Tennis, Anyone? Why U.S. Men Can’t Win the French Open

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The 2013 French Open began this past weekend in Paris.  The tournament is one of pro tennis’s four Grand Slam events, the others being Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.

The French Open is the biggest clay court tournament in the world.  When tennis fans think of this tournament, the first image that comes to mind is the red clay surface at Roland-Garros Stadium.  This surface can be unforgiving for even the best tennis players.  The clay is actually crushed brick that has an outer layer of loose particles, which causes a lot of slipping and sliding.  Because of this, and because of the tennis ball bouncing abnormally high, the tournament is not suited for serve-and-volley players.  To win the French, you have to be exceptionally fit and be able to persevere through long rallies.

Since the Open era began in 1968, American male tennis players have had a very difficult time winning the French.  While U.S. women have taken the title 13 times (seven times by Chris Evert), only three American men have won it: Michael Chang, Jim Courier (twice), and Andre Agassi.  Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras never won it.  And of these three, only McEnroe reached the finals.  Since 1999, when Agassi defeated Andrei Medvedev in five sets, no American male has won it.

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Why is the French Open so troublesome to American male tennis pros?

Well, to be honest, America has only had a few top-tier male tennis players since Sampras and Agassi, whose heyday was the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Since then, America’s highest ranked player has been Andy Roddick.  But Roddick held the No. 1 spot for only a few months, and won only one Grand Slam event his entire career: the 2003 U.S. Open.  What helped him there was his powerful first serve.  But on the clay courts of Stade Roland-Garros, forget it.

Another reason is that clay court surfaces are far less common in the states than “hard court” surfaces.  Most of the clay courts are green or maroon “Har-Tru” clay, made of crushed basalt, but which are harder and faster than red clay.  Only one men’s ATP tournament in the U.S. is held on any type of clay: the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston.

And although it sounds silly, Americans really struggle with the French language.  Because of our proximity to Mexico, Central and South America, Spanish is the most popular foreign language in the states.  Americans can “Excusé moi” and “Merci beaucoup,” but beyond that, most have a difficult time.  The language barrier at the annual French Open can’t be downplayed.

It would be nice if tennis could be as popular in the U.S. as during its Golden Age in the 1970s.  For baby boomer Yanks like me, who can forget those exciting Battle-of-the-Sexes matches between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs?  Or the coolness and grace of Chris Evert and Arthur Ashe?  Or the explosive play (and cocky behavior) of Jimmy “The Brat” Connors?  How about the launching of World Team Tennis, assisted by Elton John’s tribute song to his favorite team, “Philadelphia Freedom”?  Does anyone remember the late, great Vitas Gerulaitas??

There are probably a dozen reasons why the U.S. lags behind Europe in tennis.  But I started talking only about the French Open, so I won’t digress.  I just have a few suggestions for improving our prospects at Stade Roland-Garros:

First, go back to wooden rackets and deemphasize the serve-and-volley style of play.  Second, destroy all the hard courts and replace them with bright red clay (they’re prettier, anyway).  Third, mandate that students learn conversational French.  And last: find out what Rafael Nadal eats for breakfast and make it required fare at all our junior tennis camps.

Vive l’Amérique!!

20-something Environmentalist Blog

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One of the nice things about hosting a Weblog (blog) is that you’re part of a community of like-minded bloggers.  WordPress occasionally publicizes other blogs, and they did so on Earth Day last month.  One in particular stood out for me.  I liked the name, so I checked it out.

20-something environmentalist is a really well-maintained and altruistic blog by Lindsay, who hails from the Garden State (New Jersey).  Lindsay has devoted her own garden in cyberspace to nurturing and sharing ideas about green living.  The fact that Lindsay is only in her 20s gives me hope that our planet’s future is in better hands.

So, rather than dole out my usual curmudgeon claptrap, I thought it would be nice to put in a plug in for a different blog.  Also, I’m always looking for an excuse to take a siesta.

If you would like to see a cool, refreshing, green-ish blog, and maybe pick up some pointers on how to make a positive difference, please check out 20-something environmentalist!

(Note: if you follow this blog, you’ll notice the design and title are different.  My WordPress theme is now “Splendio” rather than “Koi,” and I’ve shifted to “longitudes” instead of “latitudes.”  I just wanted a simpler look and less generic name.  I hope you like it!)

Spaghetti Western Feast

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Who likes Spaghetti Westerns?  I love Spaghetti Westerns.  And the more pasta, the better.  “What’s he talking about?” some of you are thinking.  “What does John Wayne have to do with marinara sauce??”  Well, this essay will explain.  I’ll also give a short list of my top five “Spags” – in case anyone would like to sample the cuisine.

Here’s the Spaghetti Western Database definition of a Spaghetti Western (this assumes most of you already know what a “Western” is):

The spaghetti western was born in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the second half of the seventies. It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern.

I’ll add that most casual Western fans in America associate Spags with four films produced and directed by Sergio Leone, three of which starred a young Clint Eastwood (before he started talking to empty chairs): A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the fourth is Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).  Although these are the most well-made and popular, there are hundreds of lesser-known Spags, some of them quite interesting.  Many have outrageous titles like GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T and LIGHT THE FUSE…SARTANA IS COMING!  Many also feature the alternately weird and majestic musical scores of Ennio Morricone.  Stylistic trademarks include sparse, dubbed-in dialogue, lingering close-ups, desolate landscapes – and often the lack of coherent plot (forget substance, Spags are all about atmosphere).

Spaghetti Westerns are also very violent.  Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED is a modern-day nod to Spags.  I’ve been critical of overt violence in cinema, but I do think there’s a difference between the almost cartoonish violence in movies about the Old West and the more realistic violence of today.  Anyway, that’s my lame excuse.

So here are my Top 5 Spaghetti Westerns:

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: The most popular Spag, it’s also one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  Eastwood perfected his cool “Man with No Name” persona here.  He gets great support in bad Lee Van Cleef, a mainstay of the Spag genre, as Col. Douglas Mortimer (aka “Angel Eyes”); and ugly Eli Wallach, who provided a crude but lovable character as Mexican bandit Tuco and lifted this film to another level.  This is a long trail-ride of a movie about a search for buried gold, and it has dozens of great moments.  My favorite is a scene with a drunken Union general (a parody of U.S. Grant). Also the climactic three-way cemetery shootout.  And Morricone’s sweeping music is instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Another Leone flick, this movie is a bittersweet depiction of what happened when civilization intruded upon the Wild West, changing it forever.  Henry Fonda, usually a good guy, played the blue-eyed killer, Frank, one of the coldest villains in film history.  The hanging scene at the end is a classic.  Also stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson as…wait for it…“Harmonica.”

THE GREAT SILENCE: This Spag is unusual because the entire movie takes place in the snow.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and it showcases creepy, maniacal actor Klaus Kinski as a soulless bounty hunter.  It also has a highly erotic, interracial love scene.  Director Sergio Corbucci loved downbeat endings, and this movie is no exception (though the DVD adds an alternate, more upbeat ending).

COMPAÑEROS: Starring charismatic Franco Nero, a big star in Europe, along with the entertaining Tomas Milian.  The movie has plot holes large enough to drive a wagon train through, but it’s a rollicking good time and, like a lot of Spags, it centers on an unstable partnership between two antiheroes.  It also has great comic elements, plus the added attraction of beautiful German actress Iris Berben. 

THEY CALL ME TRINITY: In the early ‘70s, a series of lighthearted Spaghetti Western parodies came out starring Terence Hill.  Many Spag fans don’t like the Trinity films, but I say “Hey, it’s all in good fun.”  Some prefer MY NAME IS NOBODY, with Fonda as an aging gunfighter worshipped by Hill, but I prefer this one, the first in the series, because it’s less goofy than the others.  Watch this one after you’ve seen a few of the more “straight” Spags.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tribute to Spaghetti Westerns.  If you do choose to sample this pasta – gringo – may I recommend complementing your meal with our house tequila, followed by a skinny cigar?  No?  Maybe some sarsaparilla and refried beans?

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Kon-Tiki Sails into the Movies

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Thor Heyerdahl had a theory.  He believed that the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not originally come from Asia, as most experts believed.  He speculated they actually migrated 1,500 years ago from South America.  He based his theory in part on resemblance between the cryptic monuments on Easter Island and pre-Columbian designs in Peru.  But in order to reach the distant South Pacific islands, Peruvians would be forced to cross the mighty Pacific in nothing sturdier than small rafts made of balsa wood.  Impossible, Heyerdahl’s critics argued.  So the Norwegian set out to prove it possible by sailing from Peru to the islands on a raft, which he called Kon-Tiki after the name of the Incan sun god.

His epic 3,770-mile (6,067 km) voyage, accompanied by five other courageous Scandinavians, is the subject of the recent movie KON-TIKI.  The movie is based on Heyerdahl’s 1947 sailing excursion, which was detailed in his subsequent book and award-winning documentary.  So far the film has received a lot of praise (despite taking a few creative liberties for excitement purposes).  It was produced by Brit Jeremy Thomas (THE LAST EMPEROR) and directed by two young Norwegians, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.  They grew up in a small village outside Oslo and idolized Heyerdahl. 

“’He was ambitious and not afraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian,’” says Roenning in the April 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. “’We wanted to be a part of Heyerdahl’s adventure.’”

That adventure included not only Heyerdahl’s crossing the Pacific, but raising money for the expedition, hiring a crew idealistic and brave enough to join him, chopping down balsa trees in Peru to assemble the raft, and publicizing the adventure.  Heyerdahl succeeded magnificently.  Post-war America, Europe, and Australia were hungry for an inspirational diversion, and the world was riveted by tall, handsome Heyerdahl and his crazy scheme.  To make things even more interesting, Heyerdahl was afraid of water and never learned how to swim.

“’Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was PR,’” says Roenning, who refers to the voyage as the world’s “first reality show.”

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The critics who groused that Heyerdahl was on a suicide mission ended up eating their words.  Rather than splitting the Manila rope lashings, or being ripped apart by 25-foot ocean waves, the balsa logs became “spongy” and comfortably melded with the rope.  Water flowed through the logs “as if passing through the prongs of a fork.”  Although there were perils (the usual storms and sharks, and even a phenomenal water spout), the crew made it to the islands unscathed.

But Heyerdahl never was able to convert those who mocked his anthropological theories.  Most scientists and historians today believe that, based on “linguistic and cultural” evidence, the Pacific islanders did originate in Asia (though recent genetic evidence does reveal a tenuous link to Native Americans).

Apparently, getting the movie made was more of a problem than the Kon-Tiki’s actual voyage.  Backers for the film were difficult to procure “because no one had died.”  So the filmmakers decided to sacrifice the raft’s mascot, a parrot named Lorita!  Finding acceptable scriptwriters was also troublesome.  One of the early candidates had helped write the script for ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, but she made the mistake of inviting the aging Heyerdahl to see the movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which she hoped to use as a model for her script.  Heyerdahl was disdainful of Indiana Jones’s “approach to archaeology.”  She wasn’t hired.