Monday, February 16, 2009

TO (NOT) PRESERVE THE UNION

A lot's been said about the UAE denying Shahar Pe'er a visa to play in the WTA event in Dubai, and more importantly, the inaction, acquiescence and disunity exhibited by the WTA and its players. I would love to see the "leaders" of the WTA (and by leaders, I mean its most prominent players) boycott the event. If they were really a player's association (of course it isn't) they would, but it isn't, so they won't, and what a shame that is. Long lost are the days when this was viewed as a players union.

When was the last time anyone in tennis took a stand in support of a player who'd been screwed? Guillermo Vilas was suspended for 12 months for taking an appearance fee in March of 1983 at the Rotterdam tournament - the very same tournament that Andy Murray just won this weekend. While many spoke out in support of him, not a single player on tour protested by boycotting anything in support of Vilas, even though they were all doing the same thing.

This is right about the time when money in tennis began to explode, with players easily eclipsing six-digits in prize money for the most lucrative titles.

The last time anybody on the ATP put up a fight on anyone's behalf was 1973 when Niki Pilic (former German Davis Cup captain and an early coach of Novak Djokovic) was banned from Wimbledon after refusing to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia. 81 of the top 128 players in the world boycotted Wimbledon that year, including the defending champion Stan Smith, who's probably about the nicest guy ever to play tennis (maybe him and Barry MacKay) and who probably cost himself a second Wimbledon title. Some pretty good players joined him, including Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson just to name a few. It could be argued that they did it for selfish reasons as well - I mean if Yugoslavia could do it to Pilic, who's to say Tennis Australia or the USLTA couldn't have done it to them as well? But somehow, after all those years playing professionally, or playing for daily allowances, I doubt their reasons were entirely ego-centric - not 81 players anyway.

Now that was a union.

And there were some ignominious absentees from the band of brothers who apparently didn't see it the way the aforementioned stalwarts did. Ilie Nastase, who probably needed the money for current or future alimony, an 18-year old Bjorn Borg who probably didn't give a hoot, and a 21-year Jimmy Connors, who definitely didn't give a hoot, all played that year - and perhaps poetically all lost. In any case, aside from Emerson, there's probably never been a player who has been so lowly regarded for winning Wimbledon as Jan KodeŇ°. A good player who never won another Slam in his career, Kodes, it's worth pointing out, probably couldn't have boycotted if he wanted, just 5 years removed from Russian tanks rolling through Prague and an oppressive regime tapping his phone lines and harassing him for his prize-money (and by harassing, I mean threatening him - furtively or otherwise).

Irony of ironies: Vijay Armitraj, one of the most successful Indian tennis players in history, played Wimbledon that year. He was just 20 years old, was an up-and-coming player, and lost in the quarterfinal to the eventual champion KodeŇ°, who was seeded 2nd - his highest ever seeding.

A year later, in 1974, as India was on the verge of its second Davis Cup final, their tennis federation forfeited the final against South Africa, in protest against apartheid. It remains the only time in the history of the cup that the final has been forfeited.

Armitraj was so upset with the federation that he threatened to quit Davis Cup altogether - he didn't, but had to wait another 13 years until 1987 before he participated in another final. By then, long past his prime, he lost 1 live rubber to Anders Jarryd and one dead rubber to Mats Wilander. Karma? Who knows...

By then Armitraj had refused several opportunities to play exhibitions in South Africa for political reasons, so it just goes to show you that sometimes, even a man with every reason to take a stand, who has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do so, can eventually come around. So while it may be stupefyingly naive of me to wish that tennis millionaires today would be willing to do the right thing and boycott Dubai, it is not without precedent.

Apparently the wealthy athletes of today, like many wealthy people in society, have no interest in preserving any union.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

NEW MONEY, SAME OLD PROBLEM

Recently Jelena Jankovic hit back at stinging criticism from Roger Federer on the state of rankings at the WTA. In essence, he repeated what most have said about Jankovic’s stint as the #1 player in the world – that it made no sense.

Jankovic was none too pleased, but a quick look at the distribution of points across categories of tournaments on both the WTA and the ATP tours demonstrates some very strange possibilities. Federer would do well to consider this the next time he chats with the ATP President, as he himself could wind up in the unenviable position of looking a bit silly for his ranking as well.

There are nine 1000 Series events, excluding the year end championships, on the ATP Tour, each of which is worth 1000 points to the winner. Each grand slam is worth 2000 points – 9000 vs. 8000 points – which means that a player could win the calendar slam, another could win every 1000 series event, and the winner of the calendar slam would have to find another 1000 points (all other things equal) to obtain the #1 ranking?

Huh?

That’s right – a guy could win 28 grand slam matches in a row, and still come out the wrong end of the rankings. What a nightmare that would be. Fair enough, the 1000 series sweep is an altogether less likely scenario than the calendar slam, but it reveals that the rankings are weighted towards the events that the ATP controls, and as such if the stars so aligned, we could see such a ridiculous scenario played out. You could argue that a player who wins all 9 MS events deserves to be #1, but would you feel that way if another player won the calendar slam?

Well, that's an unlikely scenario, so let's take it piece by piece – imagine a player wins two slams – 4000 points looks pretty good – but to overcome that (again all other things equal) you'd just have to win 3 1000 series titles (one more than did Djokovic and Murray last year) and two 500 series events (say Rotterdam and Indianapolis) and you'd have the exact same number of points as a winner of Wimbledon AND the US Open in the same year.

Now which record would you want for your favorite player?

You see, the tennis gods look favorably on the calendar slam – even half of it. Why? Because there’s continuity of purpose in the slams, and as such, you can gauge a player against the greats of the game a hell of a lot easier with slam results than a mish-mash of tournaments, the collection of which seems to change with the each year. The top 8 players don’t even play the same number of matches as the rest of the field in 1000 or 500 series tournaments, and although you’ve got more time to rest in between matches at slams, anyone who’s played a 5 set match will tell you that it’s always harder to come back from that than your average 3-setter.

Consider this other possibility – a player winning four 500 series tournaments (say, Rotterdam, Doha, Indianapolis and Barcelona) is adjudged the equal of the champion at Wimbledon – in ATP points that is. Any player with his head not on backwards would choose Wimbledon over the other events, so why don't the rankings reflect that.

Now let’s look at the women’s side.

The Wimbledon champion on the women’s side would earn fewer points than another player winning 3 non-mandatory Premier 5 tournaments (2000 vs. 2400 points) say, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow. So you don’t even have to win any tournaments where all the best players are required to participate, and you can earn the same number of points as one of the Williams sisters.

This is probably the area where Federer has a good point. It is altogether unlikely that a player who is capable of winning more than three 1000 series shields in a season doesn’t win at least on slam, but win 2 of them, and you’re on par with the US Open champion. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it has only happened because the slam winners tend to win 1000 series tournaments along the way. That’s a convenient coincidence, but a glaring anomaly in the making nonetheless.

Ivan Lendl was ranked #1 in 1983; he only reached two grand slam finals but racked up enough victories in tennis hotbeds like North Conway, New Hampshire and Naples, Italy to hold the top spot come Christmas. In his favor that year was that 4 different men won grand slams (Noah at the French, McEnroe at Wimbledon, Connors at the US Open and Wilander at the Australian). So the argument then with Lendl was the same as it is today with Jankovic; how can a guy/gal who can’t win a slam to save his/her life, be considered the best player in the world? It didn’t help that in 1983 he lost 4 out of 5 to McEnroe, 2 out of 4 to Wilander, 2 out of 4 to Connors and his one and only match to Noah - a collective 5 of 14 against the slam champions.

Fast forward, nip and tuck to the women's side, and we have our example in Jelena (Lendlova) Jankovic – last year she won Rome, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow (sound familiar?), had consistently (barely) above average results everywhere else, and so was ranked #1. But nobody – not even Jankovic, I suspect – sincerely believed she was the best player in the world – maybe the most consistent, but certainly not the best. Well, thankfully Serena has put that question off for a bit.

Jankovic won more points for any 3 of those tournaments than Sharapova did for winning in Melbourne, Ivanovic did for conquering Paris, Venus did for winning her fifth at the All England Club, and Serena Williams did for exorcising her small town blues at Flushing. Jankovic lost her only match to "I'm So Pretty", went 1-2 against Verdasco's ex-girlfriend, split 1-1 with the Fly Trap, and 1-2 to Serena, for a whopping 3 for 8 against the slam winners - ironically she lost in 3 of the 4 slams to the eventual champion, but still topped the table at the end of the season - this after losing in the semi-final of the year end championships.

The point distributions do not represent the historical or even current significance of tournaments. In order to encourage high profile players to play events that are essentially money-makers for the tour, they have to put a point value on them that will draw marquee players. But as soon as they do this the advantage goes to those who play more often, but not necessarily better, and that’s when the rankings begin to make little to no sense at all. So why do they want to draw players to these events? – I told you, that’s where the money is; new sponsors, new venues and a whole lot of NEW MONEY (in Beijing and Moscow, anyway).

The only solution is for the ATP and the WTA to admit that tradition counts in tennis and the only thing that everyone cares about equally is the slams. They could eat into the gravitas of the slams by keeping a more consistent year to year schedule and attaching some historical value to smaller events, but as long as money changes hands globally, new venues have cash to burn, and players have entourages to support, there’s little hope for a calendar or ranking system that make sense on both sides of the aisle any time soon.

Well, at least Jelena can always take Roger for a ride in the Porsche she won in Stuttgart – you can’t drive a ranking anyway.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

There can no longer be any doubt - he is the best player in the world today, he has been for the last 12 months, and it's likely that he will remain the best player in the world for the remainder of 2009. With his maiden victory at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal has shown that he may very well be chasing history of his own this year, with a calendar year Grand Slam - and it is likely to overshadaow that which has now become something of a distraction to that, which is Federer's pursuit of Pete Sampras' record 14 grand slams. For my money, it's now time to put aside the scrutiny and speculation on that.

In winning the Australian Open for the first time in his career, Nadal has now won 3 out of 4 slams, with only the US Open lacking in his cabinet. He also happens to have won 3 out of the last 4 grand slams, and bettered his initial results from 2009 by one better than his likely closest competitor. In the past, this part of the season for Nadal has focused on preparation for the clay court season, and a defense of (seemingly eternal) French Open crown, with a brief interlude for the two events at Indian Wells and Miami, which make absolutely no sense at all, but to which all players are obliged to make an appearance. Recall that last year he nearly won Miami, losing a strangely lobsided final against Davydenko, while the week previous lost a semi-final to Djokovic, who curiously is the only man to have beaten Nadal twice in 2008 (he did it again in Cincinnati before losing the final the Andy Murray).

This year, he'll be the favorite in those tournaments because of his results in Melbourne, but frankly, Nadal seems to have built the right to be considered the favorite in every match he plays because there are no longer any weaknesses or any holes in his game that anyone can find. What strikes the most about his victory in Australia is the manner in which it was won. Initially, he appeared to be having his way with a sub-par level of opponents, right up until the quarterfinal with Gonzalez, but even when facing the best losing performance of the tournament - a 95-winner slamfest from compatriot Verdasco, Nadal showed that his indominatable spirit would not be denied, as he put in a superior performance and most importantly with fewer errors and fewer aces to pad his numbers.

The final appeared to only be as close as it was because of the fatigue he must have felt from the 5-hour epic in the previous round. Even as his legs became wobbly, Nadal simply dug deeper than anyone else in the world could have, and went for broke. The fact is that when he had the chance to mentally check out, with a ready made excuse for losing, he chose to pull his socks up and go for broke over and over again. Whereas Federer, with ample opportunities to close out the first set, and the third, wilted under the pressure in a way we're more accustomed to seeing his opponents do against him.

But this is no ordinary opponent.

In the end, it was the most correct result possible, for if Nadal had lost the final, there would be an asterisk next to the loss due to the incredibly disproportionate scheduling that saw him play 24 hours after a 5 hour match. Thankfully that didn't happen, and clearly the best man won.

Although he will evade the question until the US Open, as he has craftily avoided the question of favorites and scheduling and everything else that could have derailed him today, it is not too early to begin to ask ourselves if this is the year that Nadal wins the calendar year Grand Slam. Defending his title in France will not be easy, but the unusually long break between the Australian Open and the French gives him plenty of time to rest and prepare for that one month between June and July that will determine if he enters the US Open with the chance to become the first man in 40 years and only third man in history to win this coveted prize.

Based on his performance today, and indeed over the last 12 months, only a fool would bet against him. And if he wins the calendar year grand slam and adds 3 more slams to his career total of 6, he'd be at 9 - one shy of Bill Tilden, 2 shy of Laver and Borg, and 3 shy of Emerson, 4 of Federer and 5 short of the great Pete Sampras.

A year ago, a blogger on another site posed the question of whether in Nadal, in 2008, we were were witnessing the birth of the GOAT, and many, including this author, scoffed at the notion. But based on his technique, his physical power, his tactical acumen and his sheer dominance of will, I won't be making that mistake again. It is entirely possible, and at this point appears likely that Rafael Nadal will become the greatest player in the history of the game. He will win the US Open eventually, he will win more French Opens, and Wimbledons and since he's only 22, with absolutely no sign of satisfying his appetite, it appears is well on his way to eclipsing Sampras within the next 3-4 years.

I wonder if the bookies have odds on that?