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Friday, May 7, 2021

Some Are Still Using Tennis to Prepare for Wimbledon

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Tennis spectators are confronted with unsightly things, on multiple levels: stadium nets that cast a distinct shadow in the sun; aerial shots of the 21st Century-era version of Roland Garros that shimmer with the blinding power of artificial lights.

The match of Serena Williams against Naomi Osaka, which will be played Tuesday, is such a surreal occasion that no one expected it to be played on a different day than scheduled. Sometime on Sunday the renowned tournament will start to return to its normal rhythms, and a traditional pace of action at the best of times will be gone for a few weeks.

When the French Open started in 1877, Louis Armstrong’s tenure as the United States Davis Cup captain was almost a complete aberration. In 1883, he led his team to victory in London. By 1894, his tenure ended because of the tennis club’s ruling that it would not admit Armstrong as a player. In 1905, Armstrong visited the White House.

In 1921, John Richdale was sidelined for four months with mononucleosis. When he returned in 1922, he played a record 59 matches in a 24-day span in a span of 10 days.

John Richdale.

Jimmy Connors played his last match at the 1996 French Open. His career came to an abrupt end in January, 1999, when he retired from his fourth round match.

His record-setting run of 52 consecutive Grand Slam singles matches was extended. The longest the streak lasted was his six-year run in the 1990s, at which time he won the Wimbledon title in ’91, followed by a French Open win in ’94 and a Wimbledon title in ’98.

But despite his tremendous success, Connors’ public profile was not going to be what it should have been. He had been working with Pete Sampras, then at the peak of his career. But they hadn’t won another Grand Slam event together. Connors had deep pockets and he chose to go after “comparable” players as endorsements opportunities increased.

Jimmy Connors with Nadal at the French Open in 1994.

Connors’ frustration at the how his game had fallen in 2017 was well-known. His best finish at Wimbledon — where he had won three titles, the last in 1990 — was second in 2014.

In 1994, Connors said he had “tuned out” the French Open tournament, as he didn’t fit in with the American players, and as well as other factors. It is unclear whether the talent drain that began in the 1970s will return when he’s done.

One of the men mentioned was John McEnroe, who is still perceived as the player to beat despite his decision to walk away from the game and make sushi. He walked away in 1986, mostly because he was disillusioned with the sport, with or without Bernard Hinault’s advice, and as a senior statesman of the game who needed the millions that were coming in with his endorsement opportunities to support his family. McEnroe’s fans see him as a visionary while McEnroe’s detractors think he was simply “more of a showboat.” But McEnroe, the man on whom Connors was modeled, won the French Open two years before.

Bernard Hinault.

There was a time that Ashe wasn’t a part of the World Team Tennis season. In 1980, he was out for a year. Even Greg Rusedski, the British player whom the Americans saw as a future star, struggled to win a Grand Slam tournament, let alone be good enough to beat Ashe in the third round of a Grand Slam tournament. But Ashe had the power to stand up to beat the greatest.

The remaining players were mostly aging, or had already started to decline in their skills. The best player in the game, Roger Federer, was only one year old at the time. Somehow, they still won the French Open that year.

In the Summer of 2016, I was in Mexico for the Sony Open in Miami. The French Open was still a month away, and my thoughts had begun to focus on Wimbledon.

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