Have you noticed that tennis now disappears off the radar for a whole month between Wimbledon
and the second week of August when the Canada Masters starts? All those arguments about
punishing schedules are beginning to look foolish as Federer, Nadal et al enjoy an extended break
in the middle of the summer. The annual tennis calendar is now effectively reconfigured as two
This only applies to the top players, of course. You have to feel sorry for directors of the smaller
tournaments on the ATP and WTA Tours. In the men's game, the Grand Slams and the ATP World Tour Masters
1000 events are now so lucrative that there is little incentive for top-ranked players to compete
outside of them. The situation is mirrored on the women's tour. The WTA restructured the circuit in
2009, leaving only the Premier Mandatory and Premier Five events relevant to the likes of Serena
Williams and Justine Henin.
The gap between the elite tier and the rest of the professional game is getting wider and wider. It
could just be that a natural hierarchy is establishing itself, but it won't be a hierarchy any longer
if the top cluster becomes detached.
It could also be that I've had too much time since Wimbledon to worry myself about the state of the
game when I should have been watching it. I thought tennis was meant to be a summer game!
Those who believe the government already controls too many aspects of our lives will be
dismayed to learn that the latest issue to tax the minds of our elected leaders is ... tennis!
The plight of the Lawn Tennis Association is now right up there, jostling for attention with
such lightweights as the state of the economy, education, the health service and foreign wars.
Joking aside, taxpayers' money is at stake (the LTA receives £26.8M a year from Sport England),
so it's only right that the LTA should come in for some serious scrutiny. Gerry Sutcliffe, the
sports minister, has asked an All-Party Parliamentary Tennis Group to investigate the LTA's
activities and if he doesn't like what he reads in their report, he will consider the possibility
of cutting future funding for British tennis.
Last week, Britain's Davis Cup team lost to Lithuania, leaving them just one defeat away from
relegation to the lowest division of the competition. John Lloyd surrendered the captaincy after
presiding over five successive defeats. But this is not just about Britain's standing on the
international tennis stage. Sutcliffe's intervention actually occurred before the Lithuania
Tony Hawks is among those to be consulted about the state of British tennis. For some years now,
the author/comedian who wrote 'Playing the Moldovans at Tennis', has been trying to persuade the
LTA to back his scheme for enabling free tennis on Britain's park courts. The LTA's serial failure
to produce world class players commensurate with the funds available attracts plenty of media attention
(in addition to the Sport England money, the Association receives in excess of £25M from the
Wimbledon surplus). But it's the dismal lack of commitment to grass roots tennis that really
threatens to provoke parliamentary displeasure. And understandably so.
The Davis Cup has more than 100 years of proud history behind it. Bill Tilden, Fred Perry,
Don Budge, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi,
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are among those who have competed for their countries in the
quest for temporary custody of the beautiful silver trophy donated by Harvard student Dwight
Filley Davis in 1900. Yes, some great history. But not much of a future, it appears. Given
its complexity, the competition's popularity with tennis fans remains surprisingly undimished.
Sadly, however, scheduling constraints have led to players becoming less and less enamoured with
it in recent years.
Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick have all declined to represent their countries in
the Davis Cup this year. Sweden's Robin Soderling recently articulated players' misgivings about the
competition and advocated a biennial event. "The schedule gets very tight," he said. "It's played
so often. The final takes place in December and then we begin again with the first round in February.
Look at the World Cup, it's the greatest event in the world but it wouldn't be like that if it was
played every year. I like the way the Davis Cup is played right now, but it would be seen as a much
bigger event if it was played every second year instead. It is not that big right now." The idea of
a biennial event also appeals to Roddick. "I could definitely see the benefits of it for players and
from a fan's perspective," he said recently. "One of the reasons the Ryder Cup is so successful is
because you have time to build up to it and it is unique."
Soderling and Roddick, along with Nadal, Murray and Novak Djokovic, are among those believed
to be lending qualified support to the concept of a World Cup model whereby a ten-day event featuring
32 nations would take place every other year in a single location. Butch Buchholz, recently retired
chairman of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, and Mike Davies, a former Great Britain Davis Cup
player and former director of the ATP, are at the forefront of those promoting the idea. Commenting
on the current defection of top players from the competition, Buchholz said: "The way things are at
the moment, the Davis Cup will soon resemble a junior Davis Cup and that's not good for tennis." He
and Davies will present the ITF with a proposal by the end of the year.
It's not a bad idea, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the best thing for the Davis Cup
is to absorb it into the Olympic Games. Nation pitted against nation in a team-style format
would be a vast improvement on the current format of the Olympic tennis tournament. It is time
to consign the Davis Cup to the dust heap of history. But from those ashes, I believe the phoenix
could rise in the form of a truly compelling Olympic tennis team event.
There are no hiding places for top sports stars these days. Any indiscretion is like a piece of
steak dropped into the piranha tank of tabloid scrutiny. Andre Agassi, golfer Tiger Woods and Chelsea
footballer John Terry are just three sporting luminaries who have fallen victim to those razor-sharp
teeth in recent months. Modern society has an appetite for salacious gossip and the predatory eyes of
the media are forever darting around for morsels of imprudent behaviour.
It's not easy to reconcile the private sinner with the professional achiever. When people in the public
gaze prove fallible in their private lives, they often lose their jobs or are deemed less worthy of the
respect they enjoyed during their professional careers. But is that reasonable? Michael Jackson was
demonised in the media for transgressions in his private life, but should this affect his musical legacy?
The process of putting sportsmen and sportswomen on pedestals in order to knock them down again is not
an edifying one. For every individual who clambers enthusiastically onto the plinth there are some who
resist adulation with forthright indignation and others who recoil with embarrassment and apprehension.
Agassi, Woods, Terry et al are not members of Parliament, ministers or high-ranking civil servants. We
have absolutely no right to insist upon them being paragons of virtue. They are talented individuals
who have attained success through devotion and hard work. Yes, society places an exaggerated emphasis
on athletic ability and you could argue that the rewards are disproportionate to the nature of the
achievements, but it's not something we should hold against the beneficiaries. If there's a disparity
between merit and reward, it's an issue for society as a whole to address.
If we drag people through a hall of mirrors, we should not be surprised if they appear grotesque.
One thing that's really annoyed me during the current cold snap is seeing all those icy pavements outside
shops and offices. It applies to tennis centres, clubs and venues too. Naively, I assumed that
proprietors might clear the areas outside their premises as a service to their customers (and the local
community). But, no, the Elfin Safety brigade, in the form of the Institution of Occupational Safety and
Health, a professional body representing 36,000 health and safety experts, has warned that clearing pavements
could lead to legal action.
In its guidance to businesses, the Institution has advised: "When clearing snow and ice, it is probably worth
stopping at the boundaries of the property under your control." Clearing a public path "can lead to an action
for damages against the company, e.g. if members of the public, assuming that the area is still clear of ice
and thus safe to walk on, slip and injure themselves."
The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, has clarified this further: "If you do nothing you cannot be
liable. If you do something, you could be liable to a legal action."
It's amazing to think we're the product of two million years of evolution. Oh boy. Do you remember when
accidents were sometimes just accidents? They just happened. People took common-sense precautions and it
wasn't necessarily anybody's fault if the unexpected occurred. Then opportunistic greed led to a culture
of claiming compensation for every little thing that goes wrong.
Common sense (or horse sense) dictates that clearing pavements of snow and ice reduces the risk of injury.
W.C. Fields once said: "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people". No
horse would have betted against us introducing safety laws that penalise people for improving safety!
It is said that the door to safety swings on the hinges of common sense. Apparently, we've allowed the
hinges to loosen so much the horse has bolted.