When you start up Time Machine, the Mac computer’s backup program, screen windows recede back through time till they reach the swirling center of a galaxy as you can see in the image above. We probably don’t need to travel light years for our year-end tennis memories but it is the end of a decade so we need to fly at least ten years into the past.
The Associated Press chose Tiger Woods as its Athlete of the Decade instead of Roger Federer even though Roger beat Tiger out for majors (15 to 14) and set the record for career majors by passing Pete Sampras. Tiger still has four majors to go before he passes Jack Nicklaus, by the way.
Serena Williams is the AP Female Athlete of the Year. She finished first in singles and she and her sister Venus won three of the four doubles slam titles in 2009. That is ridiculous and if I were asked for the most improbable tennis event of the decade, I’d have to say it’s Serena’s resurrection. Very seldom do you see someone recommit to the sport and run away with it though my argument is weakened slightly by the tennis book of decade – Andre Agassi’s Open – which describes, among many other titillating things, his return to number one, winning a French Open to complete a career golden slam, and winning five slams, all after the age of 29.
Justine Henin is back within the week and she could follow in Serena and Andre’s footsteps but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What was the biggest influence of the decade? Technology, and I don’t mean rackets and strings. The technology is the internet and the tool is Betfair.com and its brethren online betting exchanges. On a betting exchange you don’t bet against the house, you take bets from other gamblers and Betfair is the biggest such site. Betfair is the Facebook of the gambling world. It made gambling easy, personable, and cozy.
Nikolay Davydenko kicked things off with a 2007 tennis match in Sopot, Poland, whose Betfair betting pattern screamed “fixed match.” A few hours before the match Davydenko was the prohibitive favorite over his decidedly underdog opponent Martin Vassallo-Arguello. Within half hour of the match bettors had made Vassallo-Arguello the favorite and he remained the favorite even after Davydenko won the first set. Vassallo-Arguello won the second set and Davydenko retired early in the third.
It wasn’t the first such match in tennis history but the technology marked it. Online gambling not only allows you to make bets easily, it easily records betting patterns and this is the effect technology had on sports – no one could get away with anything.
Just ask Tiger. Text message, voicemails, and, yipes, a nudie pic all captured by the many women he carried on with lo these past years. Where exactly did Tiger think those digital memories would end up – in the digital trashcan? Not with terabytes of memory floating around at very affordable prices they didn’t.
Actually, Davydenko and Vassallo-Arguello did get away with it – if it was a fixed match. The ATP couldn’t connect either player to a gambler so they had no case. But the rapid speed of information has changed the game forever.
When Caroline Wozniacki injured her hamstring in a first round match at the Luxembourg Open this year, her father/coach Piotr came onto the court and advised her to quit the match even though she was winning it going away. He knew she wouldn’t be able to play the next round so he wanted Caroline to let her opponent, Anne Kremer, advance instead. His advice, in Polish, was picked up by microphones and bettors immediately started throwing money on Kremer.
This is probably the single biggest reason to allow on court coaching and require coaches to wear microphones. Liberate the information – let all the gamblers get their hands on it. And, as I’ve often said, require detailed injury reports so that everyone knows if Davydenko has an injured foot before he steps on the court in Sopot.
I saw the movie Avatar last night. In 3D of course. I went with two friends, both of whom are college professors. In light of the movie’s heavy dose of colonialism one of my friends couldn’t resist proclaiming “a straight, white, disabled Marine” as the new god of the planet Pandora. Having said that, I did feel as if I’d been dropped into the most luscious, tactile alternative world I’ve ever visited and it made me wonder if I’d ever travel to another planet.
Given my, um, digestive difficulties with airplane travel and my advanced age, probably not. But if I were to design the pro tennis tour world video game for the next decade, two players would not break the record for career slams as they did in the past decade – the aforementioned Pete Sampras in 2002 and Roger Federer in 2009.
A second member of Roger’s Gillette Trio was felled by technology. I already described Tiger’s problems but soccer player Thierry Henry got caught too. Millions of television viewers saw his handball goal eliminate Ireland from World Cup this year while officials on the field saw nothing.
And that is the second thing I’d bet my house on. Maybe I still have remnants of the blind hero worship that made it so shocking to learn about Tiger’s escort service escapades, but I’d wager that Roger will not be caught sexting with a hostess from his Dubai neighborhood restaurant or feeling up cocktail waitresses on a Las Vegas junket with his buddies Tim Henman and Dominik Hrbaty.
And I can guarantee that Roger’s post-retirement memoir will not discuss – as Agassi’s did – his underwear.
I’m afraid I can’t go out ten years from now but I’ll do my best. Roger will probably win three more slams before he’s done in 2012, Juan Martin Del Potro will only get better, Novak Djokovic has finished his mental health growth spurt and will take another slam or two in the near future. I’m betting on Marin Cilic beyond that though, unfortunately, I can’t cash in on Betfair because the U.S. doesn’t allow online gambling on foreign sites – another thing that will change in the next decade.
I’m just not sure about Andy Murray. He’s competitive enough but he’s a bit physically delicate for the task. It’s a brutal task to win a slam and he’ll do it but I just don’t see him doing frequently.
As for the women, Justine will probably kick Serena’s butt and Kim Clijsters will shrink back into Justine’s shadow. The WTA will, meanwhile, have time to groom a few giant killers to take up where Serena and Justine leave off but I have no idea who that will be. I bet you do. Let me know.
Who’ll be the next tennis power? No one. Asian countries will develop more players but large cash prizes will continue the current trend of diversity. Spain is the only country with more than one player in the ATP’s year-end top ten
I suppose China could take over tennis just as they appear to be taking over the rest of the world. General Motors sold engineering technology for certain Saab models to one Chinese company and Ford Motor Company is in the final stages of selling Volvo to another Chinese company. All of which goes to show you that the main result of embracing capitalism is a much longer commute.
I would find it more interesting to see if tennis can push China into making a few political changes. Dubai was forced to change a long standing policy of refusing visas to Israelis by allowing doubles player Andy Ram entry to its 2009 ATP event a week after refusing Shahar Peer entry to its WTA event. Chinese players managed to wrestle a bigger share of their winnings away from the Chinese Tennis Association in the past few years by threatening to quit the national team just as players from the Soviet Union fought to keep their winnings in the late 1980s.
I’m not expecting a second Glasnost – China isn’t going to embrace democracy in the next decade just because a few tennis players want more money – but sports has a way of de-isolating countries and that is usually followed by change.
What thrilled you the most in the past decade? I’m happy to hear about the 2008 Federer – Nadal Wimbledon final but go a bit deeper. What little things fed your tennis passion? What pissed you off most? What’s the most exciting thing that will happen in the next decade?