They should learn history

Athletes should be encouraged to put aside their PlayStations, unhook their Ipod’s, halt their text-messaging and dip into the histories of their game, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Fifty years ago, a woman who was born to poverty on a cotton plantation and routinely tasted discrimination on her remarkable journey, won the US Open. Althea Gibson was tennis’ version of Jackie Robinson in a way, a black athlete hurdling prejudice to assert herself in a sport that was once reserved for whites.

The late Gibson, whose legacy was honoured at this year’s Open, is a great story. Roger Federer briefly became a story when he confessed he didn’t know who she was during his press conference.

Q: What do you know about Althea Gibson?

Federer: I don’t know. You’re putting me on the spot. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

In America, eyebrows leapt and words like “faux pas” and “gaffe” did the rounds. It was hard to open a blog without getting hit by indignation. How could Federer not know her? Even Serena Williams rapped Federer lightly on his knuckles, saying: “I can’t imagine he didn’t know who Althea Gibson was.”

But should Federer have known Gibson? Perhaps. And does it reveal something about him? Not really (only because HE does care about the game’s past). But should young players strive to be well-versed in the history of their sport? Definitely.

It is interesting that Lleyton Hewitt was not asked about Gibson in his opening press conference at the Open. Neither was Rafael Nadal. Nor Tim Henman. But perhaps Federer was asked because it was assumed he seems a fellow who might know.

In his manner (courteous) and dress (i.e. white coat at Wimbledon), Federer carries a sense of the old-fashioned with him. His heroes are men from a fading time, and he wept sweetly when Rod Laver presented him the Australian Open trophy last year. When it was announced this year after the final that he was the first since Ken Rosewall to win the Australian Open without dropping a set, he hailed the wrinkled champion in the stands. Tradition sits comfortably with the Swiss.

Federer will known Arthur Ashe and not merely because he was a more contemporary and celebrated figure. But because he was a man. Men’s players, in most sports, tend to be more aware of the accomplishments of their own sex, for it is men whose records they chase, and former male players who coach them and speak of the heroes of their time. Their oral histories, however limited, are full of tales of men.

Geography matters. Would Americans be as miffed with Federer if Gibson wasn’t American? Is Gibson’s relative anonymity partly because Americans themselves have not spoken and written about her widely enough?

Federer, who is not as embraced in the US as he is elsewhere because he is not American, is possibly more knowledgeable about European players. He may be familiar with Suzanne Lenglen. A young American player may not. Like in most fields, players are more familiar with their immediate environment and histories.

Many players see the world but often through the glazed windows of a five-star hotel. Their experiences are wide, yet they are limited. There is a sense they should get out more into the real world, though the Serbians, who have lived through whistling bomb campaigns and looked to escape that world, might argue that point.

Athletes don’t know things we think they should know, but we have to recognise their lessons in life do not coincide with ours. At 18, we didn’t have to face a constantly prying press (a maturing experience), and manage ourselves while being embarrassed in public (getting hammered in front of 20,000 people), and expected to behave like a choir boy while showing competitive aggression. It is a tough education.

Unquestionably, many athletes, so caught in their own celebrity (and indulged by weak minders), are often unable, or unwilling, to connect themselves to the past. They see themselves in beautiful, selfish isolation not as part of a rich tapestry, and they are poorer for it.

Women’s players should understand the contribution of Billie Jean King to their game, appreciate that the recognition they earn, the equal prize money they get, the respect they are offered, all leads back to her. Men’s players should be familiar with the French Musketeers, and the genius and trials of Bill Tilden, who occasionally finished matches by holding five balls in his hand, serving four aces and tossing the fifth ball away, as Frank Deford wrote, “in disdain”.

Athletes should be encouraged to put aside their PlayStations, unhook their Ipod’s, halt their text-messaging and dip into the histories of their game.

Media trainers should gently promote it, fashioning an environment where players understand they are a link in a grand chain, that they know the stories and faces behind the records they chase, that they appreciate the struggles of the performers who fought to open doors for them. Off the field, the more interesting athletes are often those who look beyond themselves, like Waugh, Dravid, Michael Ferreira, Ramesh Krishnan, to name only a few.

Perhaps also modern tennis players should take a swing with a wooden racket to understand Borg better, or wicketkeepers should try on Engineer’s old iron gloves to understand what they felt like. One day today’s players will be history, too, and who wants to be only a dry notation in a statistical book.

Federer does not deserve serious criticism about Gibson, but once he’s done with the Open he should read about Gibson. Not because it would be politically correct but because it’s a story he would like.

As Serena Williams was quoted as saying in the recent book ‘Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis’: “There were tournaments that wouldn’t let her (Gibson) play because they weren’t accepting blacks ….. And when she could get into tournaments, she wasn’t always allowed to use the locker room, or eat in the dining room. She had to sleep in cars at tournaments, when everybody else was sleeping in hotels.”

Gibson, who won five Grand Slam tournaments, had courage, beyond just showing nerve at match point. It is a courage Federer would admire.