Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Sport That Doesn't Matter Anymore

Every year around this time, I find myself remem-bering my childhood sports consum-ption... and, well, Wimbledon.

When I was growing up, this mattered. It was unique, in that it was the only sporting event that ever came on in the morning, thanks to the time zone change from the UK. It had real characters, in John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg, Roscoe Tanner, Ilie Nastase... and that was just the men's game. The women were also totally watchable (though I didn't quite get into that Evert-Navratilova rivalry), and even the doubles matches were interesting, because the stars would show up in that, too, and when were you ever going to see doubles?

So you'd get up early and make yourself something special, since the Brits were loading up on strawberries and cream and God knows what else. And you honestly cared who won or lost, since there were Americans battling foreigners... and sometimes the foreigners were who you rooted for, since Connors and McEnroe could be downright hard to take. Until, of course, you watched them play, and all of that WWE stuff was played up. There's a reason why Star Trek named its villain the Borg; Bjorn's play was simply that mechanical, that errorless, that inhuman.

Every year, I'd watch Wimbledon and wonder why I didn't watch more tennis. I mean, the drama was that good, and since tennis is a game without teammates or obvious strategy, it can be some of the most compelling action you can watch. Just like boxing, really, only in an arena where you don't have to feel too bad about the participants having brain damage.

And sure, things stayed somewhat interesting later with Andre Agassi and Michael Chang and Pete Sampras, I suppose... but every year, what made this interesting became less and less important. Sports in the morning stopped being important, because we could get sports anytime, even if they were just highlights of last night's West Coast games. The NFL became more and more important, to the point where training camp actually got important. Fantasy leagues made baseball useful to more than the fans of good teams. The Internet gave us all other things to look at. And every year, the tennis got less and less interesting.

The players stopped seeming like WWE performers, for good or ill; there's never been another McEnroe. They also stopped playing differently. You used to see serve and volley guys against net players, guys with big serves against players who were better at returns, and so on, and so on.

Now, thanks to the technology -- that plus year-round training and conditioning -- there are no more net guys, or long points, or high drama. Instead, it's a tank battle, and so long as your tank hits its serves, it wins. So what's the point in watching, really?

I'm also not sure there's anything that can be done about it. Had this been NASCAR with restricting plates, maybe they could have kept the toothpaste in the tube... but they didn't, and after decades of slow erosion, they have no idea to do anything else. They can't make the area any bigger, they won't make the rackets less responsive, and there's no way to have the players lose strength.

So why does anyone still watch this game, really?

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