10/11/2017

Tennis Nostalgia

Two recent films puzzle me. Each revisits a specific event that I witnessed but have no nostalgia for. The first is advertised as: “Borg McEnroe, also known as Borg vs McEnroe, is a 2017 internationally co-produced multi-language biographical sports drama film focusing on the famous rivalry between famous tennis players Björn Borg and John McEnroe at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships, culminating in their encounter in the men's singles final.”


The second is presented as: “This sports docudrama recreates the legendary 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). When the 55-year-old Riggs brags that he can beat any woman in the world on the tennis court, 29-year-old King, then the reigning champion, accepts his challenge. Their highly publicized match soon takes on a larger meaning as a milestone in the fight for gender equality.”
The first was just a tennis match, certainly an exceptionally good one. But, there was no reason to think that it was the greatest tennis match of all time.  For sports, drama and politics, I would choose Don Budge vs. Gottfired von Cramm in the 1937 Davis Cup finals. In Budge vs. von Cramm, it was more than just winning the Davis Cup for a nation's glory, given the context of growing German aggression. Von Cramm was also playing for his life. The Nazis had a file on him, as a gay man and someone who had a Jewish lover and whose wife was one-quarter Jewish. As long as he won the Davis Cup for Germany he was safe. Otherwise, who knew?
Budge was the overwhelming favorite. He had beaten von Cramm easily in the Wimbledon final two weeks earlier. Von Cramm won the first two sets. Budge came back and won the next two sets. In the decisive fifth set, von Cramm went up 4 to 1. Budge rallied, tying the set at 6-6 and eventually winning 8–6. What added to the drama, we now know, was that in a later interview, Budge said that von Cramm had received a phone call from Hitler minutes before the match started and that von Cramm “had played each point as though his life depended on winning.”
The King - Riggs match was not a typical tennis match. From a sports perspective, it was not a great demonstration of the art of the game. It was a televised exhibition, not the finals of a major tournament or Davis Cup, and Riggs was certainly not in his prime. He was 55 years-old and had never been an all-time great player.
What made the match special was the gender aspect. Riggs had said that the female game was inferior and that he could still beat any of the top female players, just as McEnroe recently has downplayed Serena Williams’ competence compared to men.
In addition to the gender perspective (“The Battle of the Sexes”), the match was presented in a spectacular manner in the Houston Astrodome - much like gladiators in the Roman Coliseum – and watched by over 90 million people worldwide. The fact that Riggs was not even the top ranked men’s senior player and that rumors abounded that he had bet against himself take away from the symbolic importance of King’s victory for women’s tennis. 
Why do these two films come out now? For those who witnessed the two matches, do we really want to see them again? For those who didn’t see the matches, what is the value added to watching them? I am puzzled by this turn to tennis nostalgia.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was to make America great again, to return the U.S. to its position of global domination in the 1950’s after the second World War. His use of nostalgia was successful; he won the election. But, he made no direct reference to nostalgia and the 1950’s. He emphasized making America great again with no mention of when America had been great. The “again” had no direct referent.
These films have no referent either, hence my bewilderment. But then again, I never thought Trump’s slogan would be such a powerful energizer in his campaign. I will be surprised, nonetheless, if the films become box office successes.
 

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