THE RESCUING OF SERENA WILLIAMS

by Tournament Junkie 

Social media is in an uproar. It is in an uproar because of an article on CNN Open Court in which the above headline was used to describe the partnership of Serena Williams and Patrick Mouratoglou of the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy outside of Paris. As most people have said, and it is a point in which I agree, Serena did not need rescuing. She was a multiple Slam champion and a cultural icon, with influence outside of tennis. To posit her return to the top of tennis as being rescued by someone that most people outside of tennis had never heard of is really an affront to Serena, her accomplishments and a slap in the face of Richard Williams and Oracene Price, the parents who molded her into a champion.
However, what leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that if Serena was not the subject of this article, tennis’s paternalism would never have been addressed. The term “rescue” was used earlier this season when Sorana Cirstea, a player with a solid game but unspectacular results had an incredible run at a Premier Mandatory event in Toronto. During the coaching sessions, Darren Cahill, noted ESPN analyst and part of the Adidas Player Development Program would come down courtside to “coach” Cirstea. The commentators in the booth could not get enough of it. Every single time Cirstea won a match, it was not about her efforts and how she held her game together to win but about the effectiveness of Cahill’s coaching. Ever since on court coaching has been introduced in women’s tennis, the work of the coach has received an inordinate amount of the attention, often to the detriment of the player. Perhaps now that the face of women’s tennis has been subjected to paternalistic journalism, the WTA will realize that on-court coaching has shepherd in an era of men leading their charges.
I suspect if these women were open to considering having a woman as a coach, we might see coaching characterized as a partnership as it often is in the men’s game. There have been some very successful female coaching partnerships just this year alone.  Bartoli, winner of the 2013 Ladies Singles Title at Wimbledon severed coaching ties with her father prior to entering the lawns of Wimbledon. She partnered with former No.1 and winner of 2 Grand Slams, including Wimbledon, Amelie Mauresmo.  Bartoli would go on to win Wimbledon with none other than Mauresmo sitting in her box. 


Eugenie Bouchard, current holder of youngest teenager in the top 50 of the WTA and winner of the WTA’s Newcomer of the Year Award was coached this season by Natalie Tauziat, a former WTA player.  Unlike many others in her age group she had a very successful season. Lucie Safarova, with the huge lefty game won her first title in 5 years with a female coach in her corner. Finally, and one of the most important coaching changes that I saw this year was Samantha Stosur severing her longtime coaching relationship with David Taylor and had Alicia Molik, Fed Cup captain and former WTA No. 5 coach her for the rest of the season.  She won 2 titles, her first since her US0 2011 title and qualified for the Tournament of Champions.  It is a pity that she has hired a male coach for the 2014 season (but more on that in another post). 

It may be so obvious that they don’t see it but these women could do with getting a female’s perspective on their games. Here are some coaching relationships I would like to see on the WTA Tour:

Petra Kvitova and Martina Navratilova – may not be the best fit seeing as they love each other so much, but they have mutual respect and admiration for each other and maybe Martina may have Petra believe in herself, especially when things get tight in a match. 

Agnieska Radwanska and Martina Hingis – similar game styles and similar disposition on court.The difference is the mentality that they both carry on court.  The Swiss Miss was legendary for her on court demeanor. Radwanska seems to be fall apart when things get tough.

What other female coaching relationships do you think would work?  Sound off in the comments

WHY PAT CASH IS RIGHT


2-1 First Set 
Pat Cash has been known for taking controversial erroneous stances on tennis in the past but for the first time, I have to agree with his point about the state of the men’s game. Cash stated in an article for CNN that men’s tennis is boring. According to Cash, it’s boring to watch the “same tactic in every single match of every single grand slam for the last five or six years. Nowadays they all settle down and say OK, this is going to be two hours of baseline rallies. The guy who outlasts the other one wins. It’s taken a lot of the skill out of tennis”.  While, some will retort that it was no fun watching Sampras serve bombs across from his opponents in the 90s, we must admit that the pendulum has possibly swung too far to the other side.  Like Cash, I believe that “human beings love variety.” We come to tennis to see not just an endurance contest, but to see individuals who can make use of the breadth of the tennis court. While “we rightly celebrate these great matches between Nadal and Djokovic, but [sic] we need to look at the bigger picture”. Instead of simply celebrating another long drawn out Grand Slam men’s final, the ATP might do well to heed the cries of Cash and others or face the disdain of fans who are slowly venturing to the WTA to see the variety and personality that the ATP is sorely lacking. 
The article immediately caused a hue and cry in the tennis community with many people saying that Cash was an idiot. While his comment about Serena in the past have proven to be false, she has since won nine Slams since 2007, Cash may be on to something with the ATP. Despite the rhetoric from tennis journalists, most of whom are men, proclaiming a golden age of tennis in the ATP, tennis fans do appear to be turning from men’s tennis to the ladies of the WTA.
One of the things that I search for diligently after the completion of a Grand Slam tournament is the results of the ratings for the men and the women. Over the past few years, I believe that the women’s game is slowly becoming a force within tennis, particularly as the range of personalities on the WTA re-capture the public’s imagination as they did in the heyday of Hingis, Davenport and the Williams Sisters. This shift has happened without the consent of tennis pundits, who have been content to harp on the shrieks, grunts, slam-less No. 1’s and the lack of variety on the women’s tour.
Data mined from various sources since 2008 shows an uptick in the ratings for both men’s and women’s Grand Slam finals since 2008.  However, the chart below shows a consistent improvement in the ratings of the women’s finals while the men’s have remained stagnant. In 2013, all of the women’s finals outpaced the men’s in viewership.

Year
Tournament
Average Ratings
Men
Women
2008
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
2.23
2.46
2009
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
2.53
1.56
2010
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
1.6
1.56
2011
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
2.1
2.1
2012
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
2.03
2
2013
*AO/FO/Wimbledon/USO
1.96
2.26
*not available for the Australian Open

Unbeknownst to them, a subtle shift was taking place on both tours towards the end of 2008 and the start of 2009. On the WTA tour, Caroline Wozniacki became its face. Commentators and advertisers loved her; she was pretty, happy go lucky, willing to give interviews, respectful of her opponents and non-threatening. Yet, her game bored tennis fans and her opponents. While she never won a Slam, she did amass a tremendous amount of points from the regular WTA tournaments, forcing fans to tune out these tournaments. Yet, fans would often turn their gaze to the WTA as Wozniacki faltered at the Slams and new and old champions rose to take the prize with compelling storylines: Serena vs. Dementieva semi-final at Wimbledon in 2009; Serena vs. Clijsters (the new mommy) at the USO in 2009; Serena vs Henin (the comeback) in Australia in 2010; Zvonareva’s 2010 run to the Wimbledon and US Open final; Stosur vs Schiavone at the French Open in 2010; Sharapova returning to the winners circle in 2012 with her French Open win to complete the career slam and Serena Williams’ dominant run in 2012 through 2013. All of these matches with their respective personality clashes and drama have caused people to start to pay attention to women’s tennis. In addition, young brash players have emerged to try to challenge the old champions.  Players, whom tennis fans have talked about on message boards for years, were finally showing mettle and making new fans amongst the casual tennis viewer. We have Petra Kvitova, the young Czech lefty with the all court game;   Victoria Azarenka, known more for her theatrics and her hooting than her tennis and Radwanska, with a game style being compared to Hingis. These women aided by the WTA’s marketing efforts which include an All Access Hour at the start of each tournament have generated interest, conversation, and most importantly viewership of WTA matches.

Meanwhile, the men’s game is stuttering along, redeeming itself only through the length of its matches and its increasing physicality. While the emergence of Djokovic and Murray has now shifted talk of the Big Two (Federer and Nadal) to that of the Big Four; we have not seen an uptick in ratings to suit their ascendancy. While Murray’s run to the Wimbledon title did generate high ratings within the United Kingdom, none of the men have succeeded in nurturing an audience for their matches without Federer and now Nadal.
While some are quick to say that women’s tennis is similarly blessed to have Serena Williams who has crossover appeal beyond tennis; I suspect the stagnant ratings of the men’s finals is due to what Cash suggests: the boring, one-dimensional nature of the encounters. Consider this – until 2009, the last man outside of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a Slam was Juan Martin del Potro. Yes, Murray has come into his own to now earn 2 Grand Slam titles but leaving Federer out of the equation; there is absolutely nothing to distinguish the game styles of Djokovic, Nadal or Murray.  They play the same style of grinding tennis which for a real tennis fan can only capture your imagination for so long.

Matches amongst these men can last for hours, becoming wars of attrition rather than about the court craft of tennis. However, the women have raised the level of competitiveness amongst each other. Yes, Serena has emerged as the dominant champion but the other women have also stepped up to provide intriguing matches as well. While some say that the WTA itself has become a war of attrition especially in matches involving Serena, I would argue that this is definitely not the case.  The variety that is used by the women on Tour, especially in light of the homogenous nature of today’s courts, in winning matches boggles the mind.  Who can forget the skills and tactics that Bartoli used in winning her maiden Grand Slam at Wimbledon this year, or indeed Serena’s play at the French Open when the drop shot and lob combo was used extensively throughout her matches during that 2 week period?

On average a best of 3 set match involving the top women can last approximately 1.5 hours.  On the men’s side, 1.5 hours will get you the first set, especially when it is a match being played by one of the Big Four.  In reviewing matches played this year on the men’s side, nothing springs to mind in terms of memorable tactics. Like Cash suggests, it has all come down to mercilessly grinding your opponents into the ground.   Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the ATP has failed to see a young man enter the top 100. Who will those who love the ATP look forward to in the game’s future?  
We see this daunting scenario as we come to the end of another year, and there are various awards that are being presented by both tours.  It is noteworthy that while the WTA has a Newcomer of the Year Award and has an abundance of talent on which to bestow that particular honour, the ATP has had to disband that particular category.  The WTA is in good shape right now.  Its emerging stars are taking their place at the table.  Unfortunately, the ATP is entering a period where fans will continue to tune out their matches in favor of the variety and court craft they seek.