Assessing Serena's dominance, the Big Three, empty seats and more mail
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A special Lower Manhattan Jury Duty mailbag….
Martina Navratilova once called the women's tour, "Steffi and the Seven Dwarfs.” Are we now experiencing Serena and the Seven Dwarfs?
—Joe J., Easton, Pa.
• This is the trap that snares so many exceptional individual sport athletes. You gobble up titles like Inky, Blink and Sue; and you are accused to succeeding in a weak era, devoid of rivalry, filled with dwarves as our friend says with uncharacteristic political incorrectness. You have a rival or you are pushed; well, how great can you be when player X doubles your haul of majors? Again, this isn’t unique to tennis. Ten years ago, the longtime knock on Tiger Woods: during his prime years, the rest of the field as weak as cowardly the Indiana legislature.
Anyway, by now you guys know where I stand on Serena. Every argument cuts both ways, right? I can reference her record against Sharapova and Azarenka and it’s indicative of her dominance. You can counterpoint that this only shows that the other multiple-Slam winners are weak. I can note that she has won almost half the majors played over the last decade. You can point out that no other players (Venus notwithstanding) have more than five, so how rich can this era be?
To me this comes this comes down to an eye test. We should have confidence is our talent assessment to take a stand here. Shouldn’t we know that Serena is truly special, a once-in-a-multi-generation player? Haven’t we seen enough of her play in finals to know that this is an athlete who elevates, not an athlete taking advantage of a depleted era? For that matter, haven't we seen enough of Sharapova and Azarenka and Clijsters and Kvitova to know that they are no dwarves?
In a perfect world Serena would have a rival, the way Federer does Nadal or Apple has Google. But absent that, let’s just appreciate greatness without diminishing the competition. In keeping with Disney metaphors, never mind the Seven Dwarves. Let’s not look a gift Horse in the mouth.
I'm a former newspaper reporter and huge tennis fan. I love Tennis Channel and I understand that the former players who make up the lion's share of the channel's commentators can be excused for not challenging Serena's storyline that she hadn't played at Indian Wells in 14 years because she (or was it Venus or just her father) was taunted with racial slurs in her final against Clijsters. But someone at TC has to address the fact that the Williams' claim has, at least, been called into question. The initial source of the claim was Richard and the racism charge first surfaced right or nine days after the tournament, at a time when Richard was being accused of basically fixing the match by having Venus fake an injury.
I haven't watched every minute of the tournament, though I've DVRed it and am making my way through it, but it seems that you—as the only real journalist at TC—are obligated to delve into the issue a bit. My 10-year-old and 12-year-old daughters, tennis players who declared when they were four and five that they were going to be the white Williams sisters (which really says something about the impact the Williamses have had on the sport), were watching the interview with me and they asked me what the people at Indian Wells were yelling at Serena back then and were outraged because Venus and Serena are their favorites.
Anyway, I just thought I'd drop you a line and put thoughts I'm sure anyone who has followed the game also has. Thanks for reading it. You can press delete now.
• We got a few variations on this question. I’m not sure why Tennis Channel was singled out, but I think your question is valid. Was the media diligent enough in confirming (not “challenging”) the Williams’ storyline (not Serena’s)? Richard Williams, in particular, made some very serious allegations that, to the best of my knowledge were never independently corroborated.
I guess here’s where I net out: ordinarily we try with great diligence to independently confirm assertions. In this case, what’s the point? Anyone watching the YouTube of the 2001 final could see the unpleasantness. Here you have a family of African-Americans, who grew up barely 100 miles away, getting booed by an overwhelmingly white and moneyed crowd, while the youngest daughter, age 19, takes the court. And over what? A clumsily handled withdrawal? It’s hard to not see a racial tinge to this. And when the family asserted that, yes, they perceived racial overtones, for me, that ends the discussion. We officially have a problem. If an investigation cannot corroborate that a fan used the N-word, as Richard Williams alleged, what does that really accomplish—apart from shifting discussion away from the critical issue? The real insidiousness of racism is that it is often subtle.
Regarding Dimitrov, I've had a theory for a while that the generation following the Big Three (aside: so we've kicked out Murray now?) is essentially malnourished in terms of experience. When the Big Three make every semi and final, it stifles opportunities for the next guys and stunts their growth. It'll be interesting to see if the players following the Dimitrov class ultimately reap the benefits by competing against guys who didn't develop as they normally would have. Following me? Is there anything to this?
• First, I am resisting the urge to boycott questions from Indiana this week. Still let the record reflect: my home state has really disgraced itself.
Second, let’s spend a moment on Murray. I tend to say Big Four. No one is making the case the Murray is equivalent to the other three guys, nor are his achievements commensurate. But as he closes in on double-digit major finals—having won two plus an Olympic gold, of course—he has distinguished himself.
Third, there’s no question the Big Three-slash-Four have sucked up most of the oxygen, depriving the others of opportunities and experiences (and prize money/ranking points.) And Megan raises a good point. There are a finite number of Big Occasions in tennis. When three guys win so often, it deprives the rest of the field of these learning opportunities. (I still say some essential element is missing from Dimitrov, who lost to John Isner most recently.)
In last week’s column, someone asked about the tennis equivalent of the walk off homer. I'd say that ace Serena served on match point to beat Sharapova for this year's Australian Open comes awfully close.
—John T., Seattle
• That, to me, was one of the more remarkable interregnums in tennis history. Actually, I have no opinion here. I just wanted to use the word “interregnum.” Actually forgive that interregnum; I do have an opinion. Serena is deep in a second-set tiebreaker and holds match point. She serves an ace under incredibly tense circumstances. Wait. Perceptible only to the sensor, the ball ticks the tape. Her celebration at winning a major in squelched. Her consolation prize: a let.
She returns to the service line. Tries to calm herself in the few seconds allotted. She then hits the exact same serve to the exact same location. For another ace. This time there is no let. To me it was like throwing a perfect 100-mph heater with two strikes in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series, only to be told that time had been called in the batter’s box and the pitch didn't count. Then you rear back and throw the precise same pitch?
Back to John’s point: sometimes tennis gives us these moments. But with no clock, the drama often comes in more subtle forms.
I went as I do every year to Indian Wells and had an absolutely great time. However, every time I go to watch a tennis match I get irritated by having to wait to get in until a change of ends. Sometimes it takes 15 to 20 minutes for change of ends to happen you have spectators waiting and crowding the entrances and craning their necks to catch some action. These folks have paid good money to come and watch tennis. Can't I visit the restroom and then get back to the match without having to wait anywhere from five to 20 minutes? It makes tennis look quite archaic. If basketball players can shoot free throws while spectators are going nuts in the background, surely tennis players can learn to focus and play while spectators are getting in and out of their seats. Your thoughts?
• Completely agree. There’s still way too much officious crowd behavior at tennis.
Why do you think @rogerfederer has been skipping Miami? It's a pretty big tournament for him to skip if he's gunning for #1
• This is entirely speculative, but there’s a lot going on here. For one, it's tough for any player to compete in back-to-back hardcourt events, especially with draws that necessitate playing six matches. Federer has enough seniority so that, per ATP rules, he can miss a Masters 1000 event without incurring penalty in the form of a deduction from his bonus. For scheduling purposes, one can see why he would chose Miami. Finally, Miami is owned by IMG, the management company that represented Federer for much of his career. He left IMG in 2012; he has played in Miami once since then. Correlation does not, of course equal causation. But it’s easy to see why he wouldn't feel the pressure to play that he might have felt earlier in his career.
While I don't necessarily disagree that the WTA might struggle if it were not aligned with the ATP, I do disagree with your overall assessment. But in answer to the question asked, I would like to point out:
1. I saw LOTS of empty seats at Indian Wells, during the entire tournament. Men and women. I'm concerned about the overall health of the sport. Forget squabbling about equal pay—this is a top tier event for both tours, and they can't fill the seats. Alarm bells are ringing.
2. If empty seats are the determinant of validity, why is there a doubles tour at ALL?
3. I've personally seen Rafa Nadal play to a vast sea of empty seats—first round at Roland Garros, on Chatrier. And this was the match where he broke Vilas's clay court record so they had a special ceremony on court afterwards.
—Helen of Philadelphia
• Maybe all the missing fans were just being restrained by ushers until the change of ends. Seriously, alarm bells ought not to ring. Ticket sales are becoming less and less important. You sell media rights. You sell sponsorship. You sell hospitality. Sure, you like big crowds and the incremental revenue that comes with more fans; but they are no longer essential to the overall health of a sports property. This is across the board. College bowl games. NCAA basketball games, even in the tournament. Soccer. Boxing.
Tennis, unfortunately, is especially tough to gauge, since fans wander around. One hears the complaint that the French Open has outgrown the site, so crowded are the outer courts and walkways. Then you look at the big stadium and it’s only a fraction filled. At Indian Wells, there would be an electric match on the outer courts in a packed environment. But Madison Keys would be playing Jelena Jankovic on the stadium court in front of oceans of empty seats.
Think of this from the fans’ perspective, too: I can stay home and watch an event on my large, HD TV. I get replays. I get first-rate commentary on Tennis Channel. I change channels and take calls and fiddle with my iPad. I buy my beer at my prices. I pay nothing to park and wait in no lines to use the bathroom. Why am I going to the stadium again?
One problem: as Helen implies, the optics stink. It’s hard for a fan to fully invest in the event when the action is playing out in front of friends and relatives only. Tennis really suffers here because the seats right behind the baseline are often least likely to be used. There are plenty times the TV cameras show oceans of empty seats, yet the crowd is actually quite strong.
Are you a Rafa fan? I bet I won't get an answer ;)
• I am a fan of no players. I respect all players (Wayne Odesnik notwithstanding.)
What are the odds of Timea Bacsinszky getting a call from Federer to partner him for Mixed Doubles at Rio 2016?
• Bacsinszky is one of the great stories in tennis right now. But I’m thinking Martina Hingis gets first dubs, err dibs, at dancing with the prom king.
Can't imagine many Bass Pro Shop customers wear Lacoste
• Yes but think of the army within the Lacoste crowd—dandies in the clubs of Ibiza and in Ian Schrager hotels—that likes bass fishing. (This question references John Isner’s most excellent ballcap, seen below, that is sponsored by both Lacoste and Bass Pro Shops. The bass crowd surely wonders, “What’s that there gator doin’ on your cap?” The Lacoste crowd is surely pronouncing “bass” the same way Megan Trainor does.)
• It’s one of the biggest business deals in recent memory. In a merger valued at close to $50 billion Kraft and Heinz joined forces last week. And a former Wimbledon champion was at the heart of it. The deal was created by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, private equity firm. Berkshire was founded by Warren Buffet and 3G was co-founded by billionaire financier Jorge Paulo Lemann, who played Davis Cup for Brazil and Switzerland and Wimbledon in 1962, losing to…Donald Dell.
• Some interesting wild cards notes for April events: after a disappointing Miami event—a shocking loss to qualifier Tatjana Maria—Genie Bouchard has taken a wild card in Charleston. In Houston, one wild card went to Ryan Sweeting, the improbable 2011 tourney winner, having beaten Kei Nishikori in the final. The other: Janko Tipsarevic, who hasn’t played a singles match since 2013 on account of a foot injury.
• Ashe vs. Connors: The Wimbledon Final of 1975 is coming out in May. The author is veteran tennis writer Peter Bodo. Buy it here.
• In honor of the upcoming Houston event, a story from reader Troy Quast: A few years ago some buddies and I were at the Houston River Oaks tournament and watching a doubles match between James Blake and Sam Querrey against Ivo Karlovic and someone I can't remember. The match was on one of the outer courts, so we were able to get very close and actually stand on an adjacent court. It was definitely a pro-Blake/Querrey crowd and my friends and I were also rooting on the Americans.
During one of the points, Blake ripped a forehand that I was 100% certain that neither Karlovic or his partner would get even near. I yelled out a "Yeah!" but then saw that Karlovic got a racket on it (but couldn't get it in play). I quickly realized that at that moment I was the obnoxious fan that I am always criticizing for potentially affecting a match. That sick feeling was compounded by the fact that (at least it felt like) every person there turned and looked at me, including Karlovic. His stare made me want to dig a hole in the red clay and hide. Of course, my friends thought it was hilarious and for months reminded me about how he would probably crush me between his two fingers if he ever saw me again.
Fast forward to the same tournament a year later, and I was attending qualifying day with my wife and kid. We were eating lunch and I saw Karlovic walking by himself. I quickly decided that this was my chance to clear my conscience for what I had done and, with my wife and child watching, he would hopefully take mercy and refrain from hurting me. I ran up to him and told him that I was the guy who yelled out during his doubles match last year and that I was very sorry for what I had done. I braced for an expletive-filled response, but instead he laughed and told me that he couldn't even remember what I was talking about and that I shouldn't worry about it.
I thanked him profusely for not holding anything against me. I knew my friends would never believe that I cleared the air with him, so I asked him for a quick pic and he graciously agreed to take one with me (see below).
Needless to say, I now always cheer on Ivo whenever possible.
• Long Lost Siblings, Southern Hemisphere Edition, comes from Helen of Philadelphia: Thanasi Kokkinakis and Juan Martin del Potro