THE SPRING BUZZ: A Fallen Angel, A Bold Crime Fighter, A Pregnant Legend, Dueling Cakes and Skimpy Skirts

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Bill Simons and Vinay Ventkatesh

MADRID AND ROME FIASCOS: The WTA is celebrating its 50th year. You’d think things would be together by now. But the Madrid and Rome events were train wrecks.

The Madrid Open has a long problematic history. Former owner Ion Tiriac said a few years ago that Serena was too old and heavy and should have the decency to retire. Tiriac, who recently told the New York Times that long-legged women were the best looking, once hired supermodels to be ball persons. Andre Agassi said, “It was difficult, to say the least, to concentrate on the ball.”

This year, IMG, the new owners of the tourney, dressed ball girls in pleated mini-skirts. The move drew much criticism. Soledad Murillo, Spain’s secretary of state for equality, said that the ball girls policy “fomented clear discrimination towards women who appear as simple objects of decoration and amusement.” 

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Then there was “cakegate.” Organizers arranged a lavish center court presentation to give Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz a huge three or four layer birthday cake. Behind the scenes, Aryna Sabalenka got a much smaller cake.

Andy Murray joked, “If I don’t get a cake of equal size if not slightly bigger than Alcaraz today I’m going to be absolutely f**king furious.” But it was no joking matter to others who felt it was indicative of Madrid’s attitude toward the women. The tourney does have equal pay, but only because it gets a huge subsidy from the WTA.

After the women’s doubles finals the finalists and champions were not allowed to speak. Finalists Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula were not pleased. Others suggested that the tournament did not want to give a platform to the often outspoken Victoria Azarenka, who’d been critical of the cake dustup. Ons Jabeur said the silencing of the four players was “unacceptable.”

As rough as Madrid was, the rain soaked Italian Open wasn’t much better. Supposedly due to weather, the women’s final was put on at 11:00 PM Saturday night. It was cold. Fans were sparse. Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina pulled out early in the second set. 

The awards ceremony wasn’t as raucous as the 2018 US Open when fans howled after the Serena drama. But it was a mess. Microphones didn’t work. The winner, Elena Rybakena, came out first. Runner-up Kalinina seemed to have been ignored. The runner-up trophy was almost given to winner Rybakina. The baffled finalists shook their heads. Their jaws dropped and fans hooted. 

Pam Shriver tweeted, “Madrid and Rome, have been fiascos for women’s tennis. There are no excuses but many reasons for the fiascos.” Rennae Stubbs said, “Officially the worst trophy presentation I have ever seen. In my life!!!! Honesty, I need to take a Xanax after these last three weeks!!! What the hell is happening!???”

SERENA’S PREGNANT: At the Met Gala Serena announced she’s expecting a second child.

AN ANGEL IN TROUBLE: When Maria Sharapova was handed a lengthy suspension for PED use, many in tennis seemed to pounce. After all, Sharapova built her extraordinary career, in part, on a certain ’tude. Often she was icy, and she rarely sought to gain friends in the locker room or fans in the stands. 

Two-time Slam champion Simona Halep is different. The 5’6” Romanian was not only a gritty competitor, she had a certain girl-next-door sweetness, and a bounty of fans. Many were both stunned and sympathetic when she was hit with a pending drug suspension. Recently she again passionately proclaimed her innocence, but authorities then came down with a second claim of drug use. Chris Evert said, “It’s very hard for me to believe.”

Patrick Mouratoglou viewed it as harassment and delayed justice from tennis’ integrity agency. Simona’s  longtime coach, the well-respected Darren Cahill, said he was adamant in his support saying, “I stand by every single word of my original statement way back in October. My belief and support of Simona is unwavering. I look forward to her having the chance to present her case to the independent panel asap.”

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THE DAY ANDRE DOWNED BROWN: In 1979, Jim Brown, who on May 18 died at age 87, was in Las Vegas and was upset. His money tennis match at a Vegas club had fallen through. So Andre Agassi’s bold dad Mike approached Brown and told him that he’d bet his house that his slim nine-year-old son could beat him.

Brown said he already had a house, so he and Mike made a $10,000 bet. But the club owner explained to Brown that Andre was a wiz. So the bet was eventually reduced to $500. Andre won and Brown paid with five crisp $100’s. Andre’s dad boasted that his kid would become No. 1. Brown said he wouldn’t bet against it.

CHANGE IS GONNA COME: AI hasn’t taken over tennis yet, but the game is changing fast. The French Open tore down the sweetest stadium in tennis and embraced night play. Every year there are changes at Wimbledon. This year, women will not be required to wear white undergarments and men’s doubles will only be the best-of-three sets. 

The Bay Area seems to be on the brink of losing its 52-year-old event. The USTA sold Cincinnati’s Western and Southern Open, and now it seems to be headed to Charlotte. Tennis Magazine recently folded. The Madrid, Italian and Shanghai Opens, which had been one-week events, are now 12 days, which to some is far too long. 

On top of all this, the ATP recently announced that, starting in 2025, all of its tournaments in main draw and qualifying would use the Electronic Line Calling Live (ELC Live) and human lines persons will be given their walking papers. “This will open up future commercialization opportunities…[and] optimize accuracy and consistency,” they announced. 

Critics sighed and noted that the highly regulated game had taken another step to dehumanize itself, and removed another fan-friendly element of a sometimes drama-free sport that needs all the points of interest it can get. 

NICK KYRGIOS CRIME FIGHTER: To his most rabid fans, the mercurial Nick Kyrgios is a superhero. And one recent morning in Canberra, Australia, he jumped in and came to the rescue when a thief held his mother, Norlaila, at gunpoint and demanded the keys to Nick’s flashy, bright green Tesla. 

As the criminal sped off with Nick’s car his mom called Kyrgios, who was nearby. He soon used Tesla’s app to locate the car and force it to slow down. A 32-year-old man was arrested and is facing charges.

Nick’s agent said that during all this he suffered a serious foot injury and won’t be able to play Roland Garros, where he hasn’t appeared since 2017. 

DANIIL MEDVEDEV’S HAPPY TALK: In Rome, Daniil Medvedev beat Holger Rune 7-5, 7-5 to win his 20th title in 20 different cities. After securing his first clay court title, the whimsical Russian told the raucous crowd, “Sometimes I make you angry. Sometimes you make me angry. Sometimes I make you happy. Sometimes you make me happy. I’m happy today. I hope you’re happy too.”

“I’M A GOOD BOY I AM”: The surging but often confrontational Dane, Holger Rune had a feisty Italian Open, complete with confrontations on line calls and a smashed racket. Fans were not pleased, but the Dane defended himself saying, “I don’t see myself as the bad boy at all. I play with a lot of passion and energy. Many players do that. I don’t know why that should be a bad boy thing…A bad boy thing is to break racquets and stuff like this. If I remember well, I don’t break a racquet when I play.” 

WHAT’S THE BEST RECORD IN TENNIS? Rod Laver won two Grand Slams. Roger Federer reached 23 straight Slam semis. In 16 years, Chris Evert reached the semis of 48 of the 49 Slams she played. Margaret Court won 24 singles majors and 64 majors overall. Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam. Helen Wills Moody had a 180-match winning streak from 1927 to 1933. Novak Djokovic has been No. 1 for 387 weeks.

But Daniil Medvedev is an advocate of Rafa’s French Open 112-3 record, that’s gained him 14 titles. He said, “Stay tuned, but don’t be surprised if Rafa’s Roland-Garros heroics stand the test of time and go down as the best record we have ever seen in our sport.”

RYBAKINA ROARS ON ALL SURFACES: Elena Rybakina didn’t get any ranking points after she won Wimbledon, but now, after winning in Rome, the Kazak is No. 4. In the past year, in addition to winning on grass at Wimbledon, she won Indian Wells and reached the finals of the Australian and Miami Opens on hardcourts and she just won the Italian Open on clay.

NEWSFLASH – FEDERER’S STILL WEALTHY: Roger may now be retired, but he’s still the only tennis player in Forbes’s list of top 10 earners in sports. Here’s the list: Cristiano Ronaldo $136 million, Leo Messi $130M, Kylian Mbappé $120M, LeBron James $119M, Canelo Álvarez $110M, Dustin Johnson $107M, Phil Mickelson $106M, Steph Curry $100M, Federer $95M, Kevin Durant $89M.

AN EPIC PROBLEM SOLVER: Two kids wanted to get Alexander Bublik’s shirt as a souvenir, so the Kazak had the two fans play rock, paper, scissors to see which one would get it.

SPEECH OF THE SPRING: After losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid final, Stefanos Tsitsipas commented, “I would like to congratulate you on the build-up we have seen [from you] these last few years. It’s amazing…[And it] will push us to do better.”

QUOTEBOOK

“It looked like an episode of the People’s Court or someone picking up a prescription at Rite Aide.” – Paul Annacone on a fiesty dispute between Holger Rune and an Italian Open ump

“I think all sports are a mixture of art and war.” – Bill Russell

– Also Reporting Steve Pratt

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