View From Lodi, CA: Independence Day At Wimbledon
June 30, 2006, 05:00 AM
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As a tennis buff and occasional player for more than half a century, I am disappointed in the current crop of competitors and the broadcasters who announce their matches.

With Wimbledon in high gear and the French Open recently completed, fans continue to see players calling for their trainers, taping their legs, thighs and ankles, demanding "bathroom breaks," and a record number "retiring" (quitting) their matches well before they have been completed.

The low-point in sportsmanship came at this year's Australian Open when Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, seeded eighth, quit in the final round of the Women's championship while trailing 1-6; 0-2 to Amelie Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne complained of a stomachache.

If  Henin-Hardenne were truly ailing, she would only have had to endure ten minutes more to let Mauresmo finish her off.

But there is reasonable doubt that Henin-Hardenne, a three-time Grand Slam winner and former World Number One, was too sick to play on.

Just a few minutes earlier, the two women engaged in a thirty-three stroke rally with Henin-Hardenne covering the court like a rabbit.

For the fans who shelled out big money, the sponsors who paid top dollar for advertising time and the networks who forked over millions for the rights to televise the Australian Open—tough luck. What they got when Henin-Hardenne threw in the towel was a mere 51 minutes of lackluster tennis.

As you watch Wimbledon over the Independence Day weekend, take note that the announcers are endlessly listing the player's injuries even though, like Henin-Hardenne, no evidence of serious physical damage is evident on the court.

When I watch Wimbledon, I think of the tremendous battles between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg or Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The last thing you would ever hear from the loser of those classic match-ups was: "I would have played better but I had a stomach ache."

While Borg and McEnroe went head-to-head 14 times, Navratilova-Evert dueled an amazing 80 times, 60 of them in finals, from 1973 to 1988. Navratilova had a slight career edge, 43-37.

No two humans could have been more different, in both their personalities and playing styles, than Navratilova and Evert.

When the future champions first played in 1973, Chris, 18, pony-tailed and Florida-born, was already a star while Martina, 16, squat and awkward, was an unknown Czech playing in her first U.S. tournament.

Two years would pass before Martina finally beat Chris by using her aggressive serve and volley style.

Evert's game, on the other hand, never changed. She stayed on the baseline and calmly hit precision groundstrokes even under the most intense match pressure.

Evert and Navratilova came of age during the 1970s golden era of tennis. Together they redefined women's athletics during an explosive time in American sports, society and history.

Their epic careers unfolded against the backdrop of the fight for Title IX, the gay rights movement, the women's movement and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The two dominated women's tennis at a time when the sport became more popular with fans. Each of them achieved tennis heights that will never be matched.

Evert made at least the semifinals of 52 of the 56 Grand Slam tournaments she played. And Martina once won 74 straight singles matches, breaking Chris's record of 54. The two of them swapped the No. 1 ranking 17 times.

During one five year period in the 1980s, either Evert or Navratilova won 18 of the 20 Grand Slam titles.

Interestingly Navratilova and Evert, despite their competitive natures and their intense rivalry, were close friends for most of their career.

Today the two remain close friends. Both own homes in Aspen, Colorado. Says Evert: "We just can't seem to shake each other."

Many of Evert-Navratilova's classic matches are available on DVD.

Whether you are a sports historian, a budding junior player or a current champion, watch them for not only a tennis lesson but for a seminar on good sportsmanship.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.