Players' union talk, drawing a line for fair media coverage, more mail
• We have a long and thoughtful disquisition from a labor economist below. We can discuss this more in the weeks to come but here's the dilemma. Tennis is ripe for unionization because the current structure that puts/pits labor (players) and management (tournaments) under the same umbrella is inherently flawed -- or, at a minimum, conflicted. Tennis is unripe for unionization because the interests of the players are often in conflict. What is best for Rafael Nadal is not necessarily best for Michael Russell. And vice versa.
While unionization seems to be a hot topic -- fans flamed by some strong rhetoric by the top players -- let me throw this out there: Observers have long talked about "blowing up the system" and reconfiguring the Tours. Martina Navratilova, to pick one name among many, has been saying this for years. Any slight move in this direction has been met by antitrust lawsuits and threats and a fear that the Grand Slams will intensify their stranglehold on the Tours. It seems to me, though, we're at a unique juncture here. The ATP has a leadership vacuum with a lame-duck CEO. The players are clearly upset and offer the appearance of an uncharacteristically united front. The directors of smaller tournaments feel squeezed out. The WTA is less agitated, but the product is not at a historic high. Both Tours are wary of the Grand Slams expanding their footprint.
Now let's say I'm private equity and am looking to enter the sports space. Given the volatility of the financial markets, I have a lot of cash I've been keeping on the sidelines. I look at tennis and see a fragmented sport with seemingly intractable politics and laughable conflicts of interest. (Aside: One wonders how IMG, which owns tournaments and represents Wimbledon, is advising clients like Roger Federer and Nadal on the wisdom of unionization.) But I also see a huge global audience, geographic hedges, beachheads in China and India, undermonetized assets. There's a rich history, there are colorful and personable stars. I look at the
All of which is to say: This talk of unionizing and of players amplifying their voice and using their leverage is both healthy and natural. But while players and the Tour bicker, over board seats and schedule demands, I wonder if tennis isn't ripe for a complete outsider to come in, wave around some real money and really reshape the sport. Whatever, all this makes for good theater during what is otherwise a slow time in the season.
• A few weeks ago, a reader noted that I never reference Brooklyn Decker with respect to Andy Roddick, and wondered if I "protected" her because she is featured in
When a player's spouse slaps an official (see: Jeff Tarango), it merits coverage. When a spouse does something pertinent to tennis (see: Mirka giving Roger Federer a stern pep talk during the 2008 Wimbledon final), I think that's fair game. When's there's a domestic dispute that results in police activity? Yes. (See: Thanksgiving Day, 2009.) When there's a life change (Jarmila Gajdosova divorcing), it probably warrants some coverage. But ad hoc remarks? Physical assessments? That's pretty much no-fly territory.
Kids? Short of them crawling onto the court during the middle of a point, I can't think of an instance in which they would have much relevance. I'd be very careful here. I suspect it's a lot like the Washington press corps. Mention that the president is a father, tell me the names and ages and of kids. But anything beyond that really ought to be off limits.
• Very good. You'd think the liability police would be all over this. After match point, why not have the ballkids roll out a stepladder enabling the winners to avoid risking concussions and broken bones when they clamber up to their box? (Leave it to the U.S. Open to have an official sponsor in the "ladder/stepstool" category.)
• Short answer: About 90 percent of the time, EVERY player's strategy is to work the opponent's backhand. The U.S. men's final is a recent example -- it sometimes appeared as though Djokovic had two wings and Nadal had only one. As for Federer, hitting over the one-handed backhand is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
• Sorry. That "gibberish" line was a throwaway
Having said that, I also sense that fans are really contorting themselves to come up with reasons to undercut Djokovic's season. He could fail to win another match the rest of the year, rendering it a moot point. But as of today, his record is a joke, especially given the quality of his contemporaries. We're talking about losing three matches at a time when two of the best, what, five (?) players ever are ranked No. 2 and No. 3. Give the man his due.
• I didn't get a harrumph out of you!
• I give Djokovic no passes. My point was simply that I sympathize a bit with his third loss, given the circumstances. (Cincinnati, you're right, is an outright loss, no sympathy.) Again, we still have some tennis left. But if Djokovic is playing for the "best year in the Open Era," well, what a storyline heading into the ATP WTF in London.
• I disagree. Sure, there would be a judgment call as to when the count would start. But so what? That happens all the time in sports. The players would adjust accordingly. With a clock dwindling: A) Players would a have a clear guide to pace. B) Fans would have an additional "enhancement." C) We would have some clarity and consistency on the issue. D) Matches would speed up, towel breaks would be truncated, etc.
One of you wondered: What if a baby cries or there's a similar distraction as a player prepares to serve? Big deal. The chair would have discretion to free the time or even restart the clock. I can't really see much of an argument against this.
• What was it Gloria Steinem said? "A woman needs a man like a Fish needs a French dictionary."
• Hey, thanks. Aspiring screenwriters,
We declared a moratorium on Serena Williams, but I think it's interesting to share the broad spectrum of responses and reactions. This is not to imply that anyone is wrong, or anyone's opinion lacks validity. But it always amazes me how far apart fans are on this, how one fan's example of "apologism" is another's example of "bias."
"I also want to say that the amount of hypocrisy shown by the media is simply embarrassing. How many male white players have behaved in such a manner? I found a clip on YouTube where the great Roger Federer was giving it to the ump during a match. Heck, Roddick's behavior this year at a few tournaments has been lacking in class. Did you think he disgraced himself? Was his behavior referred to as thuggish or menacing? No. I wonder why. White people simply don't get it. When you characterize the behavior of blacks in such a way, it is pure racism."
• New York readers, come
• We'll say it again:
• In case you missed it, we're
• Matt of Boiling Springs, N.C.: "Great, even-handed take on Serena's outburst at the U.S. Open. One other point that hasn't come up enough: Marion Bartoli (not to be confused with Mario Batali!) was penalized for the exact same infraction in the second round, I believe. It's great to see the rules applied equally to everyone, no matter their status or the situation."
• This week's anti-grunting email is ... Wait, in the interest of fairness and balance, here's Jamayan Watkins of Charlotte, N.C.: "Come on, Jon! Do you not have any submissions for the mailbag in favor of grunting? I'm a grunter and damn proud of it. I will be happy to submit the 'pro-grunting' email every week!"
• Steffi-Stefanie Graf (even her website has it both ways) with a
• Thanks to David Deshler, let's play "
• Helen, of Philadelphia: "Letterman really IS clairvoyant! Made the GOAT call in 2005,
• Glen Janney of Miami: "I saw Novak Djokovic outside the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne during the Sony tournament a few years ago, waiting for his ride to the stadium. He had already won the Australian for the first time but he had subsequently stalled somewhat, and he had even complained that he was playing during the wrong era (meaning the Federer-Nadal era, of course). I wanted to go up to him and tell him, 'You belong!' but he was giving polite responses to some fan who wouldn't leave him alone, and for all I knew the guy was telling him the exact same thing I wanted to tell him, and I didn't want to risk seeing Novak wince at hearing my encouragement too. If only I had had the nerve to butt in and say it. I could not imagine having played a crucial role in his rise to greatness. (Still Federer's biggest fan, though)."
• Jesse of Portland, Ore.: "A moment of pause for the blast-from-the-past in Quebec: Four junior standouts, all of whom made a splash at some point on the senior tour, make the semifinals in what must be called the Bell Challenge Comeback Open. Big praise especially for Marina Erakovic, who touched the top 50 for a week in '08 before tumbling into the 300s with a hip injury, and Michaella Krajicek, who touched the top 30 for a week in '08 before tumbling into the 300s with a losing streak. Glad to see some young women gritting through the nether regions of the Tour after (briefly) seeing the view from the top."
• ATP World Tour Finals getting wooed by Rio? Thanks to Carlos Coehlo
• Regarding the discussions of unions in tennis -- Benjamin Hansen of Eugene, Ore., was kind enough to offer this primer:
"I have few things to say about unions, given that I'm a labor economist. My discussion will concern the basic economics of unionization, and will not treat other more complex political issues.
1. In some labor markets, a single employer often arises. For instance, a coal mine in a small town. As everyone works at the coal mine, the coal mine can underpay and underinvest in safety, exploiting monopsony (a single purchaser of a good) power. If tournaments didn't coordinate, they might compete by offering better pay, better conditions, etc. To the degree tournaments in the ATP can coordinate (which we might also call collude), they can pay less, provide worse conditions, etc.
2. Thus, to balance the effects of monopsony power, a union can encourage bargaining, which may arrive at outcomes that would naturally result were it not for the market power of tournaments.
3. Tennis players face in game theory what is known as the prisoner's dilemma when it comes to how often they play. They might all prefer a scenario where everyone plays for two fewer months in a year. But each individual's private incentives are to deviate from that outcome to amass additional ranking points. Relatively, no one has a higher ranking because everyone plays more, and thus everyone is worse off (except for the low-ranking players who benefit from simply another pay day).
1. Unions make entry difficult. Many professions that have associations or unions require absurd qualification tests. For instance, to become a hair stylist, individuals must work for free essentially in order to be qualified to cut hair. Is this to protect the hair stylists of the world? Many other professions have gradually increased requirements to keep bad apples from competing, but in actuality, it increases their own wages. Only recently have lawyers had to complete formal law school or undergraduate degrees. Previously, it was fine to teach yourself and pass the bar. To some extent, rankings and seeds (up to 32 at Grand Slams) have made it more difficult to enter the top tiers of the sport and easier for established pros to keep their ranking. Would unionization make entry for the next generation more difficult? No turning pro until one is 18? Other rules to initiate new players would limit entry and competition.
2. Wage compression often results in unions. Likely low-ranked individuals would end up being paid more (as they would have voting power in the union), even though the top stars generate all of the negotiating power. Determining voting power in the union is a difficult issue, because the masses (those ranking 100 and below) have different incentives from the stars. Do the stars really want those ranked 100 and below determining the negotiations via voting? Or are votes weighted based on ranking? And if you do that, no individual ranked 100 or below has a strong incentive to join the union.
3. Lockouts. Actual strikes are, of course, extremely costly to everyone, because there are huge gains from trade in tennis. We get tennis, everyone gets money, everyone is certainly much better off than the alternative, with no tennis. However, if the threat of a strike isn't credible, it hurts bargaining power. Tennis pioneers in the pre-Open Era were willing to make sacrifices to go pro, but also came at huge gains. I doubt that a strike could happen at a Grand Slam, but I could see one for the year-end championships. It would be most successful because fewer players are involved. At some point, I am sure those ranked 10-30 would be tempted to step in, although it's not clear much revenue would come from a final matchup between players of that caliber."
• Sarav of College Station, Texas, has long-lost twins:
Have a great week, everyone!