$tate of the Game

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 /by

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After we returned from the farm in game-rich Andes late Saturday afternoon, Luke and I took Lucy, my niece Sarah's dog, for a walk in Central Park. I was watching the little cowpoke trying to climb some dense shrubs, and trying to restrain Lucy, who was going nuts on the leash because of all the squirrels in her field of view, when I happened to notice three women, with backpacks and tennis racquets, on the walkway nearby.

Nothing unusual about that, we were just a stone's throw from the park's complex of green, har-tru clay courts, where in years past I had passed many agreeable hours in search of Warrior Moments.

I immediately recognized one of the women, an attractive dark-haired lady, as Ilona Kloss. So I knew that the woman all bundled in a track suit (despite the heat), face hidden beneath a big floppy white hat, had to be her companion, Billie Jean King. Billie Jean has battled melanoma, so she has to be very careful about exposure to direct sunlight.

"Ilona, Billie," I cried out. "Whatc'yall been doin, hitting a few?"

"Hey, Peter" Billie replied. "Yeah, I love playing at the park. It was hot though. It's been a rough week."

As you may know, it's the heart of World Team Tennis season, and that's kept Billie pretty busy. She introduced me to the third person in their party, an attractive girl who I assumed worked for WTT. Ilona was busy on the cell phone, so Billie and i just lingered, chatting. The upcoming (present)  week was a big one for WTT, which is in the midst of playoffs. I congratulated Billie Jean on landing Lindsay  Davenport for WTT - that seemed a real coup. She professed to be as surprised as you or me by how quickly Lindsay was available to play; it wasn't like WTT had to camp out on her doorstep, pleading for her to consider joining up.

Luke ran over to us, and he presented Billie Jean with a handful of grass, telling her she could keep it. Luke was wearing a "Montana" T-shirt with an image of two bears on it. Billie asked him what his shirt said, and he could only tell her that it had Little Bear and Daddy Bear on it (we frequently watch the DVD of that arty, bizarre, and oddly brilliant Claude Berri movie, The Bear). Billie told us that her own dad had been from Montana - somewhere near Belgrade, I believe she said. Turns out her brother Randy Moffitt, who pitched in the San Francisco Giants organization, learned to drive stick shift on the plains of eastern Montana.  I was very surprised to hear that. And here I thought I knew everything there was to know about Billie Jean. . .

Luke developed an instant affection for Billie, and she engaged him in conversation. I asked the 'poke if he knew what Billie Jean had been doing and he looked at her gear and, lighting up, said, "playing tennis!" You bet, boy. This lady has played some tennis in her time.

We chatted a little longer, Billie said some kind things about Luke. And then they went off toward home, like three weary soldiers making their way back to camp after a pitched battle. It was funny, they looked like any of the countless hacker who drift in and out of the Park near 93rd Street, toting backpacks and racquets, dressed in the distinctively non-tennis tennis gear that is de rigeur at so many public facilities, and nowhere more noticeably than in New York, where people feel obliged to go with their personal interpretation of, well, just about everything.

So I was left thinking about Billie, patiently waiting for Lucy to poop and Luke to get tired, both of which can try a man's patience. It's funny, but Billie Jean got swept up in larger issues of gender identity (the women's movement always seemed to me far more interested in altering the identity of women than in speeding or facilitating equality, not that those two are mutually exclusive). Yet her original beef was a very practical one. At the Italian Open, at the dawn of the Open era, the men's winner (that year, it was Ilie Nastase) was awarded something like $28,000, while the women's champ got something like six or eight grand. In other words, the disparity was huge.

Nobody really likes to talk about money, or the role money can play in shaping as well as driving our most basic attitudes and institutions. Money is the 800-pound gorilla in a million conversations, ranging from the geopolitics of the Middle East to whether or not the New York Yankees can beat the Boston Red Sox. Of course, we hate to think of money as driving anything, especially sports, and tennis as a whole (forget Larry Scott for a moment) has been pretty good about resisting doing things just because of the money.

But here's a basic paradox that occurred to me while thinking about Billie Jean's history. The big fight for Open tennis was really a huge battle by erstwhile professional who wanted nothing more (or less) than to be able to play for. . . money.

Just ponder that, especially if you've ever been enough of a hypocrite to start a complaint about money with the phrase, "This isn't really about the money, but. . ."

Ha! Face it, you only stop caring about the money when you can afford the indifference, economically. Or, in some cases, when you've settled on a way of life in which you simply have few obligation. So if this epic battle for Open tennis was about income-earning opportunities, about giving "tennis bums" a chance to earn a respectable living (and you have to admit, Lindsay D's career earnings of 21 million-plus is pretty danged respectable), why be so squeamish about the subject of money?

My European friends, btw, are always mortified by how freely and easily I talk about money. They are very good at not talking about money - in some circles, it's the height of rudeness to even mention it. I alway thought that was a strange over-reaction, sort of like believing that if you really, really act and behave as if something doesn't exist, it ceases to do so. Oh, I admire the effort, I just don't think it's realistic or sustainable.

I noticed for a long time that golf always measured its players by the standard of prize-money. That is, the top-ranked guy was the guy who had earned the most prize money. I understand this has changed now, with some sort of points-based world ranking in effect (although I'm also told that the prize-money tables remain the ranking method of choice in the US). For a long time, I felt that rankings based on prize-money were, well, tres gauche. How materialistic! How venal! How deceptive. Now, though, I wonder if maybe it isn't the most simple and honest measure.

Furthermore, people often note that the power of money is that it is "the least common denominator", and isn't that kind of what you want in a ranking system?  In other words, is there any chance we would be better off if we just took this attitude: these people are professional. They play for love, pride and money, among which the only one that can be accurately measured is . . money.

So why not accept as the champion the player who wins the most. . . money.

I know, tres gauche. . .

Still. I took a look at the ATP and WTA Tour rankings, and compared them to the prize-money rankings in each division of the game. It's kind of interesting to see how the prize money rankings bear out an indisputable fact: on the whole, Rafael Nadal has had a better year so far than Roger Federer, although I'd be the first to admit that I'd rather have two majors (the Australian and Wimbledon) than one (Roland Garros). But in terms of day-in, day-out performance, is there any doubt that Nadal has been more successful so far this year?

That's one of those funny things about the least common denominator approach as it applies to tennis - it tends to diminish the events that have the most prestige (and points) and elevate the importance of the ones that offer bigger purses than the others. Fed

And here's another thing to consider: If prize-money rankings were taken more seriously, doubles would be taken more seriously. Make that, doubles players would be taken more seriously. Just look at how highly the Bryans are ranked on the universal prize-money board. That they're segregated with their own rankings in the ATP Entry system tells you something - that the "second citizen" nature of doubles is institutionally and philosophically based - meaning, arbitrary. The relative importance (or lack thereof) of doubles is driven by nothing more "objective" than the opinion of the elite who run tennis.

So let's see how the rankings stack up against each other:

Women's Top 12 (rankings):

1 - Henin, Justine (4457.00 pts)
2 -Sharapova, Maria (3678.00 pts)
3 - Jankovic, Jelena  (3241.00 pts)
4 - Kuznetsova, Svetlana (2978.00 pts)
5 - Ivanovic, Ana, (2898.00 pts)
6 - Mauresmo, Amelie (2424.00 pts)
7 - Chakvetadze, Anna (2326.00 pts)
8 - Wiliams, Serena (2325.00 pts)
9 - Petrova, Nadia ( 2002.00 pts)
10 - Vaidisova, Nicole (1973.00 pts)
11 - Bartoli, Marion (1875.00 pts)
12 - Hantuchova, Daniela

Now, here are the Top 12, ranked according to prize-money (the first column is singles prize-money, the second, doubles, the third total, although Jankovic and Hantuchova get their prize money from mixed doubles thrown into the total as well. And ease forgive the poor formatting here:

1 -  HENIN, JUSTINE     BEL      2,534,430                       2,534,430
2    WILLIAMS, SERENA USA   1,791,009     8,025         1,799,034
3    WILLIAMS, VENUS USA    1,473,423     8,025         1,481,448
4    IVANOVIC, ANA     SRB        1,369,783    11,487         1,381,270
5    JANKOVIC, JELENA     SRB  1,196,126    22,972     88,157     1,307,255
6    KUZNETSOVA, SVETLANA     RUS     981,400     70,174         1,051,574
7    SHARAPOVA, MARIA     RUS     1,001,652             1,001,652
8    BARTOLI, MARION     FRA     866,914     37,167         904,081
9    HANTUCHOVA, DANIELA     SVK     706,919     59,235     1,411     767,565
10  VAIDISOVA, NICOLE     CZE     712,075     14,157         726,232
11  CHAKVETADZE, ANNA     RUS     613,866     18,766         632,632
12  SANTANGELO, MARA

You know what? I like the prize-money rankings better; I think they are a more accurate reflection of the women's respective accomplishments. Note in particular where the Williams sisters figure in the respective rankings. This comparison tells me that the the WTA is in real trouble with its computer ranking system.

Now, for the men. I chose to go 20 deep in both rankings simply because there was more interesting data to be had by going deeper -like the ranking of the Bryans.  Here are the straight-up points-based rankings (you can check them out at the ATP website for a cleaner look and the legend for the columns of numbers):

ATP Rankings - Singles
1 Federer, Roger SUI                     7290   3700    2040     1550    17
2 Nadal, Rafael ESP                       5455   2200      2300    955     20
3 Djokovic, Novak SRB                   3245  1125     1340     780     21
4 Davydenko, Nikolay RUS              3175   1300     930      945     27
5 Roddick, Andy USA                      3130   1405   1000      725     20
6 Gonzalez, Fernando CHI               2770   855    1395       520    18
7 Robredo, Tommy ESP                   2085   685      895       505     24
8 Gasquet, Richard FRA                  2085    785      770       530    22
9 Haas, Tommy GER                        2035   850     545        640    20
10 Blake, James USA                       1995    480    300      1215    25
11 Berdych, Tomas CZE                   1975    555     905       515    20
12 Ljubicic, Ivan CRO                     1940    160      710      1070   23
13 Youzhny, Mikhail RUS                  1890    825     225      840    25
14 Murray, Andy GBR                       1865   300     960      605    19
15 Canas, Guillermo ARG                 1607    325     448      834    19
16 Ferrer, David ESP                        1535    335    595      605    23
17 Ferrero, Juan Carlos ESP              1525    395    805     325     22
18 Chela, Juan Ignacio ARG               1405   150     595     660    24
19 Baghdatis, Marcos CYP                 1370    470    180      720   23
20 Moya, Carlos

Now here are your Top 20 in the prize-money ranking:

    1   Nadal,Rafael    4,153,685
    2    Federer,Roger    4,059,820
    3    Djokovic,Novak    1,924,850
    4    Gonzalez,Fernando    985,180
    5    Davydenko,Nikolay    938,325
    6    Berdych,Tomas    878,470
    7    Roddick,Andy    869,420
    8    Youzhny,Mikhail    817,890
    9    Ljubicic,Ivan    790,795
    10    Gasquet,Richard    756,890
    11    Canas,Guillermo    727,415
    12    Haas,Tommy    690,035
    13    Chela,Juan Ignacio    684,265
    14    Bryan,Mike    642,785
    15    Ferrer,David    640,302
    16    Bryan,Bob    638,960
    17    Baghdatis,Marcos    631,155
    18    Robredo,Tommy    627,347
    19    Santoro,Fabrice    561,980
    20    Ferrero,Juan Carlos    559,850

Note how much less disparity there is among the men, in the respective rankings, than among the women.

Fire away!

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