Players' union talk, drawing a line for fair media coverage, more mail

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• 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 ill-fated ISL deal of a decade ago and see the flaws, but also see that the fundamental concept made sense.

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.

Tennis journalists picking on players are fair game usually. It all comes with the territory. Do you have any comments on writers publicly disparaging players' wives and children? As a journalist yourself, where do you think the line should be drawn?-- DE, Baltimore

• 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 Sports Illustrated. Not at all. Inasmuch as I never comment on Brooklyn Decker, it's because she is irrelevant to the tennis coverage. She is not the story. She does not make herself the story. Until then -- and it doesn't matter if she's a supermodel or a troll living under a bridge -- she's off the table.

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.

When are tournament organizers and/or venue managers going to wise up and provide some kind of access for winners to get to their families, friends and coaches after a match? It now seems de rigueur for every winning player to scramble, climb and be hauled up into the stands for hugs, etc. It seems actually kind of dangerous, an injury waiting to happen.-- Rosemary Shannon, Hooksett, N.H.

• 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.)

Nadal said his only strategy against Federer is play to the backhand. Obviously that did not work well in last year's World Tour Finals in London, for example at the 0:19 mark. Why don't we see these Federer backhands on hardcourts? Missing confidence or because of the court?-- Esteban, Sao Paulo, Brazil

• 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.

I was a little taken back by your response to Rohan from Pondicherry in last week's mailbag. He raises some valid points about Federer's play against Djokovic this year. Rather than simply disagreeing, you have to call his argument "gibberish"? It seemed like all he was saying is that Federer has shown an ability to challenge and even beat Novak this year. That's perfectly sensible. At least you didn't speculate on his attractiveness on the inside, I guess.-- Michael Mungin, Harrisonburg, Va.

• Sorry. That "gibberish" line was a throwaway Blazing Saddles reference. It wasn't meant to disparage the questioner or the question. As far as matchups go, I do think Federer poses more problems to Djokovic right now than Nadal does. Federer gets more mileage out of his serve, he attacks better and positions himself differently. Federer would never admit this -- and I don't want to overstate it -- but I also sense that he dislikes losing to Djokovic much more than he dislikes losing to Nadal and this might add a dimension as well.

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'd add that Rohan's e-mail wasn't just "authentic frontier gibberish." It expressed a courage little seen in this day and age. Magnificent reference, sir. And now I will waste the better part of my day thinking of that movie. :)-- Joe Hass, Willowbrook, Ill.

• I didn't get a harrumph out of you!

I can almost understand you giving Djokovic a pass on the Davis Cup loss to Juan Martin del Potro (almost), but no way does he deserve a pass on the Cincy final. He basically retired to give himself a rest before the U.S. Open. What? He couldn't finish the final three games and let Murray enjoy the win? Come on! As for whether this year is the greatest year, well, it is no doubt one of them, and surely one of the best starts to the year. But unless he wins the World Tour Finals in London, it won't be for me.-- Colleen, Dallas

• 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.

The problem with the idea of a shot clock in tennis is that nobody is very consistent. It's not just the players. The time is supposed to start when the umpire says the score. In Jelena Jankovic's match at the U.S. Open, she asked for a challenge but was told it was too late. The umpire had yet to say the score. In Rafa's match, CBS was starting the clock the moment the ball bounced out, not when the ump said the score. If the announcers could shut up for the entire 20 seconds, I'd be all for the shot clock. Until then, let's just remind the players that time is being kept.-- Anne, Austin, Texas

• 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.

Here are some piscatorial puns on Mardy.

- What country should Mardy Fish represent? Finland.- Why did Mardy Fish refuse to use the weighing scale in the gym? Because he has his own scales.- Where does Mardy Fish keep his money? In the river bank.

-- Raj Sonak, of Sterling, Va.

• What was it Gloria Steinem said? "A woman needs a man like a Fish needs a French dictionary."

Has there ever been another time where none of the top-four women in the world is a defending Grand Slam champ?-- Jeremy Redding, Camp Hill, Pa.

• Kevin Fischer, we're counting on you to solve this.

Loved your subtle reference to The Shawshank Redemption library scene in last week's Mailbag! (Author of the Three Musketeers.)-- Joe, Branford, Conn.

• Hey, thanks. Aspiring screenwriters, go here. Best movie script of all time?

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."

Jeremy S., Arlington, Va.: "Your apologism for tennis players knows no bounds. Will you ever have the courage to criticize Serena or hint that an overrated player (such as the current run of No. 1s on the women's Tour) doesn't deserve the accolades he or she receives from some quarters? I really wish Sports Illustrated would find a tennis voice that doesn't make ESPN look hypercritical."

Joe Johnson, Allentown, Pa.: "You say in your column, 'Would we feel this way if Serena were not African-American?' For me, somebody who has fought for civil rights his entire life, it would not make a difference. And I think that Andy Roddick is an even bigger jerk and spoiled brat. Lori McNeil or Zina Garrison, even if they had gotten to No. 1, never would have acted in the same manner. Serena has said that her only responsibility is to her dog. She was wrong. She is the best female tennis player of all time. We deserve better behavior."

Laura T., New York: "This is a pro-Serena mail so you probably won't print it, but I'm going to send it anyway. Your characterization of her behavior at this year's U.S. Open is beyond ridiculous. Do you really believe she disgraced herself? Really? I don't think so. Should she have handled the situation differently? Most certainly. She should have taken a page out of her sister's book and let it go. Unfortunately, she didn't. Now, this becomes the latest excuse the Serena haters have to criticize her.

"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 to this event on Oct. 6 and we'll talk some tennis.

• We'll say it again: This is the most underrated story in tennis.

• In case you missed it, we're taking stock of Serena Williams at age 30.

• 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 diplomatic take on the U.S. Open.

• Love this photo.

• Thanks to David Deshler, let's play "Who got duped"?

• Helen, of Philadelphia: "Letterman really IS clairvoyant! Made the GOAT call in 2005, at the 2:00 mark here."

• 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 for the tip. The ATP, however, sharply disputes this and says that last week's meeting had nothing to do with the Finals. Just playing middle man here.

• 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.

Pro-union arguments

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).

Arguments against a union

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: Vera Zvonareva and actress Sarah Alexander.

Have a great week, everyone!