Tuesday, September 13, 2011

US Open reveals the best, and worst, of tennis

One thing about the U.S. Open is that it reveals the best and the worst of tennis just about every year.

The best is always the actual tennis: Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer was a classic and the Djokovic-Rafael Nadal final was also played at a very high level. Sam Stosur’s upset of Serena Williams in the women’s final was a stunner because Williams had looked unbeatable throughout the tournament. There were also a handful of early round upsets involving young American players that gave some hope to those starving for the next American star.

All that was good. But, as usual, the USTA managed to muck things up with its usual incompetence.

The schedule is—and has been for years—a joke. The night matches go on MUCH too long even without rain delays. The USTA doesn’t care at all about the players—sending Federer out to begin a match at 11:50 at night?—or the fans in attendance. It cares ONLY about keeping the TV people who give them their lunch money (you should see those lunches) happy.

That’s why “Super Saturday,” the most overrated notion in sports, exists. Every other major championship puts together a schedule that gives the two finalists in both singles events a rest day before the final. The thought is that semifinals are often grueling and you want players rested before one of the most important matches of their lives.

The USTA says the heck with that. It stretches the first round across three days—robbing those who pay to see matches those days of a good deal of quality tennis—and then makes the men and the women go back-to-back from semis to final. In the old days, when the Saturday order of play was men’s semi; women’s final; men’s semi, the second men’s semi often ended late at night and the winner then had to come back about 18-20 hours later to play the final.

It also meant that the women’s final was the only major championship final in tennis where the two finalists had no idea what time their match would begin. Since they were second match on, the length of the first men’s match determined when they would begin. Which is ridiculous.

The USTA—god bless ‘em—fixed that about 10 years back when it moved the women’s final to Saturday night. This move was made NOT for the benefit of the players but—surprise—for the benefit of CBS which wanted to take advantage of the popularity of the Williams sisters by moving the final to prime time. Now, instead of getting all three matches for the price of one ticket on Saturday, fans have to buy tickets for the afternoon—men’s semis—and then a separate ticket for the women’s final at night.

Honestly, I think if you put the USTA executive committee in a room and threw a dollar on the floor you would see a repeat of the climactic scene in “Invictus,” in which all the players on the rugby pitch are scrumming desperately to get the ball.

Remember this: When Arthur Ashe Stadium was built it didn’t have to have 23,000 seats. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 would have been far more sensible; would have created a much better atmosphere and far fewer really bad seats and would have made it much easier then—or now—to put a retractable roof on the building. This year that would have meant NOT losing two straight days to bad weather, creating a FOURTH straight Monday men’s final—which, of course bled over into Dolphins-Patriots (thus losing viewers along the way)—and also created the specter of the world’s top players being sent out to play in dangerous conditions on the second rain day because the USTA was getting desperate to get some live play on for ESPN to show—even if it meant a player might do a pratfall trying to skid to a halt on a wet court.

And then there was Serena Williams.

This is, without question, one of the great players in the game’s history. To come back from almost a year away from the game and play the way she did this summer and right through to the final at the Open is extraordinary. Most of the time she makes it look easy.

But anytime things don’t go exactly as she wants them to, she loses her mind and behaves FAR worse than John McEnroe ever did. Jimmy Connors is another story; he’s still the all-timer when it comes to awful on-court behavior.

Two years ago, Williams threatened a line judge for calling a foot-fault on her during her semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters. Even though she kept issuing completely insincere non-apologies, The Grand Slam Committee of the International Tennis Federation (one thing you can be sure of in sports: the longer the title the less effective the organization) decided to fine her the grand total of $85,000 and put her on ‘probation.’ One might have thought the Grand Slam Committee had hired the NCAA to advise it on how to penalize people. The penalty was, to quote Mary Carillo, “a joke.”

That Carillo was 100 percent correct was proven again yesterday.

Williams did not play well in the final against Stosur, who has been a talented under-achiever in the game for a long while. After Stosur won the first set Williams immediately faced a break point to start the second set. She hit a forehand winner but as the ball was rocketing away from Stosur she screamed, “come on!”

Under the rules, that is considered a “hindrance,” the theory being her scream could have distracted Stosur as she chased the ball down. What the umpire probably should have done was either warn Williams not to do it again since it was pretty apparent Stosur wasn’t going to get to the ball or play a let—which the rules allow if the umpire thinks the “hindrance,” was accidental—as in someone’s cap flying off or their racquet slipping from their hands and going across the net.

Clearly Williams’ scream was intentional but it wasn’t meant as a hindrance. The umpire, Eva Asderaki, chose to enforce the letter of the law. Williams HAD screamed during the point. She awarded the point—and, thus the game—to Stosur.

Williams went nuts. Among other things she accused Asderaki of being the chair umpire in the Clijsters match—which she wasn’t.

“Are you the one who screwed me over the last time?” she said. “Yeah, you are. Seriously, you have it out for me. That’s not cool. That’s totally not cool.”

The fact that Williams still believes she was “screwed over,” in the Clijsters match tells you all you need to know about her mindset and about how much her ‘apologies,’ meant.

Williams wasn’t finished: “If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way. You’re out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside…” And: “Code violation for this? I expressed who I am. We’re in America last time I checked.”

For this behavior The USTA and The Grand Slam Committee decided to really punish Williams. On Monday it announced it had fined her—wait for it--$2,000! Then the USTA wrote her a check for $1.4 million--$900,000 for finishing second in the Open; $500,000 for winning the summer U.S. Open series. Boy, they really showed her, huh? Just like they did last time with their ‘probation.’

The weasely excuse was that, because she didn’t use profanity, she hadn’t committed a “major violation.” It is okay to accuse someone (who didn’t) of “screwing you,”; threaten them; call them a hater and claim they “have it out for you.” That’s no big deal. Translation: They didn’t want to fine her for a major violation while she was still on ‘probation,’ because that might have forced them to actually penalize her in a meaningful way.

Can’t have that.

Even Chris Evert, who never has a bad thing to say about anyone publicly, couldn’t believe the fine was so minimal. Now working (sigh) for ESPN, Evert pointed out that Williams had yet to apologize and had refused to shake Asderaki’s hand at the end of the match. “It’s like dinner for Serena Williams,” Evert said of the fine. “When I saw the comments she made my first impression was just stunned. I was so surprised how disrespectful and rude she was.”

Naturally there were other ESPN analyst/enablers there to run to Williams’ side. Pam Shriver, who has become the classic see-no-evil jock apologist told The New York Times not only that she didn’t think what Williams did was a big deal but that—seriously, she said this—Williams might have felt pressure playing in New York on 9-11!

People ask me all the time why I don’t cover tennis so much anymore. This kind of stuff is why. The matches can still be brilliant. But the people around the matches consistently leave me with an awful taste in my mouth. I guess the good news is the next time anyone will pay serious attention to the sport won’t be until next June.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe you didn't point out the one thing I did notice...Mary Joe Fernandez, the Fed Cup Captain (I think), interviewing Serena and not pushing her on her behavior. There is absolutely positively no way she can be trusted to do her job. She couldn't risk rocking the boat. Is that the USTA's way of doing things, or ESPN's, or both?

pulmcrit1 said...

What did you think of Serena's post-match comments? She said something about being in a zone and not even remembering what she said to the umpire. Is is possible she backed off so quickly because she didn't want to risk a bigger fine or other punishment, even though neither would happen because she is a huge draw?

qtlaw24 said...

The mens tennis was fantastic. Djokovic has truly shown greatness this year. We are so lucky to see first Federer, then Nadal, then Djokovic rise up and dominate.

As for Serena, that's just awful. I hate when athletes make mistakes then somehow demand perfection from the referees/umpires. I mean look in the mirror would you? However, that ref's decision was abomidable. At best, issue a warning because its not like Stosur was going to make the shot and was thrown off. First axiom of umpiring in any sport, do not decide the outcome.

Anonymous said...

One other interesting thing developing in NY was the notion that the players may be trying to form a new alliance. What do you think could come out of this? Who should they want as ATP commissioner? Do you think they will be able to force some change in the scheduling or the USTA?

Anonymous said...

One other interesting development in NY that you didn't mention was the notion that the players could try to form a new alliance. Do you think anything could come of this? Who should they want as the ATP tour commissioner? Do you think they can force any change in the scheduling or the USTA?