Today I make my annual trip to The U.S. Open. That’s tennis and when I say annual I mean one day and one day only. I’ve actually been to every Open since 1980, but in recent years I’ve limited my trip to one day, except a few years ago when I was researching, ‘Vanishing Act,’—my second kids mystery—and spent a couple of extra days so I could refamiliarize myself with the grounds again.
I go now really more out of habit than for any other reason. I go to see Bud Collins and Mary Carillo; my former Tennis Magazine colleague Mark Preston—who now works for the USTA; my old pal Tom Ross (described in ‘Vanishing Act,’ as MY agent—actually he was Bobby Kelleher’s agent in the book but Bobby and I have a fair amount in common) and a few other tennis people I’ve known through the years.
If I get the chance, I’ll wander to the outside courts and try to find a match or two away from the madding crowds that I can watch quietly from close-up. I’m still awed by the skill of the world’s best players and enjoy watching them for a while from the close proximity you can have at some of the outside courts, but it has become harder and harder to find space out there through the years because the USTA will sell a ticket to anyone who might be wandering by on The Grand Central Parkway.
This is where I always get into trouble with the tennis geeks. (Geek is not a putdown word, I consider myself a sports Geek with a capital G; to me it just means you live and breathe something). I have been saying for years that tennis is a sport that has, for all intents and purposes, killed itself with horrific mismanagement.
Years ago, you couldn’t get anywhere near the U.S. Open unless you knew someone or had big corporate bucks. The number of media covering the Open (and Wimbledon for that matter) was well beyond the number covering ANY golf tournament and TV ratings, especially when the big boys or girls played one another, were superb. The Davis Cup was a huge event in this country and around the world and it seemed like there was tennis on network TV every week.
Quick, name this year’s Davis Cup semifinalists.
Now? Have you checked the money the USTA spends on trying to sell tickets these days? If the USTA had turned its advertising budget over to the banks or the car companies no bailouts would have been needed. Just check Sunday’s New York Times sports section for one small example of how much money gets spent. Oh sure, the USTA will announced ‘record crowds,’ when the tournament is over—it does every year—but those ‘records,’ are built on the sale of grounds tickets (a good idea which the USTA finally copied from Wimbledon a number of years ago) because, as I said, the USTA never limits those sales and, at least for the first week, those tickets are a great deal.
Arthur Ashe Stadium is much too big. The seats upstairs might as well be on Mars. Other than the outside courts, the best place to watch a match is still the old Grandstand Court, where you can practically sit on top of the players.
Here’s how far tennis has fallen: Saturday night, I was flipping around trying to get some quick scores before going to bed. I stopped on ESPN News because their crawl is usually a little less annoying than the other ESPN crawls since it contains less blatant advertising. As luck would have it, they were showing highlights of the Pilot Pen Finals from New Haven. Out of that, they went to a graphic showing the top four women’s seeds at The Open.
Serena Williams was listed as the No. 2 seed. Huh? She only withdrew two weeks ago and if she HADN’T she would have been the No. 1 seed. No, they didn’t accidentally put Serena’s name where Venus’s should have been because Venus was listed as the No. 3 seed. Since most of the ESPN News anchors can barely do more than read, the anchor blithely read off both Williams sisters names as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.
Shame, of course, on ESPN. But seriously, do you think the guy would have noticed if, say, Tiger Woods had been on a graphic as playing somewhere when he was out injured? Or Phil Mickelson?
(While I’m doing my ESPN-bashing thing, one of their radio update guys, I think his name is Kevin Winter, opened a Sunday morning segment by saying, “Four weeks until the end of baseball season…” PLEASE look at a calendar will you? October 3d is five weeks from yesterday.)
Back to tennis. Last year I dragged Tom Ross to an outside court to make him watch John Isner because I’d never seen Isner play up close. Ross, who has trouble sitting still UNLESS one of his clients is playing, was miserable, but I made him watch for two sets because I was enjoying myself.
There are certain things about covering tennis I truly miss. I loved wandering the outside courts the first week at any major looking for a match that would be a good story. I always loved being at Centre Court at Wimbledon. I loved the fact that there were no night matches in Paris or London.
What I didn’t love is what keeps me from making any kind of serious attempt to go back and cover it now: the lack of access to the players. Years ago, the one tennis tournament where you could walk into the locker room and talk to players was the U.S. Open. No more. That went away a few years ago. When my pal Pete Alfano and I were President and Vice President of the tennis writers, we tried desperately to open up access to players at tournaments. We even told the various people running tournaments that someday tennis might not be as popular as it was; that McEnroe and Connors and Lendl and Evert and Navratilova and Graf wouldn’t play forever.
The attitude of most people in tennis was summed up by an ATP Tour drone named Weller Evans, who managed to convert a Princeton education into a career as a glorified-racquet carrier: “It’s OUR locker room,” he said. “We’ll decide who goes in and who doesn’t.”
I said it then and I’ll say it now: “Weller, it’s guys like you who will kill the sport. It’s not YOUR locker room, it’s the player’s locker room yes, but it’s also the public’s because the only reason your players are making the money they make is because the public cares about them. For both better and worse we (the media) represent the public.”
Of course tennis has gone down the chute in the last 20 years even though there have been some truly great players: Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters and others. People care about four weeks a year: Wimbledon, the Open and the last weekend (maybe) of The French and The Australian.
It shouldn’t be that way. Tennis at its best is wonderful to watch. I’m looking forward to getting the chance to watch up close for a few hours today. But when I leave tonight, it will be with no regrets. I’ve never liked trying to talk to athletes in interview rooms. Most of the time in tennis, that’s about all you get.
I want to thank everyone who wrote in with suggestions for people to talk to for the new book. You brought up some very intriguing names and gave me a lot to think about. Dinner with Ivan Lendl, by the way, was great fun. I also watched him play for a little while that day and, even at 50, he can still crush the ball.