It’s a classic 2013 paradox: Even as we talk about the death of print and the decline of journalism as a money-making venture, the web has allowed for more valuable articles about niche sports like tennis to be published than ever before. The two weeks of the U.S. Open were a prime example. Granted, those are virtually the only two weeks of the year when tennis is seen as worthy of mainstream media attention in the United States; but this Open inspired more than its share of good reads. There were profiles of Li Na in the New York Times and Novak Djokovic in the New Yorker; a daily diet of enterprise pieces on the websites of the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today; and columns in new, hipster, web-only locales like Grantland, Sports on Earth, and For the Win. The majority of that information and perspective never would have been published before the Internet...destroyed the journalism business.
Anyway, it’s been a a while since I kept tabs on the tennis media. Here’s a look at a few of the stories that have come up since the Open, and a glance back at a couple that may have been overlooked amidst all of the action in New York.
Diary of a Mad Family
By now you’ve probably heard about the journals of Thomas Drouet, hitting partner to Bernard Tomic, that were published over the weekend by News.com.au. Judging from earlier reactions, I had expected them to reveal Bernie’s father, John, as a tennis parent of monstrous proportions. And they do: John comes across as unpredictable, cheap, highly irascible, and occasionally dangerous. But most of that we knew, right? What I found more interesting was that, in the relationship, it seems that Bernie gives as good as he gets. John bullies Bernie, but Bernie turns around and makes John cry, too. “Dysfunctional” is an understatement, and it’s hard to see Bernie succeeding until he leaves this chaotic atmosphere behind. As Drouet writes, it was no coincidence that the week Tomic recorded a straight-set win over Novak Djokovic at Hopman Cup last year, John wasn’t around.
—Now we know why Tomic never does anything after the Australian swing, and it doesn’t sound like it has much to do with his Dad. Drouet says Bernie partied himself out of shape this year after Melbourne, to the point where the Frenchman barely recognized the Aussie when he showed up in Europe a few days before Rotterdam. “He’s a like a zombie,” Drouet writes of Tomic as he futilely attempts to run.
—Drouet says that Tomic sneaks out of his hotel room at night to see friends. That’s bad for his game, of course, but I definitely got a laugh out of Bernie’s reaction when Drouet knocks on his door one morning to get him up for practice:
“F---k off,” Bernie yells from his bed. Sounds sort of like...a 20-year-old.
Silence Isn’t Golden
NINE MONTHS IS NOT ENOUGH! CILIC DRUGS BAN WILL NOT DETER OTHER CHEATS IN TENNIS
That’s the headline above Mike Dickson’s article about Marin Cilic in the Mail today. This week Cilic was suspended for nine months, backdated to the day he tested positive, for accidentally ingesting the banned stimulant Nikethamide.
Cilic was given a “silent ban” from the tour, starting at Wimbledon, while his case was decided. He pulled out of that event citing an injury and basically disappeared for four months. I understand the reason for not announcing positive tests until guilt or innocence has been established. But, as Dickson writes, the fact that we know he served a silent ban leaves fans wondering whether we can trust any injury announcement in the future. Cilic’s nine-month suspension ends in January; he has already been serving it, on the not-so-down-low, since Wimbledon. Wouldn’t it be better to have the player serve all of that time after the announcement is made? The one thing worse for a sport’s reputation than a positive drug test is the suspicion that authorities are covering others up.
As for whether Cilic’s ban is long enough, a year seemed fair to me. But even nine months is a significant chunk of time for a player to be on the sidelines for what the ITF agrees was an accidental offense. Two years is the standard ban for a first positive test, and that’s fair if it’s shown that the player did it for the purposes of cheating. But from what I can tell, athletes don’t dope because they think, “I’ll only have to serve nine months instead of two years if I get busted for this.” They dope because they think they won’t get caught at all. Keep testing, keep announcing, keep suspending, keep doing more.
Gaming the System
From crime to misdemeanors. During the Open, Doug Robson of USA Today had an entertaining piece on gamesmanship at the pro level, the little things that players do to get in their opponent’s heads or gain a small and possibly illegal advantage.
Timeouts, towel offs, and Stepanek-esque provocations are covered. What was most interesting to me, though, was a statement by the player Eric Butorac about why it’s virtually impossible to keep MTOs from happening, even if everyone agrees that some of them are bogus:
“Players acknowledge that umpires are in a tough spot,” Robson writes. “While the tours have cracked down on between-point time violations with stricter enforcement, refusing a player an injury timeout or bathroom break is a nuanced and potentially dangerous call.
“'If a guy is tired or cramping, as a spectator you’re like, no way he should get a break,' says doubles specialist and ATP Player Council member Eric Butorac. 'But for a medical professional, if you say you’re not injured and you actually are, you’re liable to get sued.'”
In other words, players don’t “call” for a medical timeout, they have to be granted one by a doctor on the sidelines. The players do seem to have pushed the line as to what they believe constitutes an injury, and they can do that because, as Butorac says, doctors will always err on the side of caution. Is there a solution to this, aside from having no timeouts, no trainers, no doctors, at all? That's not a ridiculous proposition, in my opinion, but are things that bad right now?
Keeping it Unboring
Before there was Ernests Gulbis, there was Dmitry Tursunov. After becoming briefly famous for writing a cynically witty blog on the ATP's website five or six years ago, his ranking fell and his media profile fell with it. But the Russian is playing good tennis again, and getting interviewed as well. At the Open, he did one with Tennis Now which should have made Ernie proud. Below are Tursunov's remarks on Rafael Nadal’s comeback. I reprint them here without further comment, except to say that it's interesting to hear a fellow player's seemingly unguarded but thoughtful reaction to Rafa's success:
TN: Does it surprise you that Rafa Nadal has been able to have one of the best seasons of his career after being off the court for seven months?
Tursunov: It’s a tough topic because a lot of people insinuate that he’s not just taking Flintstones to play so well. We all have to do something a little extra because we have to maintain the level we need to compete. I’m not talking about something illegal or something hard-core. I don’t know, maybe he does have butt implants. That seems to be the topic of the locker room (laughs).
I think he’s definitely exceptional in a lot of ways. Mentally, he’s able to focus in a way that not a lot of people are able to. I think he loves just the grind of it. He loves the challenge of it. I’m not the person who likes to go out and compete for the hell of it. I’d rather go lay on a couch somewhere. Rafa is able to focus, not to win the tournament and say, like, “Holy crap, I did such a good job! Let’s go party somewhere in Mallorca and Ibiza!” He wins the French Open and the next day he’s practicing for two hours in Queens. I’m sure he takes certain steps to give himself the best chance to get there, whether it’s taking Flintstones or eating correctly. It’s a little bit unfair from our side to say, “For sure, this guy is juicing,” because in our minds, we’d rather believe he’s doing a quick fix instead of believing he works for seven hours like a horse to get there.