January 24, 2008

GSTAAD—I’ve been watching the Australian tennis open on the telly and boring myself to sleep. The modern game is too one-dimensional, the players too predictable. The pumping of the fist after a winner is now de rigueur, as is the tapping of the ball five, 10, in the case of Nadal, 16 times before serving. And the rallies are much too long.  The only relief from the utter boredom is Ana Ivanovic, probably the prettiest young woman ever to play on the circuit. She has beautiful green hooded eyes, high Slavic cheekbones, and a figure which is feminine and to die for. Long before my time, Gussie Moran was the reigning queen of looks—I used to practice with her after she had retired—and although Gussie was a sexpot, she had nothing on the Serbian siren. When I was competing during the mid-’50s and early ’60s the women players were not lookers, except the two Budding sisters from Germany, Edda and Ilse, but both preferred top ranked players rather than lowly old me. The one lady I had my eye on was Margaret Osborn Dupont, a great doubles player and Wimbledon doubles champion many times, but she told me I was much too young for her and “certainly much too wild.” Now that I finally found my dream female tennis player, I have as much chance of landing her as a Brit has of winning a grand slam.

Which is not to rub it in, but if Andy Murray had less adviser-hangers-on, he might make it through a round or two. I write this on Sunday, one week before the final, but I feel there might be some surprises on the way. (Ana could make it to the final). The Serbs, of course, are my favorites, because their game developed while the brave war hero Bill Clinton was bombing the hell out of their small country. Ivanovic was hitting against the sides of an empty swimming pool; now she’s the fourth seed and finalist in Roland Garros last year. Adversity breeds toughness, so if Britain wants sporting heroes, she should declare war on Uncle Sam.

And speaking of winners, my prediction is that 10 years down the road the top four English football teams will have only black and Latin players. Such is the greed of, say, Chelsea, that their coach Avram Grant is loudly complaining about the timing of the African Cup because it deprives Chelsea of some of its best players while they compete for their home countries. This is amazing cheek. It would have been amazing even back in the good old days of imperialism. Why should Africa change its schedule in order to suit a Russian oligarch who, at least in my book, deserves to be behind bars, not in the owner’s box. 

Mind you, sport sure ain’t what it used to be. Watching professional footballers who make millions and in their leisure time get drunk and beat up weaker souls is enough of a turn off. In America, NBA basketball players are infamous for breeding children out of wedlock and beating up on those who conceive them. An American football super star has had nine children with nine different women, most of whom are suing him for child support, but when the African American puts on his helmet and runs onto the pitch, the mostly white stadium goes bananas. Give me the Bobbies, Charlton, and Moore any day. Or Yaroslav Drobny, Budge Patty and Vic Seixas, Harrison Dillard, Mel Patton and Mal Whitfield, and my favourite, Bob Mathias. All strange names to you youngsters, I’m sure, but great champions in their time. Radix omnium malorum est amor pecuniae, or something like that, meaning the love of money is the root of you know what.

When I was playing tennis, busybodies were complaining about pseudo-amateurism. Roy Emerson, winner of 12 grand slams, and a wonderful man to boot, used to get no more than a thousand dollars for a very rich tournament like Hamburg; $500 was more like it for a week’s play before tie breaks were invented and without chairs or umbrellas on the court. I got 50 bucks one time at the Volpi Cup in Venice, plus hospitality, and I apologized to Marquis Cavriani after losing a close match for having taken money under false pretences. Cavriani ran the Italian Championships and was a gent. He also liked gents and had taken a shine to me. He somehow always found a place in the draw for me. After my inevitable loss, he would sigh and say, “next year I’m sure you will play better.” The French also liked me, as did the Belgians. The worst were the English, who would dig up the most embarrassing of losses and throw it in my face when I complained about having to qualify at Wimbledon.

Of course those were the days. Players actually liked each other and traveled together, stayed in the same hotels, played poker, and chased women, not that the players back then were as obsessed as I was with the fairer sex. They married young, which inevitably found me alone in some bar looking for women while my fellow players were resting in the arms of their loved ones. No wonder I never made it. (The most unpleasant couple, a brother and sister team, were Cliff and Nancy Richie from Texas, both ranked number one in the States. The only time I went to bed early and tried like hell was playing Richie in the French, in doubles. My Greek partner and I took the first two sets but lost 7-5 in the 5th. The court was jammed with players rooting for me—something not done, but such was Richie’s unpopularity. But it was not to be.)  Oh, if only Ana had been born 50 years earlier, I would be training and traveling with her to Baden-Baden, Venice, Rome, Paris, even London, going to bed immediately after practice and being oh so happy and content. Perhaps in the next life.


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