Wednesday December 3rd, 2014

We'll start with a quick hat tip to the IPTL, the International Pro Tennis League, currently in its maiden season. For years now, there’s been much hand wringing over this “league,” starting with that designation. The Tours have dismissed it not as a league, but as a series of fluffy exhibitions. World TeamTennis believes, not unreasonably, that the IPTL has appropriated many of its touches, from the mixed-gendered rosters to the absence of lets and no-ad scoring. Some fans have complained -- again, not unreasonably -- that the same players who moan ceaselessly about the length of the season the grinding travel, have suddenly found the reserves to spend their off-season competing in Asia.

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From where I sit, many of thousands of miles from the action, I see the tennis’ biggest stars playing in Asia, the obvious growth area for the sport. I see social media being used as a terrific marketing tool. (From Andre Agassi to Venus Williams to Carlos Moya, you can't escape their dispatches from the Far East.) I see another animation of the rule: “everyone has a price.” (You and I, too, might spend vacations working if we were paid these rates, allegedly well into seven figures for some top players.) I see a “disruption” -- to use the voguish phrase -- by entrepreneurs and capital backers, taking advantage of opportunity and inefficiency and challenging the status quo. I see a ton of room to grow, starting with improving the television/streaming proposition.

Tennis is very good self-defeatism. The politics are stifling. The alphabet soup is overwhelming. Self-interests and conflicted interest runs amok. It’s less good at innovation and embracing change. All I know is that it's December and Maria Sharapova is playing for the Manila Mavericks while Serena Williams and Andre Agassi are captaining the Singapore Slammers and Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are on the Indian Aces. Someone had to overcome a lot of roadblocks and moguls to make that happen. This IPTL may be the future. This IPTL may a one-off that will cause us all to chuckle in a few years. But how do you not applaud the organizers for taking a shot?

Mailbag 

For so many reasons, do you agree that this is the best David Cup final in many years? Could it even be the best ever? (And couldn't come at a better time, with so many claims against the competition and its format.)
-- Your friend Daniel, from Chile

• I think most of us -- even those agitating for format change -- would either gloat or grudgingly concede that this was an exceptional Davis Cup final. A tense clash between bordering nations; history on the line; record crowds; the eligible stars opting to play; and subplots, including the oxymoronic Swiss infighting. There was even a post-prandial bathroom confrontation.

Here comes Tennis Ogre: this is absolutely as good as it gets, all the proverbial stars in alignment. And still it did not exactly pierce the general public consciousness, at least not in the United States. This quickly devolves into a discussing of media and expectation and Ugly Americanism. While I get that, it’s not the point. I would just suggest that the relevance and prestige of this event isn't what it should be. This isn’t to denigrate Davis Cup or the ITF. It’s simply to submit that this event is punching below its potential weight.

Tangential: I’m working on a story about sports media and an analyst was explaining to me why the NFL shouldn’t move off of network television. “You can’t underestimate the casual fan -- it’s what made the NFL the beast that it is,” he says. His point: hardcore fans will always seek out product. But what really catalyzes sports is the presence of casual fans, folks who drive-by on their remotes and get stuck. (“Hey, the U.S. Open is on TV! Who knew? I think I’ll park here for a while.”) This is what tennis -- and Davis Cup in particular -- seems to lack.

I know that in your book “Strokes of Genius,” you called the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal the best match in tennis history. Do you still stand by that?
-- Doug, Los Angeles

That was six years ago. You know what happens? Six years later you find yourself singing "Surrey with a Fringe on Top" in front of Ira! (A prize to the first person who can name the movie.) Where were we? Oh, right, the 2008 Wimbledon final. First two rules to consider:

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1. Just as the writer writes the story, not the headline, the author generates the book, but not the title.
2. You make superlative subjective statements (best, funniest, toughest) at your peril.

But, yes, I stick by the declaration. This was the rare sporting event that managed to exceed monstrous hype. The match had it all: one versus two. Lefty versus righty. Old versus young. Contrasts in styles and sensibilities. Undulating momentum. Rain, history, subplots, sportsmanship. But one of the most heartening aspects: it did not destroy either man or mark this inflection point in their careers. You could argue Borg was never the same after losing to McEnroe; and that McEnroe would never equal the high. Or that Frazier was never the same after losing to Ali; and Ali would never replicate the moment. But both Federer and Nadal went on to achieve plenty more heights. Federer won the subsequent Slam, the 2008 U.S. Open. Nadal won the Slam after that.

Since we are now officially in the tennis "off season" I wondered if you might consider running a few classics of yours from years past. Here’s a story I would love to read again: Evonne Goolagong and her “women's secret ritual,” or whatever it was called.

-- Helen

I can’t believe anyone remembered that. (And I can’t believe I told that story in public.) Maybe ten years ago in Australia, I met with Evonne Goolagong for a “Catching Up With” story in Sports Illustrated.

She was thoroughly pleasant and, absent a better word, cool. But very early in our conversation, she was talking about her present life and something to the effect of, “Well, I just went through my sacred women’s business and, well, that was an intense experience.” (This is where the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” tuba kicks in.) I had assumed that she was referring to menopause. Slightly rattled, I said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I’m sure it’s a big change and takes some adjusting.”

“You're not kidding. I had been warned about it. But you can’t prepare for it. You just have to experience it.”

O-kay.

We went back to talking about tennis and the modern game and Australia. I can’t stress this enough: she was -- and I’m sure still is -- a lovely lady. Eventually, she circled back to her “women’s business.” Oy. And this time, there were references to ceremonies and sisterhood. Finally I grasped that we had been talking past each other. I can’t recall if she explained it or if I looked it up later. But “Sacred Women’s Business” is an aboriginal rite that has nothing to do with leaving child-bearing years.

My name is Mr. Rene Faye, I work with Ghana National Oil Company as an accountant. I would like you to confirm if you can handle a deal of 62,500,000.00. If Yes get back to me for further details of the deal and let us proceed. Looking towards reading from you.
-- Rene Faye

Thanks, Rene. Alas, my capacity is 62,000,000. So close… 

Shots, Miscellany:

• Some news from the coaching caravan: Thomas Hogstedt will be working with Simona Halep. Genie Bouchard has parted ways with Nick Saviano. John Isner is currently without a coach but is expected to make an announcement soon -- having allegedly whittled his choices to Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp. Sam Querrey will be working Tom Gullikson. Craig Boyton will be coaching Ryan Sweeting. Steve Johnson -- quietly a top 40 player -- will be working with a former USC player Peter Lucassen. More to come.

• If you missed it, hat tip to Carl Bialik on the stats revolution in tennis that didn’t stick.

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Octagon announced that it has signed Aleksandra Krunic to an exclusive and worldwide representation agreement.

Spain’s Fernando Verdasco will attempt to defend his Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship.  

IMG announced a new global partnership deal with BBVA Bank for Garbiñe Muguruza to become the global ambassador for the brand.

• If you’re looking for holiday gifts (or just looking for an entertaining read) take a look at SI Tennis’ Holiday Gift Guide. There’s a gift for every fan, literally. 

• When Mylan World TeamTennis returns to action in July 2015, the competition co-founded by Billie Jean King will become only the fifth major professional team sports league in the U.S. to reach the 40th season milestone, joining an elite list that includes Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. Schedules for the seven Mylan WTT teams will be released in early 2015.  

• This week’s Honorable Mentions in the win-a-Dunlop-racket contest:

1. As for my best fan encounter with pro player, I’d have to say Peng Shuai in Cincinnati three years ago. She was on an outside court finishing up her afternoon match and there were about 20 people braving the blistering Cincy sun.

I got my group of five friends to come with me to watch her play, and we sat next to a white guy with a poster. After the match, my friends encouraged me to speak to her in Chinese. So I called out and said great match, and asked if she would sign my big tennis ball. Peng Shuai was very nice and asked me to wait as she packed her stuff. Then, to my horror, I realized that we were quite far away and could not get to her easily with the barricades. I would literally have to leave the court area and come around the other side. Peng Shuai told me to wait and she came around to us! 

This was not the most convenient, but a lot simpler for everyone. She spoke to me a bit, asking what I was doing in Cincinnati and if there was any good places to eat. I assumed she meant Chinese places. I was thrilled and wished her luck the rest of the tournament. The guy with the poster really could not believe his luck either.

The reason I bring this up is that I felt Peng Shuai went beyond the call of duty. She could have easily waved and said next time, and no harm, but her extra effort left everyone with a more positive impression.
 -- Angela, Cincinnati

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2. My husband and I were having a beer in the lounge at the Marriott Northeast.  Kristof Vliegen and his coach were standing by our table and we wished them luck for Vliegen's match against Roddick. He said that no one will be rooting for him, and I told him that we would be, as we weren't big Roddick fans. We did, in fact, and yelled for him at the match, despite his loss.

That night, back at the hotel, Vliegen and his coach stopped by again and told us that they heard us root for him. We chatted, and Vliegen asked if we're going to the U.S. Open. We told him that we didn’t have tickets yet, and he responded that his family wasn’t going to be able to attend and asked if we want to be his guests. We said yes, of course, and gave his coach our number. We didn’t expect to hear from him, but a week later, we got a text telling us where to pick up our tickets. I was unable to go to the first round because I was working at a law firm, but my husband spent five hours watching Vliegen (who was the 32nd seed) lose to Lukas Kubot. Things then went downhill for Vliegen, and I fear that he blames us. We're sorry.

There was also the time that I tripped Roger Federer. I didn't mean to. I wasn't aware that he was behind me. 

Maybe I should just stay away from tennis tournaments.
-- Kendra Bassinger, Cincinnati. 

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SI Tennis' 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

3. A few years ago I was playing right in front of the women's locker room at the Midtown Tennis Club in NYC. I heard a man yelling (what sounded like) "Jenny! Jenny!" and desperately peering into the locker room without actually entering it. I finally took pity on him and scurried in there to look for her, but to no avail. He thanked me, and after I returned to the court he said in relief "she's over here!" It was Andre Agassi looking for his daughter, Jaz.
-- Maura A. McGrath

• SI Tennis is launching its End of Season Awards and will be taking reader nominations, via Twitter, for the following categories: top ATP/WTA matches and points, best shots of the year, or any other player or moment you believe deserves recognition. Give us a mention on Twitter to submit your nominations!

• This week’s LLS: Will Victoria Azarenka (Grace Gummer) stay with Jim Harper?

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