Flanders’ contribution to world culture is Jacques Brel, and listening to his songs, you understand how it is through the cultivation of one’s provincial characteristics that one has the best chance of attaining global significance. At the height, or rather the depths, of the Algerian emergency in the 1990s, I heard a breathtaking rendition of “Amsterdam” by a Kabyle singer in a club whose bouncers were armed with AK-47s and whose owner was giving away every third drink free because “those bastards out there want this country to be dry,” if I may offer a delicate translation.
In sports, Flanders has given us Kim Clijsters, who displays the same grace and grit in the face of a cold and rainy country that Jacques Brel expressed in his songs. She is the most popular tennis mom in Australia since Evonne Goolagong, deservedly so. She is sunny, funny, polite, an extremely good sport whose apologies to Dinara Safina after thrashing her in the first round were at once sincere and without inhibiting effect on her subsequent play. Graceful and strong-nerved, unfazed by dropping a first set, as she did to the Chinese wonder Li Na, she demonstrates that in tennis it ain’t over till it’s over.
As also in football. It was written nowhere that the New York Jets would not rally in the second half and overcome a 24-point deficit in their last and decisive game, and but for the Steelers’ iron stand on the goal line — and never forget Harry Truman in ’48, although the Republicans in their dizzy euphoria, show every sign of doing just that as they prepare for a classic demonstration of hubris in ’12.
However, my editors keep telling me not to mix politics and sports and I know they are right. Mrs. Clijsters was among the joys of last year’s tour, after a two-year maternity leave, culminating in a magnificent finale at Flushing Meadows. Her outstanding run at Melbourne Park augurs for an exciting year.
Australian tennis’s only hope, as it happens, was Kim Clijsters’ great admirer Leyton Hewitt, an excellent player who, like the American Andy Roddick, keeps falling just a little short since a blazing youthful start in the late ’90s, early ’00s. Hewitt and Roddick both collapsed in the early rounds at Melbourne, which does not necessarily prove you should do what it takes to keep a good woman when you have one, but some years ago Hewitt lost Kim’s heart to Bryan Lynch, a top American basketball player.
Stroke for stroke, Mrs. Clijsters is one of the most impressive players in a generation, hitting power forehands from anywhere on the court with Mark Sanchez accuracy (when he is accurate, as he was in the second half, but then the Steelers’ defense… okay, okay) and catching just about anything her opponents can send her. She is the fastest and most acrobatic woman in tennis, with a stretching ability that would impress a prima ballerina — which by her grace she resembles, though one suspects she is much more agreeable to be with than one of those. Her backhand is less strong but more consistent, which in the circumstance means she practically never misses with it. In addition, she volleys with easy power, having been a doubles champion, which means, in a word, that she is an all-court player.
The men’s draw at the Australian Open was something of a bore: Rafael Nadal ill, Roger Federer unable to control the point (Bill Tilden’s first rule), Andy Roddick (and American tennis more generally) in deep therapy of some futile kind, and Andy Murray once again unable to “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” the championship was all but handed to Novak Djokovic on a platter, which is not to say he is not on a roll of his own, particularly since leading little Serbia over France in last year’s Davis Cup. And with both Williams sisters sidelined due to health issues, much of the drama on the ladies’ side at Melbourne Park depended on Mrs. Clijsters getting at least respectable competition. Justine Henin was not in top form, indicating toward the end of the tournament that she may be through — really, this time, though in sports these days the models seem to be Michael Jordan and Bret Favre, retire and return, and repeat.
However, Caroline Wozniacki, the fun-loving Danish bombshell who is ranked No. 1 despite her age (20), crumbled before Li Na, China’s favorite water lily, as they call popular female stars in that country, and she in turn crumbled before Kim Clijsters despite a strong start. However, Li Na was gracious in defeat, admonishing the many Chinese fans who had come to Melbourne — a sure sign that the trade balance between them and us is ridiculous — to behave with traditional Chinese courtesy and not like Manchester United hooligans. That they did not listen points to some of the potholes in the Middle Kingdom’s capitalist road, but tell that to the idiots who have been exporting our jobs to them.
The capitalists in Australia billed their national championship the Asia and Pacific Open, with one eye to the thick-wallet fans of Li Na flying in for the fortnight of hotels-and-restaurants, the other to the obligatory kowtowing to the orthodoxies of multiculturalism, which is probably taken seriously nowhere else out there, with the possible exception of New Zealand. Be that as it may, the mighty Bryans, Mike and Bob, after overwhelming the Indian Express, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, could not find words effusive enough to praise them, calling them legends and what all, even though it is the Bryans who are legends in their own time, dominating men’s doubles play as no other team since the glory days of Jacques “Toto” Brugnon, who with Henri Cochet or Jean Borotra took on all comers in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Whether Paes and Bhupathi ever had a chance is debatable, but they certainly made a hash of multiculturalism when in an early match against a Hispanic team they mimicked Rafa Nadal’s habit of saying “Vamos” to encourage himself (it means let’s hustle, bo’, in Hispanic) loud enough get on the hot-blooded Latins’ nerves. This led to an altercation, something practically unheard of in the annals of tennis. On the other hand, why should one have any sympathy for thin-skinned Hispanics? Had the Indian Express tried to mess with a head like Pancho Gonzales’, they would have regretted it.
Oh, well. One cannot help but miss the class Evonne Goolagong, Arthur Ashe, or Althea Gibson brought to the courts. They never would have whined about being teased for their language — they dealt with seriously wicked affronts. Kim Clijsters takes after them, however, in her calm and unostentatious manner. She neither screeches at every shot nor complains at every turn. So cheers for the lady from the plat pays, whom her Down Under fans happily call Aussie Kim.