Reiwa characters
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the new era name “Reiwa” at a press conference_Reuters

Tomorrow, May 1, 2019, begins the era of Reiwa in Japan.

Today, April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito, the son of Emperor Hirohito, will abdicate the throne and be succeeded by his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.

In Japan, every period of an Emperor’s rule is given a name, and the Japanese commonly used the era name to mark time. Hirohito’s was Showa, and I was born in the year of Showa 38 (or 1963). Akihito’s was Heisei, and I was married in the year of Heisei 2 (or 1990).

Akihito (age 85) is the first emperor in 200 years to step down from the throne, and he does so in order for he and his wife, Empress Michiko (age 84), to live out the remainder of their lives in a more leisurely fashion, without the daily duties of the royal house. After all, Akihito and Michiko, showed Japan throughout their courtship and marriage that they too had to grow and change with the times.

Akihito and Michiko playing tennis in their early years_Getty
Akihito and Michiko playing tennis after announcing their engagement in 1958.

They first met on a tennis court in Karuizawa one day in August 1957. According to The Daily News, Michiko was partnered with an American named Bobby Doyle, and the Japan-US duo defeated Akihito in his partner over a two-hour two setter. It is said Akihito took a picture of Michiko and quietly had a friend deliver it to her. He also invited Michiko to join another tennis match, with the Shah of Iran.

Thus began the famous tennis romance, that blossomed not only for the couple, but for the entire nation. Not only did the royal couple spark a tennis boom in Japan, there was a boom in interest in the royal family. For Michiko was not of royal blood – a commoner who won the heart of the future Emperor, and “Mit-chi” as Michiko was affectionately called, was highly popular. Their eventual marriage on April 10, 1959, complete with a 8.8 kilometer procession through Tokyo in horse-drawn carriage, was viewed by half-a-million people who lined the course, and tens or million more on newly purchased televisions.

In another break from tradition, Akihito and Michiko decided that they would raise their own children instead of the practice of leaving the rearing of the children to tutors.

Thanks to the newly-founded powers of television to bring images instantly and up close to the average person, the crown prince and princess became celebrities of sorts. People were happy to catch a glimpse of them on a tennis court in Karuizawa or at a pizza restaurant in Roppongi. The members of a preparatory committee who hoped to bring the Stoke Mandeville Games to Tokyo also hoped to leverage the star power of the royal couple.

As related in a previous post, Yoshiyuki Kasai, who led the preparatory committee to bring what would become the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, arranged for Akihito and Michiko to meet the first Japanese to compete in the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, and tell the couple of their experience competing in a foreign land. Photos of the popular prince and princess with the disabled athletes ignited the preparatory committee’s ability to gain support more broadly within public and private circles.

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The Crown Prince Akihito and Empress Michiko meet representatives of the Australian Paralympic Team and other teams at the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

As a result, not only did Akihito and Michiko help make the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality, they were present during much of the 5-day Tokyo Paralympics, not just sitting in the audience, but interacting with the athletes on camera. They single-handedly brought significant national attention to the disabled, and raised the profile of this new international event despite the fact that Japan had just experienced it’s greatest international event, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, only weeks before.

The reign of Heisei is ending. But the legacies of Akihito and Michiko, including those in the world of sports, will last forever.

Elderly Akihito and Michiko playing tennis

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Jana Novotna wins Wimbledon Women Singles Championship in 1998She was on the verge of winning the 1993 Wimbledon Championship, up 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, and 40-30 in the third set, a point away from taking a commanding 5-1 lead over Steffi Graf. Jana Novotna then double faulted, and proceeded to melt down.

Ten minutes later, Graf had won the final set 7-6 and taken her fifth Wimbledon championship. Novotna, who let glory slip through her fingers, could do nothing but cry on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, as the tennis world cried with her.

The tennis world cried again, as three-time Olympic medalist Jana Novotna died on November 19, 2017. She was only 49, succumbing to cancer.

Novotna’s career was hardly shattered by her dramatic loss in London in 1993. Encouraged by the Duchess of Kent, she came back five years later to win the 1998 Wimbledon singles championship. But when I review her grand slam tennis record, I was amazed at how many championships she won in doubles and mixed doubles: 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the Australian Open, 5 doubles championships at the French Open, 5 doubles and mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon, and 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the US Open.

In other words, Novotna had a total of 17 grand clam championships, although 16 were in doubles. I thought, wow, that’s a lot of grand slam championships….until I saw the list of tennis players who had more grand slam titles. There were 20 people ahead of her.

What I found interesting is that of the 20 people ahead of her, most had decent balance between singles and doubles championships – people like Margaret Court, the all team leader at 64, with 24 singles championships and 40 doubles championships, or Serena Williams with 23 singles and 16 doubles championships. There were a few like Graf and Chris Evert who basically focused on winning singles championships. But the majority on the list piled up their championships in the doubles arena, like Novotna.

Is there a difference in mentality and skill sets for singles players vs doubles players? According to this blog post from the website Talk Tennis at Tennis Warehouse, there are significant differences between the two.

Successful singles players have powerful first and second serves, love to pound it back and forth from the baseline, and aim for the corners, while successful doubles players are cat-like in front of the net, are skilled at drop shots and lobs, and tend to hit to the middle of the court. The post goes on to describe what it’s like when a person who has a singles mentality plays doubles, and vica versa. Here are a few:

Singles guy playing doubles (with 3 doubles players), singles guy…

  • after his partner serves, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • after his partner returns serve, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • serves rocket first (and second) serves (rather than slowing the speed and getting the first serve in)
  • make no consideration to serve down the middle to capitalize on his netman’s poaching prowess
  • way too many low-percentage shots (when other available for typical doubles player)
  • poor volley skills make him the target of every possible ball until he gets to the baseline

Doubles guy playing singles player, doubles guy…

  • serves second serves like doubles (slower) only to find singles man has a field day crushing them for winners
  • used to covering half of 36′ doubles = 18′ but now has to cover 27′
  • that extra 9′ makes the “alleys” twice as big and he gets passed a ton by the singles player smoking them DTL or CC
  • baseline exchanges are short because singles guy is looping/spinning the ball like mad with nice pace and Doubles guy is not used to that
  • doubles guy can’t seem to get to the net because singles guy’s pinning ’em to the baseline — so who’s gonna win?
Sam Querrey at Wimbledon
Sam Querrey at Wimbledon

When I played a lot of tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were giants who battled the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Lendl. Connors and McEnroe passed the American torch to Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who went on to greater championship glory. But those days of American dominance are long gone.

As this interesting article from Five Thirty Eight points out, an American named Sam Querrey became the first American since Andy Roddick in 2009 to reach a semi-final of a Grand Slam tournament, by beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon on July 13, 2017. (Querrey lost to Marin Cilic, thus continuing men’s futility in Grand Slams.)

Five Thirty Eight is a blog written by data analytic junkies, and they provide powerful data on the virtual disappearance of the American male in the semifinals of any of the four grand slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and The US Open. In fact, the last American to win a grand slam was Andre Agassi, at the 2003 Australian Open.

That is an amazing drought for the world’s biggest economy that happens to have a huge tennis fandom.

Five Thirty Eight provides the rationale:

The globalization of tennis has slowed down America year after year. In the early Open era, beginning in 1968, into the 1970s and ’80s, America led the world in tennis training, practice and equipment. American men won loads of Grand Slam titles from 1968 through the 1990s, when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier ruled. From 1990 to 1999, American men reached the semifinals or better 62 times at Grand Slams. All the while, though, foreign tennis training improved. By the time 2000 came along, diversity had climbed. American men reached the semifinals or better only 26 times from 2000 to 2009.

OK. That kind of makes sense.

Except that the globalization argument should include data on women. Since the year 2000, there have been only 3 years when an American woman did not win a grand slam finals: 2004, 2006 and 2011. Every other year, an American has won: Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and two others who happen to have the same last names: Williams.

Serena and Venus Williams have captured 29 of the past 70 grand slams since the year 2000, or 41% of them. If we add Jennifer Capriati’s three grand slam championships and one of Davenport’s, the total increases to 33 of 70 to nearly 47%, or nearly half of all grand slam championships in the 21st century.

It doesn’t appear globalization has slowed down American women.

Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
Venus Williams makes it to her ninth Wimbledon Finals in 2017
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Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff

Quarterback Tom Brady and Super Model Gisele Bundchen are. So are Tennis great Serena Williams and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. Then there is golf icon Tiger Woods and ski champion Lindsey Vonn, as well as Olympian greats Nadia Comaneci and Bart Connor. These are Sports’ Power Couples, a duo of envious capabilities and qualities that will cause entire rooms to turn heads.

But perhaps the greatest sports power couple of all time is the love match of tennis legends, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.

Andre Agassi, the charismatic, enigmatic tennis tour de force of the 1990s and oughts is one of 8 men to have a career grand slam, having won eight grand slam titles over the course of the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. To win the biggest tournaments on three different surfaces – hard court, grass and clay – is a testament to versatility and greatness. Additionally, Agassi won gold in men’s singles tennis at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, thus making him the first and only man to earn the informal title of Career Golden Slam, until Rafael Nadal accomplished that with combined Olympic victory in 2008, and US Open victory in 2010.

Steffi Graf tops the accomplishments of her husband. The German superstar of the 1980s and 1990s is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. Over her career, Graf has won 22 Grand Slam singles titles (tied with Serena Williams), and in one incredible year, she pulled off a purist’s dream. In 1988, Graf won the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the US Open, capping it off by winning the gold medal in women’s singles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

A Golden Slam. Until Steffi Graf, no one, man or woman, had ever done that.

steffi-graf-and-andre-agassi-family

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Monica Puig of Puerto Rico wins gold in women’s single tennis.

The 2016 Rio Olympics had some absolutely thrilling moments. Here are a few to bring back the memories:

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Saori Yoshida with the weight of Japan on her shoulders.

Fu Yuanhui
Far left, China’s Fu Yuanhui, bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke
When you think of Brazil, you think of samba, you think of Carnivàle, you think of joy. And the Rio Olympics had its share of joyful moments.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Fu Yuanhui: The Chinese may have had an off-par Olympics in terms of medal haul, at least to them, but Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, became an overnight sensation. While the Chinese expect gold from every one of their athletes, the Chinese and the rest of the world fell in love with the 20-year-old bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. There were few more expressive, more unfiltered, more joyful than the young woman from Hangzhou. Watch the clip for a few examples of why Fu Yuanhui lit up the Twitterverse with delight.

Justin Rose: The golfer on Team GB was outspoken in his criticism of other professional golfers foregoing the Olympic re-boot of golf after over a century. Justin Rose won gold in men’s golf, stating “It’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game.” Rose won on skill and determination. But on the 189-yard par-3 fourth hole in the first round of the tournament, Rose walked into a bit of luck with his 7-iron, nailing the first ever Olympic hole in one. Watch the video to see Rose’s pleasant surprise.

David Katoatau: If you have never heard of the Republic of Kiribati, you may be excused. This nation of 33 atolls and reef islands spread out over 3.5 million square kilometers lies on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On one of those islands resides David Katoatau, who came in 15th at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 85kg weight class, and 17th at the 2012 London Olympic Games in the 94kg weight class. At the Rio Olympics, Katoatau managed only 14th in the 105kg weight class, but came in first in the Olympic dance competition. In his last failed attempt in Rio, Katoatau fell over, rolled on his back, flipped himself up, hugged the weights, and started the most joyful funky dance you’d ever see from a weightlifter.

Monica Puig: If you weren’t following tennis in the Olympics closely and tuned on the television for the women’s finals, you would be wondering, Who is Monica Puig? Even casual fans of tennis would likely have recognized Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, but you could be excused if you didn’t know the unseeded Puig. 

However, every time Puig won, her home country of Puerto Rico began to rumble and roar. In an economic mess, Puerto Ricans have had little to cheer about in recent months. But as Puig continued her march to the medal round, an entire country stopped to watch. With monumental expectations on her shoulders, Puig did the unthinkable – she upset Kerber. Her medal was gold, her tears were of joy.

Monica Puig's tears of joy
Monica Puig cries tears of joy.
Brazil’s Soccer Team: When Neymar sent the winning penalty kick at the finals of the Olympic soccer championships, not only did Neymar collapse in tears of joy, the entire country of Brazil exploded in celebration.

Monica Puig wins

It is the finals of the women’s singles final at the Rio Olympics. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico is ranked 34th in the world, has not won a tournament of consequence in her young career, and is facing off against world #2, Angelique Kerber of Germany, the reigning Australian Open Champion.

Somehow, Puig wins the first set, 6 games to 4. I begin to notice the chants in the background – U-S-A! U-S-A!

Yes, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and Puig makes her home in Florida. But she has made it clear, she is competing for Puerto Rico. And besides, I thought, if Puerto Rico is a “territory” of the  U-S-A, then the  U-S-A isn’t really doing a remarkable job of managing it, at least nothing to cheer about.

Puerto Rico is in the deepest part of a 10-year economic slide. Its government is bankrupt, and unemployment is at 12%. Finding work, as well as hope, has become so hard in Puerto Rico that nearly a tenth of its population has moved to the United States. Here is how the New York Times recently described Puerto Rico:

It’s official: America now has a failed state within its borders, just the way Europe has Greece. America’s biggest unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico, effectively ran out of cash this summer and has stopped paying its debts. Now, Congress is putting together an oversight board to call the shots until the island gets back on its feet.

Monica Puig with Flag the Night Before the Finals

Imagine you’re Monica Puig from Puerto Rico. Quite possibly most of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans in the country are watching the finals on television, gasping with each shot, moaning with every miss, and cheering every point won. Puig had the hopes and fears of an entire country riding on her shoulders.

After dropping the first set, Kerber came out in the second determined to show her metal,  taking the set 6 games to 4. Of course, everyone outside of Puerto Rico was thinking it was time for Puig to revert to her role as inexperienced upstart and lay down.

But lay down she did not. Puig raced out to a 5-0 lead in the third set, breaking Kerber twice, chasing the German champion side to side, playing sharp angles and failing to miss. However, as the announcers intoned, those last few championship points are the hardest, particularly for someone as inexperienced in the big matches as Puig.

Kerber serving in game 7 of the third set, fought for her life, earning six break chances. And each time Puig got it back to deuce. Puig also pushed it to the brink by getting to match point three times, before Kerber got it back to 40-40.

For Puig, the fourth match point was the charm. When Kerber sent a shot wide of the baseline, the 22-year-old from San Juan dropped her racket, her face etched in shock. Mouthing the words “Oh my God,” she stumbled to the net to shake Kerber’s hand, then the judge’s hand before dropping to her knees, overcome.

You could almost hear the roar out of San Juan, a guttural cry of both relief and release. A daughter of Puerto Rico not only put her country on the mental map of millions of armchair sports fans, she reminded her compatriots that like her, Puerto Rico will not go down without a fight.

“This is for them. They’re going through some tough times. They needed this. And I needed this. I think I united a nation. I just love where I come from.”

Monica Puig Puerto Rico's Heroine

Robinson Leonard Ali
Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

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Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.

Bud Collins and Dick Enberg
NBC announcer Bud Collins, left, with Dick Enberg in the television booth at the All England Club for the 1982 Wimbledon. Photo: Walter Looss JR. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

I was a big tennis fan when I was growing up in Queens, New York, getting lessons at Cunningham Park, and playing with friends on the awful concrete court on the grounds of the Queens General Hospital. And I remember in the 1970s watching Breakfast at Wimbledon on NBC, with Bud Collins, when Bjorn Borg was the dominant male tennis player of the time, routinely defeating Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas and Roscoe Tanner. And I remember the epic five-setter in 1980 when John McEnroe lost to Borg at Wimbledon. Bud Collins was always there.

Collins passed away on March 4, 2016.

But what I just learned is that Bud Collins, who essentially began his journalistic career as a college student for his school paper, went, somewhat on a whim, to the 1948 London Olympic Games as a spectator. The goal was to cheer on a fellow Baldwin-Wallace College student, William Harrison Dillard.

A few years ago, Collins wrote this wonderful article for ESPN, recalling his early days in Berea, Ohio, where he literally delivered newspapers (Cleveland Plain Dealer) on the Baldwin-Wallace campus and its environs as a 14-year old. When he became a BW student, world-class hurdler Dillard also decided to join BW. Dillard could have gone to Ohio State, the alma mater of Jesse Owens, the last American to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters in 1936, but as Collins relates in the article, Dillard wanted to stay closer to home.

harrison dillard 1948
William Harrison Dillard in 1948 at the London Summer Games.

 

Collins continues to write this amazing story of how Dillard was pretty much expected to win gold in the 110 meter hurdles easily at the re-boot Olympics in 1948, the first Olympics since Berlin in 1936, postponed for 12 years due to world war. (in fact, Dillard served in the US military, seeing significant action on the Italian front.) But for some reason, at the Olympic trials, Dillard competed poorly and would not be asked to compete as a hurdler. He did place third in the 100 meters, so was put on the team to possibly compete in the 400-meter relay team.

So when young Bud Collins, and his editor on the school paper, decided to use their savings and borrow money so they could go to London, there was only a slim possibility of watching their buddy, “Bones” Dillard, compete at the 1948 Olympic Games. As it turned out, in a London still climbing out of the rubble of World War II, Dillard was crowned the fastest man in the world, and a budding journalist named Bud Collins was there.

Thank you Bud, for the memories.