With not much happening on the court, but a lot happening in the news, this seems like a good week to keep up with the tabs, as well as their more respected colleagues in the sports media. Here’s a rundown of who’s saying what in the press.
“Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are”
That’s the message that Martina Navratilova has for other gay athletes in a piece for SI.com, now that the NBA's Jason Collins has broken the male team-sports barrier. Collins’ story has its share of tennis connections, including a longtime friendship between Jason and his twin brother, Jarron, and their fellow twins and Stanford grads, Bob and Mike Bryan. But it’s Navratilova who is perhaps the closest antecedent to Collins anywhere, an athlete who came out when she was still active, and when it carried real risk. At the time Navratilova did it, in conservative 1981, she and the WTA were losing sponsors because of the issue.
So why haven’t any male tennis players come out, come out, wherever they are? That’s the question that Doug Robson of USA Today asks a dozen or so people who are involved in the sport. The answer? It can be summed up in the response from Navratilova herself: “I don’t know.”
Just about everyone is stumped. “There’s got to be someone who plays tennis who is gay,” Sam Querrey says, sounding almost desperate to unearth one.
Robson says that in theory the sport wouldn’t seem to pose any special obstacles. “Players are independent contractors that control their own destiny,” he writes. “They do not rely on teammates. General managers or coaches cannot thwart or threaten playing time. It is non-contact. They face no external forces except the opponent on the other side of the net.”
Among the speculative reasons: Fear of losing sponsorships, anxiety about life in the locker room, and a lack of general mixing between players from different countries, which might not foster trust.
MURRAY IN A BLOODY FURY
That’s how the The Sun describes the current mood of the British No. 1.
“Andy Murray,” as the paper tells us, “blasted a Spanish judge’s decision to destroy over 200 blood samples.”
Muzz was so riled up that he did something completely out of character: He went on Twitter. Yesterday Murray tweeted: “Operation Puerto case is beyond a joke...biggest cover-up in sports history? Why would a court order blood bags to be destroyed? #coverup
This, after seven years, is how the Puerto case would seem to end. Despite a guilty verdict (and a suspended sentence) for Spain’s Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes for his involvement in the doping activities of 35 athletes from various countries (including tennis players), judge Julia Santamaria “rejected appeals from anti-doping authorities to analyze the 211 blood bags [retrieved from Fuentes].”
Murray wasn’t the only one screaming bloody murder. Cyclist Jesus Manzano, who gave evidence in the trial, said, “It’s shameful.” Dick Pound, former head of WADA, said, “It’s embarrassing for Spain.” His old organization will likely appeal.
It is embarrassing for Spain, and even more remarkable to be reminded that in 2006, when the Puerto raid took place, doping wasn’t illegal in that country.
When Murray's fury subsides, he’ll likely drag himself back to a clay court this week. He’s been spending a lot of time with his coach, Ivan Lendl, trying to remake his game for the surface. After crashing out early in Monte Carlo, Murray and his team hung around the Principality for an extra week to max out on clay practice.
What does Murray need to do differently, according to Lendl? The London papers are on the case.
As Malcolm Folley puts it in the Daily Mail, “Lendl and Dani Vallverdu, a long-time hitting partner and friend of Murray, will be on court with the British star each morning to encourage him to strike heavier shots and glide with greater fluidity across the surface.”
Lendl tells Simon Briggs of the Daily Telegraph that Murray needs more time and a “volume” of hitting sessions to get his game re-arranged. “What happens,” Lendl says, “is that since he hasn’t had enough time, he hits some shots then misses some shots and a plays a bad game. Then he gets disappointed with himself and has trouble overcoming that.”
You think so?
Briggs has his own, not uninteresting, theory on the dirty version of Murray. “Playing on clay is almost a different sport,” Briggs writes, “not just because of the slippery surface, but because of the slow, vertical bounce, which forces players to generate their own pace. It’s an awkward conundrum for Murray, who grew up using his deft hands to deflect the ball on fast indoor courts in Scotland.”
Clay remains an uphill slog for Murray, but I’m looking forward to seeing the results of his work with Lendl, a three-time winner at Roland Garros. So far he’s helped make Murray better everywhere else.
If a Golden Age Happens and No One is There to Mention It...
Last week SI.com’s Bruce Jenkins hit on a topic that has bothered me for, I don’t know, at least 20 years: Why, since ESPN pays to show a fair amount of tennis over the course of the year, doesn't the network cover it?
Jenkins, in a post entitled, “ATP has plenty to offer in clay buildup, but is anybody watching?” talked about how a dream final was played between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal last weekend in Monte Carlo, and yet he was stuck with no way to see it, because he doesn’t get the Tennis Channel. When Jenkins looked for highlights or descriptions of the match later, he found virtually no mention on SportsCenter that it had even been played.
“What does it mean to be a devoted tennis fan these days?” Jenkins asked, forlornly. “I feel like we're all a bunch of smokers, huddled in a small room where we won't bother any of the normal people. It's downright uncool these days to generate real passion for any important stop on either tour. Like, ‘Really? You don't have anything better to do?’”
Ten years ago or so, ESPN largely bailed on broadcasting Masters Series events; the network said it couldn’t sell ads for them, so it (successfully) went after the Grand Slams instead (it has since brought back some Masters coverage). But Jenkins’ point about the lack of news coverage on the sport is well taken: If ESPN is going to devote as many hours as it does to showing all four of the majors, and a portion of the U.S. Masters, why not report on it, at least to let people know that the game exists?
The only ESPN news show I watch is Pardon the Interruption, hosted by two veteran writers, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, each of whom covered tennis fairly extensively in print in the past—Wilbon played the sport as a kid, and Kornheiser did a classic profile of Arthur Ashe for Sport magazine in the 1970s. Yet their mentions of tennis have gone from slim to very nearly none over the last three years. What we call a Golden Age in tennis has been ignored everywhere else in the U.S. media.
At moments like this, I remember a trip I took years ago to Montreal, to see the women’s event there. One night, I turned on the Canadian version of SportsCenter. In its opening montage, tennis players were shown in action, right alongside football players, soccer players, baseball players, and basketball players. I was gobsmacked. That was all it took to make tennis look like a much bigger deal in the sports world. A-Rod (Andy Roddick) was right at home next to A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez); tennis players, it was obvious to see, were real athletes.
ESPN will say that it gives sports fans what they want, but I’ve always believed that the reverse is also true, that sports fans learn what they want from the major sports media. If ESPN signals that something is important, fans will believe that it’s important. Part of the reason tennis had a more mainstream following in the 1970s was the simple fact that Sports Illustrated, the worldwide leader in the sports press at the time, featured it on its covers. ESPN, from what I've been told, is waiting for a new American star before it commits to promoting tennis more. But what would it cost simply to cover it as if it’s a real sport?