Commentary: Tennis lessons from the French

By RON COLBERT  |  June 11, 2003 at 2:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- What happened at French Open tennis tournament this weekend is a major example of why this country needs to pay more attention to the development and talents of foreign-born athletes, and come down from its no one can beat me attitude.

When the world's top-ranked tennis player, Serena Williams of the U.S., was beaten by Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium in the semifinals of the French Open on Friday, it sent yet another message to this country. We, America, are not all that popular overseas, especially in France, which has taken a beating because of its decision not to support the U.S. in its confrontation with Iraq.

As if that weren't enough, Williams made some mocking comments about the French for its stance. Because of that, at almost every match she played at Roland Garros, she was roundly booed. Those boos reached a crescendo during her match against Henin, and in her post-match interview, she was so distraught, she was in tears.

It didn't help that she uttered her usual take of having beaten herself, giving the competition a slightly backhanded compliment as if to say, "nobody beats me; as usual, I beat me." After an earlier match against countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo, she said, "I've seen her play better, but I played very well."

Methinks she needs a bit of tact. She has difficulty thinking that anyone can beat her, and her comments mirror that.

Like other Americans, Serena Williams should have learned a hard lesson about how politics has taken center stage in the sports world. Because a number of the best players in the world are foreigners, the competition is likely to get tougher, and that's just on the women's side. I've always been a fan of Andre Agassi, and even though he now is 33 years old and ranked No. 1 in the world, he has begun to show his age. His stiffest competitor in his heyday, fellow American Pete Sampras, is all but retired, and this country's new crop of stars, Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Vincent Spadea, to name a very few, are not good enough to beat the best in the world regularly, and lack the personality and charisma to become household names to anyone other than the hardcore tennis junkie.

Tennis is the latest sport to pinpoint America's weaknesses. We can't get people interested for more than a New York minute in soccer. How much do you remember about the women's team that won World Cup in 1999 other than Brandy Chastain ripping off her jersey after her game-winning goal won the title match against China? Other than the die-hards, how much do you know, or for that matter, care about men's soccer? Why is it that, on the world stage, this country almost never fares well?

Also, remember we got eliminated in a basketball tournament last year before the tournament even advanced to the medal round. And that event took place at Indianapolis on our turf.

The fact is that a growing number of hotshots in the NBA, the "National Basketball Association," are from foreign countries. The names of Yao Ming (Houston) from China, Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas) from Germany, Pau Gasol (Memphis) from Spain, Emanuel Ginobili (San Antonio) of Argentina and Peja Stojakovic (Sacramento) from Yugoslavia come to mind.

The one thing we have failed to realize is that foreign kids don't play these games for sport or recreation. Soccer and tennis are not suburb games. Kids play these sports day and night, not on the weekends or one day a week after school. And they don't see getting better as a distraction.

Many of them, as they get older, see being good and being stars in their respective sports as a means to an end, and most of them stay in school. They make the time to get educated because they are taught that, one day, the money either stops coming or runs out.

That is not to say that America doesn't have a few of those types, but because sports now is so universal, the game of your child's choice is not about beating other Americans anymore, and that makes the competition tougher and more numerous. The world is getting better and is not going to sympathize when it becomes at least the equal of the United States, in sports or anything else.

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