Australian Open For All To See: Two Ugly Facts Brought To Light By Nadal’s Early Exit

The men’s tennis World #1, Rafael Nadal of Spain, was derailed in his attempt to win a second Australian Open title by an injury that forced him out of his quarterfinal against Croatia’s Marin Cilic.

Injury, and specifically injury in Australia, is familiar territory for Nadal and his fans.  On three previous occasions – during his quarterfinal against Andy Murray in 2010, during his quarterfinal against David Ferrer in 2011, and during the final against Stan Wawrinka in 2014 – Nadal suffered injuries that stopped him in his tracks (knee, thigh, and back, respectively).

This year’s setback, though, differed from the others.  During his previous Australia injury losses, Nadal was never in a winning position.  He lost in 2010 and in 2011 in straight sets, and he won a set in 2014 only because Wawrinka played execrably for a half-hour.  Against Cilic in 2018, however, Nadal was up in the score by two sets to one and playing well enough to win when, in the fourth game of the fourth set, he pulled a right hip flexor muscle on a sprint to the net.

Had the injury not occurred, Nadal might well have won the match.  His record against the semifinal opponent, Kyle Edmund, suggests that absent the injury, Nadal would probably have reached the final.

While Nadal’s fans gnash their teeth and grumble about the Spaniard’s rotten luck in Australia since his 2009 title run, his serendipitous absence from this year’s final cast a spotlight onto two unpleasant facts that would have remained sub rosa had Nadal played for the trophy.


  1. Roger Federer is not the infallible box office draw that journalists, commentators, and others in the tennis establishment assert that he is.

Midway through the tournament’s second week, ESPN’s John McEnroe declared, “Roger Federer is the player people come to see!”

This rang false when he said it.  The 2017 Wimbledon final between Federer and Cilic garnered poor television ratings in the United States, while the most-watched stream from that Wimbledon tournament was a match featuring Nadal, not Federer.

Because about 90 percent of tennis commentators and writers are Federer zealots, it is understandable that McEnroe, who seems rarely to step outside the tennis media bubble, might be under the impression that Federer sells the most tickets.  Evidence from this year’s Australian Open final suggests otherwise.

Here was Roger Federer, treated as a god by many in the sporting media, reputed to be the most graceful athlete ever to don gym shoes, attempting to win an historic 20th Major title in a sparkling career.

And there were still tickets available at full price (or at discounts!) a scant four hours before the match was to begin?

Had Nadal played in the final, the match would have sold out; his sizable and enthusiastic local fan base would have snapped the tickets up.

Nadal’s absence from the final made it all too evident that Federer is not McEnroe’s “player people come to see.”

The tennis establishment – commentators, writers, governing bodies, and tournament managers – does itself a disservice with its worshipful focus on Federer.  Data from Wimbledon 2017 and Australia 2018 suggest that if the sport continues to promote Federer at the expense of other players, it does so at its peril.


2. The tennis establishment is willing to “grease the skids” for Federer.

Throughout the Australian Open fortnight, Federer played essentially a different tournament from everyone else.  Daytime temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching at court level in the “heat bowls” of the stadia up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  Federer’s potential opponents for later rounds, including his most recent vanquisher, World #7 David Goffin, sweltered through afternoon matches and lost.  Federer, meanwhile, was generously scheduled for the cooler evenings in five of his first six rounds.  (The sole exception was a gimme fourth-round contest with world #80 Marton Fucsovics.)

Fans complained mightily and with justification as six-time former champion Novak Djokovic was forced to play the highly entertaining, and box office gold, Gael Monfils in oven-like conditions on the same day as one of Federer’s evening matches.  (On the other half of the draw, the box office stars Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov alternated in the daytime and evening slots during the five rounds they both played.)

That Federer’s salubrious scheduling throughout the tournament smacked of favoritism all observers agreed, but no one could identify clear bias on the part of the tournament until the final.

Conditions were forecast to be hot for the 7 p.m. final on Sunday, 28 January, with temperatures in the high 30s C (above 95 degrees Fahrenheit).  Cilic warmed up for the match on an outdoor court in order to become acclimated to the conditions.  Presumably, he set his string tensions, which are sensitive to temperature and humidity, accordingly.

Meanwhile, Federer made the puzzling decision to prepare for the contest on an indoor court.

Shortly before match time, the tournament announced its decision to close the roof of Rod Laver Arena and turn on the air conditioning.  Cilic had been given no warning.  His string tensions were all wrong.  Unsurprisingly, he started slowly.  Cilic lost the first four games of the match and, although he pushed the match to five sets, he never recovered.

According to the tournament’s own Extreme Heat Policy (which had not been invoked a day before, when the women’s finalists fought so hard over nearly three hours that one was sent to the hospital with dehydration), the stadium roof is to be closed only when both the following criteria obtain: ambient air temperature over 40 C, and a humidity measure called “wet bulb” above a specific threshold.  Although the wet bulb reading on the evening of the men’s final was slightly above threshold, the air temperature was never over 37 C.

From the tournament’s official media guide:

Closing the stadium roof changes court conditions profoundly.  Indoor courts are windless and more humid than outdoor courts.  Tennis balls tend to bounce lower indoors than outdoors.

All four of the Grand Slams are supposed to be outdoor tournaments at which players are tested against the elements.  Only two men’s Slam finals have ever been played under roofs: the 2012 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon.  In both cases, the matches started in the open air, and the roofs were closed only because of rain.  The 2018 Australian Open final is the first men’s Slam final to have been played entirely indoors.

Not coincidentally, Roger Federer is one of the best indoor players in the history of tennis.  Wind is his adversary, neutering his aggressive attacking style.  A closed roof suits him to perfection.

Had Cilic been warned that the roof was to be closed for the final, he would have had a chance.  He would have prepared himself and his racquets for the conditions he would face.  But he was not told in advance.

And Federer is quite candid about the fact that he was told.

So the Australian Open violated its own heat rules to close the roof for the men’s final, thus handing the better indoor player (Federer) an advantage.  They told Federer in advance, enabling him to prepare himself and his string tensions for the cooler air.  They did not warn Cilic.

In the long and colorful history of sports malfeasance, I think medals and trophies have been stripped for less.

Of course, it is not Federer’s responsibility to keep his opponent informed.  He might not have known that the tournament was leaving Cilic in the dark.

That said, the tournament’s cheating on Federer’s behalf rather than Federer’s cheating himself does not render his title any more legitimate.

Only the appearance of corruption is necessary in order to ruin a sport and thus destroy the livelihoods of many.

As writer Andrew Prochnow pointed out, “Had Nadal been in [the] final, blowback from roof closure would have made that act impossible.”  The tournament would not have dared pull the same trick.

Tennis fans have long suspected tournaments and the sport’s governing bodies of taking subtle steps to favor Federer, from unfair scheduling decisions, to selective rule enforcement (such as a disproportionate focus on the Time Rule during Nadal’s matches in 2015), to selective rule non-enforcement (e.g., in Montreal in 2017, when Federer should have been called for both ball abuse and audible obscenity and thus lost a penalty point against Ferrer but was not cited for either infraction), to ad hoc rule changes (e.g., requiring players to stand for the coin toss within 60 seconds of walking onto court, which affects Nadal more than any other player).

Even the Slams’ dropping from 32 seeds to 16 seeds in 2019, which appears to be favored only by a handful of bored journalists, would have the effect of knocking out the player(s) who make(s) slow and/or nervous starts in the Slams.  This is usually Nadal.

Until now, tennis fans have been unable to prove structural favoritism toward Federer.  With the 2018 Australian Open final, everything has changed.  It is now demonstrably clear that the tennis establishment, if given the opportunity, will cheat on Federer’s behalf.

This is terrible for tennis.



PC Guerrilla Warfare: The Sportscaster Whose Apt Word-Choice Cost Him His Job

broken_tennis_ball_by_ Photo by mountainboy965C

The Backstory

Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.

The world of sport is abuzz with excitement over tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year.   Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter in the waning years of tennis’ richest era, feverishly weave narratives from the week’s trendy storylines.

Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?

Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?

Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed youngsters dethrone any of the grizzled veteran champions?

Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?

What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions over 35 — can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?

Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action.  To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event coverage, many broadcasters deliver live streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.

The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming leviathan that began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors.  ESPN supplies U.S. fans with streams from Australia of all 254 singles matches and many doubles matches, employing an army of on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.

Many of ESPN’s live-stream voices offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels.  From this “B team,” one might hear:

“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”

By contrast, the less prepared and more ego-driven of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical gems such as:

“This is painful to watch.”

(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s.  Chris Evert’s statements are at times so vapid that she has inspired a widely used, colorful hashtag.  Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children.  When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match; late in the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)

Prominent in ESPN’s live-stream broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California.  A veteran of commentary since 2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.


The Fatal Moment




It is Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.)  First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is 36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles.  Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams.  One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.

Not surprisingly, the match is a rout.  Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.

Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:

“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”

What exactly does Adler say?  Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.


Update: The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article.  Below is a new video.  Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.


The Controversy


Storm 2


Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.

The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:


“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for Venus Williams’ charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve.  Tennis writers and commentators frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks.  Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have passed unnoticed.

This particular match, however, made Adler famous.

Within minutes, social media were flooded with rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”

New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames.  Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.

Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”


Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg?  Do you read minds?


The Aftermath


ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.

Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.

On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination, stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.”  In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”




Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,”  it would be fairest and most reasonable to assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.

Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism?  In his 13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Gaël Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player of African ancestry?

I believe the answer to those questions is No.

Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends only Elder has had the courage to speak publically about the recent travesty).

There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the word he used was indeed “guerrilla.”

In effect, what happened here?

  • While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
  • Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
  • A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
  • ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.

Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect?  If they want to attract viewers, yes.

Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air?  Certainly.

But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?

I say no.

The Courts will decide.

As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally find Doug Adler’s assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed.  While not always in agreement with his opinions, I cannot remain silent as he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.

So here’s what I think:

Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.

Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.

ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.

Stay tuned.










The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.

Classics of the Genre


The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.

The Element of Chance


Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
Setting: Los Angeles
As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.

Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act


“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)


Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.

Consequences of a Single Decision


The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.

Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.

Relationships on the Edge

The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.

Living Too Close to the Edge: Remembering the Oakland Hills Firestorm on its 25th Anniversary

For several years in the 1990s, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Oakland side of the Bay — or the “East Bay,” as it is colloquially known.

California is by turns breathtakingly beautiful and suffocatingly crowded, serene and self-righteous, chaotic and bucolic.   After only weeks in residence, one can acquire a sense of living “on the edge,” only small steps from disaster.  Calamities in California are as dramatic as they are frequent.

Houses perched precariously in Santa Cruz or elsewhere on the coast occasionally tumble over the cliffs.


Heavy rains lead to mud slides that in turn cause mansions in Marin County to toboggan downhill and collide with other houses.


Forest fires scorch huge swaths of Southern California every summer.


Nearly every year (or so it seems) drought conditions lead to the forced rationing of water, because California’s outdated reservoirs and water supply system cannot support its burgeoning population.


A burning fuel truck can destroy a stretch of elevated highway and cause traffic snarls for months.


Major geographic faults running through the state’s population centers – most notably San Francisco and Los Angeles – wreak periodic mayhem and cast a shadow of potential calamity over every day in those metro areas.  (See my first-person account of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.)


Even the less famous cracks in the earth, such as the East Bay’s Hayward Fault (which bisects the University of California’s football stadium and forced the university to build that structure in two separate sections), are expected to produce major quakes in the near future.


Much of California’s population, even in metro areas, lives in close proximity to canyons, ravines, arid grasslands, or woodlands.  It is on the interfaces between California’s human habitation and its wilderness, especially among the numerous steep hills, that the state’s disasters are most costly.

One such “interface” disaster occurred 25 years ago today, on the 20th of October, 1991.

It was a Sunday.  I lived in Berkeley at the time.  I remember noticing unusually strong winds rushing through the treetops and blasting away the clouds on that unseasonably warm day. I might even have thought, “This would be a terrible day for a fire,” although it is impossible for me to know now what is memory and what is hindsight.

Late morning, I was nestled in a papasan chair engaged in some mundane task — darning a sock? — when I noticed through a south facing window the sky had turned yellow.  Bizarre as that seemed, I did not pay it much heed.  Only after another quarter-hour or so, finally aware of the fire engines and emergency vehicles screaming southward past my house, did I step outside to see what was going on.


Billowing over the steep hillsides east of the city of Oakland was a cloud of smoke the size of a small town.  A cacophony of sirens pierced the air.  The East Bay hills, home to numerous wooded residential areas, were burning out of control.


The East Bay consists, essentially, of a very long hillside and mountain ridge that runs from Richmond in the north to Fremont and the Silicon Valley in the south, with Oakland and Berkeley roughly in the middle.  To the west is the San Francisco Bay.  From the shoreline, gently sloping flats extend eastward, gradually growing steeper and eventually merging with rugged foothills roughly six or seven miles inland.

Lower-income neighborhoods are situated in the flats.  Affluence of the cities’ residents correlates roughly with distance from the Bay, altitude of the neighborhood, and gradient of the local hills.  Many of the area’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and most of the largest houses, are located near the ridgeline and were on that October day most threatened by the ravenous blaze.

The East Bay fire actually started on October 19th, the night before the disaster.  Firefighters were called to a burning grassland high in the Oakland hills.  They believed (incorrectly, alas) that the flames had been quenched and the danger averted.

On the morning of the 20th, the grass fire flared up.  Southwesterly gusts up to 70 miles per hour spread the blaze rapidly from the prairie into adjacent woodlands.  Burning debris took flight on the winds, outpacing and overwhelming local firefighting crews.  Dense groves of Eucalyptus trees, whose oily wood burns at high temperature, crackled and exploded, flinging incendiary fragments onto nearby structures.  By midday, the conflagration had become a firestorm producing its own roaring winds.


Crews from as far south as Bakersfield, as far north as the Oregon border, and as far east as Nevada fought the blaze as it spread from wood-shingled house to wood-shingled house in hillside neighborhoods.  Within the first hour, 790 structures had been destroyed.  At its peak, the 107-alarm fire consumed a house every 11 seconds.


Firefighters were hampered throughout the chaotic day by a variety of problems, some preventable.  The neighborhoods’ winding, hilly streets were difficult for firetrucks to navigate, especially in smoke-limited visibility.  Radio communication was difficult, because fire companies used different frequencies.  The blaze knocked out power to 17 pumping stations in Oakland, causing some firefighters to run out of water.  The Oakland hydrants’ hose outlets were of a non-standard size, making them incompatible with hoses from some of the assisting companies.  Many streets were clogged with parked cars, some blocking fire hydrants.

(Don’t ever park in front of a fire hydrant!)


As my housemates and I alternated between watching TV coverage in horror and gazing out our own front windows, the blaze raged wildly through the late afternoon.  I packed a go-bag and eventually spent the night at a friend’s house downhill.

Only a lessening of the wind speed at about 5 p.m. permitted the crews to begin to attempt containment.  The fire was not declared fully under control until 8 a.m. on October 23.


My housemates and I were fortunate.  Located downhill and within urbanized south Berkeley, safely away from the flaming dense brush and vegetation, we avoided the fire.

Uphill of us was sheer devastation.  The blaze had consumed 1,520 acres of land and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units.

Twenty-five people were killed. One hundred sixty-three were injured.

In the weeks and months that followed, the devastated area was an eerie scar on the East Bay landscape.  Where once the slopes and canyons had been patched with greenery and dotted at night with street- and house-lights, the hillside was dull gray and perpetually dark.


Even many months later, a drive through the afflicted neighborhoods found street after street in which all that remained of a household was a chimney and possibly a burnt-out car.




(As a somewhat bizarre footnote, much the same area of the East Bay hills had burned in September of 1970.  Some families lost their homes in both 1970 and 1991.)

All the blighted neighborhoods have been rebuilt.  Modern homes have supplanted their gutted antecedents.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers have sprouted anew.

The replacement homes, finished in stucco or other fire-resistant siding, are safer than their predecessors, many of which were sheathed in highly flammable cedar shake shingles.

The Oakland and Berkeley fire departments have put in place protocols to ensure radio communication.  Oakland has built a new fire station in the hills and equipped all of its crews with improved wildfire fighting equipment.  Oakland also replaced its fire hydrants to ensure compatibility with standard hoses.

To this day, many residents of the East Bay (and elsewhere in California) continue to live on the interface with the wilderness.

Recent precautions and newly instituted safety measures notwithstanding, it is likely that the East Bay hills will burn again.





On Children


The recent welcome news that I am to become an aunt for the seventh time has brought these poignant verses to my mind…

On Children


Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats


   The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


William Butler Yeats       1919

And So It Begins: Last-minute Thoughts About the 2016 French Open

TB_0518 World #8 Tomas Berdych on the velvety Roland Garros clay.

After six weeks and ten tournaments in nine countries, the men’s European clay court season arrives at its apogee and ultimate proving ground this coming week at the French Open.  Action begins tomorrow, May 22, with 16 singles matches at Roland Garros in Paris.

A few quick thoughts about what we have learned from the men’s clay court warm-up events —

Who’s Out

Roger Federer, suffering from a combination of knee and back injuries that kept him out of the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid and led to early losses in Monte Carlo and Rome, withdrew from the French Open in advance of the tournament draw.  Federer, whose game is much better suited to grass than to clay, hopes to resume competition in time for the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments.



Juan Martin del Potro, on the comeback trail from a series of four wrist surgeries, decided to forgo Roland Garros and move immediately to the grass, where he hopes his booming serve will pay dividends.



The charismatic and highly talented Frenchman Gael Monfils — ever a crowd favorite, and one of the most upbeat and good-natured players on the tour — was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros after being hospitalized this week with a viral illness.



Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender


Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem won the title today in Nice and reached the final in Munich, where he lost a very tight contest to German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Earlier, in Monte Carlo, he mounted a very stiff challenge to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

Currently ranked 15 in the world and rising quickly, Thiem will surely win the French Open someday.  Five of his six titles to date, and two of his three in 2016, have come on clay.  His well-rounded game is precise, aggressive, and great fun to watch.

He will arrive in Paris brimming over with confidence from his win in Nice although perhaps somewhat tired.  He is a dangerous opponent for anyone.



Japan’s Kei Nishikori, currently ranked #6 in the world, delivered several strong performances this year on the European clay.  He reached the final in Barcelona, where he lost a close match to Rafael Nadal.  At the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome, he played barnburner semifinal matches with World #1 Novak Djokovic, losing in two sets in Madrid and in three sets in Rome.

Over the course of his career, Nishikori has beaten every player now seeded ahead of him at Roland Garros (Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal).  His speed, footwork, and shotmaking, and his ability to rob opponents of time by “taking the ball early,” make him formidable on clay.  Fortuitously blessed with a good draw, Nishikori could easily reach the quarterfinals, where he might encounter Andy Murray.

If he keeps his health and fitness, Nishikori could well find himself hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5.



Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris as he did last year, having bolstered his confidence with a victory at his home tournament in Geneva.

Owner of a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a one-handed backhand that is both lethal and sublime, Wawrinka can beat anyone on the right day.  Although inconsistent and unpredictable, “Stan the Man,” as his sponsors call him, proved last year in Paris that he is capable of winning the title.


The Favorites?

The 2016 men’s singles competition at Roland Garros is the most open in years, with three players having emerged from the Masters 1000-level events as favorites (and perhaps even as co-favorites): Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal won the title in Monte Carlo without ever facing Djokovic.


Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.


Murray lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and beat him in the semifinals of Madrid.

Murray lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid and beat him in the final at Rome.


Djokovic and Nadal faced each other once, in the quarterfinals of Rome, where Djokovic won 7-5 7-6.  Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his performace, that both sets had been “on his racquet,” and that he had been, “very, very, very close” to winning.

Only Nadal of the three favorites won two titles in the lead-up to Roland Garros: in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona (a competitive 500-level tournament where neither Murray nor Djokovic was in the field).

The tournament whose conditions (i.e., altitude, clay quality, weather) are most similar to Roland Garros is Monte Carlo.  Nadal won that title, beating Murray in the semifinal.  Djokovic lost in his first match.

Madrid, featuring high altitude and hard-packed clay, is the least like Roland Garros.  Djokovic won that title, beating Murray in the final.  Murray had beaten Nadal in the semifinal.

Rome, like Paris, is at sea level.  There, Murray beat Djokovic in a hard-fought, testy, and rainy final.

Can one divine French Open outcomes from this data?

First, a few words about the tournament draw.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw is freakishly difficult.  His first opponent, the 6’4″ cannon-serving Australian Sam Groth, demands intense concentration from his opponent and offers no rally rhythm.  The last time Nadal opened a French Open campaign against a “serve-bot” (2011, against 6’10” John Isner), Nadal got down two sets to one and needed five sets to eke out a victory.

In the third round, Nadal could face the flamboyantly talented and dangerously unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who beat Nadal three times in 2015.  The fourth round could bring a meeting with Dominic Thiem (see above).

In the quarterfinal, Nadal could face France’s Jo Wilfried Tsonga, who has the physical skills to beat anyone on the tour, and who will have the enthusiastic support of the home crowd.  In the semifinal, Nadal could face Djokovic.

Over his first five rounds, Djokovic faces a relative cakewalk.  None of Djokovic’s early-round opponents has any recent history of success against him.

Murray will have a tricky first match against the wily 37-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, whose variety and unpredictability can be maddeningly difficult to face.  En route to the quarterfinals, Murray could encounter two tricky serve-bots, John Isner and the 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, though neither is likely to threaten Murray’s exemplary return game and defense.

Murray could face formidable challenges in the quarterfinals against Nishikori and in the semifinals against Wawrinka.

Murray will not face either Djokovic or Nadal until the final.


What does their Rome match and other recent history say about a Djokovic/Nadal semifinal?

Djokovic owns a 26-23 career head-to-head record against Nadal and has won their last seven meetings, three of which have been on clay. Advantage, Djokovic?  Not necessarily.

From mid-2011 until mid-2012, Djokovic also won seven straight matches against Nadal.  By the end of his seventh loss (the 2012 Australian Open final), Nadal had figured out how to counter Djokovic’s new tactics.  When the two next met, at the 2012 French Open final, Nadal won.

Some commentators have suggested that Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Rome earlier this month would put him at a mental disadvantage in Paris.  I am not so sure.

Nadal’s competitive psychology is such that he takes every opponent seriously and approaches every match with the idea that he “needs to play [his] best tennis in order to have chances to win.” (That phrase has appeared in his press conference transcripts innumerable times over the years.)

Had a few points gone differently in their match in Rome, and had Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, he likely would have thought, “OK, I won, but it was close. I still need to play my best to have chances to win.”  Djokovic, meanwhile, would have arrived at the following Nadal match full of vinegar and determination to avenge his recent loss.

Having lost in Rome, but having kept the match very close, Nadal will probably approach his next meeting with Djokovic with optimism (in addition to his usual intention to play his best).

The contest between Nadal and Djokovic in Rome proved that Nadal is ready to compete toe-to-toe with Djokovic.  Both players know that now.  This cannot be a comfortable feeling for Djokovic.


What about Andy Murray?

Murray has long been one of the sport’s greatest defenders – he can chase down and return shots all day – but aggressive play does not come naturally to him.  He has a decent first serve, but his second serve has traditionally been his most attackable weakness.  Mentally, he has not always exhibited the fortitude and consistency necessary to win against the best players.

In 2016, Murray has improved both his first serve and his second serve and implemented successful plans of attack against both of his major rivals.  During the Rome final against Djokovic, he managed to be the mentally and emotionally stronger combatant under very difficult and rainy conditions.

If Murray reaches a final against either Djokovic or Nadal, he can take some confidence from the fact that his most recent meeting with each on the clay courts this year was a win.

Murray has never in the past been considered a contender at Roland Garros, but as Stan Wawrinka demonstrated in 2015 (after losing in the first round of the 2014 French Open), history is irrelevant.

It is the best player on the day who wins.