THE DAVID HAGGERTY INTERVIEW – A Conversation with the ITF Chairman on Gambling and Tennis

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Bill Simons

Melbourne—The tennis industry is a small one. I’ve known Dave Haggerty for 25 years or so. It’s been incredible to see him evolve from a chief executive at tennis companies like Dunlop, Prince and Head to become the head of the USTA, the Tennis Industry Association, and now, incredibly, the President of the International Tennis Federation. Haggerty often has a quiet smile. He’s indrawn and deeply committed to tennis. It wasn’t easy trying to have a conversation with him on tennis and gambling. But I did.

In the press conference the other day by top leaders, it was said there was a toxic environment in the sport. Do you think tennis to the casual fan has taken any type of a hit?

We set up the independent review panel because we want to erase any doubt that there’s an issue. The best way to do that is to be open, transparent and have an independent review and to see if there’s any way that we can improve from a tennis integrity perspective. Because other sports have been called into question, we don’t want to be painted with the same brush and to claim that as administrators what we do is perfect. We don’t want to be arrogant, so we feel that the best thing to do is to be open. I’m sure we’ll find things that will help.

Tennis is obviously getting closer and closer to the gambling organizations. The ITF has a $70 million deal with Sportradar. The huge William Hill gambling company sponsors the Australian Open. There’s the Bet-at-Home tournament and deals with Betway, Betfair, Sportsradar, etc. Officials say that’s good for tennis, that we’re close to the companies, we can monitor them while taking their money. Is that a little self-serving?

I don’t think so, and certainly we have a relationship with Betway. Some of our best intelligence [is from them]…We’re not going to change the world to make gambling illegal in countries where it’s legal. It’s legal, fair betting, and there’s no problem with that. People do it every day in many sports. With the betting companies we work with, we have memorandums of understanding and agreements to help us, because we have over 100 betting analysts that are able to flag any suspicious behavior so that we can then take that information and investigate…There’s nothing wrong with legal betting, the issue is corruption, and I think that we have this moral compass that some people don’t have, but it’s a very small minority. That’s why you have to be vigilant in trying to seek it out.

Many people were critical of the journalism of the BBC–BuzzFeed broadcast for many reasons, including that they didn’t name any names. But part of the report was the heads of gambling organizations saying they approached the ATP and they were not responsive. The only alternative, said the head of one Swiss gambling company, was to go to the police. Richard Ings [a former ATP enforcement official] said we don’t know what the Tennis Integrity Unit is really like – it’s surrounded in secrecy. 

One of the reasons we feel a review by an independent panel is good is that there’s been no new evidence, All the cases that were talked about happened back in 2005-2008, and from that came the setup of the TIU. So from that “controversy” and those issues, we made a big change, and [we were] one of the first three sports and one of the few global sports to set up our own unit. We’ll find out more about it. The challenge is transparency and being able to keep confidential the information of the players. The player is not guilty unless we have evidence, and there was an instance of me being given a list of 300 players and my being asked ‘Do you know what this is?’ I had no idea what it was about, so I turned it over to the TIU. Everything we get we investigate. Sometimes people have agendas with what they want to bring to us, so we felt the best thing to do is to have an independent panel that has no agenda other than to look at the processes and say are there things that we can do better and improve, and that’s what we’re going to do.

People who love tennis – including everyone from Federer to the most casual fan – knows that if the sport loses its integrity, it’s in deep trouble. Yet, already there are concerns about Adam Lewis, who was picked to head the independent review. He has such a long history of being an insider – working for FIFA, working against FIFA, working for agencies, working for broadcast interests, for Nike, and goodness, he was Richard Gasquet’s defense attorney in one of the most troubling cases we’ve had, where Gasquet got off [from drug charges] seven years ago on the basis of kissing a woman. Does that bring the message of someone who will be fresh, independent – dare I say a fearless voice?

I kind of disagree. Adam Lewis’s background is very, very strong in sport. A lot of research was conducted on a shortlist of QC’s [Queen's Counsels] with good experience. He was highly recommended by sources outside of sport and in sport.

Can you share a little bit of that?

No, it’s better not to. But we vetted him. We had a small subcommittee that made lots of calls to make sure that we would get somebody, and what I like is that he’d argued on both sides of the fence, which means he’s not going to come in taking a view on anyone. We’re not hiring someone that’s going to tell us that everything’s perfect. We want an independent review.

Did he say that he had any awareness about the situation with FIFA and all the issues there with bribing? Was that vetted?

I didn’t have any conversation with him, so I can’t personally answer that.

FIFA was brought up in the press conference, and obviously the US government initiated a very serious legal initiative against them. What do you think tennis has learned from that situation?

What tennis learned is that integrity is critical for our sport. What caused us to act was that our fans have come to hold tennis high. There should never be a doubt as to whether there’s any issue with the sport. When our fans – the people we perform for – questioned us because other sports are being questioned, we felt it was important to do something unprecedented. That’s the best way to learn, to find out if you can make improvements, and to restore confidence.

Multiple times it was mentioned that the problem, to an extent, is perception – the view of a casual fan.

Perception is a large part of it, but again I’m open to this independent review. There’ll be some good suggestions and changes and things that come out of it to make our program even more rigorous and better. We aren’t doing it as a PR ploy. We will take on all the recommendations that come.

The Grand Slams and the ITF don’t want players interacting with gamblers, and yet the ITF has a $70 million, five-year contract that’s so much bigger than baseball and the NFL. Andy Murray said it was hypocritical. Martina Navratilova said we’re playing both sides – it’s two-faced. How is it possible to send the right message? And how can the ITF take $70 million but then tell the No. 129 player, who is struggling to survive, to not take a penny?

All the betting arrangements that the industry has, whether it’s ATP tournaments, WTA tournaments, Grand Slam events – all of those gambling sponsorships are within the rules of the TIU. We make sure of that. In many ways these gambling companies are able to help us, because we’re not going to stop legalized betting. That’s not going to stop.

Wouldn’t they help anyway when odds go up on a match with Martin Vassallo Arguello and $7 million is spent on a single match? Wouldn’t they inform you anyway when there’s a problem?

No, because we have memorandums of understanding and agreement because of what we do, and it goes beyond even the companies that we may have a sponsorship relationship with or something like that.

But aside from it being legalistically correct or acceptable, do you think there’s any perception problem there? I turn on the TV at home and see huge Betway signage or I’m told it’s the Bet-at-Home tournament. Then you see the great Roger Federer and there’s a big William Hill sign in the background. Is that a perception problem?

In the US it’s different. Gambling is not legal, and sometimes Americans’ views of gambling is different than in other parts of the world, where it’s so accepted as a part of everyday life.

Roger himself said once the integrity’s gone we’re cooked. Would tennis ever consider saying, “Look, we’re not going to take additional endorsements or seek out alliances with gambling companies or sponsors?

I don’t want to prejudge what the independent panel and the review comes back with. But again….

Would that be something you think would be a good idea in this toxic environment, to say, “Wait, we have enough links to gambling?

No. that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not prejudging anything. I’m saying we would be open to funding the review and taking on the recommendations that come with the review, but we’ll leave it for the experts to analyze and look at.

But you’re the head of the ITF, our leader. I’m getting the impression that you think that it wouldn’t be a good  idea to put an immediate moratorium on additional gambling endorsements.

That would be saying that what we’ve been doing is wrong, the arrangements that we have in place. But again that’s something that will go through review. We have our properties and sponsorships in place at this point, so we wouldn’t be looking for a different sponsor, because we already have one in that category, if you know what I mean.

So much of betting in tennis is done during matches. What are your thoughts about in-match betting? Do you think that would be something that could be curtailed?

Again we’re speculating on so many different things. In so many parts of the world in-match betting isn’t legal – in France, for example. So the good thing is this is an example of something the panel will be able to look at.

You talk about tennis having a moral compass, but what about the whole issue of tanking? You saw it with Bernard Tomic in Sydney. The New Zealand Herald just said there were four cases of tanking, players who didn’t want to make e full effort.

That’s something more appropriate for the ATP and the WTA. They have rules in place and things to look at. I’m not going to prejudge players and call them out on things.

What about guarantees to play events, Dave? Do you ever find that problematic?

Again, the different tournaments are run differently. I can speak for Davis Cup, Fed Cup and the Hopman Cup. Different properties do different things for various reasons to promote tennis and have a player field, but again that’s up to each event to make those personal decisions.

Were you concerned that even after this whole BBC report came out, the New York Times then reported suspicious betting on a mixed doubles match here? In Sydney a player once ranked No. 187 pleaded guilty of match-fixing. Now the New Zealand Herald is saying there are questions about tanking.  Is it concerning that it goes on and on?

We investigate everything that comes [along]. With the alleged mixed doubles incident the other night, the TIU talked to the players immediately after the event to begin an investigation. I don’t have any idea what went on there, nor should I, but certainly the integrity of our sport is critical, and that’s what we will continue to be vigilant about.

Were you aware of the report in the Swedish paper a while ago where an official there said about four percent of the matches were fixed?

No.

You’ve been around a long time Dave. You’ve seen player development moves, cardio tennis initiatives, moves by the TIA – you’ve seen everything and have a pretty good sense of things. So, when all is said and done, do you think the review board and its leader will come out with some strong initiatives, or is it going to be a case of officials sitting around a room having a big talk?

There’ll be some good matters and, in fact, we’re already having discussions internally about things that we can do better. You have to get the players at a young age and help educate them. One of the things we did here at the Australian Open was have a seminar with the juniors to talk about the environment they’re entering. You’re going to be approached by people about potential integrity issues, anti-doping [we talked about], all the things that help juniors make the transition. We can do a much better job, and it’s the ITF’s responsibility to make sure we put in more seminars, more rigor, more education work with the players to help. It’s not going to solve everything, but coupled with other ideas that come out of the independent review, it will strengthen the program.

And if you could change one thing in tennis?

The most important thing is really that we have more funds and more resources to develop tennis in more countries around the world. To grow participation at the grassroots level, but also help nations and regions where the top players aren’t coming out of yet, so that in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years we get more players playing in those nations and more players coming through to the [top] levels.

The Middle East is the most problematic part of our world. Can tennis get a foothold of any significance there?

There are passionate people in all countries that are doing their best to deal with growing tennis at the same time there are issues of terrorism or other challenges – political, religious – that get in the way. It’s all around the world. When you have to worry about [terrorism at] a Davis Cup final in Ghent [Belgium,] which no one would have probably had to do a few years ago, and [deal with] what happened in Paris, you have to be vigilant – in the Middle East and Asia, everywhere, all around the world, we have to be diligent.


The Art of the Professional – Novak Djokovic, Master Craftsman

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Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—Donald Trump wrote a book, “The Art of the Deal.” Roger Federer’s career has been all about the art of the game.

Now, Novak Djokovic’s path can be called “the art of the professional.”

In fact, says Jim Courier, Novak was “professional before he was a professional.”

When he was just a village boy, high in the Serbian mountains, he showed up for his first clinic in perfect tennis gear – hat in place, toting a flawless bag and, of course, a banana. Professionals eat bananas.

Bombs were bursting on his nation – still, the kid developed an explosive backhand. When he went off to a German academy, the young Latvian Ernests Gulbis teased him, “Lighten up, let’s party.” Ernests played. Novak mastered his trade and went on to win 11 Slams. Gulbis has reached one semi.

But it has rarely been smooth for Djokovic.

At first his family, in boastful “Nole” shirts, was loud and rowdy in the friends box. He suffered physically and Andy Roddick publicly mocked him for all his supposed wimpy maladies. The playful Novak delighted fans with hilarious imitations. But you don’t step on Superman’s cape – Federer and Sharapova bristled.

Djokovic has long labored in the shadow of the dreamy Federer and hunky Rafa. By comparison his game can seem, dare we say, mechanical. Compared to their over-the-top personas, the Serb can seem a bit charisma-impaired. Never mind that he’s the most dominant player in the game. He’s won five of the last seven slams. He’s prevailed in his last 7 finals. He dominates top 10 players, and is 94-6 since the beginning of 2015. He’s upgraded every aspect of his game, is the most dominant No. 1 since Jimmy Connors, and will, I predict, end up winning more slams than any of his foes.

His game has no flaws. He’s hard to out-finesse – just ask Frenchman Gilles Simon. Except occasionally on clay, you can’t overpower him. When he does have a bad day at the office (he stunk up the gym against Simon), he usually squiggles free – except in Paris.

Djokovic’s power jabs – deep, fast, fierce and hard to read – dominate from the baseline. He puts a fist in your chest and shoves you back. Then he yo-yos you – corner to corner. You’re putty in his hands.

When you’re near him you sense his might. His eyes bulge wide. His body crouches low. Sneakers shriek. Grunts pierce the air. His gumby core twists. His legs sprint. His racket whips – a tornado of force.

He has a linebacker’s explosive fury and the whiplash flexibility of a high-bar gymnast. This is the fierce, efficient, brutal world of a peerless champion in his prime.

These days we see a graceful Roger Federer gleefully prancing free, relishing a glorious twilight – no worries. But he’s fallen short in his last 14 Slams. Braveheart Andy Murray, for all his mighty intent, is clearly a notch below. Rafa Nadal is mired in some kind of existential walkabout, and tennis’ next generation just can’t break through. The Big Four, as Brad Gilbert suggests, has become the Big One.

Today is for Nole.

In Doha, Djokovic crushed Nadal 6-1 in their opening set – how devastating. He did the same against Federer in the Melbourne semis. Then he three-peated as he whipped Andy Murray, 6-1, in the first set of the final. When Murray expressed his frustration, Aussie Open radio noted, “There’s another scream from Murray – his wife will be doing that in a week or two.”

Then the father-to-be – whose father-in-law had collapsed in the stands a few rounds earlier – bravely battled back in an astounding 80-minute set. Humiliation was not an option.

But Djokovic is lighter, faster and stronger than Murray. Time and again he strikes first, and he’s a better defender. His serve is now a nasty, well-placed weapon. His mean returns pounce. It’s best to get your first serve in. And, by the way, duking it out with Djokovic in long chess-match rallies often leads to pain – checkmate. You don’t want to go there.

Still, the second set with Murray was breathtaking – a ferocious fury. Murray was fearless. His serve stepped up. “Win or lose,” noted Simon Cambers, “this is a great fightback.” The match exploded – a dazzling duel.

Again and again, Djokovic – the man who crafted perfect tennis strokes and shaped a perfect tennis body –  blasted assorted cross-court backhand winners, seemingly from New Zealand. Analyst Richard Evans gasped: “My goodness me, have you ever seen tennis like this?” Broadcaster Chris Bowers suggested, “What we are watching is just unbelievable in the history of tennis.”

The professional – who’s gluten-free, who’s written a book on nutrition, who regularly uses an egg-shaped hyperbaric chamber for recovery, and who speaks of humility, karma and calm – was putting on a master performance. For all his focus on tennis, Djokovic is, along with Milos Raonic, tennis’ foremost Renaissance man. The boy who grew up listening to classical music and reading Russian poetry now chats freely about psychology, fate, fatherhood and the importance of personal happiness. One day he’s reeling off comedic riffs with the timing of a stand-up, while the next he’s trying to help thousands of Serbian kids, or going out to comfort Syrian refugees.

But, make no mistake about it, the 28-year-old is of little comfort to his ATP foes. After all, these days, “the art of the professional” is now on full display at tennis galleries around the globe. It’s a compelling show.


Australian Open: Karma, Humility and the Wolf – The Words of Champion Novak Djokovic

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After Novak Djokovic won his third Grand Slam in a row, his eleventh overall (drawing even with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg) and his record-tying sixth Australian Open, he waved to fans in Rod Laver Arena, was hailed by hundreds of (primarily Serbian) supporters in the garden outside the arena, and then went to the “press theater.” Both radiant and humble, he spoke of the specifics of his 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory over a brave but over-matched Andy Murray.

The sometimes funny, sometimes reflective Serb touched on the details of the match, the importance of a harmonious and joyous private life, and the wolf on the mountain.

Here are some excerpts:

QUESTION: What do you think made the difference tonight against Andy?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I started the match very well, as I started in the semifinals versus Roger, with not many things I did wrong…I was very aggressive and just played the way I wanted to play against him, and executed the game plan perfectly for a set and a half.

I made a break in the second. I felt he was pretty neutral from the back of the court and was allowing me to take charge and [take] control over the rallies. I had more time.

Then he started serving better. He came back to the match. The second set was decided on a few points, as was the third. I could have maybe done better in my service games when I was up a break in both the second and third set, but credit to him for fighting and showing why he’s one of the best in the world.

He definitely made me work. There were a lot of long rallies, long exchanges. We were both breathing heavily towards the end of the second and the third set. But that’s what you expect.

As I was saying, I knew coming into the match against Andy I’m going to have to be patient and construct the point. Obviously [I was] trying to be the one to take the initiative and be more aggressive.

It wasn’t possible at all times because he would change up his tactics and was playing better in the third [set], but [on] the big points I managed to find a way.

Q: Is that the biggest reception you’ve gotten from the fans outside Rod Laver Arena?

DJOKOVIC: Yes. It was amazing. I honestly did not expect that. I didn’t know what was waiting [for me]. Many of those fans didn’t have a ticket or a chance to watch the match in the stadium, so they stayed in the main square. They waited for me. I’m very grateful for their support – it’s quite incredible. I don’t take it for granted, obviously.

I’ve had that fortune to win this trophy now for six times, but I never experienced such a support after the match…[I saw] a lot of Serbian flags…It’s great that they came out in big numbers and showed their support on such a big occasion, such a big match for me.

Q: One Serbian fan said if you ran for president, everybody would vote for you. Do you have any plans?

DJOKOVIC: No. I’m an athlete. I think I should stick with that.

Q: Is there particular significance in this one?

DJOKOVIC: Of course, every Grand Slam title is very significant in its own way. Here, because of the fact that I managed to make history tonight and equal Roy Emerson’s six Australian Open titles. I’m very honored to be mentioned alongside legends of our sport -–Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver – [and to] win as many Grand Slams as they did.

You know, I can’t lie and say I didn’t think about it. Of course it was in back of my mind. Coming into the court I knew that I have a chance to make the history. Of course it served as a great motivation, and a great imperative to play my best.

I tried not to think about it too much, but it was there as an encouragement, as a positive feedback, and a goal.

Q: Do you have to pinch yourself, six Australian Open titles, eleven Grand Slams?

DJOKOVIC: Everybody is holding a champagne glass here. This is a very formal press conference (laughter). All smiles when champagne is around.

Well, look, as I said, it’s a great honor. I don’t take anything for granted, even though I won the last four out of five Grand Slams, played five finals out of the last five Grand Slams.

It’s phenomenal. I’m very proud of it, as is my team. We worked very hard to be in this position, and we should enjoy it. We should cherish every moment that we get to experience now because these are the tournaments that we all value, that we all want to play well in.

No doubt that I’m playing the best tennis of my life in the last 15 months. You know, everything is going well privately, as well. I became a father and husband and have a family. So I feel like I’m at the point in my life where everything is working in harmony. I’ll try to keep it that way.

Q: What are the two or three things that have been at the core of this incredible rise and success? In your mind, what has been the key?

DJOKOVIC: I can’t pick one thing and say that was the secret of success, even though I know people would like to know or get something out of me that would explain this. But it’s not that easy. If it’s that easy and simple and [I] say one or two things, then I think many people would do it.

It’s actually many years of commitment, hard work, sacrifice and dedication, not just having training sessions – the things that you are obliged to do as a tennis player – but [it's] also to a lifestyle. Trying to devote most of your time, energy and thought to make yourself the best person and player possible.

There’s something I’ve found out in the previous years. [It's] that you can’t separate the professional and the private. You’re the same person. So all those emotions that are maybe trapped, that occur in your private life, those issues and problems we all face, you need to surface them. You need to find a solution. You need to face [them and] encounter those particular issues privately in order to maximize your potential as a player, as well.

At the end of the day, in these particular matches when it goes down to very few points… you’re challenged in every aspect of your being, if there is something under the surface, it will come out and it will play against you. It will be your worst enemy.

I’m just speaking out [and being] very frank now out of my own experience. Of course, everybody’s different. This is not a formula for everybody’s success. I’m just saying it’s something that helped me to understand how to get better and how to evolve.

Q: It’s the first month of the year. You’ve already had convincing wins over the three biggest rivals in your career. Do you allow yourself in your mind to acknowledge that perhaps you’ve separated yourself from them a bit at the moment?

DJOKOVIC: I don’t want to allow myself to be in that frame of mind. Because if I do, a person becomes too arrogant and thinks that he’s a higher being or better than everybody else. You can get a big slap from karma very soon. I don’t want that.

I try to still follow the same kind of lifestyle and routine, things that I’ve been doing all these years that have been helping me to get to where I am. I know [it's best] being humble and being discreet — [while] still of course satisfied and proud of what you’ve achieved, but discreetly doing that.

Of course staying respectful to all my opponents, my colleagues and to this sport is a key to continue on and maintain this level of success and performance, I hope. This is [the] kind of approach to help me to get to where I am. I don’t want to step away from it.

Q: What has changed in your game? Last year in Monte Carlo, you were almost always losing the first set. This year you won 6-1 against Nadal in Doha in 30 minutes; 6-1 against Federer in 24 minutes; tonight, 6-1 first set again in 30 minutes.

DJOKOVIC: It would be great if tennis was played in only one set (smiling). I don’t know.

Of course it was very pleasing to play the way I played against all these guys…I played an amazing first two sets against Roger, then I lost the third, and it was very close in the fourth.

In the Grand Slams you can’t allow yourself to be playing well for first couple sets and then just lose focus. This match could have gone to five sets. Could have happened.

The experience of playing so many matches against these guys, being on the big stage, knowing what’s at stake, knowing the importance and value of these tournaments and fighting for the trophy, that helps.

That I want to improve, as everybody else [does]. I’m not here because I played the same tennis I played last year. I feel like I’m playing better. I always strive to improve…technically, or tactically, but also mentally.

Q: Different approach?

DJOKOVIC: I’ve heard actually one nice metaphor yesterday. It’s much easier for the wolf that is going uphill and running up the mountain — not easier, but he was hungrier than the wolf standing on the hill.

You can observe it from different sides, but, you know, I believe that all the guys that are out there fighting each week to get to No. 1 are very hungry to get to No.1. I know that.

I can’t allow myself to relax and enjoy. I mean, I can. Of course I want to enjoy, and I will, but it’s not going to go more than few days. After that I’m already thinking about how can I continue on playing well each tournament throughout the rest of the season.

[It's] kind of a mindset that one needs to have if one wants to stay up there, because you need to work double hard when you’re up there.

Q: Can you explain why you’ve never lost the final here? Is there something special here?

DJOKOVIC: Well, it is. That’s why I kissed the court. I’ve had a love affair with Rod Laver Arena for many years, and I hope it can last a long time.

Q: How much is a wolf hungry for Paris?

DJOKOVIC: Very hungry. But wolf needs to eat a lot of different meals to get to Paris. Paris is a dessert.

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Australian Open: Kerber’s Truth – ‘Do What You Love, Your Dream Will Come True’

2016 Australian Open - Day 13 : News Photo

Bill Simons

MELBOURNEIt was elemental and profound.

Shock – pure shock – gripped us.

The moment – well, it was almost unthinkable.

Sages and fans alike were almost certain the Aussie Open final would be a one-sided blowout. Conventional wisdom whispered, “Let’s just hope this final will be competitive.”

Maybe it will last 90 minutes or so. Maybe the wannabe, Angelique Kerber, won’t simply be happy just to be in her first Slam final. Simply put, if the German defeated the most fabulous woman’s athlete in the world, it would be monumental. The foundation of the game would shake.

After all, at the start of the tournament the 28-year-old Kerber was the only top 10 player who hadn’t reached a Slam final. She was a match point down in the first round. But that was two long weeks ago.

Now for the second Slam in a row, a veteran, diminutive Euro lefty took down Serena. At the US Open it was the crafty Roberta Vinci who sliced and diced her way to victory in the semis. Here Kerber prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Was it because Angie was battling to preserve the record of her idol and fellow German? After all, Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 Open-era Slam wins was at stake.

Was it because Williams felt the vise-grip of the moment? Remember, when Serena was seeking her 18th Slam – to tie the legendary Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert – she faltered badly.

At the US Open, clearly the weight of history – winning the calendar Grand Slam and tying Steffi’s record – clamped down on her.

But here in Melbourne, Serena was rested and renewed. Life was good. The glare of the New York media and a humbling loss were in her rearview mirror. Serena had rolled to the final without losing a set. She brushed aside top 5 players Maria Sharapova and Aga Radwanska, losing just 9 games.

Now she would only have to beat Kerber, whom she’d stopped in six of their seven meetings.

The No. 6 seed didn’t sound confident. Maybe Serena, she joked, “will have to shake a little bit. ” But Kerber’s play of late has been no joke. Leaner and faster then ever, she’d been flashing her swift, lethal athleticism. Never mind that last year she lost in the first round in Melbourne and didn’t get beyond the third round of a single Slam. This season she already reached the Brisbane final and, here in Melbourne, she dismissed Vika Azarenka, a popular long-shot.

Today she was tough and not at all overwhelmed by the moment. She promptly made sense of the inventive theory that she was the WTA’s answer to Rafa Nadal. Fleet, low to the ground with a nasty, almost unreadable forehand, Kerber could grind. She proved she’s far from a ho-hum counterpuncher. She can turn defense into offense, find sharp angles, and is a fierce fighter who often finds herself in three-set battles.

Today she knew she had to start fast and stay close. She raced to a 3-1 first set lead.

Stunning!

Later, in the media center, Serena said, “Every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life. As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not.”

Going into the final, Serena had averaged just 16 unforced errors per match. In the first set alone she had 23. She rushed the simplest of sitters. Forehands flew long, backhands went wide, volleys found the net. Serena had an imposing 21-4 record in Slam finals. Why did she save her worst performance of the tourney for today?

Go figure – it was Kerber – confident and unblinking, serving well and defending like a demon – who was the aggressor. Williams’ errors mounted. Her serve was modest. Her volleys were a hazard. She was passed regularly. Hands on hips, frustrated to the max, Serena winced. She and the world alike asked, “What’s wrong?”

“She’s like a petulant child insisting ‘I want that chocolate,’” suggested broadcaster Craig Gabriel.

Serena, 34, was broken twice and lost the first set 6-4. Predictably, she battled back. She’d won eight straight Grand Slam matches after losing the opening set. At last she unleashed the brilliant power of the fiercest player in the women’s game. We saw the will of a warrior as she began to move more adeptly, upgraded her serve, and, most importantly, cut way down on her errors, taking full advantage of one loose Kerber game when the German twice double-faulted. The blip opened the door and Serena marched to a 6-3 second-set win.

The Australian Open would now come down to a single set: a battle of hungry wills, a test of steely nerves. Tensions soared. We saw athletics at its compelling best. The match we had feared would be a blowout morphed into an instant classic of sorts, bringing to mind Venus Williams’ 2005 Wimbledon triumph over Lindsay Davenport. And it all came down to the pivotal sixth game, when the two lifted their level. A glorious and lengthy tug of war ensued. Serena, the diva and winner of eight of the last 16 Grand Slams, seemed likely to prevail.

But Kerber knew she had nothing to lose. Her mind was clear. She had survived that first-round match point. This was gravy. She recalled she had came from 5-2 down in the second set against Azarenka. Her long-ago win over Williams in Cincinnati in 2012 gave her confidence. She was swinging free, moving with ease and relishing the combat. But she failed to convert on one break point after another. The game was going on for far too long. She had to do something outside the box.

So she hit the most delicate of drop shots – an inspired winner.

Then, she reasoned, “If I could do that once, I can do it again.”

She did.

“That’s how I am. I’m a little bit crazy and I have confidence when I hit drop shots.” The most subtle shot in the game made all the not-so-subtle difference. After four break points, Kerber prevailed to go up 4-2. The crowd’s roar was deafening. The German then marched to her first championship point and unleashed yet another fierce groundie. Then, as Serena’s forehand volley drifted long, Kerber fell to the Melbourne ground. Joy flooded her face, tears flowed. “This moment is something I will never forget,” she told IT. “It was worth everything.”

The first German Grand Slam winner since 1999, she’d lost eleven straight matches in 2011. Now ranked No. 2, she admitted it was all too crazy. “Now I can say I’m a Grand Slam champion,” she gushed. “I enjoyed every moment, from my first step on court.” 

Her prime feeling was pride in her family, her friends and her team. “I’m not the easiest person sometimes. I had a few downs…[But] they told me, ‘Okay, let’s go to work and you will do it someday.’…The message from me is, you can work very hard and someday the work will pay off. Just follow your dreams, be patient. You will always have up and downs…But stay positive and go for it. Do what you love. This is what I’m doing and now my dream came true.”

2016 Australian Open - Day 13 : News Photo


Australan Open: An Appetite for Learning – A Pre-Match Interview With Serena’s Coach

 2016 Australian Open - Day 9 : News Photo

They call it the Mouratoglou Miracle. Since the charismatic and charming Patrick Mouratoglou took over coaching Serena Williams, wonders have happened. Never mind that Serena was well past 30 when she teamed with the celebrated Frenchman. Since then Williams has dominated, winning eight of twelve Slams and an Olympic Gold.

Just 75 minutes before Serena’s big Aussie Open final against German Angelique Kerber, “Le Coach” was in the player cafeteria, about to have a grand veggie-heavy lunch. He had just opened his black book, which was crowded with court diagrams and “X-and-O” info. Generously he sat down with Inside Tennis for a quick pre-match interview.

INSIDE TENNIS: What did Serena’s four-month break do for her?

PATRICK MOURATOGLOU: She’s fresh mentally. I mean we did it essentially for the physical so she could recover from the little injuries that she had. She had many of those. We wanted her not to be bothered by them. But I think it had also a very good mental effect, because I feel she was really tired mentally at the end of the year. It was a very difficult year…She had a lot of stress. For example, being sick in Paris [at the French Open]. She had to dig so deep. So then she needed a break. We didn’t do it for that reason, but I feel now she’s very fresh mentally.

IT: Is she really playing history and the event more than Serena?

PM: Yeah. I think everyone is playing an event when he or she is in a Grand Slam final. Serena has more of a habit of making Grand Slam finals than Kerber, but she’s playing also for history, so let’s say 50/50.

IT: Do you think she’s a better player now than she was in New York? Do you think she’s moving better?

PM: Oh yeah. Sure, I’m very happy with her level of play from the start of the tournament. And also we worked on a lot of new things and she’s doing [them] during the matches, which is a good sign. She feels good also because she knows she’s playing well….

IT: Can you tell me one or two of the new things?

PM: No, I can’t, but if you look at the matches you’ll see.

IT: And finally, do you think she’s reinvigorated? Do you think she’ll go on and break Margaret Court’s mark of 24?

PM: Yes, I think so. We’ll see – but I think so.

IT: And the thing you love the most about  working with
Serena?

PM: That  I love the most?

IT: Yes, that you love the most, if you don’t mind?

PM: There are many, but if have to name one, what I like the most is her appetite for learning.


Australian Open Buzz: The Thrill of Vika and the Azarenka of Defeat

2016 Australian Open - Day 11 : News Photo

Angelique Kerber has reached her first Grand Slam final in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images

OUR FAVORITE T-SHIRT: A Brisbane woman sported a T-shirt that revived Oscar Wilde’s suggestion, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

BALLSY COMMENTARY: After a linesman was hit in his private parts by a serve, a voice in the press room called out, “New balls, please.”

OUR FAVORITE PHRASE: Broadcaster Craig Willis used the phrase “a bee’s nadget,” which means a very thin margin.

MONKEY BUSINESS: When it suddenly started drizzling amidst the Melbourne sun, ESPN’s Cliff Drysdale said, “It’s like a monkey’s wedding.” He explained that it’s a South African phrase referring to when it’s raining and the sun is out. Pam Shriver said her next wedding will be like a monkey’s wedding…Last year, Novak Djokovic said he wouldn’t trade a single Grand Slam for an invitation to Andy Murray’s wedding…Bjorn Borg sold the rights to photograph his 1989 wedding to rocker Loredana Berte to a single photographer, but others objected and a brawl broke out…At his second wedding, McEnroe was glad it rained, since the bad light spelled problems for photographers…Writer Bruce Jenkins said the very young Monica Seles was like “the perennial giddy teenager at her first wedding reception, working on her third glass of champagne”…Before his wedding, the very religious Michael Chang confided, “You may be blown away that I am a virgin…I’m looking forward to that wedding night when I can give my wife something that I have not shared with anyone”…6,000 guests attended Mahesh Bhupathi’s nuptials…Anna Kournikova said, “Weddings and marriages and whatever, it’s not something very important to me. I believe in people being together and just having fun.”…Holland’s Paul Haarhuis said if his marriage led to problems with his tennis, it would lead to a quick divorce.

NO RESPECT: No matter what he does, it’s hard for Djokovic to attract a lot of love. After his stunning win over Federer in the Aussie Open semis, the headlines read, “Djok and Awe,” “Brutal Novak Shows No Mercy” and “Novak Shows Little Pity” (as if he’s supposed to).

ROD ON ROGER: When asked whether Federer could win another Grand Slam, Rod Laver  said, “I think it’s possible, but maybe it’s a big stretch.”

THE THRILL OF VICTORY AND THE AGONY OF DEFEAT: The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is one of the great iconic phrases in tennis. But at the Aussie Open, it was the thrill of Vika (who won her opening round match 6-0, 6-0 and offered a “dab” victory gesture) and the “Azarenka” of defeat. The former two-time Aussie Open champion had a wide open path to the finals, but fell to Angelique Kerber for the first time in their seven matches.

LAVER CUP: Roger Federer’s agency, Team8, announced the creation of The Laver Cup, a Ryder Cup-like international competition at the end of September which will have six European players face off against a team from the rest of the world in both singles and doubles. Federer told the New York Times that the event, named in honor of the 77-year-old Aussie legend, will not pay appearance fees and won’t be a threat to the Davis Cup.

AND THE BEAT GOES ON: Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis won their third straight Grand Slam when they captured the Aussie Open women’s doubles. It was their 12th title together and the final was their 36th straight win, the longest streak in women’s doubles since 1990.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A SLAM MAKES: At Serena’s last Slam – the US Open – the world was watching, the pressure unrelenting. The media pounced, expectations were huge. But, here in Melbourne, it’s a new day. This is the friendly Slam and Serena is cruising, relaxed and seemingly poised to win a record 22nd Grand Slam. She has a 6-1 record against Angie Kerber. But, of course, anything is possible. 

QUOTEBOOK:

“Before we saw the clown. Now we see Ivan Lendl.” – French commentator Henri Leconte on Gael Monfils, who is now playing with more focus

“He’s Roger Federer, no doubt about that.” – Jim Courier

“He’s almost the perfect human being.” – Australia’s Channel 7, on Federer

“She makes you go back to the drawing board and that’s really inspiring.” – Maria Sharapova, on her 2-19 record against Serena

A BIG STEP: It can be announced: Venus is on the Indian Wells entry list.

JUST WONDERING: It will take time to get to the bottom of the gambling, match-fixing controversy, but why can’t tennis officials simply announce that they want to send a clear message about gambling and will no longer accept money from gambling companies as commercial partners? And for that matter, that they will try to get out of their many current agreements?.

SHARAPOVA VS. SHAMIL: Russian Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpsichev had some strong words for Maria Sharapova. “If she withdraws from playing [against the] Netherlands and we lose the match she will not play at the Olympics…Probably Sharapova has issued her statement [about Fed Cup] too rashly. I think she and her managers should consider their decision once again.” 

RANKINGS NOSE-DIVE: Simona Halep will be out of the game for a month and a half for nose surgery because of a deviated septum. This likely means the  Indian Wells champion will not be defending her points. Years back, Halep had breast reduction surgery to help her game.

TENNIS CHANNEL SOLD: The Tennis Channel was sold to the Baltimore-based Sinclair Corporation. CEO Ken Solomon will stay on board – still, many wonder what effect the move will have.

GUYS IN THE LOCKER ROOM: In the much-circulated video of Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov watching Sharapova play Lauren Davis, Federer offers a demeaning quip about the women. Roger wasn’t happy that his dismissive comment was captured on video and the camera has since been turned off.

THE BRITISH ARE COMING: With Andy Murray and Jo Konta, Great Britain had a man and a woman in the final four of a Slam for the first time since 1977. Konta is also the first British woman to reach an Aussie Open semi since 1977. Jamie Murray is in the men’s doubles final with Brazilian Bruno Soares and British players have been dominating the wheelchair play.

NO QUESTION ABOUT IT: Jo Konta has the most distinctive service ritual and motion since John McEnroe.

THE HUNGARIAN CONNECTION: Britain’s Jo Konta has Hungarian parents and grew up in Australia before she went off to Spain in hopes of becoming a tennis pro. Eventually she settled in Britain and she seems about as British as the queen. She’s repeatedly been asked by Aussie journalists if she would consider coming back “Down Under.” But Konta dismisses the notion. BTW: The last lefty to reach an Aussie Open final, Monica Seles, also had parents who were Hungarian.

HUMILITY IS ALIVE AND WELL IN MELBOURNE: After having gotten into the semis, Konta said, “I’m incredibly humbled and grateful to be in the position I’m in.”   

THE SELES CONNECTION: Angelique Kerber is the first left-hander in the Aussie Open women’s final since Monica Seles in 1996. By the way, Seles and semi-finalist Johanna Konta are both of Hungarian origin.

NO BOOKENDS: If Konta had beaten Kerber she would have had the opportunity to have beaten Venus in the first round and Serena in the final.  

HEY RAFA FANS, ALLOW US TO SAY THIS AND SOME OTHER THINGS ABOUT ANGELIQUE KERBER: 

* Some suggest, that in a way, with her lefty consistency, strong legs, and counterpuncher’s ability to quickly convert defense to offense, she’s like the WTA’s Nadal. But she yells “C’mon,” not “Vamos!”

• She narrowly escaped being eliminated in the first round when she was down match point to Japan’s Misaki Doi. 

• Some fans call finalist Kerber the “unsung hero of the WTA” for the large number of three-set thrillers she’s been involved in, like her win over Venus at 2012 US Open, her win over Sharapova at 2014 Wimbledon, her loss to Azarenka at last year’s US Open and her Fed Cup loss to Kvitova last year. Many of the four titles last year – especially her win over Madison Keys in the Charleston final – involved tense three-set matches in which she showed her counterpunching mettle.

• The German was the only player in the WTA top 10 who hadn’t reached a Slam final. She is the first German to reach the Aussie Open final since Anke Huber in 1996.

• Her quarterfinal win over Vika overcame a 0-6 record.

MESSAGE TO STEFFI: After winning her semifinal match, Angelique Kerber gushed, “Write me, Steffi.” Years ago a fan called out to Steffi, “Marry me.” Graf quipped, “How rich are you?” 

EVERYTHING: After losing to Angelique Kerber in the quarters, Vika Azarenka said, “I am going to be pissed off today. I am going to let myself have that.” She added that while she’s improved a lot from last year, she didn’t push herself mentally, and she has to be more consistent and work on “everything” – that’s all.  

WHAT MILOS RAONIC, ARTHUR ASHE, MICHAEL CHANG, TODD MARTIN AND JAMES BLAKE HAVE IN COMMON: All are profoundly cerebral. 

ISSUE OF THE DAY: The new head of the tennis Independent Review Board has had so many ties to major sporting and tennis organizations. So how much of an independent and unrelentingly vigorous mindset will he bring to the investigation?

WHO KNEW? When Australian Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt and American Davis Cup captain Jim Courier were broadcasting the Aussie Open together, Hewitt said, “There’s a massive Davis Cup coming up.” Courier then quipped, “Who knew?”

Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang


Australian Open: Federer Wins the Battle, Djokovic Wins the War

2016 Australian Open - Day 11 : News Photo

BILL SIMONS

MELBOURNE—Thanks to Serena, there are no rivalries in women’s tennis. There are many in the men’s game, but none better than Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic. Forty-four times they had battled. Each had won 22 times. Simply put, the match-up is sublime. And on this mild Melbourne evening, the Rod Laver Arena crowd tingles in anticipation: Let’s get ready to rumble.

On the north bench, in his Uniqlo blue gear, is the dominant man from Serbia: buzz-cut hair, efficient strokes, in his prime – the ruler. The courtside announcer provides details – 63 titles, 5 Aussie Opens, No. 1 in the world. We get the picture. Tennis knows full well that the man from a distant war-torn land has been tearing up the ATP for some time.

His foe – on the south bench, in green-and-white Nike gear – is the Swiss master, Mr. Federer, the proud, elegant lion. His mane flows. So do his strokes – his game is poetic. He’s beloved. But he is past his prime. The 34-year-old still instills fear. He is No. 3 in the world. But he hasn’t reached the Aussie Open final since 2010, and hasn’t won a Slam in over three years. One writer claims, “He’s as perfect a human being as you get.” But age matters, even for icons.

From the beginning, Djokovic pounces. The man, who has been compared to a leopard, takes advantage of many early Federer errors – an easy backhand into the net, a flying forehand. Federer rarely loses serve. But tonight he serves poorly and falters. Djokovic breaks Federer’s first service game.

Is it an omen?

After Roger drops the first three games, he holds. The pro-Federer crowd (and isn’t the crowd always pro-Federer?) explodes. But it’s Nole who dictates, in long rallies and frenetic scrambles. His sneakers shriek. His game shouts. He pronates like a gymnast and creates angles like a geometry guru. This is almost flawless, imposing tennis.

His serve kisses the lines. His returns are laser-like. He moves with ease, his groundies penetrate deep. He again breaks, and then hits a service winner to grab the first set 6-1 in just 22 minutes – such a shocking dominance. Few make Roger look ordinary. Novak does. For just the second time in 45 matches Roger wins only one game in a set.

“Please, oh, please,” the crowd seems to ask, “don’t let this be a blowout. They are not part of the Fed-Nole script.” But the Serb is relentless. Gone are any memories of his wretched struggle two rounds ago against Frenchman Gilles Simon, when he’d had 100 unforced errors. Now Novak is a different player, a man possessed. He crouches, he widens his eyes, he waits, he stretches, he unleashes. His game has few cracks in it. From defense to offense, patiently hitting rally balls down the middle or a backhand winner on the line. He likes to play with a lead. This is a champion in his prime.

All the while, the great man struggles. Roger is out of sorts. He lacks rhythm and confidence and is less than explosive. “I can’t believe some of the shots Roger’s been playing since he’s 12 are now flying long…It’s an uncharacteristic display,” says Australia Open radio. “He’s been discombobulated. On the other hand, Novak has been playing out of his mind.” In just 55 minutes the Djoker is up 6-1, 6-2. He cannot remember playing two sets so well.

But with Federer, humiliation is not an option. Roger runs in place. He stares at his strings. He seems to ask, “What can I possibly do?” He knows Novak’s stratospheric level must flatten just a bit. In the third set Roger finally gets in a groove. Hope beckons. The Swiss at last flashes his brilliance as he blasts a backhand return down the line that freezes Djokovic, then surprises him with an inspired cross-court forehand dink off a volley.

Novak at last seems vulnerable, and Federer prevails in one of those classic games. On his fourth break point, he pins the Serb and, after an agonizing 1:26, scores his first (and only) break of the match, to go up 4-2. Fans leap in glee. “Rah-ger, Rah-ger,” they chant.

But after Federer collects the third set 6-3, the great match is delayed. Rain is coming, and the Laver roof is closed. For eleven minutes tennis hits the pause button.

Yes, the 34-year-old man may have gotten some rest, and an indoor court, which he likes. But his ascendant momentum vanishes. He and Novak battle evenly deep into the fourth set until, with Novak up 4-3, Roger chases down a lob, survives two overheads, retrieves a volley from the left corner and feathers a backhand down the line. It is the shot of the tournament – the shot of the year. The crowd roars. Afterward, Federer scoffs that the point is just in the “top hundred” of his career. It is certainly a triumphant moment. Yet a moment doesn’t make a match.

These days, Djokovic is one of the toughest mental players around. He knows he can’t be distracted. Tennis is filled with players who’ve won big battles, but ultimately lost the war. John McEnroe won the most famous tie-break in history in 1980, 18-16, over Bjorn Borg, at Wimbledon. But Borg won the match.

Similarly, Novak shrugs off Federer’s fabulous point, refocuses, and hits two spectacular returns to score a break that in a heartbeat propels him – as in last year’s Wimbledon and US Open finals – to another sizzling four-set triumph, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. Now 15,000 tennis lovers – from Rod Laver in the front row to an Aussie baker from Perth in the top tier – know a simple truth. This is Novak Djokovic’s night. This is Novak Djokovic’s tournament to lose. This is Novak Djokovic’s era to dominate. Or, as Brad Gilbert notes, “‘The Big Four’ is now ‘The Big One.’”

TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo


Australian Open: Betgate Investigative Unit Announced, Questions Linger

2016 Australian Open - Day 10 : News Photo

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—One phrase comes to mind – “Tennis anyone?” 

After all, the Australian Open is one of the game’s great events. All the focus should be on some scintillating semis. 

But, never before has an off-court development so impacted a tournament as has the “Betgate” gambling story here at the Australian Open. The troubling narrative has stuck around like the tenacious David Ferrer in the final set. 

“Betgate” began ten days ago, when, just an hour before the Melbourne action began, the BBC dropped a bombshell. Match-fixing, they claimed, was a severe problem in the game.

Yes, the report was wretched journalism. Then again, sensationalism often creates a sensation. Observers were worried. They noted there was a lot of smoke coming from the broadcast, so there might be some fire. The revelations, said Mary Joe Fernandez, “cast a very dark shadow on our sport right now.”

Tennis was shaken.

Many hoped the dust-up would go away. It didn’t. The New York Times published a report about a suspicious mixed doubles match at the Australian Open. An Australian player, once ranked No. 187, pleaded guilty to match-fixing in a Sydney court. Australia’s Financial Review printed a troubling article. Even more disturbing was the highly disputed story by the recently created datablog Show Legend. They claimed they made mathematical calculations to figure access odds on matches, and thereby supposedly identified the 15 players “whose matches according to Buzzfeed have regularly shown suspicious odds changes.” They named the players and included the legendary Lleyton Hewitt. Many bristled. ATP Chief Chris Kermode said it was “deeply unfair.” Hewitt insisted it was “a joke… just absurd.” Show Legend insisted they only wanted “to reveal the real names behind the BuzzFeed IDs. We do not imply that these players are involved in match-fixing.”  

Ten days ago, ATP Chairman Kermode vigorously defended the Tennis Integrity Unit. His message: We have confidence, all is well – there is nothing in the sport that is being suppressed.

Then this morning, there was one of the most historic press conferences in tennis. Leaders of the game’s seven governing organizations – the ATP, the WTA, the ITF and the four Grand Slams – gathered and admitted the current atmosphere was “toxic.” They said action had to be taken immediately. An independent review board, led by London sports law attorney Adam Lewis, would look into the effectiveness of the Tennis Integrity Unit. 

The board, said the powerful tennis leaders, would have all the money and time it needed. And, most importantly, any suggested initiatives would be enacted.

All the while, the huge FIFA bribery scandal hovered. It was like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. Kermode said, “We need to address the perception [and] public confidence [and] hit it head on. We don’t have anything to hide…But you don’t need another sports administrator standing up here and telling you that. In light of what’s happened over the past year with other sports governing bodies, we don’t want…that. Let’s get someone independent in and we’ll take it from there.”

A reporter said to Kermode, “Last week when the BBC report came out, you very much said you did not believe there was widespread corruption…You expressed complete confidence in the TIU…Do you not think [that] the timing of this announcement today will be seen…as an admission there is actually more of a problem than was maybe admitted last week?”

Kermode replied, “No, not at all…The intention of doing this is to be really, really proactive and take this head on…We want to be constantly vigilant…This is a very bold step…Certainly the events of the last 10 days have caused damage to our sport. There is no getting away from that. We remain totally confident in the work of the Tennis Integrity Unit…Everybody who loves our sport…can have the knowledge…[that] we are doing all we can do to make sure the integrity of the sport is maintained…We had to act quickly.” 

Wimbledon chief Phillip Brook sounded a similar note, saying, “We are determined to do everything we can to remove corruption from our sport.”

Many applauded the move, seeing it as a bold, critical step forward. Others weren’t sure. Michael Mewshaw – a whistleblower, investigator and unsparing critic, was among them. In a commentary for Inside Tennis, he noted, “We’ve moved in a matter of days from Kermode’s adamant denial that anything’s wrong with the TIU to what now appears to be a major review. The question arises – does this represent a change of heart or a PR move? In politics and corporate life, the appointment of a review panel is traditionally the way an organization tries to give the impression of doing something when it’s actually doing nothing. The political name for such panels is ‘bogsatt’ – short for ‘bunch of guys sitting around a table talking.’ There have been many such tennis committees assembled to deal with problems over the decades. In almost all cases nothing was ever accomplished. Back in the ’80s the Men’s Tennis Professional Council, which then ran the game, actually filed RICO charges (Racket Influenced Corrupt Organization) against a number of agencies. With no explanation and nothing achieved – at least nothing that was shared with the public – the charges were dropped. One has only to flash back to 2008 and the inauguration of the TIU to see the same sort of soaring announcement about its independence and diligence, blah blah blah.  

“It is worth noting that unlike Kermode’s earlier statements which suggested he had limited powers to pursue telephone, computer and bank data, he now says that the TIU has ‘substantial investigative powers.’ As for Adam Lewis, QC, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it’s unclear precisely what powers he has. Is he like a Special Prosecutor who’s free to pursue evidence wherever it leads? Is he free to recommend penalties and free to cross examine witnesses under oath? What exactly is his remit?”

“His CV needs to be read with care and with a gimlet eye for contradictions. He’s very much an establishment figure who has been a paid gun for hire on both sides of controversial cases. He’s often represented soccer players and clubs against FIFA, but has also represented FIFA. I wonder what his reaction has been to the recent scandal which has prompted the arrest of FIFA officials for bribes. Did he have any knowledge of such crimes?  

“Then, too, it is revelatory and troubling to read the long list of Mr. Lewis’ clients. There’s his representation of FIFA, UEFA, and FA, soccer organizations currently in the news for all the wrong legal reasons. Far more troubling is that he represented a prominent tennis supplier, a big agency, and broadcasting rights holders. Doesn’t this place him in a serious position of potential conflict of interest? If he’s done business with these groups, how likely is he to be objective about their potential complicity?

“Moreover, his clients have included the ITF, the Grand Slam Committee, the LTA, and the All England Club. How objective can he be if his review produces evidence of complicity or culpability, sheer ignorance or indifference on the part of these organizations?

“Plus, Lewis has represented Richard Gasquet and Mariano Puerta in their doping cases. Everybody, of course, deserves vigorous legal defense. Everyone from Mafia dons to human rights violators should get their day in court. But the lawyers who represent these defendants aren’t normally appointed to head up independent review panels.”

Mewshaw concluded by stating, “I can guarantee you that if you mention any of this in an article you’ll be the only tennis reporter to do so.”

Throughout “Betgate” many numbers were discussed. Kermode said in tennis there is “a zero, zero tolerance” for corruption. Others noted that there are 23,000 players participating in ITF events. Since 2008, $14 million has been spent combating corruption. There have been 18 convictions. The ITF has a five-year $70 million promotional deal with Sportsradar, a Swiss gambling company.

Martina Navratilova slammed the BBC report. Still, she asked, “How do you police hundreds [and] thousands of matches? We’re talking millions of dollars.” She added, “It’s a bit hypocritical…when you’re asking the players not to wear a patch on their shoulder for William Hill, a gambling company…but the tournament itself can promote William Hill or other betting companies. We are being a bit two-faced…You can’t support gambling on the one hand and then say it’s bad on the other.” In the end, ITF Chairman David Haggerty contended, “We would rather have facts than speculation,” adding, “We have a moral compass.”

Everyone in tennis hopes so.


Australian Open: Serena – “Like a Monster Truck That Crushes Volkswagens”

2016 Australian Open - Day 9 : News Photo

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—Woman’s tennis is all about rivalries – spicy, in-your-face and unrelenting.

It all goes back to 1926, when an unblinking, 20-year-old hotshot from Berkeley, California – Helen Wills – went to Cannes to challenge the preeminence of France’s elegant diva, Suzanne Lenglen, who had won Wimbledon six times. Their exhibition drew international attention and was one of the biggest women’s sports events of the era.

More recently, the feisty American Billie Jean King often battled the indrawn Aussie great, Margaret Court.

Then came perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports – Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratiiova. Other sizzling WTA rivalries soon followed that were captivating and even tragic. A deranged Steffi Graf fan stabbed the German’s great rival Monica Seles in the back. Seles’ father bitterly called Steffi the “Knife No. 1.” When Serena and Venus Williams came on the tour, all the top players – Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters –- seemed to come together and circle their wagons. The Williamses were seen to be in their own world. The tennis universe promptly provided blow-back, but with only limited effect.

Rivalries flared. Matches were intense. There were locker-room tiffs and on-court dust-ups, whether it be Henin at the French Open or Capriati in New York.

For young Serena, the only time her sense of rivalry went flat was when she faced her sister Venus. Then again, many of her recent match-ups with players like Li Na, Vika Azarenka and Aga Radwanska have been lopsided.

But, as an Italian reporter said, “There’s something not normal” about Serena’s record against Maria Sharapova. As a 17-year-old, the fearless Maria flicked Serena aside at the Wimbledon Championships – such a gleeful kid. Donald Trump said Williams had been intimidated by the Russian’s supermodel looks. And the media soon learned of Maria’s gritty backstory. Her parents lived near the Chernobyl nuclear plant that imploded. They fled to Siberia before Maria’s fierce father Yuri brought his slight, seven-year-old daughter to Florida to seek the holy grail. Yuri worked two jobs and took his kid to tennis lessons on his bike.

A bit ungainly, Maria was not the best of athletes. Her movement was suspect, and she lacked a certain quick-twitch fleetness so important in tennis.

But oh, were her ground strokes sublime! Clean, fierce, deep, punishing. She could dominate lesser players with an unsparing ease. Maria went on to win each of the Grand Slams. She overcame a devastating shoulder injury. But she never overcame her chief rival. Williams has won their last 18 matches and 19 of 21 overall. It’s a bit of an embarrassment. The Russian hasn’t beaten Serena since the WTA finals in 2004, and she hasn’t been able to claim a set since 2013.

Why?

Williams does everything a little bit (or a lot) better. She’s more athletic and faster. Her return bites, and puts Maria on the defensive. On serve, Serena is more consistent, with the best stroke in tennis history. Maria’s groundies dial up the fast, flat pace that Serena loves. It’s a great match-up for the American. And Williams isn’t going to suffer too many mental brain cramps against an A-list glamour player who earns more endorsement money then she does, has been on more magazine covers, and once attacked the ethics of Williams’ coach and former boyfriend Patrick Mouratoglou.

Rolling Stone magazine noted that “Sharapova is tall, white, and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful, and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”

Today Serena crushed Maria. Their match precisely mirrored their twelve-year rivalry. Maria won two of their first three matches way back when. Today Sharapova won two of their first three games. Then, at four-all in the first set, she had two break points. But Serena simply put some pedal to the metal. And the rest is history.

Speaking of history, that’s about all Serena seems to be playing for these days. She says she’s done it all: “Everything from here on out is a bonus…I told myself that I’m here to have fun now.”

Unfortunately for Serena’s rivals, for nearly two decades, they haven’t exactly been having fun. A sporting and resigned Sharapova was realistic. (She’s been to this rodeo before.) Maria admitted, “I don’t know if there was much I could do.”

Exxcept for Steffi Graf, who split two matches with the very young Serena, Williams has a winning record against all her chief “rivals.” Here’s how’s she’s done against them:

Martina Hingis 8-6, Justin Henin 8-6, Jennifer Capriati 10-7, Venus 16-11, Elena Dementieva 7-5, Lindsay Davenport 10-4, Kim Clijsters 7-2 and Li Na 11-1. By the way, as for her next two probable Melbourne opponents, Serena is 8-0 against Aga Radwanska and 17-3 against Vika Azarenka. In other words, of late Williams’ match-ups have been “un-rivalries.”

We know Serena’s return of serve induces double faults. Now we know her dominance also induces completely understandable double talk. After her loss, IT asked Sharapova if losing again was frustrating. Maria said Serena “makes you go back to the drawing board, and that’s inspiring.”

One stat – 2-19 – and two words come to mind: “Oh, dear.”

TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo



Betgate: Simmering Gambling Suspicions Ignite

2015 Hong Kong Open : News Photo

Spain’s Lara Arruabarrena  Photo: Getty Images

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—The blockbuster BBC broadcast on gambling in tennis was odd.

It wasn’t because it was a story on betting that barely talked about odds.

It was odd because arguably the most respected news organization in the world, the BBC, teamed with BuzzFeed to air an inflammatory “gotcha” story. The show had biting accusations, but no names of current players, no details of actual wrongdoing and no damning comments by active officials.

On the other hand, the BBC’s timing was superb. The tease for the broadcast broke an hour before the Australian Open began a well-placed bomb. Plus, the program was filled with shocking, OMG sensationalism.

The sky seemed to be falling. The BBC said “a whistle-blower passed us a cache of secret documents which for the first time tells the inside story of how tennis kept secret the extent of players suspected to be match-fixing, and how the problem continues.” They asserted that “tennis has been rocked by [match-fixing] revelations…Tonight, File on 4 reveals the full inside story, linking top players to suspected match-fixers.”

But they didn’t – not by a long shot. However, the broadcast shook up the tennis universe. Never mind that many insisted the report was journalistic garbage. Still, the respected Mary Joe Fernandez said there was a “black shadow over the game.” Pat McEnroe asserted, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is a major, major wake-up call for the world of tennis.”

Only Andy Murray stepped up to say that it was hypocritical for tennis to have so many sponsorships with gambling companies, including a $70 million deal with the ITF; a German tournament that’s called the Bet-at-Home Open; and the Australian Open, which has an alliance with the William Hill betting company. Nonetheless, officials have said it was good that tennis has cozy relationships with big betting companies. Go figure.

On the other hand, the BBC program didn’t come close to producing a smoking gun. Still, it put gambling in the spotlight and today the simmering embers of the story ignited on three different fronts.

In Sydney, a player pleaded guilty to match-fixing. A lengthy, high-profile New York Times article reported on a suspicious first round Australian Open mixed doubles match which drew a huge number of bets, and an article in Australia’s Financial Review claimed the “lucky loser” system in tennis was possibly used to ill-effect by gamblers.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Nick Lindahl, a former Aussie pro, just pleaded guilty in a Sydney court to a corrupt betting charge. Lindahl reached the finals of the 2006 Aussie Open boys’ championships, was ranked as high as No. 187, and once beat Sam Querrey. He was accused Monday of offering to tank a match at the Toowoomba Futures Six tournament on September 11th, 2013 so that friends and a former player could win thousands of dollars. Police said Lindahl, 27, told two friends and they placed bets. Police became suspicious and suspended betting when a large number of wagers flooded in. Lindahl plans to fight charges that he encouraged a friend to dispose of computer data and a phone app that contained data about bets that were placed. The hearing will continue.

The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg reported that, due to fears of match fixing, a gambling website stopped betting Sunday on an Aussie Open mixed doubles match. Large sums were bet on an obscure first-round contest between Spaniards Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero and the favored team of Czech Andrea Hlavackova and Pole Lukasz Kubot. Suspicion was triggered when almost all the bets were for the Czech-Polish duo, who went on to win easily, 6-0, 6-3. Arruabarrena, who is No. 33 in women’s doubles, and Marrero, who is No. 32 in men’s doubles, denied the match was fixed. According to the Times, Pinnacle’s traders stopped betting 13 hours before the match. The Times noted that Marrero, who won the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals, has lost his last 10 mixed doubles matches. “Normally,” he told the Times, “When I play, I play full power. But when I see the lady in front of me, I feel my hand wants to play, but my head says, ‘Be careful.’ This is not a good combination.” Observers felt Marrero played especially poorly, hitting a soft lob to Hlavackova and failing to return her serve three times in a row. The Times referred to sources who said that four of Marrero’s men’s doubles matches and three of his Grand Slam mixed doubles matches had been suspected of irregularities.

Hlavackova did report that the Tennis Integrity Unit had asked to talk with her, but she refused to say for how long. The Czech added that it was uncomfortable “to have people think that we didn’t win the match on our terms. We played our best…and we won, so it’s not comfortable to be questioned if someone else is not playing one hundred percent.”

In a related development, an article in Sydney’s Financial Review suggested that tennis’ obscure “lucky loser” system could be abused, with some ease, for match-fixing. When a player in the qualifying tournament knows they will be assured of getting a place in the main draw, it doesn’t matter whether they win or lose the last match in the qualifying tournament. And that can lead to match-fixing or prize money sharing.

The Financial Review also noted a tweet by Richard Ings, who set up the sport’s first investigative unit. Ings contended, “Tennis is not a sport which denies match-fixing is a threat. But the scale of the threat requires significantly more resources…

“Match-fixing in tennis is the sporting equivalent of insider trading,” said Ings. “It involves individuals or parties seeking to gain access to information about the physical condition or motivation of players before they compete…When such useful information is known exclusively to an individual or syndicate it can be very easily used on betting opportunities where they are virtually guaranteed to make big profits.”

The Financial Review also noted, “The ranking system can be a problem. Players on the men’s tour are ranked by their best 18 tournaments of the year, which means that poor performances won’t cost them in the rankings. A tennis executive said this can also be ripe for exploitation.”

So now the gambling beat goes on. For whatever reasons, the issue is no longer an afterthought. The media and observers alike will be looking for wrongdoing or hopefully proposing moves so that a great sport retains what is most important – its integrity.


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