Firing Daddy

Tuesday, February 06, 2007 /by

Hi everyone. my wife Lisa and I had a pretty rugged morning, meeting with city school officials on some issues having to do with our son Luke's developmental needs. That I would find myself at a conference table with my wife and five others - including the principal of Luke's school - to discuss the needs of a single New York City child is amazing to me (never mind that it's my own child)  - and a tribute to the kind of services New York City offers. And this was no bureaucratic exercise in rubber-stamping or rejecting a request and calling out "Next?" either. We had to fight hard and demonstrate a real and legitimate need, to an extremely squared-away, no-nonsense evaluator. We were successful; I felt like Peyton Manning walking out of that room after a full hour of testimony.

Anyway, I want to get back to some of the queries posed in the Any Questions? post of last week, so let's do another round:

Sanja asked: I thought it was very interesting that she (Maria Sharapova) didn't institute any of her delaying tactics, (turning her back to her opponent  or bathroom breaks etc.)  Does she have more respect for Serena than others?

That's an interesting catch. I definitely think Serena inspires more respect, but also represents a greater risk for anyone trying to get cute with delaying tactics or bathroom breaks. You're not going to throw her off with gamesmanship - if anything, you're likely to return from the bathroom break to see her snort fire and commence to whale on your sorry butt, making you look even stupider than you did for taking the break. The other reason is more practical, if you think about it; any adult ought to be able to "hold it" long enough to take the kind of quick, merciless beating Serena laid on Maria in that final.

P.S. Venus is scheduled to play Memphis (Feb. 18-24).

Smiling Creig Bryan, another born list-maker, shot the moon with five questions. As they're interrelated, let's have a go:

1. How did the sundial-as-distractor get blown up so, such that it appeared on the ABC evening news?

You know, that's really interesting. John Barrett is the BBC's "Voice of Tennis." He's a revered and important figure in tennis (especially at Wimbledon); he's usually the soul of restraint and a paragon of Gentlemanly conduct, with a capital "G." He was working for the ABC during the Australian Open (Australian Broadcast Corp.), and I thought it highly unusual that he would speculate on the way an unidentified guest (Zane Haupt) in the Williams box was toying with his silver metal wrist watch each time Nicole Vaidisova was serving from the far end.

I presume somebody in the ABC network truck was feeding Barrett this information, convinced he had stumbled on something. Unfortunately, Barrett ran with it, and so did the producers who turned it into a "Breaking News" item on the regular evening news - they even teased it before the newscast came on-air.

This, to me, was highly unprofessional. For one thing, the ABC never did get (or, at any rate, use) Haupt's name, or any other personal information about him (like, why he was in the box). That's extremely sloppy and lazy, given the frenzy they were trying to whip up. More importantly, Vaidisova was the first to hold a presser after she lost to Williams. When she was asked about the incident, she looked at the interrogator like he was from Mars. She had no idea what he was talking about, and said as much.

To me, that killed the story in its tracks. Vaidisova noticed nothing, so it was wrong-headed and irresponsible to continue promoting fairly wild and unsubstantiated speculations that could be so damaging to Williams. ABC should have killed the piece the moment Vaidisova addressed it. Instead, they ran it. This was a clear a case of the media trying to make a meaningless, unsubstantiated claim or story stick for its own sensationalistic purposes. Or maybe they were too indolent to cobble together a different story to run. I think JB got suckered into being the network's patsy and, being a nice guy, went along with it. Dumb move, JB.

2. Who is Zane Haupt and how did he become part of the entourage?

According to Williams, Haupt is an Aussie tennis fan she met years ago. She hit it off with him, and they became friendly. He even visited the U.S. and Serena some years ago ("We had a lot of fun," Serena said). At the airport leaving Melbourne, El Jon and I saw Serena at the fast-food burger concession (surprise!); she was accompanied by a guy who looked like Haupt (we were in a hurry, so we couldn't get a positive ID). He was running around the same space, getting lots of bewildered looks because the conspicuous, giant AO trophy dangled from one hand, while his other appeared to be filled with packets of ketchup. Whether or not they used the AO Cup as a receptacle for the messy, empty ketchup packets I can't say.

3. Is Serena's hitting partner qualified as capable for coaching?

As far as I can tell, the answer is yes. We spoke with Mark Hlawaty shortly after the final and he more than held his own as he analyzed the match and explained Serena's strategy. He sounded authoritative. He said more coach-worthy things in five minutes that I've heard Oracene Price say in all the years she's been around, and that's no knock on Oracene. She fits a different support role for Serena, although I suppose it's possible that she's a regular Brad Gilbert, trying to keep her profound grasp of strategy and technique under wraps (I haven't heard anyone with or without locker room access advance the theory, though).

Keep in mind that some top players are loath to leave any kind of verbal or paper trail behind their coaching experiments or relationships, that when the partnership invariably heads south, the coach will seek additional compensation for the work he or she has done, perhaps even in the courts. Rick Macci, who makes a very strong case for having been the one who deserves the most credit for developing the Williams sisters's games, is said to have negotiated a deal that included giving up his claims - and part of that package was agreeing to a gag order on his relationship with the Williamses.

This, BTW,is what happens when player and coach enter into a relationship without a formal contract. I think some players are incredibly short-sighted (and sometimes penurious) in this regard. They use coaches with no twinge of conscience, while the coaches hope that their careers will be made by association. I don't need a contract, it's the contacts that count - this is too good an opportunity to pass up! Worse yet: If I do a lot of good for this player and she makes it big, I'll be taken care of, for sure!

The problem, of course, is that it is entirely a buyer's market. The coaches are scared of passing up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the player, and his or her reps, are reluctant to cede coaches too much authority or credibility. They afraid of the coach stealing a player's thunder, as well as frightened of the coach making financial claims in the event that they. . . accomplish the mutually agreed upon goal. Hence the  "hitting partner" who can be paid on a per-week basis, and whose brain can be picked with no obligation or threat of upstaging anyone - did I hear someone way "Yuri"? 

4.  Is Maria's hitting partner qualified as capable for coaching?

Michael Joyce is as qualified as anyone to be a coach (he's a former player, and a product of the very progressive Southern Cal tennis culture), but he's just a "hitting partner" and, I'm told, operating under a gag order (he refuses to do interviews). We've seen Maria, and other top players, distance themselves from pros like Nick Bollettieri and Robert Lansdorp. For a variety of reasons including but not limited to rampaging ego, many tennis parents insist on retaining the title, "coach." The legitimacy of that claim varies greatly, but it's always a strategy for self-justification, retaining at least nominal control, and keeping a coach from hogging up too much credit. If it sounds like coaches have evolved into the pariahs - real or imagined - of the tennis community, you're on the right track.

One other element that helps explain this acutely unprofessional state of affairs is that many top players are notoriously unwilling to make changes that in any way change a status quo that seems to be working for them. Firing daddy is often an option players won't entertain.

5. Are there any other "hitting partners" out there, that may be being, possibly, overextended in other areas, outside of their assigned duties? (Excluding Mirka, please.).

The answer is yes, but I'm drawing a temporary blank and feel I should move on (come on, Tribe, weigh-in!). But note that this entire "hitting partner" strategy is far more more popular on the women's tour. There are two reasons for that: Parents are far more involved, and being able to afford a male hitting pro has a certain, automatic fitness and toughening component.

Generally, though, the lengths to which top women pros go to avoid formal coaching relationships is quite astonishing, and that's the next frontier in the ongoing professionalization of the game.That a woman like Kim Clijsters, an underachiever of baffling and irritating proportions, didn't decide at least to enlist a coach in the final year of her career (while she's still young enough to play the best tennis of her life) is amazing.

Kimmy, it's a lousy freakin' 100k plus expenses and a few bonus clauses, for gosh sakes!

Clijsters decision to go it along may ensure that she remains a One-Slam Wonder - probably the least likely  and most easily ridiculed OSW of all-time, given her obvious talent and consistently high standard of performance. I won't vote for admitting her to the Hall of Fame unless she wins another major.

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