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Bill Simons

In 1994 Sports Illustrated published a cover story that asked the infamous question: “Is Tennis Dying?”

Newsflash: It didn’t. 

But now, many wonder whether Sports Illustrated is dying. After all, word emerged Monday that the once revered magazine, arguably one of the greatest publications in the history of journalism, had made huge layoffs, and many feel it’s now on the endangered species list. 

Of course, SI has long intersected with tennis. Jon Wertheim, S.L. Price, Bud Collins, Frank DeFord, Curry Kirkpatrick, Bruce Jenkins, Courtney Nguyen and Sally Jenkins were just a few of the great tennis writers who brought our sport alive on SI’s often evocative pages.  

Legend tells us that Andy Roddick spotted a beautiful actress in SI’s Swimsuit Issue and had his agent contact her in hopes of getting a date. Now Brooklyn Decker is Mrs. Roddick. 

Many a WTA player has graced the swimsuit issue, including Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard, and Daniela Hantchuchova. After Steffi Graf, whose family was embroiled in a tax case, appeared in a bikini, the San Francisco Chronicle reported: “Those German tax guys took more than the shirt off her back.”

Michael Jordan once felt he was dissed by SI, so he decided not to speak to them. Similarly, after Pete Sampras won a Wimbledon title, SI’s cover featured the A’s Jason Giambi. Pete then stopped talking with SI.

Many a tennis lover was upset Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were on the cover just once. And while they never were the SI Sportsperson of the Year Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert, Serena and Naomi Osaka all were Sports Persons of the Year.

Serena once was on the back cover in a Doublemint gum ad and also on the front cover, although she had to share the page with two basketball players and a horse.

SI’s headlines sometimes made sharp digs at tennis. One US Open headline read, “The Slam From Hell.” After Ivan Lendl won the US Open, SI’s headline claimed he was “The Champion Nobody Cares About.”

Speaking of Lendl, the magazine once asked rapper Snoop Dog what athlete we’d be surprised to know he likes. He responded, “I used to like Lendl. He was sharp. An old-schooler. Make it happen and roll out. Now I like Venus and Serena, but Ivan was the truth.” Serena responded, saying, “I’m shocked he even knows who Lendl is.”

SI adeptly brought all aspects of life, including politics and pop culture, to sports journalism. They asserted that super grunter Monica Seles “makes Jimmy Connors sound like Perry Como.” Another SI take on Seles came from Sally Jenkins, who wrote that young Monica was “a spooky little kid who turned out to have the game of a rattle-snake.”

SI didn’t hesitate to comment on the presence of real estate tycoon Donald Trump at Ashe Stadium, as S.L. Price wrote, “He looked like he owned the US Open.” At a French Open final between Serena and Venus, SI claimed it was “a match that surely made [far right candidate for prime minister] Jean-Marie Le Pen choke on his escargot (two African-American women in the final – Sacre bleu!).”

Story-telling and game analysis were SI’s bread and butter. Jon Wertheim reported that he heard one security guard in the players’ lounge say to his partner, “There’s the guy who is always saying thank you.” His friend replied, “Yeah, that’s Rafa Nadal.”

As for Federer, Wertheim observed, “His forehand is technically perfect. His one-handed backhand is pure liquid. He fires winners off both flanks with no discernible bias. He massages his volleys, pummels overheads, picks half-volleys off his shoes and guides them to nooks and crannies of the court that most other players have yet to discover. His serve is Samprasian, a silky delivery predicated more on placement than on power. He covers the court as if it were glazed.” 

SI seamlessly captured the evolution of many a tennis star. For instance, Price noted, “After 11 years marked as much by flameouts and Taco Bell runs as by streaks of on-court brilliance, Agassi became a man in full this year.”

Everything, from deep-think takes to commentaries on sex, was fair game for SI’s roving eye.

While Price mused, “At gut level, we understand: No human is ever as simple as a ball game,” Frank DeFord suggested that Russian sex symbol Anna Kournikova looked “like a trim sloop, skimming across the surface, her long signature pigtail flying about like a torn spinnaker in the wind. Her lines are perfect – especially now that she doesn’t jam the second-service ball up her knickers.” In 2000 SI dedicated 12 pages of coverage to Anna Kournikova.

Now we fear they won’t be around much longer to provide any tennis coverage.

SECRETS OF THE GAME: When Nick Kyrgios asked Djokovic about the secret tree he hugs and climbs in a beautiful hilly Melbourne park, the Serb replied: “I’ll show you the tree. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a big secret. So, what you’ve got to do is take your shoes off and climb the tree to the highest point. Then you hang upside down on one of the highest branches for 33 minutes and three seconds…And you will win a Slam.”

Of course, this is hardly the first time there’s been a discussion in tennis about secrets. For a good stretch, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf managed to keep their secret romance under wraps.

Writer Simon Barnes was intrigued by the secretive nature of Pete Sampras. The British observer wrote, “What of the inner Sampras? All is mystery…Sampras doesn’t have body language like everybody else. He is rather a rare thing: a top-level athlete whose body is nearly mute…He is a man of secrets. As others have used their theatricality as weapons, Sampras exploits his anonymity. You cannot read him, you cannot reach him. In his brooding mystery, he is disquieting.”

Others have spoken of the secrets to success in tennis. Federer said an essential part of his success was happiness. Nadal’s Uncle Toni said the key to his nephew’s success “is commitment…The inspiration has to be in the work. It’s the same for a painter, a sportsman, a journalist – for everyone.”

Serena contended that concentration was the key to her success, and added, “If you can keep playing when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration. I didn’t grow up playing tennis at a country club.” The volatile Russian Marat Safin claimed that the secret of his success was “sometimes breaking a racket. You let out all the bad energy and then you get calmer.”

MONICA THIS, MONICA THAT: Djokovic, who’s won four of the last five Slams he’s played, is seeking a record 25th Slam. He’s never lost an Aussie Open semi or final. He’s a perfect ten for ten at each stage. Since losing to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon in 2016, Nole has won 32 straight matches against Americans. He’s on a 33-match Aussie Open winning streak, which ties him with the legendary Yugoslavian, Monica Seles.

Djokovic was first coached by Jelena Gencic, whom he calls his tennis mother. And before Gencic taught Novak, she was Seles’s coach. Novak said he loved Monica and it meant “a lot to share this record with Seles.” Almost every day Jelena spoke of Monica. Novak recalled it was, “Monica this, Monica that, Monica eats this, Monica sleeps this much, Monica practices this way.”

THE QUARTERFINAL WALL: A couple of days ago Djokovic tied Roger Federer’s record of reaching 58 straight quarterfinals. But for many others reaching the quarterfinals can seem like hitting a wall.

In Melbourne poor Andrey Rublev reached his 10th quarterfinal, but lost to Jannik Sinner. He’s never reached a Slam Semi. At Wimbledon in 2022 Taylor Fritz was poised to get to his first semi but faltered at crunch time against Rafa. Yesterday the Californian was in his third quarterfinal and hoping to get to his first semi, but he lost in four sets to Novak.

America’s second leading WTA player Jessica Pegula has made it to six quarterfinals but has not gotten to the semis.

SHOCK STAT: Djokovic had 15 straight break points against Taylor Fritz but couldn’t win any of them. Fritz explained, “I was playing the breakpoints so well because I just didn’t even care if I got broken any more because in my mind he deserves to break me at some point [smiling]. I was playing him loose and playing so well.” 

TOO SHY: Carlos Alcaraz told us why, during his on-court interview, he didn’t name his favorite WTA players: “I was too shy to say it but my favorite player is Raducanu…I was afraid of the reaction from the public.”

WE’RE BUMS:‘ John McEnroe admitted, “I was always jealous of the players who spoke three or four languages. We [Americans] are bums – we only speak one.” Reportedly Djokovic speaks 11 languages. And when a reporter asked him to say Happy New Year in Chinese and speak some Chinese, he showed off his linguistic chops, speaking with ease and wowing the press room.

VIVA LA DIFFERENCE: In America, when someone swings at a ball and misses, it’s called “a whiff.” In Australia it’s called “an air swing.” 

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