The Lobsters' Game
Psychic Bloodletting Comes to the Sport of Gentlemen
Dizzy Dean once scoffed at golfers because they demanded absolute quiet while shooting. Then someone tested him and he duck hooked.
Joe Louis, a cold-blooded killer in the ring, was tied in knots by a one-and-a-half ounce golf ball sitting on the grass calmly waiting for him to hit it. Champion golfers have lost Opens because of the single click of a shutter. Ben Hogan, from the tougest parts of Texas, known as the Iceman for concentration that could shut out the world, jumped for his life while putting in one tournament. He had heard a movie camera start up while he drew his blade back and he thought it was a Lone Star rattler.
In baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, roaring and cheering and baiting by the crowd is the norm--and it gives an edge to some players. In other sports, notably golf, pool, and tennis, a baby's cough can send competitors to a mental hospital. Cheering mistakes is rudeness at its gauchest, so much so that players read such behavior on the part of the audience as grounds for dismissal. Until the tremendous sports-money boom in the 60s, these distinctions went unchallenged. Golf, tennis and billiards, originally the sports of the privileged, were played in private enclaves where family mattered more than class. Privacy was a given of the rich, reserve the rule of deportment, and understatement the temper of the play. Sports as spectacle--their special sports, that is--was unthinkable. The contests were between gentlemen and were paradigms of what civilization was all about.
Since the turn of the century, the sports that have attracted the masses have had the appeal of the unwritten contract: those who paid their way into the ballpark bought the right to be judge, jury, and hangman of the performers. The heroes chewed tobacco and prided themselves on looking fierce.
When Arnold Palmer became a popular hero, golf and money married, and things have never since been as polite as they once were. Still, golfers maintained the right to complain when their concentration was affronted. The problem has not been as bothersome in professional tennis, probably because of the composition, and the style, of those who watched, country clubbers and suburban elites, firm believers all in the etiquette of the game. When commercial sponsors started backing tennis heavily in the early '60s, a popular participation mushroomed. Entrepreneurs figured that they could tune into something big--the problem, were the killing to be made was to unleash tennis from its dignified moorings, to get that governor off his old stately carriage, let him loose like a hot rod from hell. Figuring, first, that tennis had to be turned to big business. Then what drew the biggest box office crowds? It was the Woodstocks, the audience participation cathartics. When the audience was kept behind barriers, it was the sports which most closely resembled war--football and soccer, sports which put the audience in the frame of mind of those Romans in the Colosseum.
Calculating entrepreneurial intellectuals took a look at tennis and thought for a while. There were some of the raw materials already intrinsic to the game: the sudden death nature of the tiebreakers introduced by James Van Alen in the 60s; overhead smashes and crosscourt chops, cuts, slices, lobs, which reminded World War II army vets of mortars and grenades; volleying at the net was like hand-to-hand combat; and the ace was like heavy artillery.
When World Team Tennis began this year, the strategy was trumpeted: Spectators were urged to throw off all the shackles of decorum and give the players hell. The other and perhaps more revolutionary concept was that women's matches would count as much as the men's. Every game counted in a six-set format of men's singles, women's singles, and mixed doubles. The ultimate success of the league depended upon the ability of teams to build a large and faithful following. And to do that would take more than just the opportunity to blow the mind of a gentleman athlete with well timed Bronx cheers and raspberries. Although tennis as frenzy could attract somewhat, what was at the core of the attraction was a slightly detuned version of the King-Riggs match: getting a man and a woman in the ring against one another.
If owner Ray Ciccolo of the Boston Lobsters had wanted the best soldiers to withstand the psychic bloodletting that was scheduled to go on, he made some good picks and some bad ones. The best on paper looked to be Lobster captain and doubles player extraordinary Ian Tiriac. Tiriac was from Rumania, bad boy Ilia Nastase's doubles partner when Nasty was at his most abusive.
Opposing players, shaken by Tiriac's baleful glare, dubbed him Dracula. Tiriac began the season strongly with a lot of arguing and baiting at away matches but stopped when the fans booed him. No wrestling villain instincts resided in his lamblike breast. Instead, he became more the helpful doubles partner; he and Pat Bostrom won all their early mixed doubles and their wins seemed to be the triumph of good natured cooperation over querulous, fractious competition.
The match on Tuesday of this week killed even the hope that Tiriac might still be a calculating competitor. Leading in the last match, Tiriac became enraged over a call and stalked off the court with his doubles partner. The other team seemed ready to play the point over, but the umpires wouldn't relent. They were given 30 seconds to return to the court. No show, and they forfeited the game. They were given 30 seconds to return or face losing the remaining games in the match. Tiriac sulked to moral victory as the Lobsters gave the match away on that walkout. Now their record is 6-5 in the Eastern Division, and they have a snowball's chance in hell of catching Billie Jean King and the 12-0 Philadelphia Freedoms.
King is the best WTT competitor. The cheers she led against the Pittsburgh Triangles in the opening match provoked venerable player-captain Ken Rosewall into storming over to the Freedoms' bench to lecture her against abusing his players. It waff almost as good as professional wrestling without the wooden acting. Rosewall was genuinely mad; the cool man had been razzed by a woman.
Given King's thick-skinned example, it would seem that winning in WTT competition takes some adjustment to the razzing variable. If true, and the record seems to bear this out, the Lobsters did not sign anyone with the requisite thickness of shell.
Women's ace Kerry Melville once asked me, "Aown't yew tayken enoof pictchahs of me, sonny?" at a Slims tourney at Squantum last year. I had been focusing on her for four games in one second-round match, and she was winning. A thin-skinned grouch, Melville has been on the verge of winning major tournaments for years but has never been able to break a final round block against the hierarchy of the game: King and Court.
Men's singles ace Roger Taylor was voted the man on the WCT tour with the best legs by members of the Slims tour. The handsome Taylor has been in the middle of off-court brouhahas, like last year's Wimbledon boycott--but the one thing he just can't take is bird whistles immediately preceding his serve. While he hasn't gone into the stands to attack a fan yet, like Jimmy Connors did at one Baltimore Banners match the pale, finely-chiseled features of the Englishman go patch-pink when he gets hot or bothered, lots of bright red blotches of troubled blood.
Still, the fans at the Lobsters' home matches have been staid. The crowds have averaged a little over 2000 at the modern, carpeted B.U. hockey arena. The dixieland band plays only during warmups and between games, never between points. The Lobsters' mascot, a six-foot-tall bright orange cloth lobster with a tennis raquet in one claw, flaps his claws together decorously after good points, then folds them back in his lap.
But the question remains whether tennis is really fit as a game to draw the raucous crowds of the big American arenas. Tennis's real lure seems to be on precisely that silent psychological level where an arched brow can be the crucial straw of dominance. In its best moments, tennis is like a difficult passage of music. If the audience is very quiet, it can hear the players thinking.
Arthur Ashe, hero of John McPhee's classic of sports reporting, Levels of the Game, did not join team tennis, although offered a bundle of easy cash. He admitted the idea was interesting but said he didn't think that was what tennis was all about. If it works, he said he'd eat his tennis racket.