By Bill Simons
1. Can Rafa defy the doubters, go “double digits” and win his 10th French?
2. Is the top quarter of the draw—the so-called “draw of death”—one of the toughest ever?
3. How great a run would it be if Djokovic wins the title by beating Tomic, Gasquet, Nadal, Murray and Federer?
4. If Nadal and Djokovic end up playing each other, will their match be the most anticipated Slam quarterfinal match ever (or at least in recent memory)?
5. Can the most devastating “Cow on Ice,” Ms. Sharapova, defend her title and win her third Roland Garros?
6. Can Serena win and continue her quest for the Grand Slam?
7. How long can the recently married Andy Murray continue his astounding unbeaten streak on clay?
8. Can a guy outside the Big Four—say the impressive Kei Nishikori, veteran Tomas Berdych, the long promising Grigor Dimitrov, or even Aussie sensation Nick Kyrgios—break through?
9. Can a WTA player not named Serena or Sharapova hold up the trophy? Perhaps Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, or Angelique Kerber?
10. Will home fave Gael Monfils end up playing Federer in the fourth round, and if so, will he give Roger fits like he did at last year’s US Open, and in front of an intense French crowd like he did in the Davis Cup?
11. Can old Federer, 33, amaze and win his second French Open and first Slam in over three years?
12. Can an American man last a week? Isner has a good draw, but Jack Sock faces Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.
13. Who will go further, a young American woman—perhaps Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Madison Brengle or even Taylor Townsend—or an elder named Venus, 34, who might have to face sister Serena in the third round?
14. Can the young American flash, wildcard Frances Tiafoe, win a round or two?
15. Can US Open sensation Cici Bellis go far in the juniors?
16. Can the Bryan brothers win their third RG and 15th Slam?
17. Can a French man win the French Open?
By Bill Simons
She was thin, wide-eyed, a tad scared, and not so sure what she was getting into. That was Venus Williams when I saw her play her first pro match at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. Just 16, she was a waif taking on the world. The New York Times and CNN were court-side, and all of tennis was curious.
So what about this little kid from the ‘hood?
The hype machine revved up and amplified the astounding claim of her boisterous pop, who insisted, “Venus [is] pretty much ready to revolutionize tennis. These pro girls will have a major-league problem dealing with her.”
“Really?” wondered the skeptics.
“If everybody believed everything they read about her,” said Martina Navratilova, “We might as well all go home, because Venus Williams is going to beat everybody.”
“Yeah,” said Chris Evert, “She’s the greatest that ever lived.”
So there kid-Venus was: a little girl, storming the formidable bastions of a very foreign, very white universe, and a world of lofty expectations.
In this context, could she be anything but intense? This was not the cerebral, deferential, user-friendly Arthur Ashe. Venus was steel.
Early at one Miami championship, Venus predicted that when she became No. 1, her sister Serena would be her chief competition. The bold but prescient claim prompted Martina Hingis to quip, “Oh, that’s nice … I didn’t have that much self-confidence after winning one match.”
Soon there were feuds with fellow players about just who kicked whose tennis bag. Fans gasped as they witnessed “the bump,” Romanian Irina Spirlea’s collision with Venus during a US Open changeover. There were ongoing claims that papa Richard Williams was fixing matches when his daughters played, and then came that troubling day at Indian Wells after Venus suddenly withdrew from her semifinal match against Serena. Life was not easy.
No wonder Venus and Serena were inseparable. “You and me, baby, against the world!” they appeared to shout. And they took up plenty of oxygen. They were the talk of tennis.
“It’s like all of my press conferences … are about Venus and Serena,” complained Kim Clijsters. “I would really appreciate it if they were about my tennis or something.”
From the outset, dissing the Williams clan was a kind of ‘go-to’ reflex. For starters, they were criticized for shunning junior tennis. They were said to stick too tightly together. Fort Williams had few cracks, few were let in.
Never mind celebrating their father’s inexplicable genius. Critics routinely dismissed him as a hater, a self-centered, controlling, racist buffoon.
Then it was said that Venus and Serena didn’t focus enough on tennis, and they drew heat for not playing Indian Wells. Sometimes the Williams criticisms were a tad too blunt and envious. “She thinks she’s the f—ing Venus Williams,” said Venus’s livid foe Irina Spirlea. And sometimes the putdowns were just delightfully nonsensical. After losing the 1998 Miami final, Anna Kournikova claimed, “Venus didn’t beat me. I lost. That means I’m a little better than her.” Got it.
Sadly, there were times the commentaries had racial undertones. Venus and Serena were pegged as just “athletes” and bashers who were explosive and could run. But they weren’t craftswomen, or thinkers, and they desperately needed professional coaching. Their mother Oracene countered this, saying her daughters didn’t get the credit they deserved: “No way. Because black people are always [viewed as] just athletes. They’re strong and tough and they can’t think. They’re not intelligent.”
Of course, the Williamses’ tall, broad and powerful bodies drew attention and ramped up the game. But not everyone was pleased. “I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams,” said Kournikova, “I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” And just last fall, Shamil Tarpsichev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, referred to Venus and Serena as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It is scary when you really look at them.”
Actually, when you really look at Venus and Serena, you can’t avoid a simple reality. They transformed tennis.
Venus told Elle magazine, “Serena and I are exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”
Sure, the critics howled that the blunt, less-than-sweet Williamses were arrogance incarnate. Hardly a wallflower, Venus didn’t hesitate to show up at press conferences with in-your-face T-shirts like the one that read, “Strong, smart, confident, equal.” Often they would tweak the media. When asked if she wanted to win an Academy Award, Venus joked, “You can’t really beat winning [an Oscar], but you can always win Wimbledon.”
Well, she’s won five times at the All-England Club. But not everyone got the joke. Jon Wertheim contended, “The Williams sisters wield authority like no other players. Were they male, we would applaud their ‘intensity,’ their ‘competitive streak,’ their ‘ferocity.’ Because they are women—black women, no less—they are ‘catty,’ and they are ‘trash talkers.’ To quote John McEnroe, ‘They lack humility.’”
Some spoke of the Williamses’ “willed obliviousness” to others. Fair enough. Venus was always unapologetic and rarely hesitated to pour fuel on the fire. She claimed, “People criticize me for being arrogant, [but maybe it’s] because I’m a little smarter than the others.”
No wonder Mary Carillo noted, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.”
More than that, Venus has “summited” many a tennis mountain. The Jehovah’s Witness—who’s been partial to karaoke, Asian antiques and Harry Potter—has won 46 singles tournaments, including seven Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. She’s been ranked No. 1, has won Olympic gold in both singles and doubles, pocketed about $64 million, and been in the top ten for 13 of her incredible 17 years. When Venus was rising, Navratilova confided, “I’m glad I never had to play her. She’s just too long, too fast. She’s so imposing, you feel like you’ve got no place to go. She makes you feel you need to hit a better shot than you’re really capable of.”
Bottom line: it’s hard to question Venus when she says, “If I had listened to everyone else, then I would never have made it out of Compton. I’m living in Palm Beach Gardens now. It’s pretty nice.”
What’s also nice is that we relish our Venus memories: the lean, ecstatic champion leaping with joy after beating Lindsay Davenport in a classic Wimbledon final. We recall the best older sis in sports, hugging Serena after they won Olympic gold, and we remember a reflective champion poignantly explaining how she was confronting Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping malady no one should have to battle.
More than anything, we’ve delighted in witnessing the raw, wide-eyed girl morph into an appealing woman of substance—confident and brimming with joy and an easy gravitas. Once a bit of a flamethrower, she stepped up in the best tradition of Billie Jean King to lead the fight for equal pay. When the Israeli Shahar Peer was banned by a Middle Eastern tourney, she insisted ‘no way,’ and stepped up to right a rather wretched wrong. Now she’s blossomed into a multitasking talent who, despite her complaints about Accounting 101, is working on an online degree in business from Indiana University. She’s an entrepreneur with her own interior design company, and a clothing business, EleVen. All the while she’s also a bit of a goofy, self-deprecating comic who refers to herself as a big kid and still loves to giggle. The woman who 11 years ago told us that she “was older than I used to be,” recently informed us that she has “been around since the dinosaurs.” At the Aussie Open she confided, “This old cat still has a few tricks left in the bag.” Apparently so. This year she has wins over Aga Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur. She won in Auckland, reached the semis in Doha, the quarters at the Australian Open and in Miami, and has risen to No. 15 in the rankings.
Now Venus is mellow, empathetic and reflective. When told that Li Na was pregnant, she beamed and said, “How sweet.” When speaking of her interior designs, she sounded Zen-like, explaining, “The principle of the design … [is] harmony, rhythm and balance, [which] are all the same with interior and fashion design.”
You’ve come a long way, baby. Venus Ebony Starr Williams now inspires.
It’s no surprise that many of America’s top young prospects, such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend, are women of color who feel empowered to follow in her footsteps.
Serene, minimalist and comfortable in her own skin, Venus tells us that she has “a good life, a good family, and a good little dog. I couldn’t ask for more … My whole view is that I’m really blessed to be here. I’m living the dream.”
And for 17 years, tennis has been captivated by her transformative dream. Sure, the sisters used to attract doubters. Now they attract accolades.
Tennis showman Arlen Kantarian said, “Venus and Serena are to tennis what the Yankees are to baseball; what the Lakers are to basketball; what Tiger Woods is to golf. Only in our sport it comes in a pair.”
Billie Jean King claimed, “They provide more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport. Their drive to come back, their will to win, is unequaled.”
John McEnroe went further, saying that Venus and Serena are “the greatest story in sports history”
Then, of course, there was the greatest of all Williams compliments, when journalist Gianni Clerici told us, “What tennis needs is a third sister.”
True enough, but let’s not be greedy.
After all, singular Venus and that little sister of hers have lit up our tennis lives like no other duo. And that’s more than enough.
By Bill Simons
The dictionary says a letterman is a “student who has earned a letter in an interscholastic or intercollegiate activity, especially a sport.” We say the definition of Letterman is a TV whiz who gained our admiration through comedic activity, especially late at night.
In honor of his final show after 33 years, here’s our David Letterman Top 10 list:
10. Some initially shy away from Dave. For instance, at first Lindsay Davenport chose not to go on the show for fear of his sometimes blistering barbs. But Serena, who loves the spotlight and high-profile banter, has been on many times. She often chatted about grunting, and said Monica Seles was “the first person I knew who used to grunt really loud, so [she's] who I modeled my grunt after.” Then there was the show where she blasted a forehand through the window of Letterman’s neighbor Rupert Jee’s much-celebrated Hello Deli.
9. Not surprisingly, there have been many references to drink on The Late Show. After Novak Djokovic asked if Dave can do splits like he does, Letterman said, “Well, when I used to drink.” Then there was the charming Marat Safin. The Russian, who had one of the best deadpan senses of humor in tennis, told Letterman that he drank vodka everyday: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
8. After John McEnroe‘s short-lived CNBC-TV talk show failed, we wrote, “Sadly, from the beginning, the hour was saddled with too many clunky moments, with little of the seamless spontaneity, conversational aplomb or comedic genius that we take for granted on Leno and Letterman.”
7. In 1989, Letterman spoke to Jimmy Connors about auditioning to become the host of Wheel of Fortune and then said Ilie Nastase ”was the first solid goofball in tennis.” Connors interrupted and said he was Nastase’s “student.”
6. Andy Roddick confided that when he tossed the first pitch out at Yankee Stadium, he went for “disaster control” and threw “a high powder puff” pitch. But it went over the catcher.
5. After Rafa Nadal told Dave that the people in Spain don’t understand Mallorcans like him because they speak too fast, Letterman asked, “Ever been to Trenton?”
4. The Late Show went from sultry (pop sensation Lorde singing a version of “Tennis Court” in 2014) to silly (our favorite Stupid Pet Trick: a golden retriever from Houston who lifted a tennis ball with his paws) to serious and thoughtful. Reflecting on his childhood in Belgrade, Novak Djokovic contended that “most people would agree that war is something that doesn’t bring any good to anyone … You see the planes flying over and you hear the bombs and people running away and crying and buildings burning … You were worried for your survival. But most importantly, we stayed together as a people and and a family and it made us stronger … It has been a big part of my mental strength.”
3. After talking about how he was once his own worst enemy, was depressed, and hated tennis, Andre Agassi discussed his use of crystal meth and then told the tale of how his mullet hairdo was actually a wig. He confided that the night before his first Grand Slam final in Paris, he used the wrong conditioner and the wig began to disintegrate. Andre said he used 50 bobby pins just to secure it and he prayed it would stay on. His brother Philip comforted him, saying, “I think it will stay on—just don’t move.” Letterman responded by saying, “It’s tennis, try not to move around. They’ll hit it right to you.” Andre asked, “What better way to hide your inner self than to wear a mullet?” Then a mullet was dropped down on a hook from the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Later, Dave spoke of meeting Agassi’s wife Steffi Graf, saying, “The aura of this woman, she’s so perfectly constructed as an athlete,” at which point Agassi interrupted and said, “Watch out, you’re getting pretty close, Dave.” Letterman continued, “I’ve never seen a woman with this aura in my life … and I thought this was a wonderful experience for me.”
2. Our favorite Letterman-like Top 10 list that we concocted was Steve Wanczyk’s “Top 10 Advantages to the Davis Cup Being Played in Las Vegas.” The list included such items such as “Nuclear test sites can double as press area,” “Everyone can stay at Agassi‘s house,” “Before serving, players can have fans blow on tennis balls for good luck,” “Chair Ump Wayne Newton,” “Two words: radioactive balls,” and “Line judges dress like Elvis.”
1. Pete Sampras once confessed, “I know I’m not David Letterman when it comes to interviews.” But he was great on the show. After Dave asked what made him upchuck at the the US Open against Alex Corretja, Pete said it was because he had “watched Jay Leno the night before.”
By Bill Simons
‘TALLYHO’ FOR TIAFOE: A year ago, Frances Tiafoe was a highly-hyped US prospect at the French Open who practiced with Nadal in front of cameras and lost in junior play on a back court. Now, after reaching the finals in a Tallahassee challenger, the Junior Tennis Champions Center product won the Har-Tru Wildcard Challenge to gain entry into Roland Garros. The seventeen-year old, who has turned pro, will be the first player born in 1998 to play in a major.
Years ago, when Tiafoe’s father, who is from Sierra Leone, became the janitor at the JTCC, his son had to sleep overnight in a small, closet-like storage room at the center. Tiafoe’s tale brings to mind the backstory of Pancho Segura, whose dad was a caretaker at Ecuador’s most exclusive tennis club; Arthur Ashe, whose dad was a caretaker of the public court and park in front of their Virginia house; and David Ferrer, whose coach locked him up in a shed to discipline him as a boy.
THE BOXING CONNECTION: Boxing and tennis have long been compared. It’s you vs. me baby in the ring and on the court—by ourselves, relying on our wits. It’s international. There are no excuses. Foot speed, timing, guts, stamina and a knockout punch help. John McEnroe once wrote that tennis is “an unforgiving, sometimes brutal, sport … It is like being undressed in public and about as lonely as boxing. At least in boxing, if you freeze, some guy will … pop you and put you out of your misery. In tennis, there is no escape.” Boxer Tex Cobb was more succinct. “If you screw up in tennis,” he said, “It’s 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass, darlin’.”
Caroline Wozniacki used boxing as part of her training, Lennox Lewis is a big tennis fan, and Sugar Ray Leonard was a good player. Andy Murray, a huge boxing enthusiast, has said the stylish Federer is like Sugar Ray; the ferocious powerful, relentless Nadal is like Manny Pacauiao; Djokovic and Roberto Duran are “as tough and versatile as they come,” and Floyd Mayweather is like himself—and Murray’s favorite to watch.
“Thank you sir, at the top of the stands. We’re trying to play tennis here.”—The ever-intense ump Marija Čičak, in Miami.
“I didn’t want to go to Russia.”—Andrea Petkovic, on why she dug deep to fight back and win a match in Charleston.
“Why do people keep looking forward to the next event when it means you will never enjoy the now?”—Wimbledon junior champ Noah Rubin.
“It’s more about the player than the coach … I never needed a former champion to be my coach.” —Rafa Nadal
“O Rafa, Rafa! Wherefore art thou, Rafa?”—Marine Coroller, on Twitter.
“I find it very interesting to play tennis. It’s like running your own business.”—Roger Federer
“It’s too bad they can’t build a roof over Munich and collect the water and ship it to California. It would make everyone happier.”—Daily Tennis
“I can’t beat guys consistently playing like I’m 5’10.”—6’10″ John Isner
“As soon as it [a loss in Charleston] was over, I definitely had a bit of anger, but also kind of this confusion-slash-quest, to find what’s wrong, like this kind of searching feeling that, ‘OK, I know something … something’s not right. So I want to find it.’”—Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard, currently suffering a wretched slump.
“She’s like the Daniel Nestor of the women’s tour.”—Pam Shriver, about 41-year-old veteran doubles specialist Lisa Raymond.
“April 30: one of the saddest dates in tennis history. Always think of what should have been for Monica Seles.“—Christopher Clarey, recalling the 1993 stabbing of the great star.
HINGIS’S HOT YEAR: In her day, Martina Navratilova hesitated a long time before retiring. She won the US Open mixed doubles title when she was almost 50. Amazing! The other Martina—Hingis, that is—is sort of doing the same. This year she’s on an incredible roll in doubles. Almost 20 years after her first Grand Slam, and almost a decade since her last Slam title, Hingis won a major in January when she teamed with Leander Paes to take the Aussie Open mixed doubles crown. In women’s doubles, the 34-year-old, who is now ranked No. 4, won in Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston with Sania Mirza, and in Brisbane with Sabine Lisicki.
A GOOD DEBATE: College tennis already has a great circus-like feel, with six matches sometimes going on simultaneously. Now schools are debating just how rowdy crowds are allowed to be.
By Bill Simons
USC coach Peter Smith was worried. He cautioned his new recruit, a freshman from Orange County, that he might not be able to make it past the team’s first practice.
Wrong. Steve Johnson, who first picked up a racket when he was two, went on to lead USC to four straight NCAA championships, win two individual NCAA crowns, and 72 straight matches.
Trojans roll. Big man on campus.
Next up for Steve was lighting up the circuit—no big deal. The leader of the greatest college dynasty ever was about to rock the ATP.
But Steve was in for a shock—a douse of cold water. Never mind the men of Troy—the college boy who dominated campus battles was put in his place by the men of the ATP Tour. The crushing losses were unrelenting. “Welcome to the real world, Rook,” the grizzled pros seemed to say.
For all its glitzy allure, at its core, pro tennis is a brutal reality. Just win, baby. It’s totally Darwinian—survival of the fittest is its unrelenting engine. Unless you’re a phenom, you’d better get grinding.
Johnson grinded. The setbacks continued. “I took the losses pretty hard,” Johnson told ESPN.com. “Every time I would lose, it would be such a shock to the system. Mentally … [it] got to me.”
So, did Johnson win too much at USC? Steve confided to Nick McCarvel, “I didn’t lose much in college, so to lose every week, it sucked … I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe I peaked in college. All of these crept into my head.’” His then-coach, Craig Boynton, conceded that Johnson didn’t “know how to lose. In the pros you will lose just about each week.”
Plus, the suddenly nomadic Johnson missed his friends and parents. (Coach Smith called Steve’s math professor mom and tennis teaching pro dad “the two most solid parents I’ve ever been around.”) But Steve had had it. So, one night he called home and tearfully told his beloved father Steve, “I’m just not good enough.” But his Dad—a tennis whiz who has taught for over three decades—stood firm. “Just hang in there,” he advised.
So Johnson trudged on, continuing his often agonizing quest, and has been on the rise ever since. He beat both Aussie Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis and giant Kevin Anderson in one heady day in New Zealand. And he won Challengers in Aptos, Auckland and Guadeloupe.
Sure, analysts noted that his serve wasn’t as big as John Isner’s. His forehand wasn’t as massive as Jack Sock’s. He wasn’t as quick as Donald Young, nor was he as charismatic as Andy Roddick.
So what? Wise, young, no-frills Johnson attained a superb self-awareness. He knew his sport—he knew his game. Level-headed, composed, and relishing a certain new resilience, a product of the ATP school of hard knocks, he now speaks of wanting to play aggressively while staying within himself, of executing his own skill sets, of upgrading his weaker backhand side and using the right mentality and the right goals to his advantage. “From a player’s and coach’s view,” says Paul Annacone, “he should be your model. He knows how to be professional. He takes what he has, maximizes it, and tries to get better.” And Annacone has coached a couple of fairly professional players: Sampras and Federer.
In the past four seasons, Johnson has improved with a dogged consistency, and last year his ranking leapt 120 spots. He’s beaten John Isner, Ernests Gulbis and Tommy Haas, and when he reached the third round of this year’s Aussie Open, there was talk of the greatest team player in college history being named to our Davis Cup team. But his results flatlined a bit, and his ranking dipped from a career high of 37 to 54. Still, fans noted his considerable assets: the strong serve he uses to set up his foes, his penetrating forehand and his all-business fighting skills.
He’s not only learned how to manage losses—he’s learned how to win, and has settled into the top 60. No wonder—at the Aussie Open, when The Mighty Fed passed by the Californian, he greeted Johnson, saying, “Heeey, Stevie J.” Not bad for a kid who five years ago was ranked No. 636 and started sports by bopping beach balls with his Dad.
These days Johnson wins the matches he’s supposed to. Already this year he has 15 wins, and nine of the last 11 players he’s lost to have been in the top 30.
Yes, questions remain. Does he have the game to break into the top 20? Will he make the Davis Cup team? Still, there can be no doubt that Stevie J is one mighty Trojan warrior.
By Bill Simons
(A LOT OF) LOVE AND (A LITTLE) HATE IN ANDY’S WORLD: Elated and sporting a kilt, Scot Andy Murray wed Kim Sears—his longtime English girlfriend and sometimes saucy cheerleader—in a ceremony at a 12th-century cathedral in his hometown. Throngs lined Dunblane’s streets, but few tennis players—just Tim Henman, Ross Hutchins, and Murray’s brother, Jamie—were on hand. As wonderful as the wedding was, Novak Djokovic joked he would not trade one of his recent wins over Murray for a wedding invitation. When the groom himself was asked how how his big day went, he responded with his typical elegance: “Well, alright. Thanks.” In contrast to all this off-court bliss, Murray soon got into an on-court controversy, when Lukas Rosol bumped into him during a changeover in Munich. Murray told Rosol, “No one likes you on the tour. Everyone hates you.” But newly-married Murray’s clay fortunes trended decidedly upward in Madrid, where he straight-setted Rafa Nadal in the final.
PREGNANT PAUSES: Andy Roddick‘s wife Brooklyn Decker is pregnant with their first child … Amelie Mauresmo is scheduled to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 18th. But she is due with child in August. So will she show up for the induction ceremony?
A TENABLE QUESTION: After the quixotic Fabio Fognini upset Nadal in Barcelona, Mary Carillo asked, “Is he top-tenable or not very top-tenable?”
OF GIGGLES, GIRLS AND THE THERAPEUTIC VALUE OF SAD FRENCH MOVIES: A joint video interview with Andrea Petkovic and Jelena Jankovic in Charleston turned into a gal pal gabfest in which Jelena proudly announced she was getting into all those new fat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free diets, before admitting, “Free stuff, I still eat it.”
Petkovic insisted she didn’t have any New Year’s resolutions, “but they are working really well so far.” She also said that after big wins or losses, she’ll lock herself in her room and watch “really sad French movies and cry myself to sleep. But [then again] I do that every night.” After many other giggles, Petkovic joked, “No one will take us seriously any more.”
BATTLE OF THE NICKNAMES: Tennis has savored many a delightful child-like nickname. Helen Wills-Moody Roark was “Little Miss Poker Face.” Maureen Connolly was “Little Mo,” and now Grigor Dimitrov is “Baby Federer.” But the NBA does better. The Golden State Warriors feature Steph “The Baby-Faced Assassin” Curry and the LA Clippers have Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
THE FUTURE OF VENUS AT INDIAN WELLS? Venus Williams said her sister Serena‘s long-awaited return to Indian Wells “was wonderful,” but added, “Next year … I can’t exactly say what my schedule will be.”
Did that imply she had softened her own stance? “Oh, yeah, absolutely. I have heard so much about how much the tournament has just improved … So it will be something to see … I’m the big sister … [But] she took the role of big sister … I love how we continue to protect each other … She did a fantastic job … So, I don’t know what tournaments I’m going to play as long as I’m at the Olympics. That’s my goal, to be healthy enough … It would be awesome to return … [but] it’s going to be all around [the Rio 2016 Olympics].”
• There’s always a little irony when Virginia Ruzici sits down court-side to watch world No. 2 Simona Halep take on Venus or Serena Williams like she did (against Serena) in the Miami Open semis. Decades ago, when Ruzici, who now manages Halep, won a $40,000 tournament, Richard Williams had one of the great “Eureka!” moments in sports, beginning a then-improbable quest to turn two daughters into wealthy tennis champions.
• Novak Djokovic adores kids, so it was hardly surprising that in Miami he tweeted, “Betta make some kids smile today! They love it & do it more than 300x a day.” But later that week, in the heat of battle during a changeover, he inadvertently scared the wits out of a ball-boy—the irate Serb grabbed a towel from the kid while shouting at his coaches. The boy was stunned, but recovered quickly.
HINGIS’S HOT YEAR: In her day, Martina Navratilova hesitated a long time before retiring. She won the US Open mixed doubles title when she was almost 50. Amazing! The other Martina— Hingis, that is—is sort of doing the same. This year in doubles, she’s on an incredible roll. Almost twenty years after her first Grand Slam, and almost a decade since her most recent Slam win, Hingis won a major in January when she teamed up with Leander Paes to take the Aussie Open mixed crown. In women’s doubles, the 34-year-old, who is now ranked No. 4, won in Brisbane with Sabine Lisicki, and in Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston with Sania Mirza.
By Bill Simons
WIMBLEDON BANS NARCISSISM: Wimbledon banned selfie-sticks.
SOUNDS THAT WAY TO US: Sara Errani grunts in Italian.
WHO IS THAT NAKED FRENCHMAN IN THE LOBBY? A light-hearted Martina Navratilova tweeted, “You know you travel too much when you have to look up your own room number from a WhatsApp message you wrote yesterday.” Then came a reply from France’s retired star Henri LeConte: “Ever woken at night and walked outside [your hotel room] thinking it was the toilet? … [I] did! Naked had to go to lobby!”
CURIOUS QUESTIONS: Daily Tennis asked, “Under what circumstances would you entrust your fate to Petra Kvitova?” … Andrea Petkovic was asked whether she was the female Roger Federer.
SIGN OF THE TIMES? You might think that the huge flag flown by a plane in England that read,”RODGERS OUT, RAFA’S IN” was all about Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and tennis’s spiciest rivalry.
Wrong. The banner above a soccer stadium in Liverpool may incidentally have suggested the future of tennis, but in fact, it called for the firing of Liverpool Reds’ soccer manager Brendan Rodgers, asking for him to be replaced by the club’s previous leader Rafael Benitez. Still, don’t forget that earlier this year Roger himself said, “[If Rafa] wins the French Open a few more times, and I don’t win anymore [Slams], then clearly he can catch me very quickly.”
CAUTION—PETKOVIC’S COOKING MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH: Andrea Petkovic tweeted, “I’m cooking and it’s amazing and everybody’s excited and we will all die soon.”
BAGEL BOSS: After noting that the gluten-free Novak Djokovic this year has won been on the right side of nine 6-0 sets this year, Mary Carillo said, “For a guy who is so politically correct when it comes to food, he sure makes a lot of other people eat bagels.”
SPEAKING OF BAGELS: After Penelope Abreu lost 6-0, 6-0 to CiCi Bellis in Junior Fed Cup play, she asked for a picture with her foe…In Miami, Carla Suarez Navarro was bageled by Venus and Serena in the same tournament.
RICKY, DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER: As young Jordan Spieth won golf’s Masters Tournament, Ricky Dimon tweeted, “When I think about how epic the future of pro golf is, it makes me even more scared for tennis.” But tennis sage Tom Tebutt countered, “Cool it, Ricky, tennis will be just fine.”
A COMPARISON FOR THE AGES: Left-handed broadcaster Mary Carillo said 18-year-old lefty Taylor Townsend reminded her of left-handed Henri Leconte.
OH, TO BE RICH, FAMOUS AND CHIC IN MONTE CARLO: After Justin Gimelstob said, “There are a lot of beautiful people hanging out here in Monte Carlo,” Mary Carillo joked, “And famous people too. We just don’t know what they’re famous for.”
“[They are] the .0001 percent that you are a part of, Mary,” added Gimelstob.
“Yeah, I’m really part of that café society,” replied Carillo.
THE CURSE OF HAVING TO RIDE RENTAL PONIES: The retirement of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show brings to mind a time Stewart teased a politician. The comic joked acidly that the political figure was “not concerned about the very poor … [who] have to play tennis on public courts [and] ride rental ponies.”
GO FIGURE: The Nadal vs. Djokovic Monte Carlo Masters semi was the first time in 263 clay court matches that Rafa was not the oddsmakers’ favorite … The Jack Sock vs. Sam Querrey final at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship was the first All-American final at the tourney in River Oaks, Texas in 12 years. Sock, 22, prevailed to claim his first ATP singles title … The last WTA player to win the Aussie and French Opens in the same year was Jennifer Capriati in 2001 … After three months, Martina Navratilova resigned as Aga Radwanska‘s coach … A couple of years ago, Madrid switched from blue back to red clay courts. This year, they stopped using models as ball persons and employed regular folks. (Now when will Emirates Air tennis promotions include male model as well as female model air attendants?)
JUST WONDERING: Will Serena or Djokovic have a better year, and can either win the Grand Slam?
Trailblazer: Katrina Adams, the USTA’s First-Ever African-American President, is Breaking Molds and Making Waves
By Bill Simons
In the 134-year history of the USTA, no one under 50 has ever been president.
No athlete, let alone a broadcaster, has ever headed the organization.
And in a sport that has given us Serena, Venus, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, James Blake, Zina Garrison and Michael Chang, no person of color has led the group.
Enter Katrina Adams, the USTA’s new chief. Lean, energetic, Chicago-tough, long a hero of Harlem tennis, Adams is just 46, a Tennis Channel commentator, a former top 10 doubles player with 20 title wins and—yeah, we almost forgot—African-American.
Long ago, Arthur Ashe said the greatest fear of the whites who then ruled tennis was that if African-Americans came into the sport, black culture would take over the game.
Now, African-Americans are impacting tennis like never before.
Observers now ask, what’s more stunning? That Madison Keys may be the most dazzling young prospect in the game? That Aussie Open champ Serena, who some consider the best of all time, returned to Indian Wells? That her sister Venus, 34, is having an impressive late-career surge? That the mercurial Sloane Stephens is rising once again? That Taylor Townsend and Tornado Black may be on the horizon? Or that an African-American is heading the USTA?
Then again, Adams has an inner drive like few others. As a kid she saw Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon on TV and promptly informed her parents she would play there one day.
She did that and much more.
Adams concedes that at first she didn’t really grasp it all. “I was just a kid who loved to compete,” she tells IT. “It was about winning trophies. I didn’t understand what the path [to Wimbledon] was.”
Adams played with what she herself calls “a bully personality.” She says what she loved most about tennis was “the joy of hitting the ball,” and being on court “where your personality can truly shine … [Tennis] teaches you discipline, how to sacrifice … and do all the things you need to do to succeed, whether it’s being a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or on Wall Street. It doesn’t matter. Each step along the way, I just sort of followed the path.
“For me [being the USTA President] is about having a moment to truly make a difference, and understanding what that means … Bill, I’m not here because of my differences, I’m here in spite of them, and because of what I bring to the table and the ability I have to reach millions. I happen to be African-American, which is great, and it’s an honor to be the first. I know it resonates across the country and the world. But I didn’t go after this job because of that.
“Becoming the USTA president has been humbling, and I hope I can have an impact. This is about letting people know that if you work hard you can do anything.”
Anyone who rises to become the president of the USTA has to go through a kind of self-regulating (“rebels need not apply”) process. Aspiring leaders have to navigate a daunting political gauntlet that takes years. Loyalty matters. It’s best not to rock the boat.
So, during my wide-ranging interview with Adams in the Australian Open player cafeteria, it’s not surprising that she drops few bombshells. Rather, she adeptly volleys any questions about the USTA’s oft-criticized governance, at one point serving up the observation, “We have a junior competitive structure that isn’t perfect.” Then she goes cross-court, noting that the USTA is “impacting millions” through all of its programs.
“For me to sit in the seat I’m sitting in,” she notes, “means we’ve evolved. It’s more about truly embracing diversity and inclusion … People don’t realize all the good that we do in giving back to the grassroots. It’s because of those opportunities that more kids are introduced to tennis, and most of those programs involve education. That’s where most of our money goes—to get people from all socioeconomic backgrounds involved. It’s about opening doors in a sport that has been criticized as being just for the elite.”
Point well taken, Katrina. But not only is USTA membership declining, no American man has won a Slam title in 12 years.
“Everything in life is cyclical,” notes Adams. “We are at a stage in American tennis where it’s turning around for us to be on the upswing again in numbers. We have a ton of players that are coming up—the [Stefan] Kozlovs, the [Noah] Rubins, the [Francis] Tiafoes, the [Michael] Mmohs—and starting to make a splash … [Still,] we need to promote the sport better, as opposed to promoting individuals. If we can get tennis out there for kids to see … they’ll get more excited … [But] kids aren’t even introduced to physical activity anymore. When your parents say, ‘Go out and play,’ and you’re sitting on your couch, you say, “I am playing—why do I need to go outside?” We need to … get kids to understand, ‘Hey, there’s another activity you can do beyond your iPad or your Xbox … There are pockets of people we haven’t [reached]. It’s just because of messaging. We can turn that around.”
In particular, Adams wants to get Latinos involved. After all, she notes, “these communities love sports. The first sport they love is soccer. They’re great athletes. But tennis is a great sport to help you develop your individuality, self-confidence, and character, and it provides opportunities … As a culture, tennis can go in and embrace the entire family.”
The USTA has had many an innovative president. Slew Hester and David Markin built stadiums. Throngs descended. Judy Levering was the first woman president. Alan Schwartz was the first tennis businessman to be prez. But no other USTA chief has been as much of a pioneer as Adams—or as enmeshed in the tennis family.
As we chat in Melbourne, friends and players drop by. Adams has been gaining standing ovations at conferences and is already attracting heady accolades.
Though originally inspired by Ashe, she says that if she could watch any one player perform it would be the legendary pioneer Althea Gibson: “I was a serve and volleyer, I was aggressive, and that’s what I saw in Althea’s game. It was about power, grace and taking no prisoners.”
Adams goes on to share how Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison “took me under her wing,” how her parents and the visionary Billie Jean King were the most influential and inspirational people in her life, and that she’s been able to walk the path she’s walked because of King. Adams delights in talking about more humble players in the tennis firmament like Camille Benjamin and Chanda Rubin, and then alights into an appreciation of the mighty Venus and Serena.
“To watch them mature over the years,” she says, “has just been incredible. I don’t think the world recognizes how much pressure was on those young kids who were in an adult world. Venus has been an incredible spokeswoman … It really shows that perseverance is everything … They’ve gotten it right a lot of times, and they’ll continue to get it right. They’ve definitely learned.”
In that context, I say to Adams, “Let me ask you a tough question. We have this fabulous tournament in Indian Wells. But our two most wonderful American stars are not playing. If there was some way we could get the parties together, and they could play again, it would be a real symbol of…”
“But what parties?” she asks.
“Venus and Serena, and the tournament,” I respond.
“It has nothing to do with the tournament,” Adams says, with an edge in her voice. “It has to do with the environment. What they experienced was unfair to them, it was unethical, it was racist, and it was an unfortunate situation. If you are a 19-year-old [like Serena], you’re [barely] an adult. And even if you are an adult and you experience that, you wouldn’t want to go back to the area either. And guess what? I do experience it. But I do what I gotta do. That’s the way of the world. But they don’t have to subject themselves to that treatment. I know they’ve matured and they’ve gotten over it and they said they would go back. We’ll see.”
And we’ll see about Katrina. Will she not only be a role model and a pioneer—the youngest-ever USTA President; the first pro athlete, commentator and African-American to lead the USTA—but also a “doer” who rocks the conversation and changes the game?
More photos of USTA President Katrina Adams after the jump. More »
BNP Paribas Open: Super Final Sunday—Djokovic Wins His Fourth Title and Simonamania Bolsters Halep to Victory
Sometimes sense just triumphs over sentiment.
Novak Djokovic is No. 1 in the world. He’s won two of the last three Grand Slams, including January’s Australian Open. He’s 27 and in his prime—focused and confident. He has fabulous movement, core strength, a best-in-the-business backhand return of serve, and tremendous flexibility. He’s the epitome of the modern tennis player. Just ask Andy Murray. And yeah he’s sidetracked by just one kid.
Roger Federer has four. And of course he has grace, a fluid liquidity that’s balletic, a backhand that dazzles, and a “still eager after all these years” passion and will that attracts adoring fans from India to Indian Wells. He’s regal and unreal.
If life were a fairytale, the 33-year-old genius would have prevailed in the men’s final today at the BNP Paribas Open. But just like at last year’s Wimbledon, the Mighty Fed fell distinctly short after forging an amazing comeback. Djokovic may only have one fourth of father Federer’s number of kids, but after his 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 victory, he now has the same number of BNP Paribas Open titles. His fourth win at Indian Wells was also his 50th overall tour title, drawing him one ahead of coach Boris Becker’s 49 career tournament wins.
Djokovic shared his celebratory dessert with the press corps afterward, but the match was no gluten-free piece of cake. In pressers, Federer has pledged a special allegiance to his rivalry with Rafael Nadal, but there’s no doubt that the Federer vs. Djokovic matchup produces a distinct (and less sentimental) brand of thrilling tennis—like two dashing swordsmen or a pair of ruthless quick-draw artists racing to attack. At the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, all their gifts were on display. Novak’s speed and rubberband-man elasticity, which somehow make his wingspan seem wider than John Isner’s. Federer’s feather-light and fatal touch, capable of placing the ball just beyond the fastest opponent’s reach.
While Federer fans cheered him on with a traditional “Let’s go, Roger,” a Djokovic posse at the very top of the stadium varied their chants according to the moment, even targeting Federer by repeating “Pressure! Pressure!” whenever his serve was in danger. Thirty-eight matches into their rivalry, these two are so assured and familiar that fans cheer their trick moves between points, from Federer answering a Djokovic fault with an effortless behind-the-back return, to Djokovic catching and cradling a dead-ball service return with his racket. Of all the Big Four match ups, Djokovic-Federer is the one most about “controlled aggression” (as Federer put it afterward), and it times it boils over into anger: more than once Federer swatted a ball skyward after a routine miss, while Djokovic shook with frustration at one point and smashed a racket at another.
And the battle itself, you ask? Flashes of brilliance and lapses of concentration were both on display. Like most matches at this year’s tournament, the ratio of winners to unforced errors was unflattering, but the number of inspired or even breathtaking shots was high as well, even within rallies. Both players came into the final in dominant form, but Djokovic capitalized on a single break to seize the first set with ruthless quickness, 6-3, and grab an early break in the second.
But from 4-2 up there were some deja vu moments, as Djokovic threatened to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Serbian finalist Jelena Jankovic, who’d tossed away her title hopes with a slew of service woes just a few hours earlier. Where once Novak’s serve had reliably dug him out of deficits, serving at 5-4 in the second set tiebreak, he delivered two double faults in a row. One second the stadium was so silent that you could hear Djokovic’s signature before-serve ball-bounce routine. The next the whole place ignited in a collective roar. All it took was a commanding serve from Federer and the battle was back on event terms.
But at the start of the third Federer’s backhand went MIA, leaking errors into the doubles alley and net, as Djokovic regained control. With Djokovic serving at 2-0, Federer mounted one last surge. Not only was he outlasting Djokovic in rallies—who does that?—he was even calling the lines perfectly when needed, twice reversing the outcome of points with the help of Hawk-Eye. When Roger converted on his fifth break point attempt, the stadium erupted again. A thriller was in the making.
Or so it seemed. At 2-3, 40-15 on Federer’s serve, the momentum switched back once more to Djokovic, as he steadied his game and the Federer backhand again went off course. On break point the Serbian taunt reappeared—”Pressure! Pressure!”—and Federer succumbed to it. Even the man who many consider the greatest ever can double fault at crunch time. “I’m not the only one double faulting under pressure,” Novak said afterward, and on this day, he wasn’t kidding. Which brings us to….
HALEP VS. JANKOVIC: MARATHON MELODRAMA AT INDIAN WELLS
Everyone had an opinion on the Simona Halep-Jelena Jankovic BNP Paribas Open final. To even-handed analysts, it was a textbook example of how not to win a big tennis match. Don’t have much belief. Waste your energy on what happened long ago in the match. Don’t stay in the moment, and falter at the end.
Chris Evert was more succinct, simply saying. “You have to be a psychologist to coach women’s tennis—let’s get that one out of the way.” There was ample entertainment—and frustration, to a degree that had one voice in the press room marveling at the sheer number of service breaks.
The first game was an omen of the match to come—a lengthy see-sawing affair that ended with a break of serve. There were 17 more of those to come. At one point a shockingly focused Jankovic was two points away from repeating the scoreline of her 6-2, 6-4 win over another Slam bridesmaid, Caroline Wozniacki, in the 2010 final. But then the inevitable unraveling—already present in a slew of double faults as tentativeness crept into Jankovic’s game—fully took hold.
In a Serena-less final, Simonamania ran rampant in the stands if not on court. Chants of SEE-MOH-NAH ranged from confident to worried to triumphant while the quiet Romanian steadied her resolve if not always her game. “The action between the players’ boxes is a lot more exciting right now than the action between the players,” ESPN’s Pam Shriver remarked at one point. Aside from strong backhands, Halep and Jankovic are a study in contrasts. Nary a Jankovic match goes by without a laugh and an argument, and this one was no exception. As for Halep, even her fist pumps are compact and inward—stylish in the most low-key way.
Afterward, Jankovic delivered the more memorable speech, saying she and Halep were “running like two dogs left and right,” and going on to thank her hairdresser. But the hefty trophy belonged to Halep. The 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 marathon win was the biggest victory of her career, as the season approaches the surface—clay—where she first began her ascent in 2013, with a three-set win over an opponent named … Jelena Jankovic.
As final Sunday approaches, it’s time for another installment of Hot Shots at the BNP Paribas Open. All photos below by Brent Bishop, unless otherwise noted.
Serena Williams (photo by Michael Weinstein)
Milos Raonic. More Hot Shots after the jump: More »