joeldurston

Posts Tagged ‘US Open’

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Call on the Metaphorical Trainer…

In Opinion, Sport on June 19, 2011 at 1:04 PM

Sometime during Sabine Lisicki’s Quarter-final victory over Marion Bartoli at this year’s Wimbledon, plucky Bartoli hit an otherwise moderate first serve which Lisicki was so sure skimmed the top of the net (which results in a let – a replay of the serve) that she deigned to hit the shot. Despite Lisicki’s protestations, the call was upheld and she lost the point. As anyone familiar with football should know, Lisicki should have played (to) the proverbial whistle, especially since, in theory at least, all contact with the net cord should be picked up by the trusty ‘Cyclops’. In itself, this was a mere blemish in an otherwise commanding performance from Lisicki, but reminded me of some very thought-provoking suggestions for the game at large from the ever-controversial John McEnroe. Though I don’t always agree with him, I for one applaud McEnroe’s courage in speaking in his mind in an often achingly polite sport.

From the BBC commentary box where he waxes lyrical, ‘Mac’ asserted that that whole confusion would be erased were the tennis powers-that-be to eliminate let cords (meaning that play would continue after serves that hit the net cord, so long as they are hit behind the baseline and land in the appropriate service box). This is just one of tennis’s elder statesman’s many contentious ideas on the state of tennis and how it may be changed. This, along with 9 nine other suggestions, is outlined at the back of his really rather good autobiography ‘Serious’, in his ‘Top Ten Recommendations for Improving Tennis in the 21st Century’. Because the book was published in 2002, he was probably formulating these ideas at the turn of the century, so I assess if they are still relevant and, indeed, if I feel they ever were.

1. ‘Tennis should have a commissioner. Baseball, football and basketball all do; why not our sport (I’m available…)’. N.B. By ‘football’, McEnroe refers to what Brits typically deem ‘American football’.

This suggestion has yet to really come to fruition and I feel with good reason. I am by no means an expert on the ‘big three’ American sports McEnroe cites as shining lights, but I get the impression that they are very different sports to tennis, rendering the analogy facile. Obviously, tennis is different in terms of being an individual sport (in the dominant singles category anyway), but also the format and marketing are very different. All teams in the ‘big three’ American sports opt to compete in centrally organised leagues (at the highest level: the NBA, NFL and MBL), almost exclusively in one country, safe in the knowledge that this is financially viable and that their team has a strong enough ‘roster’ (squad) to complete the season. Generally speaking too, these sports particularly in America are presented much more as mere entertainment, rather than as athletic spectacle. As such, it makes sense for more central organisation of the sport and for there to be commissioner to oversee this and for general promotion of the game.

Tennis, however, is a whole different proverbial ball park. Because the game is individual, players will, to an extent, pick and choose tournaments, especially smaller ones, depending on fitness and individual preference, with the WTA and ATP wielding considerably less power. If a tennis player gets injured they cannot call for a substitution, remember. Especially since very few players snub the larger tournaments, I see little problem with this. All of the grand slam tournaments are played pretty much according to the specific organisers’ discretion. For example, Wimbledon keeps advertising to a minimum and insists on tennis whites. This relative independence allows different tournaments to foster truly unique, not to mention marketable atmospheres. I fear these may be lost with a central commissioner of tennis as, as FIFA’s (mis?)management of football shows, central organisation of professional sports can bring with it many conflicts of interest, even corruption.

If Mac envisioned the commissioner’s role to be more for the promotion of the sport in the manner Don King-esque figure, I think the game is popular enough to not need such drastic life support measures. Viewing figures for this country certainly suggest this, with the Beeb often recording 8-figure viewing figures.

Call: terrible call, completely disregarding the nature of tennis.

2. (paraphrased) ‘A National Tennis Academy in America for Americans who could be brought in with scholarships and developed (I’m available too)’.

I don’t know that much about the set up for youth tennis in the States, but this sounds like a good idea and one that, if the research I did proves correct, is still not in existence. The notorious Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, named after its larger-than-life owner and founder, does pretty much fulfil this purpose however, albeit privately, as it can count Agassi, Sampras, Borg, Courier, Hingis, Sharapova, the Williams sisters and many more among its alumni. One idea that has been suggested, notably by Andy Murray (in reference to supposedly generous LTA funding), is that giving players a lot of money to develop can actually mean there is a lack of incentive which can lead to complacency and mediocre results. Indeed, it has even been suggested that a relative lack of money in Eastern bloc countries is a primary reason for the emergence of so many great tennis players (particularly female) from the region since the turn of the century.

Call: Reasonable call from what I can tell.

3. ‘Players need to be more accessible to fans and the media (did I really just say that?), the way NASCAR drivers are’.

Again, not an expert on NASCAR, but I would venture that this is no longer an issue, if it was even an issue in the first place. Fans feel they can relate to the majority of the top players and hence have their favourites. 99% of the time, players seem happy to give interviews, even making jokey impressions videos as Djokovic does or hijacking interviews as Wozniacki recently did with a Djokovic interview. Certainly, the men’s game is lucky to have a group of players at the top who are not only great players but come off as decent blokes off court too. The supersonic rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter have also facilitated accessibility to fans which many players such as Murray and Lisicki make great use of.

Also, players nowadays make great efforts to learn different languages in order to reach their fans (though obviously it does no harm to prospects of commercial endorsement either). It is almost unheard of that a player needs a translator at any of the three Grand Slam tournaments held in English speaking countries and many players are far more than bilingual. For example, by most accounts, Federer and Djokovic can speak four languages fluently and dabble in more.

Call: Good call, but already happening.

4. (paraphrased) A mandatory return to wooden rackets. All but the first paragraph also apply to McEnroe’s 8th suggestion that (paraphrased) the ‘service line should be moved three to six inches closer to the net (to prevent) boring serve-a-thons’.

McEnroe believes (or at least, believed) this would mark a huge improvement in the modern game because ‘wood has glamour’, wooden rackets ‘require greater expertise’ and would thus result in the return of ‘strategy and technique’. This suggestion may seem utterly ridiculous to some but it’s worth bearing in mind that the game at the turn of the century professional tennis was oft-bemoaned as being a mere power-game, dominated by aggressive, unsubtle, even ‘ugly’ serving and groundstrokes.

There were so many dominant serve and volley-ers in the men’s game at the turn of the century, such as Sampras, Phillipousis, Rafter, Ivanisevic and Henman, that counterpunchers such as Hewitt and Agassi were almost viewed as anomalies. In the women’s game the Williams sisters were figuratively bullying many a poor girl into submission on the court (at least in McEnroe’s opinion). Not too far behind them were players such as Capriati, Mauresmo and Clijsters (ranked in that order after the Williamses in 2002) who were no shrinking violets either. In such company, more aesthetically pleasing players, such as the slight, but feisty Justine Henin (she of the beautiful single-handed backhand), were a rarity at the top of the women’s game.

One only needs to look at the dark patches of courts at Wimbledon to see that much has changed in this respect. As Tracy Austin recently commented in this year’s Women’s semi final between Kvitova and Azarenka, “look at how green it is up there; no one wants to tread anywhere near the net”. Only one of the players in the men’s top 10 ( http://www.atpworldtour.com/Rankings/Singles.aspx ), Andy Roddick, employs the serve and volley tactic much. Also, the women’s game is less dominated by a few powerhouses.

This shift is often attributed to the supposedly slower courts, especially at Wimbledon. This is no doubt true to an extent, but I think more important are the advances in racket technology and player fitness. Rackets are so sophisticated now (and of course the players’ ability to get the best out of them) that the time between hits has reduced. This means that prospective serve and volleyers have less time to get to the net, forcing them into tough volleys at their feet. Yes, serves have got quicker for both sexes, with the fastest an Ivo Karlovic bullet clocked at a staggering 155mph, and there are many aces (no need for a volley there of course), but now players have the rackets and lightning-quick reactions to return, with interest too, even the most powerful serves. Many players in the modern game, most notably the masterful Federer, also manage to exhibit breathtaking flair with these ‘ultra thick clubs’ supposedly ‘big enough to kill somebody with’.

The proposed shortening of the service box would obviously diminish the importance of the serve, but, as aforementioned, this has since largely happened anyway, as personally tennis has transformed into a very balanced, varied game. It is no longer sufficient to have a huge serve and a few other half-decent shots, as testified by Andy Roddick’s recent form and Ivo Karlovic’s unspectacular career. The shortening would also mark a radical change which would set the quality of the game back incalculably in the short-term, if not the long-term too. That’s completely disregarding the inevitable opposition it would face from players, and probably fans and officials too.

For these reasons, I see absolutely no reason why we should go out of our way to contain the brilliance of the game with line changes and rackets which are, let’s face it, inferior.

Call: Kind of understandable in the context of the game at time, but a ridiculous call in the context of the game as it is today.

5. Like other sports, tennis should have a season. McEnroe would recommend February to October.

There is in fact a tennis season now. It starts in the height (and heat) of Southern hemisphere summer in the last fortnight of January at the Australian Open and runs through to final Masters event at the end of November. Since 2009 this has been named the ATP World Tour Finals and held at the O2 Arena in London. It’s true that the current season does not give much time for recuperation for players and fans alike which McEnroe calls for. It may also provide a solution to players such as the Williams sisters ‘picking and choosing’ tournaments in between injuries/’injuries’, movie premieres and catwalk shows; something McEnroe has decried (http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/story?id=100522&page=1 ).

Again though, I think such an ultimate centralised diktat restricts players’ individualism, which I feel is necessary for tennis to be ‘healthy’. Arrogant as the Williams sister’s attitude may be, it’s a ‘free country’, so they should be allowed to act as such. Furthermore, there are many genuine injuries and extenuating circumstances for which the current system works well, giving the players a chance to make case-by-case decisions on what events to play and what not to play. Also, as there is a fairly steep drop off of prize money as one descends the rankings, many players would not be able to consider being out of work essentially for around three months a luxury.

Call: bad call

6. (paraphrased) ‘The Davis Cup’s schedule also has to be into the real world.. (possibly) a week every other year like Golf’s Ryder Cup’.

For those unaware, the Davis Cup, alike the Fed Cup, is a tennis competition in which professional players compete in teams for their countries. For many reasons mentioned in the discussion of the above point, it is often regarded as a much maligned event, seriously lacking the prestige of the ‘slams’. As such, it is somewhat analogous to England football friendlies, as many players pull out for individual events due to dubious ‘injuries’, if not rule themselves out of consideration completely to focus on individual careers. Because The Davis Cup is held quite frequently, holding it less frequently and taking heed of the extremely popular format of the Ryder Cup could very well ‘re-interest tennis’s top players in participating in this event’ and boost its popularity and prestige.

Call: Good call.

7. (paraphrased)‘Only tennis’s top notch amateurs should be allowed to compete in the Olympics’.

As with recommendation number 2, I am not an expert on the nuances of the tennis funding, coaching and development in America, but this seems like a good idea which could be implemented. McEnroe asserts that the ‘lure of a gold medal would encourage young players to stay in college and wait longer to turn pro’ (it’s worth noting at this point that much more budding pros go through ‘college’ – university – in the States). This, I can only assume, it would probably do and it would be no huge brunt for professionals to bear. McEnroe I’m sure knows better than me but I assume that many, many players try wholeheartedly to make it as a pro when they are not quite ready for the extremely competitive demanding world of professional tennis; a situation this recommendation may go some way to rectifying. To this end, one can look at the success of boxing in the Olympics, which is as an very motivating factor for amateurs and often acts as a springboard for the careers of successful Olympians such as Amir Khan. McEnroe’s declaration that it would make the Olympics more ‘pure’ is, however, more debatable I feel.

Call: good call.

8. See recommendation 4.

9. ‘Let cords should be eliminated. Having to play all let serves would speed up the game and make it more exciting’.

It is undoubtedly true that this would speed up the game, but delays in play because of let cords are fairly negligible (it is hard to tell if the rule who the rule would benefit, but I would venture servers very slightly). Besides, let cords can also provide much drama which McEnroe and many more crave (including myself). For example, in the nervy time between second serves at break point down.

If McEnroe were to rewrite the recommendations, I think he would try and speed up the game by different means. In his commentary for Wimbledon this year he outlandishly claimed that he would like to see players go straight into matches, sans warm-up, like boxing. There are many parallels that can be drawn between tennis and boxing (the one-on-one battle, mindgames etc), but personally this recommendation is faintly ridiculous. Not only would it in all likelihood reduce the quality of the matches in their initial stages, the recommendation is also very impractical, ignoring as it does the fundamental nature of each sport.

Boxing is fundamentally a contact sport, whereas tennis is inherently not. As such the worst that can happen in a tennis warm-up is that someone hits the ball too hard, soft or waywardly and their opponent takes another ball and starts another rally. Ignoring the obvious considerations of ‘drama’, a huge reason there is no ‘sparring’ warm-up in boxing is that when someone hits too hard or soft they could do themselves or their opponent serious damage which could threaten the fight itself. I for one would rather wait a mere ten minutes, safe in the knowledge that both players are ‘warm’ enough to allow them to play great tennis right from the ‘get-go’, as John Mac might say.

An idea Mac may be better served promoting may be that of quickening up time taken between points. There is much discussion on the time that is allowed/acceptable for the server to take, but many believe some players consistently take far too long. Nadal and Del Potro are often deemed guilty parties. Indeed in this pair’s recent Wimbledon Quarter Final, the umpire took the radical step to caution Nadal for timewasting; a move that was met with surprise from nearly all and disapproval from both players. Most notable in this regard though is Novak Djokovic – he of the trademark seemingly infinite ball-bouncing. If something is to be done to speed up the modern game, I would suggest more strictly and uniformly enforcing a time limit between serves.

Call: bad call.

10. (paraphrased) ‘Tennis players should be far more involved in charity work’.

I am not entirely sure on the charitable efforts of players at the time McEnroe was writing, but from what I can gather, the vast majority of players today are personable, approachable and responsible role models who do significant philanthropic work. For example, Serena Williams, Nadal, Federer just a few examples of those who have their own philanthropic foundations/schools/trusts, the latter even being named as a 2010 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in recognition of his leadership, accomplishments and contributions to society. Roger Federer set up a very successful event called Hit For Haiti, in which Serena Williams, Federer, Hewitt, Stosur, Nadal, Djokovic, Roddick and Clijsters forwent the last day of their warm-up for the Australian Open to play an exhibition match from which all profits went towards the earthquake relief effort. Furthermore, authorities also make a lot of money for charity, notably Wimbledon through all the money from resold tickets. However, although I wholeheartedly endorse the promotion of charity, I think people have to be wary of enforcing this as this fundamentally stops it being ‘charity’ and turns it into a ‘tax’.

Call: Reasonable call, but already happening.

So, overall, I would venture that on the recommendations that have not become dated, McEnroe is often wide of the mark. It is of course easy to say with hindsight, but what McEnroe would have been really visionary to call for would be the introduction of technology and indoor tennis. For the former, I speak of course of ‘Hawk Eye’. This is the revolutionary laser-guided technology that allows players to challenge line calls they deem to be erroneous. By almost all accounts, it has brought about a fairer game, but also retained, even heightened, the drama implicit in human decision making (it also demonstrates the quality of the line judges).

Indoor tennis has boomed in the 21st century. This is due to the rise in popularity of the ATP Tour World Finals (formerly ‘masters’) now held with razzmatazz at the O2 and the installation of Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof (in 2009). The latter has been a great success allowing for play in the rain and at night, both hitherto impossible. Such is the success, the possibility of matches specifically scheduled for night is being bandied about (currently matches are only played at night if showcourt play has overrun and/or the match has already started).

The men’s game is certainly in great health, with a classic rivalry between, for my money (I’m by no means alone either), the two greatest players of the game ever. Whatever your opinion of him, Djokovic also seems to be joining those lofty heights and Murray is not too far behind. Beneath Murray, the ‘chasing pack’, if you will, also exhibit fast, exciting, skilful and super-athletic tennis and are more than capable of upsets, such as Tsonga’s recent quarter-final victory over Federer. The women’s game isn’t quite in such good health, as it is frequently bemoaned for its lack of ‘great’ players (the classic statistic is that Caroline Wozniacki is number 1 despite having never won a slam), but arguably this means the game is refreshingly open and unpredictable. Besides, many complained about the Williams sisters’ once aggressive duopoly of the game, so there is no pleasing some. Moreover gate receipts and TV viewing figures for both sexes are often hitting all time highs too.

Tennis is alive and hitting, so there is no need to call for a medical timeout….