Posted: Wed March 21, 2012 12:40PM; Updated: Fri March 23, 2012 6:43PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Is tennis' incestuous nature a conflict of interest? More mail

Story Highlights

Mary Joe Fernandez sitting in Roger Federer's box looks bad for the sport

Tennis' incestuous makeup compromises objectivity and hinders growth

Former No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten is worthy of a Hall of Fame induction

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While hoping everyone at the building owned by the Tennis Hall of Fame is OK...

ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez (top left) sits in the same box as Roger Federer's wife, Mirka (top right), during his match at Indian Wells.
ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez (top left) sits in the same box as Roger Federer's wife, Mirka (top right), during his match at Indian Wells.
Icon SMI

What's your take on ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez sitting in Roger Federer's box? Conflict/unprofessional though not calling match?
--
Aleph Alpha

• Variations of this question come up fairly often and -- proving the ultimate thesis -- I confess that I've resisted addressing the issue, in part because it means critically examining some friends and sources. I know the "conflict issue" was much discussed in Tennis World during Indian Wells last week, especially on Twitter. So here goes ...

I begin by saying that Mary Joe Fernandez is good people and, I think, someone of integrity. Despite her ties to IMG and despite the fact that her husband represents Roger Federer (and Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Anna Kournikova before that), I've never detected bias in her commentary. And let the record reflect: She does not work his matches, though she sometimes interviews him before and after them.

All that said, you can't be a commentator and sit with a player's wife during the match. (Even if technically, you're sitting in a tournament suite, not the official players' box.) You just can't. That's just so fundamental, it barely needs to be discussed.

As a former ESPNer once complained to me, when this has happened in the past, it diminishes the entire enterprise, portraying the broadcast team as partial fans, not impartial journalists. It causes some viewers to wonder what questions aren't being asked and information isn't being imparted, given the relationship. It predictably triggers a wave of questions about objectivity on social media. At a bare minimum, the optics are lousy. It just plain looks bad. If I'm advising MJF, I'm telling her to take pains to steer clear of any appearance of conflict, even the slightest whiff. She has amassed too much good will to have her work called into question by the tennis vox populi. This is the opposite.

If I'm ESPN, I'm sensitive to this, too. Yet, the network repeatedly showed the image. As SI.com's tennis blogger Courtney Nguyen tweeted on Saturday night during the Federer-Rafael Nadal semifinal match: "ESPN really needs to quit with the shots of MJF sitting next to Mirka in Fed's box. For its own sake. #bnppo12". Kathleen Sullivan, the Emmy-winning ABC sportscaster and CNN pioneeress, went a step further on Saturday night: "Mary Joe Fernandez should not make one comment on Nadal or Federer. ... A HUGE ESPN conflict of interest."

To me, this is the real disappointment. ESPN tolerates a level of conflict (often undisclosed) in tennis that would never be tolerated in other, bigger sports. Consider an analog. It's highly unlikely that the wife of NFL agent Tom Condon ever would be part of the network's Monday Night Football crew -- even if she were somehow a former player in her own right. It's even less likely that, while working an event as a journalist, she would watch games alongside the wife of her husband's client, Peyton Manning, in the Colts' (or Broncos') section, thus mortally wounding the appearance of objectivity. It's unimaginable that the cameras would repeatedly pan to her, tacitly approving all of this.

But let's reserve judgment on Mary Joe. She's hardly alone. Patrick McEnroe -- again, an authentically good guy -- is a USTA executive and former Davis Cup captain. Understandably, he might be uneasy speaking freely about, say, the players' quest for more money at the Slams or Serena Williams' dubious commitment to Fed Cup or the need for a new roof at the U.S. Open. Though rarely mentioned, the reliably excellent Darren Cahill (still another good guy) works with the Adidas team. You'd be within your rights to wonder whether this might impact the opinions he offers about Adidas and non-Adidas players.

At the Tennis Channel (full disclosure: I do periodic work for TC), Justin Gimelstob is very good at his job and disclosing his dual roles. But he is on the ATP board. Is he willing to criticize a player whose support he might be seeking for a crucial vote? To criticize an event, knowing that it has paid a sanctioning fee? It's about now that we cue the famous John Helyar piece on Donald Dell, an account of Dell's broadcasting a match of a player he represented at an event he promoted. Ick. In all these cases, one wonders: What questions aren't being asked, given the financial ties? What information is the commentator privy to that he or she might be suppressing?

(This, incidentally, is another reason why Chris Fowlers and Ted Robinsons and Mary Carillos and Bill Macatees are so important. They may not have played Wimbledon. They may not share the experience playing deep into a Grand Slam. But at least you can be assured that you are getting unvarnished commentary.)

The defense of the conflicted goes something like this: The same relationships that some of you find problematic also help make these commentators good at their jobs. When your husband represents a top player, you certainly have a unique perspective on that player, as well as an unrivaled level of access. When you're USTA royalty and have been inside the White Plains Sausage Factory that is the headquarters, you are the consummate insider. When you're on the payroll for a shoe company and work with those players in Las Vegas, you know a great deal about their physical and emotional make-up.

But I worry that the subtext is this: It's "just tennis," a sport so niche and clubby and nutty that the usual rules don't apply. It's "just tennis," so incestuous and conflicted that everyone is somehow in the sofa bed with someone else. All bets are off, no need to disclose financial relationships and moonlighting positions that might compromise objectivity. It's not much of a way to grow a sport and restore relevance. And, worse, it's not much of a way to serve the fans.

What does the absence of any doubles specialists in the men's final at Indian Wells say (if anything) about doubles specialists?
--
Kent Jordan, Plano, Texas

• This underscores my point from past weeks. We all love doubles. But it's a subspecialty. And often this is exposed when the singles stars decide to play alongside a partner.

Digression but stick with me: I'm obsessed with a podcast called WTF. The host, Marc Maron, was (is?) a struggling comedian who was once listed alongside Louis CK, Jon Stewart and Janeane Garofalo on the "hot prospects" list, but he never broke through. He began interviewing other comics and funny folks in his garage (aka the cat ranch). And it's audio gold, a cross between Charlie Rose and a broadcast therapy session.

Here's the rub: I went back and listened to some of Maron's stand-up sets and he's not particularly funny, which tends to be a pre-req in comedy. He comes across as neurotic, but doesn't have Larry David's gift for alchemizing that into humor. His timing is off. His "observations" can be banal. (Technology is a boundary to intimacy? No way!) Yet he brings his neurosis and road experiences and frustrations and curiosities to bear in these interviews (with Bill Maher or Robin Williams or Steven Wright or whomever), and they are terrific.

In this sense, he is like a doubles player. This is the flannel-wearing, goateed version of Leander Paes or Max Mirnyi or Daniel Nestor. He never hit it big in singles; he found a place to repackage his skills, where his strengths are accentuated and weaknesses are obscured. It's all worked out.

But the same way you wouldn't induct Marc Maron into the Comedy Hall of Fame alongside Chris Rock and Will Ferrell, you can't really equate Leander Paes' doubles success with Rafael Nadal's singles success.

I hate to pick on you, but you neglected to mention that Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. After so many posts criticizing the rather dubious inductees, here's someone who's entry cannot be denied. Furthermore, I believe that many tennis fans (myself included) couldn't help but simply smile when hearing this news, he really deserved this.
--
Yara Zucrcher, Sao Paulo, Brazil

• Pick on me. We should have trumpeted this more last week. Congratulations, Gustavo Kuerten. I hear his name and it makes me smile. What a great legacy.

Now that Guga Kuerten has been elected to the Hall of Fame, I'm curious to know your opinion about Guga's nomination. Is he a deserving inductee? Should he be placed in room A or in room B?
--
Mauricio, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Gustavo Kuerten
Recent Hall of Fame inductee Gustavo Kuerten reached the No. 1 ranking and won Roland Garros three times.
SI

Three Slams and the No. 1 ranking? And a max-out on the "good guy, good for the game" factor? That works for me. I say he squeaks into Room A. But it's close. Think of him as the guy on the wedding invite list who made it, but if Uncle Herb hadn't had knee surgery and guests needed to be whacked, Guga might have been kicked to the "reception only" list. Canapes and samosas and pork buns (and pao de queijo)? Yes? Lobster Thermidor? No.

Not once did he advance beyond the quarters of the three majors not held in Paris. He had a losing record in Australia. (Preempting: Sampras in Paris was 24-13.) Not a particularly long career. Not a ton of TMS titles. Again, he's a Hall of Famer, especially under the current standards. But if you told me you felt uneasy that he would share wall space with Federer, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal et al, I wouldn't laugh at you.

One final point: Some of you have asked about Jennifer Capriati's candidacy. More announcements are forthcoming -- the Hall of Fame has, cleverly, staggered the news -- but I sure hope she will amass the necessary votes for enshrinement. (Full disclosure: She got mine.) On paper, you could make a compelling case, especially given the precedent. Three majors? A No. 1 ranking? Olympics success? Quality Grand Slam wins against Serena Williams and others? Want to compare that against Michael Chang or Jana Novotna? Bring it on.

But more than that, I think voting her down shows a real lack of empathy. The game -- the institution of tennis -- beat her up. Emotionally on the front end; physically on the back. The least we could do is give her some immortality. (And here's a preemptive strike against moralizing. If we're going to deny players entry based on some ill-considered recreational drug use, we're going to dismantle a lot of plaques retroactively.)

Novak Djokovic now has the same exact Grand Slam roster as Martina Hingis did in her whole career. That is, he was won three Aussie Opens, one Wimbledon and one U.S. Open. And, when she won her last major title, the 1999 Australian Open, it looked like she would win many more. Could Djokovic suddenly be derailed of his amazing momentum?
--
Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

• Djokovic will almost assuredly be derailed of his momentum. No way does he win four of the next five Slams. But is he through winning -- as Hingis was after her fifth big prize? Almost assuredly not.

I feel for Djokovic today. The discussion has turned to the revival of Federer, the revival of the Federer-Nadal rivalry we all like so much, the emergence of John Isner, even the undefeated play of Victoria Azarenka. If I'm Djokovic, I'm thinking (if not saying), "Um ... yoo-hoo, guys. Over here. Remember me? Serbian guy? No. 1 in the rankings? I've won four majors in the last 14 months? What, I lose 7-6 in the third to this hard-serving SEC fan and suddenly I'm off your radar?"

I'll add one more point to the perceptions of Federer's "arrogance." I think we forget that he's from a different culture. We Americans are big on being inoffensive and putting up a lot of "aw shucks" false modesty, but it's not that way everywhere. That's also a part of why tennis is such a great sport.
--
John Mallaney, Streator, Ill.

• Your comment triggers this: From a disposition standpoint, John Isner reminds me of Peyton Manning.

Was it just me, or did anyone else notice Novak playing at an incredibly quick pace against Isner?
--
Greg McMurry, Charleston, S.C.

• It was so fast, we all missed it.

I was at a lecture last week discussing ethics in business, where Nike was given a mention. Do you think with the power they command that Federer and Nadal for instance try to promote better working conditions to remove sweatshops, etc.? Obviously they have their contracts to think about, but being who they are, is it their responsibility to speak out?
--
Brian, Ireland

• Well all know the answer: It's Mike Daisey's responsibility.

Is sliding on hard courts in the manner of Djokovic hard on the player's knees?
--
KD, Astoria, Ore.

• Making watercress sandwiches on hard courts is bad for your knees. At some point we're going to kick ourselves (on clay or grass) for not realizing earlier that playing a grueling sport on concrete is a death wish. Or at least an injury wish. We start by turning Miami into a clay event.

Has anyone ever beaten Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in the same tournament?
--
Brandon, Calif.

The ATP's Greg Sharko claims it's never happened. So there.

Correction: David Nalbandian did it at the 2007 Madrid Open, beating Nadal in the quarters, Djokovic in the semis and Federer for the title.

So since losing to Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open and year-end championships, Federer is now 5-0 against DelPo without having dropped a set. Similarly, Serena Williams lost back-to-back matches at Wimbledon and the year-end championships in 2004. Since then she's on a 6-0 streak against Maria Sharapova. Do you think both Roger and Serena get up a little bit of extra desire against players who beat them in surprise Slam finals?
--
Andrew McLaren, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

• OK, statute of limitations is off. Yes, Serena has extra desire against Sharapova. My sources tell me that it's less about the tennis than the endorsements. Williams knows that Sharapova, despite her inferior accomplishments, earns appreciably more in off-court income. Members of Serena's entourage have even been known to needle her, telling her, "You made Maria the star she is. You created the monster!" (Translation: Serena's failure to beat Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon final gave rise to Sugarpova and all that.) Serena's results against Sharapova tell it all.

As for Federer, surely he finds some motivation knowing that JMDP "stole" a major from his haul. But A) Federer is simply a superior player. B) I've never heard of any personal animus.

Regarding this week's comparison of the pace of play at two Australian Opens in recent years, it would be more complete to see the length of the average rallies as well. I have the feeling that the rallies between Nadal and Djokovic were longer and hence the match took a bit more time. Both players do play slower than Federer and Marat Safin, but this comparison is incomplete without this last bit of info. Thank you.
--
Ntvi, New York

• Right on. Before we chalk this up to pace of play, let's see a strokes-per-rally metric. And keep in mind, too, that this year's time also included an interval for closing the roof.

Shots, miscellany

• Jim Courier did a turn on the latest Sports Illustrated tennis podcast and was, unsurprisingly, excellent. Owing to the guest, I think this is worth 40 minutes of your time.

• The good folks at Swatch are offering a Roland Garros timepiece to the winner of our next contest

• Tennis Channel's countdown of the 100 greatest players of all time kicked off Monday and continues through Friday. The show airs each day this week at 7 p.m. ET.

• Nice to see Alisa Kleybanova win her first match back. It's also worth reading some of her quotes detailing her mindset and approach to treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

• Helen of Philadelphia: "Wow, how time flies -- the first time I remember seeing Gavin and Gwen in Federer's box, it was at Indian Wells in 2006, and Gwen was very pregnant."

• The 2012 BNP Paribas Open set an attendance record with 370,408 fans this year.

• This week's anti-grunt email (and there were many to chose from) comes from Matthew of Arlington, Va.: "I tried -- I really tried -- to watch the women's final on Saturday at Indian Wells. But after one game I had to turn the channel. Azarenka's screaming has just gone too far. She should be called for a hindrance on every single point until she is defaulted. I bet that if that happened she would find a way to tone it down. With the rise of Azarenka as the major force in women's tennis and her likely continual appearance in high-profile events, this has got to be a real negative situation for sponsors who will eventually realize that people refuse to watch these matches anymore. I know I'm not alone on this. I also know that this has been brought up countless times already, but I felt I had to write in to give my two cents."

• Your Sony Ericsson draws here.

• Michael Llodra has this to be thankful for: He does not attend Southern Mississippi. (Thanks to James Duncan of Mesa, Ariz.)

• Rebecca Peterson of Petaluma,Calif.: "Jon, how about Rob Peterson, training to make tennis history as the oldest tour pro at age 50, to be chronicled in a new book/Hollywood movie script."

• Press releasing: "From Rod Laver's Grand Slams to Mark Woodforde's record-setting doubles career, and Rosie Casals' 100-plus titles and her efforts to develop the women's pro game, each of these tennis legends had immense success in the sport and were instrumental in shaping the history of tennis. In recognition of their achievements, all three were presented the highest honor in the sport -- induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Laver was inducted in 1981, Woodforde went in alongside his doubles partner Todd Woodbridge in 2010, and Casals was honored with induction in 1996. In a special ceremony at the BNP Paribas Open, this important achievement was celebrated once again with the presentation of their official Hall of Fame rings."

• It's the Agassi workout secrets.

• Christina McHale has signed an agreement with local company Buddy Fruits, a leader in the market of all-natural fruit snacks.

Steffi Graf Punk'd.

• Press releasing: "Citi, an official sponsor of the 2012 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, announced its roster of 'Team Citi' athletes, comprised of two U.S. Olympic alumni and 11 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic qualifiers and hopefuls." Bob and Mike Bryan are on the team. Click here for the full list.

Have a good week, everyone!

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