World TeamTennis exudes a likeable vibe, but faces inherent issues

Wednesday July 24th, 2013

Martina Hingis high-fives partner Leander Paes during their World TeamTennis mixed doubles match.
Nick Wass/AP

What is your take on World TeamTennis? I've been watching it recently, and I like the format with the more intimate audience (saw Bobby Reynolds high-fiving some fans after a stretch volley winner), music between points and less pressure on the players, but there's still high quality tennis on the courts.
-- Eric, Atlanta

• The same day this question came in, Sakhi of Los Angeles and Mumbai wrote: "World Team Tennis rocks. Yet how in the hell do they stay in business? The audiences are not huge, the players are clearly paid quite a bit (I mean, how else do you get players like Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, et al. to play alongside players who I thought were retired from the pro tour, and now working as teaching pros in some posh country club in Malibu!) and their schedule rarely involves playing in tennis-friendly cities like Los Angeles? I love watching their sweaty, camaraderie-filled, multi-colored matches on Tennis Channel (after all, where else can my countryman Leander Paes get so much love?!), but do wonder how they stay in business."

And Sakhi pretty much summed up my feelings. I, too, have great fondness for World TeamTennis. What's not to like? It's men and women. It's stars and journeyfolk. It's singles and doubles. It's old and young. (Taylor Townsend is a teammate of Mark Knowles.) It's the individual layered with the team. There's a '70s-tennis-boom vibe to it, but at the same time, it's innovative. (Both tours should think seriously about adopting the WTT faster pacing, for instance.)

There are inherent problems, of course. The paucity of open dates on the calendar mean that the season is too short. The rosters sometimes strike me as artificial. I'd rather watch local pros represent their market than have Andy Roddick make a one-night-only appearance. The other tennis institutions aren't exactly supportive, viewing World Tennis as neither a force of good nor a competitor, but rather as a roll-your-eyes annoyance.

As for the finances, I would agree that it remains a mystery. Even if Roddick and Venus and Hingis are playing at discounted rates, some back-of-the-cocktail-napkin ciphering leaves you scratching your head. Here's a recent piece in The New York Times, but note that even the owner of the most successful team says his franchise isn't profitable.

Then again, there's a title sponsor. There are investors. The potential for growth is there, starting with a sister league overseas. It's a lovable, quirky, still slightly awkward treasure. You hope it remains a going concern.

How do you think that the Roger Federer of, say, 2004-07 would fare in a match against Roger Federer of '12?
-- Andrew Chernih, Sydney

• Usually I err on the side of recency. To me, Serena Williams versus Margaret Court is like comparing Alta Vista to Google. But not here.

The refrain of every aging athlete: "I'm a better [fighter/player/quarterback] than ever. If my results don't show it, it's only because the rest of the field has caught up." It's an understandable -- necessary, even -- bit of self-deception. But it's seldom the case. The extra mobility trumps the extra experience. The full health trumps the tweaks and aches. One could -- and I would -- make the case that no one played tennis at a higher level than Federer did between 2004-07.

There's also a mental dimension here. We tend to think that older athletes are better equipped to handle pressure. "They've been there," as the cliché goes. But sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Think of Maria Sharapova in her first Wimbledon final or, for that matter, some freshman in the Final Four. They're simply playing on instinct and can't even contemplate the weight of the occasion. As they get older and realize what's at stake and the opportunity in front of them (see: Serena Williams at Wimbledon, 2013), the conflicting thoughts start to rattle around.

Ivo Karlovic wins a tournament after overcoming a serious (life-threatening?) illness. Dr. Ivo deserves a Sports Illustrated cover and profile. Do you have any sway?
-- Stephen B., Toronto

• Thanks. I know someone who knows someone who might have some sway. I like the profile idea, but putting Karlovic on the cover is -- pardon the pun -- a bit of a stretch.

Caroline Wozniacki must have smiled knowingly when Tiger Woods was roundly criticized for no longer having the tools to win a major, for not being the "real" No. 1 player and for pumping up his ranking by winning a lot smaller events. Wait ... what's that you say? No criticism? Oh, never mind.
-- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.

• Are you really comparing Caroline Wozniacki to Tiger Woods? I agree that there might be a double standard that, say, Marcelo Rios' run to No. 1 (despite being Slam-less) wasn't greeted with the heaping of grief that Wozniacki received.

But Tiger Woods? If memory serves me -- and forgive me, it's been a while -- didn't he win, like, 14 major championships earlier in his career? True, it's been five years and counting since he won his last major, but I think a lot of the issue with Wozniacki (and Dinara Safina before her and Jelena Jankovic before her) was that they had NEVER won a Grand Slam at any point.

Wozniacki clears up rumors about a new coach

Whatever happened to David Goffin? There was that run at the French Open last year, and he defeated Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon. But after that ... nothing. He is a small guy compared to the average male player. Is that hurting him?
-- Sumit, Jersey City, N.J.

Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago:

What happened to David Goffin, the young Belgian who pushed Roger Federer to four sets in the fourth round of the 2012 French Open? More accurately: What has he done to hack off the draw gods? Here are his last four majors:

2012 U.S. Open: Lost to No. 7 Tomas Berdych in the first round
2013 Australian Open: Lost to No. 24 Fernando Verdasco in the first round
2013 French Open: Lost to No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round
2013 Wimbledon: Lost to No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round

I see that Jeff L. of Brooklyn has also missed the point -- just like you did ("I agree"). It's not that Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon -- it's the seven players she beat that is the problem. Yes, not her fault, but the draw (again) is flawed, wrong and needs to be changed.
-- Todd Purvis, Thomasburg, Ontario

• Why, exactly, is the draw flawed?

I really enjoyed Strokes of Genius. Any suggestions for a tennis-themed summer reading list?
-- Ron Gwyn, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

• Appreciate that. I recommended a few books in this mailbag a few weeks back. Scroll down to the bottom.

If anyone knows of any others coming down the pike, I'd be interested. Also, this question gives us an excuse to plug this fun piece from Wimbledon on Gordon Forbes and A Handful of Summers.

For a non-tennis book, consider this a ringing endorsement for David Epstein's The Sports Gene. Read an excerpt of the book here.

What about this sniglet to describe the head-to-head record between Serena and Sharapova: nighvalry.
-- Tim Hamburg, Germany

• Consider this a call for more sniglets. A number of you wrote in after this piece aired. If we get another good batch of suggestions, we'll try to do another video segment.

Jimmy Connors? I thought Maria Sharapova was coached by Placido Domingo.
-- Steve, Whittier, Calif.

• As the kids say: Oh, snap!

NGUYEN: Who are some other ideal player-coach pairings?

Shots, miscellany

• Allen Yap of Redondo Beach, Calif., reporting in on the Connors/Sharapova coaching dynamic: "I have watched a few of their workout sessions, and they looked quite interesting together in terms of player and coach. She seems to be quite receptive to his coaching at this point. She has always hit a nice ball, but after about half an hour, she was hitting the ball at blistering speeds. We will see what comes of this but it is amazing to see a legend like him coaching.. By the way, what a pleasant and friendly guy Connors is. I was nervous talking to him, but he was quite nice and engaging. Here's a video of him hitting a few balls -- excuse the through-the-fence video. After the coaching session, he hit a few balls with USC star Raymond Sarmiento and looked quite good."

• MB of Dallas: "If fans want to asterisk Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon victory, then why not asterisk Steffi Graf's entire career after Monica Seles' stabbing? Ridiculous? My point exactly."

• Katie of Chicago: "I meant to write you about this during the women's Wimbledon semifinals and forgot ... but the thing that stood out the most to me about the Bartoli-Kirsten Flipkens match was how incredibly QUIET it was. No screeching, no shrieking, no yelling, barely even a 'Come on.' Just the sound of the ball being hit back and forth. Beautiful."

Sam Groth hit a ridiculous shot in World TeamTennis the other night.

SportsBusiness Journal: "A federal judge declined to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the USTA against the filmmakers of a documentary on Venus and Serena Williams for allegedly infringing on U.S. Open copyrights."

Novak Djokovic's book, Serve To Win, a nutrition-based performance guide, will be published by Ballantine Bantam Dell in all formats on Aug. 20, timed to the 2013 U.S. Open.

• Ken Wells of Sigonella Italy has this week's long-lost siblings: Grass-court specialist Tsvetana Pironkova and Ghost Whisperer actress Jennifer Love Hewitt

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