Can Somebody Find the Balls?
The approach of Wimbledon in June always awakens my latent interest in tennis, which was formed during my childhood in the suburbs outside Chicago. The late 70's were a boom time for tennis (remember Borg/McEnroe in 1980?) and my family belonged to the local tennis club. This meant, lessons, lessons, and more lessons. I still play a decent game, with a little practice.
But what it also meant, for a ten-year-old kid about to break into the glory of adolescence, was a first encounter with the semi-primeval wonders of the men's locker room. There are certain visceral memories that come from that period for me: a hard cement floor under a thin coating of green felt, a slamming of steel lockers and their combo locks that slickly spun in their doors, a fragrant scent of talc and deodorant, steam wafting from the showers, a lone jockstrap or pair of white shorts left tossed on a wooden bench beside some stinking shoes, and fleeting (and not so fleeting) glimpses of my friends' fathers and the local high school boys as they went to and from the showers (is it getting hot in here?).
The tennis club was always a very straight place. Not that I was by any means ready to accept being gay at that age, but the aura of the place was distinctly heterosexual, and tennis too, even today. There's not a single out professional on the tour, so the atmosphere is ripe for rumor and speculation.
If we go by the law of percentages, one or more of these top eleven seeds at Wimbledon 2004 is a friend of Martina's. I've provided some pop-up images (shirtless of course) for illustration purposes. Just click on the names.
1. Roger Federer, Switzerland
2. Andy Roddick, United States
3. Guillermo Coria, Argentina
4. David Nalbandian, Argentina
5. Tim Henman, Britain
6. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain
7. Lleyton Hewitt, Australia
8. Rainer Schuettler, Germany
9. Carlos Moya, Spain
10. Sebastien Grosjean, France
11. Mark Philippoussis, Australia
So what has historically been gay about men's tennis?
Well, Bill Tilden for one. He practically invented the modern game of tennis in the early half of the 20th century. Here's a brief but absorbing article about him by Patricia Nell Warren. Unfortunately for Tilden (and for gays) he served time twice for being sexually involved with minors. His tennis was so legendary, however, that even that didn't stop him from being named later into the Sports Hall of Fame.
Tilden's sad emotional life and its end, alone at 60 with not $100 to his name, is not something to be envied, but he did pioneer the modern game of tennis. Warren writes, "All this time, many in the tennis world had known that Tilden was gay. They may have believed the conventional wisdom that all gay men were effete powderpuffs who couldn’t cut it in sports -- but they had to sit there and watch Big Bill go into macho overdrive and beat the shorts off every man who ever faced him across the net. Now and then, to tweak everybody, Tilden would drop the macho stuff and swish just a little. Or he would make provocative comments like: 'Tennis is more than just a sport. It's an art, like the ballet. Or like a performance in the theater. When I step on the court I feel like Anna Pavlova. Or like Adelina Patti. Or even like Sarah Bernhardt. I see the footlights in front of me. I hear the whisperings of the audience. I feel an icy shudder. Win or die! Now or never! It's the crisis of my life.' Macho fans winced. Baseball great Ty Cobb openly called him a fruit.
Now wouldn't that spice Wimbledon up a little?
So who's gay and who isn't? Roddick, Henman, Agassi, Philippoussis? The net is rife with rumors. Feel free to express your thoughts in the comments.
If a pro male tennis player were to come out today, it would certainly generate a tremendous amount of renewed interest in a sport whose fanbase has sagged in recent years. And why the hesitation? It's an individual sport. The arguments of how it might affect the team don't hold up here. And the threat of losing a sponsorship is tentative at best as gays become more common in popular culture and more visible in society — as long as the player retains his ranking.
So, c'mon guys. It's been years since Tilden's time. Today there's nothing wrong with admitting you like to play a game where balls fly at your face.