exploring the world of tennis . . .     
Talking Points 2007
Wimbledon's special friendship
"Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals." (Mahatma Ghandi)

If it's true that individuals do more to promote peace than governments, the renewed pairing of Indian Muslim Sania Mirza and Israel's Shahar Peer in the Wimbledon ladies doubles event is a significant one despite the pair's insistence that they are not making any kind of religious or political statement.

"We've grown up together. We're great friends," explained 20-year-old Mirza,
"we're normal human beings"
who was once the subject of a fatwa issued by radical Muslim clerics who took exception to her on-court attire. "So we said, why not? I have to keep saying this: I'm here to play tennis and so is she. That's the end of that. It has nothing to do with anything else." Mirza and Peer, seeded 16th, overcame Lisa Osterloh and Sofia Andersson in the first round. "We're just here to play tennis and we're here to perform and be the best we can be," Mirza added. "Everything we do or everything we say, we're normal human beings, and we're not here to make statements with every move that we make. We're just here to play tennis and we're here to perform and be the best we can be."

The two have been close friends since their junior days and played together at the 2005 Japan Open where they reached the semi-finals. However, Mirza got cold feet and broke up the partnership before the 2006 Bangalore Open, fearing a violent reaction from Islamic hardliners. "It's best that we don't play together . . . to prevent protests against my cooperation with an Israeli," Mirza said at the time. "There is no reason to arouse their ire." Peer is ranked just outside the top ten and could well qualify for the end-of-season WTA Sony Ericsson Championships next year when the event moves to Doha. Like other Arab Gulf states, Qatar does not recognise Israel.

Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi was threatened with suspension by the Pakistan tennis federation when he competed in the Wimbledon men's doubles with Israel's Amir Hadad in 2002. The pair were awarded the ATP Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award the following year. Like Mirza, Qureshi insisted he never intended to make a political statement with his choice of partner. He nevertheless believed he had delivered a positive message. "I have had quite a lot people come up to me at the airport or on the airplane and ask me when I was going to play with the Pakistani player again," he said. "I never heard anybody say: 'Don't play with him' or something like that. In Israel everybody is pretty supportive about it . . . It's good for the game. They were telling me to keep it up."

Uprooted people are the most vulnerable and desperate of all. Arabs will never accept that the dispossession of Palestinians was a legitimate price the world had to pay for Hitler's oppression of European Jews. A just solution continues to elude world leaders as political intransigence threatens to obscure any shared vision of a peaceful future. In the absence of such a vision, the only way tensions can be relieved is through the humanity of individuals.

If they continue to progress through the draw, Mirza and Peer will cause quite a stir at Wimbledon. Their first match attracted a throng of people wearing saris, turbans and headscarves and they were very warmly received. One can understand them wanting to distance themselves from any political or religious symbolism arising from their reunion, but their friendship is none the less gratifying as an indication that humanity will prevail.

Dave Winship (3 July 2007)

Back to the topics
Laughter and adversity
Jelena Jankovic
On the face of it, an insecure childhood set against the backdrop of a disintegrating country spiralling into civil war would not seem to be the ideal blueprint for a career in professional tennis. But the Serbs (Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic) look anything but disadvantaged as they line up for the French Open quarter-finals, outnumbering all but the Russians and the Spaniards.

Jankovic was enjoying relative security in America when she was 14 and the bombs started exploding all around her family home in Belgrade. "My mother came with me to begin with, but then she returned to Belgrade," she explains. "Sometimes I was really missing my family. I would cry and I couldn't take it. But I think it made me stronger as a person, also as a player. I feel I learnt how life is and I learnt to do things without help."

A bit of hardship is meant to be good for the character, but although many of today's top players have been motivated by adversity of one kind or another, no underachieving national association is seriously going to include it in their next five-point plan for producing a champion.

You won't find too many references to smiling and laughing in the coaching manuals
"if you hit a good shot, why can't you smile?"
either, but it's not doing Jankovic any harm. She grins. She giggles. She exchanges jokes with her entourage during changes of ends. "It helps me to stay relaxed to smile on the court," she says. "If you hit a good shot, why can't you smile? I think it's good." It certainly appears to be working for her. We don't just laugh because we're happy. Sometimes we laugh in order to be happy. Jankovic has clearly discovered the value of a sense of humour as a coping mechanism. "It helps to stay positive and to work hard," she insists. Novak Djokovic may be serious about mounting a challenge to Federer and Nadal at the top of the men's rankings, but, like Jankovic, he also has a lighter side. He had the French crowd in fits of laughter during last November's Paris Masters when he walked onto court wearing a Zorro mask. So should coaches teach players how to smile as well as how to hit topspin? Is there a serious point to all this? No. But I suppose that is the point.

And as for adversity, it may be okay for Jankovic and Djokovic to laugh their way out of genuine hardship. But what about those who, through no fault of their own, are products of more favourable upbringings? I suppose they are obliged to manufacture a little misery for themselves. Come to think of it, John McEnroe was never averse to indulging in a little paranoia if the consequent brush with officialdom stoked some sort of fire within him. Lleyton Hewitt also seems to thrive on creating a hostile environment. So is adversity, real or manufactured, the key to producing a champion? Is there a serious point to all this? No. Because Roger Federer doesn't fit that paradigm. Neither does Rafael Nadal. Forget it. Who'd be a sport psychologist?

Dave Winship (5 June 2007)

Back to the topics
Federer and Nadal step up bloodless rivalry
Roger Federer's victory over Rafael Nadal in the Hamburg Masters final should set pulses racing in anticipation of the two locking horns in the 2007 French Open, but there is something about the rivalry that has yet to rouse the passions of sports fans around the world.

Like many of their encounters, the spectacle of the two dominant alpha males of world tennis vying for supremacy in the so-called "battle of the surfaces" a few weeks earlier was an absorbing one, but it would take a large dose of artistic licence to describe it as a chest-thumping showdown to inflame the emotions. Why is it that encounters between these two greats attract about as much partisan zeal as a clockmakers' convention during a siesta?

Truly great rivalries are forged in the fire of struggles that smoulder beyond the immediate sporting arena. When tensions extend beyond the confines of a stadium as they do when India and Pakistan confront each other on a cricket field or when Glasgow splits into two during a Rangers-Celtic football match, then bigotry erupts and sporting hostilities fervently engage the fan base. The iconic 1972 match between chess giants Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer became symbolic of the Cold War. Political tension between Castilians and Catalans crackles every time Real Madrid and Barcelona face each other in La Liga. Roger Federer, however, hails from a country with a long history of being neutral. Switzerland has not featured in a foreign war since 1815 and the stereotypical image of its people is rule-abiding, reliable, conscientious traditionalists. Hardly the sort of people to court hostility or even controversy. Rafael Nadal's home, the Spanish island of Mallorca, certainly boasts a turbulent history, but its inhabitants are invariably sociable and hospitable. John McEnroe could not have emerged from Mallorca.

Speaking of McEnroe: even when there is no animosity in the respective backgrounds of
"I can't be sad"
sporting opponents, personality differences can still spawn the bitterest of conflicts. McEnroe and Borg, Prost and Senna immediately spring to mind. No one reading this will need to be reminded of the contrast between "Ice Man" Bjorn Borg and "Superbrat" McEnroe. The feud between Formula One giants Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost came to a head in 1989 when the pair forced each other off the track at Suzuka. Federer and Nadal are unlikely to become the closest of buddies on the Tour, but they clearly have nothing but the greatest respect for each other. "I can't be sad that I lose one match to the world's best player," said Nadal after the Swiss broke his 81-match winning streak on clay. Apparently, he also asked him for his autographed shirt. Mutual appreciation was definitely the order of the day as Federer declared: "Matches against Rafael help me... I've improved a lot by playing against him." Surely they could dislike each other just a little bit for the good of the sport? The neutrals are still poised, waiting to nail their colours to one mast or the other. If only Federer or Nadal would do or say something that would persuade them.

If, as seems likely, Federer and Nadal face off in the final at Roland Garros, we can not expect a clash of religions or cultures or personalities. A clash of tennis science perhaps. It will provoke a great deal of academic debate, but will it be great theatre?

Dave Winship (23 May 2007)

Back to the topics
Federer stalls on road to greatness
Frustrated by repeated failure to outmanoeuvre Rafael Nadal and shaken by a series of prangs involving Guillermo Canas and 53rd-ranked Filippo Volandri, Roger Federer is starting to display symptoms of road rage as he negotiates his way to a French Open crown and tennis immortality.

The satnav, in the form of Aussie coach Tony Roche, has been unceremoniously tossed out of the window as the Swiss master desperately continues his obsessive quest for Roland Garros glory. Ivan Lendl was as fanatical about winning Wimbledon in the 1980s as Federer is about triumphing in Paris before there are too many miles on the clock. By coincidence, the man Lendl turned to was Roche, who endeavoured in vain to turn the solid baseliner into a netrusher. There is evidence of such tinkering in Federer's case too. The forehand is clearly loaded with more topspin and the drop shots are an uncharacteristic feature of his recent performances.

Among the rubber-neckers witnessing this fracas are such luminaries as former world number one Thomas Muster, who recently commented: "The problem is that you are changing what comes naturally and I'm not sure it's worth it. You start to get frustrated after a while because you are doing what you think you should do on that surface, but you might end up taking away what you are really good at. Roger is probably better off doing what comes naturally, being physically prepared, rested and playing his own game." Muster, who was known as the "King of Clay" in the mid-1990s, makes a valid point. If Roger Federer cannot win the French Open playing like Roger Federer, what chance does he have if he tries to play like somebody else?

Federer himself believes a major overhaul may be required. "I don't know what's wrong," he lamented after the loss to Volandri. "I have to analyse it myself. I need to get back on the practice courts instead of the match courts."

Federer has always had a Rolls-Royce engine and a great set of tyres. With the French Open just over a week away and Nadal purring on ahead without a glitch, can he afford to pull over and dive under the bonnet right now? He barely has time to check the map.

Dave Winship (18 May 2007)


Federer is great player no matter what, but for someone who wanted to be the best of all time he made strategic mistake for not having permanent coach; someone who would permanently develop his technique, and think ahead of time what has to be done. He was almost mocking at others for not having a coach, and now is pay off time. Federer is in great physical shape, he has great footwork and court coverage but for player of this caliber he is very deficient technically: especially one handed backhand, volleys, and even his serve is not good enough for the player of this caliber. In years he has improved in these departments, but not enough considering his talents. He did not have a person who would think long term about his game, and about the game of the other competitors, and plan what to do in order that his reign lasts as long as possible. By doing so he made irreparable mistake which will definitely shorten his reign.
Posted by Damir Popadic (Croatia) on May 19 2007

Back to the topics
Killing with kindness
Kim Clijsters won the US Open singles title in 2005 and the WTA Tour Championships singles title twice (in 2002 and 2003). She also won the French Open and Wimbledon women's doubles titles in 2003 and notched 34 WTA singles titles and 11 doubles titles during her career. It's an impressive haul, but the popular Belgian is at pains to point out that any summary of her career should include her six WTA sportsmanship awards.

"The many sportsmanship awards ..., awarded by the players themselves, will keep a special place in my house," she insists. "They are the nicest ones you can get as a player."

It is rare to come across a performer who has upheld the spirit and the values of the game, even in the heat of battle, as steadfastly and as charmingly as Clijsters has done since turning professional in 1999. Despite losing her first four Grand Slam finals and earning herself the tag of major bridesmaid, Clijsters defied the popular notion that her niceness precluded her from winning the biggest prizes in the game. When she claimed the US Open crown in 2005, it vindicated her belief that competing fiercely on court was not incompatible with her frequent declarations that tennis was not the most important thing in her world. "I'd rather be known as a nice player," she was often quoted as saying. "Someone who's good for the sport."

Her former long-time coach, Carl Maes, described her as "a very emotionally intuitive player, not one with whom you rationalise victories or defeats. I try to influence the flow, rather than control her." Players who run on emotional fuel often misfire when frustration gets into the mix, but Clijsters' behaviour on court was never less than gracious. She proved it is not necessary for a champion to dehumanise opponents and officials in order to win. The six Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship awards from her peers proclaim the cheerful champion who was able to kill with kindness.

Dave Winship (9 May 2007)

Back to the topics
Yeltsin's sweet and sour legacy
Boris Yeltsin's political legacy may be shrouded in controversy, but there can be no doubt about the former Russian president's legacy to tennis. His enthusiasm for his country's cause in Davis Cup and Fed Cup served as a significant catalyst for the Russian tennis revolution.

Yeltsin was the man at the helm when Russia embraced democracy and a market economy in the 1990s. When the transition hit troubled waters and pirates plundered state industry, the populace turned mutinous and Yeltsin jumped ship at the end of the decade. Russian sports fans, however, are indebted to the avid supporter who became a pivotal figure in the transformation of Russian tennis into the dominant world force it has now become.

A passionate player and zealous fan, Yeltsin used his influence to spread the popularity of the
"synonymous with tennis"
game nationwide. Russian Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev worked at the Kremlin during Yeltsin's administration and the two became good friends. The man who has captained Russia to two Davis Cup and two Fed Cup titles in the last five years is convinced that Yeltsin was in large part responsible, not only for enhancing the prestige of the game, but also for inspiring the country's elite players. "Yeltsin's name became synonymous with tennis in Russia," he said. "When he picked up a tennis racket in 1992 it was the most significant moment for our sport. Due to him, tennis has become what it is today - not only one of the most popular sports in Russia, along with soccer and ice hockey, but also the most successful."

The image of Yeltsin standing on the turret of a tank during a coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is one that is etched into the minds of Russian citizens. He came over as one of the people and they hailed him with a love that eventually went very sour. Etched into the minds of Russian tennis fans are the images of the self-proclaimed team mascot punching the air and bearhugging the players when Mikhail Youzhny clinched Russia's first major tennis team success (in the 2002 Davis Cup final). The likes of Youzhny, Safin, Davydenko, Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Safina, Petrova and Myskina will continue to enjoy the sweet taste of success for some time to come.

Dave Winship (25 April 2007)

Back to the topics
De Villiers starts tennis "turf war"
When ATP executive chairman and president Etienne de Villiers unveiled his plans for a 2009 restructuring of the ATP calendar, the former Disney executive must have felt a bit like Mickey Mouse in the role of the Sorcerer's hapless Apprentice in Fantasia.

Dark clouds gather ominously over Monte Carlo at the start of the 2007 Masters Series tournament. A rich tennis history dating back to 1897 is threatened by De Villiers' plans to strip the event of its Masters Series status. Chopping away at the Masters Series events has prompted a flood of lawsuits. When a blow of the axe struck at Hamburg, the organisers immediately filed an anti-trust suit. Monte Carlo got in on the act, then the players themselves signed a petition protesting against the proposals. The water has started rising and things are getting decidedly ugly.

De Villiers is a businessman and streamlining the ATP schedule must have seemed like sound business sense to him. But professional sport is much more than a business. It reflects and influences the aspirations, dreams and passions of millions. You can't be too hard-nosed about it. It touches people's very souls. As Monte Carlo tournament director Zeljko Franulovic explains: "Today marks a sad day for tennis when we are forced to take legal action against our own representative body to prevent it from destroying more than 100 years of tennis history in pursuit of its own financial goals - and at the expense of fans, players, tournaments, and sponsors." There are significant intangibles in sport. Is anyone in De Villiers' circle bending his ear about them? Is he doing enough listening?

Monte Carlo defending champion Rafael Nadal has been among the most vociferous of the protesters. The Spaniard, who is looking to extend a 60-match clay-court winning streak, feels that the loss of two clay-court Masters Series events is a discriminatory attempt to marginalise the clay-courters in favour of the hard-court specialists. Given that clay is the prevalent playing surface of most of Europe and South America, it's hard to deny he has a point. Surely, anyway, the problem is not the number of Masters Series events. It's the fact that they are not spread sensibly across the calendar.

Coming hot on the heels of the round-robin fiasco in Las Vegas, the pressure is building on the beleaguered Etienne De Villiers. If he proves insensitive to the opposition to his plans, tennis may find itself engaged in fisticuffs over a turf war between hard-court and clay-court events. Cue the sorcerer to break the spell and save the day.

Dave Winship (16 April 2007)

Back to the topics
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
There has been much talk of public apologies and reparations for past grievances in the news recently. The 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery has been one such issue and, on a much smaller scale, there has been some controversy over the WTA Tour's decision to make Indian Wells one of the four mandatory events for top-ranked players in 2009.

While the jury may be out on whether Western governments may be absolved of responsibility for slavery on the basis that there are no living perpetrators and no direct survivors, the case against the organisers of the Pacific Life Open tournament in Indian Wells is cut and dried. They can not be absolved of blame for the disgraceful behaviour of spectators at the 2001 event after Venus Williams withdrew from a match against her sister, Serena. When Venus and her father took their seats for the final between Serena and Kim Clijsters, sections of the crowd started to boo and jeer. The officials made no attempt to quell the booing when it started up again on Serena's appearance and they allowed it to continue sporadically right through until the presentation. According to Richard Williams, his daughters were subjected to racial slurs. No apology was forthcoming from the organisers and, understandably, the family vowed never to return. Fans are obviously entitled to voice displeasure, but their treatment of Serena (still a teenager at the time) went way beyond the pale.

"I'm not going to go back"
chief executive Larry Scott's overhaul of the Tour will mean that top-10 ranked players refusing to play Indian Wells (or Miami, Madrid or Beijing) will incur sanctions, including suspension. "I need to have a sit down and pow-wow with Larry Scott," Serena Williams told reporters when the implications of the announcement were put to her. "But I can guarantee you the chances of getting me to Indian Wells are slim and none. I'm not going to go back. I have no interest in going. It's just how I feel. I think anyone who went through what I went through would feel a similar position." Her father went further. "We'll definitely have to consider legal action," he said. "And the WTA don't make the rules for America."

The tournament directors could have publicly denounced the behaviour of the crowd at the time and did not. They could have denounced it afterwards and did not. Why do they find 'sorry' such a hard word? Tournament president Ray Moore has said: "We're not going to pay them special guarantees or make special contributions to charities or other things that have been suggested. They just need to come back. If they don't, we're very unhappy and disappointed. But life moves on."

Yes, life moves on, but it appears to move at different rates for different people. Some descendants of slavery insist that the legacy of the evil trade continues to debilitate and undermine their standing in society. Some refuse to submit to the healing hands of time. Scratching at such old wounds, however, just smacks of hypersensitivity and crankiness. And, anyway, it's a fact that no living person is guilty of the abuse curtailed by abolitionist lawmaker William Wilberforce 200 years ago. Should the Scandinavian peoples apologise for the Viking invasion of Britain? Would such apologies be credible and would they serve any purpose?

Clearly, time has not healed the wounds inflicted on the Williams family at Indian Wells six years ago and Serena's memories are still vivid. In this case, a full public apology could do a lot of good. Failure to make amends would have the effect of punishing the victims further. Larry Scott's reforms will mean Venus and Serena Williams could be banned from competing in Miami - a tournament they consider their "home" tournament.

Dave Winship (30 March 2007)

Back to the topics
Tennis brat finds true vocation
All kinds of people get caught up in the cut-throat world of professional sport. Some are clearly ego-driven and ruthless. Others, like Roger Federer, manage to effect a paradoxical mix of relentless ambition and personal humility. Occasionally there are hapless victims of other people's vanity.

Formerly a ball-bashing teenage phenomenon who reached number two in the world rankings, Sister Andrea Jaeger is now adapting to her new life as a Dominican nun in the Episcopal Church.

The flailing racket and pigtails have given way to a starched habit and a leather bible. In 1980, anxious to please her domineering father, Jaeger stormed onto the WTA Tour at the tender age of 14, all braces, pigtails and a feistiness that unsettled umpires and fellow players like Chris Evert, who unsuccessfully attempted to befriend her. She was a reluctant tennis prodigy. "I didn't join the circuit to be No 1," she says. "I didn't join the tennis circuit to grow up to be a professional tennis player. I joined because I was good enough to, and there were aspects I loved and aspects that haunted me. Kids should be driven by their own goals and their own passion, not by someone else's. That's when it becomes dangerous."

A persistent shoulder injury defied surgical intervention and eventually cut short the career that
was already suffering from episodes of underachievement. Uncomfortable with the notion of honing a killer instinct to carry off the game's biggest trophies, Jaeger explains: "I didn't grasp the concept ... 'Well, everybody thinks I'm great because I won the match, but what about the person I beat? How's she feeling?' I was a lot more tormented at the time than I realised." The torment led to her losing some matches on purpose. "I couldn't live my truth on the circuit," she says. She even admits to "tanking" the 1983 Wimbledon final following a blazing row with her father. Martina Navratilova dispatched the teenager 6-0 6-3 in less than an hour. "As a tennis professional, it's not something I am proud of, as people paid money to watch someone perform their best," Jaeger explains. "There were times that I could not give my best because it caused a disharmony in me to do so. I gave my best but not at the cost of hardening my heart, or grieving my soul or wounding my spirit."

In 1990, Jaeger used her career earnings to help launch the Little Star Foundation in support of children afflicted with cancer. "Everything great I received from my tennis career God gave me," she says. "He didn't take it away. He decided it was time for me to serve Him in a different way." Recognising a parallel between her troubled childhood and the plight of the cancer-stricken children she has worked with for over 16 years, Jaeger explains: "They've lost a lot of their childhood and they've lost a lot of trust because their lives have been crushed. It's not just the medicine that helps - it's the support as well and I guess that's what I didnít have on the circuit either. So it sort of clicks with me."

Jaeger recently told a Times journalist an affecting story about her relationship with her father. The two had had little to do with each other after her tennis career came to a halt, but she invited her parents to one of the children's programmes. "By the time we came to the awards ceremony my dad was so amazed at what we were doing, he got up and he was crying - only the second time I'd seen him cry," she said. "He said that no trophy and no tournament win could compare with what we were doing and he told me how proud he was of me and of our work. That was the only moment since I started playing tennis that I saw my dad again. Professional tennis changed a lot of people, not necessarily for the better, and it was like, 'There's my dad, I knew he was there somewhere'."

Dave Winship (14 March 2007)

Back to the topics
Round-robin lottery in Las Vegas
The 2007 Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas descended into farce when defending champion James Blake was eliminated after the round-robin stage, reinstated and then finally eliminated again.

Blake needed to beat Juan Martin del Potro in the final round-robin match, conceding no more than five games in the process. Although the American was leading 6-1 3-1 when del Potro retired with a respiratory problem, the tournament supervisor was in no doubt that Blake had failed to overtake Russian teenager Evgeny Korolev in the final round robin table. Korolev and Blake then spent a crazy 24 hours packing and unpacking bags as ATP Chairman Etienne de Villiers overturned the supervisor's ruling only to change his mind again the following morning.

"I was contacted late at night my time and did not fully understand the issues being discussed and I made a judgment call on what seemed fair," De Villiers explained. "However I understand that judgement calls are not part of the rule book and I must abide by the rules, as must everybody else in the circumstance. This is of course an unpleasant situation for all involved, but we must abide strictly by the rules. I apologise to James for giving false hope and to Evgeny for the confusion. I said we would be prepared to make mistakes but that we would reverse them if necessary and learn from them." De Villiers' apology was offered and accepted with good grace, but it was too late to limit the damage to the credibility of the new format. It is implausible that fans and players will accept round-robin competition when the governing body itself makes such a hash of interpreting the rules.

Improving the game's entertainment value is clearly a high priority for former Walt Disney man De Villiers, who insists: "Our research with fans, tournaments and media indicate a preference for round robin. We are committed to grow the appeal of the sport and get more fans to sample and enjoy. We are going to test different formats and see which ones we will introduce and into what type of event for 2008. It is the 'do it, try it, fix it' approach. I recognise some players and media are opposed or indifferent. But we will diligently build our research based on the results and do what's best for the fans. You live or die by your what your consumer does, not by what critics say or feel."

The tennis people around him should be persuading him that while great sport is entertaining, great entertainment is not necessarily sport.

Dave Winship (5 March 2007)

Back to the topics
Who's to blame?
Western society may or may not be in the grip of a compensation culture. It makes no odds - it's perceived to be. And that perception is enough to compel all kinds of organisations to adopt extraordinary examples of risk-averse behaviour.

Schools have stopped children playing conkers, swimming backstroke and conducting scientific experiments. Sports days are being lost, skipping games skipped and lunchtime kick-abouts kicked into touch. Our cotton-wool kids don't have a snowball's chance in hell of sliding on ice in the playground. Every day brings news of further capitulations to the elf 'n' safety brigade. In the broader community, enterprising volunteers are being vetted and regulated to the point of extinction and the survival of sports and social clubs is jeopardised by the unviable costs of liability insurance.

Landmark decisions have given rise to liabilities against all manner of sportspeople, including coaches, referees and professional bodies. It's not surprising really. It has been estimated that each year there are upward of six million sporting injuries in the UK costing several hundred million pounds in treatment and absence from work. No wonder the lawyers are taking a keen interest. You may or may not consider lawyers as ambulance chasers, but they are perfectly aware that the doctrine of "volenti non fit injuria" ("to a willing person, no injury is done") is not upheld so often these days. In other words, it used to be the case that a person who knowingly and willingly put himself in a risky situation was not normally compensated for resulting injuries. But nowadays, this doctrine appears to have been superceded by the mantra: "where there's blame, there's a claim". Even claims which have little chance of success can cost individuals and organisations a fortune in legal fees.

We cannot live in a world where all risk is eliminated. Would we really want to? We must accept that sometimes accidents just happen and no one is to blame. But if you've read this far expecting me to propose a solution to all this nonsense and unpleasantness, I haven't got one. Hah!

And now a special note from our sponsors:

Do you believe you have been misled and hoodwinked by this article? Do you feel cheated, frustrated, angry? Have you been kept from gainful employment while reading it? You may be entitled to compensation. Contact Sue Leech and Co. Solicitors.

Dave Winship (9 February 2007)

Back to the topics
On the rebound
In 1988, the Australian Open switched from December to January, from Kooyong to Melbourne Park, from grass to Rebound Ace, and reinvented itself as the fourth Grand Slam tournament. Bigger crowds flocked to the new state-of-the-art venue and the event underwent a glorious transformation. Abandoning the grass, however, sounded the death knell for home success.

Australia's tennis history is steeped in the tradition of producing great attacking serve-and-volley champions like Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Smith-Court, Fred Stolle, Ken Rosewell, Tony Roche, Pat Cash and Pat Rafter. It is therefore unfathomable that it should choose to host the Open using the sport's second slowest surface next to the French Open!

Lleyton Hewitt is no serve-and-volleyer but he has struggled on Rebound Ace and has fared better on quicker surfaces, winning the Wimbledon title in 2002. For some years, he has urged Australian tennis officials to install faster courts at Melbourne Park. "At the end of the day it's their tournament," he said in 2004. "It's the Australian Open's business how they want the court. But I know the US Open would definitely be going up to Roddick and Sampras and Agassi and asking them what kind of surface they want and how quick they want it. At the end of the day, if one of those guys are in the semi or the final then it's making the USTA a hell of a lot of money."

It's not just the slowness of Rebound Ace that attracts criticism. Many players, commentators and coaches complain about its heat reflection and the high incidence of ankle injuries attributable to the rubberised surface becoming sticky in high temperatures. Tennis Australia chief executive Steve Wood has now confirmed the use of Rebound Ace is under review. Tournament director Craig Tiley has revealed several rival surfaces are being tested. "At this point, we've got no plans to change it and we've had a very positive result in '07, but it's a bigger picture," Tiley said. "It's more than just Melbourne Park. It's Australia and that's the more critical question for us. Moving forward we've got to look at not only Melbourne Park but also the ideal court surface across Australia. In the next several months we'll be reviewing that."

There are many reasons against reverting to natural grass, not least the desirability for the Grand Slams to test players' competence on a variety of different surfaces. But this review gives Australian tennis a great opportunity to look at synthetic grass as a means of preserving its rich traditions. The grass may or may not be greener on the other side (Wimbledon) but at least the Aussies won't have to mow it. And perhaps they'll enjoy some homegrown success once again.

Dave Winship (30 January 2007)

Back to the topics
Uneven heat in Melbourne
As with all open-air tournaments, rain is a problem for the organisers of the Australian Open, but with retractable roofs over the two stadium courts, Rod Laver Arena and Vodafone Arena, it is a manageable problem. The sun, however, gives them a big headache.

Exposure to high temperatures is potentially dangerous for players, ball kids, officials and spectators, but the tournament director is understandably anxious lest sponsors and television networks also get a little hot under the collar when the Extreme Heat Policy (EHP) takes effect and schedules are disrupted. "The heat is much harder to handle than the rain," said former director Paul McNamee during last year's Open. The EHP is triggered when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) reaches a pre-defined level. Huh? Well, the WBGT is a heat stress indicator that takes into account not just the temperature but also the relative humidity and radiant energy. Right. Well anyway, as soon as the criteria is satisfied, no further matches are put on the outside courts. Matches that are already under way are required to continue. Players on the stadium courts benefit from the rectractable roofs and the air-conditioning systems provided their matches have not already started.

Maybe the tennis authorities will eventually see sense and move the Australian Open to March
"my eyes were burning"
when the weather is cooler and the players better prepared. In the meantime, some attention should be given to making the EHP fairer. Last year, Lindsay Davenport won a tight three-setter against Maria Kirilenko in sweltering conditions while her potential quarter-final opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne, breezed past Virginie Razzano in the shade because her match at Vodafone Arena started a little later - after the EHP had come into effect. The following day, matches were suspended for several hours when the temperature soared into the 40s. Unfortunately for 17-year-old Michaella Krajicek, her encounter with third-seeded Amelie Mauresmo had already commenced when the EHP was triggered and she was forced to retire owing to heat stress after losing the first set. "I felt like I was going to throw up," Krajicek said. "I couldn't even see the ball because my eyes were burning." Dominik Hrbaty had also started his match against Igor Andreev and was obliged to carry on for 3 hours 31 minutes in temperatures that came close to 50 degrees at times. Meanwhile, the Slovak's potential quarter-final opponent, Tommy Haas, enjoyed relative comfort under the roof at Laver. "Well, everybody would prefer to play inside, you know, because the conditions are totally different," Andreev said. "But what can we do? If the supervisors, they make the schedules, they put you on this court, what can you do?" At least Hrbaty had a secret weapon - a bizarre pink and black shirt with two holes cut in the back for ventilation.

The Rebound Ace surface appears to make matters worse. "I think the difference here in Australia is the Rebound Ace," says Lleyton Hewitt. "It's at least 10, 15 degrees hotter on court than it is sitting in the stands purely because of the Rebound Ace surface." The courts allegedly get stickier in hot weather, presenting further problems for the players.

The sensible and fair way to address the problem is to treat extreme heat in exactly the same way as rain. In other words, when the EHP comes into force, play should stop on all courts and there should be no resumption on the outside courts until the temperature drops below the prescribed level. The roofs should, of course, be closed on the stadium courts, just as they would be in rainy conditions.

But ultimately, tennis needs to feel the heat, see the light and change the calendar.

Dave Winship (15 January 2007)

Back to the topics
Tennis: the people's game?
It seems that national governing bodies are increasingly gripped by a lust for success on the international stage at the expense of the game's development at grass roots level.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs model is as relevant to the integrity of a national sporting infrastructure as it is to human motivation and personal development, i.e. the strength of the base of a pyramid determines the validity and stability of its structure. National governing bodies like the British LTA, however, are suddenly throwing all their money at the performance pinnacle of tennis while moss grows and graffiti proliferates at public and community facilities nationwide. People really need to stake a claim to the sport before it slips irrevocably from their grasp.

The same disturbing trend is evident in other sports. Concerned that British football
"coaches have taken over"
is on the verge of becoming elitist, organisers of a campaign called Give Us Back Our Game aim to revive the spirit of playing on the streets and make football accessible once again to those kids who are excluded from the over-managed activity currently appropriated (misappropriated?) by the English Football Association, pushy parents and obsessive coaches. "In a world where children can no longer play outside without supervision, parents and coaches have taken over," says Rick Fenoglio, a Sports Science researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. "Youngsters no longer have time to fall in love with football, to play for fun and truly develop their skills." According to Fenoglio, studies demonstrate that children who play in smaller, unsupervised games enjoy it more and develop their skills more quickly.

Why was Lindsay Davenport the odd one out in the US Women's team that won gold in the 2000 Olympics? She was the only one who was not a product of America's public courts. Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, coach Billie Jean King and assistant coach Zina Garrison all emerged from the humblest of tennis backgrounds. Seles learned to play by hitting balls against the wall of her family's apartment building in former Yugoslavia before progressing to a makeshift tennis court created by stringing up a net between parked cars.

Tennis will continue to be perceived as exclusive while access is confined to those who can afford prohibitive subscription fees charged by increasingly commercially-oriented tennis clubs. The British LTA is the beneficiary of a huge pot of money from the proceeds of the Wimbledon Championships. It is time the money was used to encourage people from all sections of society to take up the sport. It would not be too onerous to halt the senseless decline of public tennis courts, offer their use for free and introduce free tennis taster sessions. The LTA would probably have sufficient resources to pick up the tab for much of this if it cancelled the lucrative contracts offered to the likes of Paul Annacone and Brad Gilbert. The potential for a family-friendly programme such as this to reduce crime, improve health and bring communities together should also make it a good candidate for central government funding. Unlike football, tennis has never truly been accessible to lower income groups. It's high time it was.

Dave Winship (8 January 2007)

Back to the topics

© 2006 Dave Winship