Baghdatis walks away from the court where he has just lost a game on serve. He is behind by two sets to love and if he loses this one he is out of the tournament in the second round, and he is behind 4-5 and he is, indeed, losing it.
He smashes his racquet, a handsome Technifibre Speedflex, by bringing it down at full force on the ground. The frame bends. It is irreparable. He ruined it. Such a racquet costs between $120. and $200, though sometimes you can pick one up for less at a sports equipment discounter or even at online auctions, where these days you can buy anything, even, apparently, women. The world we live in is weird, immoral, wicked.
Baghdatis, whose first name is Marcos and who is 26, pulls another racquet from his large equipment bag, which is kept courtside. His opponent, Stanislas Wawrinka, has not said anything and the umpire has not said anything and in fact most of the spectators at Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open is played, have not yet noticed something is lost. Those who saw Baghdatis’s outburst think he is reaching into his bag to find another racquet moments before returning to the match. He takes the racquet out of the bag and smashes it, the same way he smashed the one he had on court.
He now has ruined two racquets, irreparably twisting the frames to make a rubbish of a highly evolved composite material, and the pokerfaced quiet courteous ballboys have taken them away, thinking he might have just given them the racquets if he did not want them, for they are young sports-dreaming boys and boys like to get equipment. Baseballs and gloves and bats and pocketknives and compasses and tennis racquets. But they do not say anything. They have not lost anything except, perhaps, a certain idea of Marcos Baghdatis, who is popular on the Tour with his exuberant personality, his chubby look (he is fit, works out), his Levantine profile, his exuberant fan base.
Now Baghdatis is destroying a third racquet, this one also still in its pristine plastic wrapping, and there is a buzz around the stadium. It is the same model, a Technifibre Speedflex, a piece of sports equipment that can cost you $200, though you can get it for less. I may be repeating myself. Like Baghdatis. Most professional players get racquets from the manufacturer for free. It is not yet known whether Technifibre considers their support of Baghdatis a waste of their racquets or whether, in this economic climate, they will spin this into a clever marketing ploy.
Baghdatis, still on his courtside folding chair, reaches into his bag and pulls out a fourth racquet, enveloped in the plastic wrap in which the manufacturer put it. It has never been handled since leaving the factory in France where it was made. Most racquets sold in the U.S. by U.S. companies, notably the legendary Wilson firm, send their specs to Chinese sweatshops — which the American labor movement is afraid to call by their name due to their capitulation to the sirens of the Washington free-trade consensus even as, when it suits them, they complain about “outsourcing.” There is a sense in many quarters that with the passing of Lane Kirkland and Al Shanker, the American labor movement, under the self-serving leadership of what used to be called labor-fakers, has turned its back on the American worker. But it is not only the American labor movement. The destruction of America’s manufacturing base has raised scarcely a peep during the campaign for the Republican nomination.
The practice of sports is not a metaphor for life, and no one claims — yet — that the flame out of the American side in the first few days of the Australian Open, should be a symbol of our failure to make the world safe for democracy and our free and prosperous way of life, notwithstanding our proclaimed ambition to do so. Harrison, Roddick, Young, Isner, Fish, Querrey, McHale, King, all went under down under, and fast. However, we should not project too much onto this. The second week in Melbourne is shaping up on the men’s side as a showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, all of whom have been masterful. Serious threats to their dominance await them — the mighty and gritty Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s last hope, and Jo-W. Tsonga, France’s best hope, among them. Hewitt’s old friend and the defending ladies’ champion, Kim Clijsters, playing in quite possibly her final season, showed the tenacity and talent that endeared her to Aussies years ago as she played through a sprained ankle to beat Chinese star Na Li and move toward the late rounds. Petra Kvitova, the young winner of last year’s Wimbledon, may be waiting for her.
Sports are part of life, just as reading books and going to school are part of life. I never understood, to belabor the obvious, why some people object to “the ivory tower” inhabited by university professors. I am as aware as anyone else that many of these bozos live in trees and clouds, but that could be part of life, too. Just as the life on the professional tour (or in a professional league) commits one to devotion to rigorous training and athletic self-improvement, the ivory tower, properly defined, involves a devotion to the life of the mind: teaching, research, writing on subjects too specialized for most people to even know they exist and often of no apparent relevance to the improvement of life as we know it, either as individuals or as a society.
I never quite understood that, either. Who knows what is a valuable subject for research? Why should someone be accused of living in an “ivory tower,” in the pejorative sense of removing himself from “real life,” because he devotes 30 years of his life to the mating habits of an insect whose only known habitat is in southern Bulgaria? Unbeknownst to the ordinary person running a small business into the ground (myself for example), this may be of tremendous consequence to the future of life on earth under civilized conditions, and not only for the obvious reason that we clearly have allowed sex, which is necessary to the perpetuation of the race but which is also an activity that plays devilish tricks on peoples’ heads (and hearts), to get completely out of hand.
To be sure, the idea of valuing research for its own sake under the principle that, as they used to say at Chicago, crescat scienta, vita excolatur, can be abused. For one thing, you have no way of forming intelligent judgments about what constitutes worthwhile research if you do not study Latin, and surveys reveal that a majority of students enter American undergraduate programs with less than two years of school Latin. This is a very bad situation, leading to bad taste. It results in a great young scholar like Mark Moyar (Harvard B.A. and Cambridge PhD, if you want to know, one of the foremost students of American military history) losing out in a competition for a position to a non-distinguished scholar specializing in “promiscuous bathing.”
There is nothing new in what I am saying. It was probably said by Chaucer and Rabelais, who were well aware of the foibles and frauds prevalent in the universities of their time, models of today’s. It was certainly noted by Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind, a classic of American cultural criticism that is already well into its third decade, accepted that American higher education was divided, probably irretrievably, between the minority interested in scholarship properly understood and the majority that was pursuing advanced vocational training. Bloom was not against advanced vocational training, but he feared that its ties to, and support from, corporate sponsors would crowd out the humanities in the budgetary allocations that universities, like any other viable organizations, must make.
The lowering of standards in our universities, in education generally, connects, it seems to me, to the notion that one or other aspect of life is somehow not life, or is a metaphor for life, or is less authentic, or relevant, or important, than life. What life? The educated person cherished and recognized the well-lived life and accepted that it could be spotted in many diverse ways. No job too small to be done with dignity and gravitas, no life too humble to merit respect, both in the eyes of our fellow-creatures and those of the Creator of all things. But I find myself wondering whether while we still can utter turgid pieties like the preceding sentences, we really do not believe them.
Having destroyed four expensive tennis racquets in excellent, indeed new, condition, Baghdatis returns to the match and wins the set, 7-5. But the win is Pyrrhic. The fourth set is a wipe out and Wawrinka moves into the third round, where he will lose to Nicolas Almagro, who in turn will lose to Tomas Berdych in the fourth, though not before hitting him with a tennis ball, which shot causes the taciturn Czech to refuse to shake hands after the match, a gesture which rouses the crowd to a round of boos. Australian crowds like to see grit and the old stiff upper lip, and it seems Berdych gave the appearance of being a sore winner. It is true the ball came right at him, both players close to the net, but the consensus among alert observers was that the players’ positions and the angle of Berdych’s shot made any other return by Almagro all but impossible.
Anyway it did not hit him in the bean. Still, if the crowd was going to express itself about sportsmanship, it might have noted the rather dubious maneuver perpetrated by the tournament favorite, the Australian teen phenom Bernard Tomic (born in Stuttgart, where there is an American air force base) in his superb third round match with Alexandr Dolgopolov, wherein he evidently asked for a review of a point by raising his racquet, then said he had not said anything — after the ump had ignored the request but allowed Dolgo’s swank, which one might have assumed to have been swanked deliberately on the reasonable assumption the ball was not in play, to count as an error.
Dolgopolov made a good show of it and said it was not that which lost the match (a five-set gem between two talented backhand wielding attackers), but he allowed himself to lose it with regard to the umpire, calling him names. The great Argentine master David Nalbandian also said rude things to and of an umpire in an even more egregious judgment error in the tournament’s first round. For which he, as later was Dolgopolov, was fined. As was Baghdatis. However, defending champion Novak Djokovic expressed the opinion that breaking racquets (in the past) made him feel good. Serena Williams also said she relished the feeling, although as she got older she found that while she still smashed racquets in practice, she quit doing it during matches.
This is fantastic. People mature and change. However, according to the Greeks — I refer to the Ancients, not the Moderns, and anyway, Marcos Baghdatis is a Cypriot — you cannot change your nature. The idea is to understand your nature, intuitively or rationally, it depends on you (on your nature), and go with it. Can this be done without education? Allan Bloom was quite sure it could not. He hoped formal education might be saved from the tyrannies and delusions of fads. He remained a devoted teacher all his life, after all. But he did not deny that if school education failed you, you might get your education elsewhere. Even on a tennis court.
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