Tennis as progressive ideology
As I have made clear once or twice already in the pages of this august magazine, I am something of a sports addict. Nowhere in life does merit play a bigger role in the outcome of an event than it does with sporting competitions, whatever the respective annual incomes or family connections of the players. Of course favourites do not always win in sports. Upsets happen (possibly more so in team games where coaching and strategy arguably play a bigger role), otherwise no one would watch. It’s that once-a-century Leicester City run through the season’s fixtures that mesmerises.
At the heart of sports is competition with the goal being victory within the rules and in accord with basic sportsmanship. (For the Justin Trudeaus out there, change that last word to ‘sportspersonship’ if you must.) Sure, at its heart even one of golf’s four yearly majors is essentially meaningless. The same goes for America’s NFL Super Bowl, your kids’ high school championship, snooker, netball and even the four yearly soccer/football World Cup. These are just games, true. Yes, in some the players may command salaries of tens of millions a year. Yes, the competitors may learn much about how to lose, how to win, why you never give up till the game is over, and how to handle pressure. And yes, for watchers sports can be thrilling in a way that daily Question Time in parliament or the latest ABC Q&A episode – I now speak for myself you understand – somehow is not.
Now my love of competitive sports may flow in part from the fact I have spent a lifetime playing them – varsity basketball in my Canadian and UK university days, international curling, and club golf and tennis. If there can be a winner and loser then I’m generally all in. Sports are one of life’s great diversions. Everyone who can understand the rules and is willing to practise can get better. He or she might even start to win, one day perhaps becoming nearly unbeatable. Accordingly, I take second place to no one in my admiration for Australia’s comparative sporting excellence. The point of playing is trying to win. Yes, winning is only worth it if you do so within the rules while abiding by a healthy dose of good sportsmanship. But trying to win, and nothing more, is the pith and substance of playing sports.
And that takes me to the game of tennis. I am no sports journalist (or I’d probably be politically left-leaning, as US studies show that over 90 per cent of them vote Democrat, a more biased/less balanced score than you see with political journalists). Nevertheless, my take is that tennis is in trouble. I’ve watched the game for decades but I find it ever more boring. The new technology and slower surfaces have killed off serve-and-volley players and pretty much all of the time you are left watching two supremely fit athletes standing at the back of the court engaging in 10, 15, 20 hit rallies. The men’s game is in worse shape than the women’s I’d say. No one loves Roger Federer more than I, but let’s be honest: isn’t something wrong with a game where for over a decade the year’s four majors are virtually always won by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic (throw in a small handful of Murray, Del Potro or Wawrinka wins)? How can it be that these comparative geriatrics keep beating the younger challengers? It’s the surfaces and equipment. No way the three top men could have dominated this crushingly three or four decades ago. Alas, there is so much predictability that I now watch tennis only three times a year – Wimbledon, the Aussie and US Opens.
That’s a wider critique of tennis. It gets worse when you take it down to the national level and consider the sort of job Tennis Australia is doing, especially in nurturing male players. In golf there are at least four top Aussies in the very upper echelons of the game (Leishman, Day, Smith and still, barely, Scott). That is an incredible result for a country of 25 million. And Jason Day’s background is as unprivileged as they come. Yet he displays wonderful competitive drive and great sportsmanship in a way wholly unknown to the Tomics and Kyrgioses. Whatever golf is doing, tennis should be asking for the recipe. If it weren’t for Ash Barty I confess I’d find it hard ever to cheer for an Australian tennis player.
It gets worse, alas. Failings related to the game itself, and producing moderately well-mannered winners, is one thing. Failings related to thinking your main goal in life is to act as the propaganda arm of the Greens party are quite another. Yet that’s what Tennis Australia now looks like to me. What genius in the organisation thought it would be a good idea to invite US fashionista Anna Wintour out to this year’s Australian Open to be given an official platform to insult this country’s greatest ever tennis player Margaret Court? Every time Ms ‘they can’t be thin enough for me’ Wintour spoke she revealed a stunning ignorance about Australian politics (name one LGBT child thrown out of any school in Australia since the Libs took office in 2013, just one), matched only by her ignorance of tennis. The point of no sport going is to further GetUp!, lefty, progressive values such as ‘inclusivity’ – whatever that means since there’s clearly no room to include those with conflicting views. No, the point is to win within the rules and with a modicum, ideally more, of sportsmanship. The competitor’s political views are neither here nor there. I admire plenty of athletes whose politics I don’t like. Why is it these days every lefty thinks politics must intrude into everything?
Margaret Court won 24 grand slam singles titles and 64 grand slam titles in total. No one will ever match that. She was a brilliant tennis player, a sporting genius. But Tennis Australia thinks it appropriate to invite some ignoramus American fashion editor out here to run her down and insult her because these sports bureaucrats don’t like her politics. Of course a main stadium should be named after Margaret Court. It’s a tennis stadium, not an ad in the Guardian or Fairfax Press.
First they came for the schools, then the universities, then the big business managerial class. Now it’s the sports administrators. Meantime the state of tennis in Australia, barring Barty, stinks. Personally, I’d like to see someone lose a job over this.
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