The United States Open tennis tournament begins today in New York. Normally, I make my annual Open appearance on the first day, swooping in to see a few friends, spend some time wandering the outside courts—still the most fun you can have at a major as far as I’m concerned—and then get out of town before I start to get upset about the continuing disaster that is the management of tennis around the world.
You see, I love tennis. The last two Wimbledon men’s finals (Federer-Nadal and Federer-Roddick) were about as good as sports ever gets. Tennis was the one sport my dad really enjoyed and I grew up trying—without too much luck—to play it. I still have a few trophies from boyhood but I pretty much knew at the age of 12 when I managed to reach the final at a reasonably decent tennis camp in New Jersey that I wasn’t destined for greatness. I played a kid named Barry Barth in the final and he beat me 6-0, 6-1. I was down 5-0 when I finally won that one game and when we shook hands, Barth was clearly upset. “I can’t believe I let you win a game,” he said.
I learned two lessons that day: I was never going to compete with really good players—later that summer I saw Barth play then-12-year-old Gene Mayer and Mayer was upset because BARTH won a game—and the best players in the sport are frequently jerks.
That didn’t change a whole lot when I covered tennis regularly for The Washington Post and then The National Sports Daily for 10 years beginning in 1981 and wrote my tennis book, ‘Hard Courts,’ which came out in 1991. Some of the players were okay, I grew to like some of the stars, particularly John McEnroe and Chris Evert (okay, I still had a boyhood crush on her) and Martina Navratilova and Boris Becker. I even got along with Ivan Lendl towards the end of both our tennis careers.
But covering the sport was HARD. Unlike golf, where the players understand that dealing with the media is part of the job, tennis players are shielded like no athletes in the world. Locker rooms, even at rinky-dink tournaments, are closed to the media. Even player lounges are usually closed. At Wimbledon you practically need a court order to get into the players ‘tea room.’ I almost got arrested—no exaggeration—at a rinky-dink tournament in Australia because Lendl invited me into the locker room to talk to him and, as I was walking OUT, I was stopped by two security guards demanding to know how I had ‘sneaked,’ into the locker room.
Sitting down one-on-one with someone usually involves going through their agent and life is just too short to deal with those people on a regular basis. Dealing with most players in those days was best summed up by a guy named Jim Pugh. If you’re a real tennis geek you may remember him: he was a Davis Cup doubles player (along with Rick Leach) for several years. As part of my book research, I wanted to spend maybe an hour with him AT SOME POINT during 1990.
We first set up a time to talk in Australia. He blew me off. Then Rome and Paris and London. Same thing. Finally we agreed we would talk on a Saturday morning in Newport, about as laid-back an event as you could find. I showed up to watch he and Leach finish a match off. As he walked back to the old clubhouse, I fell into step and said something like, “you want to shower and grab something to eat or do you just want to do this right away?”
Pugh looked at me as if I’d asked him to front him a million bucks. “What do you mean?” he asked. (We had confirmed the interview the previous afternoon). “I’m going to go play some golf.”
I’m usually pretty patient with athletes when, for one reason or another they put off an interview. After all, they are giving me their time. This time, I lost it. “PLAYING GOLF?” I screamed. “PLAYING GOLF? YOU AND I CONFIRMED THIS 15 HOURS AGO, WHAT DO YOU MEAN PLAYING GOLF?”
“Well, it’s a nice day and I thought we could do this another time.”
“NO WE CAN’T. YOU HAVE BLOWN ME OFF IN FOUR COUNTRIES. YOU AREN’T MAKING IT FIVE. WE’RE GOING TO TALK NOW OR I SWEAR I WILL FOLLOW YOU TO THE DAMN GOLF COURSE!”
Apparently Pugh realized I meant it. “Okay, okay,” he finally said. When we sat down, he was fine. But seriously, should one have to work that hard to interview Jim Pugh?
Now, I know most of you don’t really care about media access or how hard or easy it is for us to do our jobs. But you should. The ONLY reason we have access—or should have access—is so that we can report back (thus the term) to the public that has an interest in the athletes and coaches on what they are doing, saying or thinking. As I said in arguing the case with tennis officials for years, it is the public that makes these guys rich and we are supposed to represent that public. We don’t always do it well, but we’re supposed to try our best to do it.
The tennis people laughed me off when, as president of the U.S. Tennis Writers Association, I pleaded for more access, pointing out that tennis would not be a boom sport forever. I’m not saying the sport’s fall from popularity is because the media can’t get to the players on a regular basis but I think it’s a factor. People feel as if they KNOW golfers, even Tiger Woods, who is less accessible than any golfer in history but still more accessible than 99 percent of tennis players.
Tennis ratings have dwindled to almost nothing except for a Wimbledon or U.S. Open final here or there. Half the tournaments once played in the U.S. are long gone. The Davis Cup, which used to be a BIG deal, is practically invisible in this country. And yet, tennis people still don’t get it.
A few years ago I wrote a column on the first day of the Open saying half the problem with tennis was that when people like me—and I’m surely not alone, my friend Sally Jenkins wrote a cover piece for Sports Illustrated titled, ‘The Death of tennis,’—said that tennis was in trouble, tennis people always insisted that WE were the trouble. Sure enough, later that day I was standing in a hallway at the Open talking to a friend. McEnroe walked by and when I said hello, he put his head down and kept going.
“Hey John,” I said. “You don’t even say hello?”
He whirled, pointed his finger at me and said, “Why should I say hello? You’re just out here to try to destroy tennis.”
“Actually I’m here to try and help you get the Davis Cup captaincy,” I said. (he was campaigning for it back then).
McEnroe smiled and walked back to me, hand out. “In that case,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
At least he—unlike most in tennis—still has a sense of humor.