Remember tennis? Sure you do. Headbands, tight shirts, tighter shorts ... ring a bell?
It had a glorious run in the late '70s and early '80s, with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors providing relentless back-page fireworks and the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry single-handedly bringing women's sport to the fore. (Well, double-handedly, in the case of Evert's backhand.)
It kept momentum through the '90s with the men's all-time Grand Slam champion, Pete Sampras, and the fellow Americans, among others, who chased him -- the chameleon-like Andre Agassi, the intense Jim Courier, the grinding Michael Chang -- while Steffi Graf dominated the women's game as few athletes have in any sport after poor Monica Seles was stabbed by a deranged Graf fan. An ever-compelling soap opera, tennis was big-time stuff.
And now? To some, it seems emblematic that Borg considered selling his five Wimbledon trophies in an attempt to stabilize his finances.
The next great American star, Andy Roddick, has gone from The Contender to The Apprentice; his confidence has shattered as his opponents have figured out to how to return his cannonball serve.
Niggling injuries appear to be moving Lindsay Davenport closer to the end of a good but vaguely unsatisfying career. The Williams sisters seem to have grown apathetic to the sport and gone on to other priorities.
SI.com and tennis isn't even on the main topic bar; it now falls under the "more" dropdown menu on both, lumped in with the likes of figure skating, horse racing and boxing. Where have you gone, Johnny McEnroe?
Actually, McEnroe, 47, won an ATP doubles title in San Jose, Calif., in February -- one of several remarkable recent stories that would have the sports world buzzing but for what appears to be tennis' faulty stateside press machine.
Martina Navratilova won her 175th career WTA Tour doubles title last year at age 48. Former world No. 1 Martina Hingis has returned from a three-year retirement to zoom back up the rankings and make the quarterfinals of the year's first major, the Australian Open. The fiery young Russian beauty, Maria Sharapova, has become the world's most recognizable and highest-paid female athlete. Two feisty, undersized Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, have proved that athleticism can still trump raw power, prognosticators to the contrary be damned.
Best of all, tennis features perhaps the finest and most elegant athlete around, not to mention one of sport's classiest gentlemen: Roger Federer. The Swiss star (not, in fact, an oxymoron, as Hingis proved in her previous incarnation as tennis' haughty teen queen) is well on his way to becoming the best player ever. He's already the most beautiful to watch, with a smooth game equally comfortable on offense or defense, at the baseline or up at the net.
And he's got a yang to his yin: The forehand-ripping Spanish teen Rafael Nadal, the reigning French Open champion, who holds a 3-1 edge over the otherwise untouchable Federer. So we have our 21st-century rivalry, and not a moment too soon.
Back to the Courts
It's time to fall in love with tennis again. That means heading back out to your local courts, assuming they haven't been turned into a community swimming pool. And not with that old Wilson T-2000 in hand, champ. If you haven't bought a new stick since the Clinton administration, you should know that technology has progressed just as much as it has in
golf, for which you probably gave up tennis in the first place. Rackets are lighter, more powerful and easier on the arm than ever before. Here are four to try:
Babolat Aerotour ($189). Historically known for its strings, Babolat became a hit with pros when the company introduced rackets in 1994. It's the choice of Nadal, Roddick and Clijsters, among others. The Aerotour comes in both midsize (97 square inches) and oversize (107 square inches) versions; each features aerobeam technology, with the frame's beam modeled after an airplane wing. This minimizes air resistance for faster swing speeds and greater spin.
Head Flexpoint 6 ($250). The Flexpoint 6 features two small holes in its head -- at three o'clock and nine o'clock -- that cushion the frame at impact with the ball for greater solidity and control. It's made from strong, responsive Liquidmetal, an alloy found in aerospace applications that's more than twice as strong as titanium.
Prince O3 Silver ($300). Six oversize string holes atop the frame help expand the sweet spot by more than half. The result is a more uniform response across the hitting area for added consistency; the holes also yield a faster swing speed by reducing aerodynamic drag. As the longest, lightest and largest racket in the O3 series, the Silver is also the most powerful.
Wilson n1 Force ($300). The n1 is part of the nCode racket series that employs nanotechnology. Nano-sized silicon dioxide crystals seal the tiny empty spaces between the individual carbon fibers that make up the frame, which eliminates stress points. The result: almost 25% more power and twice the strength and stability of non-nano competitors.
Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.