WIMBLEDON, England — It is not for me, as a slow, middle- class person with no backhand, to suggest to speedy foreign tennis millionaires that they need to improve their image. But I am going to do it anyhow.
There is trouble here at Wimbledon. Beneath the genteel grass surfaces and the strawberries-and-cream stands and the Royal Box and the oversized umbrellas and the hulking green structure that houses Centre Court, there is an undercurrent of, well . . . boredom.
Not with the scene, mind you. As long as those Dukes and Earls keep showing up (or maybe The Dukes of Earl?) and as long as there’s a chance the wind might lift Princess Anne’s skirt for a quick peek-a-boo by the British paparazzi, people will keep coming back.
No, the problem is not the setting. It’s the action. Where are the on-court thrills? This grand tournament — which is to tennis as Carnegie Hall is to sopranos — has reached the halfway point of its 100th running, and has raised as many goose bumps as waiting for a bus.
But then, what are we waiting for? Another Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert Lloyd final? Well, we’ve seen that a few times, haven’t we? Another Boris Becker vs. somebody? Why? It’ll never equal last year. McEnroe’s not here. Connors is out. How about Mats Wilander vs. Miloslav Mecir? How about Dianne Balestrat vs. Hana Mandlikova? How about some Sominex and warm milk?
What is the trouble? Here is the trouble. Big-time tennis is getting stale
— not in reality, but in people’s minds. The players are becoming robots. The names and faces are blurring.
Quick. Who is Jay Lapidus?
I rest my case.
Now why is this? Well, as a baseball fan, I believe you can watch people hit a ball back and forth for only so long without hoping to see it go over the center field fence.
But as a journalist, I figure it’s because the tennis world today is ruled by two Czechs, one of whom now has a U.S. passport, the other only $8 million worth of U.S. real estate.
And it’s not enough. Not for Americans anyhow. Martina Navratilova. Ivan Lendl. Blah. They do nothing for us. True, they are ranked No. 1 in the world. But in today’s sports scene, personality is gunpowder, and together they have barely enough to set off a cap pistol.
Let’s take Lendl. No, you take him. Ha, ha. That’s the kind of joke you hear about this guy. Time magazine once called him a “chilly, self-centered, condescending, mean-spirited, arrogant man with a nice forehand.” Not the kind of clip you send home to Mom.
Of course, he doesn’t help matters by living in a veritable fortress in Greenwich, Conn., surrounded by surveillance cameras and attack German shepherds.
There is no denying Lendl works hard at his tennis. There is also no denying
that Lendl often wins, takes the check and leaves. Once at a tournament in New Hampshire, Lendl ducked a post-match press conference and pulled out in his Porsche, with a P.R. man hanging on one window and his agent hanging on the other, begging him to come back. This is not what you call “media accessibility.”
On top of that, for all his high rankings, Lendl is still not a bona fide
“money” player. For years he was better known as “Choke-slovian” for his failure to win the major tournaments. He has never taken Wimbledon or the Australian Open, and only last summer won the U.S. Open for the first time after losing twice in the two previous finals. People could accept the aloof posture of a Bjorn Borg because the guy was clutch. He was a winner. And, yes, he was good-looking. That covers a lot of flaws.
Lendl, through no fault of his own, has those jolting cheekbones and crooked teeth, which suggest someone a little more, uh, frightening.
“He thinks he looks like Frankenstein,” his agent once said.
Well . . .
And what about Navratilova? How many matches has she won already? How many new records? How many No. 1 rankings? Yet she leaves us standing at the refrigerator door. Chilly and unsatisfied.
Personally, I don’t think Martina is all that bad. She trains like a soldier, she never ducks the enemy, and she figures she can kill every time she does battle. I can name 50 football players who fit the same bill. And they are heroes.
The problem, of course, is that Martina is a woman, and for all our progress in the equal rights areas, Americans still like their women athletes with a dash of eye shadow and a “gee- whiz” smile. Can you ever recall a match where Chris Evert Lloyd was less the crowd favorite than Martina?
I rest my case.
Martina has tried. She has done ads for watches and silk blouses and posed for calendars in the softest, most feminine light. But there is always the shadow of her sexual preferences — which she has detailed in her autobiography. And besides, when she gets out there on the court she does what comes naturally, which is win by playing hard — and when she plays hard she is far, far better than almost everyone she will face. As a reward, she finds people rooting for her opponents.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” she said Friday, with a shrug. “They cheer when someone wins a game from me. I don’t mind. I understand it. Hey. It’s a hard thing to do.”
Yet deep down, Navratilova still aches from the tepid acceptance. And why not? She endures a double whammy. While Lendl suffers for being too little a man and too much a machine, Martina suffers for being too much of both.
Now. Why is this bad for tennis? Only because Navratilova and Lendl keep winning. And when your top two players are icemen, it’s hard to defrost your audience to the rest of the field.
Who, for example, can capture America’s attention on a tennis court for more than 20 minutes these days? Boris Becker. That’s one. (We’ll get to him in a moment.) Next? John McEnroe. Only he’s at home, nursing his newborn son, and may never return full-throttle to the game. Next? Jimmy Connors. Only his age (33) is showing, and so is his dwindling resistance. He was bounced out of Wimbledon this year in the first round — the first time in 15 years he has ever left that early.
And next? Next? . . . Hello? There is no one really. Yannick Noah is good for a few minutes, mostly because of his hair. The Swedish players put us to sleep (I am convinced they put each other to sleep).
And it’s worse for the women. After Chris Evert Lloyd, 31, who will almost surely retire within a year, there is no one to challenge Navratilova, or the imagination. The Women’s Tennis Association is extremely concerned about this. Here at Wimbledon, a player must have at least eight media members interested before a post-match interview is held. Almost no other women besides Chris and Martina have been able to command even that this past week.
Now, I know that the tennis should be enough. I’ll bet when Lendl and Navratilova were growing up in Czechoslovakia, their parents told them
“practice the hardest and you will be the best.” No one ever told them they had to be interesting.
But to attract attention in the crowded sports stage these days, you must be just that. Show some emotion. Some personality. McEnroe — love him or hate him — never had a problem keeping you riveted. Same for Connors, and even old Ilie Nastase.
Becker — only 18 — does it today. He leaps and jumps and dives and smiles. Which is why the powers-that-be in tennis love the guy. In fact, they wish they had about a dozen more of him. In both sexes.
But the rest of the underclassmen (and women) are less promising characters. Gabriela Sabatini, 15, the hot young Argentine player, is a dynamo
on the court and a dud off of it. Mary Joe Fernandez, 14, is too young. Steffi Graf, Hana Mandlikova, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, all too distant.
The men’s side? After Lendl, McEnroe and Becker, the Swedes have things clogged up. Tim Mayotte is the most promising American here, and if he has said two interesting words all week we missed them.
Part of the problem is that tennis players are generally only interviewed en masse right after matches. Few athletes say anything interesting in such a setting. And with the players moving about the globe so much, it is tough for any place outside of their hometown to identify with them.
But that doesn’t erase the problem.
Don’t misunderstand. The tennis is not bad. In fact, the tennis is excellent. There will be great matches this week, matches the true fan will love.
But the rest of the sporting world needs a little nudge. Needs to feel in tune with the humans behind those Ellesse and Adidas shorts. And the players and their associations had best recognize that. Because their sport — even here at Wimbledon — is in danger of blurring into an anonymous bunch of racket swingers.
Don’t believe me? Quick. Who has a better chance here — Stefan Nyberg or Rob Tibert?
Neither. I just made them up.
I rest my case. CUTLINE: Martina Navratilova is hot, but leaves tennis fans cold. Ivan Lendl . . . a winner, but an arrogant iceman. Gabriela Sabatini . . . a dynamo and a dud.