STROKES OF GENIUS:

"Why Wood Creates An Artful Sport "

(One Fan's Perspective on Shifts in Tennis alongside Shifts in Cultural Landscapes)
 

It was the Age of the Wooden Racquet in a sport played by Champions wielding a staff made from materials far more organic and akin to natural elements, than metals and hard graphite composites. It was tennis played in its purest state; tennis as -perhaps- it was made to be; constructed so that a human being could run only-so-far on a court made to be exactly the size it is, based on the pace that could be generated from a wooden racquet from a swinging human arm and running human legs, in the building of a sport that would be characterized by royal elements.

Tennis is known as the “Sport of Kings” for the very reason that it transcends the natural animal order of “Might Makes Right” into the realm of our higher nature, where the prowess of the mind -with focus and strategic maneuvering- can outweigh the dynamics of pure power. With the advent of tennis, the one with the biggest gun had to now add thinking to their arsenal in order to win, and engage the opponent in a War of Spatial Conversations -as if “making a point”- rather than winning by gunfire alone. Brute force, without the grace and guidance of the mind, would not win a greater majority of the points. Placing wits above brawn, tennis distinguished itself through this elevation of character.

It was in just such a magical world, now seemingly innocent and quaint in comparison, that a Chris Evert stepped forward to take her place on the Tennis Throne, at just the time that the sport was transitioning into a world-wide pro ("Open-Era") big money attraction; an era known as the Tennis Boom. And she became the dominant force in the tennis world, alongside Bjorn Borg on the men’s side. Both made their ascension with play of pinpoint accuracy, unflappable concentration in the face of the greatest test of nerves, and a calm excuseless demeanor that allowed fate to play its hand fully, unapologetic about results and the possibilities of failure, and the deepest commitment to fair play and sportsmanship. Because it would be more suitable to lose with dignity than win by any means beneath the best their character could summon.

[Chris with sister Jeanne Evert, 1972.]

The integrity of the sport and the sport’s ability to discipline and refine its players (and better them as people by doing so) is dependent on the sport’s inherent structural challenges remaining intact. While there is nothing meant to suggest that pro tennis need return to wood racquets, there are many issues well worth considering regarding the altering of the sport from its classic roots of play.

The smaller racquet head of wood forces the player to concentrate harder to hit the sweet spot. This isn’t a DISADVANTAGE cured by the advent of mid and oversized racquets, but is a necessary test of a player’s ability to maintain unbroken concentration against rising external pressures. That’s essential to the discipline of the sport of tennis. Even a defining characteristic.

Adding unearned power, and making it easier to hit the ball by changing the materials and structural size of the racquet, cheats the players and audiences of the challenges presented by the sport of tennis as a discipline. It gives the illusion of improvement when the change in performance is more due to shifts in equipment, rather than enhanced skill levels.

Professional Baseball does not allow players to use aluminum bats or to use cork in their wooden bats, because - while it increases power - the American Professional Baseball Association saw rightly that everyone was hitting home-runs and that making it “easier” on everybody to gain “success” was actually hurting the sport. Because it was like cheating.

Meanwhile, the current group of top players is the first in history, on both the mens and womens side of the draw, to sometimes have over 30% of the top ten out for 6 months or more from injury. Tennis was always known as the 'sport for a lifetime' but the lack of regulation on the power of our equipment--as well as over-scheduling and a dramatic rise of hard court events, which should also possibly fall under the ITF's care and guidance--has allowed the strain on the body to place players in danger for both short and longterm injury. This, a sport historically closer to yoga and martial arts than today's version of the sport, exerts more pressure on the body than it appears to be made to handle.

The Establishment of Tennis has not taken steps to protect players and the sport's legacy, but has added to the dilemma by changing the construction of the ball so that it too would go even faster than it used to. In addition to the toll on the body, this boost cheats tennis of its thoughtful time-based character from the speeding up of the game. Time was built into the fabric of the game in order to allow for time to consider, to afford you the opportunity to change directions, to change the pace of your shot, or throw in a surprise drop shot. Time also allows for the possibility of having too much time to think, time to choke under pressure from the awareness of your match predicament, or the time to make a decision too late to change directions, and outwit yourself rather than your opponent. These elements still exist in the contemporary game but in greatly modified form.

Certainly current masters like Roger Federer, Guillermo Coria, and Justine Henin-Hardenne among others give great hope for the continual flourishing of true beauty and art in our sport. But being far and away exceptions to the trends of Velocity-oriented tennis, it may distract from the point that an overwhelming degree of top players do not share their variety, smarts, and expertise.

Bjorn Borg has proposed that, while club and amateur players go on hitting as they like, that the pros return to wood. John McEnroe has said it and written about it. If you’re among the best players in the world, you should surely be able to focus on a smaller sweet spot, generate your own pace, and win by displaying subtlety and variety in shotmaking rather than bludgeoning your opponent with casts of steel. Martina Navratilova recently publically endorsed, at the least, lessening the width of racquets, also being sure to insist that the game itself not be changed to accomodate the development of these super-charged excalibers. “Something needs to be done about the racquets,” says Navratilova. “The materials are ridiculous now. The game’s too easy with these racquets.”

The emphasis given by wood racquets to the elements of feel, touch, and control in tennis have likewise been “overruled” by the new power game and power establishment. Some people will say, “The equipment has improved. What can you do?”

But it is worth considering that perhaps the equipment hasn’t “improved” if the effect of those changes is to bring the game down below its efficiency level to function as a sport not purely about results and winning, but about process and the disciplining and refining of the spirits of the players, and staying true to the soul of the game.

This shift in tennis can very much be seen as a matter of history repeating itself, and likewise a warning sign and mirror of the times.

For the Ancient Greeks, sport represented the embodiment of the Hero’s Journey; a path of individual fulfillment, with sport as a spiritual discipline through which we humans could worship the Gods and Goddesses, who were seen as having an “active” physical presence. Sporting events surrounded the worship of the Gods and Goddesses - the Olympics, of course, developed at this time in history as a symbol of the human capacity to become as close as we could get to the Godhead of our own existence.

When the Romans conquered the Greeks, the focus of sport’s nature changed drastically to worship, not of the Gods and Goddesses, but to worship the state of Rome. The essence of godliness was taken out, and sport instead was seen as the fulfillment of Rome’s own practice of Conquest, with “Might Makes Right” as its central tenant. In this, the nature of competition was propelled away from Dignity, to Blood Sport, fighting to the death in a Symbol of Brutality and the Rise of Patriarchy.

And so it is in our world today, with the dominant rise of capitalism that demands to be held unaccountable and unquestioned. Faster pace and less nuance, more streamlining so there is no time to think and consider; gaining prize monies without concern for conduct befitting of a worthy champion, and making it into the winner’s circle without necessarily caring by what means you get there.

It can’t be said that no one has taken notice. At the 2003 Wimbledon Championships, an open letter was issued to the President of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) with leading players from the past such as John McEnroe, Pat Cash, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker all signing it (Evert did not attend Wimbledon 2003), in which they claim that tennis has become too one-dimensional. They did suggest that the width of the tennis racquet should at least be reduced to remedy this and help challenge the effectiveness of the hard hitters. But it is also noteworthy that it was a letter signed only by past champions, and no current players. As Andy Roddick said upon hearing about the letter, “I'm not really sure what their, you know, concern is.” And that’s the problem: most current players, raised already on the power game without roots to the sport's past, really DON’T know.

Margaret Court also blames the failure to regulate racquet technology for the one-speed, one-style tennis of today on the ITF, saying, “They really should have done something about the racquets years ago.” The official sport allowing all of these concessions to its professional players is clearly a major source of what may be perceived as a tennis-identity crisis, and it has put the full richness of the sport in jeopardy. Tennis is not here to make it easier on everyone to succeed any more than training wheels are put on bicycles to make more-balanced riders.

Yet tennis audiences, players, and officials seem to have resigned themselves to believing this direction of tennis is part of historical inevitability. They’re shrugging their shoulders and slugging their groundstrokes, having become so addicted to the blurring pace of the game, but perhaps losing perspective, in the process, on the ideals upon which tennis was developed.

But some essential basic things should never change: I’ll take Chrissie on a clay court with a wooden racquet over any player in today’s Slugfest tennis world for all the marbles in the piggy bank.

 

 

Want to try your hand at playing with a wood racquet? Exquisite brand new wood racquets are available at http://www.woodtennis.com/newWood/newWood.html where Joe Schartman has a marvelous collection of artful, classic, and yes, Chris Evert original Wilson wood racquets. Pictured to the right are 3 signed racquets by Chris. But don't get any ideas. Joe says he's keeping 'em!

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