[4 December 2007]
“You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.”
The cool thing about tennis is that it’s a year-round sport. Basically, this means there is no real “tennis season”, so to speak, as in American football or basketball. That’s cool because you can satisfy your tennis craving pretty much any time you want, and rather easily. If you’re looking for friendly play, there are scores of tennis leagues and challenge ladders calibrated to your ability level. Don’t have a “level”? No problem. It’s not hard to find an instructor.
If you’re the competitive type, tournaments are always going on, including those for money and trophies and real world rankings. I know guys who’ll never be household names who travel the world collecting prize money from relatively “minor” tournaments, far from TV cameras, but perfectly legitimate and sporty.
Maybe competition isn’t your thing. That’s fine, there’s plenty of fun in being a spectator. If you want to see the best in action, you can get tickets to the Australian Open in January; the endurance wars on the French Open’s red clay in May and the first part of June, the grass court action at Wimbledon in June and into July, or the U.S. Open in August and into September. As you can tell from the tournament titles, tennis is an international pastime and keeping up with it in person could get costly. If you prefer, you can stay at home and watch it all on television. In fact, I’m actually watching the final of the Masters Cup as I revise this article.
You don’t have to confine your watching to “the pros”. Go to a tournament at a tennis center or country club (assuming the country clubs will let you in!) and you’ll usually find something worth watching, be it singles, doubles, mixed doubles, or parent-child doubles, and ranging from kids in the 10-and-under division to experienced players in the 75-and-overs.
There’s also wheelchair tennis, and the competition goes all the way up to the highest levels, with the current NEC Wheelchair Tennis tour consisting of over 120 tournaments in over 30 countries. Wheelchair rules allow players two bounces before the ball must be returned but, otherwise, the competition isn’t much different from what you’re accustomed to seeing, and it’s fierce, too. Likewise, if you’re into team play, collegiate tennis might best fulfill your viewing needs.
I mention this because it raises an intriguing question, which is: with all of this access to tennis, why in the world would anyone need a DVD of it? To this end, I’ve taken the liberty of developing some possible answers.
One: You’re not that deep into tennis, but you’re curious about it and you figured you’d get a crash course in tennis-ology from a DVD.
Two: You’re a tennis enthusiast and you’re looking to add another match to your already robust recorded collection. You might be just such a person if you can say, “Of course I have!” when I ask, “Have you heard of Miloslav Mecir or Lori McNeil?” or if you can rattle off the ages of Mats Wilander and Michael Chang when they won their respective French Open titles.
Three: You’re a tennis coach who works with aspiring young tennis players and you’re hoping to use the DVDs as teaching tools to improve your students’ technique (“Keep your wrist firm on that backhand volley like Federer!”) or mental toughness (“See how Nadal’s Tiger-like fist pump keeps his head in the match, kid?”).
Given this, I have two DVDs to discuss: Wimbledon: the 2007 Official Film and Wimbledon 2001 Final: Rafter v. Ivanisevic 2001. Unfortunately, Wimbledon: the 2007 Official Film serves none of the above purposes and I’m doubting it would serve any others. It should really be an “extra feature” on a different DVD, if that. Or, I could see it being given away in the mail, for free and with no strings attached, as a promotional item, but it should not, ever, be sold separately. That it’s being sold for $24.99US gives me a migraine. And then it has the audacity to contain an extra feature of its own, which amounts to highlights from classic matches of yesteryear. The matches are classic, but the highlights are poorly edited.
Aside from the stuffy and drab narration, the Official Film DVD crams the events of the two-week Wimbledon tournament into two overly simplistic plotlines. On the men’s side, you have Switzerland’s Roger Federer, the world’s number one player and reigning Wimbledon champion, trekking his way through the gentlemen’s field to a historic finish. On the other hand, you have Venus Williams, climbing from her lowly position as the 23rd seed to become the eventual winner over France’s 18th-seeded Marion Bartoli. Problem is, these narratives are delivered in so myopic a fashion that the full range and depth of talent on the tennis tour goes largely ignored.
But, all right, even accepting the paradigm of “the champ” beating two or three contenders, the DVD shouldn’t have been so disappointing. Let’s use the men’s draw as an example. Roger Federer entered Wimbledon looking for a fifth straight title to tie Bjorn Borg’s record. That, all by itself, should spell excitement. Plus, Federer, at 25-years-old, is the best player on the planet right now. The guy does things you wish you could do in one of those tennis videogames, he’s that good.
Against him, you have Spain’s Raphael Nadal, whose energy and exuberance lights up the court and galvanizes the crowd. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Nadal bested Federer in both the 2006 and 2007 French Open championships, putting commentators in the rather awkward position of analogizing a Federer-Nadal rivalry to the fabled showdowns between perennial bad boy John McEnroe and cucumber cool Bjorn Borg.
To my eyes, Federer and Borg play nothing alike, but the comparisons between them were everywhere this year. Meanwhile, Andy Roddick of the United States, the third major contender, possesses the heart of a giant plus a captivating, boyish charm. Take all of that, throw in legendary James Scott (“Jimmy”) Conners as Roddick’s coach, add the prestige and majesty of Wimbledon itself, and it seems impossible for any DVD to screw this up.
Yet, that’s exactly what happens, as the DVD glosses over early round play in favor of namedropping the big guns. Then, when the preferred match-ups finally happen, the clips from those matches are skimpy or, worse, the camera work focuses on one player to the exclusion of what’s actually happening on the whole court. You can’t assess the quality of the play if you’re only seeing a close-up of the player swinging at the ball. What’s more, out of the many dazzling exchanges in the tournament’s two weeks, much of the highlighted action is surprisingly mundane.
The video’s lack of context is another problem. For instance, at the outset, the “plot” includes information on the latest line calling technology, called “Hawkeye”. It doesn’t mention that the new technology replaces “Cyclops”, the device developed in the late ‘70s for monitoring the service lines. Cyclops was all right, I guess, although I’ve seen it go haywire like an errant car alarm, forcing officials to turn the sucker off.
Maybe one day they’ll figure out how to eliminate ball girls and ball boys, too. They could make the tennis balls fall into a gutter, like in bowling or coin-operated pool tables, and the balls would reemerge within seconds for players to use again. I’m kidding about that, but what “they” really need to invent is an automated racquet stringer. When I was a kid, I had an insufferable table mounted stringer. After you clamped it to a table, you fastened the string to a clasp, then cranked a handle around and around in a clockwise motion to achieve the desired string tension. And that was just to tighten a single string. You had to do that about 30 more times to finish the racquet’s main strings and cross strings. Brutal.
Back to “Hawkeye”, the problem is that the narration fails to inform us of the pre-Hawkeye regime, or how Hawkeye’s advantages and disadvantages might fit into the tour’s recent system for challenging line calls. Briefly, the challenge system works like this: you, as the player, receive two challenges per set (although players were given three at the 2007 Australian Open) to review line calls, and if you’re right (like, your shot was called “out” when it was really “in”) then you keep your challenges intact, but if you’re wrong, then you lose a challenge.
It seems like they only mentioned Hawkeye as foreshadowing device. I’ll steal the last pinch of suspense here and tell you the chair umpire refused the request. But even that tidbit raises a good point. Will players lose one of their challenges if they complain about Hawkeye rather than the line call itself? Hmm…might be a good way to disrupt an opponent’s rhythm!
More frustrating was the coverage of the women’s draw. In the film’s rather tangential footnote about Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon win being the last such victory for a British player, the narrator stumbled upon an important fact: 2007 would mark the first time that men and women would receive equal prize money at Wimbledon. In other words, Wimbledon held its first women’s lawn tennis championship in 1884 and nobody thought the female players should be paid the same as the male players, until now. Ain’t that somethin’?
Last year, Wimbledon officials actually defended the disparity in prize money. Defenders have rationalized it on the ground that the men have to play three out of five set matches, while the ladies play two out of three. Personally, I think it should be two out of three sets for everybody, like in tournaments other than the Slams. But given the importance of the issue, as well as the controversy, you’d think the DVD would delve a little deeper, show some reactions to the decision, or at least ruminate on what it means for us, as supposedly civilized life forms, to be dealing with an issue like this in 2007. Sadly, no such delving or rumination takes place.
But, wait, it gets worse. The video then skims through the Williams-Bartoli women’s final in order to treat the Federer-Nadal final like some sort of glorified reality television show. Apparently, equal pay is not automatically accompanied by equal treatment. And, strangely, the narrator continually frames Venus Williams’ accomplishments at Wimbledon 2007 as a byproduct of her “superior athleticism”, as if mental acuity, talent, and strategy aren’t factors in her game, or in the sport at large. Because, you know, tennis is a sport, so being “athletic” isn’t as much of a compliment, is it? It sort of comes with the territory.
Although I really could go on, I’ve got one more nitpick. Was it really necessary for the narrator to use the “nova” and “itch” sounds in players’ last names (i.e., Daniela Hantuchova, Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic) to demonstrate the increased presence of “Eastern European” players? Ya know, guys, it’s a lot easier, and less crass, to determine someone’s national origin by looking at the country listed next to his or her name on the draw sheet.
On the other hand, Wimbledon 2001 Final: Rafter v. Ivanisevic 2001 DVD, will at least satisfy your craving for a good match, whether you’re new to tennis or an experienced player. I’m also loving the $14.99US list price.
Goran Ivanisevic, of Croatia, was having a difficult year when he entered Wimbledon in 2001, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, he didn’t even qualify for the tournament straightaway. He received a wildcard into the main draw and became the first wild card recipient to take the title. The win came after three previous final round losses in 1992, 1994, and 1998.
In addition, Ivanisevic was well known for having his own private obstacle course of personal demons. He struggled with physical injuries and had an uneven temperament that made him the leader of the tour in racquet breaking and monetary fines. Nobody could break a racquet in half like Goran Ivanisevic! Meanwhile, Patrick Rafter, of Australia, had two U.S. Open titles under his belt and was looking for a Wimbledon crown after his 2000 loss to Pete Sampras.
The presentation is crisp, with steady full-court camera angles, and minimal discussion from the commentators. A technical downside is that the match is only tracked by sets, making navigation somewhat cumbersome. Near the beginning, the commentators confine their yapping to the changeovers, when the players are switching sides, rather than during the action, but the chitchat picks up as the match gets closer to the very exciting fifth set conclusion. It’s not good chitchat, either.
Let’s say Patrick Rafter serves, Ivanisevic returns, and then Rafter dumps a forehand volley into the net. You get the commentator saying stuff like, “Mmmm, forehand volley in the net. Rafter’s not going to be happy about that one,” as if it’s some mind blowing epiphany. At one point, they were pointing out the symmetry of the scores on the scoreboard. Excruciating, like listening to people share random observations during a movie at the theater.
Normally, I don’t listen to commentators, since they are often cheerleading for whichever player is the higher seed or has the better head-to-head record. I much prefer keeping them on “mute” while listening to music, although I have to say Andre Agassi’s insight at the 2007 U.S. Open was impressive. As far as US television goes, tennis commentators might want to watch their backs in case Andre decides he likes the booth!
Perhaps there are better, more historic Wimbledon matches that would be worthy of DVD treatment. Kultur Films already offers the classic Arthur Ashe vs. Jimmy Conners final of 1975, as well as the Borg vs. McEnroe rivalry. They’ve even got a Federer vs. Sampras semifinal, which is probably significant in hindsight as the “changing of the guard” moment when analysts realized Federer would become the grass court king. I can think of a few matches I’d add to the list, if they haven’t been added already.
One is the McEnroe vs. Conners finals of 1982 and 1984, which could be paired together, with Connors’ win in ‘82 as the main feature and McEnroe’s 1984 performance being an example of near-perfection. I remember watching that 1984 match on a small black and white TV, squinting at the path of the shots, while McEnroe wielded his racquet like a magic wand. Another good one is Steffi Graf’s three-set win over Gabriela Sabatini in 1991. Then again, anything with Steffi Graf is going to be good. She was incredible.
Still, Rafter’s swift, yet methodical serve-and-volley style provides an interesting match-up for Ivanesevic’s big bang, left-handed serving game. The match is gargantuan, the longest final in Wimbledon history in fact, and the fifth set is quite suspenseful, even when you already know how it ends. So, you see? There might be hope for tennis on DVD yet.