A Deep Dive: Five Reasons Why The Calls To Change Davis Cup Are Generally Bogus - UBITENNIS
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A Deep Dive: Five Reasons Why The Calls To Change Davis Cup Are Generally Bogus

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photo credit: sportycious.com

We are the Davis Cup Preservation Society / God save two man teams, home courts and partiality / We are the Five Set Match Appreciation Society / God save tennis courts in all their different varieties

 

Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways, for me and for you. / What more can we do?……..

(with sincere apologies to Ray Davies. God Save The Kinks)

Like all sports, tennis has a bible of stock phrases uttered and memorized over the years by coaches and fans alike. “Keep your eye on the ball.” “You’re only as good as your second serve.” It’s not a break until you hold.”

It appears a new one’s been added: “We need to fix Davis Cup.”

Argentina’s historic 2016 Davis Cup triumph has done little to dampen critics of the event; one could argue that the Argies’ loss in the 2017 first round furthered the campaign for change. Does Davis Cup needs to be fixed? And why?

My answer is no. Mostly. Before continuing, however, it’s cards on the table time: I am old enough to remember the Challenge Round, and am a huge fan of Davis Cup. Advertisers swear millenials need snappy, short entertainment fixes, but I’m not one of them.1 I’m firmly convinced that not changing Davis Cup in any major way is a position that can be defended, and should be.

In no particular order here are 5 of the top items bruited about as reasons for change or as solutions to supposed problems, and my replies:

  1. Eliminate 5 set matches
  2. Play each tie over 2 days and not 3
  3. Standardize the court surface across the competition
  4. Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively the semi-finals, if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis
  5. Davis Cup is not television friendly

 

Eliminate Five set matches: This has long been discussed across the tennis spectrum. Davis Cup is now one of only five annual tennis events with 5 set matches, the others being the Big Four Grand Slam titles.

Yes, a best of 5 match has the potential to last a long time. That is not guaranteed to happen, however. Of the 483 2016 Grand Slam men’s matches played to completion, all of which were best of 5, less than half went beyond 3 sets.

Tennis is an endurance sport. Or was. True, there’s a physicality to the modern game that wasn’t so prevalent 40 years ago, but Ivan Lendl and Thomas Muster were ready to go 5, on clay (and did), and tennis styles don’t come more physical than theirs. Best of three set matches against David Ferrer aren’t easy, but why should tennis be made easier? Doesn’t that take away an edge that some players have over others, their superior fitness?

A sloppy 5 set match that goes the distance isn’t compelling, we know that; you can find yourself thinking, “Okay, get it over and move on the next match.” Discontinue 5 setters, however, and we lose the amazing, incredible ebb and flow of truly epic contests. If you’ve watched an amazing 5 set match you know it’s as exciting a sporting event as any; Federer vs Cilic/Wimbledon 2016, Juan Martin del Potro’s maybe-the-greatest-comeback-ever2 over Dominic Thiem at the 2017 US Open or, more to the point, del Potro’s mammoth 5 set victory over Andy Murray in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-final.

Two or three years ago tennis was said to have become so physical it was impossible for players to avoid injury. The game has to be changed! Games have to go to no-ad and sets reduced to best of five. Or three!

Except now we’re all talking about the success of oldsters on both tours. Forget including Federer or Nadal in that discussion, they’re clearly aliens, but no one’s ever said that about 44 year old Daniel Nestor. Candadian, yes. But alien? No. Then there’s Feliciano Lopez, Venus and Serena both, Mariana Lucic-Baroni, and a slew of veritable kids getting ready to pass from their twenties to their thirties. Evidently players aren’t getting beaten up so badly by the strain of playing that careers are being ended left and right.

(Yes, without 5 set matches commentators would not be able to quote Boris Becker [yet again] about the 5th set not being about tennis, but nerves. You win some, you lose some.)

I’ve made my case; remind me, please, why Davis Cup has to go to best of three?

Play each tie over 2 days and not 3: Points in favor of this: a) easier scheduling of venues, b) minimally easier scheduling for players, c) it’s easier for television (more on this in #5).

Points against: a) one day’s fewer tickets to sell and therefore less revenue for tennis federations around the globe, b) less opportunity for surprise substitutions, and most importantly, c) this makes two man teams impossible. No team of two could possibly play 2 singles of any length plus a doubles on day one, and then the reverse singles on the following day.

Do we really want to deny the sport a chance to witness the over-the-top commitment of two man teams?  Ivan Ljubicic/Mario Ancic 2005 Davis Cup run to the title, or Laver/Newcombe’s 1973 Cup win?

Allow me a (c)2 on this: if he’d had to play on consecutive days, could Steve Darcis have managed his astounding performance of the February 2017 ties when, as the 58th ranked player, he beat the world’s number 19 and 22? I think not.

I ask further for a (c)3: some nations might not be able to field a 3 man team, period. What do they do?

One of the greatest things about Davis Cup is how frequently the betting lines are worthless. Time and again, from World Group to Group III, lesser players, inspired by hearing the score called by their country’s name instead of their own, rise to heights with victories over their betters they’d never achieve on tour. Two day ties will make that even more impossible to do. We’ll be the poorer for it.

The record setting Davis Cup crowd for Canada’s tie in Ottawa. photo credit: TennisCanada.com

Standardize the court surface across the competition: It’s not hard to understand why, as an example, Spain doesn’t want to play Australia on grass, or the converse. The fact remains that many countries have court types that predominate in their local tennis world, and their players have naturally adapted a playing style suitable to that surface. A worldwide competition is not well-served by disenfranchising participants with rules that handicap them from the get-go.

Besides, homogenization of court surfaces leads to homogenization of playing styles; this is not a plus. It’s generally conceded that the best chance of seeing a fine match is when the combatants’ playing styles are different from each other. Contrast makes for a more interesting push/pull.

Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively, semi-finals if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis: Versions of this include more than 4 teams, based on a round robin format that leads into a knock-out semi-final structure. Other suggestions are based on getting only the 4 semi-finalists in one location.

Naturally it would be easier to book and promote a venue well in advance for an event like that if where it took place no longer required a connection to any of the countries involved; Buenos Aires, for example, could be booked before the year’s competition began knowing that whichever 4 countries made the semis would go there. National associations currently have to find viable locations on relatively short notice; no one gets more than 4 or 5 months to ink a contract for a tennis site that has either dependable weather or a large enough indoor facility, and which is otherwise not rented out. Fans could book travel to the event well in advance, too, since they’d know where it was to be held irrespective of who makes the semi.

This is far more difficult to pull off successfully than it first appears.

It’s a big question if tennis fans would commit to such a scheme without knowing if teams or players they adore would be in the semis or finals. This is especially true of a competition based on nationality. How many Brits would buy tickets  to Argentina at the end of the year (in our example) if they had no idea who’d be playing? I’m not sure many Brits would commit to going to Buenos Aires knowing that Team GB and Andy Murray might not be involved, with Murray instead on his couch watching tv and drinking Irn Bru. Selling more tickets under this plan is well short of being guaranteed.

Let’s point out, too, that no one’s yet said where in the ATP calendar they’re going to stick a new time commitment for Davis Cup. Yes, the plan frees up some time on the calendar (if only for the last 4 teams), but players will have to arrive to practice and acclimate before the first matches, adding a minimum of another 2 days. This plan calls for 6 days of competition plus one of rest. Add the 2 days for practice, etc., and it requires the teams in the semis to set aside least 9 days.

It’s unquestionably hard to fit Davis Cup ties into the ATP calendar. As long as the pro season continues to begin in January and end in November – a topic worthy of another discussion entirely – Davis Cup matches will never be convenient for everybody, every time.

Nothing is perfect, including Davis Cup, but the idea that the ITF is responding to players’ complaints, and only players’ complaints, is not accurate:

I can tell you the players do not want to do that.” – Jamie Murray, ATP Player Council member, when asked about plans for the final to be at a neutral site.

A neutral site for the finals, or semi-finals, is far from being problem free.

Not tv friendly? Davis Cup: India vs New Zealand.                     photo credit: lbtimes.co.in

Davis Cup is not television friendly: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Of those looking to modernize (sic) Davis Cup, there is one motivating force that comes through repeatedly: television, and its advertising revenue.

Tennis is a niche player in the world of sports marketing, like it or not. Compared to football, American football, basketball, baseball, the North American hockey league (NHL), and of course golf, tennis is small potatoes. As a whole tennis doesn’t come close to generating the advertising revenue of the other, more omnipresent sports.

Why?

It’s not a matter of participation; fans of team sports are not playing those other sports to any significant degree. American football amongst a bunch of 47 year olds? Doesn’t happen enough to rate a mention. Golf can boast of some 12 million participants worldwide2 (2015), but tennis can lay claim to 75 million participants around the world (2007). Tennis may lag in the advertising revenue department compared to other sports, but it’s not because there are fewer people playing tennis than those revenue-rich sports.

Last week, North Carolina won the NCAA tournament. Baseball season opened. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters. And—far and away—the big story was Tony Romo’s retirement and move to CBS Sports. For all the slings and arrows football absorbs, man, the NFL is still King.  Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel, from his online Mailbag column of April 12:

TV hates nothing so much as topics it cannot broadcast in simplistic terms, and the unique nature of tennis’ scoring – plus no time limit on the length of matches – means tv producers live in fear that casual fans will be turned off by a scoring system then don’t understand, or a long, hard fought match.

“Sure, hardcore tennis fans will stick around, watching commercials and the advertising banners around a court,” they’ll say, “But modern television is all about holding eyeballs, keeping them excited so they don’t get bored and click the remote, looking for another adrenalin rush while our advertisers are ignored…..”

Similarly, they maintain that the Cup’s format works against efforts to build excitement; it’s a multi-nation tournament played out over the course of an entire year. Each tie is a three day affair – a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – with further complications of multiple zones and tiered competition across the globe. “Who can keep track of the bloody thing?”, they cry. “No one’s played Davis Cup for months.”

Much of that is true, at least the facts of how the competition works. But there is a lot that these complaints ignore:

• Every year, on the first weekend of Davis Cup, the 16 teams in the highest tier, the World Group, play an initial knockout round. It’s near impossible to find accurate attendance records (I tried), but Canada’s recent tie set a record for Davis Cup attendance with 5000 spectators each day so it’s safe to figure that at each tie there are 3800 attendees each day. That’s 91,200 tickets sold, worldwide, over 3 days.

Compare that to the record for one day attendance at the US Open: 65,797. If the ITF and ATP want exposure for live tennis, especially in places where there isn’t a pro tournament, they can’t ignore Davis Cup’s results in this regard.

• That’s just the World Group. Add in the lower tier Group I and Group II ties (a total of another 50 teams, or 25 ties played), use 750 spectators for each day’s matches, and you have another 56,250 seats filled without including the tiers below those. (For the entire Davis Cup structure see this page at daviscup.com)

Yes, tennis is a niche sport, but we’ve just tallied a minimum of 147,450 folks watching live tennis over 3 days for just the first Cup weekend of the year, not counting television or online streaming viewers,. That may be niche, but it’s not shabby.

• These matches’ revenues add mightily to national tennis association’s finances, especially in countries were there is little grass roots tennis infrastructure. Many tennis associations claim they can’t survive with that income, and it’s easy to believe them.

• Similar to competing at the Olympics, players tell of how different it is to have the score called out by country and not the athlete’s name. “Ad in, United States,” lends a meaning to Davis Cup that affects every player. Many pros have their greatest moments in Davis Cup competition, or their worst.

We feel for players who come up short, but are amazed by how often rank-and-file players punch far above their weight class for one day, one match. Sometimes they make a weekend of it: Last February, 58th ranked Steve Darcis came through huge for the Belgian team, defeating Germany’s 29th ranked Philipp Kohlschrieber and the 19 year-old phenom, 22nd ranked Alexander Zverev.4 It’s a safe bet Belgian news carried that story far beyond the dedicated Belgian tennis fans. And the Belgian news media were able to follow it up with Darcis’ exploits in April when the he beat Italy’s 37th ranked Paolo Lorenzi in Friday’s rubber. Even more emphatically, Andy Murray won both his singles and paired with his brother for the doubles win to clinch the Davis Cup in 2015.

Tennis should come to grips with the fact that it’s never going to challenge the truly major sports for tv time and advertising dollars. There’s little to suggest otherwise, however much the ITF, ATP, and WTA wish things were different. The numbers above illustrate that enough fans buy tickets to make us feel perfectly fine about tennis’ not being perfect for television.

As it is tennis fans get antsy with the pauses caused by medical time outs, bathroom breaks, and toweling off after one-shot points. Will tennis improve if tv gets to drive the decisions about how the sport is played? I think not.

••••••••••

As I said earlier, Davis Cup is not perfect. The changes the ITF Board of Directors presented to the Davis Cup Annual General Meeting (AMG) were not all accepted at the August 4th meeting. What did get a green light was:

  1. Davis and Fed Cup champions of one year will get their choice of home or away for the first match of the following year.
  2. Match court availability and practice court requirements will be lowered to reduce hosting costs for national associations, and
  3. Davis Cup pre-tie commitments for players will be reduced to a single function combining the draw, post-draw press.

Best of 5 sets remains the format, as does the 3 day schedule.

There’s room to change Davis Cup and make it better, which is to say make it more popular among players and the public.

  • Final set tiebreakers, perhaps at 7/7? Sure.
  • Figure out a way to free up players from complete dead rubbers without burning ticket holders? Why not?
  • Reinstitute the Challenge Round so any year’s champions get to revel in their win for more than a few months? Of course, or maybe even find a way to give them a bye in the first round or two.
  • Play it as a bi-annual event? It’d break my heart, but as a compromise it might satisfy the calls for change and increase Davis Cup’s profile.
  • Tweak the ATP calendar so there’s a proper off-season? Now just hold on there…..

The fact is that, on the whole Davis Cup is pretty Fabulous, and I don’t use the F word often. Consider:

  • In the past 3 years there have been 3 different Davis Cup championship teams, 2 of whom have been first time winners.
  • The largest crowd in Cup history was recorded in one of those finals (Switzerland vs France, Lille, France 2014).
  • 3 of the next 4 largest Davis Cup crowds have happened in the last 10 years.
  • The number of nations competing is close to tying the all time record of 139 countries in 2001 (128 in 2016).
  • During that 2014 tie in Lille, 14 million fans watched on tv, including a high of 3 million during the doubles (!). As Andy Murray played for the Cup in the 2015 final versus Belgium, BBC1’s coverage alone averaged 3 million viewers, a 22.9% share, and amazingly had an audience peak of 5 million at one point.
  • An estimated 4000 Argentine Davis Cup fans attended last year’s final round tie, away!, versus Croatia.

I say that’s a description of a sporting event that takes in just about the whole world and posts strong numbers doing so.

There’s room for tennis to draw more people to the sport, and I’ve written about it elsewhere. In the end, however, broken is as broken does. The numbers simply don’t make a case for Davis Cup’s being broken.

As sports drama it’s unmatched if you like tennis, and that’ s the rub. Will a bigger event, more like the major sports’ structures, bring fans who don’t already love tennis to buy tickets? I seriously question that, especially without some empirical evidence. Will more existing tennis fans commit to travel to otherwise uninvolved cities to watch teams that aren’t theirs? Or, perhaps more to the point, will these changes get more people to sit down in front of their televisions?

The desire to change Davis Cup has more to do with jealousy over what other sports are, and what tennis is fundamentally not, than they do with questions about why Davis Cup doesn’t work as it is. Is Dwight Davis’ creation improve-able? Yes. Definitely. Exploring ways to increase Davis Cup attendance and visibility should be encouraged. As we’ve seen above, though, tennis has a special jewel in Davis Cup. We should be careful to protect all that makes it successful on its own terms, great and unique on the world’s sporting stage. At the risk of repeating myself: broken is as broken does. Davis Cup isn’t broken, far from it, but if we break it with changes there’ll be no going back.

There’s nothing like Davis Cup®.

____________________________________________________________________________

This weekend, 15-17 September, the Davis Cup semi finals are being played: Belgium vs Australia, in Brussels, Belgium, and France vs Serbia, in Lille, France. You can follow the box scores and news at daviscup.com where you can also find live streaming or, without irony, on television depending on your local access.

Big tips of the hat to The Andrews; Andrew Burton (@burtonad) for pointing me to http://www.tennis-data.co.uk/alldata.php , where I mined the 5 set match data, and to Andrew Friedman (@toquelandandrew) for his invaluable Edward Bulwer-Lytton assistance.

1 Apologies to millennials, who I personally am not convinced need to be constantly mesmerized by ever-changing stimuli. It’s cited here as a common belief, it’s just not mine

2 Per Darren Cahill

3 If the embedded link has been problematic for you – it has been for me – copy and paste this link in a browser if you wish to see the source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2015/04/04/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-in-2015/#267176721871

4 This was Zverev’s ranking at the time.

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The Coronavirus Crisis Exposes A Lack Of Communication And Solidarity Among Tennis’ Top Bodies

There should be unity when it comes to a global pandemic that threatens the sport, but this has failed to happen once again.

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What is the world of tennis doing to deal with the Coronavirus threat? It should be a question with one answer from all within the sport. However, this was never going to happen in the confusing and complex world of tennis politics.

 

On Thursday afternoon the ATP confirmed the suspension of their tour for six weeks with immediate effect. Challenger tournaments taking place at present are to be cancelled by the end of the day (after matches have finished) and some of the most prestigious events will no longer happen. Including Miami, Monte Carlo and Barcelona. All set to feature many of the world’s top 10 players.

“This is not a decision that was taken lightly and it represents a great loss for our tournaments, players, and fans worldwide. However we believe this is the responsible action needed at this time in order to protect the health and safety of our players, staff, the wider tennis community and general public health in the face of this global pandemic.” ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi said in a statement.
“The worldwide nature of our sport and the international travel required presents significant risks and challenges in today’s circumstances, as do the increasingly restrictive directives issued by local authorities. We continue to monitor this on a daily basis and we look forward to the Tour resuming when the situation improves. In the meantime, our thoughts and well-wishes are with all those that have been affected by the virus.”

As male players ponder the repercussions of what the decision will have on them with many joking that they have been made unemployed, their female counterparts were left waiting. Then they waited some more and are still waiting now for some clarity.

In an unexpected turn of events, the WTA didn’t take a similar approach as that to the ATP. Well, for the moment that is what it seems. No statement has been disclosed to the public about their plans to counter Covid-19 on the tour. The only light shed was courtesy of the Associated Press, who obtained a brief comment.

It is as much shocking as it is baffling considering the ATP and WTA tour’s simultaneously take place in the same parts of the world many times throughout the year. Although this was always going to happen when there are two governing bodies. ATP oversees the men’s tour and WTA is in charge of the women’s.

Tennis bosses could rightfully argue that they should have the choice to do what they think is best. But surely a united approach to a global pandemic is the best one? Unless both tours take place on opposite sides of the world, what is the logic in not doing so?

In the midst of the confusion, the WTA suffered a fresh blow. The prestigious Volvo Open in Charleston officially cancelled their tournament for next month due to the current crises. It was at this point when WTA chief Steve Simon commented on his organisation’s approach to Covid-19. Almost five hours after the ATP statement.

“The WTA, working alongside our players and tournament leaders, will make a decision in the week ahead regarding the European clay season.” Simon said in a press release.

Of course, there has been communication between tennis’ top bodies. On what level as to what kind of detail is unclear. Although it is pretty evident that there are no united front. Rightfully, they both want to do what is best for their players, but seemingly have different ideas of how to tackle it.

There is also the International Tennis Federation to take into account. Overseen by president David Haggerty, they are in charge of the Fed and Davis Cup tournaments as well as the Olympic Tennis competition. To their credit, they have been the only governing body to mention the others.

“We are of course working closely with the WTA and ATP as well as with the IOC to minimise the health risk due to the spread of COVID-19.” ITF Head of Communications Heather Bowler told Ubitennis.
“There will be further announcements as the situation is evolving on a daily basis and tennis is working collaboratively to handle the impact on our sport.
“Since early Feb 2020, the ITF formed a dedicated COVID-19 Advisory Group comprised of medical, travel and security experts which is continuously monitoring the data, WHO guidelines and the steps announced by national authorities.”

Although there is irony when it comes to the ITF. Yesterday they confirmed the postpone of Fed Cup playoffs and finals. Then today they did the draw for the Davis Cup finals later this year, an hour after the ATP six-week suspension was confirmed. Would this timing have been made if tennis was run by one organisation? Absolutely not. By the way, all ITF tournaments have been postponed until April 20th.

It is clear that tennis is very patchy and has been for many years. They have a history of struggling to find a common ground. Just look at the development of men’s team tournaments over the past couple of years.

The ATP, WTA and ITF are not terrible organisations. Without them tennis would not be where it is now, which is a multi-million pound sport. However, they do lack unity and at times clarity. Leaving players and their teams in an uncertain situation.

Maybe it is time player’s have their own union in the future? After all, would you want to work in a job where there are three different bosses who make three different policies that will influence your career?

Locations of tournaments in the near future

WEEK STARTING ATP WTA
9/3/20 Indian Wells, USA
Indian Wells, USA
23/3/20 Miami, USA
Miami, USA
6/4/20 Marrakech, MOR
Houston, USA
Charleston, USA
Bogotá, COL
13/4/20 Monte Carlo
Fed Cup Finals, HUN*
2-/4/20 Barcelona, ESP
Budapest, HUN
Stuttgart, GER
Istanbul, TUR

*Run by ITF
Note: Cities crossed out with a horizontal line marks cancelled tournaments as of March 12th 2020.

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Coronavirus: I Think That The Time For Jokes Is Over

Those who should be calling the shots are showing more and more uncertainty. Surely, this is ignorance-driven, but then we should just play it safe.

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We’ve been kidding long enough. I wouldn’t have wanted to write about Coronavirus myself, since many have already done so and with much greater competence than I could ever muster. However, the situation has gotten to a point that prompts me to do it, albeit with the awareness that I can’t say anything particularly new or offer a fresh perspective on the disease. Right now, I feel like common sense is the only thing we can rely on, and I hope I have some to offer. 

 

Newspapers, TVs, all sorts of media outlets, they’ve been publishing endless content about Covid-19, flooding front pages, bulletins, etc…

At the same time, though, I’m pretty sure that we’ve all received jokes and memes on WhatsApp, always with a Coronavirus motif. Well, I think that we’ve reached the threshold of seriousness (especially among tennis and sports fans in general), now that we’re seeing some victims who apparently weren’t sick nor octogenarians.

While a few days ago I was frankly amused by a friend of mine who elected not to shake hands with me, well, today – after reading of a 61-year-old who died in Parma on Sunday night after experiencing the early symptoms on Friday night, a man who was apparently healthy and sporty, spending the entirety of his spare time on court – today I find myself more understanding towards whoever may decide to take precautions, while still trying not to be engulfed in mass hysteria.

And I don’t see why we shouldn’t advise that our loved ones take the same precautions, since they don’t hurt in any way – except for causing some embarrassment at having to refuse a handshake or a kiss on the cheek – and that the threat for public health is real, although maybe not as much as advertised.  So why take a risk? Quo bono? We can always apologise if our choice upsets somebody, as the other day I was upset myself, and we can always explain that we are not just doing it for our own sake. Is it boring, is it a nuance, is it ridiculous? It is, but there are worse ordeals to go through, ordeals that many people like us are experiencing after having felt safe and after having perhaps tried to play it cool when facing more timorous and wary than theirs.

Our politicians have been under heavy fire for the past few days. Some attacks were justified, others were not, some were ludicrous and self-interested, others were just spontaneous. Honestly, this isn’t an easy situation to manage, and, most importantly, no-one (and I mean no-one) could have any experience in managing them. This a complex predicament, even more from a public relations standpoint than from a decision-making one, because of the consequences that all choices and communications could have, on the one hand, for public health (the most important thing, and yet tied to a knowledge of the virus that eludes most), and. on the other, for the economy of a region and of a whole country, especially when having to take into account that some other countries might want – and I underline, might want – to speculate on the spread of the virus within our borders. The newly-found reputation of Italy having almost as many sick patients as China or South Korea – even though this is mostly caused by the quantity of testing that we’ve administered, unlike many other countries who have deemed us plague-spreaders – is a media reality that we have to come to terms with, unfortunately.

Almost all of us (including myself) have been making gut-based decisions, even when our gut blew hot and cold, influenced by official and non-officials channels that kept telling us different things, one minute trying to calm us down and instilling mortal dread the next.

Maybe this is due to contingent interests. The necessity not to scare-monger excessively, the necessity not to destroy the economy of a nation that has been acting as one of the three main incubators from the beginning, these necessities have driven some, politicians and laymen, to present scenarios that were ever too optimistic.

It won’t be easy to revive all the companies that in the meantime have fallen to historic lows, nor those that have experienced a heavy avalanche because of the uncertainties lying ahead.

At the same time the threat of a pandemic is casting dark lights on the future. And all of this is happening as real scientists are confused and fake ones confuse us, contradicting themselves in a hubbub of fake and actual news – the result is that nobody knows what’s going on. Unfortunately, the authorities have contributed to this disorienting feeling, both at a national, regional, and now the sports level.

The latter, like our Football Association (the Lega Calcio), have made the most damage, especially because of the media following that football has, for various reasons that encompass passion, money, visibility – a match between Juventus and Inter has a far greater impact than a concert, as it goes beyond our borders due to TV exposure. One region advised one thing, another said the exact opposite, the Serie A worried about the spread of the virus, the Serie B didn’t – a bona fide fiasco. We’ve witnessed contradictory approaches every day, even on the same show, even on different pages of the same newspaper.

Newspapers still have more credibility than web-based outlets, because we keep thinking that these fully-employed professionals are more punctual in the verification of news – I feel that such credibility is now crumbling.

Yesterday, We’ve been waiting all day of a government decree that would tell us how to go about with our daily lives as students, spectators, fans. The very first decree promulgated by our PM, Giuseppe Conte, pertained schools, whereas the wait for the expected suspension of sports events underwent further delays, as if 24 hours hadn’t been enough to make a definitive call – in the end, it was decided to play behind closed doors till April 3.

I don’t have an opinion on what should have been done, nor I think I should have one without the proper scientific knowledge that should be the basis for any decision of this kind. The only thing I feel comfortable saying is to accept every sort of decision with discipline, and to unite as much as possible, without any considerations pertaining internal divisions, contrasts, or interests.

What I care about is the Italian people and their well-being. What I care about is Italy, its consistency, and even its image, which hasn’t had many good looks so far. Let’s try, for once, to behave as we would like our kids to behave, especially for those who go to a football match solely to wish a painful death to every fouled opponent – my dream is that one day fans might stop with hate-cheering against opposing teams and cities, but I feel like this might be utopian. I mean that for the readers of UbiTennis too, who sometimes transcend civility and display attitudes that are far over the line.

Finally, to go back to our beloved game: the Davis Cup tie between Italy and South Korea will be played behind closed doors, which is too bad, as those who have made the effort to organise the event, the players, the fans, they would have deserved a proper atmosphere. I dearly hope that this decision was not instrumental to political or economic interests.

Those who should be calling the shots are showing more and more uncertainty. Surely, this is ignorance-driven, but then we should just play it safe. I have never been prone to alarmism, albeit perhaps I have been to fatalism, and this is what I think. What about you?

Article translated from Italian to English by Tommaso Villa

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A Doping Ban And Frosty Friendships Failed To Stop Maria Sharapova Becoming A Tennis Icon

The inspiring, complicated and controversial career of one of Russia’s most renowned players of all time.

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In an ideal world Maria Sharapova’s legacy will be her five grand slam titles or the fact she is the third youngest woman in history to win a Wimbledon title. However, it was never that simple for the former tennis superstar throughout her career.

 

On Wednesday the Russian announced her immediate retirement from tennis at the age of 32. She chose to make her announcement in a heartfelt article written for Vanity Fair. In it she elegantly wrote ‘tennis- I’m saying goodbye.’ The decision comes after months of injury setbacks, particularly concerning her shoulder, side-lining Sharapova from the tour. She hasn’t played since losing in the first round at the Australian Open to Donna Vekic, but few expected that to be the last match of her career.

“In giving my life to tennis, tennis gave me a life. I’ll miss it everyday. I’ll miss the training and my daily routine: waking up at dawn, lacing my left shoe before my right, and closing the court’s gate before I hit my first ball of the day. I’ll miss my team, my coaches. I’ll miss the moments sitting with my father on the practice court bench. The handshakes—win or lose—and the athletes, whether they knew it or not, who pushed me to be my best.” Sharapova wrote.
“Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain.”

Renowned for her fighting spirit displayed on the court, Sharapova achieved numerous milestones by the age of 18 that many others would dream of doing in their entire careers. Including winning the 2004 Wimbledon championships at the age of 17 before rising to world No.1 a year later. Despite her inexperience at the time, she managed to make herself a household name worldwide and laid the foundations to becoming one of the most prestigious female athletes in the world.

Over the coming years, she would record 98 victories over top 10 players, win 36 WTA titles (including five majors) and spend a total of 21 weeks as world No.1. Furthermore, she finished 13 seasons inside the world’s top 20 and is the third highest earning player in the history of the WTA Tour with $38.8 million in prize money earned.

It is hard to describe how extraordinary Sharapova’s career has been and to a degree subjective too. According to Forbes magazine her total career earnings are estimated to be in the region of $325 million. A figure includes her prize money, endorsements and appearances over the years. To put that into perspective, only Serena Williams has made more ($350 million). Williams is six years older than her.

“One of the keys to my success was that I never looked back and I never looked forward. I believed that if I kept grinding and grinding, I could push myself to an incredible place. But there is no mastering tennis—you must simply keep heeding the demands of the court while trying to quiet those incessant thoughts in the back of your mind.”

Highly respected, but not loved by all

Maria Sharapova at the US Open 2018 (photo via Twitter @usopen)

Throughout her career, the Russian was very much focused on her tennis and not making friends on the tour. She once said ‘I’m not really friendly or close to many players. I have not a lot of friends away from the courts.’ One of her biggest critics on the tour was Dominika Cibulkova, who she played seven times on the tour between 2008-2018.

“She’s a totally unlikeable person,” Cibulkova once said of Sharapova. “Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won’t even say hello.”

It is Sharapova’s rivalry and relationship with Williams which was the most publicised. Two years ago she released a memoir titled Unstoppable: My life so far that reportedly featured the name of her American nemesis an estimated 100 times. In one chapter she wrote ‘I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry.’ Sharapova later claimed that she heard Williams telling a friend that she ‘will never lose to that little b**** again.’

Inevitably Williams was questioned about the book during the 2018 French Open. Diplomatically she assured that she had no ‘negative feelings’ against Sharapova, but did question the accuracy of her account.

“I wanted to read the book and I was really excited for it to come out and I was really happy for her.” Williams said of Sharapova.
“And then the book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest. I was,like ‘Oh, okay.’ I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true.”

The introverted approach from the former world No.1, who has a active social life outside of the sport, was something she had from a young age. Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri first got acquainted with her when she was nine at his academy.

“One her work is done, she’s gone,” he told The Independent in a previous interview.
“She doesn’t like to hang around. There’s no bullshitting afterwards with the other players. It’s all business.”

The ban that could have destroyed her

Little did she know that her popularity on the tour would decline further. In 2016 the sports world was stunned when Sharapova conducted a press conference as a venue that she famously described as having ‘an ugly carpet.’ Unfortunately that was the only humorous thing on that occasion. In a broadcast that was streamed live around the world, she confirmed she has failed a drugs test. The culprit was meldonium, which was added to the list of prohibited substances just months before. Naturally, she protested her innocence, but the suspicion remained.

Less than 12 months before her statement, she was one of the most, if not the most, sought after female athletes. In fact Forbes.com named her as the world’s most marketable female athlete of 2015.

“In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back. Tennis is my passion and I have missed it.” She commented on her ban.

Initially slammed with a 24-month ban, it was reduced to 15 months after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that she was not an ‘intentional doper.’ Not that their verdict reduced the critical comments. Usually when an athlete is sanctioned for doping, they suffer a freefall in endorsements. Yet, in Sharapova’s case many jumped to her defence. Nike, Porsche, Evian and Head all maintained their links. The only exception was Tag Heuer who decided not to renew a previous deal. Few athletes in the world have the ability to do that, but Sharapova somehow did.

“I don’t think there’s too many athletes that could have had those type of relationships with people, decision-makers that knew her really well and the character of her, and where willing to hang in there, to wait, instead of terminating, but suspending the contract. That was really the key. Everybody had termination clauses and they decided to suspend and wait,” agent Max Eisenbud once said in an interview with Forbes.

Fighting until she decided to stop

When she returned to the sport following the ban, Sharapova once again faced the hostility of her rivals. Top names such as Caroline Wozniacki and Andy Murray questioned the decision to award her wild cards following a drugs ban. Nevertheless, like throughout the majority of her career, she was defiant and undeterred by what others think .

“I don’t think it’s for them to really have an opinion because they don’t have the facts. Those are the types of words that make headlines and they will be used as headlines. But ultimately, this is my career and I faced it head on. I admitted my mistake and I went about it and I served my suspension and now I’m back.” She told BBC Sport in 2017.

Sharapova managed to build up her tennis career and returned as a familiar figure on the tour, but she was no longer the player she was earlier in her career. Winning the Tianjin Open almost three years ago would turn out to be her last taste of silverware in professional tennis. She would eventually end back in the world’s top 30 before injury would be the start of the end. Numerous shoulder problems sidelined her from actions for days, then weeks. After fighting for so long, she finally gave in after her experience during last year’s US Open.

“Shoulder injuries are nothing new for me — over time my tendons have frayed like a string. I’ve had multiple surgeries — once in 2008; another procedure last year — and spent countless months in physical therapy. Just stepping onto the court that day felt like a final victory, when of course it should have been merely the first step toward victory. I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”

Sharapova will not be remembered as the player everybody loved and sadly her doping ban taints her career. Yet she still managed to remain one of the sport’s most iconic and influential figures for more than a decade. Many people would have never been able to do this, but Sharapova was one in a million.

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