The football season is revving up and the baseball season is heading down the stretch and the political maniacs are getting jumpy, summer must be leaving us. In a few weeks it will be fall and it is an election year and the mighty Manning brothers will be in command on their respective backfields while the Bronx Bombers warm up for the showdown with Texas by holding off the surging O’s and the devilish Rays and the Nationals, in defiance of the dead weight of federal tyranny, prepares Washington for a pennant for the first time in over half a century. It is a fine summer, and the tennis pros are doing their part with a superb display of fun and talent at Flushing Meadows in the great borough of Queens, N.Y.
Fun is a word you must use carefully in this context. Professional sports need a deep dose of fun to succeed: a perennial question of philosophy is whether this holds for life in general. What is certain is that the king and queen of world tennis, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, showed how fun and focus are compatible as they reigned in Arthur Ashe Stadium over the Labor Day weekend.
Miss Williams, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, 4th in the WTA ranking and 4th seed here, had no difficulty disposing of Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova (6-4, 6-0), and took care of another ova, the Czech star and world No. 12 Andrea Hlavackova, without allowing her a single game on Monday, a day of leisure celebrating hard work. Roger Federer, who lives in Basel (northwest Switzerland), maintained complete control of his match against Fernando Verdasco, who is hampered like all Spaniards by excessive reliance on a baseline game that works on their homeland’s red clay but is ill-suited for the hard (and faster) courts of the New World. On Monday Federer got a day off as Mardy Fish, of Los Angeles, had to withdraw for health reasons.
Federer meets Tomas Berdych in the quarters, the Czech, ranked 8th, crushed Sam Querrey and Nicolas Almagro on the way. In the quarters Miss Williams will meet Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, who rallied to beat the promising American teen Sloane Stephens in three sets last week and held off a rally by Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova. Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, seeded 2nd, was stopped by Roberta Vinci on Monday night, as Andy Murray and Milos Raonic got into their fourth round match and Serena and Venus Williams lost to Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova in theirs. Murray won in straight, though arduous, sets, putting up with Raonic’s big serve and making use of brilliant play at the net. In any event, there is a consensus that regardless of the outcomes of the several draws, Serena Williams and Roger Federer are tennis’s queen and king.
The classic quality of a monarch is maturity; the characteristic of the prince is eagerness verging on impetuosity, of a princess, eagerness tempered by resignation. In some contexts, due to unwise fathers and mothers, princes and princesses are marked by silliness, selfishness, and carelessness, and while the JAP (Jewish American Princess) has become over the years something of a caricature of the type, it is scarcely a religious or racial trait, as we learn from Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen. But regardless of the individual’s young nature, it is impossible to be a respected queen while remaining a princess. It is impossible to be a great and good king while remaining a prince.
In I.1 of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses the change that turns the young playboy Prince Hal into King Henry:
The breath no sooner left his father’s body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too; …
Never came reformation in a flood
With such a heady currance, scouring faults;…
We are blessed in the change, rejoins the bishop of Ely, who is worried sick by the fiscal policies of the late King Henry IV, that include heavy impositions on the Church, for the purpose of sustaining an expanded nobility (princes with feelings of entitlements). Fortunately,
The strawberry grows underneath the nettle, Ely observes when Canterbury assures him that the new monarch has forsaken
His companies unlettered, rude, and shallow,/His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports… (he is referring to Hal’s carousing with Sir John Falstaff, the [somewhat] lovable rogue and con-man of the Henry IV plays.)
Canterbury puts in Henry’s ear the notion that under French inheritance law, he is the rightful lord of large tracts of France, indeed the French crown itself. The Church would be willing to finance a military build-up and intervention in France to enforce the law (and not incidentally render unnecessary Henry’s father’s tax proposals.) Henry is receptive, but he is also prudent. Be careful what you advise, he says, —
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to do.
That passage struck me, shortly after 9/11, as I taught Shakespeare to high-school students. One of the Defense sec’s men was a Shakespeare scholar who expressed the commonly held view among the war hawks that the conquest of Iraq would be “a cakewalk.” I very much wanted to ask him if this was the mentality in the comfortable offices of Washington, D.C., where decisions were made to send our troops into those treacherous distant lands. I was myself in favor of going after our enemies — what else are you supposed to do, when criminals backed by thuggish regimes attack you? — but with what plans, with what aims, with what contingencies? I hoped our leaders were wise as well as bold — they had to be, if Shakespearean scholars were among them. But Mr. Tyrrell, despite his considerable clout in the circles of power, had not obtained for me the ambassadorship to Mali that I coveted — ambition, I know, and I, a Shakespeare reader if not a scholar, should have known better — and therefore I was not privy to the thinking in the high counsels of our Republic.
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person, [Henry continues]
How you awake our sleeping sword of war.
Alas, that one came back to haunt me, as the years passed and several of “my” kids expressed the ambition of pursuing military careers. I could scarcely discourage them: I feared for them, but the calling is honorable; it showed they had gained something from school, and were putting themselves on a path that would be of great advantage to them, as well as to the country to which (in many cases) their parents had brought them to give them a better chance than they had.
The men and women who led the country after 9/11 acted according to their understanding, and it was based on a simple law, oft-taught by the history of nations, including our own: weakness invites aggression. So does acceding to lawlessness. There was something of Henry in George W. Bush; but the play is well worth studying to gain insights, too, into those of Henry’s qualities the younger Bush lacks.
Henry V is not, specialists in the Bard inform us, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but it contains all the marks of his greatness, many passages that are, or should be, known by heart, and a profound theme upon which any one in public life, especially in war time, is well advised to meditate.
It contains also several moments of comic relief from the gravity of its narrative, including an aside involving tennis.
As just mentioned, the archbishop gives Henry a long (and detailed) rationale for war, based on the premise that by France’s own rules of succession, he, Henry, not the present king, is the rightful inheritor of the line established in days of yore. However, as he confers with his aides on strategy (how to protect their northern flank from the “weasel Scots” if they take an army to France?), Henry receives a sarcastic present in the mail from the French prince (called the Dauphin). The French ambassador explains that the Dauphin must reject Henry’s territorial claims, but urges him instead to accept a gift of tennis balls, proof the sport antedates car racing and also that French princes had considerable, if marginally vulgar, wit, compared to American ones who think DVD’s of their own speeches make good presents. Henry is of course insulted, but, already monarchial, he is too shrewd and intelligent to react like, say, Sonny Corleone when he loses his temper with his abusive (and treacherous) brother in law. Henry gets ready, not to strike out foolishly, but to wage a serious campaign.
When we have matched our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard. (In contemporary tennis slang, “we’ll bagel him,” meaning keep him at zero games won, as Miss Williams did to Miss Hlavackova, but I am not sure you are supposed to say this, due to politically correct despotism, in New York City.)
No stinting, no cakewalks for this Henry, if his wrath is aroused:
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them [an anticipation of the American style of war?]; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
Historians tell us the French suffered one of their great defeats at the battle of Agincourt, when superior English technology (the longbows) decimated the cream of French knighthood, The English side took light casualties, not that Henry forgives —
For, hearing this, I must perforce compound
With mistful eyes, or they will issue too.…
Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through.
It is sobering, even worrisome, to realize we are at war but we are given a choice in November between men who never experienced the responsibilities of command on the battlefield — a rarity, by the way, in American presidential politics. But put that down to my foolish romantic notions of what it takes to lead the Great Republic; for the moment, you have to admit that it is one of the symptoms of the sentimentalism of democratic societies that martial metaphors are applied regularly to sports. It is scarcely original to remark that one function of sports is to give expression to brutal aggressive instincts no less than wholesome competitive ones. But that is only one function of sports; in them young people also express an instinct for play which is deeply rooted in human beings.
It may well be that we take sports too seriously, in every sense: invest far too much in turning them into big money-making businesses. The NBA, Major League Baseball, the USTA are run as corporations, the bottom line rules. They make huge amounts of money, with which they reward young athletes (and less young executives) with salaries and prizes that may seem unseemly. But my reaction to this sort of economic illiteracy is always the same: can you offer something better?
The USTA says the U.S. Open once again is breaking all records for attendance at a sports event this year; you can look it up, but I should suppose this means a single continuing sports event at a single venue, otherwise I do not think they out-attract the full seven games of a World Series even between (hypothetically) the Diamondbacks and the Marlins (with all due respect to the fine citizens of Arizona and Florida). No question, they are making tons of moolah. Tickets are not cheap. You might pay anywhere between $80 and $600, depending on what you want to see and where you want to sit. You pays your money and you gets your choice, and this range is ordinary by New York sports-and-entertainment standards. The impressive Arthur Ashe Stadium, capacity 23,771, sold out over three days this past weekend, as it already is for next weekend’s finals. The 10,103 capacity Louis Armstrong Stadium (America’s greatest musician lived nearby and the USTA always has been a booster of New York City and the borough of Queens and their famous sons and daughters, at least that is how I interpret the choice of name) and the relatively intimate, charming, 6,106 capacity Grandstand, which is directly adjacent to Armstrong were pretty well packed too. The outside courts range from 300 to 1500, and the new small stadium, Court 17, seats 2,800. You can also enjoy the grounds, watch practice sessions or matches on movie-sized outdoors screens.
The relation of play to business, indeed the earnestness of play, is something those involved in this industry, as athletes (in business terms, salesmen and products combined, somewhat like entertainers, or as executives engaged in marketing the product or making sure it functions well) must work out for themselves. It is their responsibility, as it is their teachers’, their parents’. Prince Hal grew into King Henry, remained playful when it was appropriate, but earnest in all things: consider the bantering, but totally serious courtship of the princess of France in the last act, a critical matter of public policy as well as of the heart.
It sometimes appears the players are playing with each other. I mean, for example, that when Roger Federer, playing at Ashe against the Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, swats a crosscourt volley that seems utterly out of his reach as if he were tossing his hat on a rack, putting it, of course, out of Verdasco’s reach, now that is playful. It is also the perfect shot, guaranteed winner. For that matter, Novak Djokovic’s famous return of serve against the great Swiss champion in their semi-final match on this very same court last year, which turned the tide and led to the Serb’s victory in the final, was a playful shot. It just happened to be more effective as anything else he could have done. It not only won the point, it demoralized Federer, almost unthinkable to do against the coolest, steadiest, most steel-nerved contemporary player.
The great prince of American tennis is Andy Roddick, and since he announced his retirement last week he has been playing more like a king than a prince. He played a superb match at Ashe against a tough fast, agile Luigi Fognini, whose fate seems to be to never quite get to the last rounds of a tournament. Fognini made many excellent passing shots, as the popular Roddick — the last American man to win a Grand Slam, right here at Ashe in 2003 — played a brilliant serve-and-volley game, the kind that his fans have been missing in recent years, as he seemed to choke (also suffer injuries) under the pressures of being perennially America’s only contender for the top.
On one rousing point in the third set, Roddick sent a perfect lob over the Italian at the net, who ran back and hit a fantastic tween (a shot between your legs with your back to the net) zooming over the net, which Roddick caught low and put away. Serve-and-volley against passing, risky groundstrokes down the line, both men played admirably, but with the score remaining extremely close for four sets, Roddick finally played with an intensity that left Fognini playing with just enough afterthought to lose the critical edge. When you get past thinking along the lines of How can he do that? or What am I doing wrong?, that is when the magical blend occurs and play turns to work, successful work, adult work.
That is what we saw in Roddick on the weekend and the reason there was buzz of cancelling his retirement plans. However, I am sure he is quite serious. And I am also sure that when we see players playing with opponents they know they are dominating, it is a sign of maturity — of monarchial behavior — that they do this in a respectful manner. The stunts they pull have a purpose and they are not done to excess and they refuse to make fun of their opponents. In this sense, the low moment of the basketball tournament at the recent Olympics came when an otherwise admirably sporting U.S. basketball team crushed the Nigerians like bullies, and added the bad manners of bragging about it.
At the Open, the up-and-coming Americans went down over the holiday weekend, but honorably and with displays of strengths and ambition that augurs well for our position in global tennis. They are young princes and princesses. Steve Johnson, scarcely out of his teens and playing as a wild card in his second Open, was decisively defeated by the second best French player, Richard Gasquet (world rank 14; the best, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, went out early), and it was fine, Gasquet on top of his game and playing very aggressively. Teenager Jack Sock, following a loss to the second-best Serb, Janko Tipsarevic (Novak Djokovic is still at the cruising stage, encountering no serious opposition), went on to lose alongside Melanie Oudin, his championship partner in last year’s mixed doubles, to an Anglo-Indian team, but here again it is fine, Sock is well on his way and is learning constantly, and young Melanie has many years ahead. Ryan and Christian Harrison are advancing in men’s doubles, might well meet the mighty Bryans (who speak highly of them) in the semis, and the charming and graceful Victoria Duval is advancing in the junior girls’, in which she is playing. (Correction: Miss Duval is still an amateur, which may not have been clearly conveyed in the earlier dispatch on her first-round loss to Kim Clijsters.)
This is why you learn to play, in every sense of the term. You learn not only to be good at the game, but to be good. Play is constructive, beneficial; teachers know how helpful games can be in learning. So do business leaders and indeed all managers of all kinds of organizations. But play is not without a dark and dangerous side, as Shakespeare knew.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport,
muses the well-meaning Gloucester, blinded by King Lear’s evil daughter. Did he get the idea from his contemporary John Webster, who, as Jay Jennings notes in the introduction to his fine anthology, Tennis and the Meaning of Life, writes in The Duchess of Malfi, “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied/Which way may please them.”
Lear was written ten years before Malfi, but it was revised (like much of Shakespeare’s work) and reworked and a specialist, such as the fellow who thought war in Mesopotamia would be a cakewalk, might provide some insights into this. It would be interesting to know, though inessential for my purpose here. Shakespeare and Webster were friends and competitors, and they may well have discussed this idea.
What is certain is that they both understood the deadly seriousness of play — which is perhaps why they did not neglect, even in their most earnest and tragic work, the play element in a play, or in a game of tennis.
(One more Correction: The report in an earlier dispatch that Novak Djokovic would meet American teenager Dennis Novikov in the third round was subverted by the latter’s loss to France’s Julien Benneteau, who went on to lose to the defending champion in three sets.