By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, July 8, 2008; Page E01
The folks who've stood by tennis as its stature diminished over the years are over the moon today. Not in the last 20 years have they had so much to celebrate, certainly nothing as riveting as Rafael Nadal
's absurdly dramatic victory over Roger Federer
in Sunday's Wimbledon
men's final. And 24 hours earlier there was the uniquely American success story of the Williams sisters, citizens of the world now but from and of Compton, Calif., playing out a reality that 25 years ago only their father dared dream.
The sports world doesn't stop for tennis the way it used to 30 years ago when the game enjoyed its Golden Age. Once upon a time the big stars in tennis, their voices and hairstyles and idiosyncrasies, were as familiar to us as anything belonging to baseball and basketball superstars. We knew all about McEnroe's tirades, Borg's reluctance, Nastase's crudeness, Ashe's scholarly gentility, Navratilova's sexuality. Billie Jean King
and Bobby Riggs filled the Astrodome, for crying out loud. Chris Evert, for a generation of drooling adolescent boys, was Jennifer Aniston
20 years before "Friends."
And then it changed. The American stars got old and were never replaced. Golf became the pastime of the American leisure class, and there certainly wasn't enough room for both. Since the emergence of Tiger Woods
, tennis became, in the words of American tennis player Justin Gimelstob
, "a niche sport."
But not last weekend. Tennis, even if briefly, became the headliner again. Viewership on NBC
on Sunday was up 44 percent from last year's final. I'm not going to call Nadal vs. Federer the greatest match I've ever seen. We're too quick to forget that McEnroe and Borg engaged in two, perhaps three, of the greatest matches ever, including a four-setter at the U.S. Open in 1981 that sent a defeated Borg from the stadium court to a waiting limousine to Kennedy Airport
to his home in Europe and into retirement shortly thereafter.
Nonetheless, Nadal vs. Federer is certainly on my short list of greatest tennis matches ever. Bud Collins, the encyclopedic tennis scribe/analyst, says it's the best men's final he's covered in 41 years of covering Wimbledon. More importantly, probably, is that John McEnroe
himself called it the best match he's ever seen, and nobody has greater credibility in tennis in my book than McEnroe.
It was at the end of a seven-hour broadcast day, including two rain delays that essentially served the purpose of hosing us down from too much excitement, when McEnroe said that such a sublime experience simply had to bring Americans back to tennis in significant numbers.
I hope he's right, but I fear it's going to take so much more. After all, Nadal and Federer engaged in a great five-set final at Wimbledon last year and it's not like there was a great rush back to the game. Maybe if the Federer-Nadal rivalry continues on, say, through the U.S. Open in September and beyond, more people will come to the tent to watch. But even then it's probably a leap of faith to bet on it.
First, it's going to be fascinating over the next six months to see how Federer responds to losing at Wimbledon. He's not yet 27 and obviously his skills aren't in erosion. I find him more admirable in defeat because of the way he kept coming back after being down two sets than I did during his run of dominance. Thing is, Borg and McEnroe, both at 26, were unable to overcome similar emotional letdowns after huge Grand Slam defeats in finals. McEnroe wondered aloud as much before Sunday's final. Pete Sampras
was pretty much done at 29. There are no more Rod Lavers, no more Jimmy Connorses either. I think we've seen the end of Federer's dominance of the men's tour.
Second, we don't like to admit it but we're more than a bit xenophobic when it comes to our sports. We're still begrudgingly accepting international stars in the NBA
, even though they've been established since the early 1990s and players such as Toni Kukoc, Manu Ginóbili
and Tony Parker
won enough to be beyond suspicion as "foreign players." Americans are the only people on the planet who don't embrace soccer, mostly because it ain't ours. And as much as we might be able to appreciate the greatness of Federer and Nadal, the bet here is we're not going to identify with them enough to become rabid followers of what they do. Andy Roddick
and James Blake
, bless them, simply don't win enough or do it charismatically enough to drive Americans to their TV sets or the tennis courts. They're both sweet enough guys; neither is inspiring. Neither has the force of personality that attracts casual sports fan who might pay closer attention if given a reason.
If there was some Tiger Woods-like figure on the men's side, we might see a spike in interest, or maybe brothers who have the impact and star appeal of Serena and Venus Williams
. D.C. is the exception in this discussion because we live in a community that loves tennis. Kastles Stadium, a plot of land at 11th and H streets NW, is going to be the venue for tonight's World TeamTennis
event between the Washington Kastles and the Boston Lobsters, featuring none other than the Kastles' Serena Williams
. There are no tickets available, which is too bad, especially considering what happened at Wimbledon.
Watching Venus and Serena, my mind wandered off to the man who created this sister phenomenon: their father, Richard. The Times of London
's eloquent columnist, Simon Barnes, wrote last week about first seeing Serena and Venus down in Florida at the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy, and noted "a lanky fellow (who) filmed every move for some mad purpose of his own. This was of course, the much-mocked dad, Richard Williams
. He should be celebrated as the tennis genius of our age."
Yes, he should. With no formal higher education of his own to call on, with no experience teaching tennis or coaching athletes, Richard Williams envisioned a way that he and his daughters could successfully negotiate a sport that treated all three of them like aliens -- and damn if he didn't do it. Not only did he have no shoulders to climb onto, he was standing in a sinkhole 10 feet deep. He taught Serena and Venus, he coached them, he held them out of juniors, he kept away outsiders who all felt they knew better than he did, he researched and consulted the best he could. And it worked. To absolute perfection.
Together, they have won 15 Grand Slam titles. Together, they're holding up women's tennis. Lindsay Davenport
is a mom and essentially done. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin
retired. Poor Jennifer Capriati came and went, so much early hype hovering over her. Anna Kournikova
is a calendar and hasn't played tennis in years. Individually, Venus and Serena have moved into the company of the all-time greats, and if they want to take time away now and then to pursue their own adult interests, then we can only hope they come back from their short sabbaticals reinvigorated since the game is so much better served when they're playing. We don't see Richard at the matches anymore, carrying signs or carrying on. But unlike the Marv Marinoviches of the world, all of whom plot courses for their children unsuccessfully, what Williams did lives. As Barnes wrote in the Times, "That one world-class player should emerge from the cracked public tennis courts (of Compton) is remarkable; that two should do so, and from the same family, is little short of a miracle."
The Williamses' presence was indeed one of the tennis miracles produced last weekend. Nadal's victory over Federer was another. Increased interest in tennis, much as some of us hope for exactly that, would be still another miracle, and probably the most unlikely.