Views From the Couch

A few years ago when on court coaching was introduced in the women’s game, many, including myself, bemoaned this new dynamic in the women’s game.  Most of us who grew up watching the greats and the newly minted greats were always in awe of players who could either with a swing of the racquet win a point that they had no business winning or indeed win a match they had no business winning.  The mental aspect of the game was in the eyes of many much more important than any other weapon, and indeed became a weapon itself.

I did not watch tennis during the Monica Seles, Steffi Graf era.  Frankly, I didn’t even watch tennis during the Martina Hingis era.  I have however gone back and looked at matches (thank you YouTube) featuring these players and their ability to win matches on the back of their mental games was inspiring.  I used to wonder how it is that someone like Hingis who did not hit with a lot of power was able to overcome players who hit harder, served bigger and had more weapons.  Hingis did it with an all court game, but she also did it with her mental approach to the game. She was willing to chase down balls, come into net and try everything in her considerable power to beat her opponent.

In the hey days of the Williams Sister, I was never concerned when someone like Venus Williams was down break points.  I always knew that somewhere deep inside her when she took the ball and bounced it reflectively on the court that she was going to summon whatever it was inside her to hit an ace or a service winner and inevitably win the point.  Her opponents knew this as well.

Since the introduction of on court coaching I have cause to believe that the women’s game has deteriorated as it relates to the mental strength of the players.  The ability to outthink your opponent and to strategise does not seem to be part and parcel of a player’s arsenal any more.  This was brought home to me when I watched the rise of Laura Siegemund.  Siegemund is what one would call a journeywoman. Many of us who follow the women’s game knew her back story and for those who didn’t there are many sites that have done great overviews on her life and career.  She has  a really nice game and all in all she seems like a wonderful human being.  However, during the last few months as I watched her go on her winning streaks she had this propensity to call her coach down whenever she was in a winning position.  She would win a set, sometimes with a bagel set, then she would call her coach down courtside.  Many tennis fans, myself included, would wonder why call your coach down after playing such great tennis.

Lindsay Davenport and Mary Carillo (neither of whom are fans of on court coaching), former players who currently provide commentary on Tennis Channel, have opined on the reason for this.  They have speculated that perhaps Siegemund needs some type of reassurance from her coach that she is doing the right things.  I agree that it is a way for to prop herself.  There are other players whose on court coaching exchanges leave me embarrassed.  When Sam Sumyk was coaching Victoria Azarenka, I cannot recall him coming down court side on very many occasions.  On the rare occasions that he did, it was usually to reinforce in Azarenka that it was her decision whether to pull the plug on a match if she was not 100%.  Currently, Sumyk is coaching Muguruza and their exchanges seem to be one where the coach is trying really hard to be deferential as he is an employee and the player is looking on as if everything that is going wrong is his fault.

This morning while this article was spinning around in my head I thought to myself that on court coaching is akin to performance appraisals.  We all get them and it is an opportunity for our employers to tell us whether we are doing well or not. However, this is usually done behind closed doors and not in front of millions of people who can now see for themselves that I either have no confidence in what I am doing or I need someone to offer me constant reassurance of how I am doing my job.  For me therein lies the conundrum with on court coaching.

When I woke up this morning and I saw that Siegemund had lost, I was surprised.  I had expected that she would have gone further in the draw at this year’s French Open, not only because she had been playing well in the lead up tournaments, but also because her opponent, Eugenie Bouchard, a semifinalist here 2 years ago, was just now finding her form and I thought it was unfortunate that Bouchard had such a tough opening round opponent.  Clearly, I know nothing (as Ygritte said to Jon). I wonder if her loss had to do with having to tackle the match on her own

Perhaps if Siegemund had relied more on her own ability to think her way through matches, she would have been able to get pass Bouchard and make her way to the second round.  As it is she will have to sit around and wait for the next few tournaments in order to play once again.

Results that Shock No One

Angelique Kerber, the No. 3 seed and recent Australian Open champion lost to last week’s winner in Nurenberg, Kiki Bertens in 3 sets. Apparently, there was speculation that Kerber was going for the Calendar Year Grand Slam.

Meldonium

It just will not go away.  Allegations have been made that Varvara Lepchenko, tested positive for meldonium but that she received a silent ban and is now back to paying tennis.  Lepchenko lost in the first round to Makarova.  When asked in her press conference whether or not these allegations were true, Lepchenko cited that statement that is not a statement and said “no comment”. Efforts to get a comment from the WTA have been met with silence.

If these allegations are true then the WTA needs to let us know whether they are true or not.  Frankly, Lepchenko in an effort to clear her name should have taken the opportunity to clear her name in her press conference.  It is either the case that you tested positive for a banned drug or you did not.  If you did, then the ITF and the WTA needs to let us know why Lepchenko was allegedly given a pass while Sharapova was not.

The more stories I hear about this drug Meldonium, the more I am coming to the realization that there is more to this than meets the eye.  I am not a journalist (nor do I pretend to be one), but surely someone needs to investigate this drug and determine why so many able bodied athletes felt the need to take this drug.  Sharapova has admitted that she took it for 10 years for a variety of symptoms.  We do not as of yet know whether she had a TUI exemption for this drug.  If it is that Lepchenko was taking this drug, then it behoves the ITF/WTA to tell us why Lepchenko was allegedly taking this drug or indeed Lepchenko needs to tell us why she is alleged to have been taking this drug.

Athletes want us to believe that they are persons of honour and integrity.  They want us to believe that they operate by a moral code.  Surely, the various sponsors of these players have morality clauses in their contracts that prohibit this type of behaviour.  Perhaps the time has come for sponsors to step in and start enforcing their morality clauses.

Equal Prize Money Debate

I have not been able to watch much tennis on Tennis Channel, mostly because of work and mostly because when I do get home from work, most, if not all of the matches that are being shown are men’s matches.  On the 24th while I was watching what passes for a recap show on Tennis Channel, the commentators interviewed Chris Kermode, the current ATP CEO.  We have a saying where I come from and it goes “the chip doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

 

When asked by Brett Haber to address the issue of equal prize money, Mr. Kermode prefaced his argument by stating “we live in a politically correct world”.  He then went on, without saying so, that the ATP is a better quality product and so he is not really in favour of equal prize money. I am sure that this interview did not receive much comments from tennis fans, probably because most folks put their tv on mute the minute he came on the air.  However, while everyone has rightfully taken folks like Sergei, Raymond Moore and Ion Tiriac to task over their comments, the comments by Mr. Kermode seems to have been given a pass.

It is obvious to me that the ATP from the top down considers that their product has much more value than the WTA product.  Mr. Kermode was at pains to point out about the new talent that is emerging on the ATP.  Far be it from me to point out to Mr. Kermode that unlike the WTA, none of his new talent have won anything of value. Thiem, Dmitrov, Coric, Nishikori, Sock, Kyrgios and a whole host of 20 somethings can barely win a 500 designated ATP tournament and don’t get me started on the Masters Series events and Grand Slams.  Meanwhile over on the WTA side in the last 5 years or so we have seen multiple Grand Slam, Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 winners on the women’s side.  The talent pool on the WTA is not only filled with talented 20 somethings.  They actually win stuff.

Venus Williams stated recently that she was of the view that the equal prize money debate was one that had already been settled a long time ago.  Clearly that is not the case.

What do you guys think?  Is it time to end this debate?  Sound off in the comments

 

Getting by on Goodwill

By Karen

What is goodwill?  How does one earn it?  How does one spend it?  Who determines who has built up goodwill and who hasn’t?  These questions came to me after reading Jon Wertheim’s Mailbag this weekend.  A reader asked a question regarding Novak Djokovic’s behaviour during his Rome semifinal match against Kei Nishikori during a disputed line call.  During a debate with chair umpire, Carlos Bernardes, Djokovic used his hand to push away Bernardes’ hand.  Djokovic’s explanation (and frankly he wasn’t asked about this in his press conference) was that Bernardes was using his finger to disrupt the ball mark and he, Djokovic, was not having it.  Many tennis fans watching the match voiced their disapproval over Djokovic’s behavior, because touching an official by players is strictly forbidden.

Mr. Wertheim’s response was that Djokovic had built up enough goodwill on Tour over the years that his transgression should definitely go unpunished.  Mr. Wertheim then suggests had it been someone like Nick Kyrgios, who apparently has no goodwill built up, he would deserve to be punished for touching an umpire.  Aside from the obvious problem of metering out punishment so arbitrarily, I ask, how does one build up goodwill and who keeps a running tally?

While I mostly write about the women’s tour, I often juxtapose or contrast their treatment with the men’s tour.  A few years ago many tennis fans will recall that Victoria Azarenka, then the No. 1 ranked player in the world, had a bit of an issue closing out a match against Sloane Stephens. Vika took a medical timeout as she struggled to breathe.  Many accused Vika of using the medical timeout (MTO) to calm herself and take away the momentum that Stephens had gained during the match.  Stephens had saved a few match points to get back on serve in the second set and many of the pundits, particularly Americans, had determined that Stephens, if not for Vika’s MTO, might have gone on to win that set. My view was that Stephens had managed to hold serve just once in the match and it was unclear whether she would have been able to hold serve to take the second set and possible the match.

Since that fateful match, many in tennis media raked Vika over the coals, including tennis fans, as they often behave like sheep. The criticisms of Vika weren’t new. Up until that match, Vika had often received bad press for her grunting, her injury woes and her retirements from matches. It’s just that now, their critical view of Vika seemed wholly justified. I guess Vika hadn’t amassed a lot of goodwill to protect her from being vilified by the press. However, the view of Vika from both fans and media appears to have shifted over the past year. I’m unsure how she has managed to acquire goodwill; it might have something to do with being seen as a ‘real’ rival to Serena Williams due to their compelling and tightly contested matches of late, or maybe her absence from the tour with injuries made people miss her. Whatever the reason, Vika is now a media darling and is seen as “mellow” and appealing. This goodwill thing is great!

I can’t help but note that a similar outcry was lobbied at Serena Williams after her 2009 US Open outburst. Who can forget how many times her outburst was replayed over and over again and how many tennis commentators were of the view that she should never play tennis again. Do you suppose that Serena Williams hadn’t built up enough goodwill to get a pass during the 2009 US Open?

Contrast the outrage from Serena’s 2009 outburst and Vika’s supposed cheating MTO with the rather subdued responses from both fans and tennis media to Maria Sharapova’s failed doping test. Has she amassed so much goodwill that her infringement of doping rules leaves the media reluctant to speculate about her recent ITF hearing being conducted in an undisclosed location or about the medical condition that required the use of a banned substance? It must be all that candy that Djokovic and Sharpaova hand out at press conferences that help their cause.

Every player should be afforded the same treatment, regardless of this perceived goodwill. If I can’t figure out how players amass goodwill, then it shouldn’t be used to determine how players are penalized or rewarded. The media should not play favourites. This is not a popularity contest. The players are on tour to perform their jobs. If they are not doing their jobs properly then the media should call them out.  If they are doing their jobs properly, they should be commended.  Journalists, or those pretending to be journalists, should not, under any circumstances, withhold criticisms for fear of losing access to a player or because they have goodwill.

Players need the media as much as the media needs them.  How else would players sell stuff or justify large endorsement deals worth millions of dollars?  The media provides exposure.  It should be clear that if a player behaves badly, he or she should expect that a journalist who writes for the New York Times or the blogger who has their own blog can feel free to say “John/Jane you have behaved badly. That is not very sporting of you”.  The media’s critique shouldn’t prevent them from being able to then pick up the phone and call the same player’s agent and request a one on one interview.  That is how the world of responsible work operates. If tennis wants my respect, it needs to do better.

Do you think that players who have built up “goodwill” deserve a pass?  Give us your thoughts in the comments.

 

Madrid and the WTA

by Karen

We are in the middle of clay season and the countdown to Roland Garros is in high gear.  As usual, the lead-up tournaments to Roland Garros are marked by the same narratives I have come to expect from sports journalists and fans alike. According to many, the Madrid tournament on the WTA side has been a bit of a bust, because they have decided that seeds falling early in a major tournament means the WTA is weak, while the ATP offers better value for money in terms of matches and seeds lasting through the final stages.  This opinion was brought to the fore by Sergi Stakhovsky posting a tweet showing the near empty stands for the semifinal between Louisa Chirico and Dominika Cibulkova and the fuller stands for the match between Nick Kyrgios and Kei Nishikori.  While what he tweeted was indeed true, he and others like him, failed to post tweets showing the packed stands for women’s matches that occurred over the week compared to empty stands for men’s matches. Essentially, you can cherry-pick pictures of matches to suit whatever point you want to make. If I had known that we would still be having these conversations, I would have taken my own pictures.  Luckily, I have a TennisTV subscription and can share my own contrasting pictures.  Unfortunately, TennisTV seems to have taken down that video but thanks to the WTA and their YouTube channel I was able to obtain a link to that day’s match

 

Tag picture: One of the more packed stadiums that I saw was the match between Ana Ivanovic and Louisa Chirico. The fans had a great time and the tennis was spectacular.

When people post misinformation about the WTA, there are folks like me who shake my head and keep on moving.  Whether it is the lack of fans in the stands, the many breaks of serve during a WTA match or the on court coaching sessions, the rhetoric about the WTA is rarely complimentary.  Some of these fans post on social media for RTs or a Like, but often the negative coverage comes from those who are paid to provide objective coverage of tennis matches. However, this post is not about defending the women’s game.  I don’t think the WTA needs me or anyone else to defend its product.  I think the women’s game is fantastic and the players themselves do a great job of highlighting the sport.  This is about how the tournament and its officials treat the WTA product including the television rights holder, Tennis Channel and the online subscription service TennisTV.

At the time of writing this article, the women’s doubles final is currently being played.  If you want to watch that match, it is not available on TennisTV or on Tennis Channel.  The men’s doubles semifinals however are available and are currently being played.  Lest you think that the women’s doubles finals featured some no names, the final is being played between the reigning No. 1 doubles champions, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza and they are going up against the winners of the last few tournaments on the WTA, the French team of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic.

Tennis Channel continues to do a poor job of promoting the women’s game and their coverage remains unchallenged.  From having the program schedule say ATP Tennis when it is a WTA event that is being played to barely showing any of the women’s matches during combined events. This morning on the first televised day of play from Rome, after the conclusion of the Raonic match, there were 4 women’s matches being played.  I waited a full 30 minutes to see if Tennis Channel would look in on the live WTA matches being played, instead they recapped the ATP Masters Series events for 2016.  When they resumed showing live tennis, it was the next scheduled men’s match. How do they expect to build an audience for the WTA when they fail to show its matches?

As for the Madrid tournament, the women never look happy nor is the crowd support there. A few years ago 2 of the sport’s biggest stars, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, met in what should have been a blockbuster final.  The stadium should have been packed to the seams and yet, you could count the number of people on hand to watch that match. It seems that the crowds in Madrid would rather watch the ATP than the WTA. Contrast this showing in Madrid with the action in Rome; the stands were rocking on the very first day of televised coverage. The Williams Sisters, who have not played doubles in quite some time, had the stands packed to capacity watching their first round loss.  Sara Errani, always a favourite with her Italian home crowd, also had a packed house, as did Misaki Doi and Alize Cornet, Kasatkina and Pliskova and the list goes on and on. Maybe, it’s time to actually reward tournaments who support players by filling the stands. How about we remove the Premier Mandatory status from Madrid and give it to Rome? I say, we honor the tournaments with bonus points for appreciative audiences and crowds rather than the ones with the deepest pockets.