Dave Barry

Classic '96: Fire in the belly


This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, October 13, 1996.

So I went to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which is a big tennis event in New York City, which by the way has gotten much nicer. I say this because, as I was getting out of a taxi, I was startled by the sound of a woman's voice, coming from somewhere behind me, saying something like, ''Please check for your personal belongings!''

I assume that this was a recorded announcement, being played as part of New York's visitor-courtesy campaign. Either that, or some poor woman is locked in the trunk, and if you keep listening she says: ''Please get me out of here!''

But getting back to the U.S. Open: This is definitely the place to be if you want to see the finest tennis players in the world throw up. (More on this later.) But I warn you: You might be intimidated by the crowd. I was. I'm more used to football crowds, the type of crowd where you can paint your body and dance on the seats and blow on a giant plastic horn and wear an animal-shaped hat the size of a fire hydrant and scream insults at the officials so loud that traces of your saliva wind up in the hair of people sitting 38 rows in front of you, and you will not even be noticed.

Tennis is not like this. The U.S. Open crowd is made up mainly of your wealthy, upper-crust, wine-snot type of individual, the type of individual who is genuinely concerned about the rising cost of helicopter maintenance, the type of individual who does not personally do The Wave because he or she has a staff for that purpose. Tennis has tried to soften its elitist image via such public-outreach programs as having the top players go into the inner cities and donate their used polo ponies to the poor. But the sport still attracts mainly your conservative, reserved fan. The entire U.S. Open crowd makes less noise cheering than a single New York Jets fan makes burping.

I'll tell you one reason why tennis doesn't appeal to the masses: The rules were invented by insane people (specifically, the French). If you look at a normal sport such as baseball, you see that the rules are very logical: three strikes is an out, unless the third one is a foul tip (but NOT if the catchercatches it), or if the catcher drops the third strike, in which case the batter may advance, provided that there are runners on first or first and second and fewer than two outs . . . no, wait, that's the Infield Fly Rule.

But my point is that baseball makes sense; whereas tennis has a virtually random scoring system. When players win a ''point,'' most of the time they actually get 15 points, except sometimes, for no apparent reason, they get 10 points, and sometimes (this is during the ''tie-breaker'') they get one point, and sometimes they get NO points, which means they are at ''deuce,'' which has something to do with ''ad.'' I think a big reason why tennis crowds are so quiet is that everybody's sitting there thinking: ''What the HELL is the score?''

This is not to say that tennis isn't exciting. I saw a moment at the U.S. Open -- the tennis world is still talking about this moment -- when Pete Sampras, with the score tied (also known as ''deuce'') (or possibly ''ad'') in the fifth ''set'' (or possibly ''game'') of an extremely tense ''match'' (or ''furlong''), reached deep within himself and -- as the truly great athletes will -- ralphed (or, in tennis lingo, ''lobbed his lunch'') right on the court. And then he won! The crowd was so excited that at the end of the match, one fan -- I swear I am not making this up -- ran down to courtside and got the actual towel that had been used to clean up after Sampras. The fan then left the stadium, proudly waving this fabulous trophy over his head. Imagine: A towel containing Pete Sampras' actual puke! Everybody at the country club is going to be SO jealous!

Let me stress that, despite the Sampras episode, tennis is good for your health. I know this because while I was at the U.S. Open, Donna Shalala, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, materialized for no apparent reason and held a press conference at which she revealed the startling information that, according to a study commissioned by her and performed by the Surgeon General -- exercise is good for you . I am dead serious. They gave out a press kit and everything.

It wasn't made clear why Secretary Shalala chose to announce this at a tennis tournament, where the participants and most of the spectators already engage in a physical activity (tennis). Wouldn't it have been more logical for her to make her announcement at some locale where people mostly just sit around doing nothing, such as a bar or a golf course? Do you suppose she really just wanted to watch the U.S. Open? Are other Cabinet members going to pull the same scam? Are we going to see, for example, the Secretary of Transportation showing up at the Super Bowl to announce that, according to a study, the Earth is round?

But never mind that. The point is that, according to a study paid for by your personal tax dollars, exercise is good for you. Doesn't that make you want to get up and DO something? It definitely makes me want to do something. Somebody get me a towel.