Cheering for American men’s tennis these days is not unlike cheering for the Chicago Cubs. Or the Cleveland Browns. Attach yourself emotionally to a player at your peril, for however much he may tease with talent and promise, he’ll likely remain on the outskirts of contention when the sport’s biggest prizes are awarded.
I happen to be a fan of tennis in general. Where a player happened to be born and raised is less important to me than how he handles being down a set in a major championship. My happiest memories of tennis during my childhood are the collisions between Sweden’s Bjorn Borg and America’s brat prince, John McEnroe. (I rooted for Borg, but have grown to love McEnroe.) If I were asked to name the most graceful athlete of my lifetime, it would come down to hockey great Wayne Gretzky or tennis legend Roger Federer, he of Switzerland. I relished Federer’s 2009 Wimbledon final against American Andy Roddick precisely because I was rooting for both players.
Which brings me to the current state of American men’s tennis and its impact on this week’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The only American player currently in the world’s Top 10 is 8th-ranked Mardy Fish. Fish will not be playing in Memphis, which means that for only the third time in 36 years, nary a top-10 player will be in the field for what remains a jewel on the Bluff City sports calendar. Defending champion Roddick — a three-time winner here and by now an honorary Memphian — returns, but has fallen to a world-ranking of 17. (In 1999, the top seed was 12th-ranked Todd Martin. In 2000, it was 16th-ranked Mark Philippoussis of Australia.)
Top-10 talent wasn’t always so hard to find, not in Memphis, and certainly not among U.S. players. As recently as 1995, four of the year-end top 10 were Yanks (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier). In 1989, no fewer than six Americans were among the top 10 players in the world. Heck, there was an eight-year stretch (1976-83) during which at least four Americans were in the top 10 every year.
The plethora of stateside champions decorated the Memphis field one year after another. Over the course of the tournament’s first 20 years (1977-96), the top seed every year except one (Michael Stich in 1992) finished at least one year of his career atop the world rankings. This group of eight champions actually included a pair of Swedes (Borg and Stefan Edberg) who marked the Memphis event down for their schedules. In 1996, four of the top seven players in the world — Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and Sweden’s Thomas Enqvist — gave what was then called the Kroger St. Jude the feel of a Grand Slam tournament. (It was the only championship Sampras won here in six appearances.)
So why the dearth of top-10 talent this week? Blame goes primarily to the titanic trio currently towering over the tennis landscape. Since 2004, the top year-end ranking has belonged to either Federer, Rafael Nadal of Spain, or Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. The next time any of these players compete in Memphis will be the first. Fish deserves some blame. As the fourth seed a year ago, Fish reached the semifinals before losing to Milos Raonic. Now in the top 10, he chose to stay overseas after last month’s Australian Open. Fish would be a fan favorite here.
So let’s thank the tennis gods for Roddick, whose only shortcoming has been sharing the prime of his career with Federer and Nadal. (Roddick’s lone Grand Slam title came at the 2003 U.S. Open, the same year he finished number-one in the world.) Supermodel Brooklyn Decker’s hubby finished in the top-10 every year from 2002 to 2010 (a streak longer than McEnroe was able to achieve.) The only other Americans to scratch the top 10 over the last six years are James Blake (twice) and Fish (once). Making his 12th straight appearance at The Racquet Club, Roddick will try to match Jimmy Connors’ record of four Memphis championships.
We’ll see world-class tennis this week in Memphis. Top seed John Isner (now ranked 14th in the world) teamed with Fish earlier this month to help the U.S. Davis Cup team upset Switzerland. (Isner defeated Federer.) Maybe Donald Young (22 years old and ranked 40th) is the rising American star that will finally make waves at a Grand Slam. My healthiest advice would be to enjoy the supreme tennis independent of world context. While the 10 highest-ranked players may occupy themselves elsewhere, Memphis tennis fans deserve better than the Cleveland Browns. And they’ll see it at The Racquet Club.
I grew up dreaming of getting a 3,000th hit as a big-league baseball player. Because milestones matter. With that dream long expired, I’ll settle for a 500th sports column. Offered a weekly slot on the still-developing Flyer website by my colleague Jackson Baker, I posted the inaugural “From My Seat” on March 14, 2002 (it was a Thursday). My two cents on the proposed mega-fight at the Pyramid between Mike Tyson and heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. (I was dubious about the benefits to the city.) Over the nearly ten years since, I’ve taken Jackson’s valuable advice to heart. When I asked the finest politics writer in these parts the key to writing a weekly column, he offered a concise three words: “Fill the space.”
The blogosphere was still emerging from its embryonic stage in 2002. The Flyer had already established an online presence under the guidance of former editor Dennis Freeland. (My first post actually hit computer screens in October 2000, a plea for concussed Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman to retire. The future Hall of Famer obviously paid attention.) The rules for content seemed to be stretched, if there were any rules at all. (Thus a Memphis writer could post a column about an NFL quarterback in Texas.) But in terms of measuring rules and restrictions, the new online “pages” were without limit. No more space limitations to consider if a news item — or ball game — inspired. And deadlines weren’t what they were when a press crew awaited plates for applying ink to paper. A new sense of self-motivation was required to create and post content on the same day of the week, one after another.
The pre-“Seat” columns I posted under Dennis were easy. He was a sportswriter, of course, one of the finest this city will ever see. He and I liked chewing on prospects for Tiger football and basketball, possibilities of an NBA team actually arriving in Memphis, and chances that a baseball stadium could change the way an entire downtown community is viewed.
We lost Dennis on January 6, 2002. He succumbed to a monstrous brain tumor that attacked without mercy (but never took a sliver of my friend’s strength of spirit or dignity). So the very nature of sports coverage in the Flyer was a mystery, at best, two months later. I welcomed the opportunity Jackson threw my way, knowing I’d be approaching the weekly gig without my customary sounding board. It felt daunting.
I’ve learned, of course, a lesson Dennis would have clarified for me had we discussed the transition: readers are the only sounding board a writer ever needs. Not to say I don’t value the direction of current editor Bruce VanWyngarden or colleagues like Baker and John Branston, but a web column — and the comments it generates — will steer a writer’s thoughts in ways few printed letters to the editor do. For good or ill, anonymous usernames — handles — have taken the gloves off this burgeoning two-way street of journalistic discourse. It keeps a writer sharp.
“From My Seat” has afforded me opportunities I wouldn’t have explored in the space restrictions of a print-only world. I’ve interviewed fighters (Rampage Jackson and Andre Ward come to mind), driven a stock car, forecast the Kentucky Derby, and hobnobbed with Bob Costas on the field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Needless to say, I’ve seen Redbirds baseball and Tiger basketball from angles I wouldn’t have considered in 2001. And the Flyer’s sports “pages” have only grown. Chris Herrington writes one of the best NBA blogs in the country (“Beyond the Arc”). Three years ago, I started a blog on University of Memphis sports (“Tiger Blue”). If “Seat” is ever empty on Monday morning, it’s because that week’s column fits more snugly under the “Tiger Blue” banner. Two weeks ago, Branston started his own sports-themed blog: “A Fan’s Notes.” Aside from a presidential election year, you’re unlikely to find more opinions on a wider array of topics than you will in the arena of sports.
I’ll finish column number 500 with a pair of thanks. First, to our late friend, Dennis Freeland. You’re often in mind, Dennis, when I start tapping my keyboard. The lost conversations over the last decade make me ache at times, but somehow inspire the next column. And then thanks to those of you who take a few minutes to sit with me each week. Sports may be journalism’s toy department, but damn ... it’s fun to play.
Motte met his future wife, Caitlin, during the summer of 2008 when he saved nine games and struck out 110 hitters in 67 innings as a Memphis Redbird. They chose to make their home in Memphis, a decision made easier by the proximity to St. Louis, where Motte will soon be playing his fourth season. This winter, Motte has trained with coach Daron Schoenrock’s Memphis Tigers (two members of the team played at St. Benedict at Auburndale, where Caitlin teaches). He heads to Jupiter, Florida, for spring training later this month and will go with fond memories of an unlikely championship.
The Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games for the National League’s final playoff spot in late August. They trailed Philadelphia, two games to one, in a best-of-five division series, and then lost their first game to Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series. Then, of course, they fell behind Texas, three games to two, in the Fall Classic. St. Louis was down to its final strike in Game 6 . . . twice.
“We were down so big,” Motte reflects. “We decided that we were going to play the game hard, give it everything we have. If we won the ball game that day, that’s good. But if we lost, it wasn’t going to be for lack of effort. I still get chills talking about it. While you’re doing it, you don’t really think about it. You’re just out there playing the game. If one out of a hundred things didn’t go the right way, from August 25th on, we’re not sitting here talking about us winning the World Series. There was a game in September when Adron Chambers was called up [from Memphis] and he had a big triple. Little things like that.”
Motte, 29, has a special appreciation for the comeback nature of last year’s Cardinals, as he gave up what could well have been a Series-winning home run to the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton in the 10th inning of Game 6. “I had someone ask me what I would have done if Lance Berkman hadn’t tied the game again [in the bottom of the 10th],” says Motte. “Well, I would have packed my stuff up and gone home. What would you want me to do? Go jump off the arch?”
Wound rather tight, Motte found himself oddly calm when he took the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, three outs away from every baseball player’s dream. “There was adrenaline, and I was excited,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to try and do more than I was capable of doing. I couldn’t get a double play with nobody on. I just wanted to make every pitch count. That was our attitude as a team. ”
The Cardinals, of course, have managed to make as much news during the offseason as they did in winning the World Series. Hall of Fame-bound manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement three days after the Series victory (his third as a manager, second in St. Louis). Hall of Fame-bound first baseman Albert Pujols defected to the Los Angeles Angels (where he’ll earn $240 million over the next decade). And new manager Mike Matheny learned last month that venerable pitching coach Dave Duncan is stepping down to help his wife in her battle with cancer. Derek Lilliquist takes over as the Cardinals’ new pitching coach.
“With Albert, it’s just part of the game,” says Motte. “He got a good deal. You can’t say he’s not worth that money. But we’ve got some good additions, and Berkman’s back. [Rafael] Furcal is back. With Tony being gone . . . he’d been doing it 33 years. If you’re going to go out, go out on top like he did.
“[Mike Matheny] is a great dude. He knows the game of baseball; he’s qualified for the job. Lilliquist has been around Duncan, so I think the philosophy is going to be about the same. He’s not gonna come in and tell us to stand on our head and pitch. We throw when we’re asked to throw. I pitched in the third inning once last year, and I pitched in the 12th.”
Pujols’ departure will leave a void not only on the field, but in a clubhouse, one that developed the character of a championship team before any champagne was sprayed last fall. “We’ve got a good group of guys back,” says Motte. “The people we had last year — off the field — were special. We have Berkman back, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Yadi. Everyone got really close; you got a chance to see the way things should be. The front office gets those kind of guys, good players but also good people. I think we’ll be just fine in the clubhouse.”
Last month, the Cardinals and Motte agreed on a one-year contract that will pay the pitcher $1.95 million in 2012, more than quadrupling his salary from the championship season. Despite a championship ring, a raise, and the seismic turnover in personnel, Jason Motte approaches the upcoming season precisely as baseball players are trained: a new start. “Our goal is the same,” he says. “To win the World Series. When we step out to play the Miami Marlins on Opening Day [April 4], everybody starts at zero. Last year was great, but once the season starts, it’s all about getting better.”
Photograph by Allison Rhoades