Here’s the Beef, Part I

Tuesday, October 08, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

What fun would it be working as the proverbial “ink-stained wretch” if the job didn’t give you the opportunity, every once in a while, to sound off about whatever is bugging you? This becomes an even more valuable opportunity as you drift into that age when the label “curmudgeon” actually feels like an honorific.

Thus, we have the journalism of disgruntlement or, if you prefer the more vulgar description, the “pet peeves” column. It’s the art of sounding off, and you can call it the literature of complaint, which may not be all that attractive, but it often blows against the empire, which is. 

So today and again on Thursday I’m going to get a few things off my chest. Today I’ll look at three more-or-less “serious” issues, and save the more playful stuff for next time. Let’s take them in order of importance, starting with the greatest:

1. Injury timeouts: The cat is probably out of the bag on this one, and it’s too bad. For if the tours eliminated injury timeouts going forward you can bet someone will do him/herself serious damage for lack of care. Yet for the longest time—well into the Open era—players didn’t have the luxury of taking what has become a long, and often suspiciously convenient, break in the middle of a match. 

Two recent injury timeouts illustrate why I think the approach embraced by the ATP and WTA stinks. In the Beijing final on Sunday, Serena Williams seemed to be in significant pain early in the second set; it appeared to be a back problem that forced tears out of her tightly shut eyes.

Yet it was Jelena Jankovic, who didn’t seem at all hampered to that point, who called for what would become a six-minute injury timeout just moments later. Knowing how easily a back stiffens up, you could see where a rival might be tempted to exploit Williams’ discomfort by forcing a delay.

I don’t want to accuse Jankovic of faking her injury; perhaps it was all a weird, coincidental double-injury. And it’s certainly true that Williams’ game only improved as a result of the interval, while Jankovic was immediately broken when she returned. But had it worked out the other, more likely way, you can bet it would have been a major scandal.

Let’s be real here. It can’t be possible that no player ever had to use the bathroom during a match until the embrace—and now, exploitation—of the break rule. Players react to rules like water to a container; no matter what the shape, the liquid will find a way to conform to it and fill it. Once injury timeouts became a feature of the game, players started folding up like Napoleon’s soldiers on the plains at Waterloo.

Here’s an even better example of injury-timeout abuse: In Montreal a few months ago, Milos Raonic met Juan Martin del Potro in a third-round match. After the changeover with Raonic leading 2-1, the pride of Thornhill, Ontario didn’t get up from his chair. Instead, he called the trainer who then gave him what could only be called an on-court massage. By the time Raonic was ready to play again, 10 minutes had elapsed. Raonic then broke del Potro to go up 3-1, and he went on to win the match.

Tennis Channel’s Robbie Koenig tweeted his outrage as all this unfolded, and rightly so. What’s a guy doing getting a massage during a match? Here too, it would be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle. Perhaps the best solution would be for all the players to embrace this new attitude and ethos; then at least everyone would be able to take a nice long break or two during a match, and it would all even out in the end.

But until that time comes, I still say that the current system is really unfair to those players whose ethics forbid them to take advantage of injury timeout and bathroom-break rules. So scale it back. Allow the players one three-minute visit with an attending physician and/or trainer per set—at most. Allow a trainer to do some light work (like taping) if necessary, but that too ought to be accomplished in the short window. Then the player should have to decide whether to go on, or retire.  

2. Sideline sideshows: Even when I’m sitting alone in my living room, clicker in hand, I feel almost embarrassed watching some guy yelling at his daughter in a language neither I nor the vast majority of viewers understand. 

He’s gesticulating wildly and she’s staring off into space, stony-faced, taking small sips from a water bottle. Exactly how does that make the viewing experience better? Where’s the entertainment value when it’s a not a conversation but a monologue worthy of Samuel Beckett, and one that perhaps two percent of the viewership can understand? 

It’s almost as bad when the star of the televised WTA on-court coaching interval isn’t blood kin to the player, but just a hired gun who’s dropping obvious platitudes: “You have to hang in there!” “You have to go for it!” “Get that first serve in now.” “Don’t lose concentration!”

I listen and am moved to ask myself, “And he gets paid for this?”

The funny thing about televised on-court coaching is that it tends to take away far more than it provides. For what coach in his right mind is going to reveal real nuggets of strategy or tactics for all the world—including his player’s next potential opponent—to hear? There’s a reason most decent journalists know better than to ask players what their strategies or tactics will be in their next matches. 

I don’t like on-court coaching in any way shape or form. But if you’re going to allow it, at least save the players, coaches—and us—the painful experience of televising something that shouldn’t be trotted out in the public eye. What’s next, televised bathroom breaks?

3. Conflicting stat formats: The enormous drive toward standardization in the game, combined with the dramatic growth of content delivery platforms, has left us with a need—and currently, a lack—of a coherent match-stats regimen. Right now, you don’t know from day-to-day if the stat sheet will include winners or not, or if it will give you a net-points won category. 

Stats are sometimes surprisingly inaccurate, but that comes with the territory in all sports. But the stats package should at least be uniform, and standardized at a baseline level that includes all the critical categories (winners, unforced errors, etc.). The Grand Slams are terrific at providing a really detailed statistical breakdown for every match. But while it’s nice to distinguish forehand winners from backhand winners, it isn’t critical. A standard, basic “official” stat sheet is. The ATP and WTA ought to get together, create one, and require all tournaments (and broadcasters) to use it. 


Thursday: Why I hate three-count chants (“Ole, Ole, Ole”) and other really petty but real beefs.

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