The Best and Worst of Tennis in Popular Culture or a Column about Nothing
During the lengthy hiatus before the 2010 tennis season, I have turned my focus away from the tours and toward tennis’ relationship with popular culture. Sports and games have made major contributions to popular culture. Several great movies have used sports to tell stories. Even chess made an indelible mark 80′s music with Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok.” Tennis has not made any marks on popular culture that are as easy to recognize as The Hustler or Ragging Bull. While setting aside the obvious films such as the 2004 Wimbledon and 2005 Match Point, I have tried to glean the best and worst forays tennis has made into the entertainment industry.
The Bard’s Old School Contributions
William Shakespeare mentioned royal tennis, not to be confused with lawn tennis, in Hamlet, Henry V and Henry VII (see excerpts below).
1. ABC launched a television family comedy named Phenom about a tennis prodigy and her family. I believe I am losing brain cells typing about this program. The theme song starts at the 1:54 mark.
2. CBS launched the television series My Big Fat Greek Life in 2003 in an attempt to capitalize on the box office success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The ill fated series did have a Pete Sampras themed episode. The thought of Sampras being obsessed over by the Greek subculture within the U.S. is actually funny to me at least, but not even Pistol Pete could save this awful show.
3. The Simpson’s episode “Tennis the Menace” featuring Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Venus Williams and Serena Williams fell far short of expectations. It may be too much to quote the Comic Book Guy and say, “Worst Episode Ever!”, but this episode should have been much stronger.
1. The Seinfeld episode “The Lip Reader” centers on Jerry Seinfeld dating a line judge at the U.S. Open who happens to be deaf. Her lip reading skills are put to use as George Costanza seeks to find out why his last girlfriend broke up with him. Cosmo Kramer becomes a “ball man” at the U.S. Open and accidentally tackles Monica Seles in her big comeback. This could have been higher on the list if tennis had been more central to the plot.
2. The band Binge wrote a set of songs centered on various tennis players to be used during television broadcasts of the U.S. Open. The “best” of these songs is probably the Roger Federer song “Grand Slam Man”, but “Hey, It’s Andy Roddick” has limited merits as well. Recycling much of their Anna Kournikova themed song for their Maria Sharapova inspired song reminds me a of a guy at a club trying the same lame lines over and over again. Persistence is generally a virtue but not in this case.
The Top Five
5. Vijay Amritraj reached the quarterfinals of both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships. He helped India reach the Davis Cup final twice. Amritraj also had roles in two of film’s longest running movie franchises: James Bond and Star Trek. Vijay conveniently played “Vijay” in Octopussy and played an unnamed Star Fleet captain in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
4. Commercials for ESPN’s Sports Center have traditionally placed athletes in funny spots. Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer have each been featured in various sketches. Here is an example of Sampras’ fine work.
3. The Seinfeld episode “The Comeback” not only had Ben Stein playing a lawyer and George Costanza ranting about a “jerk store”, it also featured Milos who ran the pro shop at Jerry’s tennis club. Milos had a slick hair and short ponytail look that was common on the pro-tour (See Roger Federer pre-2005). It is easy to see why Jerry would buy a new racket based upon Milos’ authoritative recommendation. Milos turns out to play tennis at a ridiculously poor level. Milos dabbles “in the flesh trade” by sending his wife to seduce Jerry in order to try to keep the comedian quiet about his unbelievably bad tennis play, but it backfires. A staged showdown between Jerry and Milos is set as Milos attempts to win back his honor in the eyes of his wife. Kramer seeks out his lawyer at the same tennis club in order to amend his living will. Worlds collide as this tennis themed episode concludes.
2. The French Open has offered karaoke as a diversion for players in recent years. Lleyton Hewitt singing “Eye of the Tiger” was impressive. Rafael Nadal however made the best entry with his spirited rendition of “La Bamba.” It is also good to know that Rafa is not a sailor, he is a captain, he is a captain, he is a captain.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums portrayal of a discussion between Royal and Richie about choking on the tennis court is over the top. It is also an oddly believable representation of a conversation between a retired tennis champion and his maniacal father. Richie continuing to wear a headband after retiring from tennis reminds me a bit of Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas sporting their long hair today. I also think any tennis player who has been in a stressful on court situation would have to laugh at the idea of taking off both shoes and one sock in response to pressure. Somebody call W. Timothy Gallwey.
Any tennis moments that stand out for you more than Fletch pretending to be a club pro and giving a tennis lesson with the cover still on his racket?
Addendum – Shakespearean Tennis References
KING HENRY V
Act I, Scene II …
KING HENRY V
What treasure, uncle?
Tennis-balls, my liege.
KING HENRY V
We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hallth made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chaces. And we understand him we,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.
Act II Scene I
POLONIUS (describing Hamlet)
At ‘closes in the consequence,’ ay,
He closes with you thus: ‘I know the gentle-
I saw him yesterday, or t’ other day,
Or then, or then; with such, or such; and, as
There was a’ gaming; there o’ertook In’s rouse;
There falling out at tennis;’ or perchance,
I saw him enter such a house of sale,’
Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth.
THE FAMOUS LIFE OF KING HENRY VIII
Act I Scene III
The Lord Chamberlain & Sir Thomas Lovell are discussing new travel rules intended to cut down on French influence at court.
I am glad ’tis there: now I would
pray our monsieurs
To think an English courtier may be wise,
And never see the Louvre.
They must either— For so run the conditions—leave those remnants
Of fool and feather that they got in France,
With all their honourable points of ignorance
Pertaining thereunto,—as fights and fireworks;
Abusing better men than they can be,
Out of a foreign wisdom;— renouncing clean
The faith they have in tennis and tall stockings,
Short blister’d breeches, and those types of
And understand again like honest men;
Or pack to their old playfellows: there, I take it,
They may, cum privilegio, wear away
The lag end of their lewdness, and be laugh’d at
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