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The End of Tennis
Federer Yawns at Australian Open

If boredom was a slam

I don’t know what it is. I used to love watching tennis almost as much as I loved playing it. My first true exposure to the game was an entire day at Rolland-Garros in May 1979, when I got to see Jimmy Connors grunt his way to a victory over someone no one remembers, Chris Evert do the same (minus the grunts), and Eddie Dibbs, that Lebanese-Brooklynite whose last name means molasses in Arabic, beat up on Wojciech Fibak, the great Pole. I grew up on the bratty artistry of John McEnroe and the sheer Arctic beauty of Bjorn Borg. There was beauty to behold too in the Boris Becker years and, diminishingly, in the baldness-over-substance years of Andre Agassi. But something happened when Pete Sampras became the king of the game and the Williams sisters its fashionista whiners. The game lost its style. Playing it felt, on occasion, slightly presumptuous, like driving a Hummer. Watching it felt pointless, like watching golf (unless you’re a golf player munching off the telecast for pointers, which is what ninety-nine percent of golf’s audience does; it’s not for the love of the sport so much as to answer one’s fixation on golf-self-improvement). How much worse things have gotten in the ultra-modern age of tennis as an exchange of gunnery. Roger Federer, I hear, won the Australian open over the weekend (it’s never too clear when, considering the time difference). “Tennis,” The Australian reports, “is no longer a competition between Roger Federer and the rest. As the men’s game stands, it is Federer against the ghosts of history.” I don’t know if the writer was trying to be coy about the obvious: a one-man competition is no competition. He tries at any rate to make Federer sound interesting by linking him to the greats of the past. But it’s a feeble try, and it just doesn’t rate:

Before last night, Bjorn Borg was the last man to win a Grand Slam without dropping a set - at Roland Garros 27 years ago. Yet anyone who has seen Federer play these past two weeks, or indeed these past three years, will hardly give pause to the notion Federer has done what John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi could not do. When Federer next heads to Paris for this year's French Open, he will try to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the one time. Much of this will depend on Rafael Nadal, who has three months to rediscover the form that has made him unbeatable on clay. But if Federer completes the Swiss Slam, few others will be surprised. Whether he wins or loses at Roland Garros, Federer will turn his sights on Borg again, and a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title to equal the great Swede's fabled run at the All England Club.

He’ll most certainly get his crowns, his records, his “place in history,” and undo what so many American commentators loved to say for as long as Pete Sampras was breaking the records—that no one in the modern age will come close again, that it’s too difficult, too challenging, too much competition., It looks like the reverse is true, not because today’s sportsmen are so much better. They’re that, to some extent. But because conditioning and equipment have turned certain sports into shadows of the sport itself, into strange new hybrids, perversions of the sport in tennis’ case. John McEnroe is right. Bring back the wooden racket, or something like it, if it’s tennis as style you’re interested in. To me sports without style is like the works of James Michener or Stephen King. Good stories, if that’s all you’re looking for. But what, without style, is worth anything in the end?

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