INSIDE TENNIS TALKS WITH THE NEWLY ELECTED ITF PRESIDENT DAVE HAGGERTY – THE MAN WHO LEADS TENNIS ORGANIZATIONS
By Bill Simons
Dare we note that the first President of the International Tennis Federation actually went down in the Titanic and, to sustain the theme, critics complained that of late the group has moved with a certain glacial speed. Now, with the election of New Jersey’s Dave Haggerty, there are hopes for change. For starters, in today’s culture, it’s stunning that an American would even be selected to head an international sports group. But, Haggerty has a great serve and an even better resume. He was a nationally ranked junior; the Captain of his George Washington University tennis team; the top exec at Dunlop, Prince and Head; the President of the Tennis Industry Association and the President of the USTA. There he said his goal was “making the 800-pound gorilla into a 400-pound gorilla.” He went on to initiate the USTA’s groundbreaking move to Lake Nona, Florida.
Here is our conversation with the man who has led more tennis organizations than anyone who comes to mind.
INSIDE TENNIS: The Davis Cup is the big issue. It’s front and center. A whirlwind of criticism has gone on for a long time in terms of its format. Are you going to address this and try to get some kind of Final Four format set up? Another suggestion is to have it every other year.
DAVE HAGGERTY: I’ve worked to look at a number of different options, including a neutral site final. A Final Four concept is one I find quite interesting and possibly the best solution. Also I’ve looked at having events every other year with eight to sixteen teams – very large events. But the fact is that the bylaw rules and the ITF constitution would have to be changed at the annual general meeting and there would have to be a vote. My sense is that it’s not going to be too great a departure from where we are in order for it to be acceptable. That’s certainly one of the areas that I’m focused on. Really, the most important thing is to develop the game, and to do that we need to do to get more funds so we can work with the nations so that they can grow tennis and do the good work they do even better.
IT: The ITF supposedly makes $25 million off of the Davis Cup, but if it were marketed it’s said the ITF could make much more – at least four times more than that.
DH: The whole idea is to increase the revenue of the Davis Cup and Fed Cups, to make them more interesting so we have the funds to then grow tennis. The ideas we’ve talked about could have significant positive revenue implications. So I’m set to do my homework and work with the board and the nations to come up with the format, and work with the ATP and the WTA and various partners in the industry to collaborate and get support behind this great new format, whatever it ends up being.
IT: You did say the Final Four format was probably the most appealing format.
DH: What I like about it is that you can play it over a one-week period, where you can play the semifinals the first three days, have a day of rest and then come back and play the finals. It’s something that the players will understand, and something fans would enjoy watching. You go to a mutual site where you’re able to promote it in advance by a good number of months, where you’d have a host city that wants to have a Final Four. From a broadcast perspective, it would be easier to display it and get great awareness around the world because people will be able to watch it over a limited period of time. It’s the best team competition in the world, so I just see a lot of positives, a lot of reasons why people could gravitate to this concept.
IT: We have a situation this year where Andy Murray is the only one of the truly top players to be playing Davis Cup. Belgium did a great job to get to the finals, but they got there without having to face any top players. Switzerland didn’t have either Federer and Wawrinka. Canada was without Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, and Argentina didn’t have Juan Monaco. Do you think this Final Four format will address the issue of having the top names in the game actually play?
DH: It certainly would be a concept they could look at, because by having a Final Four event, you essentially eliminate the week that just took place. From a calendar perspective, the players’ schedules are so full. If there are ways to make it more manageable so that they see what their investment of time would be, they would be very open to considering other possibilities.
IT: You’ve been involved with the ITF and tennis for so long. Is there one favorite moment in your travels that you found particularly poignant, whether it was on a back court in Chile or at a Davis Cup or Fed Cup tie?
DH: Last year’s Davis Cup tie between France and Switzerland. It was such a great moment of celebration, seeing some great players play in a completely filled football stadium with a roof. It was a great atmosphere.
IT: The late USTA president Bob Cookson said that his favorite tennis moment was the conga line that Yannick Noah led when the French upset the US in Davis Cup. What does it say that Yannick Noah at 55 is coming back to be Davis Cup captain for France?
DH: Yannick has always been around tennis. In many ways he’s certainly a great figurehead. Tennis has meant a lot to him in his life. He’s been quoted as saying if it were not for tennis he wouldn’t be the man he is. It’s great to see him now coming back in a leadership role with the [French Tennis] Federation and Davis Cup.
IT: People are astonished that in the current international atmosphere an American actually got himself elected to head an international ruling body.
DH: One of the primary reasons was the international experience I’ve had at Prince, Dunlop Slazenger, and at Head. I’ve worked internationally and was in charge of global marketing, so I understand international tennis and have traveled on tennis business to many of those countries. That combined with the fact that I was the chairman of the US Open and the USTA and dealt with the players at an international event, a Grand Slam.
This made me appear to be more of an international player, as opposed to just an American or someone with a narrower scope who was just focused on his country. I’ve served on international committees, had some exposure and traveled to meet many of the people that were [in the different tennis] federations.
IT: Still your your emergence was incredible. What was the key?
DH: A lot of it had to do with my timing, the timing of my business career. I spent a lot of time on the volunteer side with the USTA and that coincided with Francesco’s [Ricci Bitti] announcement to retire as ITF President. If it had been two years earlier or later, it wouldn’t have worked for me. Things just lined up in a way that made sense for me to pursue it with my background and experience.
IT: Tennis organizations are seen as a kind of balkanized, alphabet soup. Simply put, what is the ITF and why does it matter?
DH: The ITF is the governing body of tennis on a global basis. We’ve a lot of potential to continue to work with the Grand Slams and the ATP and the WTA and allied tennis community to grow the game worldwide and make it a sport that more people want to play and more people make their living from.
IT: You’re still playing, and your serve is still pretty good – right?
DH: [Laughs] I’m still playing and the serve’s there when I play, usually, but not all of the time.
IT: How did you do when you were on the George Washington University team?
DH: I was really fortunate to play on a very good team. We worked hard and had fun. One of my fond memories was being elected into the tennis Hall of Fame there and I still hold the university record for most matches won in singles and doubles. It’s still out there.
WHAT HAPPENED WITH SERENA, AND WHERE WILL SHE GO?
By Michael Mewshaw
Autopsies are ugly affairs. But after a disaster, there’s no better way to assess the damage and avoid it in the future than to take a hard look at what happened. Although nobody died when Roberta Vinci beat Serena Williams to end her Grand Slam dreams, a number of delusions should have bitten the dust, and many journalists should have regretted their irrational enthusiasm. Although Serena’s emotions and those of her fans are still raw, it’s not too early to do what Patrick Mouratoglou is probably doing – facing facts and trying to find a way to break them to his client without losing his job.
The narrative describing Serena’s career has evolved over time. A few years ago, Chris Evert criticized Williams for not committing herself to eliminating the technical glitches from her game. For all of her successes there’s little evidence that she ever dedicated herself to mastering the basics. She simply kept blasting away and everybody forgot about her flaws. Even now after a match that exposed all of Serena’s limitations, Chris, like most tennis commentators, just repeated the same mantra. This was, they insisted, more a case of Serena being overcome by the occasion than her being picked apart by a clever, calm and technically more complete player. They seem to have forgotten that she had looked just as fragile against Bethanie Mattek-Sands who also mixed up her shots, rushed the net and rattled Serena.
In the aftermath of her train wreck in the semi-finals, Serena continues to be called the greatest player who ever lived. But on what basis? She still trails Margaret Court and Steffi Graf in Grand Slam titles, and many question whether she would have been nearly so dominant if Justine Henin and Kim Clisters had remained healthy and active. Perhaps if Serena had completed the Grand Slam, an argument could be made in her favor. But she didn’t just fall short. She totally disintegrated against Roberta Vinci, ranked 43rd in the world, and she flubbed plenty of opportunities to take control of the match not just because she was nervous, but because like Jimmy Connors in the 1974 Wimbledon final against Arthur Ashe, she couldn’t cope with drop shots, lobs and off-speed angles.
It would be more accurate to say of Serena that she’s the best athlete and most intimidating personality the game has ever produced. Her strength of will and remarkable physical talent have allowed her to come back from the brink of defeat and win matches that her sloppy footwork and poor shot selection should probably have cost her. This time, when she couldn’t blow Vinci away with her serve and couldn’t generate dependable groundstroke speed against Vinci’s slower, yet fuller, arsenal of weapons, she dissolved. While at 5’4” and 120 lbs., Vinci is no physical match for Williams, the Italian showed superior touch, a far better net game, better shot placement and a wicked backhand slice that Serena had hell’s own difficulty getting down to. Was her lack of flexibility a mental block or an outgrowth of her muscularity?
Interestingly, Novak Djokovic faced some of the same dilemmas in his quarterfinal match against Feliciano Lopez. The Spaniard’s wiliness left the Joker visibly frustrated. But as always he was the epitome of flexibility and was able to adapt and win while Serena had no second gear, no plan B. At times she appeared to be a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the cruel truth is that pressure is part of the game, and dealing with it is a basic requirement for being called the best ever.
Vince Lombardi used to ruminate that fatigue makes cowards of us all; what is described as an emotional collapse is often actually the result of a physical short circuit. As formidable as Serena appears to be, it’s worth wondering whether she was sufficiently fit to remain lucid under pressure and win when power alone couldn’t carry the day.
It does her no favors to ignore her shortcomings and simply reassert that she’s “the greatest.” As any club pro will tell you, prove it on court. Final assessments should be postponed until after Williams’ career ends. A commercial broadcast shortly after Flavia Pennetta showed how easy it was to beat Vinci proclaimed that Serena will “Rise Again.” Here’s hoping that’s true. But just as the longest journey begins with a single step, Serena needs to start her comeback by having an honest discussion with her coach, then with herself.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, including Short Circuit: Borg, McEnroe and Connors, the Era of Bribes, Match-fixing and Drugs, now available as an e-book.
Tennis Along the Silk Road – Of Money Launderers, Minesweepers and a Mind-Boggling Journey to Uzbekistan
By Michael Mewshaw
This weekend the US Davis Cup team will be competing in Uzbekistan in America’s most exotic Davis Cup encounter since John McEnroe led Andre Agassi and our team to Zimbabwe in 2000. In 2007, Inside Tennis published this classic report on Uzbekistan by the intrepid tennis reporter and novelist Michael Mewshaw.
In recent years tennis has experienced seismic shifts, and the pro tour has ventured into increasingly unlikely locales. But as the game goes global it’s worth wondering what’s driving this move to outsource tournaments from traditional venues to obscure bends and elbows of the world that appear to have only the most cursory interest in tennis. Indeed, some events now on the circuit take place in countries that have no ranked players and precious few amateur competitors.
To comprehend this curious phenomenon would, I suspect, require a Harvard MBA, the subpoena powers of the IRS and the sleuthing skills of the CIA. But my personal experience at one extraordinary event – the inaugural President’s Cup tournament in 1994 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan – might suggest a potential point of departure for discussing tennis’s penchant for pitching hospitality tents wherever some political strongman or consortium of business moguls ponies up a few million dollars.
Uzbekistan is one of the republics of the former USSR that declared its independence after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Located in Central Asia, bordering Afghanistan and Tajikistan, both of which were then experiencing low-grade civil insurrections, the country has a per capital income of a dollar a day and is ruled by Islam Karimov, originally a Communist dictator, afterward a self-proclaimed President. According to Amnesty International, Karimov was still jailing and torturing his political opponents. After 9/11 Uzbekistan became a US ally in the war against terror and put its air space and landing strips at our disposal. But this arrangement disintegrated when President Karimov suppressed a political demonstration by allowing his troops to open fire on civilians, killing several hundred men, women and children.
At least on the surface, the atmosphere was more convivial in May 1994 when Uzbekistan welcomed a few dozen foreign players, a handful of journalists and a clutch of business men to the first President’s Cup. True, there were hints when we left the consoling womb of Lufthansa Airlines that we were entering an altogether different world. The people-mover that trundled us from the plane to the baggage claim area was a peculiar vehicle – a broken-down driverless bus towed by a tractor.
The road into Tashkent cut through countryside that resembled desolate stretches of the American southwest. Scrubby vegetation sprouted from land that looked like it had been fired in a furnace. Streamers of trash fluttered from every thorny branch. In the city center, the streets widened into bombastic boulevards where a tank would have no trouble heeling around and having clears lines of fire in all directions. Entire blocks looked as if they’d come under recent bombardment. In monumental parks, statues of Soviet heroes lay broken beside their pedestals. Other statues made of sterner stuff were still standing, but had had their arms and heads blown off, and wires jutted out of their extremities like straw from a scarecrow.
At the dachas where we were put up, tournament officials thoughtfully provided Care packages containing bars of soap, rolls of toilet paper and bottles of insect repellent. Then off we went to the new tennis center, down a dual-lane highway where bony cattle and sheep grazed on the median strip. Several red clay courts had been freshly built for the event. A huge hospitality tent, with food flown in daily from Copenhagen, was pitched nearby, and the local Peace Corps director sampled the smoked salmon and champagne and declared that nothing so tasty could be bought between Istanbul and Beijing at any price.
Speaking of prices, those of us who had made the mistake of changing dollars into Uzbek currency discovered that nobody would accept sum coupons. Everyone demanded dollars. Even cab drivers and waiters rejected tips in their national currency.
Those of us who had packed plenty of bucks had problems too. Uzbeks operate under the delusion that bills more than five years old are illegal tender. They demand clean, crisp dollars. This resulted in a small cottage industry, a bizarre kind of money laundering, where women in the marketplace would for a fee clean and iron your rumpled bills.
Of course, like a good journalist I didn’t let myself get sidelined by minor frustrations. I was in Tashkent to cover tennis, and along with my fellow reporters, I lined up at the press gate, proceeded through a metal detector, submitted to a pat down – women had their purses searched and their hairspray and fingernail files confiscated – and climbed into the utterly empty bleachers on the sunny side of the stadium. Across the way, in the shade, sat Islam Karimov and several dozen bodyguards. The President decided that the first day of the President’s Cup should be a private party from which the paying public was excluded. As an added precaution, before the players warmed up, a couple of soldiers with minesweepers marched back and forth across the red clay, making sure that no one had planted an explosive surprise for Karimov. After that build-up, the match itself was anti-climactic.
At that first tournament, a challenger event, Vince Spadea, Chuck Adams and Filip de Wulf were the most prominent competitors. In subsequent years, the tournament graduated to full status on the ATP tour, and top ten players – Henman, Safin, Kafelnikov, etc. – made the long journey to Uzbekistan for what became a hard court indoor event. The men’s tournament folded in 2003. But the WTA has a tournament in Tashkent which continues to this day. I’m afraid that for me, however, nothing could compare with that inaugural President’s Cup.
While few Uzbeks attended the matches as the week progressed, many of them sought out Americans and Europeans who had come to Tashkent. Some begged for money. A few women offered marriage or something more short-term in exchange for a ticket to the West. An Uzbek filmmaker, a man who had recently been imprisoned and beaten, arranged at great danger to himself to show a few journalists a documentary he had shot during the civil war in Tajikistan.
By coincidence, Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania happened to be in Tashkent during the tournament. Two dissident female poets passed him a letter pleading for help as Spector left the American Embassy. They were arrested on the spot, thrown into jail, and despite Sen. Spector’s pleas, they remained behind bars.
As is often the case at tournaments, various junkets were organized for the players and press. As usual no players availed themselves of the opportunity, but a number of journalists jumped on an air-conditioned bus bound for the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand. We spent a day there traipsing in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Then that evening, serene as Venetian doges in gondolas on the Grand Canal, we sailed back toward Tashkent, privileged visitors, isolated from whatever unruliness rumpled the country around us.
Isolated, that is, until a man on the roadside picked up a brick and heaved it through a bus window. Thinking ourselves under attack, our illusions ruined, we hightailed it back to the tennis center where the daily allotment of smoked salmon and champagne had just arrived.
Because the United States Information Service had invited me to lecture at a couple of Uzbek universities, I met American Embassy officials, academics from various disciplines, and aid workers and advisors. They had decidedly different views of Central Asia’s first pro tennis tournament. Embassy officials saw it less as a sporting event than a business venture in which rival European airlines vied through sponsorship deals for governmental approval of their landing rights in Tashkent. The Embassy also pointed out that Uzbekistan is a major exporter of grain alcohol, and that representatives of a major American liquor producer were in town for the tournament.
Academics protested that the tournament diverted funds and attention from vital needs. The universities had libraries the size of a two-car garage. If it wasn’t bad enough that books were in short supply, they had no paper and no ink. They begged me to send them Bic pens.
A number of aid workers argued that in a nation that depended on Médecins sans Frontières and couldn’t provide basic care to much of its population, it hardly made sense to promote pro tennis. As for the food flown in from Copenhagen for the hospitality tent, a Peace Corps volunteer swore he had been at the airport and seen truckloads skimmed off the top of each day’s delivery by Uzbek ministers.
In the 70s and 80s, with the encouragement of Arthur Ashe and other insightful people on the tour, tennis took political stances on a number of issues, including apartheid in South Africa. John McEnroe still gets high marks for refusing to play a million dollar exhibition match in Sun City, one of the bogus black South African homelands. While there’s no use wishing for the good old days and the good old guys, perhaps it’s not out of order to make a modest suggestion that pro tennis take a closer look at its calendar so that it doesn’t showcase the game in sunny places for shady people.
By Bill Simons
Novak Djokovic is not only gluten-free, he’s adoration-free.
“You cannot be serious!”
This guy is a humanitarian. He’s a family man with a loving wife and cute kid. He’s beloved by those who know him. He’s survived brutal bombs and silly brouhahas. He’s a Renaissance guy who grew up listening to classical music and reading Russian poets. These days he doesn’t hesitate to offer deep-think reflections. He’s a Christian who visits Buddhist temples and notes the importance of mood and meditation. “I like to be in the creative spirit all the time,” he told the New York Times. “Everybody is moving – the people, our planet – so you either keep up with it or you just stay where you are. But staying wherever you are, you actually regress.”
And Novak has progressed. Oh, dear, we almost forgot to mention that he’s now – by far – the best tennis player in the world.
But popularity is a jealous mistress. The in-group is elusive. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. For all her talent and trophies, courage and caring, Martina Navratilova couldn’t blunt the popularity of cute, chirpy Chris Evert – our Chrissie.
Ivan Lendl won eight Slams. Still, he was said to be “the man who could empty stadiums.” The headline claimed he was “the champion nobody cared about.” But unlike Lendl, the public Djokovic is far from glum. He’s a charming cut-up who adores laughter almost as much as he loves the limelight. He’s not only fun-loving – he’s real.
He’ll roar in triumph or curse like a sailor. There’s little mystery.
Djokovic is a meticulous craftsman, the ultimate professional. His game is superb, but mechanical and full of gritty grimaces, painful pivots and testy stretches. Pretty it’s not. Often we wince. He’s got a retro crew cut. His angular face and ripped body impress – but his Uniqlo outfits don’t do him any favors.
Plus, the Serbian is “the man from nowhere,” a small country we bombed long ago, a distant land not on your summer itinerary.
Most of all, Novak has long labored in the shadow of two consuming idols. He has little of the hunky muscularity and magnetic appeal of Spaniard Rafa Nadal, with his whiplash forehand and darling dimples. Worse yet, he pales before the dreamy beauty of Roger Federer, who so effortlessly combines power and grace, art and sport.
Still, Djokovic was having his best year since 2011. He became just the third player in history to reach the finals of all four Slams. But Federer, as at Wimbledon, had been on a roll. He beat Novak rather handily in the Cincinnati Masters tournament.
In his first US Open final in six years, Federer was hoping to win his first Slam since 2010.
But he came out tight, his usual Swiss precision out of sync. His play was halting, and surprisingly inelegant. He suffered 15 first-set errors. In contrast, Djokovic played his usual impenetrable defense. Serving well, attacking Federer’s backhand, winning scramble points, the 28-year old in his prime suffered a nasty tumble, but his level did not fall. While not at his best, he was good enough, slapping a dandy forehand winner to capture the first set, 6-4.
The play of the demigod Federer was less than heavenly. Now, certainly Djokovic would march to his third Slam of the year and his first US Open since 2011.
But don’t forget what Rumi – the Sufi mystic and tennis sage – advised eons ago: “Hall of Love has ten thousand swords. Don’t be afraid to use one.”
So, to the delight of the throng, after 50 minutes, Federer unsheathed his SABR attack. But early in the set, he couldn’t convert five break points. When Djokovic hit a fabulous backhand off an overhead, he tapped his inner Roberta Vinci and roared to the crowd.
The pro-Federer partisans didn’t buy it, and Federer soldiered on. In the tenth game, some 15 minutes long, Roger had two set points. But the Swiss could not summit. His level now high, Roger attacked. Roger charged the net. Roger hit sublime backhands. As Robert Redford looked on, the ATP elder suddenly seemed like the Sundance Kid. Somewhere in New York there was a fountain of youth.
On his fourth set point, the 34-year-old uncorked a wondrous cross-court backhand. Ashe Stadium exploded, as only it can. The old man won the second set, 7-5.
Novak ripped off his shirt.
The 42nd Djokovic-Federer battle would now be a best of three sets face-off. But Roger had never beaten the Serb in a five-set marathon. And beware Novak when he loses the second set. Three times at this year’s Open he had roared back after losing the second set.
Now that pattern continued – as did Roger’s patterns. Eight times he flashed his bold SABR tactic. But, as in the recent past, his explosiveness waned as the match went on.
More than anything, Roger just could not pounce on his opportunities. In the third set alone, he faltered on four of five break points. He couldn’t handle the pace of Novak’s passing blasts, and his usually potent forehand went awry. Later he conceded he just couldn’t execute at crunch time – and for good reason.
Djokovic showed why he is the best: his defense was sublime. On break points he was a quick-fire goalie flicking a shot away. He was an explosive defensive back stretching to knock down a pass. He was a baseball reliever shutting down the heart of the order in the ninth.
Novak explained the key to the match. In the third set, he said, “When I managed to break at 4-all and managed to hold after saving [a] couple break points at 5-4 and winning the third set, that obviously gave me a huge wind in the back, and I managed to play really well after that.”
Novak quickly broke twice in the fourth set and went up 5-2. The crowd willed Federer to come back – chanting his name, applauding when Novak missed a serve, and calling out taunts to distract the Serb.
But there was no distracting the savvy competitor. His focus, his will, his consistency once again coalesced. No matter that the throng howled, hoping his foe would prevail. No matter that Roger charged back in the fourth set to break serve – a last hope.
Novak – moving with dazzling speed, serving well, and defending brilliantly in breathless rallies – saved 19 of 23 break points – incredible! And just like at Wimbledon, he won going away – 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
In the awards ceremony, a gracious Federer said matches like this teach you a lot about your opponent and yourself. And tonight we learned something about Federer’s foe. Despite his fierce expressions and gritty play, he proved he is the most dominant player of the best generation in tennis history. He’s won three Slams this year, and he reached the French Open final, where a zoning Stan Wawrinka beat him. He now has won ten Slams, just one behind Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. And, after the awards ceremony wound down, the crowd finally began to chant, “Novak, Novak, Novak.”
Djokovic – the Rodney Dangerfield of tennis – is still gluten-free. But, at least for one fleeting moment, this grand champion and good man was not adoration-free.
By Bill Simons
Flavia Pennetta shocked the tennis world. At 33, she became the oldest player to reach a first Grand Slam final.
And then she won.
Then she retired.
Never before had women’s tennis felt such back-to-back shocks.
Reporters were still debating whether Roberta Vinci’s win over Serena Williams was the most stunning upset of all time. They wondered, did the power of history, with its cruel expectations and the relentless noise of the media machine, simply get to the very human Serena? Ultimately, deep into the match, did Serena, who’d been so hot all year, simply freeze?
But never mind yesterday’s mind-boggling result.
The year-end Grand Slam is a traditional farewell venue. Chris Evert lost to Zina Garrison and then offered a bittersweet farewell wave.
But we knew she was going to go. After playing his last US Open match, Andre Agassi gave a stirring Lou Gehrig-like retirement speech, and Andy Roddick, just 29, announced his farewell in a press conference.
Before Pennetta’s “Say what?” announcement, most of the talk at Italian Meadows – correction: make that Flushing Meadows – was all about Italy.
Italian writer Vincenzo Martucci reported that in his homeland, “the people are crazy on the street. They are so happy.” All the Chamber of Commerce chatter about Italy brought to mind novelist Erica Jong’s curious observation, “What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find there that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.”
Of course, for centuries Italian women have drawn attention. Historian Walter Shaw Sparrow reminds us that, “the pride taken by the Italians in their gifted women was among the most important facts in the history of Italy’s Renaissance.”
More recently, here in America, we have seen some fairly attractive Italian women. There was the beauty of Gina Lollobrigida and the wit and candor of Sophia Loren, who once confided, “Everything you see I owe to pasta.”
What we saw today was a groundbreaking moment. For the first time, two Italians met in the final of a Slam. Pennetta might have been tempted to call her foe, Roberta Vinci, “My cousin Vinci.”
No, the two aren’t blood sisters – Venus-Serena tight. But they’re closer than most cousins. They met at a tennis academy when they were nine, roomed together for four formative years, and played 50 doubles matches together.
Vinci will always be known for yesterday’s mighty upset, while Pennetta is a lively and loved player – outspoken, and some might claim a tad loose.
During one Fed Cup match she called Amelie Mauresmo a whore. Now ranked No. 1 in the world in attracting charismatic tennis players, she has spoken about lovemaking on planes and cement tennis courts. She had an intense relationship with Spain’s Carlos Moya, and wrote a book about their painful breakup. “The end of my relationship with Carlos,” she revealed, “caused me more pain than any injury. What hurt more than the betrayal itself was the fact that our plans to share a life together had gone up in smoke. I put Carlos before myself. Don’t do it! You shouldn’t do that for a man. That was my biggest mistake.”
Today, just before the final, Flavio was out in the player garden snuggling with her new fiancé, Fabio Fognini.
You’d think this might have helped relax her. Plus, she knew she had a winning record against the No. 43 Vinci. She was bigger, she had won five Grand Slam doubles titles, and her best results had come at the US Open.
This year she scored impressive wins over Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and the No. 2 seed, Simona Halep, whom she punished. And Roberta had to be spent. As one headline told us, Vinci’s win over Serena had been pure “Vin-sanity.”
But this was no ordinary match. The Italian Prime Minister and a slew of Italian officials in their splendid suits were on hand. (It would have been a dandy day, if you had such a thing in mind, to invade Rome.) A win would allow Pennetta to pocket a hefty $3.3 million, and she knew this was her last US Open hurrah.
Both she and Vinci came out tight and tentative. In the fifth game, on Pennetta’s seventh break point, no less, Vinci dumped a rally backhand into the net.
The two would trade breaks in a slow slice-and-search match – glide and go. The style was retro and explosion-free. There was ample artistry, but few roars, and three Vinci forehands handed the first set tiebreak to Pennetta, 7-4.
Flavia was stronger. Her forehands went deep. Her down-the-line backhand was a weapon. Her hands were true. She volleyed like the world class doubles champion she is. She used her court position to control the measured action.
The electric, high-sizzle intensity that empowered Vinci’s match with Serena morphed into a low-grade fizzle. True, the mighty Serena could not break the Vinci code yesterday. But today there was little mystery and less danger in Vinci’s game. She was drained.
She fell behind 0-4 in the second set. A lonely overhead and the threat of rain gave Vinci a little hope. But not much. After 1:33 on court, after 18 grinding years on the circuit and a kabillion miles traipsing about the globe, the Italian beauty Pennetta stroked a beautiful and final Grand Slam forehand. The holy grail was hers, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Then she got in the final word, telling the stunned throng, “One month ago I take a big decision in my life. This is how I’d like to say goodbye to tennis.”
Billie Jean King and the crowd groaned a guttural moan, as if to say, “You’re our hero, don’t tell us that!” Flavia replied. “You don’t have to like this. I’m really happy. It’s what all the players seem to want to do, going out with this big trophy home. This one was my last match at the US Open and I couldn’t think of a better match…I love you guys.” She soon said, “My life is perfect.”
Finalist Vinci seemed like a winner, too. Thrilled that her Italian compatriot and longtime pal had won, she went on a delightful charm offensive. She told IT that Leonardo da Vinci was her uncle and joked with the press that she would be returning to Italy in a private jet and, “then tomorrow [I'll eat] pasta, real pasta, at home.” – Just like Sophia Loren.
Before the 23,700 fans at the US Open went crazy over the triumph of Flavia Pennetta, they went crazy over a friend. That would be James “You’ve Got a Friend” Taylor. Years ago, just after a US Open final, Inside Tennis editor Bill Simons tried to interview Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and James Taylor. He spoke with Williams and Armstrong, but never got to Taylor. Today, he spoke with the beloved singer and tennis fan.
INSIDE TENNIS: What do you love about tennis and the spectacle of it?
JAMES TAYLOR: It’s wonderful to see…I particularly love women’s tennis because it reminds me more of the tennis that I came up playing. To me it’s a more accessible game. Longer volleys, [it] just seems not so extreme to me. But I love everything about it. I wish I could be here for the Federer-Djokovic match tomorrow. That’s going to be so fantastic, to see those two games. To see Fed-Ex playing, at this point in his career, the best tennis of his life… I’ll be watching on TV. I can’t stay.
IT: You’re known for your mastery and your longevity – do you see that in Roger?
JT: Well, to me Roger’s a young guy, but I realize that he’s fairly advanced in age to be playing championship tennis like this, and it really is inspiring.
IT: But Djokovic is quite a craftsman, too.
JT: He’s amazing. It’s going to be an amazing match.
IT: Where did you play as a youngster?
JT: I played on courts at home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and, in the summertime, in Massachusetts.
IT: You’re known for having friends. If you could have a friend in the game on the women’s side, who would you have?
JT: Oh, man. Well, I just met Billie Jean King, and I admire her hugely. She’s so great. What she did for the game, for women’s tennis…I deeply admire Steffi Graf.
IT: She’s so gracious…and her whiplash forehand.
JT: And Martina also – Navratilova.
IT: Your first memories of top players – was it Borg and Connors?
JT: [Yes], Connors and Borg.
By Bill Simons
The quest – so grand and noble – is over.
Long live the quest.
Never before had there been a tennis journey like this. The greatest player of all time, the singular Serena, vs. history.
And history had been kind. Eleven times this year Serena had shown her nerve and fight and prevailed in three-set Grand Slam battles. What will, what grit.
And she had help. Here at the US Open, tennis had seemed to tee it up for her. Maria Sharapova had withdrawn. Her toughest foes – Azarenka, Kvitova and Halep – had all withered with little fight.
Once, when Serena Williams was hitting from too far back at the Australian Open and she was standing on the ‘Melbourne’ sign, her mom yelled, “Get out of Melbourne.”
Now, at the Open, all Serena had to do was get out of Italy. She had never lost to either the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci or the veteran journeywoman Flavia Pennetta, who awaited in the final.
But Serena is more into France than Italy. She has a French coach, a Paris apartment and speaks lovely French. Today, she didn’t get out of Italy. She barely got on the boat.
She could not crack the Roberta Vinci code. And, at 2:58 p.m. when Vinci hit yet another delicate-as-snow half-volley winner to prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, the vise grip of history finally squeezed tight – unkind, unsparing.
The mighty Serena – uptight, ponderous, nervous, slow-moving – struck out. She had few answers. Somewhere in Las Vegas perhaps a little smile came to the face of a woman named Steffi. Graf’s Open Era record of 22 majors would still stand unblemished. That mighty mountain they call the Grand Slam – which had been won by Maureen Connolly in 1953, by Margaret Court in 1970, and by Graf in 1988 – once again would not be summited.
Serena blinked, history prevailed, conspirators whispered.
After all, this was September 11th, they claimed. Here on this date sixteen years ago, Serena – squealing in delight – won her first Slam. On September 11th just four years ago she had her last major meltdown when she called out “C’mon!” against Sam Stosur and was called for hindrance.
But today was not about conspiracies, unless you count the clever game plan concocted by Vinci’s camp.
The Italian broke early in the first set. “Here we go again,” said a voice in the press room, “more drama.” But not to worry, Serena stepped up and stepped all over Vinci’s serve. She attacked freely, seemed worry-free and won five straight games to capture the first set, 6-2.
In the interview room Penneta, Vinci’s fellow Italian, cautioned “Not so fast, the match isn’t over.”
But, no worries. Serena’s march to history was coated in a certain (“this has just got to happen”) inevitability. She was No. 1. Vinci was No. 43. Serena had never lost to Vinci in four meetings, including a match a month ago in Toronto. She had a home court advantage. She would prevail. TV execs were thrilled. The ratings of Serena’s final would soar through the roof.
But somehow Serena’s game hit the ceiling. From the first ball, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou sensed something was wrong, this was not her day. She was not moving and never did crack the considerable Vinci code: sublime easy movement, an unafraid return of serve which blunted Serena’s power, nasty drop shots, not-to-worry defensive lobs and a high-to-low one-handed backhand that is suggestive of Graf’s.
She volleyed well and hit deep down the middle. And Serena’s level dropped dearly. At crunch time she didn’t go out and grab history and could not defy Vinci’s crafty-sure play. Lunging and flustered, she seemed miserable. In the second set she suffered an error-strewn fifth game. That’s all the Italian needed, as she raced to a 6-4 win to even the match.
Serena slammed her racket. What’s going on? Who is this pretender? Before the Open, Vinci’s chances of winning were put at 300:1. She was a 12:1 underdog today. So Serena, who had an 11-0 record in the third set of Slams this year, quickly broke serve in the final set. Vinci didn’t care. She knew Serena was nervous and she broke right back. Williams stopped hitting out. Her serve wavered. Her movement faltered. When Vinci won a glorious scramble point to draw Serena back to deuce in the seventh game of the third set, she pointed to her ear and flashed a joyous, vein-popping expression of delight and triumph. “The crowd was for her,” Vinci recalled. “And, I say, come on one time for me.”
Vinci’s veteran bravado and (“I’m Italian and you’re not”) swagger seemed to tell Serena, “I’m here, in-your-face, I’m not going away.”
Williams promptly donated a backhand and forehand, allowing Vinci to score a critical break to go up 4-3.
Suddenly history seemed gray.
Williams’ friends box was glum. Billie Jean King was nervous. Vinci was playing the match of her career. Still, she admitted she was “a little bit scare. My arms was like (shaking)…But in my mind, I say, ‘Don’t think about this, because you have more pressure. Stay calm, relax, and breathe during every single points. Don’t think that you have Serena on the other side of the court. Try to enjoy.’” She told the crowd, “Put the ball in play and keep the ball in play in the court and run and then I won.”
Vinci had already booked a flight to go back to Italy. But now her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win – one of the greatest clutch upsets in woman’s tennis history – left her giddy and giggly.
As she sashayed into the first-ever all-Italian women’s Slam final, she sheepishly apologized to Serena and to the crowd for raining on the American parade. But, Roberta, winning means not having to say your sorry.
This was the best moment of her life.
“I can maybe touch the sky with my finger,” she told IT.
On this strange day, Serena ultimately could not touch Roberta. Today her code – the Vinci code – remained unbroken.
Billie Jean King told IT, “If I were Serena…before I got to the locker room today…I would have said, ‘Next year I’m going to win all four [slams], non-negotiable’…I’d get so cheesed. I’d be so, just like, “Gimme the ball. Let’s go. I’m ready.”
But Serena was so not ready.
Despondent and emotionally drained, she desperately needed a break. After the match she was in a deep, unhappy funk – terse and glum. Never mind all her triumphs this year. On this day, the mighty Serena had tried mightily to alter history, but history won.
After Roberta Vinci’s shocking 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Serena Williams in the semifinals of the 2015 US Open, Inside Tennis editor and publisher Bill Simons talked with Billie Jean King about the match. “If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it,” King said. “I still can’t believe it.”
INSIDE TENNIS: Because?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, she [Roberta Vinci] has great hands, and she played a really smart game, she gave her no pace. And Serena got tight.
IT: Do you think it was the pressure?
BJK: The occasion – I’m sure it’s hard. She’s going to have to tell you her truth. I don’t know, I wasn’t out there, I’m not her. From observation, they [Vinci's team] had a really good game plan, they’d figured it out a lot.
IT: They moved her around.
BJK: And didn’t give her any pace. I felt like it was 1974. The modern game.
IT: What was the most pressure you felt in your career – was it the [Bobby] Riggs match?
BJK: Probably, because it was a one-off. Just because of what it was about. It’s not like just playing for a title like they are, because you’ve always got next year, too. No, no, no.
IT: What has Serena shown in this run?
BJK: She’s been incredible. If I were Serena – but I’m not – before I got to the locker room today, after that match, I would have said, “Next year I’m going to win all four, non-negotiable.” I’m just telling you my mentality. I don’t know what she’s thinking. I’d get so cheesed. I’d be so, just like, “Gimme the ball. Let’s go. I’m ready.”
IT: If you were sitting with her in the locker room and your arm was around her, what would you say to her?
BJK: Everybody has matches like this, and you gotta give the other player credit. I thought Vinci played really well, smart. But you know, I think you have to be honest with yourself. You know what happened. But you’ve got to be good to yourself. Rod Laver helped me that way with a match. He said, “Billie, you’re always going to have three or four matches in your career that are so hard on you – you’ll be ahead and end up losing – that’ll break your heart. You have to just let those go and grow from them. He really helped me out. I was in a bad way, and he came into the locker room and sat with me for a minute. You just have to tell them, “Let go. The other person was too good today.” And if you got too tight – that’s for her to tell me, I don’t know – you have to just keep learning from it.
IT: Sometimes can you just feel history?
BJK: Oh, she was. Everybody kept telling her for the last six months or more. Especially today. You can’t can’t get away from everybody. Social media, traditional media. it’s just so much more exposure. There was not a big deal made when [Steffi] Graf did this like this [win a Grand Slam], there wasn’t a big deal with Margaret [Court]. With Maureen Connolly I hope they made it a big deal – I wasn’t around. Even Don Budge, who created it, probably hardly got anything out of it. And then Rod Laver, I think he did get a lot of mileage out of it, but he earned it – he did it twice. It just shows you how media has changed. It really is an expression of how media has changed.
IT: Serena came back so many times in the third set.
BJK: Usually she gets juiced when she’s down. This time she couldn’t get the juices going. I think she was overcome by the occasion but I don’t know what else is going on. Only she knows her truth. I think it was a combination of a lot of things. Vinci and her coaches had planned things pretty damn well, but Serena did not play as well as she could or should. I thought Serena would always win because of her serve, and because of the occasion I thought she’d rise to the occasion. It just didn’t happen. Vinci hit a few little drop shots with soft hands. It was amazing. She actually played almost a clay court match. On a cement court. And she reminded me of a player in the 70s, more in the way we would tactically think about things. I thought it was very interesting. It was 70′s tennis vs. 2015 tennis.
IT: Which player? Not Francoise Durr.
BJK: No, not Francoise. More kind of the way we all did. Top-of-the-middle serve, couldn’t crack an egg. We’d slice and go to net, chip and charge, drop volleys off of half-volleys, we would do that a lot.
IT: Great defensive lobs.
BJK: Very good defensive lobs. I thought she [Serena] should have smacked one of them. Because she [Vinci] was pretty far back. You know what, Serena’s done great this year. I don’t want to take anything away from her. People forget. She’s still won three majors, amazing. She’s still got some time if she wants to keep playing. Personally, if I were her and I’d gotten that close…you know, we didn’t play all the majors, we didn’t feel the same. But if I were today’s kid, by the time I got to the locker room I’d have said, “That’s it, that’s my next year’s goal, non-negotiable, I’m winning this, let’s go, let’s practice, whatever I gotta do.”
IT: You did that for Martina Navratilova one year when she lost badly at Wimbledon. You said, “Get ready for next year. Take a week off, don’t think about tennis and start again.”
BJK: If you want to. But if you want to, you’ve got to start now.
IT: Another thing you told Martina was that win or lose, we’ll still respect you.
BJK: We’ll still love you, too. You have to give unconditional love, always. Just like Oracene [Price] does with them. Oracene is the best tennis mother. She treats them the same when they come off the court, as far as, “I love you.” She is an amazing tennis mother. It won’t faze her. She’ll feel sorry for Serena. She’ll say, “I love you. Tough day.” She’s the same with Venus or any of her girls, really. She’s an amazing mother. Heart, backbone – heart, backbone.
IT: That ultimately has helped the girls keep going all these years.
BJK: That’s why they’re such a good family. They have the love. They’ve got the love. That’s number one in the end. Cause when she’s [Serena's] old, my age, family and friends are going to be everything. You don’t realize it when you’re young.
IT: There’s nothing like sisters, also.
BJK: Their family is tight.
By Bill Simons
Twice this year there have been stunning moments for African-Americans in tennis.
In March, Serena Williams ended her 14-year boycott of Indian Wells. It was a poignant and important breakthrough for racial reconciliation.
Then, last Tuesday night, there was one of the greatest moments in African-American history.
In front of the likes of superstar Oprah Winfrey and Katrina Adams (the first African-American president of the USTA), Venus Williams faced off against Serena, who was battling to make history in a roaring stadium named after the beloved Arthur Ashe. Sweet.
Then, just 14 hours after Serena won to continue her journey, America’s perplexing battle with racism and police excess came right to tennis. Sour.
There usually is plenty of action both inside and outside the Grand Hyatt – the USTA’s snazzy US Open headquarters. Players are hopping into vans, doormen are hailing cabs, USTA volunteers are dashing to catch the bus to the Open.
On the sidewalk and in the hotel there are many whispered conversations between insiders who are trying to tackle the problems of the game. But Wednesday, just before high noon, an ill-conceived tackle by a police officer brought the issue of police behavior toward African-Americans front and center.
James Blake – the star player known for his groupie fans called the J-Block, was, without any warning, viciously tackled and then arrested by five white policemen.
This was not Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore’s inner city or a hardscrabble park in Cleveland.
This was right smack in front of one of the busiest hotels in New York.
This was not a 17-year old kid in a hoodie – Floridian Trayvon Martin.
This was the impeccably dressed, hunky as usual, James Blake.
This was not a man who’d been in prison for two years – Baltimore’s Freddie Gray.
This was the thoughtful, reflective Harvard product who grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the world – Fairfield, Connecticut.
This was not Michael Brown, the Ferguson teen whose controversial death inspired Black Lives Matter.
This was the best African-American male player since Ashe, whose astonishing power, quiet elegance and courageous comebacks mattered so much to so many.
This was not an LA taxi driver who’d been arrested 30 times – Rodney King. This was the man who gave us a string of memorable thrills at the King National Tennis Center.
This was the user-friendly, poker-playing, one-of-the-boys New Englander who easily befriended the top Americans of his era – Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, John Isner, the Bryans, and then after his retirement seamlessly rose in the USTA establishment to become the president of the feel-good USTA Foundation. On opening night of the Open, he was front and center at a gala shrimp and chardonnay foundation dinner which (thanks in part to an array of celebrities including Alec Baldwin, Anna Wintour and Vanessa Williams) raised almost $1 million for tennis charities.
Blake earned $8 million in prize money and gained endorsement contracts with Italian apparel corporations and French bottled water companies. And almost ten years ago to the day, he narrowly lost the greatest men’s night match in US Open history. The winner, Andre Agassi, then shared a beautiful truth, telling the crowd, “At 1:15 in the morning, for 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn’t the winner. Tennis was.”
But tennis didn’t win Wednesday.
Just before high noon we learned the low truth that excessive police force against African-Americans can strike anyone, anywhere. Charlie Sanders, who was selling papers on 42nd street, told the New York Times that the police roughed up Blake, saying, “They were real aggressive, like he robbed a bank. They were shoving him around.” A policeman rush Blake, slammed him to the ground and put his knee on his back.
The 35-year-old Blake, who had just finished an interview with Inside Tennis’ Lucia Hoffman, recalled, “I was standing there doing nothing — not running, not resisting, in fact smiling…[then a policeman] picked me up and body-slammed me and put me on the ground and told me to turn over and shut my mouth, and [he] put the cuffs on me.”
All this was because James was thought to be part of a fraudulent $18,000 credit card scheme. He was handcuffed for ten minutes until a security guard at the hotel essentially said, “Hey, that’s Blake.”
James Frascatore, the officer who tackled Blake, at first seemed to Blake like an eager fan approaching him. But Frascatore did not apologize, and allegedly tried to cover up the arrest, failing to fill out the required voided arrest report. Soon after, his gun and badge were seized, and he was assigned to a desk job. He is a defendant in four civil excessive force cases, and has had at least five complaints against him filed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
As previously reported, Blake’s mother Betty told IT that she was “very scared for my sons. James was knocked to the ground, but the way things are in our society today he could have been shot – and I am scared.”
She called on her son to use his considerable voice to speak out, contending, “Maybe that would do something to alleviate the situation in our country right now.”
Since the incident, there has been a statement from the USTA. New York’s Chief of Police William Bratton expressed regret that the arrest did not follow protocol. But he insisted that race was not involved.
Blake himself, who said that most cops do a great job, went back and forth on the issue of racial profiling. At first he told the Daily News, “there probably is a race factor involved.” Then, on Good Morning America, he said that the police should be accountable and he would like an explanation – but that the incident was about excessive aggression, not race.
His stance reminded observers of the time early in his career when Lleyton Hewitt essentially claimed that an African-American US Open linesman made a line call in Blake’s favor because both were black. Blake’s father was livid about the apparent racism. But James promptly defused the controversy, saying there was nothing racial involved.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spoke on opening night at the Open, apologized to Blake and said he would meet with him. Blake called on de Blasio to spend significant dollars to improve police relations.
Ironically, while running for mayor, de Blasio drew bitter criticism from police and others when he said that “because of a history that still hangs over us…we’ve had to literally train [our son Dante, who like Blake is biracial]…to take special care in any encounter he has with police officers…There’s a history we have to overcome…I’ve had to worry over the years. Is dante safe each night? There are so many families in this city who feel that, each and every night. Is my child safe…from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors?”
Just before he was tackled by New York policemen, James Blake spoke with Lucia Hoffman of Inside Tennis. In their interview, the former No. 4 player in the world and the most successful African-American men’s player since Arthur Ashe, spoke of his fundraising work with the USTA foundation which he heads.
He also said Serena and Venus playing each other was “an unbelievable story. He contended, “Serena has made her case. In my opinion, she is the best of all time.” Similarly, he said Federer was “the best of all time…I played against him in his time, so he won a lot of matches against me. But he’s a true gentleman. He couldn’t be a nicer guy … I hope he gets one more.”
Blake also reflected on a new generation of young Americans who he said are “really talented. I’m really excited to see what will happen in the next 5 years and how they will progress.” He mentioned how much fun it was to occasionally play senior tennis “and go back in the locker room setting, and see the guys I used to play against.”
As usual, Blake was impeccably dressed. But that hardly mattered. Roughly two minutes later he was roughed up by New York police. An investigation is pending.