Mailbag: Rethinking WTA calendar must be first on agenda for new CEO
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Well again, as they limp in bruised and battered—mentally and physically—to the WTA year-end championships, we wonder if even four of the top eight qualifiers will show up in Singapore. It is obvious that as the average age of the top players rises, they are less likely to be able to make it through an 11-month season. So should the WTA rethink this championship and end the year after China or even before? I have always maintained, albeit as an avid fan who would watch tennis for 12 months, that we are damaging the careers of the young ones and pressuring the older ones to retire with this long season. But then again, how wonderful it would be if one Venus star was to rise above all….What do you think?
—Natalie, Kingston, Jamaica
• Eventually tennis will learn that less is sometimes more. That scarcity of product is an asset. That sometimes you’re better passing up money in short term for a gain in the long term. As it stands, this Asian swing should require a “viewer discretion” rating. Player after player is retiring mid-match with one injury or another. (And the panoply of injuries is truly cause for concern.) Maria Sharapova has essentially shut it down for the year. And, oh, yes, so has Serena Williams. You wonder if these Asian events aren't experiencing some serious buyers’ remorse, having shelled out millions for depleted, exhausted fields and daily results featuring retirements.
Expanding into Asia? It’s a sound strategy, especially in a global sport. Sponsorship money? Expanded television rights? More prize money? All good. But this is simply not working. Asking players to compete for months on end, all over the world, on a variety of surfaces. After the last of four majors you're then asking the field fly across the ocean play a series of tournaments in Asia? Sadly, by then, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and point of saturation.
On Monday the WTA announced that Steve Simon would the tour’s new CEO. Say this, his first order of business is already clear: rethinking a calendar and commitment schedule that is simply not workable for the players. And thus for the WTA’s partners.
Not unrelatedly, a few of you have asked about the legacy of Stacey Allaster, the WTA’s previous CEO. Before assessing legacy (fast becoming my least favorite word; at least in a sports context) it’s important to allow for some detachment and time. We need to see which bets pay off and which don’t. Allaster made big bets on Asia, seeing it as a growth; if X years from now we see a cohort of Asian players and, as a consequence, sponsorship and media deals, it will reflect favorably. I see the WTA announce a “$500 million” deal with Perform media for WTA Media and scratch my head and request an explanation. Half a billion? On the other hand, if this comes to fruition, it will mark a transformative moment.
Allaster had her wins and her losses, including an inability to find a title sponsor. She had some good fortune (Serena Williams playing into her mid-30s) and some ill fortune (Grand Slam champs retiring, “rising stars” who never achieved cruising altitude.) She had her supporters and detractors. But her passion and dedication to the cause were never called into question. I also never got the feeling that this job was a stepping stone to a bigger opportunity; this was squarely where she wanted to be and her focus was on running and growing the WTA and, in turn, women’s sports. Thank her for her service. Tip your cap. Wish her well. And in a few years, we’ll have a better sense of what the WTA achieved on her watch.
I feel like often times in the past, this subdued demeanor of Venus Williams is working against her when she plays a hot-streaking opponent. In her match against Johanna Konta at Wuhan, however, I saw the Venus that I haven't seen in a long time: you could see in her eyes, her brief moment of self-flagellation, and the gritty way she ran down all those difficult shots how badly she wanted to win. Probably the last time I saw it was in her semifinals matches vs. Maria Sharapova at the Wimbledon in 2005 (she won) and Justine Henin at the U.S. Open in 2007 (she lost). Her illness might have made her wary of overexerting herself but this cautiousness also made her less competitive and easier to capitulate during the crucial moments, costing her matches that she should've won if she had that little extra zeal in her legs and heart. What do you think?
—Nestor Cotiyam, Quezon City, Philippines
• If Serena Williams is your women’s tennis MVP this year (and she is) Venus might well be your Most Improved, your Comeback Player of the Year and your Best Story. In this, her 35th year, she’s playing her best ball in a long time. That she is still going strong so late in the season—when other opponents are careening in the runaway truck lane—is particularly encouraging.
I’m not sure, though, that body language is a major part of the story. Especially in her 30s, Venus default mode seems to be a sort of subdued dignity. You see it both victory and defeat.
I’m a Canadian who has routinely cheered for Milos Raonic, but mentally I’m burned out after seeing little to no progress. Yes, he’ll win the odd tournament where he beats much lower-ranked guys in the quarters, semifinals and final (e.g. the recent tournament in St. Petersburg). But I sense he’s never going to win a major and frankly, he can’t even seem to beat a meaningful player anymore when it matters. I know he deserves an injury pass during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but do you feel he’s reached his threshold as a player? Would a coaching change help? He really seems stalled and I’m sensing that this is as good as it gets. Your thoughts?
—John Matheson, B.C. Canada
• A micro point and a macro point, not necessarily in that order. I can't think of another sport where you bury at your peril and anoint at your peril. One of the great clichés tells us that “the margins are so small.” But there is real truth to that and in so many contexts. The small margins are apparent when we glimpse Hawkeye and see that, literally, millimeters can determine who wins the point. We see small margins among players. The difference between the player ranked No. 15 and No. 115 can be negligible. Qualifiers can (and do) reach the middle rounds of a Slam. Top players suffer a crisis of confidence and are suddenly mortals. There are also small margins in terms of careers. A few back breaks, a few nagging injuries, a few unlucky draws and your ranking arrows downward, your self-belief accompanying it. A few weeks worth of good wins (we’re looking at you Jo Konta) and suddenly you go from a struggling player on the margins to a main draw mainstay. It doesn’t take much, to fall off the proverbial horse or get back on. And I’d argue that, ultimately, it’s a virtue of tennis. But it means that players make us foolish, both when we dismiss them and when we anoint them as stars.
Specific to Raonic, the train has definitely stalled. But as long as it’s mostly on account of injury, I wouldn’t de-board quite yet. He’s only 24, still has a monstrous serve and has the proverbial good head on his shoulders. His limitations are obvious—starting with speed and movement—but not insurmountable.
No one blinked an eye when Roberta Vinci openly cursed out at Venus Williams in Wuhan because Venus was not ready to receive (if you watch the match on European tennis channels, a ball boy was running back to his position). If Venus did the same (virtually impossible), she would make big headlines. It is incredibly immature for Vinci to expect that viewers and players of an international sport would not understand a few select words in Italian. Players curse all the time and I can appreciate their anger/frustration when losing. This was a stark episode because it was against Venus, who was waiting to avoid a hindrance from the ballboy. I find it insulting. espnW thought it was hilarious. There was nothing funny about it. Shouldn't Vinci receive a fine?
—Ope, Princeton, N.J.
• I was listening to Richard Deitsch’s podcast with CBS announcer Verne Lundquist—a plug but there’s a larger point here—and Lundquist rehashed some of his famous calls. He noted that his call of “Yes Sir” from the 1986 Masters endures to this day. But had it been Joe Journeyman and not Jack Nicklaus, would it have been nearly as memorable? Lundquist also wondered: if the game-winning Duke-Kentucky shot had not been made by the polarizing All-American Christian Laettner but by a bench warmer, would we have cared as much? Lundquist is essentially saying that, yes, a double-standard exists, that the subject matters. And it’s hard to argue wit him.
I wonder if the same principle doesn’t apply here. Here’s the clip. But apart from swearing a) in a foreign language for Americans and b) swearing in a tournament held in Asia, we’re talking about Roberta Vinci. Yes, if the roles were reversed it would have bigger deal. Because one player is a seven-time major winner and international icon. The other is an Italian journeywoman unknown until recently to only the most hardcore tennis fan.
In no way is this to condone Vinci. This was bush league stuff, befitting a junior. That Venus was on the other side of the net makes it only more regrettable.
How many titles will Martina Hingis win in 2015? In 2016? Is she the best women’s doubles player of alltime? I am pretty sure she and Anna Kournikova have the best winning percentage of the modern era of those with at least 40 wins. Facts: Hingi has the most WTA doubles titles of any active player and the most WTA doubles titles this year. Hingis/Mirza have a great partnership, but it pales compared to Hingis' first two years with Kournikova.
—Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.
• This has been one of the more pleasing stories in tennis that—not unlike Venus’s resurgence—hasn’t quite gotten its due. Martina Hingis (and her partner Sania Mirza) are not simply winning doubles events; they are dominating. This has all sorts of consequences and angles. A Hall of Famer already, Hingis is going strong at 35, having found a venue for her peerless tennis cortex and deft hands. India—the world’s growth engine, we’re so often told—gets a female champion. After the demise of Williams/Williams and the spectacular car crash of Errani/Vinci, women’s doubles gets a boost.
One point to emphasize: Before Mirza, Hingis shared the court with a series of partners. In Mirza, she finds a player who no longer has singles ambitions and is happy devoting herself entirely to the team. This makes a big difference. This reminds me…here’s a great read.
On a slow-ish tennis week, a good Mailbag question might be: Is David Ferrer a likely HOF Inductee? No Slams, but incredible consistency, always top 10, tons of titles (at least one or two 1000's), Davis Cup titles, etc.
• As always there are parallel discussions here. Is Player X worthy of the Hall of Fame in a vacuum? And is Player X worthy of the Hall of Fame given the precedent and the strikingly low bar that tennis has set? The first inquiry: is s/he one of the all-time towering figures, a player whose achievements and contributions truly set a standard? In the second inquiry: did s/he win at least two majors and do a few other nice things—achieve the No. 1 ranking; help an elderly lady cross the street; refrain from ordering gin and tonics during winter months—over the course of their career?
With Ferrer, let’s get the gooey out up front. He is the exemplar of a pro, a guy who has wrung every last ounce out of his game. Endowed with modest physique and modest-er talent) he found other virtues. His fitness is beyond reproach. He defense is peerless. He is harder to kill than time in Winnipeg. Much as kids should idolize Federer and Serena, a more realistic player to emulate is this guy.
But sadly in the case of Ferrer, he misses both marks for Hall of Fame. He is not a transcendent player. And with zero Slams (and only one final) he doesn’t make the “shabby precedent” cut. Again, an admirable player. But no Hall of Famer.
Jon, we keep hearing that the field is getting older. But I wonder if a teenager will ever make it and win majors. Look at players like Borna Coric and Andrey Rublev and, to me, it’s not hard to see a day when we return to teenagers winning majors.
• I’m of two minds here. Unless there are changes to the equipment or changes to strings or rule changes, I just don’t see how a teenager—absent both full physical and emotional maturity—competes at the highest level. The year Boris Becker first won Wimbledon, he was 17 and his mother mailed him toothpaste because she was worried that he wasn’t taking care of his teeth. Today that’s laughable. Can you imagine a 17-year-old—so young/immature that his mother worries about his dental hygiene—winning 21 sets of tennis against a field with an average age of 28?
On the other hand, history and logic tell us that species adapt and pendulums swing back. One freak (a la Nadal in 2004) with a sui generis game, a sui generis body or sui generis maturity and who knows?
Wouldn't the answer to Andy Murray's dilemma for Davis Cup be for the World Tour Finals to be played on a clay surface in London?
• I like your creative thinking. But the surface is determined well in advance. You can imagine the uproar when it’s changed to accommodate one player (who also happens to be from the host country.) There have been a few questions about Murray and whether he should be fined for missing the World Tour Finals, as he’s suggested he might, in order to prepare for Davis Cup.
As I often do, I go libertarian here. Murray is making an informed decision. Whether it’s financial or spiritual or some of each, he might decide that it’s worth the fine and the opportunity cost to miss the World Tour Finals if it means he can gain optimal preparation for Davis Cup.
• Last week’s SI Tennis podcast guest was Martin Blackman. Stay tuned for a new episode on jazz and tennis, out on Thursday.
• From the cringe-inducing-promotion-but-trying-to-be-a-team-player department: For those interested, I’ll be appearing in Indianapolis next month. Feel free to stop and pepper any discussion with tennis talk. Ticket information is here.
• Steve Simon is the new CEO of the WTA.
• More on Stacey Allaster.
• Michaella Krajicek overcame two rain delays and windy conditions to defeat American Shelby Rogers to win the Red Rock Pro Open on Sunday.