One has come to accept, even perversely enjoy, the full foolish fury of America’s National Anthem as patriotic prelude to the country’s most brutal sports. Why not introduce the bone-crushing, brain-rattling hand-to-hand combat of football with a brace of bad poetry penned during a battle to defend the newly independent United States from the Mother Country and then grafted onto a testosterone-charged English drinking song that had made its way across the Atlantic with the White Man?
At the Super Bowl the Star-Spangled Banner unites the martial and musical, though I use the latter term in the loosest possible sense, since the anthem in whatever form it erupts barely qualifies.
But tennis? Can’t this sport be freed from the bondage of bad taste and Exceptionalist posturing? Sadly not, and even more sadly not on the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which coincided with this year’s U. S. Open women’s final last Saturday in New York City.
Tennis was born in English gardens, originally played on well-manicured lawns in flouncy Victorian dresses and seersucker suitings. It’s true that the game’s technology has evolved since the nineteenth century. Armed with weaponized racquets, super fit players are now capable of booming serves that exceed 150 miles-an-hour. Who would be surprised if one of those fuzzy grenades rocketing over the net exploded? Still, finesse has ample chance to thwart opponents and carry the day.
The New York crowd at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, less than ten miles from where the Twin Towers once rose, does more shouting and heckling than their counterparts in the other three Grand Slam events. But unlike football, tennis is a game of mostly attentive silence during the points, with Ahs and Ohs at brilliant shots and concluding applause once the exchange is settled. After the match is over there are handshakes, perhaps hugs, and sometimes even bows. Tennis has more in common with a concert than with, for example, another form of one-on-one competition, boxing. All the more reason then, to let the racquet sport be free of the accursed anthem.
But before the two unseeded teenagers, one from Canada the other from Great Britain, began swinging away last Saturday afternoon, all were subjected to the hokey rites of commemoration.
The Panamanian American Broadway star Daphne Rubin-Vega took the mike at one end of the court. Arrayed behind her on a large red carpet were four instrumentalists: a string trio of cello, viola, and viola flanked by a guitarist. The ensemble was carefully-calibrated towards ethnic diversity, the music it played—soft-focus harmonies with the guitarist plucking tenderly at the heart strings—was suitably muted, but the look shouted Inclusion.
The game and its audience have indeed become more diverse: women get the same whopping prize money as men at the Open; Black women, especially the Williams sisters, have celebrated great successes at Flushing Meadows over the last two decades.
But the whiff of tokenism lingers over Flushing Meadows. The finals are played in Arthur Ashe stadium, named after the great American player who won the U. S. Open in 1968, the first year the event allowed the participation of professionals. Back then the tournament was played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, just around the corner from the current facility. With its Tudor style clubhouse, graceful lawns, and venues populated with blazer-and-tie wearing fans, the Victorian gentility of Forest Hills hearkened back to the Olde Country. The club is adjacent to the Kew Gardens neighborhood, named after the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Although America had its Oedipal break with Britain, amity and imitation would ultimately prevail between parent and wayward child, and continuously mark the progress of the Empire of the English-Speaking Peoples across Long Island and the World.
Intense to the pastoral idyll of Forest Hills money came calling, as it always does in New York City. Bigger, more modern arenas were called for to meet the growing demand for the game. The U. S. Open would move Flushing Meadows.
There was resistance in the majority Black Corona neighborhood to the project that would see a local park—and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs—converted into one of the globe’s largest tennis facilities. There were charges of racism on both sides, Ashe making them on behalf the USTA against community members opposing the scheme. At the time he was the only Black person in the 1,000-person West Side club, having been granted an honorary membership by virtue of his win at the 1968 Open.
The National Tennis Center was finished in time for 1978 tournament, the finals played in Louis Armstrong Stadium, named after the jazz legend and long-time Queens resident, a man who, as far as I can tell, never lifted a tennis racquet. Airports are named after presidents and movie stars who’ve never flown plans, so why not give the honor to Satchmo, then dead for a seven years? Still, the new stadium might have been more aptly baptized with the name of Big Bill Tilden, the greatest American tennis champion. His reputation had been trashed after his great successes of the Roaring Twenties because of his homosexuality and two alleged instances of soliciting sex from teenagers.
In that 1978 match Bjorn Borg, then two winning legs into a run at the Grand Slam, went down in brisk, straight-set defeat to Jimmy Connors. That loss was a blow to the thirteen-year-old me, an unshakeable fan of the phlegmatic Swede. But it was historically fitting that the American bad boy who played a decisive role in transforming tennis from clubby pursuit into big-time entertainment should have been crowned tennis king in the Big Apple.
Armstrong stadium was demolished in 2016, replaced by another more modern one with the same name but equipped with a retractable roof. Four years before the Twin Towers fell, Ashe rose from the Flushing swap, its 24,000 seats nearly double the capacity of the old stadium at Forest Hills.
Last Saturday Emma Raducanu and Leyla Fernandez played a skilled, beautiful, and powerful match, far more convincing and far greater a tribute to human striving and loss than the lugubrious slop served up beforehand.
The ethnically-diverse quartet looked embarrassed. What little they had to do was approximate and off-topic. Only the consummate theatrical performer Rubin-Vega managed to put on a devout face. She bravely resisted the present age’s tendency to add coloratura to the anthem’s craggy melody.
As the dirge proceeded, an all-female cadet corps from upriver at West Point slowly unfurled a tennis-court-sized American flag. This star-spangled banner did not wave; it was stretched to breaking by the white-gloved women. The musical ensemble struggled to maintain a straight face since they knew that what they were being made to play was ridiculous. The bluster and bluff of the anthem ripped away, the Empire’s old clothes fell to the ground.
After this silly and stricken prelude, the match mercifully proceeded. But the anthem’s suspect strains hung in the air as the women were forced to play their championship match alongside the date 9/11/2001 painted in white on the court next to the net, every point won and lost within the lines drawn by the War on Terror.
Thankfully this most dismal of Star-Spangled Banner performances could not be exhumed from YouTube. Perhaps an Assistant Undersecretary of Homeland Security thought it best to bury this lugubrious mistake, so redolent of defeat in the immediate aftermath of the Afghan fiasco. To the millions brainwashed by the Security State, this somber U. S. Open anthem might have suggested that the U. S. was now open for attack once again.
I just wanted to see and hear the tennis.