There are a lot of things you’d like to ask Serena Williams during a quiet moment. Sadly, everyone keeps asking her about tennis. Predictably, the subject bores her to despair.
“How important is it to get to the second week?” she was asked, shortly after dismantling another anonymous American weakling.
This is the sort of question athletes love because you can’t screw it up. There’s no trap door in there. It’s an invitation to wax meaninglessly on personal improvement and the majesty of Flushing Meadows and all the other pleasant, airless bafflegab the pros are trained in like rhetorical judo.
That is the only art Williams – God bless her – is unskilled at.
“I mean, I can’t believe I’m in the second week,” she mumbled, staring at her hands. “It’s like a dream come true to me at this point.”
(Suddenly hopeful): “Why can’t you believe it?”
(Suddenly tired): “I’m being sarcastic.”
When Americans talk about their decline in the game, they’re talking about winning and losing. But it’s more than that. Without the United States, the sport’s engine continues to turn over, but at much lower revolutions per minute. Serena Williams isn’t driving this car any more. She’s pushing it uphill.
As Canadians, we’re having a little moment at the expense of the United States. That’s our role in this – the suddenly ascendant extended family just arrived in from God’s country.
There is something perversely thrilling about watching our rich uncle getting evicted from the house he built. Man, for years, all he talked about was that damn house. Now he’s living in his car, and Canada’s taking over his tennis mortgage.
“Do you feel like the crowd here has adopted you?” Eugenie Bouchard has been asked here a dozen times, in a dozen different ways. It’s also fun to watch the United States begging to be our friend.
I’m not sure “adopted” is the right word. That assumes some preknowledge. America likes a fresh-faced winner, and Bouchard ticks the boxes. I watched her Saturday night match in the upper bowl of Arthur Ashe Stadium. There were two chavvy, outer-borough types sitting behind us. They spent most of the first set doing two things – trying to figure out who Bouchard is; and, in so doing, trying to start an international incident.
“Oh,” one finally snickered, after Googling her. “She’s from Canada, eh.”
Cue the violence.
Bouchard is savvy. She’s jumped at the chance to embrace a very lonely U.S. tennis public.
“We’re neighbours. We’re pretty similar countries. So maybe they have adopted me a little.”
We are neighbours. Friends, even. But we aren’t similar. At least, they don’t think so. Cast your mind back to the last time you met an American on safari down south. Once the word “Canadian” comes out of your mouth, you can spot several simultaneous things happening in the typical U.S. brain.
First, relief. “This person is from one of the few countries on Earth that doesn’t hate us on principle.” Second, confusion. “Canada is north, right?” Third, paternalism. “Imagine being from Canada, and not knowing what freedom is.” To the United States, Canada will always be a less urbane, and therefore less threatening, version of Europe. We aren’t bland, but we occasionally worry about it because the United States keeps telling us we are.
They like us, without ever having bothered to understand anything about us. Depending on your perspective, it’s either boorish or charming.
That incompatibility is the most attractive thing about Americans. They are larger people, in every sense. They enjoy strangers. They like to talk. They acknowledge one another’s presence on public transportation.
The United States is Canada after three or four drinks. That’s the United States tennis misses right now.
Until John McEnroe arrived, tennis was not a sport. It was a poncey leisure activity that happened to pay well. All my surly relations, who did not give a tinker’s damn about tennis, loved McEnroe because he was an angry Irish kid kicking over furniture in what they thought of as the British manor.
But McEnroe was the very soul of the United States – heedless and loud, an arriviste and a reluctant climber, good to his friends and outrageously cruel to his enemies. There always seemed to be more of the latter than the former. He was of the game, and entirely outside it. There had been plenty of legends before him, but he’s the first I can remember who made tennis seem important. Why else would it upset him so much?
When I think of athletes who define what it means to be American out in the larger world, he only has one better – Muhammad Ali.
McEnroe set a tone so resonant it echoed out over the years and enveloped an amiable drone like Pete Sampras. I suspect the real reason the United States liked him so much was because McEnroe told them to. He was dangerous by association.
Andre Agassi was the most hateable figure in tennis for a long time, which only made him seem more loveable once he changed tack. Jim Courier had some of that edgy glamour. Andy Roddick had more of it. The Williams sisters had so much you’ve already begun to miss them, long before they’re gone.
It doesn’t matter if Americans win at tennis. The problem is one step farther up the chain. When they don’t win, they feel unable to dominate the personality of the game. Without the United States in full voice, tennis begins to slip back to the country-club version itself – genteel and exclusionary. Boring.
Aside from being the greatest female player of all time, that’s what Serena Williams now represents. A genus found only locally and nearing extinction. The tennis great about whom tennis is the least interesting thing.