Birds of a Feather?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

One of the more interesting aspects of tennis today is that Roger Federer and Serena Williams are rarely spoken of together, and from what I’ve experienced, neither speaks very much about the other, either.

But here we are, each of them 31 years of age, with Serena trailing Roger by just one Grand Slam title in the overall count (17-16), even though Federer has an enormous lead in career titles, 77 to 52. Indisputably, both are on the three-or-four player list of candidates for Greatest of All Time honors. And for this week at least, Roger and Serena seem more like birds of a feather, as both are playing in lesser tournaments, the kind with which they rarely bother at this stage of their careers.

Each of them also is said to be receiving a king’s ransom in over-the-table/under-the-table appearance money in Hamburg, Germany (Federer) and Bastad, Sweden (Williams). This has become a common as well as permissible (if rarely emphasized) practice on both tours. Appearance fees, or guarantees, were once highly controversial. That was because, right or wrong and good or bad for the game, they were “officially” prohibited.

Of course, players routinely flaunted the rules of their respective associations because the opportunities (payouts) were just too big to pass up. Top players in particular felt that appearance money was something they had earned a right to take, based on their résumés and the value they brought to tournaments.

Now that both tours have set up a legitimate structure for paying appearance money at smaller tournaments (if you want to get deeply into the weeds on this, peruse the ATP and WTA rulebooks) the issue has simply gone away. Critics who once thought appearance money despoiled the very soul of this prize-money based sport and decried it have shrugged and walked away.

As well, we have had no recent outcries over guarantee-linked tanking. In the past, players sometimes did take guarantees, only to go through the motions for a match or two before skipping town with the booty. This is either a tribute to the value of ranking points in this hyper-competitive era, or to improved professionalism and the ethics of the players.

But while Federer and Williams are allegedly pulling down sizable guarantees (probably for more money than the bulk of players in the Top 100 on either tour earn in prize-money for the year), they both have good reasons for playing this week on clay. They both may want to wash out the bad taste left in their mouths by Wimbledon.

Federer, the top seed in the Hamburg ATP 500, lost in the second round at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky. In his press conference immediately after that match, he said the first thing he would do is “not panic.” Yet in language that curiously distanced himself from, well, himself, Federer said to reporters in Hamburg: “I think this decision was made very quickly the day after Wimbledon.”

Panic? Not exactly. It was like recognition that his grand plan for this year, and perhaps the immediately ensuing ones, needed some tweaking. Federer has really pared down his schedule this year, but in doing so he’s put a lot of pressure on himself to go deep into tournaments when he does play.

The second round loss at Wimbledon was unexpected, and particularly damaging to Federer’s ranking. Defending 2,000 points, he had to settle for 45, and promptly dropped from No. 3 to No. 5 in the rankings. That underscored the dilemma Federer faces as he seeks to play less, but still maintain his high ranking.

In entering Hamburg, Federer was going back to a well from which he drew up sweet wine plenty of times. He’s won the event four times, back when it was a Masters 1000 event and a considerably more difficult task. He’s had some terrific wins there, including his first-ever on clay over Rafael Nadal, and he’s likely to enjoy the change in conditions, from somber, cold and wet (when the tournament was part of the run-up to Roland Garros) to hot, dry and quick. And if he wins the event, the 500 ranking points will be considerably more than he would have earned with a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon (360 points), if not as much as a semi (720).

As Federer said, “I thought, what are my options now? Do I need more practice? Do I need more matches? What does my heart say? I really wanted to play some more matches.”

Williams isn’t quite a hard-pressed to rack up more ranking points. She’s No. 1, with a bigger lead—not to mention a 14-2 head-to-head advantage—over No. 2 Maria Sharapova. That lead is 2,425 points, the equivalent of a 2,000-point Grand Slam title and then some.

Williams’ decision to play Bastad worked out well for her following what had to be a stressful and ultimately unsuccessful Wimbledon, marred by controversy that must have been painful (since you’re visiting this site, I’m relieved to not have to go into the ugly details) as well as her fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki.

But also, one of the main underlying themes for Williams these days has been to wring all the success and fun possible out of her career now that she’s turned the corner into the home stretch. So why not go to a nice, low-key event by a beach in a nation you never visited before and get in a little practice for the hard-court season in the U.S.?

It my strike you as odd that Williams (like Federer) is playing a clay tournament between the grass-court major at Wimbledon and the beckoning hard courts, but when you consider how slow hard courts are nowadays, it makes a lot of sense. Sure, the footwork is different. But that factor is always overrated, or at the very least it looms larger in the minds of some players than others. Serena showed on Paris that she has no issues with clay, so her transition from red dirt to blue hard court ought to be a snap.

“I’ve always loved the clay,” she said today, after demolishing Sesil Karatancheva in her first-round match, 6-1, 6-2. “I always loved sliding and running on it. Maybe I didn’t always love playing so consistently—that’s something I’m doing a lot better at now, so I think that’s why this has become a much better surface for me. And hard courts are so slow these days, so this isn’t such bad preparation for the summer.”

Plus, the Swedes are apparently jumping out of their clogs at this chance to see a woman who’s already a living tennis icon, so why not feast on the praise—as well as the summery seaside atmosphere, some pickled herring, and Swedish meatballs, with a side of appearance money?

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