Tuesday March 2nd, 2010

For a sport founded on upper-class convention, replete with 19th-century Londoners leaping across pristine lawns in long white pants, tennis has been molded by rogues, eccentrics and non-conformists. Its history would be as stodgy as four o'clock tea without its relentless plunges into the improbable. If you see a bleak immediate future for American tennis, I'd suggest a measure of patience. The next miracle cannot be too far away.

As much as we all enjoy the sight of pure, fundamental coaching in a stress-free environment, a remarkable number of great players chose their own, singular path, crafting stories from the realm of fantasy. Without such radical departure, they would have dropped off the map -- or, at best, become part of the dullish mainstream. Miracles, I tell you. They are the essence of the tennis and its popularity. Refreshingly, they tend to be based on vital human qualities:

Toughness: Pancho Gonzalez, perhaps the most talented man ever to pick up a racket, should have cut a rip-roaring swath through Southern California in his youth. He was strikingly handsome, a pillar of panache, and probably would have excelled at any sport. But this was pre-World War II America; as a member of a low-rent Mexican community, and something of a troublemaker in school, Gonzalez enjoyed no such rewards. Banned from junior tournaments, scorned by the L.A. tennis establishment, he grew into his game -- and his tempestuous personality -- way out on the perimeter. By the time he'd reached adulthood, quite prepared to dismantle any player in the world, he could no longer be denied.

Integrity: There was no acceptable tennis outlet for Arthur Ashe during his 1950s upbringing in Richmond, Va. He wasn't allowed to play in local junior tournaments, and he felt the sting of blatant racism at every turn. Ashe had to move to St. Louis to finish high school, and he became a champion on the strength of his will power, his dedication and his tolerance in the face of injustice. There was something almost ethereal to Ashe's sense of calm, and it proved a most formidable instrument of change. In the long history of the game, there hasn't been another person even remotely like him.

Dogged faith: Jimmy Evert was a teaching professional in the tennis paradise of Florida, and he figured it was just a matter of time before Chrissie, his oldest daughter, took her left hand off the racket and played like all the other boys and girls of her time. But Chrissie, somewhat frail as a kid, liked the feel of the two-handed backhand. She wasn't the first to use it, but she felt born to the task. Traditionalists recoiled at the sight of this rather stiff-looking shot, until they witnessed the convergence of its bullet-like efficiency with her unflappable nerve. Tennis hasn't been quite the same since then.

Defiance: Jimmy Connors was raised and taught by two women, his mother and grandmother, who narrowed the meaning of life into a simple tenet: us against the world. Or to put it more bluntly, "Get the hell out of our way." Jimmy didn't so much play tennis as he attacked it, much as he approached life in general. He stormed through the junior circuit on his own terms, made absolute magic out of a rather crude-looking style, and arrived on tour as an absolute original, impossible to ignore. Viewed in silhouette, at any stage of his career, his style was instantly identifiable. Could only be Connors.

Courage: There was always something different about Martina Navratilova, right from the time she forged a serve-and-volley mentality while learning the game on clay. She was put on this earth to face titanic obstacles and to crush them, one by one. A lesser woman would have stayed in Czechoslovakia, doomed to stress and humility. Martina defected, turned her pudgy frame into steel, championed her homosexuality, defused untold critics with her talent, resolve and good humor. And she was so skilled as an athlete, coaches didn't bother teaching young players to imitate her. The bar had been set too high.

Foresight: Pete Sampras was just another kid slugging two-handed backhands, pegged for mediocrity on the Southern California circuit, when coach Pete Fischer intervened. Fischer was a student of tennis history, an admirer of the Australians and particularly the elegant backhands of Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and so many more. Dramatically switching to one hand, Sampras embraced not just the style, but the calm and classy demeanor of those great champions. And he wound up winning more majors than any of them.

Ingenuity: Rafael Nadal is right-handed. He grew up that way, doing right-handed things and hitting two-handed off both wings. That's no way to take over a sport. That's Jan-Michael Gambill, for heaven's sake. It was Rafa's uncle, Toni, who turned the kid's forehand into a one-handed, lefty shot, channeling the strength of his right side into a massive two-handed backhand. Add some nutty pants, a package of odd superstitions and the desire to play every single point to the death, even in practice, and you get yet another brand of tennis we haven't quite seen before.

Imagination: If you're a girl growing up to play like Chris Evert, you're almost doomed to become a crashing bore -- sort of like everyone coming out of Russia these days. Evonne Goolagong grew up in sheep country, the wilds of New South Wales, among a family unfamiliar with tennis. She was 13 before she got any coaching in Australia, and by then there was no harnessing a graceful, instinctive athlete with a soaring spirit. She was often at her best (winning two major finals) against Evert, and on the strength of sheer aesthetics, she drew countless fans into the sport.

Vision: Perhaps you're not sold on these stories as miracles. Maybe you're unimpressed that Roger Federer's utter perfection emerged from the obscurity of Switzerland, or that by the end of 2007, three Top 10 players -- Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic -- had grown up in war-torn Serbia. But the Williams sisters? Out of the ghetto and into world domination of a lily-white sport? Because their father envisioned it exactly that way, before Venus and Serena were even born? Tennis has a way of linking royalty with the unconventional, and it seems to happen with regularity. Just often enough to keep the faith.

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