Of Influence and Opportunity
The fortnight of tennis at Wimbledon has just concluded. It represents
a phenomenon that may be deserving of attention by people other
than tennis fans.
The championships had been instituted and are carried on in splendid
style by the British, yet there has not been a British champion
among the men - not even a finalist - in living memory. Virginia
Wade, the last British woman to win, did so more than twenty years
The above not withstanding, Wimbledon remains a symbol of Britain,
along with countless others that make up our daily lives - whether
we are conscious of them or not. Its lasting position of influence
does not depend on a single British player participating, much less
An extraordinary proportion of our time, attention and energy is
being spent on trying to understand why different people - and different
groupings of people - achieve different results. In our attempt
to understand and eliminate these differences, we look for guilt
to be apportioned and we devise ever new ways to reshuffle the cards.
We even stack the deck, hoping that new forms of cheating will change
reality, and balance what we tell ourselves must have come about
through cheating in the first place.
But the fact that Wimbledon remains the event in which to partake,
the spectacle to watch, the crown to win did not come about through
cheating. The style, the pace, the custom, and the apparent permanence
of it all are the result of centuries and centuries during which
attitudes had been refined, lessons learned, better ways contemplated.
Wimbledon did not come about as the result of demands by the British
to be given a major role in tennis.
They came up with the whole thing - game, set, and match.
In our time, there truly is an opportunity for all those who have
been left behind or left out for whatever reason to become participants.
But if we continue to derive and dispense the wrong lessons from
history, we will indeed make ourselves guilty.
Many of the wrong lessons come in the shape of looking for, and
finding, an infinite number of excuses and explanations for the
absence of specific accomplishments by individuals or groups of
individuals. Some of the wrong lessons come in the shape of confusing
power and influence.
The ability to distinguish between power and influence is essential
to the comprehension of history. Power is the ability to induce
others to do that which they would rather not do; influence is the
ability to persuade others that you are right. Power elicits resistance;
influence invites agreement. Power may be acquired quickly; influence
is built over long stretches of time.
The power of Rome disappeared a long time ago; the influence of
Rome is still very much in evidence. The power of the Soviet Union
used to threaten from land, sea and space; its influence nevertheless
had waned long before its demise. England has lost an empire and
still struggles with an antiquated industry; yet her influence is
global as her empire once was.
The Wimbledon concept is simple: win seven full-length matches
within fourteen days back-to-back, and you are this year's champion.
The organizers don't care where you were born, they don't analyze
why you have not won before, and they do not guarantee you a future
place in anything but the opening game next year. Even that is more
for the sake of continuity than of privilege.
If Wimbledon adopted the current American stance, players would
be required to fill out a form, specifying their ancestry and nationality.
Boris Becker and Steffi Graf would have to concede penalty points
because their grandparents' generation had done terrible things
in World War II. Martina Hingis would have to hide that she was
born in Czechoslovakia, for there have been entirely too many Czechs
in recent finals. Since Pete Sampras of the United States now has
five championships whereas Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia has none,
a quota would need to be established favoring recently independent
countries in East-Central Europe. But wait: that might produce even
more Czech champions!
Alternatively, the President could appoint a panel to discuss why
the losers have lost. This panel could meet regularly to evaluate
whether a player had childhood experiences adversely affecting her
serve, or if stories of struggle by the player's ancestors undermined
his ground strokes.
To be serious again: In our time, as stated before, there truly
is an opportunity for all those who have been left behind or left
out for whatever reason to become participants. Excuses and explanations
cannot and will not take the place of performance.
In 1975, Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon because he had what it took
to win. The rules were not changed to accommodate him, and his place
in history does not depend on constructing a corner for "black
achievement at Wimbledon." Just as Wimbledon remains the place
where history is made with or without British players, Arthur Ashe
made history at Wimbledon because he won seven full-length matches
back to back within fourteen days.