Saturday, July 05, 2008
It's Venus Again!
Lighting up Old England.
JULY 4, PART 2. Since I'm the one who writes most of the sports coverage here, I notice more than the other IP bloggers that our earnest regular commenters seem to regard sports as mostly beneath comment, mere persiflage. But it's more than that. Today is a case in point. Many years, I find it ironic that the climax of Wimbledon coincides with Independence Day, but there are also multiple exceptions. Of late, Venus Williams (scroll down) has been responsible for all the exceptions, as she was today with her sister Serena, in a magnificent women's final that had a profound American resonance on several levels.
For example, leave it to the Europeans to misconstrue individual achievement by people within the same family as some kind of sinister and clandestine fix. Here's the reportage from the Brit newspaper The Independent:
Dementieva reopens row over
Williams’ final arrangements
For a while it was the talk of tennis. Did the Williams family have agreements over who would win when Serena and Venus played each other? The family always denied it and the controversy all but died when Serena started to get the better of her elder sister on a regular basis, but it reopened here yesterday when Elena Dementieva, looking ahead to tomorrow's all-Williams final, said: "For sure it's going to be a family decision."
The family always denied it and the controversy all but died when Serena started to get the better of her elder sister on a regular basis, but it reopened here yesterday when Elena Dementieva, looking ahead to tomorrow's all-Williams final, said: "For sure it's going to be a family decision." The Women's Tennis Association later issued a statement by Dementieva attempting to clarify her comments, but the damage was done.
I can understand. The Russians are congenitally and historically paranoid. They have their reasons. For them the fix is always in, and when they're speaking of their own country and countrymen, they're right. They traded the czars for the Soviet Central Committee, and all that changed was that the death toll increased. Now they are watching passively, as always, while their democratic president Putin systematically eliminates both democracy and personal rivals on his way to becoming the first popularly elected (but equally omnipotent) czar. The Brits are the perfect audience for such charges, because they, too, are used to fixes as part of the imperial tradition of aristocratic families who stage-manage the lives of their sons, daughters, vassals, and subjects.
What they have in common is that neither understands the American Way. The match the Williams sisters played today was a slam-dunk rebuttal of whiny Euro cynicism. Venus and Serena battled one another so passionately in individual points and games of such back-and-forth brilliance that even the most devoted dupe of Dementieva's demented conspiracy theory would have had to concede -- perhaps on the seventh deuce of game three in the second set -- that what elevated both sisters above their vanquished competition was how fiercely they wanted to win, a desire that was only heightened when they went toe-to-toe with each other. They were sisters before the match and, obviously and gracefully, afterwards, but not during. For two sets they were pure combatants.
Maybe it's wrong to use a boxing image like 'toe-to-toe' in an event of women's tennis, but that's another American aspect of this contest. To the rest of the world they may have been on a grass court, but to Americans they were indisputably 'in the ring.' It was, for us cowboy dolts, a heavyweight title fight with echoes of other great pugilistic duels. For example, Venus and Serena may be sisters, but they couldn't be more dissimilar in body type and overall aspect. With my long low-palate memory, I couldn't help being reminded of Ali versus Foreman. Venus is built like a greyhound, a slender and long-legged package of speed and almost fragile-looking keenness. Serena is muscular and deadly, an intimidating slugger who can hammer the opposition into early surrender. And that's how she started. She won nine of the first ten points, including an initial service break and a commanding first game of her own serve before Venus rallied and started showing off her dazzling quickness and even more dazzling improvisational skills. There was a key point in the first set when Venus went to the net and Serena blasted a power shot directly at her sister -- a clear bid at overwhelming Venus with a show of force -- which the greyhound's lightning reactions returned for a winner.
The match, ironically, was decided by a game Venus ultimately lost, on her own serve no less. She fell behind and then survived break point after break point, even scoring an ace on a second serve, but to no avail. Serena won the game and it seemed the momentum had shifted inevitably her way, but... No. Like Foreman, Serena had punched herself out. Venus immediately broke back on Serena's serve and cruised from there to victory. She had endured the knockout onslaught and, like Ali, she knew how to take a punch and counterattack with crushing authority.
That was the second level of American exceptionalism on display. Venus and Serena are sisters but not dynastic clones like we'd see in the Old World. Their games are different, and while their fire is equivalent, their matches are not like some predictable chess game between two near-identical peas in a generic old-school pod. They weren't trying to out-think, out-guess, out-smart the other. They were beautifully and fluidly in the moment, playing tennis against the best player either could imagine facing on the lawns of Wimbledon.
Best Vs. Best
Photos courtesy of Reuters.
The post-game interviews confirmed what may sound like jingoistic inference. While the commentators had dwelt on the history of their previous confrontations, both sisters dismissed the possibility that the past played any role in the match. Venus was forthright in declaring that she avoided thinking about anything but the next serve and the next return. She wasn't acting out some ritual of family tradition but focusing on a single match for a fifth Wimbledon Championship. Which she won.
And then there was the final level of American competitive finery. In past years, a Venus victory at Wimbledon has resulted in a display of joy so utter and childlike that it almost transcends the match highlights. Not today. At the instant her final stroke ensured victory, Venus became Serena's big sister again and her celebration was a study in muted, gracious triumph. Serena's response was equally praiseworthy. She made no excuses, expressed no regrets, and omitted any mention of an awkward officiating moment which, due to her own good sportsmanship, cost her a gigantic set point. (When it occurred, a commentator volunteered that neither Williams sister had ever claimed a point she didn't earn fair and square. No record as to whether John McEnroe blushed...)
I admit it. I love the Williams sisters, both of them. Their designer lines of clothing, their ups and downs in competition, their increasingly unflappable politesse in the context of a world press that both adores and resents them, their fiery streaks of brilliance on the court. But most of all I love those incandescent smiles, which light up the world for a moment and make all the sniping and second-guessing look as petty as it is. They're an epitome of the American oxymoron -- unbridled competition existing side-by side with love and compassion in the kind of family most of the world regards with envy and resentment. The Williams sisters are pretty much an archetype of who we are as a people. More mature, accomplished, and admirable than all the ones who aren't in the finals would like to believe.
But go ahead. Tell me sports are a waste of time and not worth a blog at InstaPunk. I'm sure The Boss will be along shortly to say something important about Nietzche. Any minute now.
I probably won't be there, though. I'll be watching the Williams sisters in the Wimbledon doubles finals, partners again, like, uh, forget it...
P.S. Since it's also in my nature to criticize sports administration, I'll add another two unwelcome cents. I'm tired of seeing all the bouquets tossed by the sports commentariat to Billy Jean King and Martyna Navratilova for extorting equal prize money from Wimbledon for the female competitors. No, I don't disagree that women should get equal prize money. But I do think they should play best-of-five rather than best-of-three sets unless what they're really after is greater-than-equal prize money. Which is what they have at the moment. The best-of-three format dates back to a time when women were regarded as weak and inferior. Anyone who saw the Williams collision knows they could have played five sets today -- and maybe should have. All you women who want equality: What say we actually try equality? Too radical a thought? Probably. Especially if what you have in mind is tacit superiority. But, hey. I'm a sports fan. Which makes me a kind of idealist. Think about it.
UPDATE. A day later. Now we've had one of the best Wimbledon men's finals ever. A five set nailbiter that lasted literally all day. The young lion Nadal finally deposed the five-year champion Federer after a gruelling struggle in which both had a reason to quit multiple times. Neither did. The outcome was not clear until the final point had been decided in the 16th game of the fifth set. Bad boy John McEnroe pronounced it the greatest Wimbledon final he had ever seen or been party to, which given his own history, is saying something. But he was right. The match was spectacular and magnificent -- even for American chauvinists like me. Interesting that when you make the adjustments for actual playing time, Nadal and Federer made less than half what the Williams sisters did. I'm not trying to take away from what Venus and Serena did, but what we saw today was men's tennis, meaning the best tennis in the world, and maybe the best tennis in history. Why should it be worth 40 to 45 cents on the dollar compared to the women's game? And, btw, does the LPGA play only 12 holes of golf per round?