Mailbag: The economics of tennis and why the sport loses out on young athletes

Wednesday May 3rd, 2017

• Our most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast was with Marcus Willis, darling of Wimbledon 2016, who was delightful.

• Next up: the inimitable Chris (Mad Dog) Russo. Totally on account of the guest, this one is a great listen. Trust me.

• Thanks to all of you who wrote in about my girls’ softball dilemma. All suggestions and perspectives were appreciated. We’ll discuss next week.

• The player with the sport’s most fitting name is on the verge of making the main draw of the next Grand Slam. Tennys Sandgren, a 25-year-old from Tennessee, is at the Savannah Challenger this week. A successful tournament and he'll win the USTA French Open reciprocal wild card. Injured for much of his 20s, Sandgren is playing with no coach, no agent and limited finances. Suddenly ranked No. 134, he’s a few matches from the biggest month of his career.

Tennis
Serena Williams featured on Humans of New York's Met Gala series

Let’s start with some tennis economics:

A few nights ago, reader Dan Martin wrote via twitter: “With Dr. Ivo’s longevity and the NBA’s small ball move, is tennis a better option than basketball for exceptionally tall people?”

It was a thought-provoking question. I wrote back, though, the when sub All-Stars like Mike Conley or Gordon Hayward can make more playing basketball this year—guaranteed and for multiple years—than either Federer or Nadal will make this year playing tennis, the sport is likely going to lose young athletes to the NBA.

A friend wrote, rightly, that we should have been precise, differentiating prize money from gross income. Federer can make $1 million a night per exhibition and his off-court sponsorship haul is hefty as well. “Federer will be a billionaire soon, if he isn't already. Gordon Hayward a billionaire? Do you think Gordon Hayward has made more gross money than Federer and Nadal combined? That's what you insinuate on twitter. Do you stand by that?”        

My response: Let’s take the top players out of it. The stars in both sports—Federer, Nadal, Kevin Durant, LeBron James—will make more in off-court income than performing. The average (guaranteed) salary in the NBA is nearly $5 million. And training and travel and coaching expenses are minimal if not $0.00. In tennis, as few as a half-dozen players will gross $5 million in prize money. Sure, from an odds perspective your chances of making it in tennis might be better. (Fewer aspiring pro tennis players worldwide than aspiring pro basketball players.) But a top 200 NBA player is living the good life. A top 200 tennis player is eating ramen.

What is tennis selling? For one, the longer pro careers help the value proposition. Second, your odds of a college scholarship or choice college admission—especially for women—are better in tennis than in basketball. You could also make a case that, while hard to quantify, tennis is better for connections and access to capital later in life. (Plenty of former players no work in finance, jobs they might not have landed with the contacts tennis afforded them.)

There are of course, reasons to play sports other than economics and crass cost/benefits analysis. John Isner simply liked tennis and the challenges of an individual sport more than he did basketball. But until the math and the incentive structure changes, I fear it will be hard for tennis to attract most kids who might otherwise be shooting for the NBA.

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Jon, I think this Sharapova controversy can go to rest now. Had she lost that first round to Vinci 6-1, 6-1, people would probably have criticized how she's not taking the long route of playing smaller tournaments to earn her ranking. But as of now, she's made a semifinal at a Premier tournament. She took her wildcard opportunity, and has immediately showed why she deserves to be at the top of the women's game once again.
Vivek, Houston

• I had tried to empty the chamber on my Sharapova thoughts last week with the hope that we could move on, as Vivek suggests. That was probably naïve. Lots and lots of you still weighing in. Again, I think we’re foolish to try and find a binary position for a situation calling for nuance. It’s not as simple as “she’s a cheater,” and while Genie Bouchard earns points for her candor, her analysis comes up short. Let’s also not lose sight of this: there was no whitewash here; Sharapova lost 15 months—and suffered incalculable damage to her reputation—for a first-time offense, off an over-the-counter drug, that was not on the list weeks prior to her positive test. A little rachmones, as they say, is in order here.

By the same token, Sharapova’s victim posture is equally laughable and tone-deaf. And while this column is awfully harsh, it does highlight the heavily stage-crafted pr campaign and damage control strategy that’s been deeply flawed from Day One. “Sport is a scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where it is much nicer just to forget bad things ever happened.”

Tennis
Mailbag: Maria Sharapova is back, but the effects of her ordeal remain

Micro point: I would add that if YOU introduce your diabetes and asthma and heart issues and whatever else in your initial control-the-message press conference, that topic is now “in play,” fair game for further inquiry. Macro point: when you return from a 15-month doping ban, showing contrition—even the mere pretense of contrition—might be wise.

Again, my overarching emotion isn't moral outrage or sympathy so much as it’s…. blecccchhhh. This was an indecorous situation to start with, made worse by so many unforced errors. Nobody looks good here. Not the out-for-blood camp. Not the sniping players. Not the Sharapova apologists. Not WADA, not the ITF, not the WTA. Not the agents and handlers. Not the media, which has been fawning (as some of you complain) and has been unaccountably mean-spirited (as others of you complain). And—try as she might to spin it otherwise—not least Sharapova herself.

With Serena out of the mix for the next four Grand Slams, hypothetically if Venus were to enter the doubles, who would be her ideal partner? The nostalgia in me would love to see a Venus/Hingis partnership (it's happened before in World Team Tennis!) or one of the Bryans as a mixed team. What are the chances of this happening?
James Pham, Saigon, Vietnam

• Venus and Hingis! Love it. Former rivals in the 1990s, now reuniting deep in their 30s—an even two decades after their U.S. Open final. We need to make this happen. Who wants to set up the Kickstarter page?

At the risk of sounding a bit like Sigmund Freud: Are you really surprised that Sharapova is oblivious to what her peers think of her? It’s hardly surprising to me. Plenty of times she has been asked questions about various outside topics such as her interests in other sports, age of quarterbacks, history of the tennis, and even questions that Indian Wells does, on how much players know about their fellow players. She looks pained when they ask her about other players, and it’s clear as day that she simply isn't that interested in neither other sports nor her fellow competitors. It’s just her. I thought we all knew that? I am very surprised you were surprised at what she said. 
Deepak (Seattle)

• I am currently reading a book about business that talks about the “agency theory” of management and contrasts that with the “stakeholder theory.” In the former, you simply concern yourself with share price and value and financial results. In the latter, you’re more inclined to think about the culture and value and morals of your firm. In occurred to me that—especially in an individual sport—some athletes (intentionally or not) subscribe to one school and some athletes subscribe to the other. Let’s leave it at that.

Tennis
Rising American Ernesto Escobedo draws inspiration from his Mexican roots

I’m sure this has been covered before, but I need guidance. I’m going to Roland Garros for the first time this year and wanted to know if you or your readers could share some tips? We have grounds passes for two days and quarterfinal day on Lenglen.
Kelly Gulley

• If anyone has additional tips, I’ll cull them and create a master list. Some starters:

1) Take the Metro or, better still, a Velib bike. The cab/Uber proposition is dicey and you definitely don’t want to drive yourself.

2) Take a break to wander the Bois de Boulogne or nearby adjacent botanical garden.

3) We all love the Bullring, but also get thee to Court 2/3.

4) The French Open museum is a hidden gem in plain sight.

5) The stars’ practice courts of choice are No. 6 and No. 8

6) You can’t go wrong gastronomically but feel free to bring your own food from the neighborhood boulangerie and fromagerie.

7) Prepare yourself for cramped grounds. While totally understandable—we all relinquish the right to complain—the security can be quite intense, too.

8) Bring an umbrella.

9) There’s free candy in the men’s room—and presumably women’s—on the north side of the stadium.

10) Note the small charms. For sentimental reasons, the on-site news kiosk is a personal favorite.

Hola Jon! Rod Laver. Bjorn Borg. John McEnroe. Steffi Graf. Hana Mandlikova. Roger Federer. Novak Djokovic. There you are: my GOATs. No one above, no one behind… and I don’t need to discuss with everybody about it. They moved my sports emotions through excellence, competitiveness, wonderful matches and achievements. When I was young or now (past the middle of my life), they have been forever present in my memories. I am passionate about tennis, I’ve enjoyed players, matches, points, triumphs and defeats since I started playing and loving tennis as a kid. No panel of specialists will make me reconsider this. Living and breathing tennis in my mind and my heart for 40+ years is well enough to have my GOATs. Please stop the debate, I am sure the millions of tennis fans in the world have their own list. Mine is irreplaceable and definitive. Now, let the fresh and new questions pour in your wonderful column.
Carlos Acosta, Guadalajara Mexico.

• Thanks. And I think there’s a point embedded here that we ought not to forget: we can make a statistical case for the best players. But ultimately our fondness for (and kinship with) players is deeply personal, a function of our own personal aesthetic and values; and even our circumstances under which we fell under a spell. If player X “moved my sport emotions,” as Carlos nicely puts it, she is my GOAT, regardless of how many majors she won.

Tennis
Serena Williams says she made pregnancy news public by accident

Hi Jon. This sounds a little crazy but indulge a huge Serena fan. Baby is born in September. U.S. open semifinal points come off. As defending Aussie champ she'll have 2000 points on the computer come January. That would make her about the No. 20 seed!! Slams No. 24 and No. 25 here we come!!!
Earl

• When Serena is involved, you rule out options and scenarios at your peril. Seriously, you know what I’m watching? The return of Victoria Azarenka. Every player—every woman—is different. But I think Azarenka’s comeback after maternity leave could be instructive in terms of how and when Serena might resume her quest.

In terms of ranking spots: Kevin Fischer is always happy to help. Here is the info on the WTA’s Special Ranking Rule: To be eligible, must be out for a minimum of six months, maximum of two years and ranked in Top 300 (or Top 200 in doubles) at time she stopped playing.

The Special Ranking application and supporting medical documentation must be submitted within six months after last professional tournament played.

For maternity cases, players must be ready to play first tournament within 12 months of birth. The Special Ranking will be the ranking she earned immediately after the points of the last tournament she played have been added to the WTA Rankings. 

For Serena Williams, her Special Ranking would be No. 1. For Victoria Azarenka, her Special Ranking is No. 6.

Upon return, a player may use her WTA Special Ranking to gain entry (not for seeding) into eight tournaments within one year of her return date. The Special Ranking can be used at a maximum of two Premier Mandatory Tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and two Grand Slams. The complete details of the WTA Special Ranking Rule can be found in the 2017 WTA Rulebook (pg. 218-225). Also worth noting: Any player who is a past singles champion of a Grand Slam or WTA Finals will be allowed an unlimited number of Singles Main Draw Wild Card nominations.

Tennis
Nastase issues apology for remarks about Serena Williams

What if three out of the four Grand Slams were still played on grass?
Croydon F, Chicago

• This was w/r/t our “What If?” about Laver winning two Slams a year in those lost years. Fair point. We'll have more “what ifs” each week. A lot of you submitted terrific suggestions.

I think we all agree that the unfortunate line call during the semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and David Goffin in Monte Carlo changed the tenor of the match. Let me start by saying that I hope this serves a not-so-subtle “nudge” to clay court tournaments to adopt the hawkeye challenge system. If we had a challenge system in place, Goffin could have simply challenged the bad call, had it overturned, gone up 4-2 and we would have had a match.

My question relates to Mary Carillo’s comments during the match. She asserted that Nadal should have given the point to Goffin because he “knew” the ball was out. She even brought up Nadal’s match at the 2015 Australian Open with Tim Smyczek, where Smyczek graciously permitted Nadal to have a first serve when a disturbance in the crowd interrupted his motion. Paul Annacone disagreed, saying that an opponent shouldn’t really insert himself/herself in a dispute on the other side of the net. As a recreational player, I tend to agree with Annacone, as this comports with the notion that calls on your side of the net are your responsibility (and vice versa), but I’m curious to get your thoughts. What should Rafa have done in this situation?
Ellis, Washington, D.C.

• First, let’s not gloss over your “subtle nudge.” Clay court events need Hawk-eye or a simulacrum. There is a difference between using technology to challenge a call and summoning a line judge from the lifeguard chair to “check the mark”—which is about as scientific as injury time in soccer.

Nadal could have—and perhaps should have—taken the high road and conceded the point. But his point is well-taken: look, I’m on the other side of the court. If he’s standing in front of the erroneous call (that is, if it had been Goffin’s shot that landed at Nadal’s feet that had been called inexpertly) it might have been different. The “unwritten code” is mixed here, too. As fans, we all love acts of sportsmanship, players putting fairness above self-interest, conceding points and acting to their detriment. But sometimes players want their opponent to stay out of it. The thinking? “(S)he gave me that point. Now the burden is on me to repay the favor later in the match.”

Tennis
Serena Williams joins long list of athletes who have competed while pregnant

Shots, Miscellany

• The WTA has announced that automotive specialist Porsche has entered a multi-year partnership and will become the title sponsor for the WTA Finals qualification campaign, the “Porsche Race to Singapore.”

• This week’s award for best tennis attire: 

• Friend-of-Mailbag James Blake has a new book out, titled, Ways of Grace.

• Press releasing: For the tenth time in the last twelve years, readers of the leading online tennis travel website, TennisResortsOnline.com, has named Kiawah Island Golf Resort as the No. 1 tennis resort in the world. Below are the TennisResortsOnline.com’s top-10 tennis resorts for 2017:

1. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina
2. Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, California
3. Four Seasons Resort Nevis, Nevis, West Indies
4. Wild Dunes Resort, South Carolina
5. JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, California
6. The Resort at Longboat Key Club, Florida
7. Mauna kea Beach Hotel, Hawaii
8. Boca Raton Resort & Club, Florida
9. Kapalua Resort, Hawaii
10. Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, Florida

Tennis
Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Marcus Willis

• Chris N. has this week’s reader riff:

I grew up as a Nordic skier and competed at provincial level in Canada.  My romanticized youth included notions of world-class athletes training just like me, only stronger and better. I think just because WADA can't ban something (or because they eventually do, but not for a long time) does not mean fans and media should be easy on athletes looking to gain unnatural advantages. I'd like to see more transparency in world-class athletes and they way they train. Nadal has previously called for open publication of the testing records including TUEs, and I would add to this that anti-doping could be observing training sessions. (If a player wants altitude training, then no CVAC—train up and down a mountain). It also seems the frequency of use of the CVAC was being obscured at times, and it's suggested this was for proprietary training reasons (so the opposition would not know). However, if an athlete is hitting the track and working the body, there are no secrets, just the hard work going in.

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