Happy New Year to everyone. I do hope that your Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrated in December was enjoyable. All the best to my loyal readers for 2017.
I really wanted to start the New Year on a positive note. I made a conscious decision not to write about the debacle that is the lack of women’s tennis on the streaming platform, TennisTV and I decided not to engage in the maligning of TennisTV for their lack of coverage of the events leading up to the Australian Open on the men’s side. As with anything in tennis, no one ever really knows the full story. Until I get both sides as well as a third person’s side in any tennis argument, I will not proffer an opinion.
However, I will call out those who seem hell bent on destroying women’s tennis, either by their callous treatment of the women who play this game, or the so called fans who think that they are being cute when they reference ridiculous stats or post pictures of empty stadiums to reflect how the women’s game is suffering.
First up is Steve Simon. In case you have been living under a rock, Steve Simon, former tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open (otherwise known as Indian Wells) took over the stewardship of women’s tennis after Stacey Allaster stepped down due to family reasons. Since his appointment, we have had the Maria Sharapova doping offence (which apparently the WTA knew nothing about); Ana Ivanovic retiring (which seemed to come as a bit of a shock to the WTA); and TennisTV’s email to its subscribers (me included) telling us it would no longer carry WTA content. The WTA only issued a Frequently Asked Question 2 months after the announcement, which raised even more questions than it purportedly tried to answer.
It has been so difficult to track how to watch tennis that a person started a blog called Tennis Watchers just to tell fans of women’s tennis, particularly those in the US, where they can watch tennis. I understand from social media that Mary Carillo stated on Tennis Channel that the WTA had sold its rights to the women’s game to another entity. That entity is beIN sport. For the above transgressions, senior management in any other organisation would have done the right thing and stepped down, but not in tennis.
As an aside, I have beIN sport as part of my Dish Network package. On the day of the women’s final in Brisbane I was treated to a comprehensive infomercial about a pot. I scrolled through the programme guide but I did not see it. In terms of the Sydney final, I woke up and noticed that the match was still going on so I hopped out of bed and turned on the tv, went to beIN sport and there it was again the infomercial about the pot. I wondered whether I had seen a tweet that was old and was only just showing up on my timeline, so I went to my scoring app. Nope, match was still going on but was nowhere to be seen. Apparently, you had to watch those matches on beIN Connect. A service which I don’t have.
Second, top players losing. Sometimes they lose badly despite their best efforts. Sometimes they win despite the best efforts of their opponents. I woke up on aWednesday morning to news that Serena Williams had lost her match against Madison Brengle. She didn’t lose in straight sets and she did not get a bagel. She lost in 3 tough sets in what can only be described as terrible playing conditions. This was Serena’s second match since losing at the US Open in September last year. Serena Williams is ranked No. 2 in the world. She is 35 years old. When I listened to Justin Gimelstob and company on Tennis Channel, I had to do a double take because I wondered, is this woman not allowed to lose a match? For someone of the non-caliber of Gimelstob calling Serena out for losing a match would make me laugh if it wasn’t so damn serious. For almost 4 years, Serena held the No. 1 ranking. To do so, she has had to play consistent no holds barred tennis. During that time every single player has had to work harder to play catch up. The fact that she lost to Brengle is for me a sign that she is not yet match fit and that she needs to work on things. It is not an indication that the field is catching up and not an indication that she feels that she does not need to prepare for these matches.
For commentators to keep rehashing the same tired lines about Serena turning up at the big events unprepared is a testament to the laziness of those in the commentary booth. I think the only tournament at which Serena does not play warm up events is Wimbledon. If you look back at her seasons for the past 3 to 4 years, she has played a warm up event before every single Major. The time has come for commentators to not only write better copy about one of the sport’s greats, but also try and find a way to speak about her work ethic or her ability to come back from the abyss. They have to do it without making Serena seem unbeatable or seem as if she does not work hard enough.
Other top players also lost in their warm-up tournaments. Radwanska lost in Shenzhen, as did Halep. Both Kerber and Cibulkova lost in Brisbane and the top seeds in Auckland, Venus (withdrew), Serena and Wozniacki are also out. However, I don’t think those losses indicate a lack of motivation by these women. Whenever I see a top player being beaten by a player who is relatively unknown, it makes me want to find out more about that player, hence my love for players like Misaki Doi, Kurumi Nara and Zarina Diyas. These are players who have interesting games and personalities who I really love to watch play tennis.
Third and finally, a friend of mind shared this article with me from Fox Sports. It speaks about the Serena loss and how the tournament director and the tournament itself will feel the burn. It is an article that is most assuredly written by a hack. To compare Sharapova’s attendance to Serena’s is like comparing apples to oranges. Sharapova always has something that she needs to sell hence her willingness to be out in front of a camera all day long. None of us know what the arrangement was between Serena and the tournament. Perhaps there was to be no sponsor obligations etc. We don’t know. In addition, the tournament itself has benefitted from Serena’s presence as for the first time since its inception, tickets were sold out for the women’s events, even before the men. That is what Serena needed to do for the tournament and she did, but seeing as we are looking to create a narrative for Sharapova’s return to the Tour, more power to you Fox Sports and Mr. Tournament Director.
This year as the new tennis season starts, we might not be able to watch our favorite ladies hitting balls and screaming and fist pumping the way we would like, but that does not mean that we can’t try really hard to be passionate without being condemning of the women’s game.
Early Tournament Results and What They Mean
I have to confess that I wrote the top part of this article long before results of the various warm up tournaments had concluded and long before the first round of the Australian Open started. Lauren Davis who was never known for being a power player, hit Ana Konjuh off the court to claim her first WTA Tour title. She subsequently fell in the first round of the Australian Open to unseeded Samantha Crawford, 6-0 in the third set. Shenzhen champion, Siniakova also fell in the first round to Julia Georges of Germany. I won’t say that results in lead up tournaments don’t matter, but I don’t think we can truly gauge a person’s chance at the first Major of the year by their results in lead up tournaments.
However, of all the wins at the Australian Open which put a smile on my face this morning it was the result of Carla Suarez-Navarro who took out Jana Cepelova in straight sets. For someone who was iffy to play the Australian Open, it was good to see Carla getting a good win against an opponent who can cause trouble for top players.
Venus Williams looked delightful as always and although she seemed to struggle in the heat, she used all of her experience to beat her younger opponent. Well done Ms. Venus.
On Coaching Changes
I am not one to speculate as to what makes a good coach, but I think the time has come for all of tennis to state without a shadow of a doubt that possibly one of the most over rated coaches in tennis is Darren Cahill. I can’t imagine why he gets so much positive press from tennis fans and journos alike, but I am trying really hard to recall when he ever had success with any player, male or female. From his time with Lleyton Hewitt, to Agassi, to being part of the Adidas Player Development Program, Cahill has been all talk and not much to back it up. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like his take on tennis. He is an excellent commentator, is quite fair to the players and he has a wealth of knowledge about the game. However, I just don’t think that that knowledge translates very well to players, or maybe he only communicates effectively when he is in the booth.
Since teaming with Simona Halep, he seems to have a one size fits all solution to her problem. Ger a bigger serve. Get fitter. Hit the ball harder. For those of us who have been fans of Halep for quite some time, she is a grinder. Her movement is what set her apart from everyone else on Tour. She played absolutely beautiful tennis. Her run to the semifinals of Rome a few years ago is must watch tennis. Even if you can’t find those matches, her run to the 2014 French Open final should give you an indication of the type of tennis of which Halep is capable. However, for whatever reason she has added muscle, has a bigger serve, which is quite unreliable, and her backhand which used to be her money shot seems to have disappeared in favour of a forehand down the line shot, which seems on its best day to be hit and miss.
As I said during her match, I am no longer emotionally invested in the outcome of her matches, but she is a player that I quite enjoy watching, especially when she is playing well. It was frustrating to see her huffing and puffing on Rod Laver Arena and seeing balls whizz past her. Even more disconcerting was seeing her being out hit by Shelby Rogers, who while a good player, is not someone that I would bet money would take Halep to the cleaners.
I don’t know what the solution is, but perhaps the time has come for Halep to get herself a female coach, someone along the lines of Chris Evert who can help her regain her confidence and bring her back to her style of tennis.