Posted: Wednesday October 20, 2010 3:33PM ; Updated: Wednesday October 20, 2010 5:47PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Poor television coverage remains biggest issue facing pro tennis

Story Highlights

Abysmal TV coverage (like with last week's Shanghai event) is a major issue

The trend of fans pushing players (Venus, Roddick) toward retirement is disturbing

The rankings backlash facing Wozniacki is no different from Safina or Jankovic

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Fans often seem over-eager to push athletes off the stage prematurely, a trend nowhere more apparent than with Venus Williams.
AP

Why are the Shanghai Masters not televised on ESPN? Why do Little League, high school basketball, football and baseball get more airtime than tennis? Our elite athletes deserve better. Also, there are no doping scandals in tennis like there are in cycling and baseball. Why do people hold up baseball and cycling as great athletes but not tennis players? They don't get any respect!
--HB, Winthrop, Washington

• We can gripe about the imperfect ranking system, tennis' answer to the tedious BCS debate. We can spend hours talking about the lousy Davis Cup format, the relentless injuries, and the abundance of fiefdoms putting their own interests before the good of the sport. But I've become convinced that the abysmal television coverage is THE biggest issue confronting the sport right now. And while I realize that picture is different in different markets (pardon the pun), a) I've heard from enough of you from around the globe that this is a persistent problem in many countries and b) there needs to be an acknowledgement that not all markets are created equal, and that the U.S. -- much as some of you hate to admit it -- is still a bellwether for the sport.

As it stands now, matches are televised erratically. Or, in the case of Shanghai, not at all. The U.S. Open men's final was distributed like that unwanted Christmas fruitcake, and very nearly televised on three different networks. (As it was, the trophy presentation was but cut short to accommodate better-rated programming.) Late-round Wimbledon matches are shown on tape delay. The Indian Wells and Key Biscayne events -- once the province of ESPN -- are covered horrendously. The Tennis Channel is great, but there are still significant distribution issues.

When networks abuse tennis and treat the fans shabbily, the fallback is, inevitably, numbers: Until the sport draws bigger ratings, improved treatment can't be justified. Yet it's hard to see how the sport will improve its viewership, so long as TV sabotages its growth. I think I've written this before but it's like saying, "Until you show that you can lose weight, we're going to keep feeding you French fries and beer." It seems to me that the real challenge of the WTA and ATP -- and to a lesser extent, the Slams -- is solving this riddle and extricating tennis from this vicious cycle. Until then, brace yourself for those 12-year-olds from Walla Walla.

So why do you hate Stefan Edberg so much? I've written to you on numerous occasions about current topics that, like so many others you've addressed with past greats in mind, can be evaluated in light of his contributions to the sport. Yet aside from your backhanded dig about his wearing a watch on court, you haven't touched any of them. Meanwhile, you have the gall to say that Nadal plays "beautiful" tennis. You really think that Nadal's game is more beautiful than Edberg's?
--Sean White, Lakeside, Calif.

• Someone else wrote a similar email a few weeks ago. I'm not sure what I wrote -- or didn't write -- to give you that impression but nothing could be further from the truth. Several years ago, I wrote a piece for Tennis magazine detailing how an interaction with Edberg had great impact on my career in sports media. As for Nadal, again, I'm not sure what you're referring do. Does he play classically stylistic tennis? No. Is graceful the first adjective that comes to mind? No. Yet I would submit there is a certain artistry in what he does, his effort. Eye of the beholder and all ...

I'm growing awfully tired of reading article after article about the immediate doom facing Venus Williams. Here is a champion who has changed the sport and is a joy to watch. Yes, she's 30. Yes, she's injured. But pulling out of the year-end Championships is hardly a shocker. Since '97, she has only played this tournament four times! How can this be an indication of retirement? Can't we all just wish her a speedy recovery so that we can continue to appreciate such a great athlete. When Venus is ready to retire, I'm sure she'll hold a press conference. Until then, let's give it a rest.
--Lacey, Greenville, S.C.

• Amen to that. You operate at your own peril when you a) question an athlete's injury and b) question an athlete's decision to retire. But I still don't quite get why fans are so eager to push certain athletes off the stage. The glee and schadenfreude is a little creepy. And it's not just Venus. There's a weekly call for Roddick, Federer, whomever, to give it up. As for Venus in particular, it's no secret that this was, on balance, a disappointing year. And yet she played well (and often) in the winter and spring. There were times when she looked dominant. And, most recently, she came within a points of playing in the U.S. Open final. She converts a few more first serves and we're having a very different conversation.

The solution for stopping illegal coaching is simple. Just put a boom microphone in the players' box, enabling the television audience and the chair umpire to hear discussions that go on!
--Doug, Chicago

• In other words, rig-a-Toni? (Sorry.) There was talk of doing something similar at the U.S. Open, but, suspiciously, we never heard much about this. There are obviously some cost concerns. There are likely privacy concerns, too. A simpler solution: a) prevail on all parties that this is cheating, this is diminishing your reputation as well as the integrity of the sport, and b) up the fines and penalties and enforce more aggressively. Like so much in life, it's all about incentives and disincentives.

I've noticed that the top five ranked men all come from (different) countries begining with 'S' -- Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, Scotland, Sweden. Any hot tips on up-and-coming players from Samoa, Swaziland, Suriname or even here in Singapore who could make it the top six?
--Ben Kiggell, Singapore

• No, but there are comers from Sierra Leone.

With betting and gambling such a hot potato in tennis, why is bet-at-home allowed to be a sponsor at all? I don't know much about this, but I can swear I saw a tournament recently, either Shanghai or Linz, with the bet-at-home logo on the backboards behind the players. Isn't this the height of hypocrisy?
--Donna, Honolulu

• We eagerly await a response from the Tours. At some level, especially in these dire economic times, you take sponsorships where you can get them. And individual tournaments have some level of autonomy. But your point is a good one: At an absolute minimum does it not undercut your anti-corruption goals when betting companies prominently sponsor events?

Why is it that Wozniacki automatically gets the benefit of the doubt from you upon reaching No. 1, based upon her record, whereas Safina, who at least has reached a couple of major finals (and more semifinals) seemed to be criticized at every step of the way for being No. 1.
--Amy, Brooklyn

• I think it's pretty much the same discussion. (Add Jelena Jankovic as well.) You wish the anointed No. 1 had a Slam to her name. You respect that she accumulated the most points given the system. You wish the best player competed more often and backed up her majors with more run-of-the-mill wins. You respect that she (her name's Serena, by the way) can still maintain her status playing only a half-dozen tournaments in the course of a year.

I'm not sure if you have addressed this before, but what do you say about iron man Thomas Muster trying to pull-off a "Date Krumm" by playing some challengers in Europe (and not doing too well)?
--Itai, Israel

• Especially as I grow older, I'd never disparage anyone's desire to wring every last ounce from their sports career. But the men's game is so physical I would be shocked if he had much success. Date Krumm get herself into peak physical shape and win matches with patience, defense and consistency. Those virtues don't go nearly as far on the ATP Tour.

I'll raise your "Waiting For This" scenario: Player A is out of challenges. In a deciding set's tiebreaker he/she hits a screamer that no one can be certain is in or out. But it's called out. Is there a Player B in the world who'll use one of his/her challenges to make sure the right call was made?
--Alistair, Toronto

• Roger Federer, it's on.

Thank you for the nice plug on my daughter, Coco. I laughed when you said "spectacularly-named Coco Vandeweghe" because she was born Colleen Hutchins Mullarkey (Colleen Hutchins is her maternal grandmother's name, Miss America 1952). We always called her "Coco" but it was a trying time for me when my ex-wife, Tauna Vandeweghe, asked for permission to change her name legally to Coco Mullarkey Vandeweghe (knowing that Mullarkey would never be used). I talked to our local tennis pro, Martin Wostenholme, who is in the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame and he said "Bobby, you have to do whatever it is that will give Coco an advantage on the court and if that means changing her name so that everyone realizes that she has an athletic pedigree, then do it." I'm just a proud Dad watching my daughter have her ups and downs as she matures in the professional ranks but it was the right decision. Thanks again for the nice article.
--Bobby Mullarkey, Locust Valley, N.Y.

• Thanks, Bobby. Great backstory. And, we hasten to add, this was before Conan made "Coco" hip.

Your reply to Jerry is symptomatic of the tragicomedy of the latter-day capitalism. Losing your job is not a tragedy -- tragedy is to die of hunger or to lose your loved ones to AIDS or death camps or in Iraq or in Afghanistan or in Kosovo or in Colombia. Loss of job is just inconvenience for everybody -- except for the haves in the most self-indulgent nation on Earth ...
--Gina, Genoa

• Symptomatic of the tragicomedy of capitalism? Oy. It's not an oppression contest. A kidney stone is not cancer, but it can still hurt like hell. Is losing your job tantamount to a death camp in Kosovo? No. But that mean it comes without great pain. And you lost me with your logic: If the U.S. is the most self-indulgent nation on earth, wouldn't THAT be the place where job loss would be felt least acutely? I'm always happy for different perspectives, but you lost me, Gina.

I just bought your Strokes of Genius book (finally; I've read it several times). It's one of my favorite tennis books, in addition to Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open. But, and maybe I'm just looking in the wrong place, it seems to me like there is a shortage of high-quality and relevant tennis literature for those of us who are not interested in improving our games or being just like the Williams sisters. Do you have any book recommendations about perhaps the history of the game or even a commentary on the Open Era?
--Lacey, Greenville, S.C.

• As the days grow longer and the Kindles become cheaper, let's do another round of "tennis book" recommendations:

In no particular order:

Courts of Babylon, by Pete Bodo (The chapter on Borg's comeback is one of my favorite pieces of writing.)

Levels of the Game by John McPhee

Open, by Andre Agassi

Jimmy Connors Saved my Life, by Joel Drucker

Handful of Summers, by Gordon Forbes

The Rivals, by Johnette Howard

"String Theory," an essay by David Foster Wallace

Shots, Miscellany

• Quick story: For years, I've tried (gently) to introduce my son to the subtle charms of tennis. Not much luck. Boys of a certain age like power. Control? Not so much. When we jumped a tennis court, he took far more pleasure from hitting a Pujolsian blast over the fence than from guiding it within the parameters of the court. Nadal was all well and good; but he was no David Wright. As some of you know, I'm teaching at Princeton this fall and when we moved down here I enrolled the little guy in some low-grade tennis lessons at the local club. "You son will love Al," I was told. Okay.

As promised, "Coach Al" managed to do in about 15 minutes what I couldn't do in several years. He convinced my son that tennis can be great fun, even if you don't get rewarded for home runs. That an individual sport can be singularly challenging. That the element of strategy can complement physical pursuits. After two lessons my son had given up the baseball pitchback in the yard in favor of bounce-ups and bouncedowns. When I would offer a gentle pointer -- maybe you want to try a new racket? -- the response was immediate: "Let me ask Coach Al first."

Last Friday, an hour or so after giving a lesson, Al Pacheco passed away unexpectedly. While wrestling over what to tell my son, I can't help thinking that if there were more Coach Als around, a lot more kids would be warming to tennis. What a gift this guy had. R.I.P., Coach Al.

• Look for a big "reciprocity exhibition" announcement later this week.

• Mark Flannery of Fullerton, Calif., sends this link: Pickleball Is a Craze in the Over-55 Set, But Foes Are Raising a Racket

• The Mighty Kevin Fischer notes: "Of players she has played more than once, there are only two opponents that have a winning record vs. Serena: Sybille Bammer (0-2: 2007 Hobart, 2009 Cincinnati); Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (3-4). Five other players have defeated Serena in their only meeting: Alexia Dechaume-Balleret (1997 Indian Wells), Annie Miller (1995 Quebec City -- 1st career match), P. Suarez (2000 Amelia Island), Tiantian Sun (2005 Beijing) and ... Mary Joe Fernandez (1999 Roland Garros).

Doyle Srader of Eugene, Ore., sends this link and duly notes: "Someone needs to explain to the caption-writer the concept of 'There's a cameraman standing behind her.'"

Aditya of New Delhi, India: "Just read your 'player challenging his own call' comment and it triggered an old memory. Nadal vs. Federer in the 2006 French Open final. Set 2, Game 2. I recall Federer challenging or having a second look at an out call called in his favour."

• Though he still might be recovering from the New York Marathon, Justin Gimelstob is hosting his annual benefit Thursday, December 2 at Centercourt Athletic Club in Chatham, New Jersey. Click here for more info.

• The WTA named Ellen Bishop as the grand prize winner of the 2010 "Heroes Among Us" program. Bishop, an American from Pennsylvania, is a champion of her community and spends countless hours volunteering as a teacher and tennis coach to the inner-city high school children. She also runs "Embrace Your Dreams", a summer tennis program for the underprivileged youths from the Boys and Girls Club in Pennsylvania, and mentors women runners in the "First Strides" program. A former athlete herself, Bishop has qualified to run in the Boston Marathon this fall. For many years, Bishop and her late husband were active in their community helping run athletic programs to improve the schools, where she recently became an elected school board member. As the winner of the "Heroes Among Us" program, Bishop will receive a prize package for two to attend the prestigious year-end WTA Championships in Doha, including tickets to the final, roundtrip airline tickets, accommodation, transportation and behind-the-scenes access at the tournament.

Torben Ulrich has a new CD out. No James Hetfield vocals but well worth your time and money.

Carolyn Brown of Conway, Ark.: "I've been waiting for the brouhaha over Toni Nadal's coaching to go away. But when someone compares Rafa to a rapist -- I must respond. I am a professional musician. Many years ago when I was a T.A., I remember lamenting to my professor that a student of mine didn't do anything that we had talked about during their recent performance. I'll never forget his response: 'Carolyn, you can't play it for them.' The same for Toni Nadal. I wish he would stop any comments during a match; however, no matter what he tells his nephew (and, realistically, in the heat of a match, how much crucial info really gets to Rafa?), Rafa is the one making the split-second decisions on the court and he deserves every title he has won!"

Jonas Bjorkman taking jabs at Nadal? What's next? Swtizerland revealing nuclear ambitions?

Philip of Montreal: "A short note on two Canadian up-and-comers, both 19, named Milos Raonic, who qualified for two ATP tour level tournaments in Asia, and Rebecca Marino, who has won three $50,000 Challenger tournaments on the WTA Tour this fall, one in Canada and two in the United States no less. Raonic lost to Nadal, 6-4, 6-4, in Tokyo and Marino gave Venus Williams a good fight in the second round of the U.S. Open last month. Raonic is now ranked 155 and Marino is 109."

• Another tip for Monika the Netminder, this from Mark: "When you take a position at the net, you are trying to give your team an advantage by making your opponents hit around you and by knocking off any weak shots with a volley. The price you pay for this advantage is less time to react if the ball is hit at you. To expect your opponents to be obliged to hit around you is ridiculous. Vic Braden used to say, 'Give them a fuzz sandwich!' Ivan Lendl, in an interview after a match with McEnroe, where McEnroe gave Lendl some dirty looks after being hit at the net, said, 'No one asked him to come to the net!' I used to play a lot of doubles and was aggressive at the net. I got hit occasionally, but not that much. If you're getting hit a lot, you're either in the wrong place or have a partner who is setting your opponents up too often. In the first case, ask your pro where you should stand. In the second case, get back to the baseline."

• Djokovic voted Serbia's most eligible bachelor.

• Southern California readers take note.

• Fran of Menlo Park, Calif., has long lost sibilings: Marat Safin and Cory Monteith of Glee.

Have a good week, everyone!

 
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