UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
Tennis

Appraising the state of tennis after decades of change, more mail

Here's this week's Mailbag, the Stranded-by-the-Superstorm edition...

I just finished reading Sally Jenkins' 1994 "Is Tennis Dying" piece. She actually makes some good points. For example, she talks about a time clock between points, which we are still looking forward to. Can you summarize where the tours stand now with regard to each of the points she raises→ -- Sriram

→ Great question. And it comes after a week in which Serena Williams sews up a stellar year by winning the WTA Championships, but the WTA announces the lapsing of its deals with Sony Ericsson and media partner Eurosport TV. And Juan Martin del Potro beats Roger Federer in Basel, yet Rafael Nadal officially announces that injuries will prevent him playing again in 2012.

Let's do a then vs. now:

1) Players under 17 should be limited to eight tournaments per year.

? Totally irrelevant, almost to a laughable degree. There are zero teenagers in the ATP's top 100 and none in the WTA's top 30. For a variety of reasons, the sport has aged quickly. Players can compete at the highest level well into their 30s. Yet the notion of a 16-year-old, not physically mature, winning a major is comical. For all the 90s hand-wringing of "Capriati-it is" and legal challenges to age eligibility, this issue has vanished.

2) Put a lid on the free stuff.

? This ties to No. 1. As the field has aged, the concern that pampered teenagers are coming up with an outsized sense of entitlement has diminished. If Roger Federer gets a driver at an event or Serena gets use of a Rain Man suite, so what? This hardly ranks among the sport's big concerns.

3) Hire a commissioner.

? Point to Jenkins. Tennis gets a zero here. An independent, non-conflicted arbiter could solve a lot of the issues that bedevil the sport and stunt its growth, from scheduling to the missed merchandising opportunities to drug-testing to prize money increases to Olympic eligibility to data standardization. Problem is the same now as it was then: no fiefdom would be willing to cede the necessary authority. The sport suffers as a result. Sally writes:

"Tennis has too many authorities protecting their own turf: the ITF, ATP, WTA, WTC, USTA, etc. None of them has shown that it can make a decision for the good of the game instead of its own self-interest."

She could update the abbreviations and write the exact same sentence today and, sadly, it would hold up.

4) How about a little discipline?

? Her point: The inmates are running the asylum and players get a pass on "egregious behavior." Today? Non-issue. Barring the occasional outburst over a disputed footfault call, I would contend the overwhelming majority of players comport themselves like pros. In fact, tennis players, for the most part, comport themselves quite courteously.

5) How about a smile?

? Her point: Grumpy players turn off fans. Today? Meh. Some players are more cheerful than others.

6) Crack down on tanking.

Her point: "It happens. Everybody knows it." Today→ Minor issue. In part given the heavy emphasis on Slams and Tier 1/Masters Series events, and changes in the rankings, the incentive for players to "pump and dump" is largely gone. Do players (see: Tomic, Bernard) sometimes display something other than wholehearted efforts→ Yes. Is this an issue at the highest level→ No.

7) Institute pro-ams at every tour stop.

Her point: Players need to engage the sponsors. Today? It's a different time and a different sport. There's no more expectation that Roger spend a day playing sets with Biff the hedge fund guy, than there is LeBron James playing H-O-R-S-E with fans prior to games. If players want to interact with sponsors and shake some hands and show up at a cocktail party, great. A pro-am would simply be demeaning. Maybe this is something the marginal players can do to add value (see below) but the pro-am seems quaint.

8) Let there be noise.

? Her point: If a baseball player can hit a 95-mph fastball in front of 80,000 screaming people, then why does a tennis player need total silence? Today? We hear fewer "quiet please" pleas. But neither then nor now, was the hushing of the crowd a core problem.

9) Give it some gas.

? Her point: "No sporting event should last more than three hours, particularly one that has so little live action. Why do players need 25 seconds between points to collect themselves? The game was better when play was continuous. Why not put a time clock on the court? If a player doesn't get his serve off in 15 seconds, he loses the point." Today? Totally valid point. I went to my first English Premier League Game over the weekend. Two hours and everyone goes home happy. I'm telling you, our kids are going to talk about best-of-five matches, the way we speak of 20-round boxing matches.

10) Spread the wealth.

? Her point: "If tennis is to become a truly public sport and resume growing as it did in the 1970s, it must get into the inner cities...There are those who believe that the greatest tennis talent who ever lived will never pick up a racket because he or she lives in some place like inner-city Detroit or Chicago. "If you could get the racket into the hands of some of those kids," Agassi says, "they might make me look like a club player."

Today? Tennis is relentlessly diverse, but it's global more than racial.

Here's what's most interesting to me. A lot of Sally's broader points -- tennis is losing relevance, TV ratings are slipping, etc. -- still hold. But the symptoms are totally different. Unchecked technology, an interminable season, the physical injuries the sport occasions, the generally lousy television proposition, the specter of match-fixing, the specter of doping, the decline of college tennis, the ITF's neglect of Davis Cup and general intransigence. Those are all issues to discuss. The sport Sally describes -- spoiled teenagers, grumpy player tanking matches -- may as well be Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen. This piece caused all sorts of controversy and maybe even some introspection at the time. Today, you could keep the thesis, but come up with a totally different list of concerns.

So Maria Sharapova is against the Aussie Open's decision to pay more for players who lose in the first round. I didn't read her rationale for such an egregious and selfish position. Can you enlighten us→ Additionally, I submit if Serena had taken this position, she would have been widely and openly attacked. Another example of pro-Sharapova bias by the media. Too many of the commentators covering our sport make no effort to mask their bias -- and frankly, lust -- for this woman. It's disgusting. As is Sharapova's position here for the hard-working professionals who haven't hit the big time yet. -- Dart Jackson, Atlanta

? For those who missed it, Sharapova apparently takes issue with the notion that players losing in the first round of majors deserve to share in the prize money increases set to go in effect starting in Australia. "I don't know if I agree with a raise for a first-round loss," she says. "I think that compensation as you win more rounds is right, but I'm not sure about the first rounds."

I don't disagree that had Serena Williams made these remarks, she would have been pummeled. But I feel as though we've had the double-standard discussion before.

As for the rationale, I don't presume to speak for Sharapova, but I sympathize with the top players to a large extent. When Roger Federer can command a seven-figure guarantee to play one match, is it fair that he can play five matches at the U.S. Open and walk home with $237,500? In absolute terms, it's a great week and he might look greedy for asking for more money. In terms of what the market bears, though, I would argue that Federer is being scandalously underpaid every time he plays an ATP or Grand Slam match.

On the other hand, bless the No. 80 player in the world. But he doesn't sell a single ticket or move the economic needle in any demonstrable way. Should he or she be paid in excess of $25,000 to LOSE a first-round match?

There are, of course, a host of solid counterarguments to all of this. When you join a league, there is a sense of the collective, that not everyone will be paid commensurate to what they would make on the open market. It is the No. 80 player that helps give heft to the No.1 ranking and puts the primacy of Federer or Serena Williams in context.

The top players can make big coin via endorsements and appearances -- in part because of lax tour standards on individual sponsorships and scheduling -- so there are economic opportunities besides prize money that they may not have in team sports, and that the lower-ranked players don't get in tennis. Tournaments need to fill sessions to sell themselves as big events, so those secondary players fill a role. So even if fans are not paying money because, say, Benoit Paire is facing Wayne Odesnik on Court 79, it doesn't mean there's no value. There's simply something altruistic about helping your colleagues pay their bills. (And perhaps there's something, well, gross, about marketing yourself as the highest paid female athlete on the one hand, and then depriving other colleagues what relatively amounts to loose coins under your sofa.)

But while it might make bad PR and some awkward moments in the locker room, I don't think Sharapova is crazy here. She could always simply says: "I want to be paid what the market says I'm worth. Wouldn't you want the same?"

A full decade ago, I debated this with Richard Williams. He contended -- maybe one-third jokingly -- that Venus and Serena were worth more than the rest of the WTA put together and he ought to start a separate tennis tour.

I said, "Yeah but saying you're ranked No.1 in the Williams Tennis Association and only beating one other player to win events doesn't carry as much prestige."

Jon, what's up with the WTA doubles championships→ Four teams, single elimination, two matches and you're a champion→ Seriously→! -- Michal, Krakow, Poland

→ Imagine the losers. That's a long trip to play two sets of doubles. Beginning in 2014, there will be a full field with the top eight doubles teams accounted for. And speaking of doubles, Andrew of New York noticed this reunion.

Talk about the globalization of tennis! Right now the women's top 12 ranked players are from 12 different countries on four different continents. Has there ever been a time where the rankings have gone so deep before seeing two players from the same country→ They could practically fill the UN Security Council! -- David L., New Haven, Conn.

? I remember that in 2003 or so -- the mid-aughts, as they say in pretentious circles -- the ATP's top 10 not only came from 10 different countries but represented six continents. (Paradorn Srichaphan and Younes el Aynaoui, since you asked. Not only that. In el Aynaoui the ATP also had a player whose named contained four consecutive vowels, unseen since the great British star Thayer Pharmacopoeia played in the 1930s.)

To your point, yes, the globalization and diversity is remarkable. All the more reason why need to recalibrate and cease wringing hands when there are "only" a dozen Americans in the top 100.

"Lawrence Summers writes about his fondness for Harold Solomon. Emily Bazelon on Renee Richards. Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson writing about Marty Reisman. David Remnick on Howard Cosell. (Full disclosure: yours truly on a PGA golfer.) It's all in Jewish Jocks, out this week from Twelve Books. Makes a great Kwanzaa gift." Saw this item in last week's Mailbag. Was that supposed to be "Marty Riessen " the former player and Northwestern alum→ -- Greg, Fla.

→ A few of you asked that. Two different people. This was Marty Reisman the famous sports hustler.

Hey Jon, can we stop using the word "overachiever"→ I understand that you mean it as a compliment -- that guys like Ferrero and Roddick used their given abilities to the highest capacity. But on the other hand, the word "overachiever" could denote that these guys' achievements came by luck. As one Mailbagger noted, it's not a player's fault if they don't play the best guys in the draw. Ferrero and Roddick may not have played Federer or Nadal at their best in 2003, but they certainly deserve credit for becoming No.1's. -- David Gonzales, Chicago

? I cop to some laziness -- like fourth degree -- here. The whole "underachiever/overachiever" distinction is a fast and easy way to take inventory of a player and it seldom gets us far. In the case of both Ferrero and Roddick, I use it to stress that although they won a major early in their early 20s (both in the same summer, in fact) and were never were able to back it up, we should not frame their career in terms if disappointment and failure.

Jon, just laughing really hard at an old memory. My husband was in medical school when Abracadabra came out and he always sang the leading line but followed it with "I want you to be my cadaver." Is that a better line→ -- Laura R. Arnold, Md.

? Nice. Though I'm sure not everyone finds this funny...

Jon, I read last week's mailbag when I got to work on Thursday morning. I've now had Abracadabra in my head for the last seven hours. I'm sorry to say that this might be the end of me reading your columns, it's been fun. Cheers. -- Thrifty, Adelaide, Australia

→ The age-old cure for the "Ear worm."

Shots, miscellany

→ Here's the WTA's State of the Union address.

→ Amy of Philadelphia: "Here's the story of the Basel final between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro, told in the form of animated GIFs."

→ An Andy Murray book for your Christmas list.

? Mike from Boston has this week's encounter with a pro: "Thought I would share a quick story about driving Jim Courier for the Champions Series. Last Friday I worked as a volunteer driver for the latest Champions Series Tennis event in Boston. A hectic rental car situation that morning resulted in me having to drive Jim Courier in my Honda Accord '85 coupe. With this as my first duty of the day, I was quite nervous about his expectation/reaction to the situation (and also wishing I had vacuumed the interior of my car). Upon relaying our mode transportation to Jim, he simply replied, "That's fine, it doesn't matter to me. I could ride on a moped, as long as we get there." That reaction (or non-reaction) put me very much at ease, as he was incredibly polite, very laid back, and thankful for my efforts throughout the day. In addition to some of the event staff and commentating team, I also had the opportunity to drive the co-owner of the organization which puts on the event; Courier is the other owner. His name was Jon, and he too was very kind and quite funny.... Their respect and kind treatment during our short interactions really made me feel genuinely appreciated, despite my small role. It was a great experience overall and I am so glad they bring big tennis names into a market like Boston, even for just one night."

? Robert S. of New Orleans: "Bruno Soares has now ended two former world number ones' careers this year. Not only did he and Makarova beat Kim Clijsters in her last professional tennis match (mixed doubles with Bob Bryan in the second round of the U.S. Open), he and Peya beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in his last match (doubles with Ferrer in the semifinals of Valencia)."

→ Here's Susannah of Edmonton: "For the long-lost twins file: Jon Gosselin (of "Jon and Kate plus 8") and Bjorn Phau."

Have a great week everyone!

More Tennis

Close

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 4 easy steps:

  1. Click the Chrome menu on the browser toolbar.
  2. Select Bookmarks.
  3. Select Bookmark manager.
  4. Locate your current Sports Illustrated bookmark, click the Organize menu, then select Edit. You can now easily update the web address of your Sports Illustrated bookmark.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 2 easy steps:

  1. Click the Safari bookmark manager on the browser toolbar.
  2. This will open the Bookmarks Bar. In the Bookmarks Bar, select your Sports Illustrated bookmark and manually edit the Address field.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.

To continue enjoying content from the most trusted name is sports, please be sure to update your current bookmark.

Just follow these 3 easy steps:

  1. Click the Firefox bookmark manager on the browser toolbar.
  2. Select Show All Bookmarks.
  3. This will open the library window. In the Library window, select your Sports Illustrated bookmark and manually edit the Location field.

    Our updated web address is http://www.si.com.
Don't Show This Again