It was almost sixlocal time last Sunday evening when Russia's Dmitry Tursunov collected himselfbefore his fourth match point and pasted a backhand to defeat Andy Roddick ofthe U.S. in an epic match, 6--3, 6--4, 5--7, 3--6, 17--15. The ball had barelystrafed past Roddick when the jubilant Russians stormed the court at Moscow'sOlympic Indoor Stadium, transforming it into a clay-covered mosh pit. Aboutthree hours later Henrik Stenson potted the clinching putt in Straffan,Ireland, and before long the clubhouse at the K Club was overrun by moredancing Europeans than an Ibiza disco. And so it was that teams from the UnitedStates managed to surrender a claim to two cups--one Davis, one Ryder--in thecourse of a single afternoon. It was not a good day to be a fan of Americanteams. "Bloody Sunday," one U.S. tennis official put it.
Truth is, it couldhave been any given Sunday. Parity has never been a more voguish concept ininternational sports, and almost as a matter of routine we're reminded thatAmerica's global hegemony in sports is no more. Just last Thursday, the U.S.women's basketball team was upset by Russia, snapping a 50-game internationalwinning streak and forcing the Americans to settle for the bronze medal at theworld championships in S√£o Paulo. That was the same hue won last month in Japanby the meticulously selected, impeccably behaved, no-I-in-team U.S. men'sconsortium, unable as they were to get past Greece. This after a summer thatsaw no American man or woman reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the firsttime since 1911 and the dispiriting U.S. World Cup team fail to win a solitarygame. Not long before that, at the World Baseball Classic, the Americans gotcuffed by Canada, Korea and Mexico. (Hey, that's our pastime!) Say, whateverhappened to those noncompete agreements we'd always seemed to have with therest of the world?
All this unseemlylosing has, at least in some corners, provoked enough self-flagellation toinduce a torn rotator cuff. The failure of our teams is, you see, an expressionof American complacency. Their kids are running extra wind sprints, while ourshave a PSP in one hand and a chalupa in the other. Another theory: Our nationalembarrassment of riches has thinned the herd, as kids who once gravitated to afew major sports are now playing lacrosse and riding BMX and snowboarding.Worse, our futility is somehow linked to American foreign policy. As oneBritish columnist observed last week at the Ryder Cup, "Maybe [the failureof the American teams] is not wholly unconnected with what's happening on thestreets of Baghdad and round the mountains of Afghanistan."
But it's notreally about us. The inexorable force of globalization has made the worldimmeasurably smaller and made sports an easily exportable and importablecommodity. Technology has only hastened this; after all, it's easier to be likeMike when it requires only a browser to see him. Last week Sprint announced abreakthrough that enables subscribers to receive a highlights show on theirphones. When, from Prague to Perth, anyone with cell service can watch thelatest scores and highlights, your sport won't be balkanized for long. And it'shard to exaggerate the impact of geopolitics. As markets and political systemshave opened, it only stands to reason that new sports powers--say, formerSoviet republics, birthplace of all four of boxing's current heavyweightchampions and home of half the WTA's top 10 players--will emerge.
We should,ultimately, be celebrating the idea of America coming back to the pack. For onething it underscores the universality of sports. And when the talent pool forathletes is no longer national but global, the heightened competition yields asuperior product. "Now the battleground is even, [and] world basketball isat its best," Raptors forward Chris Bosh said after the U.S. lost toGreece. "We have to try to come back to dominance now." Not only is heright, but any lesser sentiment would be, you know, un-American.
As for somecompensatory comfort, consider that while our homegrown talent might win fewercups and medals, our sports culture has never been richer. The best athletictalent often comes to America to join our leagues and tours, play for ourcolleges, train at our facilities, learn from our coaches. If a few gold medalsare the tradeoff for getting to watch Nowitzki or Ichiro or Ovechkin Stateside,so be it.
If anything, itall makes the concept of international competitions a bit, well, dated. Andwhat exactly is a "foreign athlete" anyway? After Russia's Davis Cupdefeat of the U.S., Tursunov, a 23-year-old Moscow native, joined his teammatesin joyous celebration. When the last toast had been made and the last bottle ofvodka drained, Tursunov made preparations to get to his next event in Mumbaiand then return to the place he's called home for the last half of his life:Roseville, California.
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Hargitay was noticed by Jayne Mansfield--who told herwaiter she wanted 'a steak and the man on the left.' --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE24
ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO