Monday, April 11, 2016

Theater of the absurd: Gail Falkenberg, John McEnroe, and finding the fun in tennis

The tennis Twitterverse was a-tweet today with the highly unusual story of Gail Falkenberg, the 69-year-old woman who faced Taylor Townsend in the 2nd round of qualifying at the $25K ITF tournament in Pelham, Alabama. The fact that she was even out there competing was remarkable enough, but that it was a second round match -- that she had already won a match! -- made her story that much more compelling.

The Wall Street Journal's Tom Perrotta had a wonderful article that gave background and context to the remarkable scenes on Court 8 of the Pelham Racquet Club today. To no one's surprise, Falkenberg lost 6-0 6-0, but simply by playing she became something of a folk hero. (A lesser blogger would have called her a "falk hero." Be glad I am not a lesser blogger.)

Falkenberg's amazing adventure got me thinking back to Friday, and another example of an older tennis player who commands attention by his mere presence.

John McEnroe was the undisputed star of the PowerShares qqq Challenge, the first tournament of the 2016 PowerShares Series of "senior tennis" events, which took place in Chicago at the UIC Pavilion -- the site of his last ATP tournament title (and, amazingly, the same site at which a planned but aborted Donald Trump rally led to mayhem last month, but I don't want to go there in this post). From what I could tell, the crowd mostly consisted of weekend hackers, definitely fans of some version of the pro sport; while plenty of kids were there, the audience generally skewed a bit older me, the most vocal of whom were men who I'd wager grew up absolutely idolizing "Johnny Mac."

McEnroe knows his role on the senior circuit: give it his all, yes, but also  ham it up ... play to the crowd ... provide them their money's worth. He didn't need to utter his trademark phrase (I won't repeat it for you, although at least one person in the crowd did; it starts with "You" and ends with "serious" -- a word that most definitely did not describe the mood of the fans), or even get too mad at calls (a casualty of unlimited Hawkeye challenges). But even so, he made the event his own, on two occasions successfully challenging his own serve that his opponents, Mardy Fish and James Blake, failed to call out. He also took time to shake Mayor Rahm Emanuel's hand, and was increasingly dramatic with every out call he made.

(Who knows how much stock to put in the match results. Mardy Fish, who eight months ago gave up just four games to current Top 25 player Viktor Troicki, somehow couldn't win the set against a guy 23 years his senior. His backhand -- one of the most effortless strokes of any player who's come up in the past couple of decades -- was iffy and found the bottom of the net on a crucial point late in the contest? Okay, sure. Why not.)

Mark Knowles interviews John McEnroe
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise Blog
Blake ended up winning the whole thing, showing off some sweet groundies in his first match against Andre Agassi, a player who, while very successful and very popular and very charismatic, doesn't in 2016 quite grab the public's imagination as completely as McEnroe. Perhaps once Agassi graduated from the "rebel"/"Image is Everything" world, he no longer had a shtick that the general public -- and thus marketers -- could hold on to. Whereas McEnroe always has had a shtick. And boy has it worked for him.

Now it's age itself, more than surliness, that is the central element of McEnroe's shtick. He hobbled around the court seemingly more exaggeratedly than even his 57 years warrant. He complained pointedly in his interview after his first one-set match that he was already "running on fumes" prior to the final. But still he was out there, competing like mad, inspiring even the most jaded of us to believe that diminished skills in some areas don't mean you have to hang up your Nikes completely.

Which brings me back to Gail Falkenberg.

Falkenberg is a full 12 years older than McEnroe. She had already reached the "tennis retirement age" of 30 when McEnroe was exploding onto the scene as tennis' 18-year-old enfant terrible in 1977. She was never a highly ranked pro and she's not playing a senior circuit for money or attention. She's just plugging along, enjoying her time on the courts, playing this peculiar game. (Both she and McEnroe employ plenty of underspin on their shots, a tactic that nearly all of us who play will recognize as something of an equalizer that prevents younger players from overpowering older players.)

Falkenberg's own explosion into the public's imagination over the past 24 hours provided plenty of opportunity for snark (Tweeter's highest art form), for condescension over the state of women's tennis or her opponent's career struggles, for empty platitudes about age and dreams and not having limits and never giving up and yadda yadda yadda.

But mostly, it provided a welcome dose of absurdity to tennis.

We live in an absurd world. A world in which spectacle gets more eyeballs substance every time, in which it pays to be preposterous (see: West, Kanye), in which Donald Trump is the leading Republican candidate for president (oh look, I did go there). So ... absurdity can be bad. But it can also be good! I mean, absurdist humor has given us gems like 30 Rock and Steven Wright. Either way, to be absurd is to be fascinating -- and both Falkenberg's doomed match against Townsend and McEnroe's on-court antics (and still-remarkable shotmaking) fit that bill.

It's easy for tennis folk to get weighed down by the seriousness of it all. We root like hell for our favorites and are despondent when they lose. We fervently, and rightly, dissect the broader social issues involved with the sport. We see gambling and doping and other threats to professional tennis as threats to our ideals, to the very essence of right and wrong. It can all get a little heavy.

How nice is it then, whether in person on a snowy night in Chicago or virtually on a sunny afternoon in Alabama, to be able to share in the joy that is supposed to be at the heart of the sport, to remind each other not to take tennis -- or ourselves -- too seriously? To revel in the ridiculous, to applaud audacity, to marvel at the miraculous? To find the fun in the absurdity of it all.

Because let's face it: nothing in the world is more absurd than watching other people hit a ball over a net.

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