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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Murray, Basel, and the Beast

Where would be without the much-maligned media beast? It’s relentless, it’s hoggish, it lives on junk food, and it must be fed every day. But my morning was made so much more pleasant because I could spend it contemplating the ramifications of Andy Murray’s new shirt, rather than . . . rather than . . . I don't know what. Let’s see what else the beast has been chewing on lately.

Adidas’s Turf Expands

I have nothing against the company. It has supported tennis for decades; it has outfitted great young players who were subsequently snatched up by Nike; and it made my favorite black windbreaker, which I’ve worn for about 10 years, much to the chagrin of various people. But I also liked the fact that Murray didn’t wear Adidas or Nike. The Brit’s connection with Fred Perry made sense and rounded out his persona. Now, after signing a rather stunning 15-million-pound deal, he’ll be wearing his own version of Adidas’ Competition line, which as far as I can tell will be similar to the clothes Jo-Wilfred Tsonga wore this year. We can only hope the company comes up with something distinctive for him, the way Nike has for both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Failing that, let’s at least keep Murray from wearing the exact outfit as his opponent. This happens too often in tennis, mainly because so many of the pros are clothed by a single company, Adidas. It robs matches of visual contrast and makes the sport look like a video game. How about this as a solution? If two players walk out of the locker room and see that they’re wearing the same shirt, the lower-seeded player must put something else on. (Full disclosure: I think I stole this idea from Toronto writer Tom Tebbutt.)

Davidoff’s Turf is Challenged

The title sponsor at this week’s tournament in Basel is Davidoff, a tobacco company. It’s one of the last tennis events to be connected with a cigarette-maker; the EU bans smoking advertisements, but Switzerland isn’t part of the EU. There’s been some pressure over the years on Roger Federer, Basel native and the face of the event, to refuse to have his picture in the company’s promotional material for the tournament. It’s a thorny issue, and one that the women’s tour knows well. The WTA made Virginia Slims its title sponsor for many years, leading at least one doctor to claim that the sport, which indirectly associated smoking with female accomplishment and style, was partially to blame for rising cancer and death rates among women from 1980 to 2000. Billie Jean King has disputed the WTA’s culpability by saying that no player ever personally promoted smoking. Whatever Federer’s stature in Basel, he’s still a player, not an organizer, the way King was with the WTA. He can’t be held responsible for where the tournament gets its money. It would be an admirable gesture if he refused to associate himself with Davidoff, but you can’t expect it of him.

As for whether a tennis tournament should be sponsored by Davidoff in the first place, that depends on whether you think that the admittedly loathsome tobacco industry is enough of a threat to public health that it shouldn’t be allowed to advertise at all. If you do, do you then have to ban advertising by, say, McDonald’s? You’d like to think the only reason Basel’s organizers went with Davidoff is because the tournament couldn’t survive without it. You’d like to think a lot of things. Part of me believes the public knows enough about the dangers of smoking at this point that it should be responsible for making up its own mind, and that you can’t do anything more short of banning cigarettes altogether. But that doesn’t make Davidoff’s ostentatiously elegant logo at the back of the court in Basel look any less sinister. Elegant . . . hmmm . . . who else does that describe? A certain Swiss tennis player, perhaps?

Speaking of Basel…

Is the court color there a reflection of the Davidoff colors? I don’t know, but I’ve always liked the way it looks, with that subtle contrast between pink-brown and brown-brown. I also like the way it appears to be playing this week, which is pretty fast. We can stop wishing for the return of the serve and volley in the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on all-court tennis entirely. Whether it was the court speed or not, I enjoyed seeing Jeremy Chardy beat James Blake today by intelligently picking his spots to approach the net. When I was watching, mostly late in the second set and early in the third, Chardy spent a lot of time right at the baseline. He seemed ready to make something happen and wasn’t satisfied with sending back a safe ball. And he found ways to get to the net within the confines of a normal rally. When Blake was pulled wide and forced to chip his backhand, Chardy was immediately in the forecourt, waiting to take the ball out of the air. Now if only the Frenchman, who, like most of his countryman, is a nice player to watch, could improve his volley. Still, we have to start somewhere.

So Bad, So Good

OK, so the beast didn’t spit out quite as much material today as I’d hoped. Yeah, Haas has swine flu and Scud seems to be broke, but I can’t make much of either of those unfortunate occurrences, no matter how hard I try. Where to go from there? Let’s try the magazine editor’s trusty stand-by, the anniversary. For that, there’s only one reference book necessary, or even possible: Randy Walker’s On This Day in Tennis History. What we find there under the entry for Nov. 4 is confirmation again that John McEnroe, if he was not the greatest player ever, was almost certainly the most central. According to Walker, on Nov. 4, 1984, “John McEnroe conducts one of the worst on-court tirades of his career, calling the umpire a jerk and slamming a soda can,” as well as hitting a fan with a ball, at the Stockholm Open. You know it as “Answer the question, jerk!” See that lovely moment here and marvel again at the man's ability to inject so much rage into the innocent word "question."

This, according to Walker, is what happened exactly five years later, on Nov. 4, 1989: “Boris Becker overcomes a second-set charge from John McEnroe—and his famed on-court antics—to defeat the three-time Wimbledon champion in the semifinals of the Paris Open.” See this moment, which really does include some of the loveliest tennis from McEnroe that I can remember, here. Again we might ask: The late 80s and early 90s—best era, from a quality of play perspective, in tennis history?

Speaking Again of Basel…

When you think of the Swiss city, what immortal genius do you think of first? Roger Federer? No, it's Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, the god-is-dead guy, who lived and taught there in his 20s. I'm going to give a little fodder to the people over at the site, "Pointless Allusions to Nietzsche in Sports Journalism" (leading contributor: Simon Barnes). Here's Nietzsche seemingly foreseeing the modern media's 24-hour news cycle:

Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing.

Now that’s something to think about, at least until tomorrow.

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