There are a lot of things wrong with tennis. In fact, it seems it has all of the bad things about sports rolled into one. Bratty competitors, overbearing parents, haughty administrators, boring events and too few really good players.
When was the last time you sat and watched a tennis match with more than just a passing interest? Pete Sampras is the best player in the game, and perhaps the best ever but brings nothing else to the court except his game. Right after he won his first U.S. Open, Sampras was in an event called the Dupont All-American Challenge at Amelia Island. I met with him before the event, talked with him for about an hour, did an on-camera interview and left their thinking, “nice guy but boy is he young!” And not just in years. He didn’t know anything about anything! Tennis players are dedicated, drafted even, so young into their sport they don’t have anytime to develop at people. Sampras knew tennis, and that’s about it. Perhaps he’s staying out of the limelight off the court for fear of showing off his lack of knowledge of anything else.
If you get a chance to attend a “up and comer” event, something akin to a satellite tour, you’ll see some tennis, but people watching becomes the main event. Players show up with their “teams” in tow. Trainers, psychologists, coaches and other hangers-on sometimes masquerading as parents. Wow, the parents! Screaming, preening, dealing, anything that might call more attention to themselves. I mean this is a sport where one player’s father was arrested on the grounds and went out and threw himself into traffic, while another has a restraining order against being at an event where his daughter is playing! That’s normal? What happened to “hit the ball hard honey and play your best?” That’s why this is perhaps my all-time favorite conversation in tennis:
“Hi Mom, I’m in the finals,” said Lindsay Davenport to her mother. “That’s wonderful honey, do you want me to come tomorrow?” replied her mother. “Nah, just watch it on television.”
At the time, Davenport was at the U.S. Open in New York. Her mother was in California.
The biggest talk these days in tennis is about Anna Kournikova. Young, blonde and beautiful, almost anybody who doesn’t know anything about tennis still knows who Anna is. Yet, when people see her play, they’re amazed that she’s actually talented! This is not a princess on the court trying to fake it. Kournikova can play some, but plays up this “image thing” to the point of distraction. So she can date two Russian NHL players at the same time. So what! Win something soon and we’ll pay more attention. Which leads me to my second favorite tennis conversation:
“Did you bear down a little harder to try and get off the court quickly in the second set?” I asked Lindsay Davenport after a third round match. Lindsay (Laughing), “Yeah, I was a little behind, and there’s NO WAY I was losing to HER!!”
The opponent was the aforementioned Kournikova. (Can you tell Davenport is my favorite player?)
I know you remember when John McEnroe was the dominant player in men’s tennis. And I know you thought he was a jerk. And he was, even he admits it now. But he cared, played hard and did everything he could to win. Things are so much different now. Tanking, (throwing a match) has reached the point of high art. Appearance fees, far flung events, and under the table deals are such a part of the game the public usually runs for cover except for the Grand Slam events.
There might be hope though. The people who run tennis have finally admitted a problem exists. They’re trying to change the way the ranking system is run. Trying to bring together the best players more often. Trying to make the players understand how they can effect the game in the future.
Andre Agassi has gotten involved in some of the decision making of the game. Perhaps he can bring some normalcy to the situation. Then again, he was married to Brooke Sheilds and is engaged to Steffi Graf. But that’s a whole other story.