THE ELOQUENCE OF BILLIE JEAN KING: IT’S NOT A ‘HE’ THING, OR A ‘SHE’ THING – IT’S A ‘WE’ THING

Miami Open - Day 3 : News Photo

Millions heard about Raymond Moore’s comment that women should “go down on their knees and thank Federer and Nadal…[who] have carried the sport.” But Moore also said, “The WTA…has a handful of very attractive prospects…Muguruza, Genie Bouchard…And the standard in ladies tennis has improved unbelievably…They’re physically attractive and competitively attractive.” And he said, “In my next life…I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.”

Novak Djokovic also stirred controversy when he said men “should fight for more” money than women because “there’s data…[on] who attracts more attention, spectators [and] who sells more tickets.” He added that if men draw fewer fans they should get less than women.

When IT noted, “One of the great things about our sport is not only the WTA and ATP, but the entire interaction of men and women in a global sport,” the usually articulate Serb rambled, saying women’s “bodies are much different than men’s…They have to go through a lot of different things…the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details. Ladies know what I’m talking about…Many of them…have to sacrifice for certain periods of time…So I appreciate that. I had a woman that was my coach…I’m completely for women power.”

Unwittingly, the Serb had walked into a minefield. No one – particularly a guy – publicly talks about periods and hormones. Billie Jean King said Novak “was talking about our monthly situation – period. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so antiquated. Dark ages.’”

Of course women playing tennis, or any highly competitive sport, while they’re menstruating is not only a taboo subject, it is – as some feminists quietly note – an astonishing achievement. God forbid we openly talk about this important and complex factor.

Anyway, like Moore, Djokovic apologized and went on to talk with Billie Jean in Miami. Serena sarcastically said that if Novak “has a daughter…[he should] tell her how his son deserves more money because he’s a boy…I would say they both deserve the same.”

ATP player Sergiy Stakhovsky, a critic of equal prize money and gays, tweeted that Ray Moore was “campaigning to become the ATP president” with his remarks.

Andy Murray rebuffed the Ukrainian, saying that far more people would watch a Wimbledon match involving Laura Robson than Stakhovsky. He added, “There should be equal pay, 100 percent, at all combined events. The timing of it [Moore’s remarks] was just so strange, right before a great women’s final. There were 16,000 people in the stadium…Men’s tennis has been lucky over the last nine or 10 years…But the whole of tennis should capitalize on that – not just the men’s game.”

Swiss Stan Wawrinka said, “I’m for equality. I have a daughter. I want her to have the same rights as a boy. What Novak said wasn’t right.”

World No. 71 Nicole Gibbs said, “There’s far too much worrying about what other people are going to think when you’re campaigning for equality.” 

Billie Jean King has rarely been bothered. She recalled her childhood epiphany, “When I was 12…I was daydreaming at the Los Angeles Tennis Club…Everyone wore white shoes, socks, clothes, played with white balls. Everybody who played was white. I asked…’Where’s everybody else?’…At that moment I…[decided] that I’d spend my life fighting for equal rights for boys and girls, men and women…What’s important is that we encourage each other, are good and kind to each other and really elevate each other always and forever…To have equal prize money…sends a message. It’s not about the money…Any time you discount another human being by gender, race, disability, we’re not helping ourselves.

“It’s not a ‘he’ thing or a ‘she’ thing; it’s a ‘we’ thing…Morally, [equal pay is] the right thing to do, which is hard for a lot of people. Change is difficult.”

King called for a merger of the ATP and the WTA and said Moore’s comments were “wrong on so many levels. Every player, especially the top players, have contributed to our success.” Still, King called for forgiveness of Moore and added that she loved talking with Djokovic.

She noted, “We as women, or people of color, or disability, we know a lot about the dominant group. We know more about them probably than they know about themselves. We have to navigate in their world, and that’s not fun every day. I feel I’ve been on a tightrope my whole life trying to find a way to get people together and not ticked off.

Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, okay? I want women to have the cake, the icing, the cherry on top, too.”

In a comment that drew criticism, Chris Evert said Novak’s comments were rooted in cultural differences and that “American men didn’t say that, and I applaud them for it.” Evert added that we periodically need reminders “of the evolution of women’s tennis and the great sacrifices every generation has had to make…What we’ve done to get the credibility, respect, and equality that we have now…The women are just as professional as the men.” She called for the WTA and the ATP to “have a little conversation.”


CORPORATE PROFILE: FILA – BORN IN TENNIS

 Bjorn Borg : News Photo

It’s one of the most iconic images in all of tennis: Bjorn Borg, with his golden locks, gracefully sprints around Wimbledon’s Centre Court wearing a snug cream-colored Fila shirt and a distinctive headband. Fila, the born-in-Italy shoe and apparel company, was at the heart of tennis’s boom years, and it’s still a vital player in the game. Inside Tennis decided to look at tennis through the lens of one company, and in March we sat down with Fila North America president Jon Epstein in a lux suite in Indian Wells.

Was Borg the perfect player at the perfect time?

You’ve said it just right. He was perfect for us because when you introduce something totally new, you have to do it in a way that’s credible. Borg was not only credible from a style perspective but he went on and won 11 Grand Slams. He was something different himself, in terms of the way he held himself, the way he played, and the way he looked.

There were some incredible Borg-going-nowhere stories. John Barrett said, “Oh, he’s a pleasant guy with good speed, but because of his strokes he’ll never do anything at Wimbledon.” 

Our head of Global Tennis Marketing Marty Mulligan knew better.

Fila’s commitment to tennis goes way back. Talk a little bit about that.

Our commitment goes back to the early ’70s and even prior, when Fila as a textile company in Biella, Italy had a chairman who had a great zeal for sport and created on a tubular knitting machine the first polo [shirt]. When you look at old photos of Borg, he has a very clingy top, and that was actually created as a polo from machinery that made underwear. It was unconventional and tight-fitting.

Because the Italians were so creative, they introduced color to tennis. At the time the players were wearing all-white, so Fila broke the rules. They created what is today all the color of tennis. Fila not only had a commitment from the beginning to create top performance products, but they also had a sense of style that changed the game.

There were so many colorful athletes at that time, and many of them wore Fila. Not only Borg, but Vilas and Goolagong, and later Becker and Seles. That’s why these colors of white, navy and red were so iconic to Fila – our calling card, the Fila flag.

The brand was born in tennis. Ultimately we’ve been in many sports over the years, from motor sports to mountaineering to sailing to baseball, but none more significant. Today in the US, we have 850 accounts just for tennis, we have a fully dedicated sales force that sells only tennis, and we have head of Global Tennis Marketing Marty Mulligan, who’s been with the company for 40 years, scouting talent and helping us procure the right kinds of athletes to display our brand.

A lot of people have seen a lot of tennis over the years, like Oracene Williams and Mirka Federer, but no one has seen more tennis over the last 45 years than Marty Mulligan.

For sure. Marty’s trustworthy, and he’s got a tremendous eye for up and coming talent. His commitment to make sure that the athletes have the best products to compete and win in has always been top of the line. He’s rigorous when it comes to making sure that our products fit right, that the fabrics are made in line with the needs of the game. He works hard to make sure that our footwear works perfectly for every athlete, to the point where we have to custom-make many shoes in Italy.

He’s committed far beyond just finding athletes for us and developing relationships with them. He also guides the company in terms of product testing. He’s the heart and soul of our tennis initiative. If you can’t get it by Marty, it’s not going to market. He’s the ultimate authority, and well-respected. He played Laver in the final of Wimbledon. He was ranked No. 3 in the world at one point and played against some of the most iconic figures in tennis – Stan Smith, Laver, Emerson, Borg – as an athlete.

If you ever want to meet somebody in tennis, go for a walk with Marty Mulligan at any event. You can’t get 10 feet without somebody saying, “Hey Marty.” The athletes love and respect him because he’s more than just a guy from a brand. They all know that he was a player. He’s become a father figure to the brand and also to some of the athletes. We wouldn’t have had Kim Clijsters if it wasn’t for Marty. Marty knew Kim’s father [Leo] and it was his trust in Marty that helped us.

Fila’s ability to stay relevant in tennis is partly because of Marty. We’re famous because of our athletes and the products they wore, but it was Marty who helped pull all these things together for a little brand in Italy that didn’t know anything about the sport.

Fila’s brand extends from Borg to Jennifer Capriati to John Isner and Jelena Jankovic today.

It was Marty who brought Borg to Fila, and Borg introduced Fila to the world. Capriati’s was an amazing story, where someone’s life was challenged and she decided to come back. I recall when the USTA called and said, “Would you give her some product?” It was Marty who said, “She was a true champion, she was in the semifinals of the French Open when she was 13, she was an Olympic gold medalist in Barcelona – let’s give her a chance.” Ultimately she went from being ranked over 800 in the world to No. 1. Part of the reason why she was so successful was that she found a company in Fila that completely embraced her and showed her that second chances were a part of life and we believed in her ability to perform at the highest level. 

One of my favorite comments about Capriati came from a British writer who said, “Jennifer’s return was the best comeback since Lazarus.” Fila has had, like all businesses, to deal with changing fashions, the economy, and moving to different ownership situations. What’s been the key ingredient in your remaining at the forefront?

If you look at the Fila mission today, commitment to sport, performance and style are three components that have sustained the brand. It’s that commitment that helped us stay the course.

One great moment in tennis was when Kim Clijsters’ daughter Jada stole the show after Kim won the 2009 US Open. What did Kim mean for the brand?

Kim was an amazing athlete and she’s an amazing human being. If you look at some of the Fila champions over the world, there is also an important human side to them. Borg wasn’t just an athlete, he was also a style icon. Kim looked great in our product, but people loved her for her personality, her ability and commitment to family, and the fact that her little girl was as important in victory as the victory itself.

She was probably one of the most beloved champions of the recent era. She’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I’m sure it’ll be a much bigger deal [than usual] because of her fans and how they embraced her. She was one of the fans’ favorites.

In our sport you have a stadium of up to 24,000 people looking down for hours at two sole individuals. Their gear has to be so critical.

Tennis is one of the only sports where a brand can dress the professional. Other sports have uniforms and don’t have the ability to access the athlete in a way that is creative. We’re constantly trying to find new fabrics, new colors, new ways to create fashion.

If you had to choose one Fila outfit, would it be Borg’s?

Definitely the White Line, which Borg wore in the beginning, the white-navy-red. Today we call it Fila Heritage. It has become a fashion statement with young people. Urban Outfitters has bought Fila Heritage for 200 stores. They’ll have Fila boutiques – we took the Borg shirt and made a crop top for girls, and we took the Vilas polo and made it into a dress. These kids are activated by the style and they don’t even know where it comes from. What’s old is new again.

Vilas had those huge thighs and short-shorts.

That short-short was made into a short for girls, the No. 1 bestselling short that we have. That era has become brand new for a whole group of millennials and young people.

Fila is based in Italy. What is special about the Italian culture and aesthetics, creativity, fashion and beauty?

Today in Biella we just opened a museum as part of our commitment to the Italian culture and to those who marked the beginning of our success. We’re in the same city as Zegna, which is one of the world’s great men’s brands, and as Loro Piana, which is known for the best cashmere in the world. Biella is in the foothills of the Alps, and in the old days you needed rivers and water to wash and dye, and a lot of the activewear was made out of wool. There were big looms driven by water power.

The Italians are known for their amazing creativity, work with color, and outlandish ideas. From Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel to today, you’ve got this history of Italian craftsmanship and creativity. They were able to completely change everything about tennis in terms of how it was played and how it was viewed, by recruiting incredible athletes and having them wear something that nobody else wore. Even fabrics made in ways that nobody had ever seen before. It was the Italian creativity that captured the world’s imagination.

Tennis is what Fila is most proud of. It’s where we came from and where we are. When I had an interview with the company many years ago, I brought pictures with me, and one of them was the Foro [Italico] in Rome. It was a photograph of just the clay court with the Fila branding. The caption said, “Minutes before the match, and the omnipresent Fila is on the court.” I said to myself, the fact that Fila was there, ready for the athletes to arrive, made us that much more authentic. And authenticity is what separates Fila in tennis from everyone else. We’re a tennis brand, and tennis players take us seriously. We’re an authority in the category. We’re not a newcomer.

Kim Clijsters with daughter Jada Ellie after she won the Wom : News Photo


STEVE SIMON: ON SHARAPOVA, GAMBLING AND WOMEN’S TENNIS

BNP Paribas WTA Finals: Singapore 2015 - Day Two : News Photo

Never has an incoming tennis official faced more tumult than Steve Simon, who became the executive director of the WTA last October. Simon has had to face controversies relating to gambling, Maria Sharapova, the departure of Ray Moore, and Novak Djokovic’s reopening of the equal-pay issue. Shortly after the Sharapova incident, Inside Tennis publisher Bill Simons sat down with Simon (no relation) at Indian Wells, where the well-respected official for years was Tournament Director at the BNP Paribas Open.

Maria is the most efficient, intense player around, with an incredible team. It was the start of the year and she knew she was taking Meldonium – how could she make that mistake?

When I was informed of the positive test result, I was saddened by it, because I don’t want to see any athlete test positive. Nothing good comes from it. It’s not good for the athlete, for the sport, for the WTA. Maria deserves credit because she did step up and own up to her mistake. We would like to see all of our professional athletes do more of that. We’ve experienced too many times where the athlete has been in denial and then they’re proven wrong – Lance Armstrong and many others. She didn’t do that. Whether you believe or don’t believe her, she did own up. It shows integrity. 

[But] all the athletes know that they’re responsible for what goes in their bodies, for knowing what’s on the list, what is banned. Clearly, as she said, she received the information, and she didn’t follow through with it. No athlete is above the rules. What’s positive is that this is an independent program. We support the rules, we enforce the rules, and we’re not judge and jury either. We’ll support whatever decision comes from the process.

What are your thoughts about Maria saying that she had to click and search for WADA info?

That’s her position. What she said in her opening statement was right – she was contacted, and she didn’t look. Bottom line, she needed to look, and she didn’t. As a result, she made a mistake, and she said that. I believe her at her word, I have no reason not to at this point. She tested positive, and she’ll go through the consequences.

Obviously there’s a range of responses. Venus and Djokovic were supportive but the French player Kristina Mladenovic and Jennifer Capriati were pretty critical along the lines that you don’t take a drug into your body unless you need it for a medicinal reason. What are your thoughts?

Most people are on either side of the fence -  supportive and sympathetict. There hasn’t been anyone in the middle, and that’s to be expected. I’m not in the position to judge what Maria did. I don’t have the information about her medical conditions and whether there were other reasons. The basis is, each athlete does what they need to do to perform at their best. If it was not a banned or prohibited substance at the time, it was within her right [to take it], if she felt it was right. I can’t say why she was taking it – I don’t have that background information. I don’t have the right to know that, either. That’s up to Maria. I’m the wrong person to judge that.

Have you spoken to Maria?

Yes. I’ve been very fortunate. Maria’s always been very nice and welcoming to me. We’ve had a good relationship. But again, I was saddened by it, and she’s very sorry that it’s happened. She said she feels like she’s let us down. 

What’s your take on the one-two punch of the gambling controversy and Maria’s announcement happening within a seven-week block of time? Has there been a little whiplash?

There hasn’t been whiplash. Neither topic is one you want to see. The reason I can deal with it is that I do believe very strongly in the integrity of the sport. The accusations that came out in Australia were terrible. They actually tarnished a wonderful event. It was a very sensationalist approach in the [BBC/BuzzFeed] article. The idea that tennis wasn’t acting responsibly or had its head in the sand I just don’t think is a fair statement. Tennis was one of the first sport to reach out and recognize what corruption could bring, and that’s how TIU (the Tennis Integirity Unit) got started. It was truly operating independently – funded by us, but operating that way. You can always argue, ‘Can you do better? Can you spend more? Can you do more?’ That’s fair. But the debate that tennis wasn’t operating with integrity I just didn’t buy. And because I know that we are, the doping thing that we’re going through also reflects our integrity. No one’s above the game…It’s not good news for anybody. But we’re addressing the controversies head on, we’re going to get through them, and we’re going to come out stronger at the end of the day. I honestly believe that.

On the one hand the sport says to the players, ‘Don’t gamble,’ and yet it goes out and gets a $70 million contract with a betting company, and you see signage. Implicitly that’s saying gambling is a fine activity. Should tennis not seek those contracts?

I can understand and respect that position and the position being taken with respect to hypocrisy. This isn’t just for tennis, but for sport, because gaming is a huge part of sport. It’s a huge issue.

Especially in tennis.

Absolutely. That’s why the TIU started. We can debate all day long whether William Hill should be on the court or any of the other deals going on. We can debate the pros and cons of aligning with the gaming, because they have the same interest we do. We’ve heard all the arguments. The key is through the independent review and having our process, just like with anti-doping, is that when we find someone who is not operating at the highest level of integrity we have the ability to discipline them and control that. I don’t see gaming going away.

You don’t think that tennis should back away? The WTA once turned down Tampax as a sponsor because they didn’t like the message.

Not at this point. I understand the argument. It’s something that will clearly always be discussed. Decision and position may evolve as we go through this independent review process – we’ll see where it ends up. We have a tendency to look at it from a North American basis, which is completely different from the rest of the world. If you go to other premier sports across the world, gaming is very prevalent. It’s actually on the uniforms of some teams.

A lot of people ask why is a man the head of the WTA?

I’m honored and humbled to be in this position. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel that the product had a tremendous ability to grow, and if I didn’t believe in it. There aren’t too many times in your life where you’re provided a platform where you truly can put in positive change and maybe leave something in a better place than where you found it. There’s no guarantee I’ll do that, but I’d regret it if I didn’t make the effort and try.

Let’s talk about the most important issue in the world – grunting (laughs). Do you think there’s an unfairness in the women being singled out, because the guys grunt too? Is it the pitch?

Grunting is a part of tennis, male and female. Obviously the pitch of a woman’s grunt or exhale is going to be higher. If you watch some of the men’s matches, there’s a lot of grunting and groaning, but it isn’t as audible because the pitch isn’t as high. The idea that there is not going to be any grunts or audible noises is not realistic. But there can be perceived excessiveness. The bigger question is whether it is something that could be construed as gamesmanship.

Have you seen that?

I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it. I would just say from my limited playing experiences, if I could hear the opponent grunt or talk, I wasn’t in the match. From an athletics point of view [it shouldn't be noticeable] if you’re truly focused. But from a fan’s perspective I can understand [complaints].

Women’s tennis has such a unique history of trailblazers going back to Alice Marble and Althea Gibson, obviously Billie Jean and Rosie Casals, the Williamses and Li Na.

In the history of women’s tennis, and even women’s pro sports, all of the top athletes that have come through and shined have been trailblazers in lives. It’s clearly been a more difficult road for women athletes to achieve the same opportunities that males are provided. That’s reality. There is that kindred spirit. The WTA has been very blessed in its history with regard to those great legends that have paved the way for athletes to have opportunities today.

The staff here [at the BNP Paribas Open] gave you a wonderful when you announced you were leaving. You’ve worked your whole life in tennis, mostly in Southern California – what did it mean to you?

To get a response such as that from your peers and the people you’ve worked with for so long and have been through a lot together…it’s indescribable. It’s a sense of family, team, pride, humbleness – all of those things mixed into one.

We’ve had a special team here at Indian Wells. Most of us worked together for 27 years. That doesn’t happen much in this world today. 

My spies tell me that you have this incredible attention to detail: ‘The roses are overgrown by the pillars’ or ‘The Caterpillar machine is late.’ Is that something you take pride in?

Yes, because of what it allowed me to do. Part of my philosophy is that we were a team. I certainly do have attention to detail – that’s in my DNA. 

Why is women’s tennis the most successful women’s sport?

One, tennis really does promote the athleticism of the female athlete. Two, women’s tennis does draw a male audience as well – in the sports marketplace, if you talk about it from a pure business perspective.

Do you think the fans can see the arc of a player emerging as a young wannabe teen and going through a hard career and becoming an icon?

From a fan perspective what you describe is correct, and it’s true of any sport, not just tennis. Obviously, the uniqueness of tennis is [that] the athletes have a tendency to start at a professional level at a younger age. That creates its own unique storyline.

Kim Clijsters essentially said, ‘I came on tour to make friends,’ while Maria once said, ‘I’m not here to be Mother Teresa.’ Can you talk about the culture of the locker room in the WTA, whether it’s a fierce competitive world, a sorority, a moving circus? What’s the dynamic?

To make sure I don’t get in trouble, I don’t spend much time in the locker room…But clearly, they’re going with entourages. There’s a tendency for that group to become their family, rather than the overall players. There’s probably a lot more camaraderie amongst players as they go further down in the rankings, because they don’t have as much support around them. It becomes their support. I’d like to see is our athletes truly enjoy the camaraderie…You can compete and want to beat their brains out, but it’s a pretty lonely world when you don’t have any friends. I’m hoping the players can learn from history to balance today’s world..You have to want to reach out.

We know that Maria in all probability will be off the scene for a while, and obviously Serena and Venus are huge superstars. How important is the star system to tennis in general and the WTA?

The star system is important in any sport…There’s a tremendously talented young crew of women coming up through the ranks. We’re seeing the depth of the tour with a lot of the upsets. That’s a positive thing. The level of tennis being played out there is going up as well, the quality.


THE MOORE NIGHTMARE: REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN AND TENNIS

US-TENNIS-SPORT : News Photo

There’s always banter in tennis press rooms, and just minutes after the infamous “Breakfast With Raymond” press conference ended, I got into a squabble with a leading East Coast tennis journalist.

I had muttered that Ray Moore’s repugnant “They should get down on their knees” comment was a product of the same mindset that kept Serena and Venus away from Indian Wells for  years.

She laughed in my face and said, “You think sexism had something to do with the Williams not coming here?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. After all, the male leaders of the BNP Paribas Open, who incredibly did so much on so many fronts, didn’t intervene when a young 19-year-old female was harassed for over two hours by numerous members of the huge crowd. And over the years the tournament leaders didn’t go out of their way to reach out to the Williamses and say, “No matter what occurred, you are great young women athletes, so we’ll do anything we can to get you back here.” Their attitude for 13 years was, “Well, if you want to come back it will be fine. But we won’t do anything special to address the abusive situation that occurred and encourage you to come back.”

The reporter laughed even more heartily.

Tennis has long been, by a vast margin, the most successful women’s sport. What other game has produced more courageous leaders? Alice Marble, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Serena and Venus all crafted a singular legacy. Yet, sexism has been a constant in the game. Start wherever you want. For eons, Wimbledon prohibited women from being members of the All-England Club. They even said that ball girls would never work on Centre Court. When prize money finally came to the game, men got ten times more than women – sometimes more.

Bobby Riggs blithely offered a dicey string of sexist barbs. He said, “If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the the number one chauvinist pig.” Then there’s his quip that predates Moore’s “down on their knees” foolishness. Riggs said, “Billie Jean King and I did wonders for women’s tennis. They owe me a piece of their checks.”

As Stephen Tignor has noted, there is a long history of the ATP distancing itself from women’s tennis. The truth is that sexism is part and parcel of virtually all cultures. In tennis, women have to perform a hugely challenging, often solitary and lonely sport in front of thousands in skimpy outfits. They’re paid well. Still, failure and humiliation are part of tennis’ DNA. Time and again women are objectified and judged on their looks. When the Maria Sharapova scandal broke, I joked that in just seven weeks tennis had seen a lifetime of tumult and trauma: A full-out gambling scandal in February and the fall of our most glamorous star in March. What’s next, I asked, an abuse scandal in April?

But tennis didn’t wait. Rather, on March 21st we were left to wonder whether there has ever been a more swift and sudden demise of a sports official than the “Moore is Less” scandal. Just 35 hours earlier Moore was talking about trying to upgrade the status of the BNP Paribas Open and elevating it into a position as a Grand Masters – above other Masters. But the scandal proved that even gifted, wonderful people who’ve seen it all can fall in one ill-considered moment. Last year in a ceremony, Bud Collins spoke of Moore, saying, “I’ve known Ray since he was a player for South Africa, and he’s very brave…he stood up against apartheid.” Locally, Moore contributed thousands to help Marines enjoy tennis.

When the new Stadium 1 opened at Indian Wells in 1999 Moore said, “It’s phenomenal – it’s beyond our wildest dreams.” Now we’ve seen a nightmare we couldn’t have imagined. The most incredible team in tennis management – Charlie Pasarell (who retired), Steve Simon (who became the executive director of the WTA last fall) and Moore, who all worked so hard to save and grow a fabulous tourney, were gone. It was a management shift that could shock the most jaded of corporate observers. In 25 seconds, Moore’s 40-year career went down the drain. Just 31 infamous, matter-of-fact words sank his ship. How sad, how tragic. What would this good man do to now to have these bad words back: “If I was a lady player,” he casually suggested. ”I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.”

Shortly after the women’s final, I made my way down from the press room to Moore’s generous office under the Indian Wells stadium. Sitting alone – ironically under a huge photo of his hero, the trailblazing male feminist John Lennon – he was calm and totally unaware of the tornado of scorn that was to hit. I told him, “Ray, I’ve been around a long time and your comments will be as controversial as anything in tennis since [ITF President Phillipe] Chartrier claimed in ’82 that Africans were good athletes and could jump, but will never become good tennis players.” Moore replied, “What I said was taken out of context. It was my idea of making a lame joke. I also said there are many young women players on the tour who’re exciting. I also feel that the men’s players should get down on their knees and be grateful to Rafa and Roger too. If my comment offended, then I do  apologize.” As I walked out of Moore’s office, the tournament’s PR chief walked in to try and avoid a debacle. Twenty-five minutes later, an official apology was issued. But it was too little, too late.

It’s hard to not to wonder whether jealousy or business rivalry also played a role. Simon, Moore’s longtime partner, had left in the fall to head the WTA. The two reportedly were good friends who’d breakfast together. But now, out of nowhere, Ray seemed to take a shot. He introduced his infamous comment by saying, “In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.”

The fact is that tennis has been “lucky.” Fans worldwide have come to relish with delight the ongoing drama of a game played by both genders. Never mind that many great female stars – Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Li Na – interrupt or end their careers to give birth. Tennis is still “lucky” to have had the most powerful feminist insurgence in sports – thanks Billie Jean, Gladys, Rosie and Venus. And the sport has been blessed to have had generation after generation of astounding young athletically-gifted women who are so adept off-court as well.

Not surprisingly, the now-mature often insightful Serena was upset. “Obviously,” she said, “I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody…If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number…There are a lot of women out there who are more … are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways.” She said Moore’s stance was an insult to Billie Jean King’s legacy and to all women.  

Vika Azarenka came off her huge Indian Wells win and said that men don’t get the insults women do, so “we [women] have to work through” the barbs. She noted that it’s women who give birth to everyone and added, “Through the years the comments [on my] grunting…I could give less of s–t about it…I’m just going to rise above…Why can’t we just be happy and enjoy and support each other, because the world is missing a little bit. It’s the support towards each other. Not just bashing [or asking] who is prettier or who is this, who has more, who has less. Let’s just take care of each other.”

Now the BNP Paribas Open will have to take care of the aftermath of the breakfast debacle. Will a woman like marketing maven Dee Dee Felich be brought in as tournament director? Or perhaps the vastly popular Craig Tiley, who heads the Aussie Open, will be considered. And what will the fallout be for the usually diplomatic Novak Djokovic, whose tone-deaf comments were also demeaning and questioned the established Grand Slam tradition of equal pay for women?

Tennis will soon see. After all, of late, there has been no lack of drama in this game.

 


BNP PARIBAS OPEN: MOORE’S OTHER REVEALING THOUGHTS FROM YESTERDAY’S BREAKFAST

2016 BNP Paribas Open - Day 14 : News Photo

We knew it was coming. Still, the departure of Raymond Moore is shocking.

In yesterday’s breakfast news conference Moore said Larry Ellison had asked him to make a five-year plan of the future of the BNP Paribas Open.

Moore joked that he told his wife that there would be no more vacations for them for a while. Then there was this exchange with a reporter, which showed his love for the position he now has had to abandon so suddenly:

QUESTION: Obviously this [breakfast news conference] started…as a three-man show [with Moore, Charlie Pasarell and Steve Simon]. Last year it was a two-man show [with Moore and Simon] and now it’s just you [since Simon became CEO of the WTA]. Have you thought, going forward, how much longer are you planning on doing this? You seem to still enjoy it, but I’m curious to know. You talk about the five-year plan [Larry Ellison asked for]. Do you see yourself being here beyond that?

RAYMOND MOORE: I’m the last man standing, just like the show. (Laughter.) You know, I don’t think of those things in that way.

Firstly, I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about it. I enjoy it. I get up in the morning – I like going to work. It’s fun.

I’ve got the most amazing staff in the world. You know, five division leaders. All have more than 15 years of tenure…They’re experts. I don’t have to teach them a single thing. They know their jobs better than I do. They do it well. There is no learning curve.

Steve Simon and I three years ago began putting a succession plan into place, and we are slowly doing that. We have brought in younger people into our operation. You go into the box office, you know, 80% of our box office, the people are under the age of 30. They’re all bilingual. In other departments we have done the same.

So Steve and I started that. We talked about it three years ago and we are doing it slowly. You’ll see them. You’ll see the young people that we now have on staff, and they are contributing in a big way.

So, yeah, hey, who knows? Who knows who the face of the tournament will be down the road. But I don’t think that, oh, I’m going to stop next year or three years.

And also there is another man [Larry Ellison] who makes some of those decisions that we will have to talk to.


BNP PARIBAS OPEN: MOORE TENNIS CONTROVERSY – “WOMEN SHOULD GET DOWN ON THEIR KNEES”

US-TENNIS-SPORT : News Photo

We were supposed to wrap it up in a little box and put a bow on it.

All the controversy in tennis was supposed to be over.

In triumph, Serena Williams came back to Indian Wells last year. A beaming Venus returned this year. Now Serena had reached the final against Vika Azarenka. After 15 years, said tournament director Ray Moore, “This is the final brick in the wall…Serena’s come full circle.” She didn’t win the final, but the chapter was closed on a controversy that had simmered longer than any other tennis dust-up.

Move on!

But as one controversy – linked to race – was closed, another one – linked to gender – opened. Never in the history of the game had we seen such a flurry of trauma and drama as we have over the past eight weeks. A gambling controversy rocked the Aussie Open. The game’s greatest chronicler, Bud Collins, died. Our most glamorous female star was humbled. That was enough – right? Nothing else could explode– especially at the bland breakfast press gathering that is held each year at the BNP Paribas Open.

Here, the scrambled eggs are always fine, and the coffee’s strong. In the past, hot topics considered at the breakfast included the capacity of assorted parking lots and the rules of fire marshals.

Typically, Moore began to talk about the new shade of green of the stadium’s seats, the lack of nearby hotel rooms, and the need for more toilets and concession stands.

But this is tennis’ year of upset. The game cannot avoid tumult, and when a New Zealand broadcaster who doubles as a press officer for the Shanghai Masters asked a question in hopes of getting a good Shanghai quote, Moore jumped ship.

Inexplicably, out of nowhere, Raymond pivoted and offered one of the most stunning comments by a tennis official since ITF Chief Phillipe Chartrier said, in 1982, that Africans were good athletes, but would have problems becoming great tennis players.

Moore said, “You know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, (laughter) because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Moore later apologized, telling Inside Tennis that it was “a lame effort at making a joke.” He added that he felt men players should also get down on their knees to Federer and Nadal.

Nonetheless, the comment created a firestorm. Some referenced the controversial former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, who said women soccer players should “play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball…They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”

Of course, there have been plenty of sexist remarks in tennis. Let’s not even talk about Bobby Riggs. In 1987, Aussie macho man Pat Cash claimed, “Women’s tennis is two sets of rubbish that last only half an hour. It’s robbing men’s tennis. The spectators who turn up at events like Wimbledon really come to see the men play.”

Dutchman Richard Krajicek said, “I may be exaggerating a bit when I said that 80 percent of the top 100 women are lazy, fat pigs. What I meant to say was 75 percent of the top 100 women are fat pigs.”

To be fair, Moore is a fabulous man who fought alongside Arthur Ashe to counter apartheid. He’s beloved around here for shepherding the Indian Wells tournament, which so brilliantly showcases women’s tennis. On court today, he told Serena how pleased he was that she had had the courage to return to the tournament, and spoke of his pleasure at seeing Venus return. And, in his morning press breakfast he noted that “the WTA have a handful – not just one or two – but a handful of very attractive prospects that can assume the mantle. You know [Garbine] Muguruza, Genie Bouchard. They have a lot of very attractive players. And the standard in ladies’ tennis has improved unbelievably.”

But it was almost unbelievable – perhaps perplexing and troubling are better words – that such an experienced and thoughtful man made such a demeaning comment, belittling powerful, accomplished women.

Serena offered a stinging response: “Obviously I don’t think any women should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that…[So] many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister…There are a lot of women out there who are…very exciting to watch…There are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. It definitely goes both ways. Those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.”

Asked if Moore might have been misconstrued, Serena said, “Well, if you read the transcript you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I’m sure he does, too. There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and [then to say we should] thank a man…we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

Serena added, “Last year, the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men’s…To make a comment you have to have history…and to know things…Look at someone like Billie Jean King, who opened so many doors for…women athletes. So…[it]is such a disservice to her and…every woman on this planet, [who] has ever tried to stand up for what [she] believed in and…[tried to be] proud to be a woman.”

On ESPN, Pat McEnroe went even further, saying he was “livid,” adding that Moore’s comments were unacceptable and he should step down as the head of the tournament.

Ironically, the woman’s final – with its many power rallies – was more compelling than Novak Djokovic’s straightforward win over big-hitting Milos Raonic. “Same old, same old,” muttered one reporter.

After his win, Djokovic waffled on whether there should be equal prize money in tennis – a major achievement of the WTA. He said there are stats which show that men’s tennis is more popular and that each gender should seek whatever prize money it can. He conceded that tennis is a sport which at every level brings men and women together and that he wouldn’t be where he was without the woman, Jelena Gencic, who discovered him and first coached him in a remote Se mountain village.

Still, Novak cooked up a verbal stew talking about how women have different bodies, how “they have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… The hormones and different stuff…Ladies know what I’m talking about.” A bit patronizingly, he said he respected women for being able “to fight for at such a high level…They kind of have to sacrifice for certain periods of time”. He said that Moore’s words were “not politically correct. I mean, it was maybe exaggerated a little bit.” He finally added that he was all for “woman power.”

But what about the creator of woman power in tennis – Billie Jean King? The tennis feminist whom Bud Collins called ‘Mother Freedom” said she was “disappointed in Moore’s comments. He is wrong on so many levels. Every player, especially the top players, contribute to our success.”

Stanford grad Nicole Gibbs, who reached the fourth round here, wasn’t so measured. Reporter Courtney Nguyen tweeted that “these aren’t isolated opinions. Misogyny, sexism in tennis is very real & the women fight it every f****** day…Serena and Vika showed a hell of a lot of class on court today. Remember that.”

Tennis observers couldn’t believe what had just come down – the breakfast bombshell. They left Indian Wells as yet another controversy swept over the sport. As today’s women’s final, which attracted a huge crowd, grew tight and compelling, a pharmacist from Santa Barbara said, “Women’s tennis is like their old saying, ‘You’ve come a long way baby.’”

But one had to think: maybe not.

In the end, perhaps it was champion Azarenka who was most poignant. The Belarus native said, “We have to work through as women. Men don’t get those comments. I don’t want to address or insult anybody like we got a little bit…I don’t understand any man comment[ing] in general towards women, because as simple as that, every single person on earth was brought and was born by a woman, right?…Through the years the comments [on my] grunting…I could give less of s–t about it.

“I’m not gonna bring somebody down. I’m just gonna rise above that.

“Today, it was a great day for women’s sport…Why can’t we just be happy and enjoy and support each other, because that’s what the world is missing a little bit. It’s the support towards each other. Not just bashing [or asking] who is prettier or who is this, who has more, who has less. Let’s just take care of each other.”


BNP PARIBAS OPEN: THE DJOKOVIC ERA IS ALIVE & WELL IN THE DESERT

2016 BNP Paribas Open - Day 13 : News Photo

Emotion. Raw and furious. Rafa’s got it. His muscles ripple. His fist-pumps are fierce.

Precision, torque and speed the master craftsman Novak Djokovic stretches – then blasts like no other tennis warrior. The fluid Serb has taken his sport to powerful, corner-to-corner peaks that the Samprases and Federers of the world could have only imagined.

Now, on this beautiful afternoon, the tennis seas parted and the most compelling rivalry in the game game was before us.

After all, Andy Murray – Davis Cup hero, Australian Open finalist and No. 2 in the world – had suffered another case of desert fever. He’d lost in the third round.

For all his transcendent beauty, Roger Federer was on sick leave. Being a dad of four has risks. The long-glorious artist, now 34, tweaked his knee while having quality time with his daughters. Roger’s not perfect.

Neither is Novak Djokovic. He struggled with Gilles Simon in Melbourne. He lost to Feliciano Lopez in Dubai due to an eye injury, and here in Indian Wells, American overachiever Bjorn Fratangelo gave him a brief shock for a set. But overall – unless you’re the Sultan of the Dubai Tennis Association – you’d say the guy hasn’t lost a tournament that counted since last year’s French Open. He’s an ascendent champ – punching hard – at his peak.

In contrast, Nadal seemed to almost be on the ropes. Coming off a long injury, he was no longer able to impose devastating pain with his not-that-deep forehand. His aura had holes. Belief is everything to this man. And, unless you’re Wolfgang Schuster, the Lord Mayor of Stuttgart (where Nadal won a modest tournament in June), you wouldn’t say that Rafa, now No. 5, has prevailed in a big tourney in almost two years. He lost to his buddy, Fernando Verdasco, in the first round of the Australian Open and failed to triumph on clay in South America. Know-it-alls shouted, “Dump your uncle, get a new coach.” Fools claimed he took drugs. Rafa said he would let his lawyers do the talking. There were whispers on other fronts too. Was the 14-Slam winner like some grand boxer who’d taken too many punches? Was his magnificence beginning to wane? We’re all mortal.

But in Indian Wells, Nadal didn’t seem at all mortal. He surged. Mindset is a key for him. He was feeling it. “The energies,” as he calls them, were flowing. His mentality was better – more confidence, less nerves. He beat Verdasco, which had to be a confidence builder, survived the onslaught of a rising star, Alexander Zverev, and passed a stern test when he defeated the No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori.

Still, the tide of recent events pulled mightily against the Spaniard. Novak led their rivalry 24-23 and had won in nine of their last ten meetings. He had a 17-7 lead on hard-courts and a 2-1 advantage at Indian Wells. But, in the second game of the match, Nadal broke with ease. This would not be like their last meeting, in Doha, when Novak humbled Rafa, 6-1, 6-2.

Now, Nadal was playing at a high level again. He moved brilliantly, hitting laser backhands and inside-out forehands that kissed the lines. At times he almost made Djokovic look ordinary. Plus, he had a puncher’s shot to gain the upper hand. But, when leading 5-4 in the first set, a set point in hand, his forehand faltered.

Truth be told, today’s semi was a classic case of the cream rising to the top. At times the best player in the world seemed to be toying with mighty Rafa. First, there was a well-disguised backhand drop shot from the baseline, then came a devilish lob. More often we saw the mind-boggling arsenal of the gluten-free guy who comforts refugees one moment, laughs with his buddies the next, talks to the press on the joys of fatherhood and then climbs into an oxygen-boosting chamber.

He’s fast and fit. His flexibility amazes. His groundies and returns of serve are the best. Jab, jab, jab – pow! His defense astounds, then he goes on the offensive.

He’s consistent, and he knows how to read foes and take advantage. He adeptly lifts his level with an icy ease. So often he prevails with confidence. What are this man’s weaknesses? Okay, his overhead is average. Others have better serves. And he’s not 6’6″.

But he’s such a gifted clinician, the model of the modern professional, who turns his recent dominance into a kind of home court advantage.

Djokovic stepped up and won the first set tiebreak with some ease. Then, taking advantage of all the punches he’d landed, he pulled away. Novak summarized the match, telling IT that Rafa “started much better [than in Doha]. We had a very long first set. It went an hour and ten minutes…It’s very physical when I get to play Nadal. I had a couple of break points 4-3 up in the first set and didn’t use that. He had his chances…He had 5-4, set point. So it was quite even coming into tiebreak…I was 5-2 up; he came back to 5-all with some great defense and great points. Then I just served well and hung in there [on points and] made him play an extra shot. Five-all, 6-5, those points in the tiebreak…decided [the whole set].”

So today was Nole’s day. His 7-6 (5), 6-2 win sent him into Sunday’s final as a favorite against the big-hitting and improving Milos Raonic. Novak, who’s never lost in five matches to the Canadian, will be going for records: his fifth Indian Wells title and his 27th Masters. Incredibly, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have won 48 of the last 53 ATP Masters 1000 tourneys.

But these days are less about the Big Four and more about a singular Serb. Spaniard Feliciano Lopez boldly commented that Novak is the best of all time, with Federer next.

What we know is that we are in the Djokovic era. The man is a master. Just ask Mr. Nadal.


BNPPO: BRAINY AND NOT-SO-BRAINY MOMENTS IN THE GAME

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) american physicist (german born) sticking his tongue out, the picture was taken on march 14, 1951 and distributed for his 72nd birthday : News Photo

A BRAIN IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE

This isn’t exactly brain science. Still, let’s get serious about brains.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” the endearing Tin Man sings, “If I Only Had a Brain.” As for our sport, Jay Berger once said that “the biggest weapon in tennis was Mats Wilander’s brain.” But after his third-round loss to David Goffin (in which, incredibly, there were 13 breaks of serve and assorted blunders) Stan Wawrinka said the contest was “a match without brains.”

With this in mind, here’s a primer on brains – and the lack thereof – in tennis.

• Amelie Mauresmo once said that the only way she could avoid having another disappointing result at the French Open was to “clear my head and get a brain graft.”

Former Golden State Warrior Joe Barry Carroll claimed that his talent for tennis was “exceeded only by my talent for brain surgery.”

• Our favorite brainstorm about doubles came from writer Scott Ostler, who observed that after a bad a bad loss, “Martina Navratilova was beside herself – which, come to think of it, would make a hell of a doubles team.”

• Venus Williams joked that her dad Richard “brainwashed” her into thinking that she would become No. 1.

• Jimmy Connors claimed, “To a large degree, Ivan Lendl became No. 1 by default. Look, Borg quit, I got old and McEnroe went a little brain-dead…Somebody had to be No. 1.”

• Alexandra Stevenson said that on tour, “you can lose some serious brain cells.”

• Inside Tennis once had Albert Einstein on its cover.

• Andre Agassi claimed, “I have an uncanny ability to make people think I’m stupid.”

• After his defeat by fellow Zambian Musumba Bwayla, Lighton Mdewayl offered this excuse: “Musumba Bwayla is a stupid man and a hopeless player. He has a huge nose and is cross-eyed. Girls hate him. He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts, and that made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Zambia.”

• After noting the many fans that call out to her during matches, Li Na said, “Maybe they think I’m stupid, so they coach me. But I would like to say I’m not stupid.”

• Papa Richard Williams said, “I always talk like I am stupid. I prefer people to think I’m stupid.”

• Asked if she could change one thing, Sloane Stephens said, “That boys weren’t so stupid.”

• When we asked the brainy Novak Djokovic who were the smartest people he’d met, he offered this wise reply. “Roger [Federer] is somebody that has been evolving over the course of his career and is always trying to get better. All the top players, have [a] very high level of sports and tennis intelligence, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

“There are people who rely more on…data and statistics. There are people who rely more on gut feelings and instinct…

“I believe the best way is somewhere in the middle…Technology helps you get better in every aspect of your game, but if you start to calculate too much it can be distracting.

“Tennis is a special game that requires a lot from one player and a team. You try to work on yourself and your personality and strengthen your character in order to get better. It’s all correlated.”

• Djokovic isn’t the only smart player on the tour. Milos Raonic is brilliant. His parents are professors and when he talks about art, he sounds like a deep-think critic. (I’ll see your cubism, and raise you postmodernism.)

• Michael Chang was so thoughtful. But, on court, said writer Richard Evans, there hasn’t been anyone smarter than Martina Hingis, who despite being small, dominated at age 16. The late Bud Collins wrote that, as a teen, “Hingis has the extraordinary tennis mind of a jaded long-timer. Intriguing to behold, she has figured out the puzzles of the rectangle, the alteration of pace and angles, something that most phenoms never do.”

• Croat Marin Cilic said that the best players are the smartest. That brings to mind the worldly wisdom of Federer, who navigates the game with such ease. Still, in the end, we feel that the inquisitive Billie Jean King and wordsmith Mary Carillo were two of the brightest women we’ve encountered, and that Arthur Ashe was the smartest man. Reflective, calm, wide-ranging and deep, his insights were astounding, his wisdom profound.


EMOTION, ART AND THE TRUTH OF RAFA NADAL

2016 BNP Paribas Open - Day 10 : News Photo

We’ve seen it time and again. Our tennis hero Rafa Nadal twitches, then tugs. Finally the ump’s had it. A somber, far too serious voice sounds. A perfectly honed authority figure – so reminiscent of that sixth-grade school teacher you dreaded – scolds. “Time violation warning, Mr. Nadal.”

Rafa, the bull, snarls – then bristles. He seems to shout back, “How petty, how small! Here I’m creating art – athletic truth – and you’re worried about a few seconds. How meaningless! You’re the one in violation – soul violation! Don’t you get it?”

Or so it seems.

But on this desert afternoon, the tables were turned. At crunch time in Rafa’s high-drama third-round match against Alexander Zverev, it was the German who was given a dreaded time violation warning.

Ninety minutes later, in Rafa’s press conference, I reminded the great Spaniard that, “in the final set there was a fabulous point. The crowd roared. But Zverev then got a time violation warning. In the past, Rafa, you’ve said that after our best points, when the crowd is shouting, there shouldn’t be time violation warnings. So should there be a rule after long, great points that the chair umpire should be able to put extra time on the clock?”

Rafa responded with a question of his own. “You like this sport,” he asked me.

“I love it,” I responded.

“Me too,” he continued. “So the real thing is…the best matches I’ve watched [were] not the matches in which every point was [just] two, three shots [long]. No. That’s the real thing. Those [short points] don’t involve the crowd…That’s not the emotional game, when you hit one, two, three shots and that’s it. The people love the sport when it becomes emotional. [But] to become emotional, [tennis] needs drama, needs physical issues, needs long points. And if you have long points, it’s obvious that the [time violation] rule is not the right one.

“But I will not say [it] again. Everybody knows what I think, and that’s it. No, no, no, [there's] nothing to do. Somebody wanted that rule, and when somebody with a lot of power wants the rule, the people who run the sport follow that. So that’s it.”


BNP PARIBAS OPEN: LET THE “ZVEREV REVOLUTION” BEGIN

2016 BNP Paribas Open - Day 10 : News Photo

LET THE “ZVEREV-OLUTION” BEGIN: While a musical that celebrates Alexander Hamilton is all the rage on Broadway, the ATP’s teen du jour – Alexander Zverev – may soon be all the rage of the tour.

The man-child is 6’6″ but moves like the wind. His serve is a blur – 135 mph of pain. His second serve doesn’t allow you to breathe. Almost in unison, an entire stadium in the desert seemed to be asking, “Is tomorrow’s star now before us ?”

Young, raw talent somehow invigorates the most jaded of souls.

Zverev is of Russian origin, but grew up in Germany and now trains in Florida. His strokes have firepower and he’s got fire in his belly.

In the second-biggest tennis arena in the world, he was battling stroke for stroke against the mighty Rafa. Never mind that the Spaniard has won 14 Slams – he was looking oddly ordinary. The kid – baby face still in place – had the master on a string, running the proud man corner-to-corner. His backhand punished Rafa’s long-celebrated forehand. He saved a set point to win the first set tiebreak 11-9.

Astonishing! The boy’s never been to an ATP final. He’s only ranked No. 58. But here at the BNPPO, he’s whipped No. 23 seed Grigor Dimitrov and No. 16 Gilles Simon.

The crowd’s been fed with great action, but I’m starving. So I dash to the player cafeteria, which is empty, except for French tennis guru Patrick Mouratoglou.

“That Zverev is a wonder,” I gush. “Yeah,” replies Serena’s coach. “But Nadal will win the second set. Zverev flattened badly against Dimitrov.”

But wait, I thought, Rafa has a history of falling to flashy, over-achieving power-meisters like Lukas Rosol and Dustin Brown. Nonetheless, as if on cue, Zverev’s focus faltered and Rafa managed to get his armada back afloat, streaking to a tidy 6-0 second-set win.

Then, in the third set, the kid counterattacked with fury. Russia gave us the most significant revolution of the 20th century. Now, one wonders, in the 21st century, will the boy with those Russian roots give us a game changing “Zverev-olution”?

But, midway through the final set, with a breakpoint in hand, out of nowhere, as the crowd howled, the kid was issued a ridiculous time violation warning.

Conventional wisdom shouted, “Hey boy, just shake it off!” Match managers would insist, “Keep your mind on the game, don’t get distracted. If you lose this next point, Rafa will draw even, he’ll be back on serve.” But, as boos rained down from the upper tier, the teen bristled and challenged the ump.

So what. Zverev promptly returned to the generation gap contest and won three stunning points in a row. He offered three defiant fist pumps and soon went up 5-2.

“Wow, wow, and wow!” said an off-duty official.

Now the match would be his. The once-imposing Nadal just doesn’t win monster matches these days. Then again, Zverev had lost a pair of key matches in three weeks. Plus, it’s one thing to reach the finish line and quite another to cross it – especially against one of the top players of all time. Still, the boy they call Sasha seemed set to sashay to a mind-boggling win that would change the landscape.

At match point he had a sitter volley before him. But the boy with the Huck Finn hair couldn’t finish. “On match point,” he later said, “I sucked, so that was it. I missed probably the easiest shot I had the whole match… I mistimed it completely.” Zverev netted the volley and his head imploded. Nadal, like a comet, then raced to a memorable 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5 win.

The German, who obviously is in a learning mode, was left to wrestle with “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda” questions. “In the last three weeks,” he said, “I lost 7-5 in the third to Berdych; 6-4 in the fifth to Berdych; and 7-5 in the third with match point to Nadal. So I know how tough losses feel.”

Still, twice in two days, Rafa said that the German, with his 125 mph second serve, will probably become No. 1.

Zverev was modest, saying, “it’s a big honor to hear…that from Rafa…[but] we’ll see what I can accomplish.”

On this day Alexander – who probably will be great – faltered. But someday, many here insist, the “Zverev-olution” will come.

WHAT MARIA AND MUAMMAR GADDAFI’S DAUGHTER HAVE IN COMMON: Sharapova’s Shakesperean, sad, and more-than-surreal fall still astounds. It was said that her taking meldonium was perhaps the costliest mistake in sports history. Even though she’s worth a Sugarpova-sweet $195 million, her drug dust-up will cost much. But will it be as painful as her latest humiliation? The UN suspended her as a Goodwill Ambassador. She was once paid a symbolic $1 salary to be an ambassador. At the time she said it was one of her “proudest contracts ever.” The daughter of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was also stripped of her UN Ambassadorship.

BRAINLESS BATTLE: After losing to David Goffin in a match that had 13 breaks of serve and a terribly flubbed overhead at crunch time, Stan Wawrinka said, “It was a match without brains.”

MAKES SENSE TO US: BNPPO chief Raymond Moore told writer Carole Bouchard that he hoped the tournament would get a new status as a “Super Masters” event so that it could provide more prize money and points.

AMERICAN SUNSET: With John Isner’s three-set loss to No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori, there are no more American men left in the tourney. Meanwhile, Serena dismissed Simona Halep and is into the semis, which she reached last year.

MURRAY COULD BECOME NO. 1: A Murray could become No. 1. No it’s not No. 2 Andy Murray, it’s his brother Jamie. If the elder Murray – who plays with Brazilian Bruno Soares – wins his next match, he will become No. 1 in doubles. Had Simona Halep beaten Serena, she would have passed Angelique Kerber to become No. 2 in the world. Instead Agnie Radwanska will get that slot.

FAMILY BRANDING: There are now Nike T-Shirts that feature Federer’s four kids.

TENNIS-US-WTA-ATP : News Photo


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