Saturday, August 14, 2010

DECLINE AND FALL

A couple of months ago—when summer was starting—I prayed for an end to the Gulf oil-leak disaster. I reasoned that the daily gush of bad news it engendered was souring the national mood and preventing a return of some much-needed optimism.

Now the leak has been plugged, but the mood is no better. Alas, the hits to our pride just keep on coming.

Among the latest was relayed by the New York Times’ sports page last Sunday. The headline was innocuous enough--“New Strength Atop the PGA Tour”-- but the body of the story related how “international” players, meaning those from countries other than the U.S. of A, had won 17 of the first 34 tournaments on our leading golf circuit, an unprecedented number. It went on to note that “internationals” had captured two of the men’s sport’s first three majors, that 12 of the Tour’s top-30 players were Europeans against 10 Yanks, and that youth appeared to be on the side of the foreigners, portending future setbacks.

Ohmygosh, thought I. If we’ve lost golf, what’s left?

The news was especially bad because it signaled the end rather than the beginning of our surrender of the so-called “country club” sports to alien hordes. Middle-class America used to produce top-flight competitors galore in those polite activities, but, apparently, not so much any more. Arizona could pass a law to fix things—and probably will-- but it wouldn’t help. When, as the poet says, the center cannot hold, we’re in deep doo-doo.

Exhibit A in this regard is tennis, and has been for some time. Where Jimmy, John, Andre and Pete once ruled the men’s side of the sport, a Swiss (Roger Federererer) and a Spaniard (Rafael Nadal) now hold sway, with no end in sight to their reigns. Worse, no American was among the top 10 players in the latest ATP rankings for the first time since the measure was introduced 37 years ago. Andy Roddick was the top Yank at No. 11, and he’ll turn 28 in a couple of weeks, not a good thing in a young man’s game. Behind him are only Sam Querrey and John Isner, a couple of misplaced basketball players with little chance for “major” glory. The outlook isn’t brilliant.

Women’s tennis looks better, but only on the surface. The Williams sisters Venus and Serena (African-Americas and, thus, hardly typical country-club types) still are slugging it out successfully with the Olgas and Svetlanas in WTAland, but Venus turned 30 in June and Serena will be 29 next month, and age probably will mean the same thing to them that it does to Our Andy. Beyond Venus and Serena you have to drop all the way to No. 45 to find the next American in the rankings, and to No. 80 after that.

The best women golfers of this century’s first decade were Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. Now, mostly South Koreans lead the pack. In the early years of the Asian influx a proposal made the rounds that LPGA Tour players be required to speak at least some English. That was shouted down as un-PC and the Tour decided to join rather than fight the trend. Once the LPGA was a just-about all-American affair. Now, 12 of its 27 events are played outside the U.S., and that number grows annually.

The internationalization of men’s golf also has been in progress for some time, but until this year it’s been obscured by the sport’s recent domination by Tiger Woods. Alas again, the bimbo eruption that punctured Our Tiger’s cherished cocoon of control has meant that he no longer can sink his putz (oops, putts) like he used to, and “internationals” have moved quickest to fill the void he left. Maybe Tiger can get his mojo back, maybe not. Meantime, the likes of Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (June’s U.S. Open winner) and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (the British Open champ) are thriving.

There’s no mystery about what’s going on here. Tennis and golf require access to expensive facilities and instruction, tying them to the better-off economically. Talent being spread about equally around the globe (as I believe it is), success thus goes to the youngsters in that group who commit early and put in the hours on the practice courts or tees that almost no one thinks of as fun. Our middle-class kids, with their multiple-choice lives, aren’t willing to put aside their video games and Blackberries long enough to do that. Unless or until that changes, we’d better get used to hearing other national anthems played on the “country-club” victory stands.

1 comment:

Chloe said...

I can't comment on golf, but as a tennis fan I must say that I believe our recent loss of a top ten player in America has been blown way out of proportion. Roddick is still a force to be reckoned with. In fact, it just came out that Roddick has been diagnosed with a mild case of mono, which he has suffered from for the past couple of months. So, with that being the cause of his recent performance, I believe he still has some good years ahead of him. Of course I have to agree that Americans aren't dominating the way they used to but we can't discredit the upcoming talent either. Please don't disrespect Querry and Isner by suggesting that they made a mistake in choosing to play tennis over basketball. They have been playing great tennis and they both have the potential to make it into the top ten soon. You've made your point about our bout of inactive youth but these guys deserve to be left out of that conversation. We may not have a long list of stars but I haven't lost my faith in our American tennis players. I hope others will join me in supporting the tremendous talent that we do have.