TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION? DOES TENNIS NEED IT?

by Karen 
Forgiveness
I am a practicing Christian.  Not always a good one but like many people of faith, we struggle.  One of the struggles we have is how to forgive.  In the Bible there are many references to forgiveness and forgive.  During this Lenten period as many Christians begin that period where they cast off those things of the world, repent and walk towards a newness of spirit with our Lord, the issue of forgiveness usually comes up.  In the Old Testament one could not expect to come into the Holy of Holies without first forgiving his brother for any wrongs that he may have done to him.
In the New Testament with the coming of our Saviour we come to our Lord in repentance and we forgive our brothers and sisters as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:22)
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Many people forget that Serena Williams is a practicing Christian (Jehovah’s Witness).  Upon her return to Indian Wells, Serena indicated that she was doing so in a spirit of forgiveness.   Many have asked just who is Serena forgiving and why.  Has someone asked her for her forgiveness?  I don’t know what spiritual journey Serena has embarked upon (and for me there is no doubt that she is on a spiritual journey), but perhaps Serena is forgiving those who wronged her and her family 14 years ago.  Here is my list:-
  1. Elena Dementieva for implying that matches between the Williams Sisters were fixed; 
  2. Charlie Pasarell for stating that Venus should have attempted to play;
  3. The Tournament Organisers for not informing patrons that Venus had withdrawn from the match from earlier in the day; 
  4. The fans who attended on that day for their boorish behavior; 
  5. The media for not calling out the tournament organizers when the incident happened and especially for not doing so over the course of 14 years;   
  6. The WTA for standing by and doing nothing when this happened.  The tournament should have been sanctioned;   
  7. The ITF for not issuing a statement condemning the actions (or non-actions) of the tournament organizers; and 
  8. The players, both ATP and WTA who stood by and said absolutely nothing about this.

Tennis needs to use this particular incident as its truth and reconciliation moment.  No one is bigger than this sport but Serena Williams has proven to the world that she is indeed bigger and better than the people who own the BNP Paribas Open.

On Court Coaching – The Shifting Target
It used to be that the commentary booth would be filled with derisive laughter whenever a WTA player would bring her coach down courtside for a visit during WTA matches.  How many of us can forget many of the women in the booth stating unequivocally how it made the women look weak, especially at a time when the WTA was showing just how strong these women are.  Mary Carillo, herself no fan of on court coaching would go on and on about it and there were others like Lindsay Davenport who was no fan of this rule.  I have always felt and I have opined on this before that most of the backlash with on court coaching was usually reserved for the lesser lights.  Whenever players such as Wozniacki called her father down, it was usually seen as a sign of weakness.  However, when players such as Sharapova called her coach down, it was usually because she needed to be reminded of what she needed to continue doing. 
Who can forget Toronto 2013 when Sorana Cirstea made it all the way to the finals of that tournament on the supposed strength of her coaching visits with Darren Cahill.  At one point most of us were of the view that it was Cahill playing a match and not Cirstea.  It did not help that during the trophy ceremony after being thrashed by Serena Williams that Cirstea thanked her coach for his help during the week.  Most of us rolled our eyes at that and continue to do so.
Lindsay Davenport has now joined the ranks of celebrity coaches as she now coaches Madison Keys.  Keys who made it to the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open on the strength of her big serve and forehand lost in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open to former champion Jelena Jankovic.  After losing the first set (a set she should have won), Keys called her coach down courtside.  Immediately, the mood in the booth changed.  From trashing on court coaching as a sign of weakness to praising the coaching skills and advice of Davenport, Keys would go on to lose the match, losing from being up a break in the third set, she would go on to lose 5 of the next 6 games. 
While those in the booth kept praising Davenport’s coaching skills and advice, her charge was basically disintegrating before our very eyes.  Unable to keep the ball in play, Keys would succumb to the steadiness of Jankovic amidst a rash of UFEs mostly committed from her backhand. 
By the same token, Maria Sharapova, no stranger to on court coaching visits, lost her match after being up a set against Flavia Pennetta.  During her coaching visit, super coach Sven Groneveld reminded her of what she needed to do.  I can’t say that he gave her any effective strategy except to keep shuffling her feet.  She clearly did not hear him as she would lose the third set going away.
In her first match in 14 years at Indian Wells, Serena Williams, no fan of on court coaching herself, signed on for on court coaching.  This was understandable as this was without a doubt going to be a very emotional match and she no doubt felt that she would need that emotional support during the match.  However, in the almost 2.5 hour match, despite struggling with her game and her opponent, Serena did not call her coach down. 
The commentators would take heed to listen to Serena Williams and her views regarding on court coaching.  Serena regarding on court coaching “He doesn’t do any coaching at all. For me, it’s my moment out there. I just kind of have to really figure out, if I’m losing, a way to win; or if things don’t go right, I have to figure out a different way. It’s a good, mature thing for me more than anything.” [Tennis World USA]
In case you are wondering why I am revisiting this issue, its because the same people in the commentary booth who seem to be singing the praises of Lindsay Davenport and her coaching skills are the same people who derided other women for doing the same thing.  Makes you wonder whether it has more to do with who is doing the coaching, the person being coached and the audience.  A few years ago Bruce Jenkins wrote a piece on Sports Illustrated in which he basically castigated the women for this failed venture.  One of the persons who was scathing in her criticism was Mary Carillo.  This was Carillo’s 2 years ago:
“I find that to be so sexist,” she said. “Men don’t have it, but the women are allowed to say, ‘Daddy, she’s breaking my serve’? Are you kidding me? This is the biggest women’s sport in the world. We’ve had decades of mental toughness. It was always, ‘Give me the ball, I’m going to figure a way to walk off winning this. I refuse to lose.’ That’s the whole, beautiful point of it. Here’s a sport with a chance to show young girls what a strong and independent woman can do, yet you get this — basically saying, ‘I can’t figure this out by myself, I’m just a woman.’ That galls me.”
I don’t have a recording of the Tennis Channel airing of the Keys/Jankovic match, but suffice it to say that Carillo, while not fully endorsing on court coaching seems to have toned it down a bit.  Whether that was because it was her colleague (aaah that conflict issue L) or it was as a result of 2 Americans on court, but the results to my mind were the same.  The visit was a complete failure.  While many applauded Davenport’s coaching visit (there were cheers from the stands), I think that had more to do with who was doing the coaching visit, rather than coaching itself.
Madison Keys is a talented young player.  She has the firepower and the mentality to be one of, if not the best of this young upcoming generation, but to my mind, she has to learn to rely on Madison.  She has to know that no matter what happens out there, the onus will be on her to perform.  For better or worse, your worth as a tennis player is tied towards how many Grand Slams you have won.  I know there are many who will disagree but the Grand Slams are the hallmarks of our sport. In much the same way that baseball has its World Series, football (real football) has the World Cup, so too does tennis have its Grand Slams.  They are a benchmark of competition and they truly show how much one has matured as a player, as it takes a certain type of mentality to win even one Major.
For me one of the reasons why Simona Halep is heads and tails above many of her peers is her continued refusal to allow anyone down courtside for those visits.  As Serena Williams opined above, this is her moment to shine, not her coach’s and if many other players looked at those coaching visits in that way, maybe they will realize that the coach has been getting much of the compliments rather than the person who has to go out there and execute. 
The Grunting/Shrieking (Exhalation of Breath) Debate
I have no idea when this will end but clearly it will never end.  I saw in Jon Wertheim’s Mailbag this week a question on the everlasting grunting/shrieking (or as we at the Spin call it “exhalation of breath”) debate.  In response to a question from a reader about Vesnina’s grunting he responded as follows:
“… this isn’t hugely offensive to me. But it’s deeply offensive to many fans (I have hundreds of emails to prove it) and former players. (Anyone catch Mary Carillo talking about this the other night?)”
Apart from the fact that Carillo’s words hold no water with me (see her views regarding on court coaching which changes as fast as the wind), I just have one question.  Is it that most of the people who write in to complain about the grunting in women’s tennis tune in specifically to matches that involve players who grunt?  The top 20 in women’s consists of the following players.  I have indicated where necessary those who vocalize when they play:-
  1. Serena Williams – intermittent grunts 
  2. Maria Sharapova – grunts 
  3. Simona Halep – only when points get long  
  4. Petra Kvitova – no 
  5. Caroline Wozniacki – no  
  6. Ana Ivanovic – no 
  7. Eugenie Bouchard – no 
  8. Agniezska Radwanska – no 
  9. Ekaterina Makarova – no 
  10. Andrea Petkovic – yes
  11. Lucie Safarova – no 
  12. Sara Errani – yes 
  13. Carla Suarez-Navarro – no 
  14. Angelique Kerber – no 
  15. Karolina Pliskova – no 
  16. Flavia Pennetta – no 
  17. Venus Williams – yes 
  18. Madison Keys – no 
  19. Peng Shuai – no 
  20. Barbora Strycova no

I assume when someone says top player they are talking about the top 20.  From the list above we can safely say that approximately 30% of the top women grunt.  That means that 70% of them do not.  At any given tournament you are not faced with 30% of the top women playing at the same time. That means it is either that people are tuning in to see a specific player, and inevitably that specific player is someone who grunts. To my mind, if it is that you really want to enjoy women’s tennis and not have to listen to the grunting then you need to look at the other 70% of women in the top 20 who don’t grunt.  Who knows, you may just find a player that you appreciate who does not grunt.
In the same Mailbag, JL of Newton, MA had this question/observation about Serena
“Yes, it was momentous that Serena decided to play again at Indian Wells. But really, after watching the match against Monica Niculescu, I was appalled at the histrionics after Serena missed a shot. You’d think she was defending a Wimbledon crown, rather than playing a first-round match against a 68th-ranked opponent. I get it—she’s emotional at playing the tournament again. But the drama queen act is demeaning to her stature as the World No. 1 and to her opponent. And not one commentator calls her out on it, lest she appears to be questioning Serena’s “virtuous” appearance at the tournament. (Yes, I’m calling out Mary Carrillo, Mary Joe Fernandez and Tracy Austin.) Serena had a chance to act like the champion she is. If only she took it.”
Hey JL, try getting booed and vilified at your next job.  Try having people attempt to tar and feather you and the world is watching.  Try being attacked and not knowing what you did to deserve that attack. Try having your peers, colleagues and everyone associated with your job accuse you and your family of cheating to win matches.  You then resign your job because what you are experiencing is akin to harassment on the job.  14 years later you are at the top of your game but you still have doubts about just how good you are because 14 years ago some idiot at your job who had more power decided that you were not good enough to do the job that you were qualified to do.  It did not help that one of your colleagues told the media that you got where you were not on merit but otherwise.   Every year you are filled with an overwhelming sense of how can I make this right, even though you have done nothing wrong. 
That is what Serena Williams and her family experienced at Indian Wells.  You tell me now JL whether or not you would be able to perform at a premium. If you are then clearly you are a better person than many of us.  Serena did the best she could.  It was not pretty.  She wanted to show her best tennis to the fans who came to see her after 14 years.  She got frustrated because nothing was working.  Credit to her opponent who decided that she would play the match of her life.  Give the woman a break. 

Finally JL, you obviously have not watched many Serena matches.  She wants to perform at her best 100% of the time, whether it is defending a Wimbledon crown, playing the first round of the tournament in her backyard, the Olympics or anywhere else, as a professional competitor she wants to do her best every single time.  It is not always possible to do so, but she wants to and that clearly is where you and Serena will differ.  You placed little or no importance on a match against an opponent ranked No. 68 in the world. Serena surely did not.  She respected her opponent enough to want to bring her best tennis.  She owed it to the fans to show them her best tennis.  Would that every professional had this mindset. 

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