They may not have realized it was Thanksgiving, but the French were grateful to their tennis Bleus for their 3-2 win over Belgium in the Davis Cup final this past weekend. They stood and sang the Marseillaise, battle song of the Army of the Rhine:
Under our flags, let victory
Hasten to your manly tones!
May your dying enemies
See your triumph and our glory!
The French conflate patriotism with athletic fandom when their national teams, always called Bleus, “blue men” (or Bleues, “blue women”), are in the game, or tie in this case as the sport was tennis. The classic format in this ancient tournament, invented by an American, a Harvard man named Dwight Davis who paid for the swell sterling silver trophy with his own money, remains unchanged, best of five rubbers including one doubles. It went to the wire and in the fifth, deciding rubber, the blue brother Lucas Pouille, at 23 the team baby, took no prisoners, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0.
It was a welcome win for France, whose “new musketeers” are nearing their last hurrahs without reaching the glory heights of their eponyms, the mighty quartet of René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, assisted in mixed doubles at various venues by Suzanne Lenglen, known to sip brandy as a stimulant during matches.
She was the best. But as she waned, California’s Helen Wills rose, totally at the top of the women’s game in the 1930s. That is the way of the great circle of life in sports. Don Budge, too, was rising. Soon he would avenge the Musketeers’ ending of the Bill Tilden Era. They ganged up on him, deliberately played long rallies in order to wear him down. Tilden was something of a diva, and a loner. The Mousquetaires were a team. They held the Cup continuously from 1927 to 1932.
The Bleus won the Cup in 1991 and 1996 under the captaincy of their best Open-era player, the ebullient, fearless, and outspoken Yannick Noah. They took it again in 2001 with Guy Forget at the helm, but the current generation, a hugely talented group, could not crack the dominance of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray years (which are not over). None won a Slam and in Davis Cup play they were frustrated by Serbia, Switzerland, and Britain. This time their bench, the deepest in tennis, pulled through and won the Cup for the 10th time, a record (for them).
Belgium has never won the Cup. A small country split between Wallons and Flamands, it has only one top player, David Goffin, who won both of his side’s points in straight sets against Pouille and Jo-W. Tsonga. Goffin had a good year despite an injury at Wimbledon that kept him out of competition until after the U.S. Open. He came back to score wins against both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the year-end Masters in London, losing in the finals to Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, but reaching a career high rank of No. 7 in the world. His hometown, Liège (Wallonia), is proud.
A man alone cannot win a Davis Cup tie, however. The final took place in Lille’s Pierre-Mauroy Stadium, which is practically on the France-Belgium border, Picardie — ch’ti country. You can catch up on this gray and rainy region by checking out a funny film, Bienvenue chez les Ch’ti; for the deep stuff, read a book or two by Georges Simenon or Nicolas Freeling or Janwillem van de Wettering, apologies to the many others, not a slight but this is a sports column.
Maybe size is not everything. Maybe it is not that Belgium is small, but that it is damp. It produces cycling champs, few tennis players except Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, and her sister Elke. Xavier Malisse had a nice run a few years ago, but never quite made it to the highest levels. The Belgians are brave, as Julius Caesar testifies in his writings, but it is a small and damp and cold country, not like sunny France or merry England. They have their detractors. Alert reader Leslie Kaplan reminds me that Charles Baudelaire hated them, called them a mass of empty brains, stupider even, he said, than the French. Note that Lucas Pouille, who won that last and decisive rubber, grew up around here, though he is not by parentage a ch’ti and now lives in a warm country far away. Maybe the Belgians cannot get it because of the split between Walloons and Flemish, speakers of French, speakers of Dutch. Or possibly they still feel bad about what they did in Congo. They say tennis is a mental game. Rain gives you too much time to think. You overdo it while it rains, your game suffers.
Conservatives are not much tuned in to such psycho-historical questions, but their sense of injustice is keen. They are urging the Trump administration to lean on its new best Arab pal Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia to revise the Kingdom’s policy in Yemen. They say this policy can be best defined as mass murder, with children and the infirm first, the rest to be killed off later.
American Spectator contributor Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a well-informed and shrewd observer of the Middle East’s treacherous politics (oh yeah? and what about Little Rock’s politics? what about Washington’s?), points out that there was some logic to the original U.S. decision to assist the Saudis in their concern for order in their own backyard; after all look at how we deal with unrest in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. But this is different.
If this were tennis and the Saudis were France, Belgium would have the Davis Cup. The Saudis cannot beat the top tribe in Yemen, which is called the Houthis, so they are resorting to mass murder with embargos and aerial bombardments that are causing epidemics and starvation. Observe that we cannot beat the Pashtun, but at least the areas we control, or our alleged allies control, are not in the grip of epidemics and starvation, as was much of Germany after World War II. But the question that matters here is this: what do we owe the Saudis? Or in the terms of foreign policy realists, what have they done for us lately?
The Saudis did not raise a battalion to assist us in Iraq, did not raise a single company to help out in Syria. They sponsored terrorism throughout the Middle East and Africa and probably on other continents as well, paid protection money to the Palestinian terror gangs. Now they talk of an all-Arab anti-terror front, but who can take them seriously? These fat cats — and this is not fattism — engage in slavery and child abuse and beat up their wives, girlfriends, prostitutes, and the slaves they get from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa: these are the people whose chestnuts we are supposed to pull out of a fire of their own making, and commit war crimes and crimes against humanity while doing it?
The usual, conventional rationale for being nice to the Saudis is that we need them. We need their oil. We need their money. We need their moderating influence in an Arab world run largely by sociopaths. We need them because they are conservatives in a world gone radical.
Every single one of these rationales is ridiculous, not to mention absurd on its face.
Their oil? They were still riding camels and using their dung for Vitalis when we showed them how to dig a well, and it does not take much effort to guess how much effort they put into learning the oil business, or why would their economy be a shambles?
Their money? Extortion is what they practice, restitution is what should be at the top of their “reform agenda,” a mysterious program that suddenly is in fashion amongst the herd of independent minds, aka the establishment press. What reform agenda? Are they going to stop cutting arms off little boys for stealing bread and chopping off teenagers’ heads for necking, pardon the bad pun.
By just what sense of realism have we played footsie with them for longer than anyone can remember, and why did Barack Obama genuflect before their king, the Crown Prince’s father or uncle or whatever? Was he the president of a free republic or a toady for tyrants? This story has got to be one of the wonders of modern self-deception. Could it be, for example, that we really think they will someday begin to behave like civilized people because, dixit George Bush, “Islam is not the enemy”? So what if Islam is not the enemy? That does not mean George Bush had to walk around with one of these princes, or maybe it was the king himself, holding hands like they do in New York’s West Village.
That is what conservatives are muttering.
The most real and true students of Middle Eastern affairs, e.g., J. B. Kelly, have long averred that before the Brits retreated from east of Suez the idea of mass murder in Yemen or the destruction of Syria, with a full third of its population dead, displaced, or in Germany, was unthinkable.
Also, gas was 15 cents a gallon. Now it’s two dollars, sometimes four. The money goes to the Saudis and, indolence being the consequence of laziness, they cannot even balance their books. These are the people we want to be allies with? These are the creeps who Thomas Friedman, this generation’s Walter Duranty, thinks are reformers of Islam. If that is so, where is their Martin Luther? If this al-Saud crew is reform Islam, brothers, my answer is the old Bronx cheer. And my advice is: Stop buying their oil.
Turning now to sex mania, let’s take a deep breath and — no, since we do not want to get TAS into trouble, let’s just pass. Though it may be noted simply as a “curio” or a “sign of the times” that there have been extensive and exhaustive discussions — conversations, real ones — at the TAS offices over a couple literary items that a staffer happened to mention, apropos of something else, namely the classic work on Russian communism, The Great Terror, by Robert Conquest, and a work of drama that we thought was known to every high school student in the country — but how is it being taught? —, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Just sayin’. However, there is a matter that has perturbed us at Over the Top lately, the establishment press’s belief that the prez indulges in vanity, a sin. They say he “brags.”
My position is, let the first one without sin cast the first brick. Because when it comes to vanity, consider: the establishment press, constantly, tells us “as [the writer’s name] said [date, with link], and talkatawka.” They do this all the time. The press is constantly self-referencing, constantly. It is embarrassing. The press is — must we say it? — not a respectable circle of people. At its best, it’s a bunch of no hopers jokers and rogues who sometimes provide an approximation of something they do not understand but heard about from questionable sources. But they want you to know that they said this about whohah backwhen.
Our national “conversation” — what ever happened to words like debate? — is going nowhere. This may not be as bad as it sounds. Democracy has an inherent tendency toward demagogy from all sides, including of course and in fact especially the press, but that is okay, because democracy is self-correcting, like science but unlike political and sexual passions, at least until they are spent.
Sports are self-correcting, notwithstanding their outsized propensity for losing all sense of proportion, on the part of fans, often, even more than practitioners. My former business partner — I mentioned him one time with regard to what is more important, politics or international commerce? — was once a promising tennis pro, on the Tour and all, but he did not quite have it and turned to other activities and finally returned to the sport as a teacher because, he said, “I could not do without it.” He grew sensible about what sports represented in his life and his own strengths — and limits.
So hope springs eternal and eventually is rewarded. France won the Davis Cup this year when Yannik Noah sent forth Richard Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert together in the doubles rubber, even though these two had never teamed up for a match. They held their nerve better despite some outstanding Belgian defensive play, and out-service-returned and out-volleyed Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore, who nonetheless put up a good fight, went to four sets. It was an inspired and risky choice by Noah — audacious. It paid good dividends.
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