What should we make of this month's coaching carousel? How much stock should we buy in IPTL? Welcome to The Rally, off-season edition. Freelance writer Kamakshi Tandon and I discuss a supposedly slow month in tennis.
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The Rally: Off-Season? What Off-Season?
Discussing December's coaching carousel, pros & cons of IPTL.
Published Dec 18, 2014
There hasn't been much off in this off-season, you said to me last week, and you were right; it seems to be getting less "off" every day. Between the IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) team exhibitions in Asia and the high-profile super-coach appointments for 2015, the players have given us plenty to see, and talk about, so far in December. And now the ATP has announced a big increase in prize money at Masters events, a smaller increase at 250s, but no increase at the minor-league Challenger level. I'm guessing you'll have something to say about that last development.
I'll start with the first two items above.
What did you think of the IPTL, now that's it three-week run is over? It obviously started strong and made an impressive splash. All of those star-studded selfies and we're-all-one-big-happy-family photos were fun to see on Twitter for a week or so. And the idea behind IPTL is a laudable one; I've always thought team tennis, where the sport can market the men and women together, is the game's Holy Grail. But Holy Grails have a way of staying just out of reach. At a certain point I stopped looking at the selfies and the promo photos, and I never started paying attention to the matches themselves—but then again, I was on the other side of the planet. For now, IPTL seems like a great way to serve an Asian audience that doesn't get much live tennis. But do you see it becoming more than that, or affecting the way the rest of the tour is run?
Which of the coaching changes intrigues you the most? There have been so many I'm not sure I've got them all straight. Simona Halep dropped Wim Fissette, who was briefly hired by Madison Keys, before Keys decided to go with Lindsay Davenport and her husband, Jonathan Leach. Genie Bouchard dropped Nick Saviano, who may or may not be working with Sloane Stephens going forward. Aga Radwanska hired Martina Navratilova. Andy Murray stuck with Amelie Mauresmo, and split with two longtime members of his team; Tomas Berdych then picked up one of his exes, Dani Vallverdu, as his own coach. And John Isner hired Justin Gimelstob; apparently he’s decided to go with a super friend rather than a super coach.
The Keys and Radwanska situations are interesting for opposite reasons: Keys and Davenport play similar power-baseline games, while Radwanska and Navratilova play very different styles. Martina, as you can hear in her commentating, knows the sport well, but can she fit her attacking vision into Radwanska's defensive game? Along those lines, it will be interesting to see if Gimelstob can translate his own commentator's-booth knowledge of the current players into real success for Isner. Finally, now we'll see just what Vallverdu offered to Murray: I'm thinking he'll have something to prove after getting bumped for Amelie Mauresmo.
Whatever happens, there will be a lot to watch as the new season begins next month.
I guess you could say the 'off' off-season started this week, but seeing as I'm already antsy about the lack of happenings, perhaps it's just as well we have more things to fill the break.
I didn't watch much of the IPTL since it wasn't on regular television, but must tip my hat to the organizers and Mahesh Bhupathi—they turned all the talk into something quite concrete. Players were signed, team buyers obtained (not necessarily in that order), tickets peddled, sponsors found, television broadcasts arranged—a lot of it only coming together just before the league began. There's a good climate for starting sports events in Asia, but still, it's quite an accomplishment to put together and more or less pull off something like this.
Having said that, I'm adamant that leagues like IPTL don’t have a shot at being widely followed as long as they insist on a lack of traditional scoring. People still don't get match tiebreaks—I hear murmurs in the stands as a doubles breaker reaches 7-3. It makes matches tough to follow for those who already watch tennis, and for all the bluster about bringing new people to the game, the existing base is the easiest, most natural and likely the biggest potential following for these leagues. Even if matches need to be condensed, it should be done in a way that is almost instantly recognizable to tennis viewers.
Moving to the other off-season activity, changing coaches, I agree that Radwanska-Navratilova is one of the most interesting combinations. Navratilova is so observant and tactically astute, I think she'll be able to tell Radwanska a lot about how to use all of those shots of hers, and presumably want to add some much-needed aggression to Aga's game. The Keys-Davenport pairing seems, as you say, a natural fit, so I'd expect it to work well. But at this stage of her career, Keys might be more in need of an experienced day-to-day coach than a former champ for selected weeks of the year.
As for Isner-Gimelstob, let's call it the Djokovic-Becker of this season, but whatever I would say about Gimelstob—and that's a lot—he is decent at tennis analysis. If I recall, he has a pretty simple view of how Isner should play—big first delivery, big second delivery, big forehand—and his m.p.h.-centered approach could help Isner keep it together. Whether that's enough for having Gimelstob on the practice courts, courtside and elsewhere, is something only Isner can decide. I see you, John, I wouldn't want to be you.
So stepping back a bit, Steve, I'd like to ask whether you think the IPTL will have any effect on the regular tour, or its prize money, and whether you see the champs-turned-coaches as just a phase or something that will become a permanent feature of the tour. It will be interesting to see if either has a sustained impact.
"See you, wouldn't want to be you"—I like your blast-from-playgrounds-past phrasing.
I agree about IPTL’s scoring. I do think fans want to come and watch the sport as they know it. The traditional scoring system and terminology may be weird and old, but the sport’s followers presumably understand it and aren’t put off by it. I've always thought Hopman Cup offered a solid, easily understood evening of team tennis—one men's singles match, one women's singles match, and a mixed-doubles match, all with regulation scoring.
Where does IPTL go from here, you ask? One possible problem is that, even at three weeks, it seemed a little long for pros who have just come off 11 months of the tour. I started to read some tweets at the end mentioning how the players were getting burnt out after that much time on the road with each other—I guess having teammates can be a blessing and a curse, and there are only so many times you can grin for a camera-phone.
What I like about IPTL is how it takes advantage of tennis' combined male-female star power—it's perfect for the social-media era. What I don't like is that it brings back the specter of the exhibition tour, something that's very tempting for players and their agents, but which seriously undermined the men's game in the 1980s. If IPTL grows, and its prize money grows with it, do the ATP's 250s suffer?
On the plus side, the league drew attention to the big markets not being fully served by the tours. India and the Philippines, in particular, have serious tennis followings. But is sticking a tournament or two in each country the only way to take advantage of that?
OK, as far as coaching goes, you have allayed my concerns about Radwanska and Navratilova. Martina will know shot selection, and hopefully will have the patience to work within Aga's game. Do you know why Martina hasn't coached before? I assumed she just didn't want the hassle/pressure, or she would have done it by now. Or maybe she's been inspired by the success of her fellow supercoaches.
The latest news is that Berdych has hired Murray's old friend, Vallerdu. I guess if you can't get a supercoach—Berdych wanted Ivan Lendl—you take someone who worked under him. I was as skeptical as anyone about ex-champs as coaches: The stereotype is that the best players don't make good mentors—they never had to study the game, they don't have the patience for anyone who can't do it easily, and since they don't need the money, they're not going to put everything they have into it. That has held true across all sports, until this latest development in tennis. It's an interesting new twist on the coach/athlete relationship, and I wonder if it will spread to other sports.
On the one hand, it shows that the top players now are paid well enough that they can afford a team of coaches, with a legend serving as the supervisor/global thinker—in Severin Luthi and Marian Vajda, Federer and Djokovic each have full-time back-ups to Edberg and Becker. But it also shows that the top players need inspiration more than anything else. They need someone to look up to, someone to impress; I think one thing that drove Murray was the simple desire not to embarrass Lendl.
We'll see how long it lasts; I don't see Becker, Edberg, or Navratilova making second, full-time careers out of it. There are only so many legends to go around, right?
I only meant I can see what Isner might be doing, but can't say I would do the same. To borrow another playground phrase, whatever is done bounces off the coach and sticks to the player....
As for the IPTL, you're right to ask whether holding tournaments or tournament-type events is the right way to satisfy the demand for tennis in such locations. I would say no, not primarily, but at the same time the reception Federer got—like the reception he and then Nadal and Djokovic got in South America the previous two years—suggests there is something to be said about the big names playing non-regular locations once in a while.
There were some interesting comments by Gilbert Ysern of the French federation, saying that IPTL and similar events were damaging the smaller tournaments because top players are playing them instead—they pay more, and they're less work. And they can afford to do that because they only have to pay the names to show up, with none of the expenses of having several rounds and all the other things that go along with holding a proper event. That might be one of the best reasons for backing sanctioned tournaments—they contribute to having the infrastructure of a pro circuit, while the others don't.
Having said that, it doesn't mean there's no room for some offseason entertainment, for players and spectators. I enjoyed this story from Sania Mriza, writing in one of the Indian publications—
“What was remarkable about Roger was his awareness of the unique rules and conditions of the International Premier Tennis League and his eagerness to use these to the team's advantage. When Ana Ivanovic was struggling with her timing in the final set against the Singapore Slammers, it was Roger who suggested [a break] then made us put our hands on her racket ‘to give Ana the combined energy of the team.’ It seemed to work perfectly as the talented Serb won with some inspired tennis.”
I can just see the players start lining up at tournaments to have Federer touch their racquets. I know I'd play better.
But I'd also contrast this with the Davis Cup final just a couple of weeks before—that supposedly dated, unorganized, unsuited-to-today's-game competition, which nevertheless drew a chanting, cheering crowd of 27,482 people and had the players wanting so much to win.
The IPTL and Davis Cup should be looking at each other, perhaps, and asking how they can get what the other has.
Hmmm, now maybe we're on to something. A big complaint about Davis Cup and Fed Cup is that they're too staggered and don't have seasons. IPTL has just shown us what one of those seasons might look like.
Thanks for the chat, and see you in the new season.