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

2016 Australian Open - Day 11 : News Photo

BILL SIMONS

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

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

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

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

Is it an omen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo


Australian Open: Betgate Investigative Unit Announced, Questions Linger

2016 Australian Open - Day 10 : News Photo

Bill Simons

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

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

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

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

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

Tennis was shaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone in tennis hopes so.


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

2016 Australian Open - Day 9 : News Photo

Bill Simons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo



Betgate: Simmering Gambling Suspicions Ignite

2015 Hong Kong Open : News Photo

Spain’s Lara Arruabarrena  Photo: Getty Images

Bill Simons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Australian Open: 20 Takeaways From the Djokovic–Simon Battle

2016 Australian Open - Day 7 : News Photo

NOVAK’S SCARE WAS A MATCH TO REMEMBER

Bill Simons

Melbourne

1. At last year’s US Open, Novak Djokovic reached double figures. Translation: he won his tenth Grand Slam. In his 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win here in Australia over Giles Simon, he made it to triple digits: he had 100 unforced errors.

2. It only made sense that the wackiest Grand Slam in recent memory (replete with the clouds of scandal, the emotion of a legend’s retirement, big upsets of veterans, delightful breakouts, a Chinese feel-good story and collapsing coaches) came within a set of seeing the dominant player of our era go down.

3. Djokovic scored a notable record for consistency. He reached his 27th straight Slam quarterfinal to tie Jimmy Connors for the second-most ever. Yet, today Novak was consistently inconsistent.

4. The mighty Casey can strike out. Steph Curry can shoot air balls, and Novak Djokovic can have a bad day. Brad Gilbert recently said, “The Big Four [in tennis] is now the Big One – Novak.” The Serb, who has won three of the last four Slams and hasn’t lost a match that really mattered since August, had his diciest Grand Slam match since he almost lost to Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarters.

5. When Novak’s game started to fall apart in the second set, broadcaster Richard Evans said, “I haven’t seen Djokovic play like this for several years…He’s completely lost his mind. I’d love to be inside his head right now. This is the most astounding performance I have ever seen from a dominant world No. 1.”

6. Novak admitted that in the fourth set he “lost his calm.” When Jim Courier asked him what was going through his mind when his game faltered badly, he said, “You don’t want to know.” Later he told IT that, “Many times my mind was asking for oxygen because there were so many rallies. You’re just trying to focus on breathing and the next point….It’s not a very pleasant feeling.” Then he said that in the fifth set his serve kicked in and that was a key to his win.

7. Boris Becker gets paid millions to coach Novak, but it took a fan to give Novak his best coaching tip yesterday. During the post-match interview a fan called out to the Serb, “No more drop shots!” Novak said hitting drop shots are “not easy when [you're] not moving the ball and not moving great so you try sometimes to shorten the point. You have a brain freeze.” BTW: A couple of years ago another fan called out with a tip for Serena. He said, “Keep on moving forward.” Williams took it to heart and later thanked the fan.

8. Although Darren Cahill’s nickname for Giles Simon is “Mr. Wobblylegs,” Djokovic said one of Giles’ strengths today was his legs.

9. In 2008 Simon beat Federer, Nadal and Murray, but he’s lost 10 straight times to Novak.

10. Simon has won some key Davis Cup matches, still he’s not beloved in his homeland. The French prefer the stylish shot-making and charismatic play of Jo-Willie Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet.

11. Simon is one of the best defenders and counterpunchers in the game. He makes you hit an extra shot and often prevails in long 30-stroke rallies. As Federer has noted, “He knows what he’s doing.” But ultimately, Simon doesn’t have the big weapons that are so critical to close out key points and to score bail-out points when on defense.

12. Broadcaster Chris Bowers said today’s match was about “the soft presence of Simon, his slight of hand and the pressure he put on Novak.” He didn’t press and was fearless, but still, he blinked in the fifth set, allowing Djokovic to sprint to a 5-1 lead.

13. After a reporter suggested that players in the locker room would have been happy if he was out of the tournament, Novak joked that he was very popular in the women’s locker room.

14. Simon said that Novak is “improving year after year. That’s terrible..because he’s already No. 1. He added that Novak is so much more fit now than when he was younger.

15. When IT asked Simon to compare Djokovic with Federer and Nadal, Simon said, “I’m depressed already.” He recalled, “I lost, I lost, I lost again….[But] I see them as humans and tennis players…Sometimes I feel players are not always trying their best…[Novak] is playing fantastic…[so] the match is over after 20 minutes.”

16. Sometimes Boris Becker’s reactions in the player’s box are priceless, but the most twitchy people in the friends box in the Open era were Bjorn Borg’s former wife Mariana Simionescu and Becker’s former wife Barbara Feltus.

17. Djokovic said his battle today was a “match to forget…[But] I won, so it’s pretty good. When you’re playing that bad and still manage to win…it gives you great joy to know that you can’t get worse.”

18. Novak doesn’t have a cakewalk to the title, though. He next plays Kei Nishikori, who he lost to at the 2014 US Open, and then possibly Federer in the semis. In the finals, he could face Stan Wawrinka, who beat him at the French Open, or Andy Murray.

19. Will Novak’s poor performance spur him to finish strong, or is it a problematic omen?

20. Will Djokovic again dominate this year, and manage to finally win the French Open? And will he capture the gold at the Olympics?


Australian Open Buzz: Serena’s White Power, Hewitt’s Bluster and Why Melbourne Is as Mad as Frogs

 TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo

GOOD NEWS: Coach Nigel Sears, who was hospitalized last night and is Andy Murray’s father-in-law, was given approval to leave the hospital and fly home to Britain. Sears issued a statement thanking the medical and tennis people who came to his aid.

VINCI HOPES FOR ADVICE FROM HER UNCLE LEO: In New York, Roberta Vinci told IT (with a wink) that Leonardo da Vinci was her uncle. When asked about Uncle Leonardo in Melbourne, she told us, “I hope he can help me also here.”

LLEYTON HEWITT – FAREWELL NOTES

• Some things never change. After Lleyton was called not once, but twice, for a foot fault in his infamous 2001 US Open match against James Blake, He then told the umpire, “Look at him (the African-American linesman) and tell me what the similarity is (beckoning towards the African-American Blake.)” I want him off the court.”  Now flash forward 15 years to Lleyton’s last singles match, when he was called for a double-fault not once but twice. He then turned to the ump and offered an obscenity and was fined $2,500.

• Down Under writer Ron Reed contended, “Hewitt’s long lingering farewell is surely the most drawn out lap of honor in the history of Australian sport.”

• Andre Agassi offered a shout-out to Hewitt. He tweeted, “To a man who always brought his hard hat to work without excuses…CHEERS to this next step in your wonderful journey”… Andy Roddick simply tweeted, “Good on ya Rusty!”

• An hour after Lleyton Hewitt won his opening-round match, there was his seven-year-old son Cruz – racket in hand and wearing an Aussie flag shirt just like Dad’s – prancing and dancing in delight in a back corridor under Laver Arena.

• After Lleyton’s opening match, US Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier interviewed Australia’s Davis Cup Captain Lleyton Hewitt. When Courier ran out of questions for the Aussie, Hewitt began to interview Courier. The two will lead their teams in battle against each other in Australia in early March.

• Hewitt’s last shot of his pro career came at 4:17 Sunday afternoon. It was a backhand return of serve which drifted wide. He and his partner Sam Groth lost in straight sets to the No. 9 seeds, the former Wimbledon champions Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil.

SERENA’S WHITE POWER: Australian Open Radio said that the young Russian Margarita Gasparyan “feels the white power of every ball” hit by Serena.

MARGARITAVILLE: Insiders wondered whether Russian Margarita Gasparyan is the only elite level player named Margarita…Maria Sharapova said she “love to sit on the beach and read a book and drink margaritas but I get bored.”

VIDEO GAMES: Fernando Verdasco said he watched the tape of his classic 2007 Aussie Open semifinal loss to Rafa Nadal about 10 times…Roberta Vinci said she watched the tape of her win over Serena at last year’s US Open time and again. When asked whether she ever watched the tape of her loss to Vinci, Serena joked that she watched it every night, just for inspiration…Bob and Mike Bryan, who have been playing the circuit for 21 years, said they are now watching tapes for the first time in their career.

THE BEST “31″ STAT IN TENNIS HISTORY? In 1999 Anna Kournikova won an Aussie Open match despite hitting 31 double faults. This year in Melbourne, Kristyna Pliskova lost despite hitting 31 aces…Midway through his career, Andy Roddick quipped, “I want another crack at Federer—until my record is 1-31.” He ended up with a 3-21 record against Roger…Between them, Federer and Pete Sampras have 31 Slams…When she was 31, Serena Williams was asked whether the 31-year-old Serena could beat the 21-year old Serena. She replied, “I wouldn’t want to play me at 21 or 31.”…Richey Reneberg was the WTT Team Tennis Rookie of the Year when he was 31…The Dutch wheelchair player Esther Vergeer, who you could argue was the most dominant player in tennis history, retired at age 31. So did Guga Kuerten…Three of the semifinalists at the 2013 US Open – Serena Williams, Li Na and Flavia Pennetta – were 31.

SHARAPOVA REVELATION: ESPN is working on a piece on aging athletes in sports, so they asked Maria Sharapova about aging veterans, including quarterbacks like Tom Brady. The Russian responded, “I don’t know much about quarterbacks.”

DARLING DARIA – MAD AS A BOX OF FROGS:

• Simon Cambers tweeted, “[I] Quite like watching Daria Gavrilova – real battler, great mover, mad as a box of frogs but new Aussie hero.

• Serena Williams thought Gavrilova could win the tournament.

• When a broadcaster noted that Gavrilova “has a boyfriend from the bush,” our research department got on the case. Yes, her beau Luke Saville is from the tiny village of Cobdogla, which is 144 miles beyond Adelaide. The hamlet – population about 300 – is known for its Irrigation and Steam Train Museum and the Loveday Internment Camp. It does have a six-court tennis center. So that’s one court for every 50 people. Actually Saville lives about 13 miles out of town “in the middle of nowhere.” He explained, “Life’s pretty simple and not much happens. I definitely don’t think Darsha could live there…she’d go crazy.” BTW: Gavrilova and Saville played mixed doubles together, but lost in the first round

• The classy Gavrilova put her finger to her lips to shush a crowd cheering a double fault from her opponent deep into the third set of her second round match.

• After her 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 win over Kristina Mladenovic, Daria said, “I’ve got nothing in my head. I’m just really excited and I want to hug the whole stadium.” When asked why she smiles so much and what goes through her mind, she confided, “You don’t want to be in my head.”

HIGH STANDARD: A reporter asked Nick Kyrgios why, after his loss to Tomas Berdych, he felt he had let people down. The writer reminded Nick that everyone has to lose sometime – but the Aussie responded tersely, simply saying, “Djokovic doesn’t lose.”

TERRIBLE COMMENTARY: After his third-round loss, Kyrgios told chair umpire James Keothavong, “You’re a terrible referee.”

BEWARE OF FIRST IMPRESSIONS: When asked what her thoughts were after she broke Victoria Azarenka at love in the opening game, Japan’s personable Naomi Osaka replied, “Oh, I was like, ‘It can’t be this easy.’ And then she like broke me and I was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’” Vika spanked the 18-year-old lost 6-1, 6-1.

HAPPY TO LOSE: Osaka said she was glad she lost, “because…I can learn more from my mistakes than from winning.”

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: After Jim Courier told Stan Warwrinka on court that his voice was a bit croaky, the Swiss joked, “Too many cigars.”

SAY IT ISN’T SO, VENUS: Venus Williams is celebrated as a pioneer, a resilient legend and survivor who has won 9 Grand Slams. She fought hard to create equal pay for women and has bravely fought Sjogren’s Syndrome. But in two out of the last four Slams she’s failed to appear at her post-match press conference – a staple for any professional. In Melbourne she was fined $5000 and a big question remains unanswered: Will she play in the mandatory Indian Wells tournament for the first time in 15 years?

WHAT VENUS, KYRGIOS AND HEWITT HAVE IN COMMON: All were fined in Melbourne.

WISHFUL THINKING: Just after he heard he would have to play Andy Murray, Sam Groth said, “It would be nice if his wife went into labor overnight – I might just be cheering for that one.”

JUST HOW GOOD IS ROGER? Earlier in the Aussie Open, the Swiss earned a record 300th Grand Slam win. The next-most wins are Jimmy Connors with “just” 233 and Andre Agassi with 224.

A LITTE DAB WILL DO YOU: After beating Alison Van Uytvanck 6-0, 6-0 in the first round, Victoria Azarenka offered a “dab” – the victory gesture created by Cam Newton. The Carolina Panther star then got in touch with Vika, who told ESPN, “My swag is approved…If I keep on winning I am going to keep on doing the dab.” John Isner, a huge Panther and Newton fan said he wasn’t impressed with Vika’s dab and would never make the gesture. Question: If Azarenka does beat Serena in the final, will she do the dab?

THE THIN MAN: Broadcaster Richard Evans said France’s Gilles Simon is “the thin man from Nice who gets under your skin.”

QUOTEBOOK:

“At the moment, Serena has absolutely been bossing Maria.” – Steve Pearce

“She likes to win and I hate to lose.” – Vika Azarenka on what makes her rivalry with Serena so dynamic.

FED UP AND NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE:  Broadcaster Carole Bouchard said, “The guys are fed up with being humiliated by Djokovic.”

NOT SO MESSED UP AFTER ALL? In 2007, before a string of mini-scandals relating to gambling, drugs and a supposed poisoning hit the tennis world, Inside Tennis noted that other sports had had their problems that year as well: A corrupt ref shook the NBA, the steroid-tainted Barry Bonds set baseball’s most hallowed record, NFL quarterback Michael Vick turned out to be a dog killer, the Tour de France winner used illegal drugs, and the Formula One circuit was shaken by a cheat scandal. So, in comparison, tennis seemed squeaky clean.

MAFIA MEMORIES: Back in 2007, Nicolay Davydenko’s alleged (but never proven) ties to the Russian mafia prompted Mary Carillo to recall broadcasting the ’95 Davis Cup final from Moscow. “We were paying off [everybody]. It was a joke how many hands were out just for them to turn on the electricity…[and] we’d already greased them. That’s the deal over there. The Russian mafia’s been around hockey forever – and figure skating. Obviously, they were a big part of the Salt Lake City scandal with the pairs [skating].” Back then, John McEnroe said, “There’s a very scary undercurrent of gambling in all sports.” Still, no one has produced any real evidence to prove that there is match fixing in tennis.

Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang


Australian Open: Life Reminds Tennis What Really Matters

TENNIS-AUS-OPEN : News Photo

A DOWN UNDER DAY OF REFLECTION

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—Sports are wonderful.

They sweep you away to another domain, a zen-like world of wonder – escape and joy.

Nothing else matters, only the game.

Put on your blinders. Forget your headaches. Don’t sweat that overdue mortgage payment or your nasty boss. All that matters is whether that crosscourt backhand dips in.

And right on cue, here this year at the Australian Open, there were many delights to embrace. Australia’s darling Daria Gavrilova emerged – a bright youngster. A gritty legend, Lleyton Hewitt, retired. The greatest of our champions, Mr. Federer, scored a record 300th win in a major.

Then, out of nowhere, the world with its ample dysfunction came by. Never mind that the Melbourne summer was cold and rainy and the No. 2 seed (Simona Halep) suffered a massive upset. The No. 1 story was suddenly about a dicey scandal.

Headlines rang.

Do gamblers control the game? Is there a black cloud over tennis? There were no facts. But here’s a newsflash: nightmares don’t need facts. And you never know, the game’s integrity could collapse in a flash.

Then a fan, during Ana Ivanovic’s second-round match, fell on some stairs in Hisense Arena and had to be taken off on a stretcher. The Serb was shaken. And today in distant Canada four children were senselessly slaughtered in another school shooting. The caring Canadian Milos Raonic dedicated his win to the victims and said, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen much back home…A lot of people were heartbroken…Today’s match mattered heavily, and I did everything I could to find a way to win. At the end of the day…there are five people that will never go back to school again…That’s just far bigger than whatever I could’ve done on court today.”

Long before today, back in 1995, there was another moment here when the pathos of our lives made the minutiae of our games seem more than meaningless.

During the Jim Courier vs. Pete Sampras Aussie Open quarterfinal, the perpetually stoic Pete was stunned on center court. The AP’s Steve Willstein wrote that it was “as if [Sampras was] naked, his emotions exposed, his face awash with tears, his chest heaving.”

A fan had just called out, “Do it for your coach!”

Sampras melted. Fans were astonished by one of the most poignant moments in tennis history. Pete was preoccupied with his thoughts of his beloved mentor Tim Gullikson who, after suffering dizzy spells earlier in the day, had just flown back to America.

While Pistol Pete wept on court, his girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy yelled from the front row,”C’mon, honey, get in there.” Across the net, Jim Courier called out to his friend, “Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.” It was supposed to be a joke. Understandably, Sampras was not pleased. He wanted to be anywhere but on that tennis court playing a game with a racket. But he threw some ice water on his face and charged back from two sets down to win.

Just 15 months later Gullikson would succumb to brain cancer. Twenty-one years later there was more drama on this court. The crowd would again be stunned, as if they’d been smacked in the chest. There was a hush. Life’s unsparing realities again dropped by. A man – well, no ordinary man – had fallen on the arena steps while walking up to gate 18. British tennis guru Nigel Sears, who had been in the news all year. Last April, in a Scottish church, he beamed as his daughter Kim married the most eligible bachelor in tennis – Andy Murray. Then, after Wimbledon, Ana Ivanovic asked her old mentor to come to her aid.

Sears seemed to be having a good effect. Hitting winners, stroking with confidence, the Serb was in fine form as she rushed to the third round.

But drama has always surrounded the sensitive, olive-skinned and reflective Serb who’s from a land where sport and life collide with a noisy intensity.

“I think Serbians in general are very, very tough people, with a strong winning mentality,” she once noted. “People have to understand,” insisted her countryman Janko Tipsarevic, “that all that we have in tennis here in Serbia came from mud…No one invested one Euro into any of our players.”

Famously, child Ana would practice in the winter cold in a Belgrade pool. “It was Olympic-size,” she recalled. “Very cold. They couldn’t afford to heat it…so they drained it and put carpets down to make two courts. But you couldn’t hit crosscourt, because the walls were so close to the sideline. So we had to wait until summer to go outdoors and hit crosscourt.”

After young Ana won the 2008 French Open title, wonks couldn’t wait to anoint her as the next dominant force.

But she had demons. Once, after being crushed by Justine Henin she confided, “All of a sudden I started getting nervous…I didn’t think about moving well or how I should play…I was thinking more about the occasion than about my game. That’s what I was afraid of.”

Analysts wondered whether she was just too nervous or complex or maybe just too beautiful and nice. “She’s a goodhearted person,” contended her former coach Sven Groeneveld. “But she has another side. She’s a Scorpio, and if people push the wrong buttons, she will sting.”

But, often it just seemed that the tennis world was too messy and imposing for this nuanced, sensitive soul. “Sometimes,” Ana admitted, “I wish I could get away from everything and go somewhere where nobody knows me. I know I can’t just disappear.”

Tonight she was front and center in an odd, high-profile drama. Her coach Nigel Sears was lifted out on a stretcher. All the while, just 150 yards away, his son-in-law, Andy Murray, was battling to win his third-round match, and his daughter, some 10,500 miles away and just a couple of weeks from giving birth to her first child, was probably taking in all of the horror. Sears lay still, seemingly forever, and then was rushed to the hospital, conscious and sitting up, and soon was given cardiac tests.

“Can this tournament get any stranger?” asked one long-time ATP official.

Ivanovic had told us, “Once you are on the court…you have to be a killer. You have to show your presence and stuff.”

But tonight the stuff of life and the power of Madison Keys prevailed. Ana teared up as her match was suspended, and then, when play resumed, the Serb fell to the big-hitting 20-year-old American, who scored a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 come-from-behind win.

But the real winner here this week at this Down Under tennis happening was life itself. Time and again it came by, knocked on this sporting door and shouted loud, “Hold on mate, wait a minute. Little drop shots and big trophies are but silly footnotes. What really matters is our health, our integrity, our passion and our loved ones.”


Australian Open: The Space-Age Chamber That Helps Novak

2016 Australian Open - Day 5 : News Photo

MELBOURNE—The Bryan brothers shared that as they get deep into their careers, they have been talking with Novak Djokovic, who takes such great care of himself. Djokovic, who is incredibly fit, is known for his gluten-free diet. But the Bryans noted that he “does it all.”

The Bryans reported that, Novak “has special chambers [he goes into.] He has the ‘hyperbaric.’ It looks like a spaceship, it’s an egg. You go in it and it drops you down, like 12 meters. It gives you 100% oxygen which releases stem cells and [provides] anti-inflammatory healing for your body. I guess you are supposed to sleep better [and] everything. He does that everyday. He’ll play a match and the guy will open it for him every night. It’s called HyperMED and it’s right across from the hotel. A lot of guys have been going in it. Mike’s been doing it. A lot of players have been doing it. Murray’s been there, [Ana] Ivanovic, Bethanie [Mattek-Sands].

“It just helps recovery. I felt a little better. There’s like a vacuum thing you put your legs in. It kind of vacuums and flushes a lot of lactic acid out of your legs. There are a few things in there.”

Hyperbaric Oxygenation is said to impact “cellular oxygen” and has been used by cancer patients.


Australian Open: A Dark Shadow

2016 Australian Open - Day 4 : News Photo

TENNIS’ GAMBLING SCANDAL UNFOLDS

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—It touched everyone and no one – or so it seemed.

The sudden emergence of tennis’ gambling scandal “really casts a very dark shadow on our sport right now,” said ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, the wife of Roger Federer’s agent.

It’s not surprising that Chris Evert confided, “I have been so sad about this. We as tennis players have always been so proud about the integrity of our sport. Hopefully the truth will come out.”

Jonathan Bernstein, a longtime Public Relations expert in California said, “I think public perception right now is that there is fire somewhere behind the smoke, and that’s going to be the default until proven otherwise.”

Remarkably, the conversation even tangentially includes the beloved Roger Federer, who as much as any other athlete, has been celebrated around the world.

In an extensive 2010 article, the widely-respected New York Times tennis and sports writer Christopher Clarey reported that Roger “had sought a detailed explanation from Ted Forstmann, the head of his [then] management company IMG, after a lawsuit charged that Forstmann had increased a bet on the 2007 French Open final after consulting with Federer.” Clarey reported that Forstmann, who has since died, was being sued “by Agate Printing, Inc. for fraud, interference with contract and breach of contract. In the complaint, Jim Agate…contends that he served as a conduit for hundreds of bets totaling millions of dollars that Forstmann placed on sporting events…[Federer] has denied that he was aware that Forstmann was betting on that 2007 match and denied any involvement with gambling, saying, ‘I would never do such a thing.’ Federer said he contacted Forstmann for clarification after learning of the lawsuit.”

The Times reported that Roger said he “reached out and told him I want to know everything about it, how this came about…And he’s been, you know, nice enough obviously to tell me from his side and has been very open in the press already. So that’s O.K. He’s not my agent. Tony [Godsick] is my guy, but still, it’s a firm that does a lot in sports, so it’s just something that for me is important to know what is going on from their side, too.” Asked what he learned from the situation…[Federer] said that it had further underscored the need for vigilance.

“That names get thrown around, that you can’t help sometimes,” Federer said. “That’s just the way it is. So from that side, for me it was crazy news to hear that, but obviously, it’s not a good thing when IMG or Ted Forstmann is involved in it.”

Forstmann admitted to betting on tennis and sports, but denied that he got any information from Federer. The former agency head told the Daily Beast, “I might have called Roger before the match in 2007. But Roger is a buddy of mine, and all I would be doing is wishing him luck.”

The Times noted that the lawsuit against Forstmann claimed that he bet $5,000 on Roger to win the 2006 French Open final (which he lost to Nadal) and two bets totaling $33,000 to win the 2007 French Open final (which he also lost).

Until 2009 there was no specific Grand Slam rule against players providing information to gamblers. Federer is no longer with IMG.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the International Tennis Federation, which only runs a portion of tennis, signed a five-year $70 million deal with the Swiss gambling company Sportradar: a huge sum compared to baseball’s $3.5 million annual deal or the NFL’s $5 million a year. One veteran press room observer quipped, “it’s rare that tennis outstrips football or baseball, but in this case we sure did.”

Andy Murray stated, ‘It’s a little bit hypocritical, really. I don’t believe the players are allowed to be sponsored by betting companies but then the tournaments are…It’s a bit strange.”

Longtime gadfly Michael Mewshaw was perplexed. “So the ITF,” he told IT, “While supposedly investigating gambling by players, has signed a $70 million deal with a bookmaker. The cynic in me wants to see this as Machiavellian wisdom: Hold your friends close, but hold your enemies closer. But I’m afraid the realist in me fears it’s just a farce. Laughable if it weren’t so sad.” 

Tennis’ gambling controversy is curious. There’s no smoking gun. There isn’t a single current player who has been implicated. But there’s a torrent of extraordinary accusations, a problematic history and damning claims from anonymous sources and former operatives. Many claim that plenty has been swept under the carpet. Martina Navratilova tweeted, “We need facts, not suppositions.” But Patrick McEnroe saw it differently: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is a major, major wake-up call for the world of tennis.”

Columnist Patrick Hruby addressed the specter of gambling in tennis. He wrote colorfully in 2013, “I love tennis. I don’t want to believe that it’s a wretched hive of scum, villainy and surreptitiously double-faulting on match point for ill-gotten dollars, the better for some match-rigging Moldavian mafioso to cash in on a hefty online bet. Besides, Serena doesn’t need her opponents to take dives. Roger isn’t hard up for cash. Gael Monfils’ erratic play can be best explained by…being Gael Monfils. If I learned anything in journalism school…it’s that one anonymous source, no matter how highly placed, does not a Watergate make.”

But tennis – an individual international sport with minuscule margins in talent levels – is a perfect target for gamblers. When it comes to worldwide betting activity, it’s said to be right behind horse racing and soccer.

Truth be told, conflicts of interest and other ethical issues have long shadowed the game. Players can choose which of the smaller tournaments will – or will not – effect their ranking. Appearance fees and guarantees have long been woven into the fabric of a sport dependent on a handful well-branded superstars. These payments surely can effect competitive integrity. Everyone’s human. If you get $300,ooo to play an event you may not want to fire up for every match or dive for every drop shot. So who cares (except the fans and promoters) if you suffer a shock upset in an early round, especially if you want to spend some time on a beach with your family.

In fact, many claim that tanking is endemic to the sport. Observers often ask, “Are players giving their full competitive effort?” Sometimes players are just frustrated and essentially say “no mas.” Or they want to catch a plane and to avoid a travel nightmare or just save energy for a big upcoming event. That’s what Bernard Tomic seemed to do just last week in Sydney before the Australian Open. On court the young Aussie was heard saying, “I’m looking [ahead] to Melbourne, I’m not looking to this. I have to make the final [here] to make points. I have to make the final … I have to win to go to 16th [in the rankings].” Tomic then withdrew mid-match. Many claimed he tanked, but Lleyton Hewitt backed him.

In the context of the recent, but incredibly flimsy, accusations that Novak Djokovic tanked a 2007 match, longtime gadfly Michael Mewshaw contended the Serb was “like many of the other players who travel with a large entourage. It’s often quite clear to many other people when a player intends to tank. Thus even if the player himself would say he isn’t tanking for betting purposes, he opens up the possibility of members of his entourage using the knowledge of his tanking, which itself is a code violation, to place bets or to pass along information to off-site bettors.”

These days one can bet on anything from greyhounds to cricket. Tennis gambling is now incredibly sophisticated – you can wager on every little nuance of the game – sane and silly. Top players making millions would be reckless to even entertain any idea of throwing a match or even a single point. For players below the top 100 who don’t make the big money at Grand Slams, it’s an altogether different dynamic. The tour is a pricey Darwinian struggle.

Leo Shlink reported that Thanasi Kokkinakis, who is now No. 86, said he “received offers…on social media. You read some stuff on your Facebook page, just randoms from nowhere saying ‘I’ll pay you this much money to tank the game.’ But you try to…get rid of that stuff.”

The BBC’s controversial report on gambling, which just focused on men’s tennis, indicated that there were 16 prime gamblers on tour. Andy Roddick then tweeted that he got a text “from another former tour pro [which said] ‘We should see how many of the 16 betting guys we can name.’ I think I got at least 8-9.”

In 2011, the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet published the names of 41 players who allegedly were under scrutiny by officials for match-fixing.

Of course, even the weightiest of scandals attracts humor, just ask friends of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. Ernests Gulbis, the son of one of Latvia’s richest men, reportedly lost (on conventional bets) much of his $450,000 earnings after reaching the 2014 French Open semis. After his first-round Aussie Open match, he quipped that gamblers hadn’t approached him because “they probably think I’m too rich.” Nikolay Davydenko, who was at the heart of a 2007 betting scandal, was asked, “if you were a betting man, who would you bet on to win Wimbledon?” Earlier this week, Frenchman Gilles Simon joked, “We’re all tanking versus Djokovic. Novak is nothing [on court]. In reality, we are all fixing.”

Differing views on the gravity of tennis’ gambling issue have long been heard. In 2007 the former ATP CEO, the late Etienne de Villiers, said, “What we see now is not a problem. There isn’t a corruption problem in tennis.” But, former French Federation president Christian Bimes then warned that gambling was “a dreadful disease that is a threat for tennis worldwide. We have to act straight away and be as severe with this as we are with doping.”

Recently, Shamil Tarpischev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, said the gambling dust-up was “just a personal promotion of the BBC, which we shouldn’t react to.”

But longtime watchdog Mewshaw told IT that he “felt like former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who would say, ‘I can explain this to you but I can’t comprehend it for you.’”

Mewshaw contended, “Several points in this scandal are utterly misguided and completely wrong: 

• That the TIU is not a police department and cannot gain access to a player’s phone, computer and Internet files. The rules say that they have access to these records and that a refusal to comply with that request subjects a player to suspension.

• Commentators keep saying that the ATP and ITF couldn’t take action against a player unless it had “100% proof” that a match was fixed. This is absurd. Even in a criminal court 100% proof isn’t demanded, simply guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that can be proved by circumstantial evidence.

• The media claims that the TIU, the BBC and BuzzFeed hasn’t produced the names of the suspect players because it would have to have proof of guilt that would “stand up in a court of law.” This is absurd. Suspects are named by reporters all the time, long before their conviction and before they’ve even been arrested and charged. A suspect is just that — somebody who has raised the suspicions of authorities. That’s why so many papers have mentioned that Djokovic is under suspicion for having tanked a match.  

• It’s important to discuss Djokovic’s alleged tanking [in Paris in 2007 against Fabrice Santoro] in the context of the current scandal. Players and commentators who’ve said they’ve never been aware of any fixed match certainly would admit that they’ve heard about and perhaps participated in tanked matches. According to the Code of Conduct, there’s really no difference between purposely losing a match for personal convenience and losing because of gambling. Both are forbidden and are supposedly subject to suspensions and stiff fines. But the rule against tanking has rarely been invoked, which is what makes it very difficult for authorities to now get serious and actually enforce the rule against tanking for gambling purposes. Tanking often takes place with the knowledge of ATP officials and with the complicity of agents and tournaments.”

As tennis groups aggressively promote betting and gain huge profits from the gambling industry, they shamelessly spin these money-making deals to make them sound like a grand development or an ethical service.

Up is down. Isn’t it wonderful that the fox now lurks about the hen house?

ATP chief Chris Kermode said it is good “the more we work with betting companies, because…it is their interest that there isn’t corruption, right? So they are as strong as we are that we are getting rid of corruption.”

Andrew Walker, the ITF’s executive director for commercial enterprises, told the Wall Street Journal that the ITF’s $70 million gambling deal helps the ITF ensure “that where sports betting on tennis is legal, there’s an opportunity for…betting entities to receive data that is the fastest, most accurate and most reliable.”

The big William Hill gambling company works closely with the Australian Open. Their alliance drew criticism from the State of Victoria and other Grand Slams. Still, William Hill contended, “Close partnerships between… betting operators…and sporting bodies are part of the solution to integrity issues, not part of the problem. We have comprehensive information-sharing agreements.”

But few would agree that tennis getting so cozy with gambling houses is great for a sport where integrity is everything, or that it sends the right message to players and millions of fans. So a dark shadow hovers.

No wonder Chrissie Evert and so many others are feeling sad about a sport that is so loved by so many.


Australian Open: The True Grit of Lleyton Hewitt

2016 Australian Open - Day 4 : News Photo

AN ODE TO AN AUSSIE

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE–There was a hush in a Melbourne arena tonight, a stillness that was as quiet as Lleyton Hewitt’s career was loud.

Rusty, the gritty Australian treasure, had shouted his last c’mon. He’d scrambled to flick his last crosscourt winner off a drop shot. He had blasted his final two-handed backhand. He was fierce to the end – no surprise. Our game’s greatest fighter since Jimmy Connors left it all out on the court. He couldn’t do it any other way.

This fellow gained fame and considerable fortune the old way. Scratching out every victory. Every point was a war, every foe an enemy. His will was a force – unrelenting. He never blinked.

These days, some on the tour seem entitled, but not this man. Some power-meisters get free points off of blurry serves or forehands that pin. With Lleyton little was free. He taught a generation how to win from the baseline. He shaped the mold and then fellows like Federer and Nadal and Djokovic and Murray took it to new heights – today’s tennis.

Hewitt was not pretty. His wins were hard-earned, his ethos hardscrabble. You saw his will in his chiseled face, his ferocity evident. Few wanted to mess with this feisty fighter – the battling bloke.

He won his two Grand Slams in distant cities, London and New York. But he was an Aussie’s Aussie. No one in this international game was more patriotic. This year he literally wore his country’s flag on his chest.

Few who saw him as an in-your-face wannabe would be surprised that he’s had a 20-year career with 616 match wins. But there were contradictions. He loved his land. Was a Davis Cup hero and now a Davis Cup Captain. But he never reeled in his island’s biggest fish – the Aussie Open title.

Once he was a raw, unrefined man-child: hair long, backwards hat, nasty lob. He sued institutions, frustrated foes and infuriated fans.

He was easy to hate.

Now he’s beloved.

Grit, time and a world-class backhand will do that. And, go figure, now he’s a caring patriarch. His three darling kids walked out on court after his final match and into his arms.

Some of Hewitt’s battle scars are clear, others are hidden. He walks with a waddle, his feet are a mess. But these are merely badges of honor. The man fought the fight like few others.

Now, having just fallen 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 to another battler, David Ferrer, Hewitt said his final farewell. We thought of Chrissie Evert waving a last wave or Agassi inspiring us with poignant words.

Tonight Rusty came from the heart. He thanked his sport, his nation, his fans and his family.

And tennis thanked him.

Others had bigger games.

No one had more grit – true grit.


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