? I'm answering this question moments after Andy Roddick defeated Federer in the Sony Ericsson Open. But your point stands: Andre Agassi, among others, made this observation as well, but yes, you could make the case that TMS events might be harder to win than majors. And this applies to men and women.
Justin is absolutely right in his reasoning. At a TMS event, the top players are in attendance and the bottom ones aren't -- so you could make the case that the draws are, in fact, tougher. After the first few rounds at a TMS, you no longer have a day to rest between matches. (Consider Federer in Indian Wells, where he beat Juan Martin del Potro, Rafael Nadal and then John Isner in the span of about 42 hours.)
In the case of the men, while the best-of-three format helps with stamina and recovery, it also lends itself to upsets. Over best-of-five, the better player usually brings his superiority, there's a regression to the mean, etc. Over best-of-three, a player can get hot for an hour and -- poof -- there's your upset.
No one contends that the majors aren't the four tentpoles of tennis. They're the most important events of the year and the most important benchmarks when we assess a player's career. But I would contend that we don't give enough weight to the top tour events. Look at the remaining fields in Miami and look at the precious few sessions remaining. Then consider what a feat it will be for the winners to emerge.
Thanks for your honest take about ESPN personalities' conflicts of interest. One thing that strikes me is how many tennis commentators are former players, and I wonder if that is part of the problem. It's almost as though, because tennis is more of a niche sport than say football or baseball, they fill the booths with former players and then you get people who are fundamentally involved in the game and cannot really be unbiased observers. -- Tobin, Boston
? My first instinct was to defer our discussion here. This is a tennis column, not a media ethics column. Plus, we're in the middle of a big event. If you want to get back to tennis chatter, no hard feelings, skip down to the next question. My column last week, though, drew a huge volume of reactions from regular readers but also from media folks, former players, a BBC commentator and various ESPNers. Clearly this struck a chord. And while the majority of you seemed to agree that tennis' conflicts are, at a minimum, problematic and unseemly, a vocal minority was unbothered and happily willing to trade access for potentially compromising positions.
Before we go further and reluctantly revisit, thanks to everyone for writing in. As a journalist, it was instructive. The absence of consensus was interesting, as was the range of opinion. It was also heartening to know that people care deeply how information is being distributed and processed. Even if it's "only sports."
A few themes came up repeatedly. Maybe it's easiest if I address those one by one:
Mitch of New York: "Since when are the TV commentators legitimate journalists? Why should they be objective and have they ever been? While I don't think the commentators should be cheerleaders, at the other end of the spectrum, wouldn't a completely objective commentator be dry and boring?"
? "Objectivity" doesn't mean an absence of opinion. It means an absence of conflict or motive. We expect the movie reviewers to have strong feelings and subjective observations about movies. We don't expect them to be on the payroll of a studio or have their household's income directly affected by how a particular star actor is perceived by the public.
J.B. of Portland: "ESPN does tolerate this behavior in other sports: Doug Gottlieb was in the Oklahoma State section when they were last in the Final Four, and Teddy Bruschi was in Robert Kraft's box during the AFC Championship Game. Unlike Mary Joe those guys were openly cheering like fans. Die-hard fans at that."
? One of you also asked why I didn't cite Brad Gilbert, who, of course, coached Andy Roddick and Andy Murray and now Kei Nishikori. Here's the thing: A) Most everyone knows Gilbert's history and can judge his remarks accordingly. Just as most everyone knows that Gottlieb played for Oklahoma State, Troy Aikman was a Dallas Cowboy, Joe Buck has deep ties to St. Louis, Jay Bilas went to Duke, etc. We can debate whether the broadcasters should be sitting in the owner's suite (hint: They should not) but the conflict is disclosed. We know they were former players or coaches and take their history into account when they commentate. Judging from your mail, Darren Cahill's deal with Adidas, for instance, is not widely known or disclosed. This is not good.
B) While former players' allegiances and histories might breed bias, there's no financial component. Gottlieb doesn't draw a salary from Oklahoma State. Aikman isn't enriched when Dallas does well. This is different from, say, Patrick McEnroe, who holds an executive position with one of the "leagues" he covers and whose job performance is tied directly to results and perception.
Anonymous: "Seriously, devoting such time to conflicts of interest in tennis just ruined it for me. How about, "It's just sports," rather than, It's just tennis. I don't think we make financial decisions, life decisions or health decisions based on tennis commentary. Tell you what, COI needs to apply to folks smoking from humidors in penthouses on Wall Street, our beloved senators with insider trading privileges and hedge-fund consultants opining on cable TV. Luv ya Jon, but you lost perspective! It is just tennis.
? I'm not discounting this entirely. Some of you have a hard time getting worked up over sports, and I get that. This is probably too "inside baseball," but I would contend that ESPN is very concerned with conflicts and ethics. Consider everything from the network's book policy promulgated in the wake of Bruce Feldman, to last week's discussion about broadcasters mentioning Trayvon Martin and using Twitter for personal viewpoints.
You can agree or disagree with the policies. But clearly ethics and perception matter and are considered serious (seriously considered). Which is why it's all the more perplexing the rules seem to be suspended -- or at least bent -- for tennis commentators.
Karen, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands: "For me, the biggest conflict-of-interest issue is the fact that IMG actually owns and operates tournaments as well as represents some of the biggest names in tennis. Another conflict is hearing that Nadal was staying in a property owned by the operator of Indian Wells. The Mary Joe situation, while conflicting in its blatancy, is not the only conflict issue out there. Have you ever listened to commentary on Tennis Channel when Maria Sharapova is playing? The fact that IMG owns shares in TC says it all."
? Tennis is awash in conflicts. No argument there. Management agencies represent players and own tournaments. The distribution of wild cards is corrupt. The USTA owns events as well as a stake in media properties.
Still, there are rules and standards and policies for media. If an investment bank takes a position on securities and then steers its clients/investors to those same securities -- just hypothetically, of course -- it may represent a conflict. But that doesn't mean The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Fortune and the other media outlets covering the conflicted industry forsake their standards, too.
Colleen, Texas: "I've seen Mary Joe Fernandez sit in or near the Federer box many times. This is hardly news. Funny how people are making a big deal about it now. Much ado about nothing. Personally, I think she has gone to great lengths to make sure she never appears biased."
? I can't stress this enough. None of this was personal. Mary Joe Fernandez, Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill -- they're good people, they're good at their jobs, in most cases there's no evidence of bias. (A tennis world without Darren Cahill broadcasting is not a tennis world I want to inhabit.) And maybe the solution -- inasmuch as you even feel there's a problem -- is simply better, fuller disclosure.
Again, though: When commentators all moonlight and draw checks from many of the players/organizations/companies they cover, I fear that makes tennis look like a cliquish, clubby, Mickey Mouse sport. And, worse, it is the public that sometimes comes away the worse for it.
OK, moralizing over. Let's put this aside for a while and return to conflicts that involve two people on opposite sides of the net.
With Nadia Petrova applying for a U.S. citizenship and could possibly be playing for Fed Cup, would/should the USTA pay the Russian Tennis Federation, whatever financial help it gave her? -- Allan Cruz, West Chester, Pa.
? Perhaps we should consider it a swap for Alex Bogomolov Jr. (who, coincidence or not, is struggling to win matches this year, now that he defected for Russia). I think the point is simply this: When you fund players with complex family heritages, especially in this here global economy, you have to go in eyes wide open and be prepared for both refugees and defectors.
Sometimes you lose Greg Rusedski or Mary Pierce; other times you get Milos Raonic. Sometimes you lose Bogomolov mid-career; other times you might pick up Liezel Huber or Tommy Haas mid-career. Doesn't mean it's good or bad; it's simply a reality.
Take a look at the quarterfinals in Miami. Serena Williams vs. (4) Caroline Wozniacki; (8) Li Na vs. (2) Maria Sharapova; (1) Victoria Azarenka vs. (7) Marion Bartoli; Venus Williams vs. (5) Agnieszka Radwanska. No. 3 Kvitova fell to Venus while No. 6 Stosur fell to Serena. Last week, it was No. 1 v. No. 2 in the Indian Wells final. When are you gonna say it? Come on, Jon, acknowledge that there has been stability and order in the women's field now. Venus, Serena comebacking and Ana Ivanovic also. -- Jamal, Philippines
? Consider it said. And we repeat. "Who's going to fill the WTA vacuum -- it's chaos" is last year's storyline. You could add that -- as of this writing -- the top WTA player has yet to lose in 2012, while each member of the men's Big Four has lost at least twice already.
Why should Azarenka's coach, as well as many others, be allowed to flout the on-court coaching rules by removing their microphones? I don't understand why they are allowed to do this again and again. Obviously, the rules have nothing to do with entertainment, as the WTA has professed. It's just another example of the inmates running the prison. Honestly, it gives the impression that the little ladies can't manage to figure out what to do without their (male) coaches' help. Just sayin'... -- Patrick, Chicago
? For the record, Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk, was reprimanded for concealing his microphone on Monday, thus depriving all those fans -- both of them -- who were interested in his exhortations. "Keep fighting. Trust your strokes. This is why you work hard."
We've been saying this for years: On-court coaching represents the WTA at its toothless worst. It makes a mockery of tennis' rules and the core virtue of self-sufficiency. It makes a concession to the players who had been cheating. As Patrick articulates, it sends a terribly anti-feminist message. ("Our players can't strategize for themselves, so they summon middle-aged men to rescue them.") The WTA's claim that fans like on-court coaching simply rings false. (Consider this an open invitation to share the data.)
The players constantly distance themselves from it. (Azarenka on Tuesday: "Yeah, I don't like to call him, because, you know, you have to figure out yourself, you know.") With Sony Ericsson -- a telecom company that could have provided the equipment a la the NFL and (total coincidence, of course) also a WTA sponsor -- reducing the financial commitment to the sport, even that cynical "justification" no longer exists.
My question to the top players: Why stop here? The WTA tolerates your grunting and your surreptitious coaching -- ignoring and changing rules, rather than confronting you. Clearly you have the leverage. Keep going, ladies! Let the ball bounce twice. Take three serves. Ignore those pesky boundaries on the court. Double-elimination. Who knows what other concessions you can get!
"No way does [Novak Djokovic] win four of the next five Slams." Really? This from the guy who picked against him continuously and only at the end, got on the bandwagon. The emergence of Federer early in the season is interesting, but Novak getting back to his streaking isn't going to surprise the tennis world. -- Craig, Nashville, Tenn.
? This isn't at all about Djokovic. (And I'll plead guilty to your characterization: A firm believer in Federer-Nadal, I was, in retrospect, unfashionably late to the Djokovic party.) But this is simply a hedge on the probability. You want to put your chips on a player winning eight of 10 majors?
Speaking of Djokovic, now is a good time to call attention to the 60 Minutes segment that aired last Sunday (see the segment here if you missed it). It didn't advance the "Djoko-narrative" much and the average fan won't learn anything new. This S.L. Price profile still remains the defining work.
But what an endearing portrait of a champion and a fun, thoroughly enjoyable piece. Djokovic came off great. What a coup for tennis.
I mentioned this on Twitter and got quite a bit of feedback, but I was disappointed by how poorly this was promoted in the Republic of Tennis. One of the sport's crucial issues going forward: "How can the sport boost its profile in the U.S., the biggest commercial market?" Crassly, how can the same fans -- and networks and sponsors -- who warmed to Connors and McEnroe, come to appreciate and invest in all these "ics" and "ovas" and "enkas"?
The world's No.1 player is the subject of a segment on 60 Minutes, one that humanizes him and portrays him in a flattering light? Shouldn't every alphabet soup -- and even rival networks -- be doing everything in their power to spread the good word? Isn't this precisely the kind of event you share with every USTA member, you blow up social media touting, you partner creatively with U.S. Open rights holder CBS?
I went through my email "delete file" last week and saw that I got all sorts of press releases on everything from a new WTA advisory board to a new "tennis kindergarten," to Maria Sharapova's cousin Dasha entering the Sarasota Open, to Elizabeth Shue appearing in a USTA 10-and-under demo, to Kelly Rowland showing up at the Sony Ericsson Open, to college rankings, to "Bulgaria stages Beach Tennis World Championships." You get the point.
Want to guess how many emails or calls I got about Djokovic appearing on one of the most highly rated and highly regarded shows on TV?
I've honestly never understood why people (you) think tennis played on hard courts is bad on your knees. What proof is there? If anything I'd think sliding on clay all day would be horrendous on your knees and ankles. -- Scott, Madison, Wis.
? I call to the stand Randy Mayes of Bradford, Pa.: "Good mailbag this week. I love the comment, 'Making watercress sandwiches on a hard court is bad for your knees.' I run performing arts centers for my career and have considerable experience with dancers caring for the surface they dance on. It is simply verboten to even consider dancing on concrete. Even basketball courts are frowned upon since they are hardwood and have little 'floating suspension' beneath them, so the idea of a sport played on concrete is indeed a death wish. Thank you for bringing this up.
"I love tennis, but wish technology would advance to make a new surface more friendly to feet, ankles and knees that isn't as quirky as clay. Can you comment on surface technology? A few years ago I heard there was some experimentation going on with surfaces and that a practice court at the U.S. Open had some real promise. Since then I haven't heard anything. Is there any evolving surface that may offer the protection of clay with the speed of concrete (the only time I will ever think of 'moving at the speed of concrete' as being a good thing)?"
You might have gotten a million emails on the topic from last week's mailbag about whether anyone had ever beaten Nadal, Djokovic and Federer in the same tournament. David Nalbandian beat all three indoors in Madrid in 2007. I remember a big deal was made at the time because he had beaten the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world in the same tournament, as it might have been a first or at the least was incredibly rare. -- David, Cambridge, Mass.
? Not quite a million. But substantial. Says an ashen-faced Greg Sharko: "I stoned on that." Given that this drops his batting average to roughly .999 , I say we let him live.
Hey, Jon, love your articles. Just a quick note, and I'm sure you will get flooded with this, but Mary Carillo was quite a good player who most certainly played at Wimbledon. -- Doug Holmes, New Orleans
? Yes, of course. Many of you mentioned that. I tried to hedge with the "played deep into a Grand Slam" line, implying an extended singles run. Let the record reflect, though: Mary Carillo is indeed a former Grand Slam mixed doubles champion.
What is the etiquette concerning a commentator who keeps making a mistake in word choice? Shouldn't his companion tell him? A TV commentator for Indian Wells kept using the word "humanity" when he means "being human" - e.g. "Djokovic shows some humanity by double-faulting." Hope kids don't learn English from listening to television! -- M. Ng, Vancouver, Canada
? You didn't check your iCalendar? It's pick-on-commentators month! Yes, maybe we need the equivalent of Hawk-Eye for malaprops and bad grammar. Irregardless? After further review, nope, not a word, you lost the point. "Nadal is not one to rest on his morals?" Sorry. But try "laurels." Accolades, not Escalades. Ingenious, not ingenuous. Disheveled? Nope, sorry. Improper usage there. You have two challenges remaining.
What if eligibility for the tennis Hall of Fame was determined by asking, "Could you tell the story of tennis without including so-and-so?" Do you think such a rule would be too restrictive? -- Ed, Long Island City, N.Y.
? I'm not sure that gets us very far. How detailed a story are we talking here? Can you tell the story of tennis without mentioning, say, Lleyton Hewitt? Person A says, "Of course not. He's a two-Slam champion!" Person B says, "I could very easily write a story where Sampras and Agassi (and Kuerten) precede Federer and Nadal -- skipping all who came in between. And that narrative would flow just fine." Interesting way to frame the issue, though.
I'd like to know what your feelings are regarding Serena and Venus not being penalized for not playing at Indian Wells for the past 10 years. -- Paul Kaplan, Phoenix
? They made a decision based on their principles. You can agree with it. You can disagree with it. But I think you have to respect it.
"We Americans are big on being inoffensive and putting up a lot of 'aw shucks' false modesty." That sound you hear is the rest of world choking back laughter. -- David Ottosen, Edmonton, Alberta
? When a reader wrote that, some jokes came to mind. ("We Germans are a laid-back, bend-the-rules, comedic bunch." "We Manhattanites are a quiet, close-knit, agrarian clan.") Then I thought to myself: "No way does this go unremarked upon. I'll let the international audience tee off."
Yo Jon -- Wife and I are longtime followers of your almost-always spot-on takes on the tennis doings. I do a lot of limericks -- attach them to animal (mostly dog) art work I do, and send them to my granddaughter and niece several times a week. Here's one for the next Tennis Limerick contest. Aloha. -- Dave Anderson, Waikiki, Hawaii
Soon, our tennis pros will face the season of Clay Will Novak dominate? Who can really say? Or will it be Rafa or Fed? Some other dude instead? We won't know until the French Open's last Sunday.
? Maika`i no mahalo.
? Andy Murray is our latest Podcast guest. Once again, owing to the guest, I would submit this is worth 35 or so minutes of your time.
? Remember the tennis movie we mentioned a few weeks back? Like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter. The obligatory kick-starter campaign is coming soon. Stay tuned.
? On this, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, I have a story in this week's Sports Illustrated about this wild coincidence: There were TWO future Tennis Hall of Famers aboard, Dick Williams and Karl Behr. For my research, I consulted two fine books. Titanic: The Tennis Story by Lindsay Gibbs, and Starboard at Midnight by Helen Behr Sanford, Karl's granddaughter.
? Eagle-eyed Helen of Philadelphia noticed: "Tennis Channel is showing the classic 2001 Sampras-Federer Wimbledon match. And who is in the chair but ... Mohamed Lahyani!!"
? Remember the HBO Real Sports piece on Bob Hewitt, the Hall of Famer and alleged sexual predator? A) It was nominated for an Emmy. B) Women interviewed have retained lawyers. Stay tuned.
? Kevin of Miami: "I concur with basically everything you said [about Mary Joe Fernandez sitting in Federer's box]. Point of clarification that wouldn't be known by most: ESPN was not in control of the cameras in Indian Wells. ATP Media has its own director who cuts the matches for a world-feed format. ESPN augments this world-feed coverage with its own graphics and audio, occasionally 'asking' the world-feed director for certain shots at specific times. But there is little point-to-point editorial control of coverage, crowd shots, player's boxes, etc. ESPN most likely did not wish to create or foster potential conflict with Mary Joe sitting in Federer's box. But as they do not control the director, they could not control the times MJF was shown, nor how the shot of the Federer box was framed."
? Kei Nishikori, who (if we're being honest) has the biggest gap between endorsements and results.
? Alex Ketaineck of Madison, N.J.: "With each new story about Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy, the relationship is starting to remind me more and more of the Shmoopie episode of Seinfeld."
? Congrats to Scott Mitchell (full disclosure: my former high school teammate), who was named by The Landings Club on Skidaway Island, Ga., as the official tournament director for its fourth consecutive $50,000 Savannah Challenger, a USTA Pro Circuit event, scheduled for April 21-29. He's the club's director of tennis and former No. 1-ranked mixed-doubles player with his wife, Ashley.
? For Google translate: The Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario telenovela continues.
Have a great week, everyone!