Monthly Archives: September 2011

U.S. Open Tennis Absent Americans

I have not watched professional tennis on a regular basis for twenty years. It’s not coincidental that this time frame coincides with Jimmy Connors run to the semi-finals at the U.S. Open in 1991.  The retirement of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras also contributed to my lack of interest.  I have watched the William’s sisters over the years, but that’s been about the extent of my involvement.  No doubt about, if there’s not an American involved in the run to a major championship, I do not pay much attention to tennis.

That is my loss according to L. Jon Wertheim  in a recent Sports Illustrated article where he made the case that the game, at least on the men’s side, has never been stronger at the top.  The three top ranked players Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the eventual winner of this year’s Open, Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland have played great matches against one another throughout 2011.  And it’s just not 2011 that these men have taken turns dominating.  They have won 25 of the last 26 major championships, the rest of the men’s field fighting for the scraps.

On the women’s side, with Serena and Venus Williams limiting their play to the four majors and the prep tournaments preceding them, the opportunity for others to win is more likely.  That creates its own issues, however, as U.S. sport fans tend to like dominant players, the ongoing drama of whether that individual will be able to fight off worthy challengers creating interest, a king of the hill storyline. Golf ratings, for example, were never higher than when Tiger Woods was at his peak or when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player dominated in the 1960’s. Similarly, the Dale Earnhardt versus Jeff Gordon rivalry in the 1990’s helped fuel the rise of NASCAR.

Wortheim argues that whether on the men’s or women’s side of the draw, the game of tennis has never been played at a higher level. The speed, shot making, and athleticism better than ever.  Yet, interest in tennis in America, particularly on the men’s side, has been low.

Why?

Lack of an American star.

The Williams sisters have stanched the defections on the women’s side to a certain degree, but since they rarely play, they are no longer ranked in the top 10 and thus not on the radar for weeks at a time, the queen of the hill story line unsustainable. With the retirements of Sampras and Agassi, there has not been an American male tennis player to rise to the top.

In fact, the last U.S. Open final to garner more than a 3.0 share of the television audience occurred in 2002 when, you guessed it, Sampras and Venus Williams won.  Viewership has dropped since. This year’s finals averaged a 2.6 share up 18% from 2010, but that is a far cry from 1980 to 1982, when finals involving Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe garnered shares averaging 5.5.  Of course, much has changed in the world since 1982.  There are many more entertainment choices competing for a diverse public’s attention. Add to the mix a dearth of top ten U.S. players and you have a recipe for sliding ratings.

Critics suggest that U.S. tennis is not producing champions at the rate of prior eras because the United States Tennis Association spends too much money on administrative salaries and not enough on player development. It’s a charge of cronyism that seems endemic in U.S. institutions across the board these days, whether we are talking private or public sector.  The original intent and focus of organizations getting lost for the sake of power grabs and money.  Make no mistake, the USTA made a boatload of money at the Open this fall, an estimated gross of $25o million dollars.  Yet despite all the big bucks, the U.S. has one player on either side of the draw ranked in the top ten, Mardy Fish at number seven.

About sixty years ago, Gloria Connors, pregnant with Jimmy, personally cut and cleared the land behind her East St. Louis home to build a tennis court. They were not members of the country club set, but along with her mother, Bertha Thompson, Gloria worked with Jimmy until he became the number one tennis player in the world.  The “Brash Basher from Belleville” won 109 tournaments world-wide and 8 majors, including 5 U.S. Opens.  Two middle-class women, one hardworking boy.  Similarly, Richard Williams, born poor in segregated Louisiana and later working menial jobs in Compton, California, along with this wife, Oracene, helped Venus and Serena become champions.

Gloria Connors and Richard Williams are in many people’s minds classic stage parents, pushy and arrogant, focused only on their children’s success and living their dreams through their kids.  Maybe true, maybe not.  What is true, however, is they and their children proved you do not have to have access to gobs of money or a ton of external support to succeed.

Perhaps like so many institutions these days, the USTA has lost its way and is squandering millions while not focusing enough on player development. Even if true, there is more support today for promising players than when Gloria Connors chopped those weeds or when a poor African-American family began its ascent to the top of a predominantly wealthy, Anglo sport.

It’s easy to blame faceless institutions  and nameless “others” for our failures. Certainly, institutions bear responsibility for many of the challenges our country faces.  Many are a mess. But let’s not forget it’s individuals who make up these institutions, who choose not to change course and to “go along to get along.” If it’s a given that  Americans will not watch tennis in great numbers until we have U.S. players in the mix (and I believe that to be true, see World Cup soccer, Olympic figure skating, and the Tour de France as examples of our fickleness) the question is, why are we not producing those players? Are we going to argue that countries like Serbia, Spain and Switzerland do not suffer from dysfunctional institutions?

The reasons this country is not producing top flight tennis players, among other things, are surely numerous.  It could be the last decade is an aberration.  But unless individual Americans continue to be willing to chop weeds and dare to dream big dreams like envisioning two poor, black sisters becoming world champions, I suspect tennis, and many other things, will be absent Americans.

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Filed under Institutions, Jimmy Connors, Richard Williams, September 2011, Serena Williams, Sports Illustrated Articles, Tennis, U.S. Open Tennis, Venus Williams

Everything Old is New with the Orange and Blue

When  I was a kid in the early 70’s my folks would pile the family into our speed boat length Plymouth station wagon, with a rear facing back seat, a couple Saturdays each fall and drive from Bloomington-Normal to Champaign to see an Illinois football game.  We caravanned with a couple other families. Often we swung by my oldest brother’s fraternity house so he could join us.  I remember walking up the steps of the frat with my mom, dad and brother so the folks could check out his room.  As he approached each floor my brother hollered a warning to guys who might be walking to the showers:  “Female on second floor…female on third floor…”

Sometimes we ate buffet style at a family operated restaurant not far from Memorial Stadium.  Other times, we’d tailgate in the stadium parking lot, a spread of cold cuts, crackers, cheese, fruit, and vegetables with brownies for dessert laid out on a card table. My folks and their friends had a few adult beverages, the men carrying leather cases containing high ball glasses and steel mixers, Martinis and  Manhattans a favorite of the WWII generation. Most of the men smoked, flicking grey ash on the concrete, stubbing the cigarettes out with the toe of their shoes. The kids drank Coca Cola and tossed a football, pretending to be Mike Wells, the all-star quarterback for the Illini.

Wells, who my brother played high school basketball with, was the then designated savior of Illinois football. From an athletic perspective, Wells was super human.  Six-foot five, two hundred twenty-five pounds, he was a three sport star in high school. The San Diego Padres offered him a hefty bonus to sign as a pitcher.  Wells threw ropes on the football field, the spiral tight, the ball zinging past defenders.  When he turned up field to run, his long legs gobbled up yards.  Bigger than many of the linebackers and secondary backs of that era, Wells did not go down easy once caught.  He was also an accomplished punter and placekicker.  Wells kicked off using the old straight legged method, rocketing the ball high and deep into the far end zone.  All the major colleges recruited him, including the new coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler. My dad, who Wells asked to sit in on a breakfast meeting with Schembechler at the local Holiday Inn, was impressed with the Michigan coach and hoped Wells would play for the maize and blue. Treasonous talk in Illini country, but my dad, a pragmatic man, when asked his opinion (and, let’s be honest, when not asked) spoke the truth as he saw it. But Wells chose Illinois.  While a great player for the Illini and drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings where he played backup to Fran Tarkenton, Wells could not resurrect the Illinois program.

In fairness to Wells, since Red Grange galloped off campus in the 1920’s, the Illinois football “tradition” has been spotty. Not that there have not been good teams and players.  The Ray Eliot squads of the mid-forties, with a national championship in ’51, Dick Butkus leading the Rose Bowl champs in ’63, Mike White’s run in the 1980’s, seven bowl appearances in the ’90’s, the Sugar Bowl in 2002 and the Rose in 2008.  But in my almost fifty years on earth, the Illini have never been consistently good, unable to build a nationally recognized program on a par with midwestern rivals like Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame.

Yet, for Illini fans, hope springs eternal. There is no Mike Wells at Illinois right now, but sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is talented. The Missouri Player of the Year in high school, Scheelhaase runs a 4.5 forty and throws a good ball.  So it was that yesterday, compelled by tradition and the chance to spend a beautiful fall day on an energized campus, I drove over to see the Illini face off with nationally ranked Arizona State.  These are games that Illinois traditionally loses, the 2001 team the last to beat a ranked non-conference opponent.  My kids are attending other colleges and my wife, Yolanda, a Texan used to supporting winning teams is not interested in the mediocre Illini, so I tailgated with a good friend, grilling fajitas and homemade tortillas.  Some kids next to us tossed a football around while we tossed back a few brews.  Some ASU supporters, sporting gold and red shirts, were nearby and we talked to them about everything but football, the game to settle that debate.  Later we hooked up with friends from high school and my younger sister, before taking our seats, a typical tailgating game day not much different from when I was a kid.

But then, an unexpected thing happened: Illinois won.

Scheelhaase was not great, but he ran the ball well and made a couple of big throws. The Illinois defense was aggressive and opportunistic, collapsing the pocket on ASU’s six-foot eight quarterback, Brock Osweiler, forcing turnovers and making big stops.  After one last defensive stand, the Illinois offense took possession with six minutes to go and on the last play of the game with four seconds remaining, Scheelhaase literally ran out the clock, taking the snap and racing backwards. Somewhere Red Grange may grimace at such tactics. But, hey, it was a smart play and we won.

As we waited for the traffic to clear, my buddy and I raised the hatchback of my thirteen-year old minivan, sat in lawn chairs and listened to the post-game show on the car radio.  The kids next to us tossed a football and took turns being Nathan Scheelhaase.

The night cool, the stars bright, we all enjoyed what can only be called a winning tradition.

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Filed under Family, Football, Illinois Football, September 2011

“We go from here”

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when something occurred that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression, “potato pancakes” a staple at both their supper tables, and WWII.  Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.  Seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have.  But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their every day lives which I find lacking in America today.  Far too often as individuals and as a country we invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but certainly not rising to the level of an emergency.

9/11 was different.

I remember asking Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  A few months from death himself, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he was aware of what occurred.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, an advertising banner trailing behind.  My attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years pass.

Yesterday I’m at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11.  Two trumpeters play taps and there is a moment of  silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talk and wave from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from their posts overseas.

This morning I stretch in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who lost their lives on 9/11 read off the names of the victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them.  Tears well in my eyes.  I go run.

Along the way I wave to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I think of the last ten years.  With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birth day parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter is now blossoming as a college freshman.  Our son, having survived a horrific auto accident (the paramedics told us there was a one in ten chance someone walks away from such a crash — our son walked away) is halfway through college and making plans to live in Taiwan after graduation.  Both my parents passed but remain a presence, a gift I will cherish until my final day.

I finish my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatch a cold bottle of water Yolanda put in the fridge for me the night before and wander into the TV room where she is watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sings “Sound of Silence.” Tears well in the eyes of the people in the crowd.

When he finishes, Yolanda tells me that earlier today a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

We go from here.

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Filed under 9/11, Family, Football, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Running

Setting the Right Pace at the Hoopeston Sweetcorn Festival

Things are hopping in the usually slow-paced Hoopeston, Illinois, also known as the “Sweetcorn Capital of the World” (confirmed by the town water tower for the skeptics among you.)

It’s Labor Day weekend and the annual Sweetcorn Festival is in full swing.  Beginning on Thursday, the local park morphs into a carnival complete with rides, barkers, fleemarkets, tractor pulls, demolition derby, a beer tent, classic car show and live entertainment.  (Elvis looks and sounds great by the way.  At least the three from last year did.) Beauty queens buzz around town, thirty plus young women, runner ups in their state Miss America contest, they travel to Hoopeston to participate in the National Sweetheart Pageant.  It’s no minor event on the pageant circuit as seven former winners have gone on to become Miss America.

By Friday night empty lawn chairs line the curbs of Main Street as locals stake their claim to shady areas from which to watch the Saturday morning parade. Perched on the back of classic convertibles the sweating, ball gowned beauty queens force smiles and wave.  High school bands, drumline thundering, blast away.  Clydesdales and politicians hoof by, leaving you know what in their wake.  To be fair, the pols do toss out candy, especially in election years.  The Shriners zoom along in tiny cars, completing a synchronized figure eight every few blocks, the crowd cheering.

For the more health conscious, or at least those who want to offset the sweetcorn, tacos, strawberry shakeups and funnel cakes, there is the Bill Orr Memorial Sweetcorn 5K Classic.  Bill was a friendly, full-faced fellow who always called me “Pem” and was quick to buy me a beer when we ran into each other at the American Legion.  He was a local funeral home owner and organized the race for years before passing away.  Naming the race in Bill’s memory was automatic and unanimous.

The start and finish line is two blocks from our house and early Saturday morning my wife, Yolanda, and I, amble over to register and line up for the start.  We reminisce about Bill as we walk — “House looks good, Pem,” he’d holler when strolling by on a summer evening, Yolanda and I sitting on the screened porch.

Like most 5K runs there is a mix of people.  The top runners are already running, getting in a mile or two warm up so they can break from the gate at full speed.  Male or female, they sport racing shorts, mesh tank tops and black wrist watches to track their pace.   They will post times in the mid-teens for the 3.2 mile run.

There are gals and guys like my wife and I, wearing loose-fitting grey or black cotton gym shorts from Wal-Mart and t-shirts bought on vacation, sleeves chopped off at the shoulder.  Mine says “Emerald Isle, North Carolina.”  A fellow, whom I’ve never met from a neighboring town, stops and asks me when I was there.  We talk about Hurricane Irene and hope the best for the Carolinians who weathered the storm. Yolanda and a local farmer talk about the tomatoes he gave her to make salsa.  She canned them and gave him some jars “extra hot” the way he prefers.

Plenty of kids under twelve, escorted by parents, mill about.  They do not stretch or run warm up miles.  Loose as the proverbial goose, they chatter away with mom or dad.  When the race starts some take off like rockets.  Their parents catch up and slow them down.  The kids settle in for the long run.

Yolanda and I separate.  She is a walker and retreats to the back of the pack.  I position myself about halfway in, not wanting to get in the way of any serious runners (or stampeded by eager kids.)   As I run the first section of the race the mayor gives me a wave, he’s stopping traffic at a corner, as does a friend who works at the post office who is monitoring another intersection.  A local cop hollers at me: “Yolanda’s gonna catch you if you keep up that pace, Mike.”

I am off to a slow start, running a 9:15 first mile.  It’s hot and humid and I debate whether I want to put forth the effort to make up the lost time.  I hit the two-mile mark in 18 minutes, shaving 30 seconds off the second mile, but I remind myself there is a hill at the end of the course.  Feeling good, I pick up the pace and run side-by-side with a father and daughter.

“How old are you,” I ask the girl.

“Seven,” she says.

“Wow, you’re doing great.”

“And she loves it,” her dad says.

“I hate it, Dad,” she says with a roll of her eyes.

But the look she gives me as I go by reveals the heart of a competitor. I don’t think she’ll let me pass her next year.

I hit the final hill at a good clip (for me) and run hard toward the finish line.  It’s not Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, but for a few seconds I run as hard as I can and revel in the feeling.

“Go Mike,” someone hollers from the crowd gathered around the finish line.

“Way to go, Mr. Pemberton,” a young voice shouts.

I hit the finish line at 28 minutes and change.

Too slow, I think to myself.

I visit with folks, chug ice water and munch on fresh watermelon and cantaloupe slices supplied by the race organizers.  Bill would be pleased with their work.

Yolanda finishes and we touch base with more people before walking home, reviewing the race and hoping for cooler weather next year.  As we do, I think about my 5K  time and our small town.

And I know, I’m running the race at just the right pace.

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Filed under 5K Races, Family, Friends, Running, September 2011