Monthly Archives: October 2005

If We Could Change Tennis…shorten the season & incorporate World Team Tennis

My co-writer Pat Davis weighed in on the changes she would like to see in tennis and now it’s my turn. Pat was quite sedate in her defense of the serve and volley. Though she didn’t say it, I happen to know that she wants to install a system that uses a cattle prod on reluctant volleyers to force them to the net.

If I wer President of the WTA or CEO of the ATP, I would shorten the tennis season. The year-end championships conclude by the third week in November and tuneups for the Australian Open start the first week of January. That gives tour players a five week offseason.

Professional baseball and football players have an offseason that is almost four months long. Basketball players get three and a half months off. Even NASCAR drivers gets a three month rest.

Andy Roddick fired Brad Gilbert as his coach, in part, because Gilbert had a conflict with Roddick’s father, Jerry, who is responsible for Roddick’s schedule. Because Roddick was so busy, Gilbert would have had only four days to work with him in the offseason at the end of 2004.

If you play too much, you will get injuries. Tournaments in the 2005 US Open Series, the tournaments leading up to the US Open, lost many of its seeded women players to injury. Roger Federer has been injured twice for an extended period this year and also missed tournaments running up to the year-end championship last year. Andre Agassi and Mary Pierce are old fogies who still play but, remember, both players took significant time off in the middle of their careers; Pierce for injuries and Agassi to asses his mental state. Nineteen-year-old Rafael Nadal already has sore knees.

In his book, The Courts of Babylon, Peter Bodo writes that Pete Sampras would get an appearance fee for entering a tournament in a far away place then arrive at the tournament the day before his match. He’d lose in the first round, collect his appearance fee and be on his way. It’s not like that now. There are a lot more far away places as the tour expands to Asia. The competition is so high that players enter tournaments all over the globe to pile up computer points and earn one of the coveted eight spots in the year-end championships.

The French Open and Wimbledon are each more than one hundred years old. Tinkering with them would be hard enough but there is an even bigger problem.

How would I shorten the season? Shorten the US Open Series, the set of tournaments leading up the US Open, from six weeks to four. Start the the Australian Open in the first week in February at the earliest. Cut the fall indoor season, the tournaments that follow the US Open and lead up to the year-end championship, in half to make it one month long. This would give players a three month off-season.

Injury is only one problem with the long schedule. Players also get mentally exhausted from the incessant travel to the ends of the earth. At least baseball players have a limited number of cities they visit within a season. To give the tour players a mental break, absorb World Team Tennis into the WTA and ATP and provide one month in the middle of the summer for tour players to join a team that plays in their country or local area. Travel would be reduced and players could see familiar surroundings and familiar faces for at least a short while.

To allow the team tennis break, move the French Open to the beginning of April and move Wimbledon to the third week in May. As it is now, players have two weeks to recover from long grueling rallies on clay and prepare for the other extreme in court surfaces: grass.

The French Open and Wimbledon are each more than one hundred years old. Tinkering with them would be hard enough but there is an even bigger problem. If I am president of the WTA or the ATP, I am not going to shorten the season because there is an important contradiction in the structure of my organization: it represents both the players and the tournament directors. There are three representatives of tournament directors on the ATP board of directors. They will not vote to undercut their constituents by closing down profit making tournaments.

The most effective way to force an employer to change labor conditions is to go on strike. The top players would have to strike otherwise tournament income would not be affected. You can see how much influence the doubles players have. They sued the ATP for eliminating their jobs, so far, unsuccessfully. Tournament directors are only too happy to drop doubles. Master Series Madrid announced that they were dropping the doubles competition until the the ATP convinced them to change their mind. The ATP wasn’t going to battle for their players, they were only delaying the inevitable. After 2008, there will be only two spots for doubles specialists in the draw.

But the top players have no reason to strike. They are making tons of money. Unless there is an epidemic of injuries that affects the tournament directors’ income, we are unlikely to see change until the players have an independent union. Looking at the players today, I don’t see too many rabble-rousing Billie Jean Kings. We may have to wait a long time for a shorter season.

Sheryl Swoopes – so you’re gay, now what about that other behavior?

On Wednesday, Sheryl Swoopes, the three-time MVP of the WNBA Houston Comets, came out as a gay woman. She used the occasion to announce a one-year endorsement deal with Olivia Cruises and Resorts, a company that runs ocean cruises for lesbians.

Gay athletes are afraid that they will lose endorsements if they come out of the closet. Olivia is doing good work by providing financial support to gay athletes who want to come out. LPGA golfer Rosie Jones previously came out by announcing an Olivia endorsement deal.

Martina Navratilova also has a contract with Olivia. This should surprise no one; she has been out of the closet since 1981. Anyone who comes out today rides on her shoulders. Pioneers in any movement become the public focus of intolerance. Reprisals and lack of endorsements were only part of the punishment Navratilova received. When Chris Evert retired after a long rivalry with Navratilova that was arguably the best rivalry in modern sports history, a journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press praised Evert’s “demure” ground strokes and criticized “European women with a lot of facial hair” who come to the net like “some disgusting Buffalo.” The journalist was clearly referring to Navratilova. You can read about this article and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova in the excellent book by Johnette Howard, The Rivals.

Swoopes is the first African-American athlete to come out but she may suffer more for behavior having nothing to do with sexual preference. Swoopes declared bankruptcy because she mishandled her money and took off on an Olivia cruise in the middle of the season while playing for a European team she plays with in the WNBA off-season. O.k., no big deal. Many people are filing for bankruptcy now because new laws will soon make filing for bankruptcy harder. And her European team knew before the season started that she would be leaving to take the cruise.

When Magic Johnson assured us that he got the AIDS virus from a woman, no on questioned it despite the fact that it is statistically much harder to contract AIDS from a woman than a man in this country.

Swoopes and her partner of seven years, Alisa Scott, started dating while Swoopes was still married to her husband. Dating someone while you’re still married and have a child? Not fair to your spouse but, then, we don’t know anything about Swoopes’s relationships with her husband.

However, Scott was an assistant coach with Swoopes’s Houston Comets team until 2004. That is most definitely not o.k. It is taboo in team sports with good reason. Imagine being a professional athlete and worrying that your teammate will get more playing time than you because she’s sleeping with a coach. Swoopes had access to her coach when other players didn’t. She would have been privy to information about other players that should have remained within the coaching staff.

If she didn’t want to come out when she started to date Scott, she should have asked for a trade or Scott should have left the team. This has nothing to do with being straight or gay. By keeping her relationship with Scott secret, Swoopes was being dishonest with her teammates and unfair to the coaching staff.

There is some consolation that being gay is less of a problem for Swoopes than other behavior in her life. It means that being gay is not such a big deal anymore. Unfortunately, that is not true for male athletes. An active male athlete in a major sport has never come out as a gay man. When Magic Johnson assured us that he got the AIDS virus from a woman, no one questioned it despite the fact that it is statistically much harder to contract AIDS from a woman than a man in this country. I’m not suggesting that Johnson did not get AIDS from a woman, I’m saying that the subject of homosexuality is so buried in the professional male athletic culture that we accepted his version of the story with little resistance.

In many places in the world, being gay will get you killed. The NBA markets itself in China, the NFL and MLB played a preseason game in Tokyo, and the NFL played a regular season game in Mexico. As American sports spread around the globe, it’s important that American athletes stand up and come out. I adore Martina and I applaud Swoopes, but I hope that male athletes will soon be brave enough to join the party.

Madrid Masters 2005 final: home court advantage

The tournaments running up to the year-end ATP championships in Shanghai are critically important. If you miss them or don’t perform well, you will lose computer points and be passed by someone else for one of the coveted eight spots in the Shanghai tournament. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, and Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin are already in. Ivan Ljubicic is making a very late, very strong run to get there. He won the last two tournaments, in Metz and Vienna, and is playing Rafael Nadal in the finals of the Master Series Madrid.

I’m not sure Nadal would have played in this tournament if it had not been held in his home country. He has tendonitis in his knees. He has played in twenty-one tournaments this year and won ten of them. How many more wins does he need? Instead of playing in front of his fellow Spaniards, he should think of his future and rest his knees until Shanghai. He can play the Master Series Madrid for many years to come.

Nadal had a phone conversation this week with Federer, who is recuperating from a strained ankle ligament and is still on crutches. That doesn’t sound good; maybe Federer is not going to be ready to play in Shanghai. All the more reason that Nadal could afford a rest.

We already complained about bad line calls benefiting Spanish players in the match between Robbie Ginepri and David Ferrer. A Ginepri ace on match point was incorrectly called out. In the first game of the match, Ljubicic hits a forehand winner that lands on the sideline but the lineperson calls it out. The call gives Nadal a break point and Ljubicic ends up losing the game.

Hawkeye, an electronic line calling system, has finally been certified for use in the grand slam tournaments. Unless local tournament officials find a way to rig Hawkeye, bad calls like this should be a thing of the past. The machine may be accurate 97% of the time but it is impartial always.

We think of Nadal as an emotionally expressive player who hits a lot of winners but his strength is consistency. It’s a bad idea to get into long rallies with him. Ljubicic avoids this by hitting a lot of aces, two in his second service game and three in his third. On Nadal’s serve, he goes for winners early in the point. He has to take chances on his serve and ground strokes to keep Nadal out of the game and keep the crowd quiet.

You can’t kill Nadal. He goes for everything and most of the time he gets the ball back and sometimes he gets it back for a winner.

Nadal forgets that Ljubicic’s backhand is his strong side, he keeps hitting to it. In the fourth game, Ljubicic threads a backhand passing shot past Nadal and breaks him to get back on serve. Another problem for Nadal is his short second serve. It spins into Ljubicic’s backhand and costs Nadal a lot of points. Ljubicic breaks Nadal again to go up 5-3 and takes the first set with his eight ace.

The crowd is very quiet. They’re waiting for something to get excited about. It must be hard to be a tennis player from Croatia. How many times do you have a home crowd cheering for you except Davis Cup and the Croatian Open?

I watched Ljubicic take Roddick apart tactically in the first round of Davis Cup in March; he shows similar tactical intelligence today. He hits high looping shots to the deuce court so that Nadal will run around his backhand then hits a winner down the line to the ad court. Ljubicic hits a very good dropshot at 1-1 in the third set to get double break point. Nadal then hits an error and Ljubicic is up a break again. By keeping the points short, Ljubicic is not allowing Nadal to get into a rhythm causing Nadal to make more errors than usual.

Ljubicic continues to take chances. He goes for aces on second serves and, up 4-2, he hits a drop shot from behind the baseline for a winner. That’s pushing it. Ljubicic breaks Nadal again and wins the set with his eleventh and twelfth ace to freeze the crowd.

Forget what I said about home calls. In the second game in the third set, Nadal gets a bad call and all hell breaks loose. The crowd is pissed and Nadal, the sleeping lion, has woken. The crowd starts to make noise during Ljubicic’s serve and applaud his faults. It unsettles him. He serves a double fault and, unaccountably, hits an approach shot right at Nadal. Nadal breaks Ljubicic’s serve in the fourth game to go up 3-1. The crowd could not be happier.

Serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal gets another horrible line call on a serve that is clearly inside the service box. This is not partiality, it’s total incompetence. The ball landed near the chair umpire, he should have overruled it. Nadal wins the set and the crowd is ecstatic.

With Ljubicic serving in the second game of the fourth set, Nadal plays brilliantly. Ljubicic hits a very good approach shot that pulls Nadal way out of the court. Nadal somehow gets to it and curls a passing shot around Ljubicic that lands just inside the baseline. You can’t kill Nadal. He goes for everything and most of the time he gets the ball back and sometimes he gets it back for a winner. Time for a boisterous Nadal celebration and rhythmic clapping from the crowd. Ljubicic can’t play much better but it’s not enough, Nadal breaks to go up 2-1 and holds on to the break to even the match at two sets all. There is joy in Madrid.

Ljubicic and Nadal trade breaks and Ljubicic does a little celebrating himself. He yells and punches his fist after guessing right on a Nadal passing shot and lunges for a winning volley. Both players hold serve the rest of the way and, fittingly, the match will be decided in a fifth set tiebreaker.

Nadal is not only an energizer bunny but he plays the important points very well. He wins the first three points of the tiebreaker and comes back from two sets down to get one of the more improbable victories in what has been a monster year for the nineteen-year-old. Nadal wins, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).

If I’m Ljubicic and I ask myself, “What could I have done differently,” the best answer is, “move the tournament to Croatia.” Nadal agrees. At the post-match press conference, Nadal said, “Elsewhere in the world, it would have been impossible to defeat Ljubicic.”

That’s what you call home court advantage.

Masters Series Madrid 2005 – quarterfinals perfection

Here at the newly renovated Rocódromo Arena, the ball-kids for the Masters Series Madrid tournament are wearing black pirate pants – capris – but Rafael Nadal is not. He is playing in white shorts and has a strap under each knee. Football players have straps above their elbows, tennis players have straps under their elbows, and baseball players have straps on their elbows – with padding in case they are hit by a pitch. The strapping represents sports medicine’s attempt to deal with the heavy toll exacted on a professional athlete’s body. Nadal has won ten titles this year; you have to play a lot of tennis to do that. His knees have been complaining lately, he didn’t play last week so he could rest them. Not a good sign for a nineteen-year-old.

For evening matches, fashion models posing as ball-girls march onto the court in unison with their hands behind them. They are wearing lime green Boss tops and gray short skirts. If there was any doubt that sports is all about entertainment and sex, it’s long gone. The marching models and the flashing ads lining the court make the scene look like an electronic version of Vogue magazine. Before you complain about sexism, you should know that the WTA will use male models as ball-boys when the women come to Madrid next year. That should make you feel a lot better.

Most of the top players are here except Roger Federer. Last year a hip injury kept him out of the tournaments preceding the year-end championship. This year it’s a strained ligament in his ankle. The layoff didn’t hurt him last year, he won the year-end championship, and it’s unlikely to keep him from repeating as winner.

We are going to watch Robbie Ginepri play David Ferrer for a spot in the semifinals. Ginepri is having a breakout year. After reaching a ranking of 35, he sank down to number 58 then climbed back to number 20 after improving his conditioning and, as told to me by a local tennis instructor who is familiar with the situation, returning to work with his longtime coach Jerry Baskin. Francisco Montana is Ginepri’s official coach but Baskin is listed as his “local” coach.

Ferrer had trouble with nerves on important points in matches early in his career. Today, though, he’s showing nerves early on. In his first service game he makes two big errors, each one giving Ginepri a break point, and starts the match down 0-2.

Even though Ferrer is in his home country, the chair umpire gives Ginepri the benefit of the doubt. After overruling an out call that Ginepri probably could not have returned, the umpire ruled that the point was to be replayed. On the other hand, maybe that’s because the replay shows that the ball was out.

For such a big guy with long, strong limbs, Ginepri has short-range strokes. He’s got a window-washer two-handed backhand – he just lays the racket back and swipes at it – and a forehand with a relatively short, sharp follow through. Not that the short follow through is a problem. He hits a number of winners by ratcheting up the speed on his forehand, his best shot.

Ferrer is a counter puncher. He’s most comfortable reacting to an aggressive opponent not being the aggressor. Ginepri’s strategy is to keep the ball in play and force Ferrer to go for winners. This is not what Ferrer wants to do and he makes a lot of errors.

Ginepri has a good slice backhand, it acts like a screwball in baseball – it spins away from right-handers. After going up 3-0, he starts using the slice to bring Ferrer to the net, another source of discomfort for him, and produces even more errors. Add in Ginepri’s serve wide to the deuce court followed by hitting behind Ferrer as he scrambles to get back into the court, and you can understand why Ginepri is up 5-0 after only nineteen minutes.

Ginepri has a reputation as a “grip it and rip it” kind of player but he’s more than that. He’s a smart player who can carry out an effective strategy. He can be a backboard and keep the ball in play or he can be the aggressor. Late in the first set he’s up two breaks so he starts attacking by moving Ferrer around and coming into the net.

Ginepri has a reputation as a “grip it and rip it” kind of player but you can see here that he’s more than that.

So far Ginepri is doing everything right. He wins the first set 6-1 and has only four unforced errors. But he’s not perfect.

Ferrer looks better in the second set. He comes up with a fabulous play on a deep Ginepri lob. He turns and runs toward the baseline and, with his back to the net, swings his racket down the right side of his body and towards the net to put up a lob just as deep as Ginepri’s. Ginepri doesn’t expect it and hits the ball into the net.

But Ginepri is not an excitable guy, each time Ferrer comes up with a good shot, Ginepri comes up with one of his own. Serving at 2-2, Ferrer hits a drop shot and Ginepri gets to it and puts up a lob. After running halfway up the barrier at the end of the court in a failed attempt to track down the lob, Ferrer throws his arms up in frustration. Later in the game, after missing a first serve he yells something that sounds like “Ayudo!” – “Help!” That’s probably not what he said but it might as well have been. Frustration has set in and Ginepri breaks him to go up 3-2.

Here is where Ginepri is a little less than perfect. He sees Ferrer’s frustration and starts to force his game so he can end the match quickly. He goes for forehand winners too early in the point and over-hits approach shots. With Ferrer serving at 3-5, they hit twelve ground strokes back and forth then Ferrer dumps a ball into the net. When Ginepri is patient, he’s successful.

Ginepri survives another bad call on match point and fourteen unforced errors in the second set to win, 6-1, 6-4.

Ferrer could have been tired, it took him three sets to beat his previous opponent, Mariano Puerta, and he might have been feeling the effects of a sore achilles tendon. But Ginepri carried out an excellent strategy perfectly, for the most part, and that is the reason for this lopsided match. Ginepri started out well and made adjustments as he increased his lead. If he can do this and remember to be patient at the end of matches, he’ll keep climbing up the rankings.

If We Could Change Tennis…..

Having waxed poetic about the inherent beauty and style of the one-handed backhand in a recent column, I would like to look at some of the other possible changes the game of tennis might benefit from.

If I could wave yet another magic wand over the sport, I would like to see more opportunities for play at the net. Perhaps we could install a rule that says, “After the first two shots from each player in a rally, both players are obligated to come to the net.” That would make the game more interesting, we’d have lots of old fashioned serve and volley. Just put a gun to their heads and make them get their little butts up to net.

For me, this is the purist way of tennis. I grew up at the tail end of the Pancho Gonzalez era, I was in college during the Rod Laver-John Newcombe-Stan Smith round of play, back when everybody came to the net. It was how I learned the game. My father walked me onto our public court at Nibley Park in Glendale, California, with his old wooden Dunlop. “This is what the game is all about,” he told me. He proceeded to teach me the serve. From there it was an easy hop to learn about playing the net. You can’t do one without the other, that was his attitude.

Almost as an afterthought, he taught me the forehand, then the backhand. It was a crucial progression in my learning the game. I developed an overwhelming love and respect for the power of the serve. How could you NOT win, if you had a good serve and you got in quickly to the net. This was the magic formula I thought to win consistently in tennis. I would practice my serve against walls for hours at a time, chipping it, slicing it, driving it. Along with that I hung out at the net a lot, spending hours with people who were happy to try and drive balls right through my navel. It was wonderful. I felt insulted if I had to hit a forehand. My serve would wipe out most girls, and if they actually managed to get a return back, I was ready to gut them at the net. I was a vicious little Serving Monster.

Somewhere along the line, this Swedish kid wandered into the party, and he pretty much stood the game as I knew it on its ear. He was sure easy on the eyes, but things started to change drastically. Topspin became my least favorite tennis word.

Can we go back to those purist days of serve and volley? Should we? Often, when you hear commentators describing matches, they give advice like, “He should be moving in more,” or as McEnroe is fond of saying, “Good things happen when you move towards the net.”

And yet how many players actually take that advice? Not many. But I maintain it is the proper way to play the game. Tennis IS serve and volley. Sorry Rafa.

I was so pleased to hear recently that apparently Roger Federer wants to win at Wimbledon strictly serving and volleying. Shall we hold his feet to the fire on that one? Not that we need to. I suspect Roget is one of those purists too.

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