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The Great and the Not So Great

By tt stern-enzi · June 20th, 2007 · The Alternative

We're a nation fascinated with the exhibition of athletic greatness, yet we can be oblivious to it unless it's homegrown or brazenly displayed.

We loved Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, who have come to symbolize the American spirit. They were (and are) larger than life. But we've proven to be less willing to embrace Hank Aaron, Roger Federer and Tim Duncan -- three very quiet men who, in their own way, deserve consideration for greatness.

Aaron begrudgingly gets respect as the home run king on the verge of being usurped, but he had to survive death threats and the fans' unwillingness to honor his achievement at the time. Duncan has anchored four NBA championship teams in San Antonio, sunk deep in the middle of the action on court and even deeper into a zone of privacy that's the envy of the government. And Federer is the trickiest of all to consider because his greatness is in a sport that few true sports fans watch with any degree of regularity.

Tennis fails to rouse our continental pride and offers little space on which to mount our imperial flag. The latest crop of American players cowers in the shadow of the anointed greats of the game. James Blake, Andy Roddick and a string of faceless names have been pinned against the baseline by Roger Federer.

Where is tennis' version of Michael or Magic or Bird? Andre Agassi had style, but the historic base of substance and championships by which he will be judged came later. Pete Sampras was brilliant but not exactly dominating; he lacked the killer instinct of Michael or that we see in Tiger. There was strong will in him -- after all, this was a guy who won a match once after throwing up between games -- but he let us see too much of the effort behind his efforts.

Which brings me back to the Swiss master Federer. Rarely does his effort show. He has a grace that makes the points seem not so much effortless as almost beneath him.

He's supremely skilled but not arrogant. He isn't belligerent with the press or dismissive of tennis fans, but he's guarded and maintains sovereignty over his actions and coaching that would seem to be the model for global empires.

There is respect for the game, its history and his place in it. That's what likely drives him.

And those are the same qualities lacking in so many others. In tennis a few short years ago, the Williams sisters were on the verge of writing a sports and cultural legacy for the ages. Grand Slam final after Grand Slam final featured their ongoing rivalry. Would older sister Venus smack down the impertinent Serena, or would the forceful younger pummel her elder again?

They could have elevated the game's awareness and cultural consciousness to a point where it might have rivaled our national pastimes like baseball, basketball, football, golf when Tiger is about to pounce and NASCAR when the engine doesn't overheat.

Yet both sisters turned the page and like in some glossy magazine found a new story of fashion and fame and failed to finish the feature they were creating. At least they weren't caught with their pants down around their ankles like so many other famous athletes.

We talk about profiling athletes as if they're being entrapped and singled out, but guess what: There's nothing wrong with it. We should be profiling them, turning the media spotlight on their exploits on the field, exploits that should be quietly speaking for themselves. Greatness doesn't need trumpets blaring.

Every point doesn't deserve a moment of admiring or grandstanding. If you're a great player, you'll score often, so why make a fuss each time? Being an elite professional athlete is hard work, and it should be treated as such.

Yet too many athletes make a spectacle of themselves or fail to rise to the challenge before them when so much is expected for the riches being granted to them. And so we find apologists at every turn seeking to defend our rising social and cultural mediocrity.

It saddens me to hear a coach -- you know who -- speak of racial profiling of his players in the media. Talk like that weakens the very serious and seemingly terminal disease that afflicts us as a nation.

It's worse because coaches and management are the ones who should be profiling their players. It takes more than skill to make a great player, and those elements, so often missing from the highly touted "playmakers," need to be recognized and nurtured.

Back in the day, Motown used to run a finishing school for its performers, many of whom were from humble backgrounds and on the verge of intense scrutiny. They were groomed on how to present themselves.

Sports teams and athletes could learn from this system. I believe that athletes in more individual sports already have -- again, see Federer. We talk about talented performers making the leap from high school to the pros in basketball and football as if there's a problem of coping, but how often do we see tennis players and golfers melt down in the same way the more pampered student-athletes from the major sports do?

Yes, there are the John Dalys and Anna Kornikovas, but there are the Steffi Grafs, Tiger Woods(es), Tim Duncans and Roger Federers who are also profiled and deemed worthy of much because they strive to achieve greatness and reach it even when they come up short. Note that Federer's greatness isn't diminished by his recent loss in the French Open final.

In August, while Bengals fans and players turn their attention to the pre-season, the Tennis Masters Series will make its way to Cincinnati prior to the final Grand Slam event of the season, the U.S. Open. We'll likely have the opportunity to admire and profile Federer's greatness.

It'll be like watching history being made, but more than that it's the chance to see a real role model doing what he does best. It's an example all local athletes -- both professional and across all the amateur ranks -- should take the time to appreciate.

Be careful, though. You have to pay close attention.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.


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