Of Influence and Opportunity

Washington Times  7.14.98
Balint Vazsonyi

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 ago.

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 winning.

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.