By Bill Simons
He’s not Babe Ruth – the fabled pioneer at the heart of baseball.
He’s not Muhammad Ali, the charismatic trailblazer whose bravado and blows shook the world.
He’s not MJ – Michael Jordan – the no-bull Chicago Bull whose surefire swagger and in-your-face dunks changed the culture of sport.
He’s Roger Federer. Man, brand, champion, icon and artist. The genius who combines on-court power and off-court ease, whose grace, longevity and ability to reinvent himself draw adoration from Manhattan to Madagascar.
What we love about this man is not only that conventional wisdom tells us he is the best player to ever pick up a racket. It’s not only that he backs schools in Africa or that he embraces his fame with a metro-hip confidence. It’s not only that he still unleashes a youthful power, yet has been playing for decades. It’s not just that he continually rocks his world while adapting to the changing tennis universe about him. After all, with ol’ Rog there’s always (literally and figuratively) a fresh wrinkle – a new racket, a new coach, a reinvigorated back, a new set of twins or some strategic ideas – including his much-ballyhooed SABR tactic.
But ultimately, what we really love about Roger is his beauty. Okay, he flicks his gorgeous brown hair, and seems to tell us, “I’m Roger, isn’t that just grand?” He informs us he “never wakes up angry.” And then asks, “Why would I?” He can be a tad dismissive or even imperious – who wouldn’t be?
After all, Roger is Roger. Unlike the NFL’s Tom Brady, he’s avoided even a whiff of controversy, all the while being the man who cannot avoid beauty. His dagger-in-the-wind backhand is a kinetic wonder, whether powered with topspin or cut with a not-so-nice slice, down the line or crosscourt. This is tennis as art. But this artistic triumph is not hidden in the corner of some dusty museum or in an obscure gallery. This is “ballet-ball” on Centre Court or amidst the explosive roar of Arthur Ashe Stadium – a very public canvas.
Roger’s winners laugh at risk. The man has a mythic power. His forehand is lethal, his serve a Jedi wand. He loves to attack. He punishes with a wink – just ask the three (or is it four) generations of players he’s bruised: Sampras, Hewitt, Safin, Roddick, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
Roger is light, feather-free. His movement teases gravity. His balance never teeters. The man floats – a graceful master like no other.
His matches, of course, are very real. But there is a dreamlike quality that hovers – a Federerian spell of stylish strokes and energetic ease. Roger sweats – it just doesn’t seem that way.
Tiger, Gretzky, Kobe and Manning are all legends. But what other performer so combines art and athleticism? What other sportsman draws comparisons to Picasso, Baryshnikov and da Vinci? He tells us, “Once you find that peace, that place of peace and quiet, harmony and…confidence, that’s when you start playing your best.”
Yet even Roger is mortal. The end will come. So for now, enjoy, relish. Thank goodness, this genius is still at work.
By Bill Simons
“If you don’t accept the idea to die,” Serena’s brainy French coach Patrick Mouratoglou told IT, “You cannot live. If you’re afraid you cannot live. If you’re afraid of losing, you’re playing with fear, and fear is the worst adviser.”
On a fateful September day Serena played with fear. She was fighting history, and history won.
“Serena,” admitted Mouratoglou, “lost her way, mentally. Tactically, she didn’t know what to do.”
Still, despite her loss in the US Open semis to Roberta Vinci, despite all the pressure and injuries, despite the fact that her quest to win the Grand Slam fell agonizingly short, Serena had a mind-boggling year.
Once more she crushed her prime rival, Maria Sharapova, at the Aussie Open. She won five three-set matches en route to winning the French, and survived a memorable scare against Brit Heather Watson en route to winning Wimbledon.
She won three Slams, had a 53-3 record and was a dominant No. 1. It seemed like no foe, even No. 2 Simona Halep, was even in her rear-view mirror. When the New York Times created a stir by supposedly questioning her body type, supporters rallied decrying even the slightest hint of body shaming.”We are not ashamed of Serena,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, “we are thrilled that she embraces the enormity of her body, talent and influence.”
Serena’s influence was clearly seen when she decided to end her 14-year boycott of Indian Wells. Many had asserted there was no racial intent in 2001 when fans booed her for over two hours. But USTA President Katrina Adams asserted that the incident “was unethical” and BNP Paribas CEO Ray Moore said “the situation…was [an example of] ugly human traits.”
Writer Chris Bowers suggested Serena’s eventual return to Indian Wells “could be a massive moment in the evolution of human dignity.” WTA chief Stacey Allaster told Williams, “This is your Martin Luther King moment.”
Serena herself said that her return “was really good timing, not just for me but for Americans to step up and say, ‘We as a people…can do better.’”
Inside Tennis recalled the memorable March evening when the prodigal daughter returned. “It was a moment many thought would never come,” we wrote. “Just after 7 p.m., Serena’s mother and sister nervously took their seats. The desert heat lost its debilitating grip. The golden light in the Santa Rosa mountains dulled. Bells chimed, emotions soared. A sign lifted by a beaming eight-year-old captured the moment. ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ it proudly proclaimed.
And then, out of the tunnel, Serena emerged. The crowd rose and offered a wall of delirious sound.
The 33-year-old wept. ‘It was an amazing moment,’ she recalled.
The healing moment we long hoped for was here. As Serena said, ‘together we have a chance to write a different ending.’ And we did. The score was settled. The memory muted, the ending good. The drama was over.”
Michael Eric Dyson said of Serena’s return, “Without such [moments of] forgiveness, America may well have flowed in the blood of recrimination. Instead, black folk have consistently proved to be moral pillars of American conscience…Black athletes in particular have carried the water of grievance for black life…and have represented the heartbeat of black resistance to racism.”
But it’s even more. Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price suggested “each ‘Come On!’ shout by Williams is taken as a war cry by everyone from ‘Lean In’ women to age-defying codgers, to body-shamed kids to #BlackLivesMatter protesters, to yes, the voices of racial conciliation…We are an angry country now, disdainful of consensus, with hard divides between right and left, black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native, millennial and boomer. But the promise of opportunity remains, and who embodies it better than the poor black girl who rose from the streets of Compton, CA, to high tea at Wimbledon – accompanied by s sibling nearly her athletic equal.”
By Bill Simons
Rafa Nadal’s 2015 was said to be Shakespearian. Tweeter Marine Coroller played her Romeo card, asking, “O Rafa, Rafa! Wherefore art thou Rafa?”
S.L. Price suggested, “Rafa is Hamlet. He has more questions. His implacable force has gone missing, maybe forever…For the first time, it’s possible to imagine him never winning another major.”
Rafa’s forehand no longer punishes without mercy. His confidence no longer soars with little doubt. Goodness, the claymeister was not even the best clay court player in 2015, and he didn’t win the French Open for the first time in six years. Ranked No. 5, for now he’s out of the Big Four mix. There were seemingly inexplicable high-profile losses to Dustin Brown and Fabio Fognini, and questions about the future of his coach, his beloved uncle Toni. We heard Rafa waver, telling us, “I am feeling more tired…feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence…when I hit the ball…I need to fix again the nerves, the self-control…In the past I have been able to change a lot of negative situations …I want to do it again…I hope I can…[But] I don’t know if I can win another Grand Slam.”
We don’t either. But don’t count out this great champion. First Rafa will have to do well at the Aussie Open, where he often struggles.
LEGENDARY AMPLIFIER AND TOWN CRIER BILL DWYRE ISSUES A CEASE FIRE
By Bill Simons
He was as gruff as Graf was grand.
His origins were in the northern plains – a Wisconsin man – but for decades he was the authoritative voice of sports in glitzy Hollywood-land.
Bill Dwyre – the longtime L.A. Times sports writer and editor who recently retired from day-to-day writing – wasn’t a fan of corporate budget cuts, Twitter or shout-as-loud-as you-can cable news. He was the very definition of old school. It always seemed as if he had ink under his fingernails.
I relished my two weeks of sitting next to him in the Wimbledon press room. Here was a torrent of banter: gonzo gossip, punishing puns, whiplash connections – from San Diego’s Ted Williams to LA’s Serena Williams. It was two weeks of jolly repartee.
Dwyre played golf with the mighty in our sport – like Pete Sampras and Charlie Pasarell – but he wrote with an unpretentious salt-of-the-earth sensibility. The man had gobs of gravitas. He engendered trust. Player development super-coach Jose Higueras opened up to him, admitting American tennis was not in good shape. “I’m losing a lot of sleep. We are lacking competitiveness in our players,” said Higueras. “They’ve got good backhands…but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played…The culture of our players needs to improve…If our players were European…being No. 80…wouldn’t be enough. When a high percentage of the coaches want it more than the players, we have a problem.”
Dwyre had few problems covering all aspects of sports: horsemen (like jockey Gary Stevens), Hunters (like retiring baseball player Torii Hunter), heroes and hunks.
He would sit patiently in the back of the interview room and elicit great nuggets from some 18-year-old Slovakian teen new on the tour. When the beloved American veteran Andre Agassi retired in 2006, Dwyre noted, “The response, from a group [of reporters] that is paid to be adversarial, probing, sarcastic, disbelieving, jaded, confrontational and objective…was a standing ovation and many moist eyes.”
But when Serena Williams was testy after a bad U.S. Open loss, Dwyre pulled no punches: “She met with the media like a rattlesnake meets a ground squirrel. Her answers were more like hisses.”
Dwyre could hiss, too. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a riot nearly broke out when a Agassi doubles match was abruptly moved out of the stadium court at Stone Mountain. Dwyre noted, “The question that quickly popped to mind: Had any of those people ever seen Agassi play doubles? Do they know it is not a pretty sight, not worth rioting over?” Eventually riot police were called, and Agassi was put back in the stadium. Dwyre wryly concluded, “The hooligans, in designer Filas and Rolex watches, got their way.”
Not exactly a fan of rampant nationalism, whether here or abroad, he noted during the 2012 Olympics: “We got so much nationalism shoved down our throats by NBC that occasionally rooting for somebody from Ethiopia to hit a winning backhand felt kind of nice.” At Wimbledon this year, he contended the emotional Brits “are so provincial in their slobbering adoration of their sports stars that it sometimes defies description.”
Dwyre could criticize the game, too. He felt that “there are only so many big, looping swings from the baseline that the average tennis fan can watch before brains turn to mush.”
But under his crusty surface, deadline Dwyre was a lover. A lover of words, a lover of journalism and a lover of games. After the late-night Agassi vs. Blake 2005 U.S. Open classic, Dwyre wrote, “It will be 120 years before we see another match like that.”
Well, it could be another 120 years before we see an observer and storyteller quite like my friend, the singular town crier Bill Dwyre.
By Bill Simons
Every year we go to Paris.
Every year we’re inspired.
Time and again we find ourselves musing on its mystery.
Paris is poetry.
Now, again, the great capital has been struck a brutal blow. Chaos and horror.
Still, amidst the insanity, the Seine flows quiet, free of blood.
While ruinous rubble clutters, memories remain.
The magic of this place defies the evil explosions of twisted intent. Our joys, our delights, refuse to be denied.
Here is our 2004 appreciation of this haven for lovers, this town of wonder – this place they call Paris.
TALES OF TATTERED DREAMS
The city knows – ancient and true.
Time tested, weather wise.
Totter, centuries old.
Silent walls inform.
Endless apartments, laced with iron,
Stand sturdy, guarded by flittering curtains,
Bleached tired by too many days of thankless duty.
This town celebrates its night.
Midnight lovers whisper their secrets of glee.
Still Paris embraces the morning
The sun kisses one,
Then a thousand alleys.
Bumpy backstreets carved crooked
Lanes relentlessly twisting upon themselves.
Here the backpacker
Fresh from distant adventures
Strides past a homeless heap.
Beneath the untouchable’s blanket
Another saga of loss.
But, too, there is triumph…
Paris’ heady boulevards revel in their giddy swirl
As pinstriped CEOs craft their MBA deals
Galleries define style.
The Champs-Élysées splashes color, breezy bright.
Runways and riches shamelessly tease our desire,
Demanding their day.
The Armani man stands elegant,
His chatty lady scented sweet.
Such glowing trophies, a flawless brood
Free of taint or stain.
Still, the river runs murky green,
A thousand wine-stained cafes
Welcome the weathered poet,
Solemn sage – martyr or madman –
Pilgrim of the spirit.
Saddened soul – empty, near defeat –
Bravely stiffens to endure.
So, tell me your tale of tattered dreams,
Unmask your sadness – wander free –
Fear’s but a rowdy intruder.
Reveal your fate
Your solitary secret – those numbing losses
Tempered by time’s touch.
Always the pain – still, memories enrich
While Paris’ mystery remains –
Glittering bride, weary mistress
Every temptress flaunts her allure
With singsong words that dance, then scold –
The muse’s message.
For this city, ancient and true, knows.
Quiet journeys going nowhere
Only our fragile dreams can imagine.
Photo: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The petite Belgian Justine Henin was nominated today along with Marat Safin and Helena Sukova for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Here’s our appreciation of the stylish and fierce competitor, which we wrote when she retired in June 2008.
By Bill Simons
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion.
Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.
Impossible is potential.
Impossible is temporary.
It was a stunning victory in ‘04. Little Justine Henin-Hardenne brought down mighty Lindsay Davenport in the Pacific Life Open final, all of which prompted me to ask her about her famous grit.
“Does it help that you have such a fighting spirit?” I wondered.
“Oh, it does,” Justine responded. “I’m a better fighter than in the past. I know that for me impossible is nothing.”
Little did we know that this seemingly modest “impossible is nothing” comment would soon resonate around the world. In fact, adidas called on super athletes Ali, Beckham, Ronaldo and Tim Duncan and juxtaposed them with their slightly defiant slogan to launch a worldwide campaign. On TV or the net, in Paris subways, on huge Asian billboards, with soccer icons or the gods of track and field, “Impossible Is Nothing” became the company’s answer to Nike’s “Just Do It” mantra.
Appropriately enough, few athletes embodied the “Impossible Is Nothing” ethos more than Henin. Tennis famously showcases performers with an extraordinary mix of guts and (“I will not be denied”) ferocity. One thinks of Connors, McEnroe, Billie Jean, Seles and Steffi. But right there with the spunkiest of them is the Little Lady of Leige, whose career was nothing if not a splendid, far too brief, passion play.
Tightly wound, perpetually elusive, glitz-free and more than driven, time and again the severe dynamo, armed with her bilingual, “Allez – C’mon” call to action, bounced back from heart-wrenching personal loss, testy on-court episodes and inexplicable maladies to bring the giants of the game to their knees. Serena, Sharapova, Lindsay, Venus and Capriati might bristle, but truth be told, the sling-shotting Justine brought fear to the eyes of the Goliaths of this game.
Now, once again, the Belgian has shaken tennis. On the eve of the French Open, where she hasn’t lost since ‘04, Henin announced that, at the age of 25, she would become the first player to ever retire at No. 1.
In a relentlessly stressful sport, where bombshell retirements are the norm, we were handed the most stunning I’m-out-of-Dodge pink slip since Borg exited in ‘82 at age 26. Now women’s tennis – which of late has lost Seles, Capriati, Clijsters and Hingis – will be without the 5-foot-5, 126-pound mighty-might who was certainly one of the best pound-for-pound players in history.
A dazzling dynamo, Henin brought to court the most beautiful signature shot in women’s tennis — an explosive (“where does she get such coil?”) one-handed twist-’n-blast backhand, which she could roll over, slice low or hit flat with a gun-slinging confidence that rarely wavered – even at crunch time.
A fitness fanatic, who loved marathon matches and chess-master tactical battles, Henin was maddeningly consistent and a bold basher who could out-scramble, out-slide and out-think all the bigger girls on the playground.
Beyond this, it was her ferocious drive that fueled her to seven Grand Slams wins, a 117-week reign as No. 1, and almost 20 million dollars in prize money. But now her seemingly deep well appears empty. All those years of battle took their toll.
From the beginning, more than any tennis champ that comes to mind, emotion was her drug. As a 10-year-old tomboy, her mother took her on a soak-it-all-in pilgrimage to Roland Garros, where the wide-eyed kid famously proclaimed, “One day I will play here, and I will win.”
Then, just two years later, her beloved mom died of cancer. Soon there was a painful estrangement from her dad and siblings, who, according to JH, “refused to understand my ambitions and determination to become a top player. They did not understand the time and dedication it takes and they hurt me very much.”
Henin quickly bonded with Carlos Rodriguez, who would become her details-matter coach and refuge; her surrogate father and wise life-guide. In an “ova’s rule” era of Big Babe Tennis, the Argentine crafted Justine into a hard-hitting, against-the-grain winner who combined quick-step footwork, astounding versatility on all surfaces and an uncanny ability to transition from defense to offense. He not only got Justine to ratchet up her serves, jump into her returns and charge the net, but through countless trials and trauma he was her emotional rock. For 12 years, he was by her side for her sweetest moments, like when she won her beloved Roland Garros for the first time in ‘03 and confided, “My mom gave me all the energy I needed to win this match. When I woke up this morning, I said, ‘You have to win. You have to do it for your mom.’”
So, too, when Henin was tossed asunder by pounding storm waves, Carlos calmed the waters. When she was sidelined for almost all of ‘04 with a career-threatening virus, he was by her side. When she battled fellow Belgians who Justine said were mere “co-workers, but it stops there,” he was her loyal backer. At the ‘03 French Open, she was ridiculed for an outbreak of nasty, win-at-all-costs gamesmanship against Serena, which prompted S.L. Price to write that Justine “went from being tennis’ Heartbreak Kid to Machiavelli in a skirt.” No big deal, Rodriquez remained as true as Tonto. And then there was his steed’s most infamous moment. Deep into the ‘06 Aussie Open final, Henin was being thumped by Amelie Mauresmo when she claimed injury and forfeited the match, thereby denying the Frenchwoman the sweetness and glory of an unfiltered victory. It all seemed like a graceless, “no mas” implosion and prompted Pam Shriver to note that Justine “has been one of the great warriors. [But] my respect level [for her] has disintegrated…Henin’s reputation is tarnished forever.”
Despite a no-frills, often cautionary mindset that held all her hurts deep within, the tough cookie was embraced in her native Belgium. When she reached the Wimbledon finals, Belgium’s prime minister, prince, princess, deputy prime minister and ambassador all went to England, a development that prompted Stan Hey to conclude, “It would be a good day for invading this small country, if you had that in mind.”
Of course, Henin did precious little to brand herself as a cuddly star. There were no appearances on Leno, no TV ads with little puppies or Jelena Jankovic-like, giddy quips. She was always straight forward and brutally honest. After playing Hingis one day, she bluntly said, “I had a little bit of trouble on the return. It’s never easy for me to return against a player who’s serving pretty slowly.”
It’s sad to say, but here in America, the bright Belgian was less than a household name. So it was hardly surprising that when she won the U.S. Open, the big-cheese exec who forked over her $1 million check called her “Christine.” Plus, Justine always bristled at the notion that she might be envious of sizzle-queen Anna Kournikova.
“Kournikova is unapproachable,” she contended. “What should I be envious of? Her body? Her income? Her boyfriends? No thanks. I won’t exchange anything with her. I feel good the way I am. I don’t need a boyfriend every week. I’m serious and try to keep certain principles, to be generous and loyal and loved. I don’t drink and I hate discos.”
She hated losing, too. And last year she rarely descended from the summit. After navigating a painful divorce, she bypassed the ‘07 Aussie Open, then again won Roland Garros. True, she suffered a tough loss in the Wimbledon semis to the unheralded Marion Bartoli, but then she was unstoppable as she won Toronto, the U.S. Open, Stuttgart, Zurich and the year-end WTA Championship. En route, Henin reconciled with her siblings, but not her father, and said she had put her troubles behind her.
Tennis famously showcases performers with an extraordinary mix of guts and (“I will not be denied”) ferocity…[and] right there with the spunkiest of them is the Little Lady of Leige whose career was nothing if not a splendid, far too brief passion play.
Tightly wound, perpetually elusive, glitz-free and more than driven, time and again the severe dynamo, armed with her bilingual, “Allez – C’mon” call to action, bounced back from heart-wrenching persnal loss, testy on-court episodes and inexplicable maladies.
“People will think I’m still young, but in life there are no rules. I’ve invested enormously in my sport. Since I was five, I’ve only lived for that. I’m without aany regrets because it’s brought me emotions, images that are engraved on my heart.” At last, she was looking to a bright future and spoke of feeling joy, not just pride. After all, Rodriguez had challenged her: “Come on, let’s show what you are to people. Don’t put a wall in front of you. Now she’s here.”
But that’s not all. Rodriguez had one other little matter in mind — history. “I told her, ‘You have a chance to be the champion of champions, the player who wins 10 to 13 Slams’…But it’s up to her.”
But ‘07 proved to be too daunting an act to follow. There was no oxygen left. “It’s been tough for me since the beginning of the season, but I understand why,” she conceded. “What I did last year was pretty amazing…I knew it was going to take some time to realize and accept everything that happened.”
And, ultimately, Henin couldn’t sustain the hottest streak in women’s tennis in nearly 20 years. This season she was embarrassed by Sharapova in the Aussie Open quarters, lost to journeyman Francesca Schiavone in Dubai, was crushed in Miami by Serena 6-2, 6-0 and lost to Dinari Safina in Berlin.
Some might claim a bum right knee was to blame. But Justine was candid about her lack of confidence and said she played “without courage.” “I’m human and I’m hurt and sometimes humans fail…I’ve been driving my career based on emotion. But I don’t feel that emotion anymore since [last year’s season-ending championships in] Madrid.”
Unsparing critics might suggest that in an odd, perhaps unfair way, Justine’s sudden departure from the game was suggestive of when she suddenly pulled up stakes against Mauresmo. Certainly, fans would have preferred if Henin, who won 41 singles titles and the Olympic gold, had simply taken a break to re-charge.
Instead, Henin was unwavering. Poignant and trying to hold on to her emotions, she told the media, “This is the end of a child’s dream… I am leaving the world No. 1… It is always better to go out at the top. I leave without any regrets.”
True, Henin is exiting the game as one of the best ever to never win Wimbledon. But so what, she insisted: “Winning Wimbledon would not have made me any happier. I didn’t feel I was capable of winning there. I stopped before Roland Garros [which she could have taken for the fourth straight time] because I asked myself if I could produce a better result than last year and I realized I couldn’t…I started thinking about it late last year…People will think I’m still young, but in life there are no rules. I’ve invested enormously in my sport. Since I was five, I’ve only lived for that. I’m without any regrets because it’s brought me emotions, images that are engraved on my heart…So, there is a page that turns today…[and it is] more like a release…a look toward the future…I have arrived at the end of the road, I lived everything, gave everything, and I have my head held high.”
But Henin’s certainty didn’t stop the instant speculation of whether – like Borg, Billie Jean, Becker, Davenport and others – she would eventually “un-retire.” So the speculation has already begun: is it possible that “The Little Justine That Could” will return to the game?
All we can say is “Impossible Is Nothing.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH NEW WTA CEO STEVE SIMON
By Bill Simons
Just after being named to succeed Stacey Allaster as the WTA Tour’s CEO, industry veteran Steve Simon spoke with IT Publisher Bill Simons. The humble and widely-respected Simon – who was a teaching pro, shop owner, shoe promoter and then the BNP Paribas Open’s tournament director – talked about his vision for the WTA, Venus Williams’s boycott, equal prize money, globalization and the many injuries on the tour, and admitted he didn’t speak Italian.
INSIDE TENNIS: When do you start as CEO?
STEVE SIMON: As of about ten minutes ago. [Laughs.] I have a little bit to get caught up on.
IT: Will you move to Florida?
SS: I’ll relocate to St. Pete [St. Petersburg, FL].
IT: So, in light of the US Open final, how’s your Italian?
SS: [Laughs.] I’m going to have to learn my Italian, that’s for sure. I struggle with English. [Laughs.] But I’ll brush up on my Italian in order to be able to speak to the girls.
IT: Talk about taking over as the WTA chief.
SS: I’m humbled and excited. I’m drawn to the challenge associated with the pursuit of excellence and innovation and experience, and I want to bring all that to the WTA and build upon the success that’s already in place.
IT: The US Open women’s final sold out ahead of the men’s for the first time. We saw a woman [Eva Asderaki] in the chair at the US Open men’s final. What’s the key thing that women’s tennis brings?
SS: It brings, as you said, entertainment. Women’s pro tennis is interesting. It’s one of the few women’s pro sports that translates to all demographics and audiences. The US Open results reflect that. It was compelling tennis for two weeks and ended up with a final that people really embraced. It was fun, it was entertaining, the people saw the personalities of the young ladies. Fans truly enjoyed and found it refreshing.
IT: Obviously, Serena is not going to play the rest of the season. In terms of charismatic players, Li Na has retired, Maria Sharapova hasn’t played a full match since Wimbledon, and now young Genie Bouchard is having serious concussion troubles. Do you think there’s an issue now with the most charismatic players retiring or going through tough times or injuries?
SS: Clearly, Serena would love to be in Singapore. Was it her desire? I haven’t spoken to her yet, but I’m sure it wasn’t her desire to not be playing the rest of this year. It’s obviously a long year and she’s getting back her health and we’ll certainly miss her in Singapore. But Singapore is going to be a very exciting championships. We’ll have the chance to crown a new world champion this year. It’s going to be a great show and we’re excited.
IT: The ATP chief Chris Kermode was pretty strong in his criticism of [Andy] Murray possibly missing the ATP Championships in London, but [WTA President] Micky Lawler said that Serena’s health is the first priority. Different takes in different situations. Do you agree with Lawler that Serena should just take care of her health, or are you going to somehow encourage her to try and play Singapore?
SS: No, Serena has to do what Serena feels is in her best interests, if she needs the time off, which is what she’s indicated, to get healthy. We want a healthy Serena for 2016. Like I said, we’re certainly going to miss her in Singapore. We wish she was going to be there. But if she’s not right and not healthy, you can’t go on court unless you’re right and ready to go.
IT: What do you say to people who claim there should not be prize equality when the women play best of three sets [at the Slams] and the men give entertainment over five sets?
SS: Look, the equality issue is beyond reproach. We live in a world where equality should be respected to the utmost. There’s no difference here. The differences with respect to three- and five-set matches is not the major issue. It is all about things being equal and putting the product on the court, and the girls have done a good job living up to that.
IT: There’s been so much globalization in tennis, The BNP Paribas Open almost went offshore. In the past twenty months we’ve seen American Todd Martin become the head of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, former USTA president Dave Haggerty become the ITF head, and now you’re going to head the WTA. All these Americans. What does that say in this environment? What does it say about America and its place in tennis?
SS: America has always had a strong place in the game. The game though is an international game and business, one of the most international sports that’s out there. What it reflects is that obviously Americans are strong in tennis. But these positions are being filled, not so much based upon where somebody has resided or on the basis of their geography or nationality. It’s done based on their experience and the contributions that can be brought to the respective organizations.
IT: With former WTA chiefs Larry Scott and Stacey [Allaster] there was a real focus on the Asia-Pacific market. Will you be rethinking that?
SS: It’s premature to get too far into that yet. Obviously it has been a growing part of the business. Just about every organization has seen the Asia-Pacific region as a huge opportunity for growth. We certainly have seen some of that through tennis, which has been terrific. We will be looking at our overall business and how Asia-Pacific continues to fit into that and how we maximize the opportunity without over-saturating it as well. Those are all things to be looked at.
IT: You’ve been around back to the days of Billie Jean King, and you’ve seen generation after generation emerge. Do you think the game does a good job at bringing new talents, and new story lines? Does it reinvent itself?
SS: Absolutely. The game does, sport does. You see it everywhere. There’s always going to be the new stories and personalities that are going to come and be a part of all of this, and the history. Tennis has gone through many evolutions, and it’s going to go through another one here before long, on both the WTA and ATP sides. There’ll be another set of great champions.
Everything is cyclical, and there’re new generations that’ll be coming through. It will be exciting.
IT: Has there been any other player-athlete who has had more impact on a single sport than Billie Jean King in her early creation of the WTA, and her pushing and promoting it?
SS: It’s a very special story. The WTA and women’s pro tennis was built based upon Billie Jean’s leadership as well as the Original 9 that all stepped up with her to bring pro tennis to the women’s game. That should always be celebrated and respected. That heritage and her contribution to the game is beyond reproach.
IT: In a similar vein, we’ve seen these two girls emerge out of the same house in Compton, CA to revolutionize tennis. What’s been the impact of Venus and Serena and has there ever been a sports story like theirs?
SS: Their impact on the game has been amazing. They brought another level of athleticism to the game. That athleticism, it’s helped transform tennis and is part of the game we see today. They’ve played huge roles. You have one player, in Venus, who’s been an unbelievable champion and just celebrated her 400th win on the tour, which is an amazing feat in itself, and you have her sister, Serena, who is in the discussion as to possibly be one of the greatest players who ever played. You have that factor. Their impact on the game has just been tremendous and extremely positive.
IT: Your predecessor Stacey [Allaster] said that Serena coming back to the BNP Paribas Open was her Martin Luther King moment. Does that resonate? Do you think that was a special moment in recent WTA history?
SS: It was a great moment. It was great to have Serena back playing at one of the, if not the, premiere events on the WTA Tour. You want your best players at your best events. It was great to welcome her back and it was very positive for all involved.
IT: Will you encourage Venus to end her boycott and go back to the BNP Paribas next year?
SS: Yes, I hope she does consider coming back to Indian Wells. She would be embraced just like Serena was this past year. Hopefully she will give that some consideration and be back before she finishes her career.
IT: Was Adidas your start? Did you work with J. Wayne Richmond, [Charlie] Hoeveler, David Brewer and Bill Closs?
SS: I was recruited to Adidas by J. Wayne Richmond and worked at the Clossco for Bill Closs and company. J. Wayne Richmond was the one who hired me to work at the company.
IT: Did you sell Stan Smith shoes?
SS: [Laughs] I didn’t sell them, I gave them away. I was on the promo side.
IT: It’s no secret that you were interested in the position of ATP chief when that opened up. Did going through that in some way help you in talking with the WTA?
SS: They were different situations. I was part of that ATP process and it was certainly a positive experience. But you learn from every experience, and you channel it away, and it helps you in the future when something similar comes on up. There’s nothing like experience.
IT: Did you speak with Larry Ellison or Billie Jean King or Stacey Allaster or any other prominent people in the industry as this selection process went on?
SS: You always speak to the people that you trust, and talk about the things that are forthcoming and help you make a good decision. I’ll keep those under my hat, but yeah, you always definitely talk to people.
IT: The BNP Paribas [Open] is such an incredible, dazzling event. What’s the one thing in your years of experience there that will help you most?
SS: Clearly, the basis for presenting a product, and presenting a premium product. The continued pursuit of excellence and innovation that provides for the best experience people can have consuming your product. That foundation is fundamental to what we do in pro tennis. You’ll start to see that as I get involved and get to work.
INSIDE TENNIS TALKS WITH THE NEWLY ELECTED ITF PRESIDENT DAVE HAGGERTY – THE MAN WHO LEADS TENNIS ORGANIZATIONS
By Bill Simons
Dare we note that the first President of the International Tennis Federation actually went down in the Titanic and, to sustain the theme, critics complained that of late the group has moved with a certain glacial speed. Now, with the election of New Jersey’s Dave Haggerty, there are hopes for change. For starters, in today’s culture, it’s stunning that an American would even be selected to head an international sports group. But, Haggerty has a great serve and an even better resume. He was a nationally ranked junior; the Captain of his George Washington University tennis team; the top exec at Dunlop, Prince and Head; the President of the Tennis Industry Association and the President of the USTA. There he said his goal was “making the 800-pound gorilla into a 400-pound gorilla.” He went on to initiate the USTA’s groundbreaking move to Lake Nona, Florida.
Here is our conversation with the man who has led more tennis organizations than anyone who comes to mind.
INSIDE TENNIS: The Davis Cup is the big issue. It’s front and center. A whirlwind of criticism has gone on for a long time in terms of its format. Are you going to address this and try to get some kind of Final Four format set up? Another suggestion is to have it every other year.
DAVE HAGGERTY: I’ve worked to look at a number of different options, including a neutral site final. A Final Four concept is one I find quite interesting and possibly the best solution. Also I’ve looked at having events every other year with eight to sixteen teams – very large events. But the fact is that the bylaw rules and the ITF constitution would have to be changed at the annual general meeting and there would have to be a vote. My sense is that it’s not going to be too great a departure from where we are in order for it to be acceptable. That’s certainly one of the areas that I’m focused on. Really, the most important thing is to develop the game, and to do that we need to do to get more funds so we can work with the nations so that they can grow tennis and do the good work they do even better.
IT: The ITF supposedly makes $25 million off of the Davis Cup, but if it were marketed it’s said the ITF could make much more – at least four times more than that.
DH: The whole idea is to increase the revenue of the Davis Cup and Fed Cups, to make them more interesting so we have the funds to then grow tennis. The ideas we’ve talked about could have significant positive revenue implications. So I’m set to do my homework and work with the board and the nations to come up with the format, and work with the ATP and the WTA and various partners in the industry to collaborate and get support behind this great new format, whatever it ends up being.
IT: You did say the Final Four format was probably the most appealing format.
DH: What I like about it is that you can play it over a one-week period, where you can play the semifinals the first three days, have a day of rest and then come back and play the finals. It’s something that the players will understand, and something fans would enjoy watching. You go to a mutual site where you’re able to promote it in advance by a good number of months, where you’d have a host city that wants to have a Final Four. From a broadcast perspective, it would be easier to display it and get great awareness around the world because people will be able to watch it over a limited period of time. It’s the best team competition in the world, so I just see a lot of positives, a lot of reasons why people could gravitate to this concept.
IT: We have a situation this year where Andy Murray is the only one of the truly top players to be playing Davis Cup. Belgium did a great job to get to the finals, but they got there without having to face any top players. Switzerland didn’t have either Federer and Wawrinka. Canada was without Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, and Argentina didn’t have Juan Monaco. Do you think this Final Four format will address the issue of having the top names in the game actually play?
DH: It certainly would be a concept they could look at, because by having a Final Four event, you essentially eliminate the week that just took place. From a calendar perspective, the players’ schedules are so full. If there are ways to make it more manageable so that they see what their investment of time would be, they would be very open to considering other possibilities.
IT: You’ve been involved with the ITF and tennis for so long. Is there one favorite moment in your travels that you found particularly poignant, whether it was on a back court in Chile or at a Davis Cup or Fed Cup tie?
DH: Last year’s Davis Cup tie between France and Switzerland. It was such a great moment of celebration, seeing some great players play in a completely filled football stadium with a roof. It was a great atmosphere.
IT: The late USTA president Bob Cookson said that his favorite tennis moment was the conga line that Yannick Noah led when the French upset the US in Davis Cup. What does it say that Yannick Noah at 55 is coming back to be Davis Cup captain for France?
DH: Yannick has always been around tennis. In many ways he’s certainly a great figurehead. Tennis has meant a lot to him in his life. He’s been quoted as saying if it were not for tennis he wouldn’t be the man he is. It’s great to see him now coming back in a leadership role with the [French Tennis] Federation and Davis Cup.
IT: People are astonished that in the current international atmosphere an American actually got himself elected to head an international ruling body.
DH: One of the primary reasons was the international experience I’ve had at Prince, Dunlop Slazenger, and at Head. I’ve worked internationally and was in charge of global marketing, so I understand international tennis and have traveled on tennis business to many of those countries. That combined with the fact that I was the chairman of the US Open and the USTA and dealt with the players at an international event, a Grand Slam.
This made me appear to be more of an international player, as opposed to just an American or someone with a narrower scope who was just focused on his country. I’ve served on international committees, had some exposure and traveled to meet many of the people that were [in the different tennis] federations.
IT: Still your your emergence was incredible. What was the key?
DH: A lot of it had to do with my timing, the timing of my business career. I spent a lot of time on the volunteer side with the USTA and that coincided with Francesco’s [Ricci Bitti] announcement to retire as ITF President. If it had been two years earlier or later, it wouldn’t have worked for me. Things just lined up in a way that made sense for me to pursue it with my background and experience.
IT: Tennis organizations are seen as a kind of balkanized, alphabet soup. Simply put, what is the ITF and why does it matter?
DH: The ITF is the governing body of tennis on a global basis. We’ve a lot of potential to continue to work with the Grand Slams and the ATP and the WTA and allied tennis community to grow the game worldwide and make it a sport that more people want to play and more people make their living from.
IT: You’re still playing, and your serve is still pretty good – right?
DH: [Laughs] I’m still playing and the serve’s there when I play, usually, but not all of the time.
IT: How did you do when you were on the George Washington University team?
DH: I was really fortunate to play on a very good team. We worked hard and had fun. One of my fond memories was being elected into the tennis Hall of Fame there and I still hold the university record for most matches won in singles and doubles. It’s still out there.
WHAT HAPPENED WITH SERENA, AND WHERE WILL SHE GO?
By Michael Mewshaw
Autopsies are ugly affairs. But after a disaster, there’s no better way to assess the damage and avoid it in the future than to take a hard look at what happened. Although nobody died when Roberta Vinci beat Serena Williams to end her Grand Slam dreams, a number of delusions should have bitten the dust, and many journalists should have regretted their irrational enthusiasm. Although Serena’s emotions and those of her fans are still raw, it’s not too early to do what Patrick Mouratoglou is probably doing – facing facts and trying to find a way to break them to his client without losing his job.
The narrative describing Serena’s career has evolved over time. A few years ago, Chris Evert criticized Williams for not committing herself to eliminating the technical glitches from her game. For all of her successes there’s little evidence that she ever dedicated herself to mastering the basics. She simply kept blasting away and everybody forgot about her flaws. Even now after a match that exposed all of Serena’s limitations, Chris, like most tennis commentators, just repeated the same mantra. This was, they insisted, more a case of Serena being overcome by the occasion than her being picked apart by a clever, calm and technically more complete player. They seem to have forgotten that she had looked just as fragile against Bethanie Mattek-Sands who also mixed up her shots, rushed the net and rattled Serena.
In the aftermath of her train wreck in the semi-finals, Serena continues to be called the greatest player who ever lived. But on what basis? She still trails Margaret Court and Steffi Graf in Grand Slam titles, and many question whether she would have been nearly so dominant if Justine Henin and Kim Clisters had remained healthy and active. Perhaps if Serena had completed the Grand Slam, an argument could be made in her favor. But she didn’t just fall short. She totally disintegrated against Roberta Vinci, ranked 43rd in the world, and she flubbed plenty of opportunities to take control of the match not just because she was nervous, but because like Jimmy Connors in the 1974 Wimbledon final against Arthur Ashe, she couldn’t cope with drop shots, lobs and off-speed angles.
It would be more accurate to say of Serena that she’s the best athlete and most intimidating personality the game has ever produced. Her strength of will and remarkable physical talent have allowed her to come back from the brink of defeat and win matches that her sloppy footwork and poor shot selection should probably have cost her. This time, when she couldn’t blow Vinci away with her serve and couldn’t generate dependable groundstroke speed against Vinci’s slower, yet fuller, arsenal of weapons, she dissolved. While at 5’4” and 120 lbs., Vinci is no physical match for Williams, the Italian showed superior touch, a far better net game, better shot placement and a wicked backhand slice that Serena had hell’s own difficulty getting down to. Was her lack of flexibility a mental block or an outgrowth of her muscularity?
Interestingly, Novak Djokovic faced some of the same dilemmas in his quarterfinal match against Feliciano Lopez. The Spaniard’s wiliness left the Joker visibly frustrated. But as always he was the epitome of flexibility and was able to adapt and win while Serena had no second gear, no plan B. At times she appeared to be a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the cruel truth is that pressure is part of the game, and dealing with it is a basic requirement for being called the best ever.
Vince Lombardi used to ruminate that fatigue makes cowards of us all; what is described as an emotional collapse is often actually the result of a physical short circuit. As formidable as Serena appears to be, it’s worth wondering whether she was sufficiently fit to remain lucid under pressure and win when power alone couldn’t carry the day.
It does her no favors to ignore her shortcomings and simply reassert that she’s “the greatest.” As any club pro will tell you, prove it on court. Final assessments should be postponed until after Williams’ career ends. A commercial broadcast shortly after Flavia Pennetta showed how easy it was to beat Vinci proclaimed that Serena will “Rise Again.” Here’s hoping that’s true. But just as the longest journey begins with a single step, Serena needs to start her comeback by having an honest discussion with her coach, then with herself.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, including Short Circuit: Borg, McEnroe and Connors, the Era of Bribes, Match-fixing and Drugs, now available as an e-book.
Tennis Along the Silk Road – Of Money Launderers, Minesweepers and a Mind-Boggling Journey to Uzbekistan
By Michael Mewshaw
This weekend the US Davis Cup team will be competing in Uzbekistan in America’s most exotic Davis Cup encounter since John McEnroe led Andre Agassi and our team to Zimbabwe in 2000. In 2007, Inside Tennis published this classic report on Uzbekistan by the intrepid tennis reporter and novelist Michael Mewshaw.
In recent years tennis has experienced seismic shifts, and the pro tour has ventured into increasingly unlikely locales. But as the game goes global it’s worth wondering what’s driving this move to outsource tournaments from traditional venues to obscure bends and elbows of the world that appear to have only the most cursory interest in tennis. Indeed, some events now on the circuit take place in countries that have no ranked players and precious few amateur competitors.
To comprehend this curious phenomenon would, I suspect, require a Harvard MBA, the subpoena powers of the IRS and the sleuthing skills of the CIA. But my personal experience at one extraordinary event – the inaugural President’s Cup tournament in 1994 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan – might suggest a potential point of departure for discussing tennis’s penchant for pitching hospitality tents wherever some political strongman or consortium of business moguls ponies up a few million dollars.
Uzbekistan is one of the republics of the former USSR that declared its independence after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Located in Central Asia, bordering Afghanistan and Tajikistan, both of which were then experiencing low-grade civil insurrections, the country has a per capital income of a dollar a day and is ruled by Islam Karimov, originally a Communist dictator, afterward a self-proclaimed President. According to Amnesty International, Karimov was still jailing and torturing his political opponents. After 9/11 Uzbekistan became a US ally in the war against terror and put its air space and landing strips at our disposal. But this arrangement disintegrated when President Karimov suppressed a political demonstration by allowing his troops to open fire on civilians, killing several hundred men, women and children.
At least on the surface, the atmosphere was more convivial in May 1994 when Uzbekistan welcomed a few dozen foreign players, a handful of journalists and a clutch of business men to the first President’s Cup. True, there were hints when we left the consoling womb of Lufthansa Airlines that we were entering an altogether different world. The people-mover that trundled us from the plane to the baggage claim area was a peculiar vehicle – a broken-down driverless bus towed by a tractor.
The road into Tashkent cut through countryside that resembled desolate stretches of the American southwest. Scrubby vegetation sprouted from land that looked like it had been fired in a furnace. Streamers of trash fluttered from every thorny branch. In the city center, the streets widened into bombastic boulevards where a tank would have no trouble heeling around and having clears lines of fire in all directions. Entire blocks looked as if they’d come under recent bombardment. In monumental parks, statues of Soviet heroes lay broken beside their pedestals. Other statues made of sterner stuff were still standing, but had had their arms and heads blown off, and wires jutted out of their extremities like straw from a scarecrow.
At the dachas where we were put up, tournament officials thoughtfully provided Care packages containing bars of soap, rolls of toilet paper and bottles of insect repellent. Then off we went to the new tennis center, down a dual-lane highway where bony cattle and sheep grazed on the median strip. Several red clay courts had been freshly built for the event. A huge hospitality tent, with food flown in daily from Copenhagen, was pitched nearby, and the local Peace Corps director sampled the smoked salmon and champagne and declared that nothing so tasty could be bought between Istanbul and Beijing at any price.
Speaking of prices, those of us who had made the mistake of changing dollars into Uzbek currency discovered that nobody would accept sum coupons. Everyone demanded dollars. Even cab drivers and waiters rejected tips in their national currency.
Those of us who had packed plenty of bucks had problems too. Uzbeks operate under the delusion that bills more than five years old are illegal tender. They demand clean, crisp dollars. This resulted in a small cottage industry, a bizarre kind of money laundering, where women in the marketplace would for a fee clean and iron your rumpled bills.
Of course, like a good journalist I didn’t let myself get sidelined by minor frustrations. I was in Tashkent to cover tennis, and along with my fellow reporters, I lined up at the press gate, proceeded through a metal detector, submitted to a pat down – women had their purses searched and their hairspray and fingernail files confiscated – and climbed into the utterly empty bleachers on the sunny side of the stadium. Across the way, in the shade, sat Islam Karimov and several dozen bodyguards. The President decided that the first day of the President’s Cup should be a private party from which the paying public was excluded. As an added precaution, before the players warmed up, a couple of soldiers with minesweepers marched back and forth across the red clay, making sure that no one had planted an explosive surprise for Karimov. After that build-up, the match itself was anti-climactic.
At that first tournament, a challenger event, Vince Spadea, Chuck Adams and Filip de Wulf were the most prominent competitors. In subsequent years, the tournament graduated to full status on the ATP tour, and top ten players – Henman, Safin, Kafelnikov, etc. – made the long journey to Uzbekistan for what became a hard court indoor event. The men’s tournament folded in 2003. But the WTA has a tournament in Tashkent which continues to this day. I’m afraid that for me, however, nothing could compare with that inaugural President’s Cup.
While few Uzbeks attended the matches as the week progressed, many of them sought out Americans and Europeans who had come to Tashkent. Some begged for money. A few women offered marriage or something more short-term in exchange for a ticket to the West. An Uzbek filmmaker, a man who had recently been imprisoned and beaten, arranged at great danger to himself to show a few journalists a documentary he had shot during the civil war in Tajikistan.
By coincidence, Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania happened to be in Tashkent during the tournament. Two dissident female poets passed him a letter pleading for help as Spector left the American Embassy. They were arrested on the spot, thrown into jail, and despite Sen. Spector’s pleas, they remained behind bars.
As is often the case at tournaments, various junkets were organized for the players and press. As usual no players availed themselves of the opportunity, but a number of journalists jumped on an air-conditioned bus bound for the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand. We spent a day there traipsing in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Then that evening, serene as Venetian doges in gondolas on the Grand Canal, we sailed back toward Tashkent, privileged visitors, isolated from whatever unruliness rumpled the country around us.
Isolated, that is, until a man on the roadside picked up a brick and heaved it through a bus window. Thinking ourselves under attack, our illusions ruined, we hightailed it back to the tennis center where the daily allotment of smoked salmon and champagne had just arrived.
Because the United States Information Service had invited me to lecture at a couple of Uzbek universities, I met American Embassy officials, academics from various disciplines, and aid workers and advisors. They had decidedly different views of Central Asia’s first pro tennis tournament. Embassy officials saw it less as a sporting event than a business venture in which rival European airlines vied through sponsorship deals for governmental approval of their landing rights in Tashkent. The Embassy also pointed out that Uzbekistan is a major exporter of grain alcohol, and that representatives of a major American liquor producer were in town for the tournament.
Academics protested that the tournament diverted funds and attention from vital needs. The universities had libraries the size of a two-car garage. If it wasn’t bad enough that books were in short supply, they had no paper and no ink. They begged me to send them Bic pens.
A number of aid workers argued that in a nation that depended on Médecins sans Frontières and couldn’t provide basic care to much of its population, it hardly made sense to promote pro tennis. As for the food flown in from Copenhagen for the hospitality tent, a Peace Corps volunteer swore he had been at the airport and seen truckloads skimmed off the top of each day’s delivery by Uzbek ministers.
In the 70s and 80s, with the encouragement of Arthur Ashe and other insightful people on the tour, tennis took political stances on a number of issues, including apartheid in South Africa. John McEnroe still gets high marks for refusing to play a million dollar exhibition match in Sun City, one of the bogus black South African homelands. While there’s no use wishing for the good old days and the good old guys, perhaps it’s not out of order to make a modest suggestion that pro tennis take a closer look at its calendar so that it doesn’t showcase the game in sunny places for shady people.