After a 15 month absence, Maria Sharapova returns to competitive tennis as she takes on Roberta Vinci on Wednesday in Stuttgart. So we asked the UBI writers what they made of Sharapova’s return to tennis after her 15 month ban?
1. Do you think Maria Sharapova deserves a wildcard into tournaments or should she qualify?
Skip Schwarzman: Given how wildcards are given out, which is to say without any codified rhyme or reason, “deserves” is probably not the best term to use. From a the standpoint of a tournament, which is naturally trying to sell as many tickets as possible and garner as much exposure for sponsors as they can, wildcards for Sharapova make sense. So in one way, sure, she deserves them; her hard work, success, and well-deserved fame is going to bring her rewards as well as profit the tournaments. On the other hand you have to believe that a lesser player found guilty of the same rules infraction wouldn’t get direct entry into the main draw. Not even close to it. (Victor Troicki anyone?) Looked at that way, Masha’s getting an undeserved break. Me, I wish she’d followed the suggestions I heard made that she politely decline any wildcards and play her way through the qualies. Voila! Positive cred for her, tournaments get her name on the marketing, and all’s good with the world (or at least better).
Jakub Bobro: Despite Maria having to serve a drug ban, she is still one of the biggest names in tennis, so she deserves wild cards to WTA events. For tournaments like Stuttgart or Madrid, it is not about whether Sharapova deserves a wild card, but about the crazy amount of coverage they will receive. I would absolutely love to see Sharapova play a smaller ITF event, but security-wise, those tournaments are not prepared to host such a big name. I do think that the perfect middle ground for slams is to give Sharapova a qualifying wild card.
2. Does Maria Sharapova returning give a positive or negative impact on tennis?
Cody Fitzpatrick: I think it has a positive impact. While Sharapova’s return will certainly be polarizing, the more people pay attention, the more relevant tennis will become. Sharapova is a big personality, and she appeals to a massive range of tennis fans, from hardcore followers of the WTA to casual fans who only watch a couple matches per year.
Adam Addicott: Sharapova’s return will be mainly positive. Despite the doping controversy, she has managed to maintain a high profile and a loyal fan base. Last year Forbes ranked her as the 88th highest paid athlete in the world. Her presence at tournaments will generate high attention from both the media and fans, putting tennis in the spotlight and increasing revenue for tournaments. Other players such as Vikor Troicki and Marin Cilic have both managed to successful returns to the tour from doping bans. Sharapova certainly has the ability to as well with her team structure and global appeal.
3. Are you surprised by the diverse player reaction on the Sharapova wildcard situation?
Nafari Vanaski: No. I am surprised at how vocal they have been. But you know, these are professional players and they take their craft seriously and — you assume — have been clean about it. She definitely shouldn’t have gotten a wild card to a tournament that starts while her ban is still underway. If I were a player, I could definitely see where that sort of gesture seems to imply that the crime wasn’t that serious — as though her only offense was not knowing meldonium had been banned. Most players don’t see it that way. Also, I’ve read that Sharapova wasn’t very popular in the locker room, though. Perhaps if she were, players would be more sympathetic?
Tony Fairbairn: I am not surprised by the diverse player reaction that the players have given. If I was a player in that locker room I would feel infuriated that someone who was banned from the sport for 15 months has just come back to a loaded Stuttgart field, when she is still banned when the start of the tournament comes around. Wild cards are for people that earn their spot based on form or maybe nationality. Not for people who have been a bad role model for the sport over the last year. So I am not surprised that so many players have shared their views about the topic and felt upset.
4. Does giving wildcards to a person who enhances their performance set a good example to the next generation?
Alex Burton: I don’t think it does. Wilcards are typically reserved for young talent home players or particular tournament favourites whose rankings are not strong enough for direct entry. Sharapova easy return to high level sport sets a dangerous precedent for future cases. If tournaments like Rome and Madrid are doing it now whose to say other tournaments will not follow if and when other situations occur. If Sharapova were to win one of the tournaments then we would be celebrating a champion who has been given a wildcard despite major infractions and damage to tennis as a clean sport.
Joshua Coase: Giving Sharapova wild cards into events does not set a very good example for the next generation as it teaches them that it is acceptable to illegally enhance their performance and yet not be sufficiently penalised. I have no issue with her being allowed to return to play but she should compete under her current ranking and have to work her way up again to prove herself.
5. What realistic goals should Maria Sharapova be looking to achieve at the end of the season?
Adam Addicott: I have always believed that Sharapova is one of the greatest fighters on the women’s tour. She could be losing 0-6, 0-5 and still puts in 100%. My opinion of her has not changed since her ban. Realistically, she is likely to at least break the top 100 and could go a lot higher due to her wild card entries. On average, it should take her roughly six months to regain consistency on the tour. Once she achieved this, she has the ability to challenge the best in the world again. Ironically Sharapova will not be looking at a ranking to achieve at the end of the year. What she wants is redemption and to silence her critics with her tennis performances.
Robbie Cap: Regroup, get the whole story behind her and focus on playing. She’ll have a lot of scrutiny and pressure on her.
The ATP plans larger draws, extended schedules for Madrid, Rome, Shanghai in 2022
The players’ association CEO, Andrea Gaudenzi, has devised a project of 92 pages to drive the sport forward, including plans for a Masters 1000 event on grass, increased prize money, and investments to appeal to a younger audience.
The powers-that-be of the ATP are planning a revised scheduled for the men’s tour, starting in 2022, when Madrid, Rome, and Shanghai should receive more days (11, possibly 12) for their tournaments, while extending their main draws from 56 to 64 players. The top players would have to play one more match, but with more resting days in-between – as of now, most seeds have to play five straight matches from Wednesday to Sunday. As for a further increase to 96 players, that appears to be off the table at the moment, since the tournaments don’t have as many courts as Indian Wells and Miami do. Rome and Madrid could only do it by shelving the women’s event, and that’s not a realistic option.
The project is still in the early stages, and it is very possible that it has “leaked” as an endearment to the players who are still choosing between the ATP and the new union founded by Djokovic and Pospisil, the PTPA. The message feels a little ambiguous, something like: “It will only happen without further internal turmoil.” The aspect that should captivate the players is mainly the increase in the prize money, initially set at 2.5 percent.
MORE TRANSPARENCY BY THE MASTERS 1000
This increment could be a lot more significant if a deal could be reached with the tournament owners vis-à-vis letting a neutral firm access their financial records. In this way, it would be possible, with massive costs and after some time, to ascertain once and for all the actual revenues of an ATP event on a bi-annual basis. The aim is to achieve more financial transparency in order to increase the players’ earnings. If the ATP could pull it off, the PTPA would virtually lose most of its arguments – however, it may take a while to do it.
The prime objective, as a matter of fact, would be to have a 50-50 split between the players and the organisers after expenses and taxes are paid. It wouldn’t be easy to convince the owners of the events, though, since they are the entrepreneurs actually endangering their finances, and this is why it’s never been done before. Moreover, such examination could end up uncovering greater combined financial losses than expected between the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, and that would drive the prize money into the ground, also an unprecedented instance. The new plan would include some sort of “financial solidarity” between them, which does not sound realistic.
The real goal of the players, anyway, is to access a bigger slice of the Slams’ revenues, of which they now get about 15% on average. However, the ATP has no jurisdiction over these events, which make up 58% of the sport’s net revenue. Gaudenzi’s dream can only come true if the seven stakeholders in the game (the Slams, the ATP, the WTA, and the ITF) reach an agreement – will they? History would point to the negative.
THE WAY FORWARD
In a past interview, Gaudenzi stressed the fact that tennis is the fourth most popular sport in the world (behind football, basketball, and cricket), but it only generates 1.3% of global sports revenues. The game’s earnings (about 2.2 trillion dollars) are divided, more or less equally, between ticket sales, advertising, and TV rights. However, among major sports, tennis draws by far the highest percentage of its income from the box office, and by far the lowest from TV rights.
I will add a few points to these data, points that would probably require a separate article by themselves:
- Just 55% of the fans watch live tennis. 30% watch highlights (probably because the matches take too long), and 12% follow the off-court activities of the players (rumours, private lives, pictures). It follows that digital content will only increase in amount, and this is why the ATP is thinking about creating its own media production center, rife with short and not necessarily match-related content. Of course, this would only work if the most marketable players would cooperate.
- Just like it’s happening this week with the US Open and Kitzbuhel, more ATP events would take place during the second week of a Slam, and several tournaments (the ones listed at the beginning of the article) would last 11/12 days instead of 7 or 8.
- After years spent planning a reduction of the Masters 1000 tournaments from nine to seven, now there’s a plan to add a tenth tournament on grass. Both Queen’s and Halle are pretty successful, so…
- The Masters 1000 would contribute some money to facilitate the expansion of TV coverage, and also to support some sickly ATP 250 events. In exchange for that, their status would be untouchable for 30 years. The same goes for the ATP 500 tournaments, which would contribute a lesser amount and would thus have a guaranteed license of “just” 15 years.
- As Gaudenzi has repeatedly underlined, tennis needs to appeal to the younger generations and to expand the fanbase. How? By developing a social media policy inspired by streaming giants like Netflix, Spotify, Facebook, Amazon, and Instagram.
- Betting data would need some consideration, particularly with regards to the streaming services that work within their domain – the idea would be to unify them. The ATP owns some of them, while the ITF has a 70-million-dollar deal with Sportsradar – so far, every association has fended for itself. Gaudenzi has created a committee involving executives from Apple Music, BWin, Facebook, and Amazon, and believes that it will take from three to five years to collect the necessary data, but only if the seven stakeholders will cooperate. Will that happen?
- Unlike Djokovic and Pospisil, Gaudenzi thinks that the money pool (currently set at 270 million dollars) needs to increase before there can be any talk regarding better redistribution of revenues. This is quite the ideological struggle, because, in the Italian manager’s view, the lower-ranked players would need to be patient for a few more years before seeing their bottomlines flourish. The ATP doesn’t have a claim to the Slams’ money, and its only big earners are the Masters 1000 (and not even all of them). Their income is usually similar to the prize money figure, which is not a lot, especially if some want a bigger and bigger slice of it.
Sing & Volley: When Stringing And Tuning Meet
A perfect song can be composed with either a racquet or a guitar: a brief history of the love affair between tennis and music, from Bertè-Borg to Agassi-Streisand.
A racquet is strung, a guitar tuned, everything is in its rightful place – and the song comes to life.
You up and leave me
you never call me… I miss you… I miss you…
that lucky woman
I am the most envied woman… they say about me…
but I already miss you
Loredana Bertè wrote this while trying to understand what happened to Bjorn Borg, “the tennis player” as she calls him. The marriage between the iconic tennis champion and the singer spurred headlines all over the globe. Loredana, who had already appeared years before alongside Adriano Panatta, must have had a proclivity for this sport. She always looked beautiful as she sang, with a physicality that felt almost intrusive to the listener. A stormy character, a famous sister, a complicated family history and there you go – a character is ready-made. Loredana sang with her soul, a rebellious one. How did someone cut from such a cloth end up in the hands of Borg, the prototype of the serious, scrupulous, rational, cynical, and cold sportsman? On the court, Borg had sedated a monster within himself that sooner or later would come out to exact its revenge. Borg’s career was amazing but did not last long, replaced by excesses and financial disasters as conspicuous as the Grand Slams he won. An author isn’t always the lyrics to his songs.
A backhand touch volley to softly close the net, a rock poem: if Borg is there, McEnroe must be too, just like a verse always invokes its chorus.
Take me now, baby, here as I am
Pull me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed
Lyrics by Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith sings. The Boss had written it for her, but legend has it that it did not fit on his own record and, rather than shelving it, he thought of giving it to the girl who was recording in the next room of the same studio. Patti accepted, thanked, adapted the lyrics and made it a worldwide success.
In this case, the cross-contamination with tennis with tennis owes to paronomasia, because one evening at a party, Patty Smyth, a little less known than her almost homonym – of Irish origins and a rock music background – was introduced to John McEnroe. Love at first sight, even if it would take some time to admit it to each other. John would also have probably wanted to ask her to tour and record with her, since he had always harboured the dream of becoming a rock star, but Patty, much wiser, would never have asked John to play in the mixed doubles at Wimbledon with him.
John also recorded an album and promoted it on the tennis tour, but he decided, at Patty’s behest, to continue to devote himself to the strings that gave him the best sounds, those of his Dunlop. A lover of art and entertainment, John came off a failed marriage with Tatum ‘O Neil, daughter of Ryan, and herself a purported Hollywood hopeful. Are there many tennis players who could have combined the worlds of sport and art more than Supermac? The answer is no, to be honest.
Andre Agassi was a tennis player in punk rock outfits, even though by the 1980s punk rock had become so mainstream that it was difficult to understand where the limit was between meaning it, sporting its looks, or just looking like something else entirely. The myth of the young man armed with a guitar had certainly not dried out yet, but it had changed, passing from the flower-shooting axe of the Summer of Love to the nail-y one of an anarchist London Calling, less sober, decidedly noisier, flashy, and paradoxically consumerist. Agassi didn’t have a knack for music like Jim Courier and Pat Cash, the latter a melodically less capable (and less famous) pirate than Little Steven or, of course, than that divinity who goes by the name of Keith Richards, to whom the character of Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” should erect a monument. Andre the newcomer, though, he was so cool and youthful, and solved the issue by dating the admirable voice of Barbra Streisand.
A Woman in Love can accept that her man should like to indulge in childish play by shooting fuzzy balls like bullets, but Andre was also unfortunately much younger than her, and the spark fizzled lost. He later gave himself to the screen as much as he had to songs, marrying the virginal, at least according to the tabloids, Brooke Shields. It would take a tennis player’s sharp backhand slices to get him on the right track for good. It could be deduced that Steffi Graff was as adept as any at the fuzzy bullet-shooting.
Yannick Noah has always been the larger-than-life type and has never chosen musicians as life companions because he preferred to do it all by himself, singing included. Once he hung up his racquet, he climbed the charts with his records, something he’d already achieved while still a tennis player. Yannick was born a performer, both with racquets and mics, with a timing that could have only been bequeathed to him by fate. The most successful single of his second career, “Saga Africa”, was released in 1991, the year of a French Davis Cup win, becoming an anthem sung and danced during the Lyonnaise celebrations of those days.
From Bobo Zivojinovic of the once Yugoslav Republic, to the forever rising (and perhaps never blooming) Grigor Dimitrov, the liaison between tennis and the music world in terms of sentimental relationships has several paragraphs in between the chapters of the novel that is the never-ending intertwining between sports and entertainment. Pop and popular events that often meet halfway because they are never too far apart, especially in the Image Society, now magnified by the presence of social media and by the value of a “like”. A racket is strung, a guitar tuned, everything is in its rightful place – and the song comes to life.
Translated by Matteo Pelliccia; edited by Tommaso Villa
Western & Southern Open Day 2 Preview: The Men’s And Women’s Match of the Day
Some title favourites will start their campaigns on Sunday as Novak Djokovic switches his focus to doubles duty.
Wimbledon, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, and the Rogers Cup all won’t take place this year. But after nearly six months of inactivity, there will be two Majors and two ATP Masters 1,000/WTA Premier 5 events in the next seven weeks.
The US Open will be held directly after this week’s Western & Southern Open, with the Italian Open to begin right after that, and Roland Garros just a week after Rome’s conclusion. At these four tournaments alone, players can accumulate up to 6,000 ranking points. With the ATP and WTA rankings to gradually unfreeze, the majority of the 2020 rankings will be decided between now and mid-October.
How will players perform after such a long lay-off? And how will their bodies react to so much tennis in a short period of time? That will be especially key for the men, who will be playing best-of-five in four of the next seven weeks.
Switching focus to Sunday’s action at the Western and Southern Open, a combination of first and second round matches will be taking place. In the women’s draw top seed Karolina Pliskova get her bid underway but surprisingly not on the premier Grandstand Court, she will be playing on Court 17. Meanwhile in the men’s draw, Stefanos Tsitsipas could be tested when he plays a former Wimbledon finalist.
Here are two matches to watch out for :-
Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Kevin Anderson (PR)
Anderson is coming off a nice win just yesterday over Kyle Edmund. After missing much of 2019 due to injury, the two-time Major finalist showed some nice form to start the year despite some tight losses. Tsitsipas ended 2019 with the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals. The 22-year-old struggled a bit to start 2020 before winning in Marseille and reaching the final in Dubai, losing to Novak Djokovic. Tsitsipas is 2-1 against Anderson, though all three of their encounters have been closely contested. The courts are reportedly playing very quickly in Flushing Meadows, which should favor the tall South African. But just 24 hours after a three-hour battle with Edmund, Anderson may not have too much left. I expect Tsitsipas to continue his pre-pandemic success and extend his winning record against Anderson.
Caroline Garcia vs. Sloane Stephens (WC)
Stephens was crowned US Open champion on these grounds just three years ago. She went on to have more success in 2018, but last season was a struggle for Sloane. In 2019, she won no titles and reached no finals, with a record of just 24-19. And Sloane has won just one of seven matches played this year. Her only victory came in March against a player currently ranked outside the top 500. Needless to say, Stephens will be looking to use this restart to begin anew. Similarly, Garcia peaked in the top five a few years ago, but is now barely ranked inside the top 50. The Frenchwoman won the same number of matches as she lost in 2019. They’ve only met once within the last few years, with Caroline victorious, but that was on clay. Based on Sloane’s performance last week in Lexington, where she lost to a qualifier, I like Garcia’s chances to advance on this day.
Other Notable Matches on Day 2:
The singles world No.1’s first match since February will take place on the doubles court, as it’s Novak Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic vs. Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe (WC).
The women’s top seed Karolina Pliskova (1) vs. Veronika Kudermetova, a 23-year-old Russian who survived a tough three-setter on Saturday. Pliskova was the champion in Brisbane at the start of the year.
Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin (2) vs. Alize Cornet. Kenin twice defeated Cornet last year on hard courts.
David Goffin (7) vs. Borna Coric. Goffin is 4-0 against Coric, though they haven’t played in over four years.
American No.1 John Isner (16) vs. Hubert Kurkacz. These two easily prevailed as a doubles team just yesterday. Isner took their only previous meeting, last summer on a US hard court.
Last year’s US Open double champions Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka (1) vs. Ann Li and Bernarda Pera (WC).
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