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.

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The Fatal Moment

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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.

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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.

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The Controversy

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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:

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“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.”

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

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The Aftermath

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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.”

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Justice?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Classics of the Genre

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

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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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.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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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.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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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).
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Director: Tay Garnett
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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.
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The Element of Chance

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

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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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.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“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)

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

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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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.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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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.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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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 —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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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.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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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.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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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.
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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 —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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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).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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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.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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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.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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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.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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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.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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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.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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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.
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How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Horizon

   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.

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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.

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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.

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Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reign in Spain: Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

The anomalously high altitude clay tennis tournament in Madrid came to a close on Sunday as Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title, garnering his record 29th Masters 1000 crown.

The first set was all Djokovic as the Serbian World #1 delivered nearly flawless tennis and demonstrated that at his best he can send a tennis ball from any stretched position to any location on the court.  In the second set, Murray dug in for a fight.  Raising his aggressive intensity, and taking advantage of a dip in his opponent’s form, Murray broke serve early and held on to win the set.

The final set was nervy and tight, with each player alternating between brilliance and sloppiness and momentum shifting repeatedly.  Djokovic broke serve first but relinquished his advantage a few games later.   By forcing Murray into a defensive mindset, Djokovic broke for a second time but nearly broke himself back as he served for the match.  The 5-3 game was riddled with Djokovic errors.  Murray had at least four chances to break.  I lost count of the number of deuces and wasted match points before Djokovic was finally able to put the match away.

The result of the final set was at least as much about Murray’s suffering a mental block as it was about Djokovic’s exhibiting superior prowess on the court.  Especially in light of the fact that Madrid’s high-altitude courts are faster than the courts in Paris, Djokovic’s tight three-set win is no guarantor of his eventual victory at the French Open.

Four quick lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Masters:

Watch out for Juan Martin del Potro.

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Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6″, 27-year-old gentle giant from Tandil, Argentina (affectionately known as the Tower of Tandil), has suffered some of the worst injury luck of any player on the tour.  Only months after overpowering Roger Federer in a five-set slugfest to win the 2009 US Open, del Potro suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and forced him to miss most of the 2010 season.  He returned to the tour in 2011, played well enough to win the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, and finished 2013 in the Top 5.  His hopes for additional Grand Slam titles were dashed in early 2014, when he suffered an injury to his other wrist that also required surgery.  Twice in 2014 and 2015 he rehabbed and resumed training only to discover additional wrist problems.  In all, del Potro’s four wrist surgeries have forced him to miss three years of what might otherwise have been his prime.

The Argentine, who is beloved by many fans for his sweet temper, rejoined his tour colleagues in February and played his first clay match since 2013 in Munich last month.

This week in Madrid, del Potro signaled that he could pose a dangerous threat at the French Open.  In a highly anticipated first-round match against rising star Dominic Thiem, del Potro pounded serves, blasted groundstrokes, wrested control of rallies, and overpowered one of year’s most successful clay courters convincingly.  Afterward, Del Potro shed tears of joy and relief.

The rest of the tour would be wise to take note.

Del Potro is unlikely to win the French Open.  His match fitness is not yet sufficient to carry him through seven rounds of best-of-five-set matches later this month in Paris.  However, he could play the role of spoiler.  Del Potro will not be seeded in Roland Garros, so he will be a “dangerous floater” in the draw.  He could meet anyone in the tournament’s first two rounds, when the top players are most vulnerable.  Based upon del Potro’s performance against Thiem, an early meeting between del Potro and a tournament favorite could alter the event’s course significantly.

 

Andy Murray is in excellent form.

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Britain’s Andy Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist, never much enjoyed playing on clay.  Having grown up on indoor hard courts in his native Scotland, and having stepped onto a clay court for the first time at age 15, Murray found movement on clay courts alien and uncomfortable and historically enjoyed his weakest results at clay events.

All this changed in 2015.  Murray won his first clay title at an April 250 event in Munich and followed that win with a victory at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid.

At the 2016 Madrid tournament, Murray again looked sharp.  With a beefed-up first serve and a much-improved second serve (traditionally his great weakness), Murray complemented his devastating defense and return game with impressive management of his own service.  He defeated Rafael Nadal in a cold, damp semifinal through dogged and aggressive play.  Although ultimately unable to overcome Novak Djokovic’s mental edge in the final, Murray played one of his strongest matches against Djokovic in years.

Murray has already reversed one important result in this clay court season by turning a defeat to Nadal in Monte Carlo into a win in Madrid.  His close loss to Djokovic this week could conceivably lead to a win in Paris.

Murray must be considered a contender, even if a long shot, for this year’s French Open, especially if he is able to advance through the draw without ever having to face Djokovic.

 

Novak Djokovic is a favorite, but not necessarily The Favorite, for the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic played much better in Madrid than he had played in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier.  Having had time to acclimate himself to clay and to rest from his grueling and victorious tear through the early-season hard court events, Djokovic demonstrated much-improved movement and ball-striking.

At times, he exhibited his robotically perfect best, returning every ball with power, precision, and devastating accuracy, dragging his opponents around the court, creating impossible angles, and dominating proceedings absolutely.  At other times, he displayed a mental vulnerability that has become increasingly commonplace for him in 2016.  He broke his own serve with a series of errors as he tried to serve out his semifinal match against Kei Nishikori.  He nearly repeated the feat in the final by gift-wrapping several break chances for Murray in the final game.

If Djokovic plays at his best in the crucial moments of his matches at Roland Garros, he will be nearly unbeatable.  However, if he allows his level to drop, as he did against Murray and at moments against Nishikori, he could be vulnerable to an upset.

 

Weather is a crucial factor on clay.

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Clay demands greater adaptability from tennis players than any other surface, because clay is the only surface on which play continues in the rain.  Grass courts are dangerously slippery in the rain.  Hard courts become ponds, and even in a drizzle a hard court’s painted lines become treacherous.  By contrast, clay courts can absorb water, allowing play to continue though a light shower.

When rain begins, though, clay tennis evolves in a matter of minutes into what is effectively a new sport.  Cooler temperatures and falling rain conspire to slow the ball’s transit through the air.  The balls grow heavy as they pick up water and wet clay.  The heavier balls refuse to take spin, reducing the effectiveness of top-spin shots and necessitating changes of strategy.  Players are required to hit harder while simultaneously recalibrating their shots for the new conditions.

In Madrid, the contrast between rainy clay and dry clay conditions was on display during the quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Joao Sousa, which was effectively two different matches.

During the first set, the sun shone through cloud cover.  Nadal controlled the rallies with his vicious top-spin, and Sousa generated a series of wild errors as he desperately tried to match his opponent’s power.  In less than 26 minutes, Nadal won the set 6-0.

Rain started during the second set.  The balls became heavy.  Nadal’s top-spin lost much of its bite.  Sousa’s flat bullet shots started landing in rather than out.  After playing to a draw for eight games, Sousa broke Nadal’s serve in the ninth game and took the set 6-4.

By the third set, the stadium’s roof had been closed for three games.  Although the rain no longer fell inside, the air was still cold, and the court and balls were still sodden.  Nadal continued to struggle for advantage until the balls were changed (according to the standard schedule) in the eighth game.  With, at long last, dry felt to deal with, Nadal was able to use his spin and power to advantage and break Sousa’s serve.  Nadal went on to win the set 6-3.

Whether the weather be wet or dry in Roland Garros this year will play a crucial role in determining the French Open champion.

 

This week the tour moves on to a Masters 1000 event in Rome, where the rainy weather is predicted to begin on Wednesday.

 

The French Open begins in two weeks.
Stay tuned.

 

Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis

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There is no safety net in tennis.

Each combatant stands on court entirely alone, without the support of teammates or coaches, often for hours at a time.  He or she must conquer court conditions, an opponent, and at times him- or herself without any outside help.

Tennis is perhaps the only sport in which a competitor can win more points than his opponent and still lose a match.  Thus, the mental game at least as important as the physical.  The key to a victory is winning what players call “the important points,” i.e., break points (which determine whether a player can win his or her opponent’s service game), set points (which give one player victory in a set), and match points.

A champion tennis player must be able to instantly forget what has transpired and must maintain a keen competitive intensity in order to capitalize on an opponent’s vulnerability.  In addition to talent, technique, and stamina, tennis requires patience, clarity of thought, problem-solving skills, strategic flexibility, and great mental fortitude.

Next weekend, the tennis world will crown its first Grand Slam champions of 2015 at the Australian Open in Melbourne.  One hundred twenty-eight men and an equal number of women entered the singles competitions on week ago.  As I write, 12 men and 12 women remain.

Tennis’ four yearly Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard courts, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard courts again) afford numerous examples of athletic virtuosity – a cornucopia of impossibly fast serves, brilliant defensive saves, and sublime winning shots.  YouTube abounds with “Gee whiz!” match highlights.

To me, the players’ mental ebbs and flows and the psychological contest intrinsic to each match are at least as interesting as the athletic endeavors.  One can learn a great deal from tennis about human nature and about character, especially in the high-stakes crucible of a Grand Slam, in which the men have to play best-of-five-set matches.

One of my favorite stories out of Melbourne this past week starred Feliciano Lopez, a 33-year-old Spanish left-hander with an old-school, serve-and-volley playing style.  Having played the best tennis of his career in 2014, Lopez entered the Australian Open with his highest-ever Grand Slam seed, 12.  This ensured that he would not meet a more highly-ranked player until the tournament’s fourth round.

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Danger struck Lopez in his first-round match.  He required five sets, and had to fight off three match points, to put down a spirited challenge from 21-year-old American Denis Kudla.

Two days later, Lopez took to the court for his second-round match on a hot and humid afternoon.  His hard-hitting opponent, 26-year-old Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, blasted winners left and right, bossing Lopez around the court, and won the first two sets 6-4 6-4.

Lopez soon found himself down two breaks of serve in the third set.  Only minutes away from elimination from the tournament, Lopez dug in and refused to concede.  He broke Mannarino’s serve twice to force the contest back onto even terms.

When Lopez served at 3-4, Mannarino broke him and served for the set (and the match) at 5-3.  With his back to the wall, Lopez dug in again and managed to break Mannarino’s serve and keep his chances alive.  Both players held serve until they reached a tiebreak at 6-6.  Quickly, Lopez found himself in trouble, dropping his first service point and falling to a 0-3 deficit in the tiebreak.  Lopez refused to go quietly.  He fought and scraped, making up the deficit, taking a lead, and finally prevailing in the tiebreak to win the third set after fighting off a match point.

In the fourth set, Mannarino began to show signs of incipient heatstroke.  Lopez broke Mannarino’s service twice and raced to a 4-0 lead, at which point Mannarino collapsed onto the pavement.  Mannarino had to be transported to a hospital, where he received intravenous fluids.  Lopez was awarded the win by default.

Lopez could have conceded the match.  He could have said to himself, “It’s hot. My opponent is playing well.  Even if I win the third set, I will have to win two more to take the match. Why not give in?”  Instead, he refused to go away and thereby won a battle of attrition.  As I write, Lopez is still alive in the competition as the oldest player in the men’s final 16.  (He is also the only man still alive in both the singles and the doubles tournaments.)

As Winston Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”

The tale of sportsmanship and valor about which the most ink was spilt last week unfolded on the night before Lopez’s heroic stand.  That story featured Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal and American journeyman Tim Smyczek in the lead parts and the heat that would ultimately fell Mannarino in a pivotal supporting role.

Tied for second on the men’s all-time Grand Slam title list with 14 and owner of an unsurpassable record of excellence on clay courts, Nadal arrived at Melbourne in a questionable state of fitness.  After winning a record ninth French Open title last June, Nadal had suffered a freak wrist injury that kept him out of the North American summer tournaments and the U.S. Open.  When he returned to competition in China in October, he was almost immediately stricken with appendicitis, which effectively ended his season.  An aggressive course of antibiotics enabled him to avoid surgery far from home but forced him to delay his appendectomy for four weeks until early November.  He was unable to begin off-season training until the first week of December.

Injury- and pain-free but rusty and lacking match play, Nadal lost his first and only singles match of the year before arriving in Melbourne.  While practicing hard in the week before the Australian Open, Nadal told anyone who asked him that he did not feel ready to contend for the title and badly needed match wins.  A favorable draw in the first round gave Nadal a veteran opponent whose game he knows very well, which enabled him to chalk up a win.  In the second round, he was to face 27-year-old American Tim Smyczek, whom he had never played before, in a night match on Melbourne’s premier court, the Rod Laver Arena.

Smyczek is a 5’9″ native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Currently ranked 112 in the world, he was forced to enter a qualifying tournament in order to gain entrance into the main draw.  Smyczek won his three qualifying matches and then, having drawn an Australian Wildcard, prevailed in his first-round match in straight sets. Smyczek had never played in the vast Rod Laver Arena (or, for that matter, on the main court at any of the Grand Slam sites).  The tournament gave him a practice hour in the stadium to enable him to get used to its sight-lines and cavernous space.

At 7 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Nadal and Smyczek walked onto the court in front of a lively evening crowd.  After a week of moderate weather, heat and humidity had arrived suddenly on Wednesday and persisted into the evening.

The first set went according to script for the former World #1 and the newcomer.  Nadal controlled the points with his thundering forehand and blistered winners around the court, taking the set quickly and easily.

During the second set, Nadal began suffering from the heat.  He became nauseated.  His head and his stomach ached.  Unable to tolerate the foods and replenishment drinks he uses during a match, he resorted to drinking plain water.  His electrolytes became seriously depleted.  Dizzy and afraid that he might fall over, Nadal became concerned that he might have to default out of the match.

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Before he could default, though, Nadal appeared to be on course for a loss.  Smyczek played brilliant ball, sticking to a well-thought-out game plan, and took the second set.  When Nadal became too dizzy to successfully serve out the third set, Smyczek pressed his advantage to take a two-sets-to-one lead.  Nadal began to fear that he might find himself on the next flight home to Spain.

Displaying courage and determination for which he has been renowned throughout his career, Nadal found a way to win the fourth set.  Grimacing after shots and bending over between points, he broke Smyczek’s serve and managed to hold onto his own, pushing the match to a fifth set.

At two sets all, Nadal was not out of the woods.  Smyczek did not waver.  For nearly an hour more, the two men remained locked in nervy, fifth-set combat, staying on serve until Nadal finally broke Smyczek to go up 6-5 and give himself a chance to serve for the match.

While serving at 6-5, Nadal won the first two points with a powerful one-two-punch winner and a successful serve-and-volley play.  He lined up for the third point and tossed up the ball for his serve.  In that instant, a man in the crowd let out an horrific yell.  Nadal missed his serve badly.  As the crowd loudly booed the disruption, Nadal stood for an exasperated moment before returning to the line to attempt his second serve.

What happened next is highly unusual in the increasingly cut-throat world of tennis and will stand for years to come as an inspiring example to all players.

With a signal to the chair umpire and to Nadal, Smyczek said, “Go ahead and take another first serve.”

Smyczek was under no obligation to do this.  Down 5-6 late in a fifth set to an ailing opponent, he could within the rules have accepted the fan’s interference as a lucky break and attacked Nadal’s typically weaker second serve.

As Smyczek explained later, “[The yell] clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.”

 

Nadal gratefully took the extra first serve and won the point.  Five points later he won the match.  He collapsed to the court in relief, celebrating his victory over physical suffering as he might have done if he had won a title instead of a second-round match.

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Nadal’s first words in his post-match interview on the court and in his post-match press conference were salutes to Smyczek’s outstanding sportsmanship.  Tennis players, fans, agents, publicists, coaches, and commentators echoed Nadal’s sentiments in a deluge of praise for Smyczek from literally all over the world.  In an instant, Smyczek became a hero in the world of tennis simply for doing the right thing.

As Nadal later told the press, “[Such good sportsmanship] should not be surprising, but is [a] surprise. That’s not [a] positive thing. But [what Smyczek did] is good. Is great. Is very difficult to [concede that serve] and he did.”

Tennis has historically been implicitly governed by an honor system.  Players are supposed to call themselves for infractions such as being hit by the ball, touching the net before the point has ended, or reaching across the net to hit the ball.

Unfortunately, recent years have seen the rise of a win-at-all-costs mentality.  Players fail to report being hit by a ball (the now-retired Chilean Fernando Gonzalez); fail to report touching the net (Canada’s Milos Raonic); reach across the net to hit winners (Serbia’s Novak Djokovic); and not infrequently take advantage of chair umpires’ mistakes to help their own causes.  The worst offenders among today’s players yell at their coaches when matches aren’t going their way, scream so loudly when they hit the ball that they impede their opponents’ shots, take long bathroom breaks between sets to disrupt their opponents’ momentum, and (with the exception of Nadal, who has never broken a racquet) smash their racquets in frustration.

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Tim Smyczek did none of this.  On the largest stage of his career, he played the best tennis of his life.  He served big.  He peppered the court with winners.  When his opponent started to flag, he kept his focus and stuck to his game plan.  Even when the match wasn’t going his way, he never yelled.  He never glared at his coach.  He never smashed a racquet or showed any frustration.  He kept his celebrations modest and was gracious in defeat.  A consummate professional through all five sets, he topped off his performance with the most gracious act of sportsmanship tennis has seen in years.

A few weeks from now, Smyczek will return to competition in low-profile, minor league tournaments, the traditional province of players ranked near 100.  His tennis will take place primarily outside the spotlight for the rest of the year, but his behavior in that split-second in Australia will live on in the sport’s memory.

Tim Smyczek is the only professional tennis player from Wisconsin.  As a Wisconsinite, I am proud to have him representing my country and my state.

Quote for Today

“That was really special tonight. It was pretty clear Rafa didn’t have his best stuff. But it just shows the kind of player, the kind of champion he is because, you know, he was sick and not playing well. That was his C or D game. He found a way to win. So hats off to him. That’s why he’s one of the best.” – Tim Smyczek

Beware the Self-Anointed Saint!

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Beware the self-anointed saint, be he a global icon (such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer or Dr. Tom Dooley) acclaimed and venerated for his charitable works or a relatively unknown local figure who “lives to serve others.”

Whenever I hear of accolades heaped upon a so-called exemplar of “public service,” what I always want to know is this: how does he treat his family and the people close to him?

Although a public figure’s private behavior is usually obscured from public view, it is the private acts that define the person’s character.

Some of history’s most prominent public benefactors – Theodore Roosevelt leaps to mind – have been driven by personal demons to make grandiose compensatory public gestures at the expense of those to whom they owe primary responsibility.  The brilliant German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) illuminated this phenomenon in his Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a groundbreaking essay in which he asserted that some men with genius-level intelligence feel socially isolated and compelled or obliged, as “natural superiors,” to work for the improvement of society.

If a person generally regarded as a walking saint is unkind to his wife or neglects his children, his public “good deeds,” such as they may be, not only pale into insignificance but also, by contrast with his private failings, become grotesque parodies of true goodness.

One notable recent example of the self-anointed saint was an American physician who, having already donated his right kidney, sought publically to donate his left.

So far as I know, his family’s understandable outrage ultimately prevented him from sacrificing their well-being as well as his life.  (Reductio ad absurdum.)

As I mentioned in my recent essay ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility,’ contemporary Western culture assigns charity toward strangers greater importance than it accords the proper treatment of one’s own family.  One can see this in the relatively new community-service requirements high school students must satisfy in order to qualify for honor societies.  Such requirements penalize good students who have family obligations – whether for the care of relatives or for contributions to work in a family farm or business – and explicitly reward students who neglect their families in favor of strangers.

I think it would be better to give young people a timeless, empowering, and socially constructive message: take care of yourself and your family first.

Charity begins at home.

 

Quotes for Today

“But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves?” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642

“No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourself!” – Aldo Vanucci (Peter Sellers) in After the Fox

 

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was “Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘ The third was “Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought.”