The Gospel of Billie Jean


Inspiration, leadership, and tennis as an art form and vehicle for change


By Bill Simons


You’re a firemen’s daughter. At the Open, we saw Vicky Duval, who emerged out of Haiti. And there’s Novak Djokovic, who is from a Serbian mountain village. Talk about tennis as a vehicle of change.

We are global, which is great. It makes our sport special. You get cricket in six countries, you get rugby in ten.

Sports, arts, and music are all universal languages and a way to reach across the aisle. Maybe we have to get congressmen to think like that right now. We have to find a common language. Tennis is an art form, it is dance. It is how you shape time and space. It has a wonderful feeling.


When you feel a kind of euphoria on court, does that somehow go out to the crowd?

It does—you share that experience with everybody. It’s something you’ve worked hard for, something you’ve had to earn. You just can’t do it [overnight].


You’ve met the President, the First Lady, the Royal Family—



You didn’t meet Mandela, did you?

Yes, Ilana [Kloss, King's partner, who is South African] and I met Mandela. It was one of my goals, we’d been trying for years. I’d always wanted to meet him when Arthur [Ashe] met him, but I’m a white girl, I was never on the radar. Even today I am not invited to black [events], and I keep wishing I would be. It would be nice because I’ve always worked for and fought for everybody. But it’s alright. I just wish Arthur could still be alive so we could have some discussions [about] this. We had this discussion at Wimbledon. Every morning, for years, we used to have breakfast together [there]. We had a great time.


Tell me about meeting Mandela.

I was with my mother in Arizona and Zelda [La Grange, Mandela's private secretary] called Ilana and said, “You can meet Mandela on December 5th.” I said, “It is my one moment,” [and] I got on a plane. I met him in the library at his foundation. We were so excited, we started crying, we couldn’t even breathe. I had waited for that moment. We had been to Robben Island.


You know, Mandela had a tennis court there.

I saw that court, and it actually helped [him]. The guards that liked him and tried to help him would put notes in the [tennis] balls and hit them over the fence.


He described  himself as a baseliner who only came to net when he had a clear slam.

Really? It was an honor and a privilege to meet him. I have met some wonderful people.


What’s the one quality you see in these great leaders?

They are good at actively listening. When I give speeches, I say three things. You should keep learning—especially because of technologies, you have to keep learning. Relationships are everything. And be a problem solver. Problem solvers see things. Mandela saw something and got others to see it. He had the vision and acted on it. He was a transformational alchemist. Some leaders focus on smaller areas, but he was transformational, and that’s what you want. If I could be a leader, that is the kind of leader I want to be.


He so profoundly studied and knew the opposition.

He knew the humane side of things. Forgiveness is huge. He was bigger [because of it]. You have to teach people how you handle things.


So what happened at the grassroots level after your “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs?

That was the single most important tennis match—if you’re old enough, you remember how everything exploded after I played him? All the indoor courts were built back in those days. Everyone was wearing tennis apparel to supermarkets. It was kind of cool.

That was our opportunity [to make tennis a major sport], and we didn’t take advantage. I knew the match was really about social change. I was very clear about what it was going to mean. I was so nervous that the match had to happen, but by the time I played, I was very calm. I’m always very calm when I finally get out there.


People look at the Battle of the Sexes and say it was actually a good moment for women and—

For both genders. It brought us all together, even though it was [the genders] against each other. There were parties in suburbia, and sorority and fraternity parties. It brought boys and girls together, and yet, they were betting against each other. But that was fine.


It was somehow a plus for men, too?

There was a first generation of men who grew up during the women’s movement. You should see how guys’ eyes go up [when they] start thinking about it. They remember how crazy things were. We had [feminists] Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and we were marching with all these banners. [But] men controlled the media.


There was a lengthy article in ESPN the Magazine suggesting that Riggs, a habitual gambler, might have thrown the match. Were you upset by that?

No, because it is so ludicrous. It’s ridiculous. It is a media guy trying to make his name. He has a book out now, I will make it very clear, ok?  If anybody knows any background … First of all, [Bobby's close friend] Lornie Kuhle said it was ludicrous, and he was the one who was close to Riggs. He was so furious, he couldn’t breathe.

I told him, “Lornie, it’s ok.” Lornie is just so worked up—he is still getting worked up. I said, “Lornie, let it go, this guy is trying to make a name for himself.” And I am not going to say “No comment,” because I want to do the interview. Everyone is saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I say it’s fine. I’ll do it, I don’t care.

The most important thing you have to know is that [Lornie] said to Bobby, “You have to win this match, because if you do, we are going to do a million-dollar winner-takes-all with Chris Evert.” He already had his career lined up, and said, “Bob, if you lose this match, it’s over.” I told Bob before the match that I was never going to play him again.


So there is nothing in the contract?

Show me the contract. They don’t have it. Larry [Riggs, Bobby Riggs' son] doesn’t have one, Lornie doesn’t have it, no one has one.


The article says Riggs was always a fighter, but he didn’t really fire up and train like a heavyweight.

He was training, he was hitting. You think he wasn’t gonna hit tennis balls? Jesus, come on, give me a break. If you were gonna play in front of 30,000 people, wouldn’t you hit tennis balls?


What if young Billie Jean Moffitt decided to stick with softball or soccer instead of playing tennis?

I was playing softball before tennis. I don’t think I would have had quite the life I’ve had. I would have helped the girls to play for a softball league.


And what if you hadn’t been a driving force in tennis?

I never thought about what else I would do. I would be a leader of something. I would love to see a girl being president. Why not?


If Hilary runs, are you going to work hard for her?

Yes, I love Obama and Hillary, and I will help.


Who is the greatest woman player of all time?

Serena is not finished—by the time she finishes, she should be the best—but Steffi [Graf] for singles, and Martina [Navratilova] for singles, doubles, and mixed. If you want an all-around game, [someone] who can do anything, Martina is still the best. She brought so much … I love doubles—people don’t appreciate doubles enough. Steffi just did singles, but I think Serena will be the best ever.


Nadal’s the No. 1 man.

He’s just hardcore. He learned to adjust to hard courts, which is unbelievable. Nadal is the most adaptable player I’ve seen in years. When I see him on hard courts, every year he is better. Same thing with the first time I saw him play on grass and now. He is so adaptable, and that is very hard to find in people. He’s amazing.


Is it because of his commitment, his love of the game?

The passion to play defines Nadal.


Have you ever seen a more humble elite star than Nadal?

I think Federer is. They are both unbelievable. We are very lucky to have them. Because they could have been in any sport and been great.


There’s such a grace and beauty to Roger’s game.

He plays old fashioned tennis with the new power. He plays like my generation.


We’re going to miss him.

You’re not kidding. But keep it quiet. We want him to play five more years.


Same-sex relationships have come under intense criticism, but are you proud of your enduring relationship with Ilana [Kloss]?

It’s been 34 years. I am very proud of it.


You could say it is one of the great relationships in tennis.

And we can work together, which is amazing. We have our time-outs, when we don’t talk about work. We are cruise chicks; we love to go on cruises. One thing we promised each other is that when we step on that boat, no business. And if we start talking business, we do time-outs and start laughing.


The last time we spoke, you were concerned about the push for gay marriage. You were in favor of civil unions.

I am always worried about protecting people’s legalities. [The progress with gay] marriage is great, I’m thrilled. That’s my optimal goal. But you have to figure it out how to get to the end result of having all of the same rights. There is a tipping point now, [support for gay marriage is soaring] because of Obama.


Russia has played such a great role in tennis, but now they’ve enacted anti-gay laws so that you can’t advocate for gay rights.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t want the athletes to be penalized, but the Olympic committee should say, “This is it—after this, the bid of anybody who isn’t up to speed on rights for gays and lesbians won’t even be considered.” What Putin did was very calculated. He waited until six months before the Olympics [to push anti-gay legislation]. I don’t think [the Olympic committee] had a plan B.


What was your experience in Russia [as part of President Obama's US delegation to the Sochi Olympics] like?

I was only there a day and a half. We didn’t stop. I didn’t get any sleep. We got to see the bobsled, we got to see the men’s finals in ice hockey. It was a great experience. The weather was perfect. They played Tchaikovsky, and the closing was fantastic with the different authors, and the ballet. I have books at home on Nijinsky and Pavlova, so I was in hog heaven. I have a deep respect for the Russian people, because I’ve been going there forever, since 1962, when I was 18 years old.

For me, it was a fantastic experience. It was an honor to represent the Americans. [But] I also met a gay kid over there who’s going through a very hard time. He’s getting bullied every day. I was told a story where five kids who have been friends since childhood went out, and one of the friends came out to the other four, and they killed him that night. So there’s a lot of challenges from a human rights point of view.


Why these problems in such a great country with a wonderful tradition in the arts?

Well, they’re okaying hate. You can’t okay hate in any society. We have work on it at home, too. It’s easy to look that way, but we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we keep doing the right thing. But they’re okaying hate now. Hate in any form, and that’s why people are taking advantage of those feelings. It makes them feel more powerful, I guess.


Do you think athletes feel a lot of pressure not to speak out?

Yes, You’re not allowed to speak out, or you get in trouble. You can get your medals taken away and [be] sent home. There’s a lot of challenges.


The Ukrainian pro Sergei Stakovsky said that players would lose all their endorsements, all their ties.

Yeah, that was happening while I was there. We had to be careful.


If you sat down with Maria Sharapova, who’s probably the most important athlete in Russia, what would you say?

I would have to listen to her first. I ask a lot of questions.


How would you start the conversation?

I would ask her what she thinks about the situation in Russia. But you have to understand, Putin’s very powerful, and she’s very connected to him. It’s not that easy. I remember seeing her in the locker room when she won Wimbledon [in 2004], and he called her. He said, “I would like you to go out and do an interview with Russian TV,” and she hopped to it. She’s still very connected to her homeland. So it’s not that easy. It’s easy to talk about it, but it’s not easy to live it.


Michelle Obama goes to the US Open and World TeamTennis year after year, and you got the Medal of Freedom from the President.

Michelle is doing these Let’s Move campaigns, and I’m on the president’s council for fitness. I love what they’re trying to do about health. We’re at risk, even from a security viewpoint. Did you know some of our kids have to go to pre-boot camp to pass the physical to be in the service? Also, there are health costs—we need to do anything we can to help, and tennis definitely is fantastic. Tennis is Michelle’s favorite sport.

If you read Obama’s biography, he played tennis a lot more than he played basketball, but then he had a very bad experience [at the Punahou School in Hawaii], where the coach said something very bad to him, very racial: “Don’t touch the draw sheet with your hand, you’ll make it dirty.” You don’t see tennis mentioned one more time in his book—you only see basketball.

Arthur Ashe and I used to talk about how our sport needs to be more hospitable. I used to live in Hawaii, and used to practice at the Punahoa School, and Obama and his friends would watch. [Years later] I asked, “Why didn’t you ask me to hit with you?” He said, “You would have?” I said, ‘Absolutely!’

When I heard [about Obama's racist experience with tennis], I was not a happy camper. When I was young, Perry T. Jones [the head of the Southern California Tennis Association] wouldn’t let me in the photo of my first tournament. He said, “Little girl, you can’t be in the photo because you’re wearing shorts.” Well, I had never seen a tennis dress until that day, so I didn’t know. When I read the story about Obama, I said, “Oh, that sounds familiar!” And Arthur Ashe, I bet he had a couple stories. [BJK's partner Ilana Kloss interjects, "Obama’s a bit of a wuss. He went away—you didn’t!"]

Michelle, the president, and their children are active physically. It sets a good example.


Their daughter Malia plays varsity tennis.

Great. I bet her mom made her. Michelle plays all the time.


Some say there’s still a minority that’s prejudiced.

Doesn’t matter. It’s vocal. Think about what Mr. [Richard] Williams’ life was like as a boy. That generation, they don’t forget.


Have you had any discussions with the Williamses about Venus and Serena not going to Indian Wells?

No, I wish I could. Maybe I should. I did want to try to sit down with them. Maybe now that would be good, since a little time has passed. I’d just ask about their feelings. But I think they’ve kind of made a pact. I know it really hurt their feelings, terribly.


Is tennis still considered an upper-class white sport?

At the top, but over 70% of people who play tennis play at parks, like me, Arthur, and Jimmy [Connors] did. And the club where John McEnroe grew up, I’ve seen parking lots nicer than that club. Most people who play at parks are funny as heck, they’re pretty hospitable. [Growing up, at the parks] We couldn’t play without an adult. I used to sit eight hours to play one hour. I love listening to stories. I learned about Bobby Riggs and all these different people, and felt closer to them. Those are things kids [today] don’t get. We need mentoring. We need players to not just have their entourage around them, never talking to or listening to other people. That isn’t very fulfilling. By the time they retire, they’ll look back at each other and say, “Now what? What am I going to do with my life?” They’re lost.


Has there been forward growth in the sport, or is there a discriminating sensibility at its core?

We’ve made an effort to be open. More and more children are multicultural, which is great! Stop labeling people! I hate to say the word multicultural, because a person’s a person.


If you could change one thing in tennis, what would it be?

I would like tennis to be bigger. Are you kidding? We could help the growth of our sport. We’re worried. We’re not doing well.

We don’t have a pipeline. I don’t know how it would have worked, somebody else would have filled my shoes. Everyone is unique. I like leading. I have one big thing left in me: leadership.


You’ve said you’d like to see men’s matches at Slams be best-of-three sets.

We make our guys play three out of five, which is horrendous. We’re wearing our top guys out. I hate it. Everyone says, “Billie, you want that because [the women] play three sets.” No, I want the men to stay in the game longer. I wanted Sampras to play longer. Roddick retired at 30. I want them in until they’re 35 or 40, if they love to play.

They [don't] play that long anymore. They have enough money and they’re exhausted … It’s killing them. You only have so many miles in your legs. This sport is so physically demanding now. You need aerobic, and anaerobic for quickness. When I see men play over four, five, or six hours, I’m going, “Oh, great. That’s another year off their careers.” Golf’s lucky, because their oldies can play. Once we get to know our players, we don’t want them to leave. Every time one of our players retires, I go “Oh no, I can’t believe so-and-so isn’t playing anymore.”


Talk about America’s new Sloane generation, all our new young woman players.

We need the pipeline. We’re hurt. We need some boys. It would be interesting to see what’s inspired them … It’s also a tribute to Serena and Venus. If you are a little girl today, they are the inspiration. For any child in the world.






Tennis War Stories: Part I

From Oaths of the French Revolution to the Spies of World War II

Photo by Herbert Gehr/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top … In our youth our hearts were touched by fire.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

By Bill Simons

As this year’s US Open final was heating up, John McEnroe blurted out, “It’s getting to be a war out there.”

How silly, I thought. The Nadal-Djokovic match was hardly a war. But then I remembered how Jimmy Connors continually claimed that “people always forget it’s a war out there.”

Of course, the great thing about sports is that they sweep aside most of the madness of this bumbling, stumbling world—a little old place the cynical among us claim is a moral wilderness, adrift and mean-spirited. When we take refuge in sports, we escape into a simulated place of play where few are ever killed, only a bit of blood is spilled, and the games themselves don’t really matter one twit.

It just seems that way.

Ultimately our games are a comforting, alternative reality that creates an enticing illusion, a parallel universe that replicates and amplifies life with an almost eerie precision.

Yes, Yannick Noah once said, “I always considered tennis as combat in an arena between two gladiators who have their own rackets and their courage as weapons.”

But let’s be clear, tennis is not—repeat, is not—war: Far from it. Sure, McEnroe and Connors had a point. And some might claim that tennis’ fiercest struggles—well, at least in fleeting moments—suggest the blur of battle. Still, like everything else in life, tennis has been impacted by the blood and angst of real battles. Burning flesh, searing souls, the fog of war has directly or indirectly impacted us all.


The connection between war and tennis goes back to the French Revolution, when insurgents hoping to write a kind of pledge of allegiance to democracy were forced to take refuge in an indoor tennis court where they created a rousing, “Down with the King!” pledge, the Tennis Court Oath, which insisted on constitutional rule.

Here in America, the Civil War didn’t have any real connection with tennis until long after the drumbeats of battle were silenced, when a controversial statue of Arthur Ashe was erected on Richmond Virginia’s Monument Avenue in 1996, near an array of statues which celebrate Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.


The connection of tennis to war and the military goes back to the creation of the modern game and an anonymous British officer—Major Clopton Wingfield—who served in the Dragoon Guards in India and helped Britain take over Beijing. Wingfield—our favorite member of the Honorable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms—went on to create the modern-day version of tennis, first launched on the generous lawns of 19th century English estates. And it’s no accident that, to this day, there is a strong militaristic presence at Wimbledon, where Air Vice-Marshals, Captains, and Colonels often run the place or serve as oh-so-serious volunteers.

Tennis also took a foothold in another world of privilege: Czarist Russia. There, amidst opulent wealth and expansive country castles, flourished a world of underhanded serves, dandy bonnets, and less-than-dandy (poke and push) backhands. All was fun and games for the Czar and his tennis-loving Romanov clan, until the first World War, when the Russian Revolution changed everything.

Around the same time, a dashing World War I flyer, Roland Garros, captured the imagination of the French masses with his spiffy mustache, no-nonsense beret, and deep love of tennis. After he crashed in Tunisia, he became a beloved war martyr. Then, in 1928, when authorities constructed a snazzy tennis palace in Paris, they named the Grand Slam site after the debonair flyer.

By the time of World War I, tennis had become enmeshed in the popular culture. While play was halted at Wimbledon and at the French Nationals, in the great war film, The Grand Illusion, we see French prisoners of war casually tote tennis rackets with a matter-of-fact “tennis, anyone?” ‘tude. All the while, the movie’s hero—Captain de Boeldieu—tells his mates that getting out of the prisoner camp is just another sport to be conquered. “A tennis court,” he says, “is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.”

In the real world in 1914, Germany was playing Australia in Pittsburgh, PA of all places, with its large German population, just as World War I broke out. Organizers were told not to announce the outbreak of the conflict for fear of how the Germans would be treated. After the tie, the German team was arrested on the boat that was taking them home and held as prisoners of war.

One of the players who faced Germany was Tony Wilding, the four-time Wimbledon champion. The Nadal of his day, Wilding was said to be the fourth best player in the first 50 years of the 20th century. The stylish New Zealander promptly went to England, where he took the advice of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the young Winston Churchill, and signed up as as a Captain in the Royal Marines. On May 8, 1915, Wilding wrote, “For really the first time in seven-and-a-half months I have a job which is likely to … [have] the whole outfit being blown to hell.” The next day the beloved tennis star, like many others, was indeed blown up.

The years between the two World Wars saw the rise of two of the most notorious dictators in history. Joseph Stalin first consolidated Soviet rule and then led a terrifyingly brutal effort to rebuff Hitler’s unsparing invasion. Russia’s many years of scorched-earth deprivation eventually led to one of the most imaginative pop-sociology theories in tennis, which goes like this: Stalin may have had more impact on 21st century tennis then anyone else. After all, his policies imposed such harsh conditions that many—including a talented cadre of budding young tennis players—did anything they could to escape.

One Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, remembered all the difficult times she dealt with as a child and added, “It was not only when we were growing up … It’s also [our grandparents] coming through the war, because our grandparents were fighting in the war and things were extremely hard. They had to fight with nothing, without maybe bullets, only with knives, and still to go to war. They teach their kids to be always strong. Always we have difficult moments in Russia when we grow up, and we always learn to be strong. This is one of the keys [to our success].”


With all his theories on the superiority of Aryans and his love of pageantry and propaganda, it was hardly surprising that Adolf Hitler had an interest in sports. He desperately wanted the 1936 Olympics to be a celebration of Ayran superiority, but the African-American track star Jesse Owens made a hash of his ill-conceived racist conceits. Similarly, the Führer eagerly wanted Germany to win the 1937 Davis Cup against the US at Wimbledon. He called Germany’s top player, the aristocratic Baron Gottfried von Cramm, just as he was about to walk on court.

Von Cramm, whose multi-castle family traced their roots to the 12th century, was—after Don Budge and Fred Perry—the best player of his day, as well as the most appealing nobleman in tennis history. Everyone adored the caring guy, who often dropped Baron and von (indicators of noble heritage) from his name. Unlike other German sports heroes (think: boxer Max Schmeling) he refused to be a patsy. He resisted joining the Nazi party, heroically backed a prominent Jewish player who had been banned, and at an exhibition in Australia, had the guts to criticize Hitler.

Not surprisingly, the Nazis retaliated, going after von Cramm’s properties, accusing him of being gay, and sentencing him to a year in prison. Von Cramm’s American friend and rival Don Budge immediately gathered a petition of 25 American standouts (including Joe DiMaggio) in the futile effort to get Hitler to release von Cramm, who eventually had to endure the brutalities of Germany’s eastern front.

Not coincidentally, the mother of the next great star in German tennis, Boris Becker, was also detained during the war. As a Jew, she was imprisoned in a Czech labor camp. According to Jewish law, since Becker’s mother was Jewish, so is Boris. Social historians now chuckle about this twist of fate: three decades after the death of the anti-Semitic Führer, Germany’s greatest sports hero this side of a soccer pitch proved to be a Jew. Hitler’s no doubt double-faulting in his grave.

How sad: the usually oh-so-festive French Open had a dark history during World War II. For ten months in 1939 and 1940, Roland Garros stadium served as a “centre de rassemblement” or prison camp for foreigners and political dissidents, including none other than the famed Arthur Koestler.

The author of Darkness at Noon recalled, “At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers, about 600 of us who lived beneath the stairways of the stadium. We slept on straw—wet straw, because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines … It smelled of filth and excrement, and only slits of light found their way inside. Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walks in the stadium, we could see the names [of the great French champions Jean] Borotra and [Jacques] Brugnon on the scoreboard.”

Borotra went on to become Commissioner for Sports in the Vichy collaboration government, where he tried to regenerate the supposedly “decadent” French through sports. But the Germans became suspicions about his loyalty, and he was imprisoned in Germany until 1945.


The official records of the French Open show that—like the US Open and Wimbledon—the French national championships weren’t played during World War II.

Not true.

While much of tennis shut down (and the Davis Cup was stored in an Australian bank), the sport continued in France between 1941 and 1945, with the fabled Henri Cochet as the head of the French Tennis Federation. At the French National Championships at Roland Garros, the French players Bernard Destremau and Yvon Petra (himself a survivor of a prison camp) prevailed. Even in August, 1944, as Allied forces were driving on Paris from Normandy, Roland Garros went on.


In contrast, from 1940 to 1945, there was no play at Wimbledon. Instead, military and civil defense workers gathered. The sporting haven actually became a farm with chickens, pigs, rabbits, and victory gardens. German bombs struck the All-England Club four times, destroying 1,800 seats.

All the while, the best British player of the era, Fred Perry, joined the US Air Force, as did Californian Don Budge. Never mind that Budge, the best player of his day, suffered a severe muscle tear while navigating an obstacle course that seriously diminished his career. He still teamed up with the Coast Guard’s Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, an aging Bill Tilden, and many others to play numerous wartime exhibitions.

Wimbledon finalist Tom Brown continued to carry a tennis racquet as he traipsed from battlefield to battlefield. Others had different fates: Chris Evert’s uncle, Jack, died at the age of 22 while in the Army in France, and Californian Joe Hunt, America’s No. 1 player in 1943, perished off of Florida in a 1945 training crash, just months before the war’s end.

Still, no American player had a more intriguing war adventure than Alice Marble. Just before the war, the San Francisco native had won a whopping 19 Slam titles. But in the early ‘40s, the preeminent female player of the day was injured in a car accident, suffered a miscarriage, and lost her flyer husband to Nazi guns over Germany. Then she failed to pull off a suicide attempt.

After all of that, what’s a girl to do? Marble became an American spy in Europe, where she seduced a former lover—a Swiss banker suspected of hiding art and gold—in hopes of gaining Nazi financial data. But the mission went awry, and a Russian agent shot Marble in the back. Still, the info she gathered was used during the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute Nazis, whose horrific war killed millions and changed everything—even a little old game they call tennis.


Look in our next issue for part II, covering the Cold War, Vietnam, the Mideast Crisis, and the Balkan Wars.


By Bill Simons

Whether you call it the flavor of the week or the theme du jour. the collective wisdom was clear: The tide in our game was, at long last, turning.

The times, they were a changin’. The vice grip of the Big Four—Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray—was now loosening. It was the dawning of a new age. Goodness, Federer wasn’t even the No. 1 player in Switzerland anymore. The young Turks were rattling their sabres. So, in one press conference after another, the questions came:

“Is there a new, subtle change, an intangible feeling in the locker room?”

After all, Stan Wawrinka had scored a shock victory over Nadal at the Aussie Open.

“Do you now have a feeling,” came another query, “that those guys at the top are no longer invincible? That the [other] guys feel they finally have a shot?”

Didn’t young Milos Raonic just dismiss Andy Murray and didn’t Alexandr Dolgopolov just spank Nadal? A new day must be coming?

Such is the relentless power of the Big Four narrative. After all never before had a cadre of athletes so dominated a sport. The Big Four had won 32 of the last 34 of Slams. One of them had been No. 1 for over ten years, and the quartet had collected an  astounding 27 of the last 28 Masters 1000 tourneys.

If that isn’t in-your-face dominance, what is? Still, we live in a disposable culture. Newspapers no longer matter. Don’t tell me your iPhone is a year old. From that point of view, the days of tennis’ Fab Four are on the wane.

But if ever there has been a proud player, an enduring champion who knows the dynamics of the game, it’s Roger Federer. He knows the media has long been critical of him. The London Times said that even in decline, he is the best ever. And that was six years ago. Federer knows the oh-so-slim margins in tennis, where belief, calm, confidence, and experience mean everything. Such is the difference between the Big Four and all the aspiring wannabes, the Tsongas, the Berdychs and maybe the Dimitrovs of this world.

Not surprisingly, a few days ago, Federer offered a “not so fast” cautionary note. It is great that these other guys are gaining in confidence, he said. But Novak and I are still in the draw. Let’s see what happens when the tournament is all over.

So, on a flawless afternoon—warm temperatures, no clouds, brown sun umbrellas, neon bright shirts—thousands of humble tennis fans and the game’s most generous billionaire (wearing a striking Panama hat) watched Federer’s power forehands, his underrated serve, his flex volleys, his balletic movement, and that poetic backhand—flat, slice, or topspin, down the line or crosscourt—go up against the man who has revolutionized the game with his astounding movement, agility, and sublime, quick-strike defense.

Novak Djokovic is a trim lean machine. Everything with the Serbian blaster seems so calibrated—a powerful sublime mechanic with a white hat. Okay, his sense of humor can be subtle, but his return of serve is in your face.

On this sublime California day, a certain Sunday sense of perfection—power and grace in the desert—sets in. Pinch yourself: It is good to be alive as the Euromasters each score singular breaks of serve, dividing the first two sets.

Then the Serbian—who recently lost to Federer in Dubai, but has been a warrior on a mission at Indian Wells—steps up and unleashes a fabulous forehand return off of a 123 mph Federer first serve, handcuffing the Swiss master of movement to secure a critical third-set break. Djokovic is in the lead and the match and the title are within his grasp.

The knowing Indian Wells crowd explodes in support of Roger as he opens a 15-30 lead. A critical break is possible. But Djokovic roars back to secure a 5-3 advantage, just a game away from the championship.

It’s crunch time, the question simple. Can Djokovic close? An approach shot drifts long: 0-15. An awkward forehand goes wide, well into the alley: 0-30 once again. A brave Federer crosscourt forehand kisses the line: 0-40.

Silence descends.

Have 16,841 Californians ever been so still? Two solitary figures cast silhouettes in the long late-afternoon shadows. Djokovic hits a forehand winner: 15-40. Then a simple Nole forehand drifts quietly wide into the waiting alley. An agonizing mistake for the Serb, but bliss for the Alpine wizard. The artist we adore has broken back. The woman in the stylish bonnet in the front row is beside herself—pure glee. The often somber statisticians, up high in the arena, dance happy jigs

Not only is Roger beloved, he is good. He holds his serve at love to grab a 6-5 lead. And the crowd explodes: Raw-jerr! Raw-jerr! “Mexico supports Roger” banners wave proud. Swiss flags show pride.

Now, Djokovic must hold serve or go home. He bravely counters the Federerian surge and lifts his game—as he’d done against Marin Cilic and John Isner—to win serve with ease.

Perhaps it only makes sense that in this year, when just about everyone’s fave tournament gave us stunning facility upgrades, the title should be decided by the ultimate in dramatic tension: a final-set tiebreak.

But then the inexplicable occurs.

The master—confident stride, calm demeanor, deep brown eyes—blinks. Yet another topspin backhand flies long: a mini-break right away for Nole. Then a Federer lob falls dreadfully short. Roger grimaces, such an error.

Another blanket of silence.

Next, Roger’s volley flies wide: Nole’s up 3-0. But Federer scores a 119 first serve winner. “C’mon!” squeals a desperate Roger fan from Newport Beach. But Roger nets an-oh-so-makable forehand. A “Nole! Nole!” chant rolls down from the western bleachers. Then Fed suffers yet another forehand error.

The master is being overwhelmed. Maybe it’s the six-year age difference, or a tricky wind that has picked up, or simply a matter of belief. Nole is up 5-1. Such effort and focus—fierce, unwavering.

But whoops, a Djokovic forehand flies long, 5-2. Then a simple Fed forehand finds the net. Disaster: 6-2, and Championship Point one. Federer uncorks one of his 108 mph aces to the corner: 6-3.

Championship Point two. More monastic silence, twelve Djokovician bounces, and a devastating anti-climax. The Mighty Fed dumps a simple backhand into the middle of the net.

Djokovic prevails, proud and happy. He raises his hands  to the heavens, applauds the throng, and offers many a fist pump to no one in particular. Digging deep with unyielding commitment, he has secured his third BNP Paribas Open title, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3).

And Roger—humbled, just for the moment—sits alone. Slightly stunned, sad in defeat, he flicks his hair, sorts through his towels, and orders his rackets.

Yet he knows a new order in tennis is not quite yet upon us. “One tournament doesn’t do it all for me yet,” he says later. “A few months ago people were saying I couldn’t play tennis anymore.”

Well, you know what? Roger Federer can still play tennis. Just ask Novak Djokovic.

Forza Flavia: Fiery But Purposeful Pennetta Wins Big at Indian Wells

By John Huston

A few days ago, it looked like Flavia Pennetta was out of the BNP Paribas Open. Down 0-3 and a break point in the final set against SoCal favorite Sloane Stephens, Pennetta was in free fall, having flopped a chance to serve out the match in the second set.

But the winds of change were in play—specifically an on-court dust storm that threw an element of chaos into each rally between the Italian veteran and the up-and-coming American. Pennetta found some consistency, Stephens sent balls sailing, and in a few minutes, the whole flavor of the tournament began to change.

A day later, the fiery, fist-pumping Italian upped her game and turned the tables to score a 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over longtime peer Li Na—both 32, Li and Pennetta were born just one day apart—in the semis. And today in her first big final, she dismissed a sligthly-hobbled, error-prone Aga Radwanska 6-2, 6-1. Make no mistake: today is the biggest day of her career.

For years, Pennetta has been a strong force on tour, just below the game’s elite, but frequently providing memorable moments. Witnesses won’t forget when she made the tempestuous Vera Zvonareva literally unravel, pulling off her leg bandages in anger, after fighting off match points at the 2009 US Open? Or her demonstrative battle against officials and a peeved Amelie Mauresmo in the 2009 Fed Cup. As Italian women’s tennis has raised its profile in the last handful of years, with Francesca Schiavone winning the 2010 French Open and reaching the final in 2011, only to be followed by a top-10-bound Sara Errani the next year, it’s easy to forget that it was Pennetta who blazed the trail, by becoming the first Italian woman to reach the top 10, in 2009.

Pennetta has been known at times for her off court personality, whether it be through her past relationship with Carlos Moya, or her colorful appreciation for life’s pleasures, as outlined in interviews and her autobiography. But her Indian Wells win proves that solid, discriminatingly aggressive tennis with fine shotmaking form can still reap benefits at a time when the biggest titles usually belong to the biggest hitters in the women’s game.

A year ago, Pennetta was battling injury, and the future of her career was in doubt. But today, as the winner of the 2013 BNP Paribas Open, she has a million dollar paycheck—and a pair of extremely proud parents. “I call my dad, and it was like he couldn’t breathe,” she said in the press room, describing her first phone call after the match. “I tell him, ‘Papa,, respirare—breathe!’ Both Pennetta and her father can breathe deeply now—in the game of tennis, the winds of change are fast.



Maybe the Moon and Other Findings From the BNP Paribas Open

Photo by Brent Bishop.

By Bill Simons

CHEZ PANISSE, CHEZ LARRY’S: Yes, that was USTA Player Development Chief Pat McEnroe, Jose Higueras, and UC Berkeley coach Peter Wright at Berkeley’s cutting-edge Chez Panisse restaurant the other night. Wright and many other collegians later dined with Oracle founder and tennis benefactor Larry Ellison.

ISNER VS. DJOKOVIC EQUALS: The most feared serve in the game vs. the most adept return of serve in the game.

YOU DON’T SEE THAT EVERY DAY: Djokovic breaks Isner twice in a row, and then Isner breaks right back twice in a row … Djokovic serves for the match twice, and he doesn’t even get a match point.

HOW LOUD CAN YOU GET? Nick Bollettieri, one of the most adept self-promoters on this earth, will reportedly be introduced at the International Hall of Fame induction ceremony in July by Dick Vitale—the loudest voice in TV sports since Howard Cosell—and by tennis’ adept quipmeister Mary Carillo.

STUCK IN THE ’60s: The serve speed meter briefly jammed during the Federer-Dolgopolov semis and repeatedly showed the Ukraine’s serve being hit at a paltry 65 mph.

NOT SO STUCK IN THE ’60s: How cool is the new 360 degrees spotlight technology which tennis broadcasts are now featuring?

IT MAY NOT BE AN AMERICAN MAN WINNING A SLAM, BUT… Next week an American, John Isner, will be in the top ten for the first time since September 2012..

MAYBE THE MOON: There’s no factual basis to the rumor that NASA issued a report that you could spot Federer‘s neon orange shoes from Mars.

HAM SLAM: Historians still occasionally refer to Ham Richardson, the fine American player of the ’50s and ’60s. But, of course, Novak Djokovic is the prevailing ham on the ATP circuit. While Li Na‘s hilarious humor is based on verbal jibes and brutally witty honesty, Djokovic is known more for his famous imitations and set piece offerings. He’s long relished crashing press conferences. And he recently delighted reporters when he barged into a Grigor Dimitrov presser, threw his arm around his Bulgarian pal and said, “My friend Grigor here, best-looking guy on the tour. You don’t need to talk about tennis too much … let’s talk about your looks.”

BACK-TO-BACK CHAMPIONS: Despite a slew of fabulous teams which were in the draw (Federer, Murray, Djokovic and Nadal were all in), Bob and Mike Bryan defended their doubles championships.

NOT-S0-HIDDEN MESSAGE: When Grigor Dimitrov—who is Maria Sharapova‘s boyfriend—was asked to name his favorite flavor of Sugarpova candy, he answered, “Flirty Sour.”

MAN BITES DOG: In one of the better role-reversals in memory, when facing John McEnroe in Charlotte, Ivan Lendl freaked out for over ten minutes about a crucial line call, and was subsequently issued a point penalty (before, amidst much chaos, it was rescinded).

As Lendl stormed the back of the court arguing with the linesperson, McEnroe paraded around, posing for selfies with fans and riling up the crowd. After Mac won, he told the crowd, “I loved it. Now I know what it is like. …I got to have some fun, talk to people. Take some pictures. It was awesome. He melted down and I pulled it out.” Earlier in the event, which Mac won, the New Yorker was facing his ace rival Jimmy Connors for the first time since ’99, and almost nailed him in his private parts. The ever-reflective Mac snickered with laughter after the shot, and later quipped that he had “been trying for that for 35 years.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We feel [they are] two different sports,” says Mike Bryan, about ATP singles and doubles.

MAKES SENSE: Lauren Davis, 5’2”, says she has always looked up to 5’3″ Dominika Cibulkova.

T-SHIRT OF THE DAY: “Frogs: A Chorus of Colors” shirt from the Museum of the Rockies.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN FIRST: A traumatic fall-out from the often hilarious kiss-cam filler feature during changeovers, a suit from someone hurt by going for a ball blasted into the stands by the winner after a match, or a debilitating injury as a result of a soccer game among tennis players?

CHRIST, YOU KNOW IT AIN’T EASY: To hit an offensive lob winner over a gigantic 6’10″ pro (like Novak Djokovic did over Isner.)

YOU MAY SAY I AM NOT A DREAMER: Novak Djokovic said, let’s face it no one grows up dreaming to be a doubles champion.

HE GOT THAT ONE RIGHT: Djokovic said four-time BNP Paribas Open champ Federer “doesn’t have a bad record here.”


QUESTION: You play with zest … You seem happier. Do you think you are?

ROGER FEDERER:  I’m just playing more freely overall and with more confidence, because I can get to more balls without thinking. I can wake up in the morning without feeling sore. I can go to bed not feeling like, “I hope I feel better tomorrow.”

I don’t have these thoughts going through my mind, and I’m not worried every single minute of the day. So, automatically you’re more inspired, and you’re more happy as a person.

Q: Is there anything you haven’t seen like weather‑wise and conditions‑wise?

RF: We don’t play in ice-cold conditions. It’s not like other sports.  Where they play NFL … I saw a game when I was practicing in Dubai, and there was snow just everywhere. I was like, “That’s crazy.” I don’t know how they do it. Thankfully, I’m a tennis player.

But then again, we play in unbelievable heat sometimes, like in Australia.

Q: Is there any added significance for you, having played this well here this year, since this is where things went sour for you? Does that make it any sweeter this year?

RF: Not necessarily. You know, I accepted the fact that I wasn’t feeling well last year. I knew I had planned to go back after this tournament and then rest and prepare.

So, instead of resting I was just sore. Instead of preparing, I was just trying to get back. So it was a bit of a wasted sort of stretch …

I did return okay. Once the clay came around, at least the pain was gone, but mentally, I took a hit, just knowing that I never felt in pain for [as] long [as] I did after this tournament last year.

So it feels good winning so many matches here again. It’s nice winning, anyway (smiling). It just solves a lot of problems and makes you feel better—you know, happier.

Q: Having won so much this week, does it make you rethink Miami at all? You’re going to have six matches here.

RF: Yeah, I mean, we’ll see how the match goes tomorrow. I mean, I’d like to see more best-of-five-set finals potentially, but it [isn't best of five], so that’s definitely a plus.

But it looks more likely for me to go [to Miami] than not go, at this point.

Q: Could you be more specific about the year of injuries?

RF: It was a bad back.  Here [in the] second round. It did go away three weeks later, probably, when I was home.  [It] just kept on lingering, lingering, lingering, and then eventually it went away. But being sore every day leaves its scars … Then I started to train again, [as] lightly as I could, and then eventually I trained normally again … I wouldn’t have entered Madrid or Rome … I just had a bad batch against Tsonga … at the French, and then [at] Wimbledon I had a bit of a surprise loss, but I wasn’t in pain then.

{I was] just maybe feeling that training was lacking from the weeks I lost in April. I could feel for a while I was playing the wrong way.  Little things crept into my game that shouldn’t have, and probably wouldn’t have, had I felt better.

And then I got hurt again a few weeks after Wimbledon. That’s when things really became difficult … I had a back spasm in Hamburg. I should have pulled out … Then I really like questioned everything … From playing soccer I think I hurt my back, just from passing around. I think it came from something else, but I just realized my back was really fragile. That’s when I put everything in question and really had to rethink my routines.

That’s when we came up with another plan …. [And] we adjusted it again …[It's] just core exercises … I realized just doing treatment is not going to do any good. You have to work on [the injury areas] to become stronger.

Even though I did a lot of exercises beforehand, I just had to adjust them … different speed, different exercises … It’s not a quick fix. It was, Let’s see how you feel in two weeks, two months, six months.  It was a long‑term plan .. It’s not like one day to the next having no pain. Tennis players are in pain quite often.

It’s tricky to let it all go and say, “It’s normal to be in pain.” So I had to accept that, that you’re going to be in pain, a little bit, like every other player, too. Don’t believe you’re not going to be in pain. It’s part of being a tennis player.

Q: After all these years of watching, even us in the media were taken aback at some shots you come up with. In the middle of a match, do you surprise yourself?

ROGER FEDERER: I do … In a match, you just stretch that little bit extra. In practice, there is no reason. You can’t quite get certain points going the way like you can in a match … Yeah, I do surprise myself as well. I think most of the players do that to themselves.  Certain shots you can’t learn, you can’t teach. It’s just instinct. You adjust and you just try. Sometimes you get lucky and it looks amazing. Because we are professional players, it feels like we controlled everything, but sometimes we get lucky … All you have to do is try get to the balls, and for that you have to be fast and anticipate. Then you try to come up with something. It depends how much risk you’re willing to take. The more risks you take, the more spectacular it can be.

Q: You have hit a lot of incredible shots. There was the ‘tweener against Gasquet, a lot of let cord shots that are really special, and that running overhead from far off the court you hit off of a Roddick overhead.  Can you think of two or three [shots] that were special to you during your career?

ROGER FEDERER:  Yeah, sure. Smashing to Roddick in Basel, especially because it was my home city. Then on [a] break point against Agassi in Dubai one time, I flicked [the shot] behind me. I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t even believe it.  I looked back and it was over his head for a winner somehow. And I guess the one against Novak through the legs at the US Open. Those stand out.

Q: Have your results this year sort of aligned with what you expected so far?

ROGER FEDERER: The results are better than I thought …  I expected myself to play better starting [in] March and April, around this time. Maybe Miami, clay maybe, that kind of time … I feel I am really there where I want to be, or where I wanted to be six months ago.

So that’s very encouraging and super positive. Now it’s just a matter of keeping that up, making the right decisions not to overplay, not to underplay, and enjoy yourself … Having the fire and wanting to win every single match you go out there, and in the practice, trying to improve as much as you can. I think I’ve got [a] good balance right now, so it’s very encouraging.

Is the BNP Paribas Open the Fifth Major?

Photo by Brent Bishop

Over the years, the BNP Paribas Open has become a top draw for the world’s best players, and there are voices that say that say that it should be The Fifth Major. Long-time West coast tennis teaching pro and author Marcus Paul Cootsona weighs in here with his opinion.

By Marcus Paul Cootsona

What is so magical about four? Hmm? Four points on the compass. Four Seasons. Four corners. Four-barrel carbs. Four majors in tennis. Four majors in golf. But who says? Why not a fifth major?

In golf, the tour brass has openly jonesed after one for years. In tennis, the signals are mixed. But that may not matter. Like that new IKEA, we may be getting one anyway. So what does it take to become a major? Besides divine, R&A, or ITF intervention, that is. Well, four things. Maybe five. History. Strength of field. A list of prestigious champions. An iconic venue. And an open date on the crowded tour calendar.

In golf, TPC Sawgrass has most of that, including a telegenic par three with a moat that eats 100,000 spheres a year. The Player’s is only hampered by a few questionables on the champions list. Still, the Masters had Trevor Immelman. So maybe there is an opening.

And what about the other British import, tennis? The BNP Paribas Open has the best claim in either sport to fifth-major status. It’s in California and would get no Joe Buck love. But besides that, this event has it all. A spring date when the desert’s in bloom and temperatures are in the 80s. A list of prestigious champions. The second largest tennis stadium in the world, and a new 8,000 seat second stadium with a courtside Nobu. Hawkeye on every court. Major prize money. And more where that came from. Every top player except Venus and Serena. And the patron saint of The America’s Cup, Lanai, and US tennis, Larry Ellison.

Ellison purchased the event in 2009 and not only kept it from going to China, but lavished it with lucre and transformed a great tournament into a must-play, must-see bacchanal. With its SoCal party vibe, tan-friendly temps and easy access, Indian Wells is the place every west coast tennis fan wants to end up this time of year. And here’s proof. The attendance this year may touch half a mil, a few hundred grand short of the U.S. Open, but more than a couple croissants ahead of the French. And Wimbledon. That’s major interest.

So is there an ultimate plan from the man who made yacht racing more popular and dangerous, to make tennis and his tourney even more popular and dangerous? To move the center of US tennis power to the west coast? To make a fifth major? Let’s hope so. Between the late January finish of the Australian Open and the late May start of the French Open, there are some 250s and 500s, two Davis Cup ties, and then the great lost season for American sans—the European clay court swing. The dirt season features players most Americans have never heard of, on a surface most Americans don’t use. That certainly won’t build the US audience.

But Indian Wells could. This year, it’s March 3–16, placing it neatly between two other majors. Add to that the on-site player sightings, up-close practice courts, and the adjacent tour star soccer scrums and you end up with a well-timed, approachable, credible major contender. And did I mention Nobu?

If the ATP wants to grow the game, increase ad buys, and average-fan viewership, they should want it to be a Slam. The players should want it too. It would mean more for them. More points. More prestige. More records. More money. All from the same tournament they’re already playing. And would one more major really dilute the other four? Or would it enhance them? And if you’re Nadal or Djokovic, you’ve just increased your chances of winning a slam this year by 25%. Sure it makes bagging that illusive Calendar Year Grand Slam harder, but it’s okay, the record books will put a really asterisk small by your big, buff slam total. Promise.

All makes sense, no? Ellison has laid the groundwork. More capacity. More prize money. Strong field. Nobu. Better take him up on it, because he’ll just proceed to make it even bigger and better regardless. Or, he might just turn his attention to Ponte Vedra and the other country club sport. This is tennis’ time to make a move. Everything is lined up. The momentum of the tournament and its importance is undeniable. Was that a yes to five?

Three of the four majors used to be played on grass. That changed.

No one went to the Australian Open until 1980. That changed.

The US Open itself has been contested on grass, clay, and hard courts, and the dates of the tournament have all moved. Change, change, change. So, when does tradition end and progress begin? It’s worth thinking over. Take a moment while you’re enjoying Chef Matsuhisa’s Black Cod with Miso, as the desert color fades from the Santa Rosa Mountains, after you’ve just watched Nole frolic on the pitch, and tell me this—what’ll it be, four or five?

Witty Na and Breezy Sloane on a Very Windy Day at Indian Wells

LI NA—THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING: After again beating Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, this time to reach the semis at Indian Wells, Li Na was asked on court how her long-suffering husband “Dennis” helped her out from the friends box during her quarterfinal, Her answer: “He did nothing.”

Later, in her press conference, Li again proved that she is the (sound-bite) gift that keeps on giving, in a conversational exchange peppered with wit and whimsy:

QUESTION: Were you happy with how you played today?

LI NA: Hmm. Half and half.

Q: Do you feel different as the top seed?  Do you feel like sort of bigger and bit of a queen now?

LN: No, I feel like I’m much friendlier, you know (smiling) … I think I find more fans supporting my husband, not me. Even [when] we are practicing, working out, if he hit a winner, everyone was like so happy (smiling).

Q: Have you seen fans? I have seen fans coming to get photos with your husband.

LN: Oh, yeah? How can he do that? Really?

Q: He’s famous, and he gets photos with [your agent] Max [Eisenbud], too.

LN: Max? Wow. Okay. Max, he should lose the weight.

Q: [He needs to answer] more calls from China in the middle of the night.

LN: Yeah, yeah.

Q: So you win the French Open, and everyone says, “She’s good.” Then you win the Australian Open, and they say, “She’s really good.” What would it mean to you and to China if Li Na becomes No. 1 in the world?

LN: Wow, that means this couple years we['re] doing [a] good job … If I can be No. 1, that means we improve a lot. Peng Shuai has No. 1 in doubles. I need to follow her. Also, how do you say, [it shows a] positive way to the children. They will see … and hope they can do the same or even better.

Q: What do you do during the tournament when you are not playing?

LN: Long sleep, a little bit [of] warming up, then back to [the] hotel, good massage.

Q: That’s not much.

LN: I am professional.

Q: There is a wonderful new book called Ping-Pong Diplomacy. It talks about how ping-pong brought your country and my country together. It was no accident that it was planned by the top leaders, Mao, Nixon. Are you familiar with that at all? Have you heard about that and how ping-pong brought the two countries together?

LN: (Shakes head) Maybe when they make the book [for] tennis I will look in that (smiling).

Q: Is marriage like a doubles team, a doubles partnership? You fight, sometimes you get together, sometimes you break up.

LN: I don’t know how you say [it] in America, but in China, they always say, “Doesn’t matter [what] your choice, marriage [is] always wrong.” So the best way [is to] just keep wrong until the end. I just follow that.

Q: Is that why you don’t play doubles?

LN:  No, I think [in] doubles, for me, the court [is] too small, you know.

JUST WONDERING: Inch for inch, is Dominika Cibulkova the best woman player in the world?

A CELEBRATION OF THE OBVIOUS: When asked to talk about his next opponent, the most chronicled player in the game, Mr. Roger Federer, Alexandr Dolgopolov said, “Roger has been around. Roger is Roger.” When pressed to describe what makes Federer special, he replied, “Maybe 17 Grand Slams?”

It is better to show them to people then to throw them in the litter box. It is usually one pair of shoes per match.

NEWLYWED SLOANE’S CAMPING TRIP: Sloane Stephens lost a tight three-set battle in windstorm conditions to Flavia Pennetta today, but she was relatively unruffled in the press room, keeping the conversation light and breezy. Witness this exchange:

QUESTION: What were you happy about in your game the whole tournament?

SLOANE STEPHENS: Just happy that I’m improving and happier on court and just enjoying myself.  Like it’s not the end of the world that I lost today. I’m okay with that.

Just going to keep improving and having fun. My birthday party is on Saturday, so I’m going to go have a good party and just enjoy life. It’s not a big deal.

Q: Target?

SS: Yeah, I registered at Target (smiling). I’m in the wedding registry, which is so—I’m marrying my mom. Like when [the screen] pops up, it says, “Sloane and Sybille’s big day is eight days away.”

I just had to name one person. I was going to marry myself, but I couldn’t put my same name. I ended up having to [use] my mom’s.

Q: Did you get to run around with the gun, or you did it online?

SS: No, I did it all online, so it was super easy. Like I saw the e‑mail that my mom sent to everyone to inform them, because I was just going to send out a mass text.

She said, “Dear everyone, Sloane has married me on Target. You have to go to the wedding registry to find her sometething or whatever. She’s very strange. Known her since she was little. Just buy her a gift.” I’m like, “Thanks.” That was the whole e‑mail.

No, I’m excited about it. I got two gifts so far. I have like 35 things on the list.

Q: How many are you hoping to get?

SS:  All 35. Yeah. I think it’s going to be tough to get the camper.  Like I put a three‑bedroom tent in there (smiling). They have this luxurious RV-like camp. You can rent an RV and they also assemble your tents for you, but it’s like a Four Seasons, so there are showers and stuff. It’s cool. I’m looking forward to it.

Q: You don’t strike me as very outdoorsy.

SS: I’m not. That’s why we are going to a Four Seasons. I’m looking forward to it.

SNARLY PRESS COMMENTARY OF THE DAY: One unsympathetic writer observed that the windblown Flavia Pennetta-Sloane Stephens quarterfinal was “all about ineptitude, with a little mediocrity thrown in.”

HOW COOL IS THAT? Rod Laver could be seen fixing Bud Collins‘ green sweater before an on-court ceremony honoring Charlie Passarell. Also on site was Passarell’s dad, Charles Passarell, who is 96.

AND THE JOHN BOEHNER MEDALLION FOR BEST TAN IN TENNIS GOES TO: Butch Buchholz, Charlie Passarell, or Rafa Nadal?

Big Four No More? Reflections on a Potential Changing of the Guard

BIG FOUR NO MORE? Some say a sea change is beginning to occur in men’s tennis. After years of dominance, do the big four—Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray—no longer have a stranglehold on the game? Is a younger generation finally arriving? The murmurs began to pick up volume at the Australian Open, where 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov made his first Slam quarter and gave Rafa a scare, and veteran Stanislas Wawrinka defeated both Djokovic and Rafa to become the first player outside the big four to win a major since 2009.

That theory has gotten some backup at Indian Wells, with younger players taking out older Slam champs. Defending champ Rafa was knocked out in his second match by talented 25-year-old Alexandr Dolgopolov. Today, the door cracked open further, with current No. 4 Wawrinka beaten by South African Kevin Anderson, and Murray defeated by another heir apparent from the Dimitrov generation, 23-year-old Milos Raonic. After his victory over Murray, Raonic spoke about the early signs of a changing of the guard:

QUESTION: Is there a belief system changing in the locker room [now] that players like you [and] Dolgopolov are starting to win matches against the Murrays and the Nadals?

MILOS RAONIC:  Yeah, there is. The moment that put the most light on it happened earlier this year, with Stan beating Novak and Rafa in the Grand Slam stage … Everybody in that top 10 range, [and] also a little bit outside trying to break through, took a deep breath and said, “Why can’t that be me?”

Q: Is it actually a topic of discussion amongst you when you’re in the locker room or player lounge areas, or is it more like a perception that you all feel that way?

MR: I don’t know if it’s a topic of discussion, but it’s something that sort of gets around, never being said directly. I guess the best way to feel it and to describe it is [that] guys going into a match don’t feel like they’re facing somebody that’s invincible … They know that the window is still very small, but at least they see a window of opportunity.

MUSCULAR, SINEWY, FAST, EXPLOSIVE: That would be Novak Djokovic.

BILLIE JEAN SPEAKS OUT: Billie Jean King met with the press in Indian Wells, and after her visit to Russia as part of President Obama‘s delegation to the Sochi Olympics, she continues to criticize Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s anti-gay laws. “They’re OK’ing hate—you can’t OK hate in any society,” she said. “But we have to work on it at home, too. It’s easy to look that way [to Russia], but we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we keep doing the right thing.

I met a gay kid there who was going through a very hard time. He was getting bullied every day … I was told a story of five kids who had been friends since childhood and one of the kids came out to the other four. They killed him that night. There’s a lot of challenges from a human rights point of view.”

Inside Tennis asked King whether Maria Sharapova‘ should use her high profile and influence to fight for change in Russia. “You have to understand, Putin is very powerful, so she has to be very careful,” she said. “I was in the locker room when she won Wimbledon [in 2004], and he called her. He said, ‘I would like for you to go out and talk on Russian TV.’ She hopped to it. She’s still connected to her homeland. It’s not easy. It’s easy to talk about it, but not easy to live it.”

THIS ONE’S FOR BUD: In the wide world of tennis, there is only one Bud Collins. The legendary and colorful commentator and historian received the Alan King Passion for Tennis Award at Indian Wells today. BNP Paribas Cpen and IW Tennis Garden CEO Ray Moore presented the award to Collins. “I personally met Bud in the ’60s when I was just arriving in the United States as a teenager from South Africa,” said Moore. “I have never met anyone who has the knowledge and passion for the game that Bud has. Of course, his dress code had never been seen [before].  His commentary on PBS in the late ’60s is the foundation for the game we know today.”

Collins addressed the crowd at Stadium One with characteristic warm humor, cultural flair, and an eye for changes in the game (and the greater world). “Thank you very much Ray,” he said. “I’ve known Ray since when he was a player for South Africa, and he’s very brave. As a resident, he stood up against apartheid.

I don’t know what I’m doing on this warm floor (laughter), because I live in Boston. Boston is having another blizzard today. I’m delighted to be with you. I’ve been a very lucky person to get this award, remembering that he [entertainer Alan King] was a master, a marvelous portrayer of things that make us all laugh.

This tournament—I’ve been coming here for about 40 years and it’s different this year. It’s like Coleridge the poet said, the dome of Kubla Khan. We’ve gotten two domes—this court, and next door is number two. I think you’ll find that everyone who comes here will realize that, with the weather and all the other benefits, this is the finest place for tennis on Earth.

Now you know that I could stay out and talk all afternoon (laughter). You’re very nice to show up … It’s just a magnificent place to be. I hope you’ll be here the rest of your careers, because this is the place to watch and enjoy this great sport of tennis. Thank you.”


“It’s tough to pinpoint … it’s a feeling. Just seeing other guys do well probably makes it a little bit easier to believe and to feel like [the tour's] not just dominated by the top guys … It’s exciting … Seeing some new faces—I think that’s great for tennis.”—Kevin Anderson

“People are believing a little bit more that you can go out and beat the [top] guys. They’re not running through tournaments like they have in the past. You know, for me, I have always thought I can take the court and beat anyone.   think everyone is sort of realizing that, and maybe closing the gap a little bit.—John Isner, the last American man in the draw at Indian Wells.

“I knew they could think for themselves, I knew it.”—Mary Carillo on the fact that neither Agnieszka Radwanska nor Jelena Jankovic called for their coach to come out on court during their quarterfinal match.

“I’ve never been fast enough to get fuzz on my shoes.”—Lindsay Davenport, after a discussion about fuzz on the BNP Paribas Open court.

SI SI SIMONA: Romania’s Simona Halep was the WTA’s Most Improved Player in 2013, winning six tournaments. Halep was the only player on either tour to win titles on clay, grass, and outdoor and indoor hard courts. With a flexible forehand, strong defense and point construction, and clutch consistency, she’s built on that performance this year, reaching the Aussie Open quarters, winning Doha, and now reaching the semifinals at Indian Wells with a run that includes a victory over another, younger—and more hyped—rising player, Eugenie Bouchard.

In the press conference after her fourth-round win over Casey Dellacqua, Inside Tennis asked Halep (who says she’s eating at The Cheesecake Factory this week) about some Romanian tennis connections:

IT: One famous story in tennis is about how Serena’s and Venus’ father Richard was watching your manager, Virginia Ruzici, when she won the French Open in 1978.

SIMONA HALEP: I heard this, yes. Virginia told me about this.  Because of her they started to play tennis, I think, the Williams sisters. Yeah, it’s amazing to hear this. I’m happy that I have her close to me, to be my manager. We already have six years together. I think she will be my manager maybe all [my] career.

IT: So if Virginia didn’t win that tournament, maybe women’s tennis would be completely different, yes?

SH: Maybe (smiling). I don’t know. Yeah, maybe, but the Williams sisters are great champions. They are the best, I think. Serena is the best.

IT:  A tough question—who creates a better tournament and is better for tennis, the Romanian banker, Ion Tiriac, with his Madrid tournament, or Larry Ellison, the computer billionaire here? What’s a better tournament?

SH: What’s the better tournament, Madrid or this one?

IT: Yes. And who has more of an impact, Tiriac or Ellison?

SH: Tough question (smiling). Oh, I think both of them. For me, it’s like Tiriac is Romanian and it’s good for us, because there I had a chance to play on main draw [through a wild card in Madrid] when I couldn’t.

Here, it’s one of the biggest tournaments in the world, and, you know, I want to thank everybody who is doing everything [at] this tournament. It’s amazing here … So both of them are very important for us, for the tennis women.  And, yeah, it’s really great to have big tournaments.

Simple, Straightforward, and Temperamental—The World According to Na

By Bill Simons

LI NA—NO NEED TO HATE MYSELF: The WTA has shared some compelling quotes from Li Na‘s autobiography, Playing Myself, which is now being published in English under the title My Life.

On winning her first Slam, the 2011 French Open, Na writes, “The greatest gift that victory brought was peace of mind … I didn’t need [anymore] to cover my face with a towel or hide in the … bathroom while I wept. I would no longer need to hate myself for every little mistake. I would not have to continue torturing myself. I knew that my performance was passable. My internal referee let me off the hook, for once. ‘Li Na, this time you’ve done all right,’ I said quietly to myself.”

As for the challenging mental side of tennis, Li notes, “Tennis is a lonely sport. You can’t experience the sense of belonging that comes from having fought alongside your teammates. You know that everyone’s watching you, so when you get bogged down, you can only crawl along under their watchful eyes. You have to put all your effort into finding solutions, even as you constantly curse yourself in your mind and host an …  internal debate, looking for a crack in your opponent’s serve … This is all on your shoulders alone. You can’t even have any physical contact with your opponent. Your field comprises of the small boxes within those few white lines, a racket, and your own lonely and highly irritable mind. This sort of lingering, clinging solitude combined with waves of overwhelming pressure is enough to really drive a person mad.”

While reflecting on her personality, Na draws some international connections. “My trainer had an Italian girlfriend and had learned a lot about Italian culture,” she writes. “He asked me if I was of Italian descent … He said he felt my character was a bit Italian, because I could talk with someone amicably for the first five minutes and suddenly turn antagonistic. Being simple, straightforward, and temperamental was typical of the Italian character. When I heard this I wanted to laugh. From his description, Italians sounded a lot like people from Wuhan [China].”

A PIONEER IS ON HAND: The good news is that the beloved media pioneer Bud Collins—despite assorted ailments—is on hand at Indian Wells.

LAWN TENNIS: With all the expansive lawns and plentiful blankets and snacks at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, one sees scores of families lounging and relaxing. Hooray for family values. In fact, the place looks a bit like something out of a 19th century French painting. Or is it more a July 4th picnic with a theme park twist?

OVERKILL: With their blue hair and assorted walking devices, the crowd at Indian Wells doesn’t exactly mesh with the standard profile of menacing terrorists. Still some spectators are asked if they have any guns or knives, and on on one outer court there were seven security guards on court during changeovers to protect the players.

FEDERER FILLS STADIUMS, AND HE BUILDS THEM, TOO: The PA announcer at the BNP Paribas Open is into free-form hype and easy exaggeration. So Roger Federer went with it when the announcer claimed that the Swiss had made a significant contribution to the building of the dazzling Stadium 2. Showing surprising humor, Roger said, “I was here for months. I did a lot of shoveling. It was hot during the summer. I skipped the French Open and Wimbledon, but we got the job done. It’s amazing.”

THE ITALIAN JOB: Some observers are referring to this year’s BNP Paribas Open as Italian Wells.

THE ACCIDENTAL SPANIARD: After his loss to Alexandr Doglogpov, Rafa Nadal (who is still really not fully fluent in English) said, “It was an accident.”

AN EXISTENTIAL IMPOSSIBILITY: To get Nadal to say he should be favored to win the French Open—trust us, we tried—or to say he is the best clay court player  on the circuit. And God forbid if he ever would say he is better than Federer.

HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE? How sweet would it be at this time of crisis for American men’s tennis if big John Isner put together a big run and again reached the final of the BNP Paribas Open?

FROM FRIENDS TO FOES: Swiss whizzes Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, who are playing doubles together, could well face each other in the quarters if play goes according to form.

YOU CAN’T BEET THIS OBSERVATION: Alexandr Dolgopolov said the best thing about the Ukraine is the beets.


“Whatever you do for the babies you should do for the seniors.”—Billie Jean King, contending that if there are green and orange balls and small rackets for kids ten and under, there should be the same systems and gear for seniors.

“It is a great on-ramp for people.”—Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, on how World TeamTennis attracts people to the sport.

“She has a better aura around her.”—Lindsay Davenport, who says Sloane Stephens is playing her best tennis of the year.

“I couldn’t believe the play by Dominika Cibulkova. Every single point, so much energy and focus. She never wavered.”—Mary Carillo on the Slovokian, who whipped Petra Kvitova.

“Welcome to the crazy world of women’s tennis.” Li Na, after needing 11 match points and five challenges in one game to defeat Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak.

Giorgi Girl—and the Paper Chase—On a Day of Big Upsets at Indian Wells

By Bill Simons

GIORGI GIRL WINS ON COURT, REFUSES TO ANSWER QUESTIONS OFF THE COURT: Camila Giorgi scored a stunning win over Maria Sharapova. Her 6-3, 4-6. 7-5 victory was marked by powerful hitting and flashes of inspired tennis. Less inspiring is her and her father Sergio’s supposed treatment of a string of backers and investors who over the past few years bought her tickets to Wimbledon and the French Open, funded or even gave her coaching, and invested significant sums into her career without being paid back the money they were promised. An in-depth article by Sports Illustrated’s much-celebrated Jon Wertheim detailed an extended string of problematic dealings, broken promises, and encounters likely headed for the courthouse.

The WTA did not want The Tennis Channel to mention all of this in their post-match interview. But Mary Carillo spoke of the disconcerting situation anyway. Inside Tennis wanted to see if Giorgi would discuss her situation, so we tried to ask the 22-year-old Italian about it. She clearly did not want to talk about the murky matters. Our dialogue went like this:

INSIDE TENNIS: This is probably the best win of your career, along with the [US Open] one over Wozniacki. I’d like to ask you an honest question. One of our best journalists, Jon Wertheim, wrote a long piece about all the different investors that you owe: Mendy Wiggins, Eran Gadot, Alex Ramirez, Dominic Owen, Todd Andrews. You’ll win at least $52,000 here [in Indian Wells]. Do you think it would be appropriate to pay some of these people back?

CAMILA GIORGI: Actually, I don’t want to talk about that. For me, just I’m playing a tournament, so I don’t think about that.

IT: But you’re a grown-up. You’re a 22 year old woman. Many people know about this [situation]. Don’t you think it would be appropriate to take accountability and deal with this?

CG: I deal with this. I don’t have problems. But I’m saying to you that I just want to talk about tennis, not this stuff.

IT: That’s part of the game.

CG: Is not part of the game, because this is a history that … it’s, I cannot say. I don’t know how to say in English, but how you say in English?

MODERATOR: Just stick to tennis and—

IT: Wait a second. Let her put it in her own words. You don’t have to coach her. She’s 22.

CG: Yeah, but you don’t need to be aggressive. I’m just answer[ing] your question. If you want, I answer what you want. It’s different. But I answer what I think is the best.

Q: If you want to answer in Spanish or something…

CG: No, it’s okay.

NO DEFENSE: Both defending champions at Indian Wells lost today—Sharapova to Camila Giorgi, and Rafael Nadal to the unorthodox, flairful Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov.

SOME GOOD NEWS FOR THE UKRAINE: After Alexandr Dolgopolov‘s topsy-turvy 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) win over Rafael Nadal, Inside Tennis asked the 25-year-old—who recently enlisted Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray to make statements in a video he made calling for peace in his embattled home country of Ukraine—about the timing of his win:

INSIDE TENNIS: I know from after we spoke the other day [that] you’re sick and tired of [discussing] the political, but you just beat the defending champion, No. 1 in the world, and one of the most beloved sportsmen that we have. Do you think in some way that might be a feel‑good moment, might help people back in your country now?

ALEXANDR DOLGOPOLOV: Well, for sure. I mean, it’s a moment for the people to be proud a little bit for someone from their country, I guess.

That’s good. As I said a lot of times, it’s good to make some results, and make the people forget a little bit and have some happy moments in the news, [amid] the politics and all the bad stuff happening.

OF BOBBY, BOB, AND ROBERT: Many a guy named Bob starts his life being called Bobby, and then becomes Bob, and maybe eventually Robert. This little linguistic progression was mirrored when Georgia’s Bobby Reynolds faced Stephane Robert in the first round.

MOST INVENTIVE HAIR HAPPENING SINCE MARTINA HINGIS’ MOTHER MELANIE: Camila Giorgi’s father, Sergio, has a wild gray ‘do.

PIZZA, THE POPE, THE MONA LISA, AND NOW THIS: Italian tennis is happening. The country’s first top 10 women’s player, Flavia Pennetta, reached her debut Slam semi at the age of 31 during last year’s USO. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci were top 10 players in 2013, and are still a top 10 doubles team. On the men’s side, Italy is represented by the charismatic Fabio Fognini, who reached the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open today. A player with a track record of volatile and dramatic matches whose on-court demeanor ranges from dogged to devil-may-care, Fognini is counterbalanced by the ever-steady Andreas Seppi, one of the cleanest-hitting and most calm players in the ATP.

It’s been an up-and-down, characteristically tempestuous year for Italian women’s tennis, with top 10 players and doubles partners Errani and Vinci both struggling—world No. 14 Vinci burst into tears after finally scoring her first singles win of the season here in Indian Wells. But the country is a fierce Fed Cup force because it boosts a strong Top 100 contingent: along with No. 10 Errani, Vinci, No. 21 (and 2013 US Open semifinalist) Flavia Pennetta, No. 43 (and 2009 French Open champ) Francesca Schiavone, and No. 49 Karin Knapp, Italy is also home to No. 79-and-rising Camila Giorgi, who first made waves last fall by using strong serves and flat groundstrokes to hit Caroline Wozniacki off the court in the third round of the US Open. Giorgi and Pennetta will face off in the fourth round at Indian Wells.

ITALIAN JOBS: While Maria Sharapova collected her last Slam title against Italy’s Sara Errani in 2012 at Roland Garros, it’s safe to say that Italian opponents have been a total nightmare for the tall Russian so far in 2014. She escaped with a three-set marathon win over Karin Knapp in boiler-room conditions in Melbourne, but today, against Camila Giorgi in the desert sunset, she wasn’t so lucky. Sharapova could scarcely win service points, let alone hold, in the match’s final games, and she even lost her trademark cool—a rare event—in a dispute with oft-criticized umpire Mariana Alves after losing serve late in the deciding set..


QUOTE OF THE DAY: “If she played the way she did today for a long time, I don’t think she would be a qualifier.”—Maria Sharapova, on Camila Giorgi.

ISNER—”I’M JUST WORRIED ABOUT MYSELF”: Only one US man, John Isner, reached an ATP final last year. In January, the American men failed to get beyond the third round at the Aussie Open. In February, our Davis Cup team stubbed its toe in the clay in San Diego, losing to a not-exactly-powerhouse British squad. And now, here in Indian Wells, Isner is the only one of the 14 Americans in the draw to reach the third round. When Inside Tennis asked him whether American tennis was in crisis, he said, “It’s certainly been better, that’s for sure, but … it’s none of my concern. I mean, I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career. And, you know, I’m just worried about myself.

The other guys … are going to start to pick it up. They are too talented not to … I’m just going to keep working as hard as I can, and do everything I can to get myself better, and cheer for those other guys, but not put too much stock into it, either.”

DEPORTATION PENDING: Insiders wondered whether the usually benign Desert Sun tennis writer Leighton Ginn will be deported by Friday for suggesting the USTA scrap its extensive Player Development program and use those ample funds to bring more tournaments to the US.

ROSETTA STONED: The Tennis Channel showed a lively montage of Alize Cornet mercilessly berating herself in French and then switched to a commercial announcement: “This portion of our show is brought to you by Rosetta Stone.” Commentator Brett Haber noted the obvious, saying “I don’t think you need [Rosetta Stone] to understand what Cornet was saying.”

CHEWING ON BAGELS: After noting that Carla Suarez Navarro double-bageled Lauren Davis at last year’s US Open only to be double-barreled by Serena Williams, Brent Haber claimed it proved “there is nothing better than New York bagels.”

WHAT SAMPRAS, FEDERER, AND SLOANE STEPHENS HAVE IN COMMON: All three have been coached by Paul Annacone.

FIERY APOLOGY: While commentating on Alejandro Falla (pronounced Fi-yah), who was playing out of his head, Brett Haber couldn’t resist saying that the Colombian was “on fire.” The broadcaster then apologized to the American people for his obvious wordplay.

PLEDGING SLOANE: When Sloane Stephens—who defeated Ana Ivanovic to reach the fourth round—was asked if life on the tour instead of in college has her feeling like a “sorority of one,” she agreed, quipping, “I am a sorority of one—Sloane Phi Sigma or whatever.” She went on to add, “Girls are full of drama. To be in a sorority would be overwhelming. [On the tour] we’re playing for money in a real job. It’s a bit different from arguing over boys and stuff.”

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