Category Archives: tennis

Tennis’ continuum of future, past, present

(2017 Australian Open)

From here, it’s almost always tomorrow in Australia, 16 hours in the future. But through to the magic of the DVR, it was possible to repeatedly retrieve yesterdays throughout the two weeks of the Australian Open tennis championships, during which events seemed to pass along a continuum, back and forth, from the day after through the past to the present.

Both the men’s and women’s title matches offered a glimpse of ancient history recycled and updated—the Williams sisters crossing swords for the 28th time in their careers, the 15th time in a Grand Slam tournament and the eighth time in a major final, followed by a 35th revival of Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, further creating the sensation of being unstuck in time.

These are the acts you’ve known for all these years, especially the Serena Williams-Venus Williams show. The first time they dueled in a Slam final, at the 2001 U.S. Open, Federer was still two years away from the first of his 18 major titles, with Nadal’s first of 14 Slam trophies four years in the future.

In 2001, the Williamses already were the biggest news in tennis, Venus at 21 and Serena about to turn 20, their Open showdown timed perfectly with the first scheduled prime-time television coverage of a major tennis championship final.

The packed house of 23,023 in Arthur Ashe Stadium included a raft of entertainment and sports celebrities, among them Spike Lee, Robert Redford, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Diana Ross, who sang “God Bless America,” then offered a pre-match handshake and hug to both sisters. Also in attendance that night was Mary Tyler Moore; how’s that for a then-and-now reflection?

(2001 U.S. Open)

It was three days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so the Big Town had no trouble throwing massive attention into a tennis match, which proved to demonstrate that a sibling rivalry is not necessarily a spectator sport. Not since 1884 had sisters played each other in a major tennis championship—19-year-old Maud Watson defeated older sister Lilian for the Wimbledon title back when the sport was contested by amateurs and both Watsons played in white corsets and petticoats.

The Williamses, once down to business, were caught in what Serena called a “weird atmosphere,” the crowd unsure about taking sides and the players bumbling around in a disorienting psychological study, at turns overaggressive and cautious.

“Sisters are rivals,” Serena said after losing in straight sets. “A lot of people in families fight, and I guess our fighting is done out on the court, because we never fight. Maybe older sisters and older brothers wanted to see Venus win, and younger sisters and younger brothers wanted to see me win. Right now, I have zero difficulty with that.”

That was Venus’ fourth major crown, but Serena quickly turned the tables in their next four Slam finals matches—at the 2002 French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and 2003 Australian—at which time Belgium’s perennial contender, Justine Henin, declared that “people are getting bored” by Williams-vs.-Williams championship matches. “Fans don’t know who to root for.”

Maybe. But there was not a single tournament director on the pro women’s tour who didn’t relish having the Williamses’ star power over the past decade and a half.  Prior to this year’s Aussie final, the sisters had last played each other in a major at the 2015 U.S. quarterfinals, with Serena attempting a calendar sweep of the four Slams, and there was nothing subtle about the power and passion that both she and Venus brought to that battle.

That may have produced the most fascinating athletic narrative in their long rivalry, a three-set victory for Serena in a feisty, noisy combat. What the 2017 Australian Open reinforced is that Serena, at 35, remains the most dominant player in women’s tennis. And that Venus, at 36, still is capable of managing an autoimmune disorder well enough to occasionally compete at the highest level.

In 1997, when Venus, at 17, made her first Grand Slam splash by advancing to the U.S. final (a loss to then No. 1 Martina Hingis) while playing with 1,800 colored beads in her hair, she announced that she was “completely different. I’m tall, I’m black, everything’s different about me than what’s been around….Face the facts.”

The facts are that Althea Gibson was tall and black and completely different 40 years earlier, when she became the first black player to win the U.S. title in 1957. Between Gibson and Venus, there was a handful of other black women on the pro circuit—Renee Blount, Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil….

(The sisters in 1996)

But there is no getting around the uniqueness of the sister act that continues to play out on the sport’s largest stages. And there’s no guarantee it won’t stay around a bit longer. That—and more of what Federer and Nadal offered in Melbourne—hints at some inextricable connection between the present, future and past.

Bud Collins, R.I.P. (Real Inspirational Person)

IMG_0905

Really accomplished people aren’t necessarily nice, but Bud Collins was. In the extreme. He was much too busy—as the Boswell of Tennis, the sport’s premier historian and conscience who brightened newspapers, magazines and television—to bother with showing the ropes to young whippersnappers arriving on the beat. But of course he did. Unfailingly and for decades.

Collins, who died Friday at 86, was far too recognizable—bald head, big smile, sweater thrown jauntily over his shoulders, pants with patterns so loud they could speak for themselves—to take any time mixing with the hoi polloi. Yet he always did.

During those brief shuttle-bus rides from parking lot to main gate at the U.S. Open—no VIP treatment for him—Collins would be invited by fans to “enjoy the tennis today.”

“What’s not to enjoy?” Collins would respond happily. When they asked about his work, he would say, “I haven’t worked in—what?—40 years.”

He unfailingly saw “good in people” and unabashedly loved tennis, though neither of those realms necessarily guaranteed virtue. His reporting was even-handed, sometimes critical but never mean. Irreverent but lighthearted. With a goodly amount of literacy and puns.

In 1993, with the confluence of the Academy Award nomination for the film “Prince of Tides”—which starred 51-year-old Barbra Steisand—and the news that Streisand was dating 22-year-old tennis star Andre Agassi, whose often novel tennis attire included form-fitting bicycle shorts, Collins playfully dubbed Agassi “The Prince of Tights.” Not unkindly, he called Monica Seles, one of the first of the sport’s loud grunters, “Moanin’ Monica.” And tall, gangly, big-hitting Pam Shriver “The Great Whomping Crane.” And blonde, defensive-minded Caroline Wozniacki “The Golden Retriever.”

He described the sport as “a pitcher of lemonade. Sweet and piquant, altogether tasty. The lemons, freshly picked and squeezed, yield something a little different each time. Delightful. Refreshing. Satisfying. I never tire of the flavor. Pour me another glass, another match.”

And the more folks who would join him in that appreciation, the merrier.

My first time to cover Wimbledon was in 1986. That meant two appealing weeks to report from the sport’s cathedral, with the added bonus of having my wife and 6-year-old daughter simultaneously experience a London holiday. They took in museums and shows, castles and other tourist attractions, with no thought of witnessing any live tennis, because the lines—sorry, “queues”—for Wimbledon tickets stretched forever outside the tennis grounds every day.

Exterior, Grumbles Restaurant, Belgrovia, London, Great Britain, Europe

 

One morning we were having breakfast when Bud dropped into the same restaurant, a place called Grumbles. (Ironic name, that, since Collins never was heard to moan about anything, though he lost a live-in companion and a wife to brain cancer, and had a sister and brother-in-law murdered by a former patient of their drug rehabilitation center.)

Typically, Collins stopped to chat. (All of us were staying at the same nearby apartment complex, Dolphin Square, because it long ago had been recommended to Newsday reporters staffing Wimbledon by one Bud Collins.) Naturally, without us even hinting, he offered to get tennis tickets for my wife and daughter. He did the same a few years later, too—just as he did over the decades for countless others whom he treated like close friends.

“Of course I remember him,” my daughter responded to my text that Collins had died. She now lives and works in Shanghai, yet she mentioned that “there is someone else here who also knew him….”

Everyone knew Bud. Everyone owed him something. Often on the Wimbledon nights that I worked past 11:30 p.m., when the Underground shut down at the tournament’s Southfields Station and the only option was an expensive taxi ride back to Dolphin Square, Collins—who wrapped up his Boston Globe stories after finishing day-long TV gigs—would offer a ride in his car provided by NBC.

He was among the most valuable souls who escorted me through a half-century of sports journalism, all those models of ethics and persistence, purveyors of history and contacts, practitioners of what old sportswriter Dan Jenkins once described as “literature in a hurry.”

Plus, Collins was good company. He was entirely too knowledgeable—tennis’ most authoritative voice and on a first-name basis with generations of players and officials; tennis royalty, really—to kibitz with us commoners. But he did, as equals.

It was from Collins that I learned about Richard Norris Williams, the Titanic survivor who later won two U.S. championships. And about fashion throwback Trey Waltke, a Californian who in 1983 wore long flannel pants and long-sleeved, white button-down shirt at Wimbledon against former champion Stan Smith. (And won.) It was Collins who pointed me—and so many others—toward the coaches and former players who could discuss the sport’s trends, technology, rules, international hotspots and foibles.

After taking a fall in his New York hotel during the 2011 U.S. Open, which resulted in a ruptured quadriceps tendon that required 10 surgical procedures, Collins disappeared from tennis press rooms, creating a decided vacuum of knowledge and just plain fun.

Last September, when U.S. Tennis Association poohbahs officially christened the Flushing Meadows press center the “Bud Collins U.S. Open Media Center,” Bud briefly appeared—in a wheelchair, speaking barely in a whisper—for the honor.

(Bud Collins' last appearance at the U.S. Open. Sept. 6, 2015.)

Superstars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were among the players, shakers and movers who greeted Collins that day, followed by fellow tennis journalists. It was obvious that Collins was struggling a bit to identify all the old faces, an incongruous reversal for a man so long the master of recalling every name and detail.

Several of us said, “I’m not sure he knows me anymore. But I have to say ‘hello.’ And ‘thanks.’”

(It was always Bud Collins' room. But this made it official.)

 

How to fix the fix in tennis?

bet

Following the bouncing ball of innuendo, there could be some hardened cynics out there who dare to connect Serena Williams’ shocking loss in the Australian Open semifinals with the match-fixing reports that shadowed this year’s Grand Slam tournament Down Under. Anyone who has been around Williams, a ferociously ambitious champion, would dismiss such a low-down link out of hand. It’s just that the gambling mind-set includes the notion that there is no such thing in sports as an upset. Only a fix.

And even dismissing that more rascally point of view, it doesn’t take real evidence of skullduggery to create a pervasive fear among fans that somebody might have a thumb on the scales at times.

While the joint report by the BBC and Buzzfeed, published at the start of the Australian Open, mostly rehashed suspicious matches from 2007, there was this dog whistle days later: The New York Times detailed an abnormal volume of bets on an obscure mixed-doubles match and subsequently observed some dubiously executed shots in that match.

It’s all murky stuff, open to various interpretations. Who can tell if a player is trying his or her best? A few messy forehands, a volley flubbed into the net, a couple of double faults. Maybe there are honest instances of temporary loss of concentration, what the old Australian great Evonne Goolagong described as “gone on a walkabout.” Maybe there is the matter of an injured player, aware he or she cannot win, nevertheless choosing a below-par performance over skipping the match and forfeiting the loser’s prize money.

While the bookies and bettors are thinking: Fix. Thinking: It only takes one to tangle reality.

No less a tennis insider than Patrick McEnroe—who has been a player, coach, player-development official and commentator—told the Times a couple of years ago that his sport is a “very easy game to manipulate” and that, if he were so inclined, he could “throw a match and you’d never know.”

Veteran tennis author Peter Bodo, in an espn.com post, argued that the current controversy was “less about match-fixing than the difficulty of actually proving matches have been fixed, and identifying the culprits.”

Bodo called that a “wake-up call to tennis officials who might not have understood how deeply they’ve become entwined with gambling entities, and where those associations might lead.”

Early in the tournament, eventual Aussie runner-up Andy Murray suggested that it was “hypocritical” for the Open to have an official gambling partnership with United Kingdom bookmaker William Hill, while the players are forbidden to accept endorsements deals with such agencies.

hill

On the Australian web site conversation.com, Charles Livingstone of Melbourne-based Monash University worried that the “rampant promotion of gambling on a seemingly never-ending exponential trajectory” not only meant that “more people are likely to gamble,” but also that younger generations have come to “view all sporting contests through the lens of the odds and the ‘value’ available from different bookies.” Possibly sending them on the path to a destructive habit.

“More broadly,” Livingstone wrote, “the inestimable value of the untrammeled enjoyment of sport is lost. If you love a specific sport and see it degraded by scandal after scandal, some part of the enjoyment is gone forever.”

Or, you could think of it like this: A scoundrel willing to risk his reputation as a tennis pro—and possibly his career—by throwing a match, and a blackguard endeavoring to buy that player’s agreement to sandbag (either of which could end up the victim of a double-cross) deserve each other.

Common sense requires an acknowledgement of sports gambling, much of it legal, as well as recognition that great athletic feats can be divine but that not all the actors are angels. And tennis authorities—just as officials in all sport—have a responsibility to keep an eye out for untoward influences. It was the great British detective writer Agatha Christie who said, “Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.”

agatha

As a spectator, though, none of this turns me toward misanthropy, away from sport’s ideal of a battleground of honor, where the best man or woman wins. Upsets can happen.

A tennis player knows: Sun gets in your eyes.

(The professional men’s tennis tour is stopping in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week, just miles from the Equator, another summer stop in the sport’s traveling circus. Below is a story produced for Newsday during the recent U.S. Open that never saw the light of day. No pun intended. Perhaps it applies….)

shade

For tennis players, the sun is an occupational hazard. Especially when executing a service toss around high noon.

“It’s like an outfielder trying to catch a fly ball,” top-ranked American John Isner said. “You see it all the time that they lose the ball in the sun. We lose balls in the sun all the time as well.”

The process of keeping an eye on the ball, after lifting it overhead and directly in line with Sol, is just one more potential peril in the game. It is not unusual to see a player repeatedly look up to gauge the sun’s angle before serving, sometimes adding a practice toss.

Tennis, after all, is a sport that literally follows the sun, with the majority of the pro tour contested outdoors and often in warmer climes, beginning the calendar year Down Under in Australia’s summertime. Yet the challenge of having to regularly spy a yellow tennis ball in a sky with a big white ball of light is ongoing.

“I actually asked John [Isner] the same question [about the service toss],” said No. 4 women’s player Caroline Wozniacki. “Because, sometimes—in Australia, especially—the sun in right in your face and it’s really hard.

“You can kind of throw the ball a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right and kind of work with it. But you just know it’s the same for the opponent, so you just have to go with it.

“I don’t {change the] position of my stance, just my aim. You need to make sure you get up to the ball with perfect timing, because you have less of a margin when you move the ball around.”

guy

Marin Cilic of Croatia, the 2014 U.S. champ, called it “always tricky” to adjust a toss to keep the sun out of his eyes, “looking more to one side so the sun doesn’t bother me so much. And that’s always going to play around with your effectiveness on your serve.”

More difficult, even, “is the first shot after the serve,” he said, “still having the [effects of looking into the] sun in your eyes.”

So why, one might ask, don’t more tennis pros play in sunglasses?

A few do. Serb Janko Tipsarevic and his countryman Viktor Troicki. Australia’s Samantha Stoser. First-year pro Jamie Loeb, North Carolina’s NCAA champ.

sunglass

Loeb said she began playing in shades when she was 7 or 8 because her eyes “are really sensitive and I can’t play with a hat. I know a lot of girls say they just can’t play with sunglasses but, for me, it’s something I’m comfortable with.”

Yet it has nothing to do, Loeb said, with fighting the sun on her service toss, which is “just something I’ve gotten use to over the years.”

Stoser’s rationale for sunglasses has even less to do with playing conditions. “I started wearing them when I was about 14,” she said, “just because I thought I’d look cool and different. And now I can’t play without them” except at night or in full shade.

Even with the eyewear, she said, “if I’m serving right into the sun, I still probably squint a little bit.”

There are on-line tennis discussion boards in which recreational players have declared that their eye doctors recommend playing in sunglasses, yet others insist that dark lenses impair reaction time. Some even suggest a tactical advantage similar to that used by poker players indoors, where there is no sun: With dark glasses, your opponent can’t detect, from your eyes the direction of the upcoming shot.

But pure reasoning and science don’t appear to affect players’ choice in the matter any more than 1968 Olympic gold medal relay sprinter Charlie Greene’s explanation for competing in sunglasses. “These,” Greene said of his shades, “are my re-entry shields.”

In the end, the lack of sunglasses-wearing tennis pros appears to be a matter of merely doing things the way they’re always been done. Cilic is among those who said he simply would feel “uncomfortable” playing in sunglasses.

“When I was younger,” Wozniacki said, “when I was, like, 9, I think my coach said it was unprofessional [to play in sunglasses]. You know, Why not play with sunglasses that actually make it easier to see? I don’t see a reason why not. But when you’re not used to it and you didn’t do it growing up, it’s a hard transition.”

Even the old song—“My future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”—doesn’t appear to apply here.

Arthur Ashe: Not just a tennis stadium

I had not yet heard of Barack Obama at the time, and certainly had not considered the kind of leap forward in American race relations that could lead to voting a black man into the White House. But in late August of 1992, during a lengthy interview with Arthur Ashe, it suddenly didn’t seem the least bit unreasonable when Ashe said, “I really want to be president. I think I can be a good president.”

Here in Black History Month and, this Friday, exactly 22 years since Ashe’s death at 49 from complications of AIDS, is an ideal time to be reminded that Arthur Ashe is not just a stadium in New York City. Not just some departed tennis pioneer.

stadium

Ashe called himself a “political nut.” He was the rare athletic champion who actually connected with the real world. He was an activist against South African apartheid, a public face in the fight against HIV (which he had contracted through a blood transfusion after a second heart attack), an advocate for children’s education, a published historian.

When he found research material on past black athletes frustratingly lacking, he spent six years finishing his own three-volume work, “A Hard Road to Glory.” He was disappointed to learn that three-time Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee had never heard of Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win Olympic gold (in the 1948 high jump). He called a dismissive quote by baseball’s Vince Coleman (“I don’t know nothing about no Jackie Robinson”) “one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”

Ashe was a worldly, well-educated black man of enormous calm and grace who shattered stereotypes: An athlete with a sense of history, a jock interested in schooling, an elite sportsman who played in horn-rimmed glasses. He was a black star in what had been (and mostly remains) a white man’s sport—winner of three of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments.

And to celebrated sportswriter Frank Deford, who knew Ashe well, Ashe had offered a glimpse of the 2008 presidential campaign, in that Obama “reminds me more of Arthur Ashe than anyone in his own business,” Deford wrote.

After his death on Feb. 6, 1993, Ashe’s coffin was put on public view in the state capitol building in Richmond, Va.—Ashe’s hometown, but also the capital of the Confederacy and the heart of the not-so-long-ago segregated South. A local Baptist preacher named Larry Nobles was among some 5,500 people who paid their respects over four hours, marveling at the setting (Robert E. Lee’s father originally had lived on the site). “This is history, isn’t it?” Nobles asked then. “Look at this. This is history.”

In the crowd that day was LaVerne Buckner, who said she sat in front of Ashe in sophomore history class at segregated Maggie Walker High School more than 30 years before. “I was talking with friends before,” she said, “and we mentioned that Stonewall Jackson and Lee must be rumbling in their graves today.”

At Ashe’s funeral the next day, then-New York mayor David Dinkins called Ashe a “freedom fighter” and “one of the most decent human beings I have ever known. Let me say it as plainly as I can: Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us.”

The story was told about Ashe’s younger brother once sarcastically asking him, “If the world breaks down, are you going to fix it with a tennis racket?” Followed by testimonials that, in effect, Ashe did.

There now is a statue of Ashe in Richmond, at one end of Monument Avenue—which also has sculptures of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Robert E. Lee—depicting Ashe with books in one hand and a tennis racket in the other, and surrounded by children. Symbolically fixing the world through a new generation.

ashepic

“He said he did not wish to be remembered just as a tennis player,” then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown told mourners at the funeral, “and I’m sure that we all will honor that wish. But I will surely remember his victory in the U.S. Open [in 1968—the first year of open tennis], and I surely will remember his victory at Wimbledon [in 1975]. He was a beautiful black man in beautiful white clothes, playing a beautiful white game. And winning.”

Jesse Jackson called Ashe “a moment in the conscience of mankind.” A champion, Jackson said, “when he wins, rides on the people’s shoulders. But a hero lifts the people. When Arthur won, we were on his shoulders.”

Ashe had been introduced to tennis when he was 5 years old, as the result of his father being named caretaker of the second-largest tennis club in Richmond, a job that came with a house located on the club’s grounds. Tutored by Lynchburg physician Walter Johnson, who had aided Althea Gibson’s entry into the national championships at Forest Hills—the forerunner to the U.S. Open—Ashe earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA, graduated with a business degree, learned 16 variations of the backhand stroke and became the first tennis pro to earn over $100,000. He looked out for his colleagues, founding the ATP, the players’ union for the men’s tour, at a tumultuous time when major tournaments were moving past an amateur model.

“Athletes,” he noted during that 1992 interview, “are focused on the here and now. Most of our premier athletes are between 18 and 34 years old. In that range, you’re at your best in a physical and emotional sense. You think you’re immortal. We all think of ourselves as invincible, indestructible.”

Yet he always was thinking beyond the game. Being able to sit down with national and global shakers and movers and decision-makers, he said, was “one of the joys of being a professional tennis player for 10 years.” When Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison after 27 years, the first person he asked to visit was Ashe.

At a New York City memorial two days after Ashe’s funeral, tennis champ Billie Jean King said, “Arthur had the cutest, tiniest, sweetest ears I’ve ever seen on a human being. I used to ask him, ‘How do your glasses ever stay on those sweet little ears?’ But those tiny ears listened to so much. Because it didn’t matter to Arthur what gender you were, or what race, or what country you came from….”

Former basketball pro Bill Bradley who, like Ashe, was a world-class athlete who wanted to do more with his life than just be an athlete, declared at the memorial service that Ashe “made a difference. Arthur, you will be remembered.”

If he is not, it would be one of the saddest things a soul could hear. I, too, think he could have been a good president.