The sport seems to have outgrown its roots, yet tries to operate under values it has left behind.
Published Feb 01, 2023
Now that Andy Murray’s heroic—and, honestly, heroically futile—efforts at the Australian Open are in the rear-view, we should heed the gritty midnight rambler’s own verdict on the marathon (5:45) match that kept him on the court until after 4 a.m.—thereby ruining any hope that the 35-year old British star with the surgically rebuilt hip might have entertained about continuing his riveting, inspirational run.
“We come here after the match, and that's what the discussion is,” Murray complained to bleary-eyed reporters in the media center not long before sunup last Friday, following his monumental, second-round, five-set win over Thanasi Kokkinakis. “Rather than it being an epic Murray-Kokkinakis match, it ends in a bit of a farce.”
Only one question remains now: Has tennis come to a tipping point on this issue of lengthy Grand Slam matches played at absurd hours?
Unfortunately, a major change is unlikely. Tennis in this case, as well as broadly speaking, has gotten itself utterly bound up and hamstrung by pursuing various and sometimes conflicting goals, as well as servicing too many constituencies. The Grand Slams promote gender equality in myriad ways (including scheduling) but the two tours remain separate entities. Tennis administrators bend over backwards to accommodate the wishes of a host of global media rights holders. Officials want to promote a spectacle appealing to youth without alienating traditionalists, and they struggle to provide a level playing field while catering, of necessity, to the game’s stars.
Murray finished off Kokkinakis at 4:06 a.m.
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Tennis seems to have outgrown its roots but tries to embrace and operate under values and rules it has left behind. The game has a byzantine leadership matrix, sometimes conflicting rule books, and a single (with a few exceptions) unwieldy architecture. Sure, tennis has a nice veneer of professionalism, but it crumbles easily under stress. Tennis is a size 10 foot, squeezed into a size eight shoe. It’s no wonder that a recent article in the New York Times business section highlighted the heavyweight financiers now circling the game, looking either to buy-in or perhaps buy-out and own.
There appears to be no easy solution to some of the dilemmas, including hoot-owl night sessions. But there are numerous other areas in which tennis needs tighten up and become more integral as well as more orderly. Let’s look at some of them.
Present a united front
Everyone understands that the ATP men are reluctant to merge fully with the WTA because, on a week-to-week basis, the mens’ tour is more profitable. But there are more substantial ways to show solidarity than ironing out differences in the rankings points or adopting the same 1000-500-250 tournament classification system. Take the pro establishment’s posture toward China. The WTA continues its principled boycott of China due to the Peng Shuai affair, but the ATP is returning (Covid regulations permitting) to China this fall after a three-year absence with Masters 1000 and an ATP 500 events.
But don’t expect miracles, even if the budding Professional Tennis Players Association, co-founded by Novak Djokovic and backed by shrewd, deep-pocketed investors, succeeds in overthrowing the ATP Tour. Asked during the Australian Open about the optics of the ATP returning to China while the WTA continues to boycott, Djokovic, now the co-president of the PTPA, punted. “I don't know how it's going to look like. . . I hope it (the boycott, the Covid lockdown) passes soon, that we'll all be able to go there. Until then, I don't know. I mean, it's really also not up to me to decide.”
The tours haven't been in China since 2019. That year, the WTA Finals debuted in Shenzhen.
© Getty Images
Empower and support chair umpires
The way chair umpires and players conduct their business continued to be amateurish long after the game became professional. Mohamed Lahyani is a gold badge ATP chair umpire and minor tennis celebrity, but who can forget the pep talk Lahyani delivered from the high chair to Nick Kyrgios, when the Aussie helion appeared to be tanking a 2018 US Open match? That lapse in judgment earned Lahyani a two-week suspension.
Lahyani and his colleagues are now trained professionals, but the tradition of chair umpires who manage matches instead of just enforcing the rules lives on. While explicit rules forbid off-court fraternization between officials and players, a kind of on-court fraternization—or it’s opposite, enmity—is still very much in evidence.
Compared to other pro sports, tennis players get away with murder when it comes to defying and arguing with officials. Knowing that getting thrown out of a singles match stops the show in its tracks, players sometimes engage in a game of “chicken,” a diversion brought to a level of high art by John McEnroe. Hence, cowed officials act like patient therapists, while players strut and fume like Shakespearean actors. Can you imagine an NFL referee engaging in a running dialogue with Deebo Samuel, or Josh Allen?
Chair umpires may be the biggest whipping boys and girls in sports. It would be foolish to give them unilateral power but they need a serious makeover into respected authority figures compelled and trusted to act swiftly and decisively when it comes to violations of the code-of-conduct, even if some interpretation of, say, the “hindrance” rule contains wiggle room. For example, excessive screaming and shrieking should qualify as a hindrance, or as some form of unsportsmanlike conduct. Officials should be entrusted to identify when it crosses that line, and to address it.
Chair umpire Marijana Veljovic looks on while overseeing this year's Australian Open meeting between Rafael Nadal and Mackenzie McDonald.
© Marc GIAMMETTA
Review and rework the rules
During the second-round match between Jeremy Chardy and Dan Evans, a let was called when a ball popped out of server Chardy’s pocket during a point. The incident led to tedious wrangling over whether the errant ball affected play. But going to video to try to determine something like that is a waste of time.
“I think the rule should be if a ball comes out of your pocket, you lose the point,” Evans said afterwards, adding. “If you serve and the ball comes out of your pocket, why is it a let? I think it's the worst rule ever. If a ball comes out of your pocket, it's your own fault.”
Granted this isn’t a big deal. But it points to the way sportsmanship is baked into the rule book—oh gosh, you dropped the ball, let’s start over!—even though these days classic sportsmanship is viewed as anachronistic. Why, while we’re at it, call a let when a serve ticks the net but lands in the right box? Why are you allowed to catch the ball instead of hitting the serve after you initiate play with your service toss? And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in this room: Why do you get a second serve when the first one misses, anyway?
Nobody is likely to tamper with that last one, for good reason. Those serial mulligans may be a vestige of the game’s garden-party roots, but the rule creates rich strategic and tactical dimensions that make the game better.
Chardy in discussion with chair umpire Miriam Bley during his eventual loss to Evans in Melbourne.
© Getty Images
There are other areas that deserve closer scrutiny with a reformer’s eye. Coco Gauff was featured on Rod Laver Arena for all three of her matches even though there are three spacious, covered venues on site at Melbourne Park. All the big names get that honor and there’s no doubt that it gives them an advantage - if not alway as striking as the one Roger Federer enjoyed late in his career, playing exclusively at night under cooler conditions in RLA.
How about the top-heavy distribution of prize money? Naomi Osaka emerged as the highest-paid female athlete of 2022. She made $51.1 million, of which just $1.2 million was earned in prize money on a modest 14-9 record. The other mega-stars are in a similar boat. There’s no better argument for restructuring the way prize money is doled out than the disparity in those numbers.
The complex structure and administration of the game demand maintenance of the status quo. In a way tennis has become reform-proof. But the inefficiencies and fissures alluded to here suggest that a shake-up may be more desirable—and imminent—than we think.