They Said What? Oct. 9

by: Peter Bodo | October 08, 2012

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“We welcome the increase in prize money for the 2013 Australian Open and acknowledge the ongoing efforts of Tennis Australia to recognize the role of the players in the success of the tournament. We also look forward with confidence to continuing these successful discussions with a view to a longer-term understanding.”—Brad Drewett, ATP chief executive and president.

That comment was Drewett’s official response to Tennis Australia’s decision to beef up prize money at the Australian Open to $31.1 million, a hefty increase of $4.15 million. If you’re anything like me, you’re struck by the tepid, almost insulting nature of the reply (not that I disagree with the sentiments).

Note that Drewett refers not to the largesse or well-executed nature of the event, but to the “role of the players in the success of the tournament.” And in the key sentence, Drewett refers to “continuing discussions” and a potential “longer-term understanding” with Tennis Australia. I read that as tantamount to Drewett saying, “We’re not circus elephants; you can’t just throw us peanuts and expect us to stand on footstool and dance a jig.”

In some quarters, perhaps even within the hall of Tennis Australia’s executive offices, the big bump was seen as an attempt to placate players who had been whispering the “b” word—boycott—if they weren’t given a larger slice of the Grand Slam revenue pie. Was this a preemptive strike to take the edge off the restless players’ case and seize the high ground in further discussions? Drewett’s comment suggests that he suspects as much, even as spear-carriers on the tour expressed satisfaction with the deal. Eric Butorac, a doubles specialist and vice-president of the ATP Player’s Council, told

“I was really impressed with what [Australian Open Tournament director] Craig Tiley and [Tennis Australia chief executive] Steve Woods were able to put together. I think I can speak for all the players when I say that we'll be in Melbourne in January with smiles on our faces.”

There you have it—a classic good-cop/bad-cop scenario. Butorac expresses the gratitude of the rank-and-file (as a journeyman, Butorac is of the class of player most likely to benefit from the prize-money increase), while Drewett fires a shot across the bow of the Grand Slams, warning them that the ATP’s discontented work force isn’t going to be bought off or co-opted quite so easily—or cheaply.

“(Victoria) Azarenka won the Australian Open and was stable all this year—and it is very difficult to do, you need to be well-prepared physically. Everyone has started to forget about the achievements of Vika, the same with Maria Sharapova, who won Roland Garros, after Serena Williams won gold and won the title at the U.S. Open, and it is wrong. Let the younger Williams play a full season, and then we'll see who will be the No. 1.”—Dinara Safina, former WTA No. 1

I know what Safina means; I truly do. And there’s no question that the woman ranked No. 1 is. . . ranked No. 1. The system is completely transparent, driven with the highest form of logic available to us—mathematics—and nobody disputes the basic parameters and sensibility behind the rankings. (Note to Safina: “nobody” in this case also refers to Serena herself.)

But Safina is dead wrong when she implies at the end of her quote that somehow, Serena might not end up No. 1 and show herself a lesser player were she to play as full a schedule as Azarenka or some of the other workhorse WTA pros like Sharapova. There are absolutely no grounds for that claim.

Safina seems to be under the impression that Serena’s selectivity is an asset rather than a liability, that her lighter schedule gives her an unfair advantage. Okay then, let’s look at the schedules.

Serena, now No. 3, has played 14 tournaments this year. That’s a whopping three fewer than Sharapova and four fewer than Azarenka. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem so different to me, and I’d venture to say that had Serena played another three, she could handle the work load.

The bottom line is that neither Serena nor anyone else can stop others from saying what they think: That Serena is a better player than Azarenka or Sharapova (or maybe better than the two of them combined), and therefore she’s the “true” or “real” top player. That case is hard to argue against, given that Serena crushes Sharapova almost every time they meet, and she’s 10-1 (and has won the last eight meetings) against Azarenka.

Furthermore, this year Sharapova has won one Grand Slam title (French Open), and so has Azarenka (Australian Open). But Serena has won two (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) as well as the Olympic singles gold medal (Serena beat Sharapova like a government mule in the final of that one, 6-0, 6-1). There can be no argument whatsoever about which of the three women is the best.

You know what? I guarantee that if you told Azarenka and Sharapova that you could somehow make Serena play as often as they do, to give them an opportunity to prove their superiority, they would both look at you and scream, “What are you, crazy?????”

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