stronger and become shrewder. They are playing by rote, a game plan that they were taught. Miss Stephens plays it more steadily. She does not lose her composure and makes fewer mistakes. But they are still both playing in a manner that a more experienced player, a Maria Sharapova or a Serena Williams, can take apart after a few rallies.

Those two, arguably the top two in the world today, are currently in another time zone, and it is quite likely they will meet in a day or two and it will be sort of like Stephens-Bouchard, only at a rather different level of play. And this is due to certain activities of Baron Coubertin. Rebuffed by French republicans on his sports-in-school ideas, he turned his energy toward the revival of an old Greek custom, a quadrennial meeting of athletes from many countries to see who is the best. With his win-or-lose-how-you-play-the-game shtick, Coubertin may well have been more -- how should one say? -- French than Greek, but the idea caught on. He included tennis in the program because it was a popular sport in his set and, he noticed, it was popular too in England, at least the England that he identified with. He was something of an Anglophile.

In the other quarter finals, Vania King was not fazed by a strong rally by Coco Vandeweghe, which shows grit. She stayed cool despite losing the second set to a Coco who seemed to have gained unstoppable momentum and easily took the first three games of the third. But Miss King was unfazed. She stuck to her game. The game was to keep the point going, notwithstanding Miss V.'s power groundstrokes, on the theory that sooner or later they would sail out of bounds. Which they did.

Miss Vandeweghe expressed the frustrations of an American girl who does not get what she wants. She argued bitterly with the chair ump. She threw her racquet on the floor at the end of the match. She left in a huff, though she did at least shake hands with Miss King, who has expressed the idea that tennis, and perhaps sports more generally, are hurt by the culture of celebrity that pervades them, as it does so much in our civilization. No one pays attention to you, she has remarked, if you are not the very top.

A valid point; but to Coubertin, the idea of sports was not to get any attention at all, other than from your peers and teachers. The idea of sports was to learn what it means to compete and to be, as used to be said, a good sport. This notion receives its due regularly. The Washington Post's Mike Wise, a widely read sportswriter, comes at it by means of a report on the poor manners of a young American fencing person. Mr. Wise's theme is quite good, he noticed that the American, who lost to a Korean, would not credit her opponent with winning, only harped on herself for losing. It is as if, in tennis, you said only, "Oh this is such poor play on my part," instead of, "Good play old son." Sometimes, indeed often, you feel, and perhaps correctly, that you threw away a point or even a game. Someone had to be there to convert, however. And if you are a good sport, in the manner of Coubertin, you recognize that.

Miss Kai-Chen Chang, a small young Chinese lady from Taiwan, put up a good fight but lost to the No. 1 seed in the women's draw, the powerful and skilled Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But this did not cause her to mope. Only a couple hours later, she was on the court again, alongside Shuko Aoyama, a very pretty and little-known Japanese doubles player (she is not competing in the singles draw), face to face with the very pretty and virtually indistinguishable Pliskova sisters, Karolina and Kristyna. Born only minutes apart, they are tall, graceful, lovely, but they played a Czech game, somewhat dreamy and passive. Meanwhile, Miss Chang, which in Chinese means "flower," was all fire and power, despite her tiny size, whamming and whacking balls from the net and holding up her side on the baseline, while Miss Aoyama was playing a deep groundstrokes game and, it seemed, calling strategy. The Japanese are like that toward the Chinese, but let us not generalize. The point is they played good. And the lovely Pliskova girls threw away points, doubled at crucial moments, did not fight.

If what matters is how you play the game, you ought to win, at least from time to time, because "how you play the game" means giving it your best shot, not giving it away. The baron may have had a romantic idea of how gentlemen were made on the playing fields of Eton, but he must have heard Wellington's quip that it was on those fields that the battle of Waterloo was won. Anyway, the great 16th Street Tournament continues, and -- this is not a placement ad -- thanks to Citi for sponsoring it.

 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.