Mailbag: Tennis' March Madness equivalents; ATP, WTA prize debate
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Picking off some questions in midair, grab-bag style. I will write until we begin our descent when laptops and other electronic devices must be put away and cell phones must remain in airplane mode….
Watching the NCAA tournament made me wonder about comparisons to tennis. At a tennis tourney, lower ranked players take out higher seeds, but there isn't always the edge of your seat action or dramatic buzzer beater. To mix another sports analogy into the question, what is the tennis equivalent of a walk-off homer?
—Mark, Olean, N.Y.
• Good question. At some level, we’re simply talking about two different sports with two different rhythms. Tennis is more subtle. If you're waiting for buzzer beaters, you will be disappointed—though a tight third set can be great drama. The real beauty is in the subtle momentum shifts, the natural drama of a match, the players’ battles with themselves as well as with the opponents.
With March Madness upon us, who would be the Gonzaga and Butler of both tours? I'll throw David Ferrer as the Gonzaga and Kei Nishikori for Butler. Feel free to comment on Wofford and Davidson equivalents as well.
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• Quick story: I’m writing some TV pieces for CBS’s March Madness coverage this year and we had one ready to go on our (slightly irrational) love of the underdogs. Through three rounds, though, most of the underdogs—certainly the Wofford and Davidson level—were eliminated. We decided not to do the piece. Someone posed the question: “Since when is the seventh seed an underdog?”
Quietly, I’m thinking: in tennis. The dominance of the Big Three is so comprehensive that players like Ferrer and Nishikori—who have done significant time in the Top five—are still considered dark horses.
Stop the presses for this Mailbag inquiry on Grigor Dimitrov's loss to Tommy Robredo. Is Dimitrov perhaps a bit overhyped? Robredo is a very solid player but there is no denying that this was a bad loss for Dimitrov. And is his coach Roger Rasheed on the hot seat if these disappointments continue?
• I’d frame this slightly differently. We all like new blood and breakthrough successes. But this is still further validation of the Big Three—whom we shouldn't be so quick to shunt off the stage. The ATP has fed us a steady diet of Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov. All are fine players. Yet, it's been three years now and none has won a Slam. Broadening: Stan Wawrinka broke through in Australia last year and he’s scarcely been heard from since. Same for Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open winner. The ATP is smart to prepare for a universe in which Federer/Nadal/Djokovic are retired and new stars will be minted. But we ain’t there yet.
As for Dimitrov specifically, he is experimenting with rackets, so discount his recent slide a bit. (Digression: this is one of the great mysteries in tennis. Countless players—Djokovic, Wozniacki, Verdasco, James Blake and Dominic Thiem are some names that pop to mind—have lost chunks of their career making racket switches. New rule: Do. Not. Mess. With. Your. Equipment. The extra $500,000 or whatever will look penny-wise, pound-foolish while your ranking slips as you struggle to find the right stick.) Dimitrov has all the shots, but some intangible just seems to be missing. As a former pro put it to me in Indian Wells, “the wires just don't quite seem to connect.” He likely suffers from the problem that plagued Federer early in his career. Namely, he was so skilled, he had almost too many options sometimes. (The difference: Federer overcame this was winning majors in his 21st year. Dimitrov is in his mid-20s and has been to one major semifinal.) He’s a nice kid with a beautiful game and you’d like to think he can tap the spigot and great gobs of talent will spew forth. But right now he is akin to, say, Henri Leconte, an aesthetically pleasing player who is not quite at the top level.
There's no way to delicately put this, so I'm just going to ask. As I sit watching the Indian Wells matches, I marvel at the number of empty seats, especially during the women's matches. Do you think the WTA would survive if the Slams and other Masters tournaments didn't combine the men's and women's tours? I'm honestly beginning to think the answer is no. There will always be followers of women's tennis, but I equate this to the WNBA. The players are paid paltry sums in comparison to their male counterparts. Teams are bankrupt. Arenas are empty. I know female tennis players have fought for (and received) equal prize money, but I honestly think if they didn't have the ATP to lean on they wouldn't be as successful as they are today. Your thoughts?
—Kris, Norwalk, Conn.
• First, I’m not sure the WNBA comparison quite works. One critical difference: the NBA and WNBA players don’t compete simultaneously at the same event. But, Kris is discussing the elephant in the luxury suite. Tennis is stronger when genders are combined. As a matter of social justice and principle, we like equality. The sport looks small and petty when the men earn a purse of X and the women playing simultaneously earn of a purse of, say, .7X.
But as a matter of economic justice, it’s very hard to defend equal prize money. Strictly looking at balance sheets, the WTA is simply not equal to the ATP. Media rights, sponsorship, attendance—pick your metric. (Note that the WTA includes Grand Slam prize money whenever it lists its overall purses. Subtract that and the picture gets considerably less rosy.)
The persistent question that has yet to be answered: when my standalone product is worth demonstrably less than yours, do we deserve to be paid the same when we are combined. Some promoters have taken a hard line. A well-kept secret: the WTA actual pays some events the equivalent of a refund for “economic shortcomings.” (In other words: the players make equal purses, but the events are then made whole by the WTA, which covers the shortfall.) Other mixed events have lobbied to pay equal purses but then give the men—and the men only—a bonus. So instead of making $900,000 the winners would each make, say, $500,000 and the men’s winner would get $400,000 year-end bonus while the women’s wouldn't. This proposal failed.
Again, for practical reasons, I think equal prize money is the best course. The optics of two unequal purses are just too lousy. The blow to morale (the negative energy, as the West Coast types say) would be awful. The rhetoric that “together, we should grow the pie” has validity. But—as Kris notes—there ought to be an honest economic discussion here.
While there are other players who could intelligently be called the greatest of all time, let's assume for now that Serena Williams and Steffi Graf are the only ones worth talking about. If I recall correctly, didn't Graf's slice backhand drive Serena crazy? After all, Serena likes pace. So, again for the sake of discussion, what would Graf's head-to-head be like against Serena if they played during recent times during the same generation
—Joe J. Easton, Pa.
• Graf retired in the summer of 1999. Serena turned 18 in the fall of 1999. So I wouldn't read much into their two head-to-head matches. (Which they split by the way.) We would all pay good money to watch Serena and Steffi play in their primes on a neutral surface. But—guilty of some recency bias, to be sure—I think Serena’s power wins in the end.
Tennis fans were spoiled in Indian Wells with two of arguably the greatest tennis players to ever pick up racquets—Federer and Nadal—playing on the same day. However, within this era, Djokovic has carved out a heck of a career with eight Grand Slams, 138 weeks at No. 1, 50 career titles. I’m wondering where you think he ranks in relation to Connors, Lendl, McEnroe, Becker and Edberg, who won similar numbers of Grand Slams. Would he be placed higher if he wasn't playing in the glare of Federer and Nadal, or does playing against them illuminate his career stats even more even if they limit his total wins (perhaps like him not winning the French)?
• Let’s wait till we cash out the chips, but, yes, Djokovic is quietly but steadily worming his way into GOAT talk.
Why do so many of the top singles players, who rarely play doubles, play doubles at Indian Wells? Do they get additional singles rankings points from their doubles play at specific tournaments like Indian Wells?
—Todd Greenquist, Maine
• Good question. There are no additional singles points. I have two answers. One: the schedule/conditions. The top players are in Indian Wells for more than a week. There’s nowhere to go before Miami starts. Instead of simply practicing, why not enter doubles with a partner? In conditions that are unlikely to be grueling, I can get some match play and pick up a few extra shekels.
This is strictly conjecture, but I wonder if there isn’t an element of noblesse oblige, too. This is really a special event. The investment by the tournament borders on ostentatious. From the gluten-free options in the player dining to the masseuses, every comfort, large and small, has been provided. If you're Federer or Nadal or Murray (all of whom entered doubles in Indian Wells) maybe you're inclined to reward the tournament by playing in some additional sessions.
Given a baseball bat, a baseball and no other assistance, who could hit a baseball farther? A power server (using a serving motion, naturally) or a power hitter in baseball (hitting across the body with two hands)?
—Dane, Richmond, Va.
• I’ll say a baseball player can a hit baseball farther. (Even if the tennis player got two serves.)
I think it's safe to say that the race for 2015 SI Sportsman of the Year has been wrapped up and the honoree will finally be a tennis player. She's pushed the limits of her sport, speeding through competition while others have lumbered. She's returned from horrific, near career-ending injury and endured inspection and criticism of her personal life. She doesn't just break records, she shatters them. And she's a big fan of long-overlooked Sportsman of the Year contender, Roger Federer. Says here that none other than Lindsey Vonn wins the SI title in a romp. Your thoughts?
—Peter, Newton, Mass.
• Couldn’t have said it better myself. But your spelling is as lousy as your eye is keen. It’s S-E-R-E-N-A W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S.
• Jason Rainey notes: For a little historical perspective, Gustavo Kuerten had a disgusting, semi-orgasmic grunt with his shots (even those that didn't appear to require much effort), and he was BELOVED.
• The International Tennis Hall of Fame announced that John Austin will be joining the Hall of Fame Tennis Club as the Director of Tennis starting in April.
• A recap of the 2015 Tennis Industry Association’s Tennis Summit held in conjunction with the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells can be found here.
• Andre and Steffi’s son has a mean curveball. Watch it here.
• If you missed it, here’s Wayne Odesnik.
• I was watching Better Call Saul last night and I was very surprised to see that Simona Halep had made room in her schedule to co-star in the show! (It's actually Rhea Seehorn.)