Yesterday, both Pete Bodo and I talked about how the month of February no longer seems to be the black hole for tennis that it once was. That could be a function simply of Rafael Nadal playing in South America for the first time in eight years, and Serena Williams staying injury-free long enough to make it to Doha.
There’s no doubt that it also has to do with the increased visibility of smaller events, on the Tennis Channel in the U.S., on live streams everywhere, and in the tweets of journalists and bloggers and superfans watching the sport like hawks from every corner of the world. This morning you could, if you wished, see Serena Williams' blow-out first-round win, at the same time that you discovered, via Twitter, which member of a certain boy band Laura Robson considers the "cutest." As you can see, whether more exposure and information about tennis is a good thing or not is still open to question.
So far this month has also been a fine one for off-court news/mayhem. Here’s a round-up of a few of the latest stories.
The sporting world seems to have gone a little berserk in the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong case. Steroids are back in baseball news, pretty much everyone involved in sports in Australia is currently under suspicion at the moment, and each day brings a new call for more testing from a top tennis player.
But it's hard to think of anyone who has been as affected by the Armstrong story as profoundly as Andy Murray. In the old days, Muzz was an ATP leader in complaints about unannounced drug tests, whether he was being surprised early in the morning and followed into the bathroom at home, or forced to take a blood test after losing the final of the Australian Open. Now, post-Lance, Muzz is the tour’s new leader in calling for more tests, more blood tests, more unannounced tests, more unannounced blood tests, and more money for tests.
This, along with similar words from his fellow members of the Big 4, is a positive development. By now, though, we get the point. If the players are serious, it’s time to get the ball rolling. As Nadal said last week, while making his own call for a more transparent anti-doping regimen, “If you say that more testing needs to be done, that’s easy. When you say a thing like that, everybody applauds and everybody would sign for it.”
Which is what makes Murray’s latest words, as reported in the Daily Telegraph last week, matter a little more. This time Muzz said he was willing to put money where his mouth is.
[Murray] would be happy for funds players receive to be reduced, if it meant more stringent controls. “It’s down to the governing bodies and the ATP to invest some of our own money into WADA and making sure we get more testing done....In the long term I think you save money; I think more people would come to watch sport, rather than reading all the time about these doping scandals...”
A little prize money would go a long way. Right now each of the singles champions at the U.S. Open earn roughly the same amount of money—$2 million—that the ITF uses to run its entire worldwide anti-doping campaign.
Speaking of those sentiments from Nadal, they came from an interesting interview that he did with the French paper L’Equipe after his opening-round win in Viña del Mar last week (see the English translation here). In it, Nadal talks about a number of the usual subjects with a more reasoned candor than players are typically allowed in press conferences. With all of the recent doping talk, and the mystery over the Puerto/Fuentes case involving unnamed Spanish athletes, it was good to hear him say that he wanted names named, and that he wanted less secrecy in testing. The interviewer, Frédéric Bernès, even crossed into the murky world of rumors, when he asked whether Nadal was aware “that some people think your 7-month absence is due to a silent doping ban.”
Journalists normally should steer clear of the rumor mill in print, but in this case I was glad to hear Nadal deny it, seemingly without bristling, and call Christophe Rochus’s recent comments on the subject “stupid.” (Rochus said in January that Nadal’s absence was “suspicious,” though he admitted “there is no proof.”)
I would also direct people to the L’Equipe interview if you happen to have read an AP article today claiming that Nadal "blasted" the ATP for trying to strictly enforce the 25-second time rule. This is the entirety of what Nadal had to say on the subject last week:
I’m slow, I recognise that. But for me, to apply those 25 seconds in all circumstances will affect the quality of the game. If you strictly apply 25 seconds, my US Open final in 2011, especially the third set, and the Australian Open final in 2012 would not have the same level. It’s impossible to keep on playing incredible points one after the other if you don’t have time to take a breath. It happens that I’m slow after a normal point. When the umpires sanctions me then or gives me a warning, no problem. But if you’ve just played a crazy point, no. Otherwise, what will happen after an enormous point is that your serve or the shot after that will miss the line by 3 meters. That’s not tennis, that. They tell me that those changes are made for the tv public, but don’t you think that those people watching tennis on tv would prefer beautiful points being disputed? No?
You could read the "for me" at the start as evidence that he just doesn't want the rule to apply to him. I doubt that's the case. He wants to see discretion from the chair umpire after long points in general. I think that even those of us, like me, who welcome stricter enforcement of the time rule can agree with him on that.
In the New York Times Ben Rothenberg wonders where the John Isners and Kevin Andersons of the WTA are. Not women who are 6-foot-8 or 6-9, mind you; he’s talking about highly ranked women players who attended college. While both tours have aged, the women’s rankings still have a stronger teen presence than the men. Fewer women are steered toward college with an eye on eventually becoming pros.
In an interesting article at ESPN.com, Kamakshi Tandon looks at the new batch of strong American servers on the WTA side—Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, Jamie Hampton—and wonders what’s in the water in the USA. In talking about the historical excellence of male U.S. servers, I’ve always relied on the theory that Americans do a lot of throwing in other sports, while the rest of the world does a lot of kicking. Patrick McEnroe brings that up here, but it’s harder to say that it has affected the women, who don’t typically play organized baseball or football.
Matt Cronin reports that the WTA is reviewing its medical time-out rule, and that the tour "left open the possibility of changes for the 2014 season." It's a rule that can potentiually be abused, but it's hard to know what exactly can be done to tighten it up. Doctors could be instructed to look more skeptically at players' claims of injuries (it's up to the doctor to grant a timeout). But a doctor will always, rightfully, err on the side of caution when it comes to a player's health—no one should want to to see that change. After the most famous timout of 2013, the one Victoria Azarenka was granted against Sloane Stephens in Melbourne, Stephens mentioned that there's a sign in the locker room warning players that they'll be fined if they take more than a certain number of MTOs during the season. She said she thought "that was a good rule," and it does seem to be. Perhaps there's more that can be done along those lines. But the price we pay for player health may always be that this rule can be gamed.
The Stupidest Thing Ever?
Perhaps the most consequential story of the week came out of Indian Wells, where the players and tournament directors that make up the ATP board have broken into public dispute over the BNP Paribas Open’s plans to significantly increase prize money this year. The players are for it, naturally, but the directors are against it.
Indian Wells director Raymond Moore told TENNIS.com’s Matt Cronin of his colleagues' opposition, “Their vote is purely political and we are appalled. They don’t want to see another tournament out-distancing them, and that’s as clear as the nose on my face.”
The board was set to vote again on the proposal this week. Whatever the result, the story has, to many observers, highlighted once again the dysfunctional nature of the sport’s governance.
I’ll have more on the subject later this week in a Rally post with Kamakshi Tandon. Virtually everyone has sided with the players thus far—Andy Roddick called the tournament directors’ stance “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”—but Kamakshi says she has a different take on it all. Stay tuned for that.
Young Men Behaving Badly
Finally, do you remember 20-year-old Bernie Tomic? Do you remember that we wondered if he would finally be able to follow up his good results in Australia? The early answer is in: In the two weeks since the Aussie Open, he’s lost his driver’s license after speeding in his Ferrari, and lost his first match in Rotterdam. Any more questions? I hope the answers get a little better from here.
How about Jerzy Janowicz? You surely recall his Melbourne meltdown for the ages. He's not easing off in the quote department, it seems. The 22-year-old Pole told a local paper that Novak Djokovic is a "fake" who "shows off and acts," and that Roger Federer "wants to be above everything."
Tomic and Janowicz are young men who can play, and who can stir the pot. In both regards, they have things to learn.