Open University

Of Tennis And Reality


These posts began with the 2006 US Open and here it is the day of the 2007 US Open women's final. This year, the exciting matches were few in number. The chief new tennis star is the charmingly theatrical young Serb, Novak Djokovic. Last year, I dismissed too readily another charming Serb, Jelena Jankovic, who one year will vault the Henin wall as Djokovic will the even taller one called Federer.

It is a by-play of the power of the purse that every few years another country, large or small, will gush with tennis talent. Once or twice the gush is in a family's backyard, that of the Bulgarian Maleeva sisters or the more famous one of Richard and Oracene Williams and their now super-duper star offspring, Venus and Serena. (It is stardom which often leads them to failure on the court.)

Tennis is so clear about triumph and defeat, fine and poor play, luck and its opposite that the non-tennis world looks careless, clumsy, brutal and lethal, if not insane, but in this last post I want to vent spleen on the debris of error falling out of the larger world, the world which human technical ingenuity has constructed to bring ease and security to such burghers as myself. The errors here annoy, enrage and preoccupy us to the exclusion of facing, if not solving, those greater, weightier problems of which we know largely through newspaper and television. Half of these arise in the damaged souls of our fellow human beings, the other half through 'nature,' that 'God' who in the aftermath of volcanos, tsunamis, forest fires and hurricanes is thanked by trembling survivors as they stare at the ash pile that was their home, their neighborhood, their town.

But onto the troubles of trivia.

In the last week, I have spent hours on the phone dealing with entities which exist to ease my life, the phone company, a home security service, a brokerage, and the corporations which install and service our cable television, our air conditioning and our clothes drier. All these have in a harmony of disharmony, a contagion of error, a tsunami of stupidity failed us, either through billing or executive errors. Some of these are related to our return to a household after a 3 month absence, although I thought that I'd carefully alerted one and all to the return.

My phone manner has degenerated from patience, politeness, and gratitude to rage and threat. My internal lipid count has risen, my soul has shown itself to be weaker, stupider, and more vicious than even I suspected. I am indeed just the sort of selfish, self-aggrandizing person revolutionaries would love to exterminate. Indeed, in an occasional moment not darkened by frustration and rage, I see myself as the sort of person who, elevated to some position of power, could translate such annoyances into the policies over which another part of me rages as I read the paper or watch the news.

Two days ago, we'd run into another sort of worldly clot: after an overnight in Spring Green, Wisconsin (where, incidentally, its pride, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, was difficult to find), we drove back on the fine toll road, I-90, only to be ensnared in a massive gridlock caused by our beloved city's installation of a toll booth, near O'Hare airport. Decades ago, Cortazar, the Argentinian writer, depicted hell as an automobile gridlock. What prescience.

Home, I read my friend Alan Krueger's new book, What Makes a Terrorist, which demonstrates that the terrorist is a middle class, reasonably well-educated person such as I. It also discusses the twisted statistics in a State Department assessment of terrorist activity which he had earlier discovered. (This discovery led to a Colin Powell retraction but not to the formation of a statistical entity in the
Department.) Then I read a few stories by my old friend Jean Justice. These deal with the often subtle misunderstandings and misappraisals which darken the life of her small town protagonists. "It is," I think, "all of a piece."

When Roger Federer slams a forehand winner or Justine Henin aces her opponent, the consequences are clear, defined, limited and absolute. Now and then, the "better player" is outplayed and loses, but usually, the tennis world is one in which excellence is rewarded and errors are immediately punished.

If one is very patient, careful, hard-working and lucky, such results appear in some of one's own domestic and business life. If one is lucky enough to live in a country run largely on such rational principles as checks and balances, there is probably a preponderance of good national fortune.

Of course, every life ends in a kind of tragedy, every country eventually withers away, every triumph loses its glory, but if one builds this sense of ultimate failure into one's expectations, it should ease the pains and largely derivative horrors which compose even the most fortunate burgher lives. Or so I ease myself as I wait to watch the woman's final on my new flat screen, high definition television set.

--Richard Stern

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