Monthly Archives: July 30, 2021

The WTA’s new plan makes a lot of things better and some worse.

The WTA has a problem. Top ten players are dropping out of tournaments at a rate we’ve never seen before. Sometimes they drop out due to valid injury and sometimes they drop out because they don’t want to play. Last year Maria Sharapova withdrew from Montreal at the last minute and this year Justine Henin played Dubai and Doha and skipped Indian Wells. Amelie Mauresmo always skips Indian Wells.

The number of injuries has genuinely increased but players have also become bigger than the game. Sharapova is the biggest draw in the WTA. If she decides to pull out of a tournament at the last minute, there’s no one to stop her. And it’s not just in tennis.

Basketball player Kobe Bryant threatened to jump to the cross town Los Angeles Clippers if the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t get rid of Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers traded O’Neal.

High school players have become bigger than the college programs that recruit them. O.J. Mayo is the best high school basketball player in the U.S. An acquaintance of Mayo’s waltzed into USC coach Tim Floyd’s office and asked him if he’d like to have Mayo on his team next year. Floyd was suspicious since he’d never spoken to Mayo so he asked for Mayo’s cellphone number. He was informed that Mayo does not give out his cellphone number. Sounds like a scene from a mafia movie: “Have I got a deal for you. But don’t call us, we’ll call you.” USC, of course, is welcoming Mayo even if it’s entirely on the kid’s terms.

How is the WTA reining in the players? The WTA is giving a little and wants a lot in return.

The plan is called Roadmap 2010 and here’s what it gives the players:

  • Reduction in the total number of tournaments required from 13 down to 10.
  • Increase in prize money of 30% to approximately $72 million.
  • Rankings based on the best 16 tournaments instead of 17.
  • Increase in the off season from 7 weeks to 9 weeks.

“Look, ” the WTA is saying, “we’ll help you reduce injuries by lowering the total tournaments required and shortening the season and we’ll sweeten the deal financially if you play more of the top tournaments, but, in return, you have to cooperate with our new tournament calendar and we’ll penalize you heavily if you don’t.”

That new calendar will have twenty premium events and remaining lower level events. Four of the premium events, Indian Wells, Miami, Beijing and Madrid (a new event), are required, everyone must play them. If a player skips one of the required tournaments without a valid medical excuse, she’ll be suspended from the next two premium events.

If Justine Henin had skipped Doha this year without a certifiable medical condition, she would have been suspended from Indian Wells and Miami. Not that Henin doesn’t have legions of medical excuses, mind you, and therein lies a problem.

Serena and Venus Williams have not played Indian Wells since 2001when Serena was booed mercilessly in the title game. Venus had pulled out of the sisters’ semifinal minutes before the match and the crowd was mad because it looked like the sisters decided they didn’t want to play each other – another version of players being bigger than the game.

Serena and Venus are never going to play Indian Wells again. The sisters will produce medical evidence of injury and skip Doha, the tournament before Indian Wells, so it doesn’t look like they’re doing it intentionally, then they’ll play Miami. The main effect of the penalties will be to keep players from dropping out at the last minute and leaving tournament directors in the lurch.

How will the WTA herd the players towards the big tournaments? By penalizing lower level tournaments for having too many top players. And this part is controversial, particularly in the U.S.

According to a memo from the US Tennis Association (USTA) to the WTA obtained by Peter Bodo and discussed here, all but the top tier premium tournaments will be limited to either 2 of the top 6 or 3 of the top 13 players. If a tournament wants to add an additional player, it could be required to increase its prize money by $800, 000.

None of the U.S. tournaments has the money to apply for top tier premium status and they certainly don’t have $800, 000 sitting around. The US tennis association is unhappy because the US Open Series will suffer if its tournaments can’t attract enough top players. That means the US Open could suffer because the whole point of the Open Series is to build momentum for the Open.

I’m happy the WTA is increasing the off season and threatening mayhem if players don’t turn up at important tournaments, we’ve screamed enough about that here, but the US Open Series works so don’t mess with it. And $800, 000 is a ridiculous amount of money to request for one player. Otherwise, carry on.

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For a while now we have been saying that men’s tennis needs more rivalries. We need to see more people in finals besides Roger Federer all the time. Last Sunday we got our wish. If someone had told me that the Miami final would be contested between Djokovic and Canas, I would have said you need another drink. But Djokovic and Canas was what we got, and now that we’ve got it, was it all it cracked up to be? No, probably not. At least judging by some of the comments heard during the match. I sense a hankering going on.

ESPN commentator Mary Carillo was gushing over Novak Djokovic as being “a young Federer.” Now Mary, you are one of my favorite people in all the sport. But there is no way in hell that Novak, lovely lad that he is, can rate yet as a young Federer. His game at this point bears little resemblance to Roger’s. This kid is firmly planted on the baseline with his game. He ventures forward on occasion and can volley crisply but it is not his first choice. His shot selection isn’t on the same level as Roger‘s. Besides, I don’t see him being in line to capture a Grand Slam anytime soon. If you are making a serious comparison, Mary, you have to talk Grand Slams. My co-writer Nina Rota finds Djokovic rather “generic“. That sounds just about right to me. Not to say the kid won’t evolve his game, but right now it is not even close to being a roadshow version of Federer’s.

Novak caught a lucky draw this week and so did Canas. What Mary’s comments suggest to me is that she, like a lot of us, is reacting to the absence of Federer from the tennis equation. When he’s not here, we say we’re sort of glad but then we continue to talk as if he were here. As if we want him to be here, which of course we do. We project his qualities onto the guys who survived.

Novak dominated Canas pretty well in the match but that’s not to suggest his game is really similar to Federer‘s. What we are experiencing is how Roger’s presence has upped the ante for the other players. They still want to hug the baseline until hell freezes over, but the arrival of Federer requires all of them to mix it up a bit if they hope to have any success against him at all. So we may get more guys capable of playing all-court games. Unless you are like a Canas or a Nadal and you can retrieve everything. But that gets kind of boring, unless you have a player on the other side who is attacking you a lot. Then it becomes interesting. But when Canas gets up against another baseliner, it’s a bit of a snooze. So calm down, Mary. I know in your heart of hearts you feel like I do, and my co-writer Nina Rota also. We miss Roger, and the game needs him.

Sadly, the real finals took place the evening Federer lost to Canas, or Djokovic busted Nadal. If you think anyone will remember this match in about three weeks, well you’ve got a better memory than I do by far. What we saw on Sunday was a “B” match. A good match at times, but a B match overall. Not the Federer-Nadal battle we had hoped for going into Miami.

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John Newcombe in top hat and stockings? More importantly, there are momentous changes ahead for the ATP.

While I was rooting around the internet trying to make sense of the upcoming changes to the structure of the ATP , I came across a 1997 article about the Monte Carlo tennis tournament by the esteemed New York Times writer, Christopher Clarey. There were two very interesting pieces of information in the article.

It seems that tennis players used to appear in amateur stage productions while they played in Monte Carlo. In 1969, for instance, Pancho Segura appeared as Tarzan. No surprise there, but in the same production Fred Stolle appeared as Shirley Temple and John Newcombe as Marlene Dietrich. I have to wonder if those players might well have been more welcoming to an openly gay player since they were already comfortable cross-dressing. And wow, would I love to see a youtube clip of John Newcombe in a top hat and stockings singing Falling in Love Again.

In 1997 it seems that the ATP was debating whether to drop Monte Carlo from the Super 9 – a series of nine tournaments that was the precursor to the Masters Series. The European players were apparently so unhappy about the possibility of losing the event that they formed their own player organization.

Monte Carlo survived that debate but it doesn’t appear that it will survive the current changes. And the European players are very angry yet again because Europe will likely lose two Masters Series events – Monte Carlo and Hamburg – while North America will hold on to all four of its events.

And it’s not just the European players, it’s also the clay court players because that’s two less clay court Masters Series events. The ATP is reducing the number of Masters Series events from nine to eight. Shanghai will get the new event in return for losing the Tennis Masters Cup – the year end championship – which is moving back to Europe. The surface for Shanghai has not yet been announced but all previous Asian tournaments have been hard court.

Rafael Nadal must be exceptionally pissed and I don’t blame him. As for me personally, it’s bad enough that Americans are in such disrepute worldwide at the moment, I don’t want the tennis world mad at me too. There are reports that the Madrid Masters will move to the spring and become a clay court event and that might make Rafael feel a bit better but that still means one less clay court Masters.

I haven’t heard much from the Monte Carlo organizers but Hamburg isn’t going down without a fight. Bloomberg.com reports that Hamburg has filed a suit against the ATP in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Delaware. They accuse the ATP of taking “control of the supply of men’s professional tennis players and of men’s professional tennis tournaments. It has done so to establish a favored class of tournaments, in which the ATP has a significant proprietary interest, while relegating all of the ATP’s other member tournaments to a disfavored status.”

True, they have, but that’s what the ATP is supposed to do. They created the Super 9 series and they can take it away. This is not an easy problem. If you take away one of the U.S. Masters events, it shouldn’t be Indian Wells or Miami. In 2007, Indian Wells was the first tournament outside of a slam to go over 300, 000 in attendance and Miami wasn’t far behind. If you eliminate Montreal/Toronto or Cincinnati, you weaken the U.S. Open Series.

I was one of the few humans in the tennis world who supported round robin tournaments. I did it because I didn’t think Etienne De Villiers, the ATP CEO, had the clout to eliminate tournaments and round robins were the next best answer. Evidently he has enough clout to downgrade the status of two tournaments that are more than one hundred years old – Hamburg and Monte Carlo – but the better solution might be to reduce the total number of tournaments and shorten the season if he’s concerned about injuries and no shows.

The problem is that injuries and no shows are only part of the reason for the changes. Asia is paying huge money to host tournaments in Dubai, Doha and Shanghai. De Villiers is taking a Masters away from Europe and giving it to Asia to follow the global market. The ATP is following the money but Europe hosts the highest number of ATP events because it has the most tennis fans. What’s good for the pocketbook might not be best for tennis in the long run.

Larry Scott is the CEO of the WTA and he does have enough clout. He has shortened the season. I’ll talk about momentous changes to the WTA in my next column.

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Well, it wasn’t exactly a pretty match that Serena Williams won today against Justine Henin. In fact it was a rather lugubrious match. I love using that word. And today it fit. It was not a match featuring lots of snappy play and crispness. More like the two women were heaving balls at each other. As the score would indicate (0-6, 7-5, 6-3), these women wandered all over God’s creation before they got on track. Serena must have set her alarm and then forgotten to get up anyway. Much like Andy Murray did yesterday. She had a cup of coffee and then munched on the bagel Justine served her up in the first set. (Question: When did Serena Williams last get bageled by Henin? ) Whew, I was so tempted to turn off the telly at that point. I was still rankled over how poorly the men’s semis turned out yesterday, so when Serena didn’t bother to show up in the first set, my teeth were on edge.

Justine broke in the opening game. She looked sharper, fitter, swifter. Serena had all sorts of problems, mostly due to her poor movement. She seemed rooted in cement and her shots, as a consequence, went flying. She had no rhythm on her serve. Serena had a break point on Justine’s first service game but Henin beat her off. At 3-0, Serena had already made eight unforced errors. Her backhand was in sorry shape. It seemed like only fifteen minutes had passed and the match was already at 4-0. Serena made a stand at the end of the set, forcing Justine into four set points before the Belgian closed the deal. Serena had a total of 18 errors to Justine’s 8. I concluded at this point that it was just going to be one of those days for Serena.

Apparently Richard Williams was all set to come down on court during the between set break and coach her, but Serena declined the offer. She probably didn’t want to hear it because she knew already what she needed to do. But her problems continued as she lost her opening service game at love in the second set. Ouch, we thought, but then Serena dug in and started making Henin uncomfortable in her game. She had Henin down 0-40 on her own serve but Justine fought back. This second game defined the second set as Justine took Serena to four break points before Serena finally capitalized. Mary

Carillo was grumbling that this was not a pretty match. Hang on, Mary, we’re getting there! A moment later Justine had the chance at 5-4 to serve the match out but troubles ensued. Justine rolled her ankle and took a tumble, scraping her knee. A minor booby but just enough to throw her off stride. She double faulted then knocked a backhand feebly into the net and Serena was back even at 5-5.

Now Serena is getting herself in gear, now she starts serving well. She opens her game with an ace, then follows with a great backhand pick up volley crosscourt for 40-0, and holds a moment later at love for 6-5. Justine gets an early lead but Serena starts nailing her shots, keeping the ball deeper and forcing errors from the Belgian. Justine was setting the points up wonderfully, she just couldn’t take care of the kill shot up the line. Serena breaks her for the second set, 7-5.

You’d think Serena would blitz her now in the final set, just for the sake of punishment. Serena held the opening game at love. She has now won four straight games, and Justine is getting rattled and impatient. At 30-40, the Belgian double faults giving Serena a 2-0 lead. Justine fought to break her in the third game but Serena holds for a 3-0 lead. As if Henin didn’t have enough problems, she took another fall in Game 4. Her feet just went out from under her. Twice in one match is pretty astonishing when you think about it, because Justine Henin is one of the best movers in all of women’s tennis. But again she seems OK, the trainer visits briefly but there are going to be no excuses out here today. Justine fights off one break point before holding at a key point for 3-1.

Are we having fun now? Not really. It feels like Chinese water torture. Serena is definitely playing better, but we’re still kind of holding our breath. Henin isn’t done yet. Serena seems a bit deflated she couldn’t beat up on Henin for a 4-0 lead, and now you can sense another momentum shift back to the Belgian. Suddenly Serena’s movement does not look that good and her serve is going off again. Another long game, wherein both players hit good shots followed by awful looking ones. At the fourth deuce, Serena double faults, and Henin breaks with a great inside out forehand up the line. We are back on serve at 3-2. To accentuate her return, Henin closes the score at 3-3 with an ace.

Undaunted, Serena fights back and holds serve at love for 4-3. Then Serena puts pressure on Henin’s service game, getting her down 0-30, then Justine double faults for 15-40. Serena puts in a good service return and Justine’s backhand sprays wide for the break, 5-3. Is Henin ready for the glue factory yet? Well, not quite.

Serving for the championship, Serena knocks a backhand long for 0-15, then hits a nervous looking forehand into the net for 0-30. Justine uncorks a beautiful backhand up the line for 0-40. No sign of the Fat Lady yet. Then Serena squiggles in a little backhand up the line for 15-40. A good first service winner takes her to 30-40. Then she gets down under the concrete it seems to scoop a backhand up the line for a winner and a deuce point. A great serve out wide gives her the first match point. She misses her first serve in the ad court, but then nails a second serve ace out wide. It looked close enough for a challenge, but Henin doesn’t bother, she’s already heading to the net. The replay shows why she did not challenge: smack on the line, said she.

Nice handshake, women. A moment spent there talking, smiling. I hope Henin said, “So where have you been, woman?” Three and a half years since their last meeting. Definitely this is a rivalry we’d like to see more of. This may be our only consistent rivalry for a while given that Mauresmo is experiencing miasma once again, Clijsters is nearly gone from the game, and Maria is wondering where she parked that serve of hers.

Go Serena!
(Answer: Serena has never been bageled before by Henin. In fact, she bageled Henin in their very first meeting back in ‘01 at the U.S.Open).

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