Tennis’s clay court season advances toward its grand climax in Paris as the Mutua de Madrid gets under way with last year’s finalists on the women’s side, Serena Williams (who won) and Maria Sharapova, fresh from winning her third Porsche in a row at the Stuttgart tournament, brushing aside their first-round competition with almost identical scores, 6-2, 6-1 and 6-1, 6-2, unless it was the other way around, but you can look it up.
On the men’s side the Mutua starts out wide open, which is the ATP story this year, with Novak Djokovic withdrawing at the last minute due to the same arm injury that plagued him at Monte Carlo, where Roger Federer beat him with relative ease in the semis before succumbing to his friend and fellow-Helvete Stan (“Stanimal,” Federer calls him) Wawrinka, the Australian Open champ. Rafa Nadal, who should be the favored player and who objected a couple of years ago to the Mutua’s innovative “blue clay” courts, on which he lost, is defending the title he won here last year, but he has got other things on his mind, namely his own competitive drive, which has not been turned on lately, neither at Monte Carlo or at Barcelona.
In every “era” of tennis, there are a handful of players who turn up repeatedly in the finals of the main tournaments as well as the majors (the Grand Slam circuit). It used to be this way in team sports, but that was a long time ago. New York v. New York or Brooklyn, or St Louis, year after year; but the increased number of clubs in baseball renders this increasingly improbable for more than two or three seasons in a row (St. Louis, Philadelphia, for example, in recent National League pennant races).
Tennis has been booming again. There was a boom in the 1970s when the open era began and players like Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors (Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova on the women’s tour) brought the sport into the big time. What might be called the globalization boom of tennis began in the mid-1990s and picked up momentum in the first decade of this century as East Europeans got wise to the opportunities and produced cohort after cohort of top ranked players. A apt symbol of this evolution is the ownership of the Mutua: it belongs to Ion Tiriac, a celebrated Rumanian player of the Ashe-McEnroe era (which was also the Ilie Nastase era, compatriot and friend of Tiriac, who has fixed the courts at the futuristic Casa Magica where the Mutua is played).
The U.S. still produces any number of excellent players, but at the international level we are rather out of the running on the men’s side since the retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Andy Roddick kept the flame alive for a while but he called it a day the season before last. American women remain competitive; Venus and Serena Williams are the dominant players of the past 15 years by any measure, and there is a strong generation coming up to take the baton, or the racquet, when they feel like passing it on, including 18-year old phenom Taylor Townsend, who just won a wild card to the French Open (May 25-June 10) and who trains at the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation.
The amount of money involved in big time sports seems inversely related to ordinary moral clarity in the societies that make this bounty possible. This is, obviously, a statement so broad as to be preposterous. As an anecdotal observation, however, it is preposterously obvious. The prize money in tennis has been relentlessly rising in recent years. Wimbledon, Roland-Garros, and Flushing Meadows in particular have hugely increased their purses. Wimbledon announced a 10 percent leap this year. The Mutua, a weeklong Master 1000 event (the highest category next to the Slams), the prize money is about eight million dollars. The tournaments and the players’ organizations insist this works to the benefit of less successful players; with more money, even those who lose in the first rounds are given prize money that can keep them in business, and this, perhaps, encourages the field to remain large and diverse and to allow champs like Stan Wawrinka to persist until they break through. In this sense, it may be compared to league expansions in team sports.
They, the tournament owners, also invest in the improvement of the stadia, on the assumption their fan bases will keep growing. Maybe.
At TAS we are happy to see young players rewarded, and as free market men we cannot object to the breath-taking rise in the cost of everything associated with sports, notably the cost of stadium seats. But is it truly an index of a healthy society? Or it is something that should not be included among the indices of a healthy society? You see and read little probing of such questions amongst the sports media. You find them, the sports media, perhaps a little lazy, or a little too fashionable, in seizing upon big questions and then saying nothing serious about them. The Sterling affair, to take the most recent such question, too readily became a mere vehicle for moral posturing instead of thinking, as when a writer at Tennis magazine used it as a hook to compare the experiences of the Williams sisters to Althea Gibson’s, who was refused entry to clubs and tournaments on account of her race, until — with the support of white players — she broke in, and won.
The Williams sisters refused to play in tournaments when Israeli players were banned. Would that writers were possessed of the same clear moral compasses. Who is to say — maybe it is not in the money that washes over big time sports but in the moral intelligence of the sportswriters that we may find ourselves measuring the health or decline of our societies.