BNP PARIBAS OPEN BUZZ: HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA? THE QUIET COURAGE OF MURRAY

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2016 BNP Paribas Open - Day 4 : News Photo

WHO’DA THUNK IT? Two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an Indian Wells tournament that included Serena and Venus, but was without Roger and Maria. 

THE MOST EXPENSIVE MISTAKE IN TENNIS OR SPORTS HISTORY? Sharapova’s sponsors Nike, TAG Heuer and Porsche have either ended or suspended their relationships with Maria, while Head Rackets explained in a lengthy press release why they are sticking with her. Head’s owner, Johan Eliasch, said Maria made “an honest mistake” and that she should teach tennis to kids for three months.

THE QUIET COURAGE OF NONE OTHER THAN ANDY MURRAY: After listening to 10 or 12 different player interviews, there was a remarkable commonality in the questions they were asked and the answers they provided. Of course, all the player said they were surprised by the bombshell news. Rennae Stubbs was most succinct. Her two-word tweet proclaimed, “Holy S—!” Some players said they carefully check the emails they get on banned substances. Others said they leave it to their team. All agreed that players themselves are responsible for what goes in their bodies. Many said that Maria being caught showed that tennis’ anti-doping precautions were working. No one would specify exactly what kind of a penalty they thought she should get, and most would not comment on whether it was right for the Russian to use a substance that may have enhanced her performance and that she really did not need medically (though until recently it was not banned). 

In an interesting development, Andy Murray was boldly outspoken again, while others hesitated. In Australia he and Martina Navratilova were the only player voices we heard who called attention to the obvious hypocrisy of the ITF telling players they shouldn’t gamble while signing a $70 million contract with a gambling company. Today Murray said, If you’re taking performance enhancing drugs and you fail a drug test, you have to get suspended.” 

Sharapova said she used meldonium for ten years, though the Latvian drug is supposed to be used for just four to six weeks. According to the company that makes it, meldonium helps with blood circulation and is primarily meant to deal with heart issues. Murray said, “I read that 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since 1 January. You just don’t expect high-level athletes at the top of many sports to have heart conditions.”

And it is hard to imagine that Maria has a heart condition.

Murray added, “I think taking a prescription drug that you don’t necessarily need, but just because it’s legal, that’s wrong, clearly. That’s wrong. If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you. And I don’t think that that’s right.”

The world # 2 also said that he didn’t understand why Head, which is his racket company, retained their endorsement of Maria. “I think it’s a strange stance, given everything that’s happened the last few days,” he said. Murray also wondered why we first heard about all of this from Maria herself – not WADA, the drug enforcement agency. As for our take, we suggest that Murray is one brave and quietly outspoken Scot. 

JUST WONDERING: Sharapova will very probably miss this summer’s Olympics. Then again, in the big picture, could her drug problem in any way affect her chances to get into the Hall of Fame? She was No. 1 for 25 weeks and won five majors. Then again, many of the greatest stars in baseball – Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa  and Mark Maguire – all have failed to get into the Hall of Fame due to their gambling or steroid issues.

As for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, they did kick out South African Bob Hewitt because of his abuse of girls. But Martina Hingis got in easily, despite having been suspended for her use of cocaine. Russian Marat Safin, a superb player, has just been named to the Hall of Fame. Never mind that he is a member of Vladimir Putin’s party and that, as a member of Russia’s politburo, he’s voted for the invasions of Crimea and the Ukraine, and to prevent Americans from adopting Russian children, and backed a draconian plan to crack down big time on the human rights of gay rights advocates. All that didn’t matter one bit.

FAIR WARNING FOR MARIA? According to sportsillustrated.com, pro female tennis players were warned five times in 2015 that meldonium would appear on the banned drug list. There were three warnings from the International Tennis Federation and two by the WTA. So how come Maria was oblivious?

NADAL’S NUGGETS: Of all the people who spoke about Maria’s problems, Rafa Nadal drew the most interest. Let’s just say it, if we can. Certain tennis folks like to whisper (or shout) about his alleged involvement with drugs. There’s zip proof. And never mind that Rafa’s a wonderful person, a mellow gentleman and sportsman who has given so much to the game. The fellow does have huge muscles and is Spanish. That, it would seem to some, would be enough to go off on the guy – however unfairly.

Rafa himself said Maria’s drug use was “terrible for the world of sport…because the sport must be clean and look clean.” Still, he thought her being caught was good because the anti-doping system was working. He said everyone can make a mistake, but, “It’s obvious there was negligence. Now, she must pay for it.”

Rafa told an Indian Wells press conference that he “just has his two bottles, one with water and one with mineral salts. You should know,” i.e., we see him fussing with them all the time. Rafa added that he does take anti-inflammatories.

He said he is far more confident this year and that he lost three matches this season that he shouldn’t have. He continued, “I always have been very open. I never try to hide…[I’ve] been completely open with the press.” He said that he has told us when he’s been nervous or injured; that he often is hurting but he doesn’t “do anything about doping. I’m a completely clean guy.” 

He added that “I completely believe in the sport and the sport is an example to the kids…I never did and am never going to do something that’s wrong.” He added that the best players compete intensely and he didn’t feel that, at least at the top of the game, there is a problem with gambling.

GASQUET’S WAY: Like Martina Hingis, Frenchman Richard Gasquet was suspended when he tested positive for cocaine. But unlike the Swiss who decided to not contest her suspension, Gasquet successfully fought back. After a two-day trial, his claim that cocaine got into his system by kissing a woman in Miami and was backed by a tribunal. Still, Gasquet said the experience was the worst thing that ever happened to him and told IT that, “it will never go away.” It took an intensely challenging year to deal with it. He was constantly featured on French TV. Gasquet joked that he thought it would be more likely that he “would win all four Grand Slams…or win nine French Opens like Rafa” before he tested positive for cocaine. 

TIAFOE UPSETS FRITZ IN BATTLE FOR TOMORROW: Taylor Fritz is the next hot thing in American tennis. Well, that’s been the conventional wisdom. Many noted just how hot the eighteen-year-old has been. He’s seen as the best Yankee prospect since Andy Roddick. 

Can you spell s-a-v-i-o-r? 

This autumn and winter the 2015 US Open junior champ won one minor league tourney after another. Then when he beat Steve Johnson and Benjamin Becker to reach the Memphis Open final, he broke into the top 100. The guy has strokes, pedigree, size and a wow factor. He’s zooming up the ladder faster than a fireman in a hurry to reach the flames. 

Let the coronation begin – right? 

Wrong!

Frances Tiafoe, a hot prospect a season or two ago, had other ideas. Okay, he doesn’t serve at 138 mph. And he once lived with his father – a janitor from Sierra Leone – in a closet at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in frosty Maryland. In contrast, Fritz grew up in one of California’s most affluent towns, Rancho Santa Fe. Plus, his mom is a prominent product of one of California’s more successful families and was once in the WTA’s top 10. Fritz’s dad and uncle once lit it up in tennis. Kei Nishikori, who beat Fritz in the Memphis final, said Taylor would reach the top 10.

All this was of little interest to wild card Tiafoe, who had beaten Fritz three times in the juniors, but as a pro now has a lowly 177 ranking. This was the first time two teens had met in Indian Wells since Marin Cilic beat Nishikori in 2008. Fritz seemed to feel the pressure of expectations. He’d won in Sacramento and Fairfield in late 2015. But now he was playing in his state’s biggest tournament. He was up against a friend, fellow teen and frequent practice partner. The healthy crowd was nice, but for Taylor the result wasn’t. He lost the first set in just 27 minutes. Then he rebounded before losing 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 in a battle of the two youngest players in the top 200. 

“I am extremely upset,” said Fritz. “It was a match I really wanted…[but] my serve was really off. My backhand was not going through the court and I was making a lot of mistakes on my forehand…If I lost to Djokovic I would get over it in two minutes. This one definitely stings. The best thing I can do is get back on the court. I don’t want to feel like this again.” 

In contrast, Tiafoe was thrilled with his first win in tennis’ major leagues. The youngest player in the draw, he admitted he “had nothing to lose,” that the match was like any other. He was just playing the ball. His goal was “to make serves, be aggressive and keep Fritz moving and out of the middle of the court.”

In the past Tiafoe was most inspired by Argentine Juan Martin del Potro. “He was the first one to sign my tennis ball,” he gushed. As for the future, he said he hopes his agents can “blow him up” big, and that he can reach the top 100 by the end of the year. Eventually he wants to help the people of his native Sierra Leone with schools and tennis courts.

On this day the personable kid helped himself on a big California court with a shock win that showed that Fritz may not be the only young American headed for the Ritz.

JUST WONDERING: Which player of the modern era comes from the wealthiest of families? Ernests Gulbis’ dad has been said to be the richest man in Latvia. Carling Bassett-Seguso’s Canadian peeps are beer barons and Taylor Fritz’s mother is the product of the family who owned the May Department Stores.

BATTLE OF THE CUTIES: It was a chirpy Kiki vs. Coco match-up when Belgium’s Kiki Bertens faced Southern Californian Coco Vandeweghe in the first round. Coco beat Kiki 6-4, 6-4.

DOUBLES TAKES:  It should be unconstitutional that John Isner and Milos Raonic are playing doubles together. The duo have two of the most fierce serves in the history of the game. Then again, they will be playing the experienced Brit combo of Colin Fleming and his partner Andy Murray, who after Novak Djokovic, has the best return of serve on the planet…BTW: here’s an upcoming doubles match worth watching: the Bryan brothers will face Spanish hunks Rafa Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in the first round.

2016 BNP Parisbas Open - Day 4 : News Photo