Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tennis - a niche sport with the inmates (players) running the asylum; ESPN is at it again

There was a brief story in this morning’s New York Times about Serena Williams complaining following her first round match at The Australian Open about the $92,000 fine she received after last year’s U.S. Open for screaming at and physically threatening a lineswoman during her semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters.

If you want to know why so few people in this country care about tennis anymore this is EXACTLY the reason why.

Think about it: In any other sport if an athlete threatened an umpire, a referee or any official the only question would be how long they would be suspended for not IF they would be suspended. The Grand Slam Committee, which administers tennis’s four major championships took months to even make a decision about how to punish Williams and when it finally did she was, for all intents and purposes, let off the hook.

The ONLY way to get the attention of a multi-millionaire athlete is to take away the one thing that matters from them: the ability to compete. Tiger Woods had been fined more than any golfer in PGA Tour history for his profanity, for his club-throwing, for the behavior of his caddy. Not only have the fines not been a deterrent on any level Woods has actually defended his caddy for throwing people’s cameras and screaming his own profanities at people he thinks aren’t behaving properly in the presence of King Eldrick 1.

To fine Serena Williams $92,000 wasn’t just a wrist slap it was a light wrist slap.

Just to review what occurred: A lineswoman called a foot fault on Williams when she was serving to stay in the match in the second set. It was, without question, a critical call and the kind of call rarely made at such a moment. I have yet to see a replay that shows one way or the other whether the foot fault was so blatant that it shouldn’t have been called.

Regardless, Williams went completely ballistic, screaming at the lineswoman while walking towards her menacingly holding a ball in her hand and threatening to shove it down her throat. For this she received (properly) a warning that involved a point penalty. Since the foot fault put her at match point that was it—match over.

It was a terrible way for a great match to end. No one seems to know if it was a good call, a bad call a borderline call. Doesn’t matter. There was no excuse for Williams doing what she did. To make it worse she was, for all intents and purposes, un-apologetic for two days. She issued a non-apology/apology on Sunday that was so un-gracious and insincere (nice work by her agents there, huh?) that she had to issue another apology on Monday for the apology.

The ONLY way to punish her was a suspension. But it wasn’t going to happen. She’s the best female tennis player in the world and she and her sister Venus are still the two top draws in the women’s game—especially on television. Williams and her arrogant agents knew this, they knew she wasn’t getting suspended under any circumstances because the people who run the four Slams would go crazy if she was suspended for any one of them and the TV people would go crazier.

So she was fined what amounts to a token amount of money for someone in her tax bracket and given one of those stern, “don’t do it again,” warnings. As in, “if you do this again we’re REALLY going to get mad.”

Then, having been let off the hook, Williams turns around and whines she was fined too much money. She even said she thought the fine might have been as high as it was because she’s a woman. PLEASE, I’m begging you, SHUT UP. If The Grand Slam Committee had any backbone at all, the would say, ‘okay, that’s it, we let you off without a suspension contingent on good behavior—this isn’t good behavior, you’re out of The French Open.’

That, of course, will happen the same day that I’m inducted into The Duke Sports Hall of Fame. (For those of you who don’t know my relationship with Duke that would be on the Twelfth of Never).

This is why tennis has become a niche sport with TV ratings slightly higher than hockey—or maybe not quite as high during non-Grand Slam events. There are no rules for the stars. For years appearance fees were supposed to be against the rules and the rules were never enforced. When Marshall Happer was chairman of the now defunct Men’s Tennis Council he tried ONCE to enforce the rule on Guillermo Vilas and basically got himself fired for his trouble. Now, the rules are such that most tournaments are allowed to pay appearance fees that basically make tennis into a never-ending exhibition season except during the four majors.

The players are so spoiled by promoters and so coddled by their agents that it is almost impossible to like them. Roger Federer is a good guy but when his business buddy Woods showed up at the U.S. Open final a couple years ago for what was, in truth, a Nike photo-op, he disappeared into a private room with Woods for 45 minutes after the final and no one had the nerve to go in and say, “Roger, you just won the U.S. Open how about coming in and spending 10 minutes with the media.” (which by RULE every player is supposed to do when requested).

Nope, can’t do that, can’t ask one of the stars to simply follow the rules.

Every time I bring this up the tennis people go crazy. The people running the game, including my friend Bill Babcock who runs the Grand Slam Committee, start telling me how popular the game is in Europe or in Australia. Guess what Bill that makes tennis into soccer—a niche sport in the country that matters most in sports. That may sound chauvinistic but it’s true. And please don’t cite U.S. Open attendance figures to me either. The USTA is practically flagging people down on The Grand Central Parkway (okay, I’ve use that line before) to get them to buy tickets prior to the final weekend. Once upon a time you couldn’t beg, borrow or steal an Open ticket.

Heck, The Davis Cup, which is often the most dramatic event in tennis, isn’t even on live TV (The Tennis Channel doesn’t count folks, it is watched by the same 14 people every day) anymore.

Tennis at its best is still great to watch. Federer-Roddick at Wimbledon was absolutely one of the sports highlights of the year. But the people running the game—or, more accurately not running it—have turned it into a niche sport where the inmates (the players) have been running the asylum for years.

Which is truly a shame.


I know I take shots at ESPN a lot (usually with good reason) but seriously how much hubris does it take to do something like this hokey, ‘announcer swap,’ they’re doing tonight? I mean seriously WHO CARES?

ESPN honestly believes who their announcers are a bigger deal than the games being played. What difference does it make if Dick Vitale is screaming about the NBA or the NCAA—or for that matter women’s basketball which he was doing the other night. So Mike Breen is calling a college game and Dan Shulman—who calls NBA games a lot anyway, right?—is calling an NBA game.

Please. Next thing you know they’ll have college coaches begging their fans to show up for their let’s-hype-ourselves every Saturday show. Oh wait, they’re already doing that.


Matty said...

The worst part about the ESPN announcing teams is they think they can just throw big names out there and make people happy. Have you heard Brent Musberger doing college basketball? I'm not sure the man could name all 12 teams in the Big 12, let alone the players on the floor. It's painfully obvious he does zero preparation. Combine him with Bob Knight, who occasionally provides a great insight, and you have a disaster. Ron Franklin, formerly one of the better play-by-play guys on ESPN, mixes up players every few trips down the court. If he's not with Fran Fraschilla, the broadcast is a disaster. Thank God for Fraschilla and Doug Gottlieb. Shulman and Nessler are great too, but ESPN needs to do some quality control.

Anonymous said...

Interesting notes on tennis. I guess the mainstream cares so little that most of the info you outed doesn't get any national attention. When the top guys play the top guys, it is great to see. But that happens only a handful of times a year, and outside of the slams you never have any idea its happening.

Mark said...

Of course tennis is a niche sport. If they are having trouble selling tickets to the U.S. Open, imagine the problems they must be having with their minor tournaments. The average sports fan cares only about the majors.

Golf is similar. Who wants to watch the greater Greensboro open when the winning score is 14 under par? Tournaments are folding up all over the country and this is happening WITH Tiger Woods. What is it going to be like when he is gone?

Shaun E in PC said...

Why hasn't ESPN banned the practice of their "talent" voting in the polls? Potential conflict of opinion and their votes could prevent them from being objective.

John said...

Of course it matters what announcers are calling events for ESPN, at least to the pointer that you are not only watching, but actually writing about it in your column.

As a sports fan breed, we are passionate and opinionated about our favorite teams, players, coaches and yes, announcers.

Tim said...

Commenter John -- no one would write about it if ESPN didn't advertise for it excessively. I haven't heard much about Wake-UNC, but I have heard how tonight Dickie V won't be doing that game because, wow, he's calling and NBA game!! Yippee.

And while yes, fans do talk about announcers, but there hasn't been a single game in my life that I've turned on just because a certain announcer was working (well, unless it was a friend and THAT'S even a tough sell sometimes), but I HAVE turned off a game because I couldn't stand listening to an announcer any longer.

I would challenge that I'm not in the minority in that sentiment.

By the way, speaking of tennis, the biggest story of the Aussie Open thus far has been Venus Williams' undies, or better yet, possible lack thereof. I think that tells us something.

Gordon said...

Too bad the powers that be in tennis AND golf have no backbone.

The reason the Davis cup is no big deal is that NO ONE knows when it's on and even why it's being played. Unlike the Ryder cup in golf Davis Cup lasts forever and is seemingly always being played some place at all hours of the day and night. the Ryder cup is one week every other year.

As for ESPN they think they are bigger than sports and that all sports exist for their benefit.

BUT, give poor Mike Breen a break. At least for one night he gets to do play by play for a real basketball game instead of having to do Knick games. If anyone deserves a vacation from MSG he does!

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU so much for your comments on Serena Williams. I was a huge fan of hers before that incident. Her behavior was atrocious. Her "punishment" was a joke. Her lack of contrition was sad. I now find myself rooting against her.

Anonymous said...

Yelling at officials is always so much better when Bobby Knight or Coach K do it

Saul Hammerstein said...

You can rip on tennis all you want. This post is a joke, as is your assessment that US Open attendance figures don't matter.

At a time when attendance for EVERY SINGLE SPORT in this country went down, US Open attendance hit an all time high in 2009. And you think it's because the USTA is "begging" people to come? Maybe if I told you how many people the USTA had to turn away, you'd reconsider your position.

But I think I'll let you sound like the windbag you are instead...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps John can tell us why the US is still the country that matters most in sports/tennis. Money is money, regardless what country is pouring the dollars into the coffer.

I would argue that tennis, as it's become more and more international in it's scope, is more stable than US-centric sports. What's going to happen to NASCAR in the next 5 years? No one's voting tennis out of The Olympics like they did baseball for 2012.

Tennis definitely has it's problems, but the fact that it could be considered "niche" in the US is NOT one of them. Wake up, John.

John Carberry said...


THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!!! Heard you speak about this post on the radio and it brought me to your blog. Have to say that earlier in the day I had written an email to a couple of my fellow sport junkies and titled it "Why I'll never root for Serena Williams ever again" And simply cut and pasted her quote about her complaining about the fine. For some reason, it truly incensed me....the arrogance and sense of entitlement. So happy you hammered it home here in this post, particularly noting her half-ass initial apology that was so lame, she had to have someone else at IMG or whoever represents her write another more sincere one for her. I always compare her apology to the Oregon running back Blount who hit the Boise St. player after their season opening loss. That night, less than an hour after the incident, he spoke to reporters and made a clearly heartfelt apology. He clearly knew he had made a grievous mistake, but more importantly, apologized for embarassing his teammates, school, family and coaches. We all make mistakes, it's part of being human, but I just find these athletes who never own up to truly admitting they were in the wrong just incredibly irritating. See Mark McGwire......would be curious to read/hear your thoughts on his apology.