What a Raquet
Jul 09, 2012 -- 10:55am
     With Roger Federer hoisting his seventh Wimbledon trophy to tie Pete Sampras for most-ever on the grass courts, while winning his 17th major title, it's hard to make the case that he's not the best ever to play tennis.  And for that matter, the case can certainly be made that the game of tennis has never been played at a higher level overall.  The top three; Federer, who regained the top spot in the rankings with his win Sunday, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal might be the best trio competing against each other at one time - better even than Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors during the height of the tennis boom in the late 70's.
     The problem with the comparison is this - the raquet.  What the stars of today, really doesn't even compare to the wood and early metal raquets used by Borg, McEnroe and Connors.  The power and hitting surface offered by the old raquets is the equivalent of what Parnelli Jones drove to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1963.  It was the best that technology had to offer at the time, but would be a joke if you tried to drive that car in this year's race. 
    Those players of the past adapted their games to the equipment.  Borg and McEnroe were precision shot-makers and used those wooden raquets like Minnesota Fats running the table with a pool cue.  Connors, who played tennis like Bryce Harper plays baseball, took advantage of the most powerful raquet of the day, the Wilson T-2000.  But the hitting surface on that raquet is even smaller than the wood raquets.  And in comparison to the raquets of today, forget about it!  I know.  I still have the T-2000 I got for my Bar Mitzvah more than 40 years ago.  The hitting surface is about half the size of the raquet my son used when he played on his high school team a few years back.
     If you watched Federer beat Andy Murray on Sunday, you saw a game played much differently than the one played by Borg and McEnroe 30 years ago.  Theirs was about placement.  Federer and Murray blasted the ball back and forth with each spending very little time at the net.  It seemed that even some of the backhand shots by Federer had the power to blast past Borg and McEnroe in days of yore. 
     You often hear talk about how much golf has changed, thanks to equipment technology.  But realize, that's mainly what used to be called "woods".  The irons and putters are similiar to what they were while Jack Niclaus was collecting those 18 majors.  The raquet that's used today is used on every single shot.  It has made the game a different game, and maybe not coincidently, not as popular a game.
A Hidden Summer Gem
     My son Jeremy, turned 21 last month.  About the time I reached that age, I pretty much stopped going to games with my dad.  I had friends to go with and of course the ability to drive myself to get there.  Plus, when I noticed Dad dozing off during a Bullets game at the old Capital Centre, I realized he wasn't that interested in going anymore.  He'd more than fulfilled his fatherly duties by taking me to my share of games while growing up.  So I understand that the days of going to games with my son is likely to be a thing of the past.
     Which is why I was thrilled this past weekend when he asked me if I wanted to go to the Kenner League (they call it the Nike Pro City league now, but we call it by its pre-corporate sponsor name) at Georgetown's McDonough gym.  We started going when he was in high school and have managed to make it at least once over the last six or seven years.  I'm glad he still wants to uphold the tradition.
     If you've never been, it's a great way to spend a blazing hot summer afternoon.  The air conditioning in the gym works great and everything is free, including parking.  You just walk in and see as much or as little basketball as you want to see.  The teams are made up of mostly local college players, former college players, a few pros.  Jeff Green, who is about to re-up with the Celtics is a regular.  If you've been around here for a while, you may recall Allen Iverson bursting on the scene before the start of his freshman year at Georgetown in the Kenner League.  Those who were there, say you had to see it to believe it.
     Late Saturday afternoon we saw a team that included former Maryland star James Gist and former Florida State starter Isiah Swann.  Gist had some monster dunks and Swann couldn't miss from the outside.  For a while, Swann and former Georgetown star Austin Freeman had quite a three-point shootout going on. 
     Current coaches aren't allowed, but chances are you'll see John Thompson II holding court on the opposite side of the court, sitting in his familiar wooden chair.  They finish up the first weekend in August, so you might want to fit this in soon.  I hope Jeremy keeps asking me to go, it's a summer tradition that makes me smile.
Ernest Borgnine
     Borgnine, who died over the weekend at the age of 95, appeared in more than 75 films.  His best known sports role was playing Angelo Dundee in "The Greatest", which had Muhammad Ali starring as himself.  What seems to have been forgotten is the role he seemed perfect to play - Vince Lombardi.
     You can find a clip of "Legend in Granite", on Youtube, though it probably hasn't been broadcast  in more than 30 years.  It was made in 1973, three years after Lombardi died of cancer.  Borgnine was a dead ringer for Lombardi, right down to the thick black hair and gap between his two front teeth.  They were roughly the same age (Lombardi was born less than four years earlier) and even seemed to have the same demeanor. 
     In "From Here to Eternity", Borgnine played Sgt. "Fatso" Judson.  According to the Washington Post obituary, "Mr. Borgnine was said to have been such an effective symbol of brutal authority that people would harass him on the street to see if they could get a rise out of him."  Does that not remind you of Lombardi?
     If you check the Youtube clip, you'll see that in "Legend in Granite", Borgnine was the victim of a bad script.  But, my goodness, except for outfitting Borgnine with a pair of glasses, they probably didn't have to spend a dime on makeup. 

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