Bah...why am I surprised any more. From the Kansas City Star
Bring back the wood rackets
Every year, sadly, the French Open reaches me later and later. Last year, for instance, I did not think about the French Open until September. “Hey, who won the French Open this year?” I asked a friend, a fellow tennis fan.
“That guy, right?”
“Yeah. Right. That guy.”
This really makes me sad because I love tennis. It is the one sport I still play competently as an adult (I hit a 100-mph serve at a tennis event once and have the documentation to prove it). I grew up watching the game, and I knew them all — Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Vilas, Wilander, Tanner, Evert, Austin, Navratilova. You didn't need first names then. Carling Bassett (the Anna Kournikova of her time) was my first sports crush. Tim Wilkison (Dr. Dirt!) was my first big interview.
This year, I have not watched a single point of the French Open. I keep meaning to watch, but I never do. Tennis hasn't died for me so much as it has faded out of my life, like my best friend in college. I keep meaning to call him, too.
The question is: Why has tennis fallen out of our lives? Oh sure, I know there are still some big tennis fans out there — many of them right now are compiling e-mails listing off the fine attributes of Guillermo Coria — but most people I know seem to feel the same way about tennis. It used to be pretty interesting. It used to be fun. But now, you can't name anyone in the top five (“Is Agassi still in there?”), and you never think about the game except when reminiscing. It's like tennis is just an old, worn-out fad, like Rubik's Cubes, Pac-Man, “The Jeffersons” or Pearl Jam.
But why? I've written before that it's because tennis lacks interesting stars, the equipment is too advanced, the schedule is too confusing, the marketing has been awful, many players come across as arrogant and yet, at the same time, obnoxious. Every sport needs someone you can despise, but it's hard to make a go when you despise the guys on both side of the net.
Saturday, though, I realized that it might be something else. I talked with Larry Rochelle, an English professor at Johnson County Community College and the author of the Palmer Morel mystery series. Palmer Morel (named after Larry's father, Palmer Rochelle, a longtime doubles champ and factor worker in Toledo) is a fictional tennis pro who travels the country, gets lucky a lot and somehow gets himself in the middle of bizarre mysteries. George Clooney could play him in the movies. In his next adventure, Cracked Crystals — coming out in August — Palmer gives lessons on The Plaza tennis courts and finds himself in a story involving crystal meth, female tennis twins (“You've got to have twins,” Larry says) and a militia group in St. Mary's, Kan.
For marketing purposes, I thought he should have called it The Da Vinci Serve. Anyway, Larry loves tennis, has played it all his life. And we talked about the fun days of tennis, back when he took his old Jack Kramer wood racket with the fat tennis strings (“The racket would break before the strings back then,” he said) and found two dirty tennis balls and a brick wall and just smacked a ball against that wall for hours. I remember doing that myself.
“It's very hard to find tennis walls for kids these days,” Larry said. “Sometimes you see those wimpy wooden walls, but those aren't any good at all.”
We talked about how much fun it was to watch Jimmy Connors hit with his old T-2000, which had a racket head about the size of Canadian penny. We talked about how great it was seeing Chris Evert and Tracy Austin play those long, long, long points that kept going until one of them finally just said, “OK, enough already. I'm pooped.”
“You know, I was watching women's softball on TV the other day,” Larry said. “And the pitcher was throwing 60 mph or whatever, and she was standing, what, 4 feet away from home plate? That must be what it's like in tennis now. It's just so fast and the players hit the ball so hard and they move so fast….”
And that's when it hit me. This is exactly why I don't keep up with tennis anymore. It isn't because the tennis is worse. No, in fact it's the opposite. The players are too good. It's like they've outgrown the sport. They all smash 130-mph serves, they all hit rocket forehands down the line, they all hit laser backhands crosscourt, they all bounce from side to side like the ball in the old game of Pong. It's impressive. But it's all the same.
Watching tennis now is like watching a great magic show in Vegas or seeing a chef cut a cucumber into 1,293 slices in 0.0003 seconds. You watch, are duly impressed, and you move on. You ooh. You ahh. But you don't go to see the same show tomorrow.
“No, it isn't the same as it used to be, is it?” Larry Rochelle says. In his Palmer Morel mysteries, Palmer does use an old Jack Kramer racket. Maybe it would be fun again if they had a tournament where the best players in the world used the old wood rackets. Maybe that would make tennis feel more real again.
Then again, I don't know. It's hard to recapture an old feeling. Larry said he watched Venus Williams play Mary Pierce on television Saturday, and he said it was pretty decent tennis. Maybe I'll watch the highlights later. Probably not, though.
To reach Joe Posnanski, columnist for The Star, call (816) 234-4361 or send e-mail to