Serve and Volley

Greed Games

The free market promotes sports, but at some risk.

By 3.31.14

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You could, indeed you should, conclude that it all worked out in the end. The finals at the Miami Open brought the four top ranked players in the world, Serena Williams (WTA No. 1) and Li Na (No. 2) on the women’s side, Rafael Nadal (ATP No. 1) and Novak Djokovic (No. 2) on the men’s. They were fine if not grand matches.

On Saturday, Miss Williams came back from a 2-5 deficit in the first set and by sheer force of will, skill, power, and smarts — by sheer force of everything, face it — prevailed 7-5. That set alone made the tournament for many of the fans, sharply disappointed by the appalling mishap on Friday. Then she walked away with the second set, 6-1. Miss Li, always good natured and witty, cracked a joke about two old women (they are both 32) whose clothes are not as crazy as some of the younger set’s. Li’s were classic whites, Miss Williams green and orange, reportedly designed to indicate support for the local football team of which she is part owner.

Miss Li has gone up against Miss Williams 10 times since 2009, with no success. The younger of the famed Williams sisters is now a bona fide legend-in-her-own-time, and will be aiming to defend her French and U.S. Open titles this year, and to win her sixth Wimbledon in between. At Miami, she won for the seventh time, a cross-gender record. Miss Li is the 2014 Australian Open champ.

The Friday mishap was that for the first time in the history of an important tennis tournament — Miami is a Masters 1000 — and probably in the history of any tournament in this sport, there was no men’s semi-final, owing to the physical indisposition of Kei Nishikori (bruised groin), scheduled to meet Novak Djokovic, and Tomas Berdych, felled by gastro poisoning (I never eat in restaurants, but as Tomas would say, Nun du sagst mir?) prior to his match with Rafa Nadal.

This is no joke. Although Berdych’s ailment seems indeed to be food related, a case can surely be made that the real culprit here is the unrealistic pro Tour schedule. The Masters 1000s, important for money (a million clams for the winner and on down by halves), ranking points, prestige within the tennis establishment, is programmed to begin less than a week after the final at Indian Wells, three time zones away in California’s Palm Desert and worth the same kind of dough; The smaller draws — 96 instead of the majors’ 128 — means the seeded players get a break, which is fair enough I suppose, though you could also argue that, noblesse oblige, being better means taking on greater burdens and they should share the first round byes, but the main point remains, there is not sufficient recovery time.

Sports fans glancing at tennis headlines — when there are any, for even an important series like the two March Masters is bound to be overshadowed by the NCAA basketball tournament — are bound to think idly that there goes another tennis wimp, withdrawing due to this or that, where’s your play through the pain ethic? The fact is that scientific studies have shown top tennis players to be the most all-around fit athletes, and while you get cases of extraordinary endurance under physical stress in every tournament on a Tour that continues through November, you have to expect coaches and trainers to yank their charges to avoid the risk of season- or even career-ending injuries.

This is why it is, frankly, somewhat ill-advised, not to say ridiculous, for the Miami and Indian Wells tournaments to be making noises, as they have been in recent years, for promotion. They want to grow up into the “fifth slam.” In California, indeed, some hotheads already casually refer to the Palm Desert event as the “Grand Slam of the West.”

The truth is that tennis probably should have fewer, not more, tournaments, or better, it can have as many as it wants but without the hype and the obligation of high ranking players to compete in as many as possible. After the current wave of globalization in the sport settles down, if it does, in a few years, the location and scheduling of the mandatory Masters 1000s, like Miami, can be rethought. But in any event, talk of another major, with all the historical and cultural significance that designating one would subsume, is wildly off base at present.

The location and scheduling of the major tournaments making up the slam circuit was determined by historical sentiments, with the geography following logically. Until the Open era began in 1968, tennis was a sport cultivated in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and France. The summit of international competition took place at the venues of their national championships. Davis Cup competition was played on the same courts and attracted as much attention, sometimes more. Until 1974, no nation outside the four bigs won the Cup, and it was South Africa, still in the Anglosphere. Since then, they have won it 16 times, a measure of the globalization of the sport.

The word globalization is something of a stretch here: most of the newfangled Davis Cup winners have been European; for example, Spain has had the best run over the past decade or so; this year the defending champion Czechs have a shot at holding it three years in a row, but the Swiss are strong with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka both on their team, and the old school French have a good shot at it. (We are out.)

There is another side to globalization, however, and it may be more apt to Miami’s over-stressed semifinalists. It is the sport’s commercial side, where more is always better. You see the same quality of greed in the longer seasons and the extended playoffs in the major sports, as well as the same pious concern for players’ health. League expansions, crass product promotion add to the inflationary spiral. Some tennis players look like walking billboards. No doubt the 027-01 RM Tourbillon wristwatch made by Richard Mille, worn on court by Rafa Nadal, is a gem combining lightness and shock resistance that is perfectly advertised by one of the fastest and hardest hitting players ever; no doubt the Cheesecake Factory deserves the endorsement Agnieszka Radwanska gives it by wearing the restaurant’s visors, given the unabashed love she confesses for its cakes.

But if private backing, sponsorships and endorsements, always have been crucial to sports, there nevertheless exists a real danger of athletes being treated as commodities. Notwithstanding the superficial respect and embarrassing adulation they are accorded, it is only a mild exaggeration to say they only are as good as their last win, revealing thereby one of the reasons for the fascination of big time sports: it mirrors the way people at all levels are discarded when no longer profitable. This is admittedly on the borderline of cant, a profound error of appreciation, both of market capitalism and of sports; still, it is a kind of shorthand description of an ugly side of society that we deny at our peril.

Capitalism is not the culprit; it seizes its opportunities, but these are made elsewhere, by individuals who ought to know better. The shabby working conditions that Russian organizers permitted (or deliberately chose) to get Sochi ready for the recent Winter Games led to abuses, at least according to human rights observers, which regrettably the working press did not follow up on effectively. There have been, however, several reports in the British press notably about the slave conditions under which Qatar is making preparations for hosting the football (soccer) world cup in 2022. Slave labor in Qatar is sort of a dog bites man story, but then one has to ask why FIFA (the governing body of the sport) ever permitted such a place to be selected for one of its top events.

Greed definitely has motivational value and seems to be an essential ingredient to human progress. But one side effect of letting greed dominate in the organization and management of highly public events like big time tennis or soccer or the Olympics is that it invites politicization of the wrong kind. It is because the Olympics are overhyped that organizations like the Inter-LGBT (your guess is as good as mine what the initials stand for) and Human Rights Watch attacked Jean-Claude Killy, the great downhill ski racer, very active all his life in the Olympic movement and the coordinator for the Sochi Games, for saying nice things about Vladimir Putin and for avoiding the topic of Russian legislation on s*x which is allegedly discriminatory toward persons of certain inclinations.

Killy made his point by stating that his loyalty was to the Olympics and he could not be held accountable for laws regarding personal behavior, which exist in many countries participating in the Olympics, often with repressive features far harsher than Russia’s. This was back in January, and why Killy went to Moscow two months later to receive from Vladimir Putin the Order of Merit is his own affair, though many observers beyond the human rights professionals feel he might have had enough sensitivity to what had meanwhile happened on the eastern marches of Europe to develop a last minute diplomatic cold.

The intrusion of political agendas into sports, pernicious as it is, would be resisted better if the alliance of commerce and sports, necessary as this is, could be made to curb, rather than enliven, the human lusts that it is based on. This is probably asking the impossible, but in that case, are we not justified in asking the governing bodies of sports to take on responsibilities that are essentially political?

The March Masters ended with Novak Djokovic playing with the same nerve that gave him the win over Roger Federer at Indian Wells. Djokovic broke early in both sets and never gave Nadal a second chance, making the match far less dramatic than the contest with the Swiss maestro, who after taking the first set and then falling behind, came back in the last games of the third set to very nearly repeat his Dubai win over the Serb at the end of February. Federer, behind during most of the third set, pulled out the stops and surged to 6-5, but was unable to break Djokovic for the set, then blew his first serve on the tiebreak and never made it up.

Even younger (not necessarily fitter) players than Federer, as shown by what happened to Berdych and Nishikori, cannot be expected to keep doing this sort of thing. To the obvious answer, “Then don’t expect them to,” one might suggest tennis — and other sports as well — consider the virtues of moderation in all things.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.