Quit While You’re Ahead. Way Ahead
“I'm hugely proud of my performances, my titles, and I can look back on my career with a great feeling. Keeping going would not add anything." — Esther Vergeer.
That may sound like the typical boilerplate of a successful athlete declaring his or her retirement, but in this case that last sentence of Vergeer’s rings true. She’s calling it quits even though the 31-year old player from the Hague, Netherlands is still on a 10-year, 470-match winning streak. Perhaps she fears that she may have to spend the rest of her mortal days doing wheelies and 180-degree spins if she were to wait until she lost to quit.
There are winning streaks and then there are winning streaks. Vergeer, the winner of 21 Grand Slam singles and 23 major doubles titles in wheelchair tennis, last lost a singles match on January 30th, 2003. That makes Daniela di Toro (the woman who beat her) an instant enshrinee in the Trivia Question Hall of Fame. Vergeer also won singles gold at four straight Paralympics, staring in Sydney in 2000.
Vergeer’s 148 singles titles is 31 more than Steffi Graf won in able-bodied tennis, and it’s just 19 fewer than Iron Woman Martina Navratilova bagged. But unlike Vergeer, Navratilova never won 120 tournaments in a row. And Navratilova’s record 74- match winning streak pales in comparison to Vergeer’s run.
Vergeer’s record is all the more remarkable for the fact that it occurred during a period of incredible growth in her sport. I spent a fair amount of time around the wheelchair game back when men like Brad Parks (the godfather of wheelchair tennis) and Randy Snow successfully fought to establish the game, and convince powers like the International Olympic Committee, the ITF, the ATP and WTA to embrace it. I quickly realized that one simple tweak - the ingenious two-bounce rule (in the wheelchair game, the point is still live after the second bounce — but not the third) — truly made tennis a viable, competitive sport for those confined to a chair.
When you also factor in the degree to which so much in tennis depends on your strength of mind and will, Vergeer’s resume seems even more remarkable. She may have lost the use of her legs at age eight (the result of a surgery on the blood vessels around her spine), but her brain and emotions are just like yours and mine. At that’s what makes her so special.
"To be honest, I don't really know or remember what it feels like losing in singles," Vergeer said at the press conference where she announced her retirement. "I know what it's like to lose a Monopoly game and I don't like it.”
Money Talks, But Who’s Listening?
“Someone like Larry Ellison wants to invest into his event and make it the biggest possible, and he gets stopped by the ATP. If you’re a start-up, what would make you want to navigate through that and to go through that firing line? How can you step into tennis with any confidence? It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” — Andy Roddick, on the controversy over a proposed prize money increase at the Indian Wells Masters 1000.
Roddick made those remarks at a charity event a few days ago, referring to an ongoing prize-money controversy that has generated a lot of smoke and noise in the wake of a seemingly strange decision by the ATP board of directors.
Back in December, the board found itself deadlocked over what seemed like an unexpected windfall for players — an $800,000 increase for men’s prize money at Indian Wells. That represents a hefty 29 percent increase over the prize money level of 2012 ($5.5 million, but half of that was for the WTA pros under the equal prize money regimen).
According to the latest communique for the ATP, the problem appears to be that the tournament wants to bestow the additional remuneration (on players in the first three rounds of play) in an 82-18 percent split between, respectively, singles and doubles. But the ATP is philosophically wedded to an 80-20 split between singles and doubles — even though the long-standing dream of greater doubles participation by singles stars seems to have evaporated.
The difference in question seems relatively small, and that’s where — things get fishy — and make you wonder how much more there is to this story. Quite a bit, it turns out. The initial vote on the Indian Wells increase last December produced a deadlock because the three tournament representatives all voted against the increase, while the three player reps voted for it (ATP CEO Brad Drewett abstained).
Why would the tournament directors be against an increase at Indian Wells? Because it would up the ante on them, just as the Australian Open recently upped the ante for the other Grand Slam events with significant prize-money and perks increases. And just as the other majors can cry foul because of the Australian Open’s easy access to government money, the other ATP Tour events can claim that they’re at an enormous disadvantage trying to compete with Larry Ellison, the owner of Indian Wells — and the sixth richest man on earth.
“Their vote is purely political and we are appalled,” Moore told Tennis.com a few days ago, referring to the tournament directors. “They don’t want to see another tournament out-distancing them and that’s as clear as the nose on my face. . . the European tournaments don’t want to see us progressing beyond what they can do. It’s totally anti-competitive.”
In 2012, Indian Wells offered $5.5 million, more prize money than any other North American Masters Series tournament (its nearest rival was Miami, with $4.8 million). Of the three Masters Series tournaments in Europe — Madrid, Rome and Paris/Bercy — Madrid came the closest to being competitive with Indian Wells, but it was still a hefty $1.6 behind.
Roger Federer has written to Drewett, criticizing the stance of the tournament representatives. Meanwhile, Moore has said that if the ATP Board won’t approve the increase, Indian Wells would return to the 2011 level of compensation — which was a cool $1 million less than last year’s allotment.
Locking the Rules
“Our supervisors always review various rules-related situations after each tournament. . .WTA management is in the process of reviewing our medical time-out rule, and based upon this review we will determine if any rule changes are warranted (any rule change would take effect in 2014 and would be decided upon around U.S. Open time frame).” — Andrew Walker, a WTA spokesperson.
Every tennis fan on the planet knows what this welcome news is all about, the real question is whether the WTA is just trying to practice damage control, knowing that the events at the upcoming Grand Slam events are likely to so overshadow what happened at the last one that by mid-year nobody will care.
The “last one” was the Australian Open, where WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka took an extended medical time-out while leading American upstart and ingénue Sloane Stephens 6-1, 5-4 in their semifinal.
At the time Azarenka called time, she was choking like mad. She had blown a number of match points and lost serve to allow Stephens back into the set at 4-5, with serve to come. During the ensuing 10-minute break, while a doctor somewhere deep in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena determined that Azarenka had a locked rib in addition to a locked wind pipe, Stephens just sat in her chair. She was probably wondering what the heck was going on and she found out soon enough. Returning to the court, a newly composed Azarenka broke Stephens to win it, 6-1, 6-4.
I hope this review is undertaken, and in good faith. But I’m not so sure this was a “rules” problem (although I think the medical timeout rules are a travesty) as much as a rule enforcement problem. Azarenka took 10 minutes, while under the rules she was entitled to only six, and even that would have been a combination of two timeouts in the event that he had two different injuries. I don’t doubt that a “locked rib” (that was the post facto diagnosis) can be painful, but I’m not even sure it qualifies as an injury, any more than does a case of cramps.
The abuse of medical time-outs is likely to become a persistent problem unless the rules are tightened up (remember the pre-toilet break days? What, did everyone someone develop the bladder of a 60-year old?). I think a player ought to get a brief (three-minute?) time-out, which would include an on-court consultation with a doctor or trainer, after which the player ought to either go on, retire, or face a series of point and game penalties based on the time he or she is eating up.
And when these time-outs are taken after, say, six games have gone by in any given set, perhaps the rules ought to be even more restrictive.