Thursday, October 30, 2008


USTA's Kantarian resigns as CEO:

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) -- Arlen Kantarian is resigning as CEO of professional tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association, leaving after running the U.S. Open for nine years.

Kantarian told staff Thursday that he will depart at the end of the year.

The USTA was planning a formal announcement later in the day.

Kantarian is a former NFL and Radio City executive who brought instant replay to Grand Slam tennis and launched the U.S. Open Series of summer hard-court tournaments in North America.

This year's U.S. Open broke tournament records for attendance and revenue.

Maybe Arlen's getting ready to make the jump to ATP Chairman...?

Friday, October 24, 2008

If I were tennis commissioner...

"Daddy, where are the Sampras jerseys?" My son asked me as I steered him past the All-Alcatraz lineup of Bengals jerseys. His question stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't believe that in my tenure as commissioner of tennis the idea had never occurred to me. My boy wanted to be outfitted in the same Swoosh that Pistol Pete took the court in; wouldn't others as well?

The next day at work I stopped by the office of our Manager of Operations, Jesse Lusk, to find out what he thought of the jerseys. A day didn't go by without him telling me about the death of serve-volley, Round Robin formats, or which doubles team took the tournament with a 10-8 win in the Match Tiebreaker last week in Hong Kong. "Hey, how come there aren't any jerseys for tennis players?" I asked him. He shrugged.

"It's not a big deal. The tours have bigger fish to fry. They've got player withdrawals, too short of an off-season, and tournament directors that are threatening to cut doubles off at the knees!"

"Yes, but... jerseys!" I could only exclaim. "Every sport has them! This is the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Not only is it a great way for fans to connect with players, but it provides another source of revenue. This is a win-win!" Jesse gave me a dismissive wave and headed back to his desk.

Unwilling to be deterred, I pitched my idea to a rep at Nike who I knew from college. Before I knew it, my idea made it to Phil Knight, who suggested it to the King of Swing himself. The idea caught fire in the locker rooms of the ATP and (Sony Ericsson) WTA Tour, fanned into flames by the agents that inhabited these locales. Most of the players were all too eager to see their name in lights or, at least, in bold print across their shoulder blades.

By the time the U.S. Open rolled around the jerseys were in full swing. I walked through the turnstiles with a young Sampras in tow, or at least one dressed like him. My son was happily eating an ice cream cone, decked out in a jersey hanging down to his knees. "Sweet shirt!" said an attendant as she gave him a tummy tickle. She passed out fliers that read: “The Tennis Channel: Write to Roland Garros." After the jersey revelation I wanted to see what other ideas people had about the game.

Back in the office the following week, I walked by Jesse's desk and noticed he had on a brand-new Safin jersey. I walked closer and could see him filling out the flier. "Commissioner for a day, huh?" I teased. "Why don't you tackle something meaningful, like curbing racket technology, or the Davis Cup schedule?"

"One thing at a time," he smiled. "One thing at a time."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Death of a Serve-Volleyer

We're continuing on in our quest to tackle some of the most important issues facing tennis, and today's post focuses on the death of serve-and-volley. One of the things that makes tennis so enjoyable to watch is contrast; battles between Sampras and Agassi showcased a huge server (Sampras), following his delivery into net and looking to pressure with the volley vs. a power baseliner (Agassi) with laser passing shots. Attacking vs. defending. Even their personalities were opposed: the conservative Pete vs. Agassi, the Vegas showman. Matches between them were the pinnacle of the sport in the 90s.

Today's pro game has evolved into a power-baseline contest, where two combatants sit on the baseline and trade haymakers until one of them errs, or manages to exploit a small opening and rips a winner. I think that the reason this sameness hasn't totally bored the tennis-watching populace is Federer and the artistry he brings to the table. His ability to elevate a normal tennis match to the sublime by hitting jaw-dropping winners makes you forget that the style he and everyone else employs is relatively low-risk.

That in a nutshell is why serve-and-volley is Must See TV; it's a high-risk high-reward proposition. When a player starts to rush forward, you know the point is going to end, one way or another, in the next couple of shots. It's the climax of the point. Charging the net is a way of throwing down; in essence the player is saying "I'm bringin' it! What are you gonna do about it?"

The generalization of court speed is one of the reasons for the death of serve and volley. Clay courts play a little faster and grass and hard courts have been slowed down a bit. This narrower spectrum allows for a power-baseline game to translate well from surface to surface. But the unrecognized-until-recently main factor behind this problem is the new string technology. Namely, polyester strings such as Luxilon. The polyester is a "dead" string, which means that you drop the tension by 10%, take a huge swing, and the ball still won't go out. The huge cuts you can now take enable you to generate incredible amounts of spin. The importance of topspin in the pro game is best explained in David Foster Wallace's Roger Federer As Religious Experience (relevant section copied here):
Extreme topspin is the hallmark of today’s power-baseline game. This is something that Wimbledon’s sign gets right. Why topspin is so key, though, is not commonly understood. What’s commonly understood is that high-tech composite rackets impart much more pace to the ball, rather like aluminum baseball bats as opposed to good old lumber. But that dogma is false. The truth is that, at the same tensile strength, carbon-based composites are lighter than wood, and this allows modern rackets to be a couple ounces lighter and at least an inch wider across the face than the vintage Kramer and Maxply. It’s the width of the face that’s vital. A wider face means there’s more total string area, which means the sweet spot’s bigger. With a composite racket, you don’t have to meet the ball in the precise geometric center of the strings in order to generate good pace. Nor must you be spot-on to generate topspin, a spin that (recall) requires a tilted face and upwardly curved stroke, brushing over the ball rather than hitting flat through it — this was quite hard to do with wood rackets, because of their smaller face and niggardly sweet spot. Composites’ lighter, wider heads and more generous centers let players swing faster and put way more topspin on the ball...and, in turn, the more topspin you put on the ball, the harder you can hit it, because there’s more margin for error. Topspin causes the ball to pass high over the net, describe a sharp arc, and come down fast into the opponent’s court (instead of maybe soaring out).
So, today's composite frames have a bigger sweetspot, which means you have a higher margin for error when swinging at the ball. Coupled with dead strings that also let you take a huge cut, pros can now swing away like a juiced-up Barry Bonds and not only impart tremendous pace to the ball, but enough topspin to bring it down into the court. This is a double-whammy for those brave souls who would charge the net. Not only are the balls coming at them with the speed of rifle shot, they are also dipping like crazy due to the jacked-up spin. When Sampras saw the way the strings turned Zeros into Heroes, he dubbed it "Cheatalon". Cheat-a-lon! Like Cheat-to-win. Clearly a shout-out to me.

Some experts in the game have posited that the lack of serve-volleyers is only cyclical, and in time some will show up. I state that this is bogus. The advantages that Luxilon offers baseliners doesn't apply to volleyers. When you volley, you apply a slight bit of underspin to the ball, and the dead string ain't doing a thing for you there. If anything, it takes away a bit of the "feel" you need to control touch volleys. And once that ball bounces on the other side of the net, a pro with half a second to set up for his shot is going to use you for target practice.

When Blizzard saw that the Archmage was nuking the competition thanks to a way-too-strong Water Elemental did they say "I think that this is part of a cycle. Eventually a maverick Death Knight player will come in and we'll have balance"? No, they Nerfed the Archmage! We need to make the proactive step of speeding up hard and grass courts. One variable at a time here, Lords of Tennis. We changed surface speeds AND brought in new string, and the pendulum swung all the way to the baseline. Let's speed up the surface again and see if we can't get volleys to become a viable option again. The resulting contrast in styles of play would help put a stronger, more appealing product back on court.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

SB Tennis Misadventures

"C'mon, let's do this David Wells-style," I said to myself, trying to get pumped up for my imminent match with Marcus. I was in the car, driving over to the courts for our 1pm match, severely hungover.

The night before I had gone to an Oktoberfest party, and one of the activities was a beer-tasting contest. There were 11 beers listed, and they came out with a tray of paper cups for each round. You had to name the beer as it came out. Now, those who know me know that I'm no Joe Sixpack. More like Jesse Onepack. I have a high-performance system, people! You can't just be throwing crap into this body and not expect bad things to happen! Anyway, I know my limits and am usually pretty good about staying within them. I had one beer with dinner before starting the contest, and all told, the taste tests added up to maybe half another beer.

By the time I got back to my apartment I knew I was going to be in trouble. Apparently the mixing had done me in (I maintain if I had even 2 beers of the same kind, I would have been fine). I wrapped a kitchen trash bag around my trash can and went upstairs to bed, hoping to take my punishment like a man. Sure enough, I spent the night calling Ralph on the porcelain telephone, and not sleeping soundly. The times that I did sleep I had some crazy dreams. Doesn't alcohol always give you the weirdest dreams? I had this one recurring dream that I had gotten in touch with the host of the party, and had boiled down my condition to a small chromosome in the beer that was giving me trouble. I learned that the host of the party also had a problem with this chromosome, and that she had thrown up one more time than I had, and I was convinced that I had to throw up one more time "just to get it out of me". Sure enough, I woke up and booted one final time.

I woke up for good around 10am, wondering if I was going to be able to make my match with Marcus. In my current state I was in no condition to play, but I didn't want to let Marcus down, and I thought if I could hydrate myself that getting on the court and sweating this out might be the best thing for me. Taking a sip of water just reminded me how sore my throat was. You know those spikes that some parking lots have, where you can safely roll forward on them, but DON'T EVEN THINK about backing up over them? That's what my Saturday dinner turned out to be; smooth on the way down, incredibly slasher-esque on the way back up. Toast was worse, but I forced myself to eat a slice and a half. An hour later I ate a baked potato and decided that I'd be able to make the match after all.

Marcus was mercifully late and I got to spend a little time sitting in the shade before we started our warm-up. Usually when I'm sick at night I wish that it were daytime, and that I were somewhere else instead, a soccer field or tennis court, as if puking onto a chain-link fence would be somehow more acceptable to me. For whatever reason, the tennis court is very comforting to me, and I was able to forget my recent tribulations in the repetition of hitting balls. We moved to the baseline and I cautiously opened up a bit more, hitting out on my shots and testing my stomach to see if it would hold up to sudden starting and stopping. It did.

Three quarters of the way through the first set I could feel myself start to flag. My explosiveness was gone; my first step just wasn't there. Balls that I normally could dig out and force Marcus to hit one more shot were flying by me. I could feel myself mentally checking out. "There's no shame in losing today," the voice in my head said. "You're sick, why even bother running for that?" I fought hard against that mentality, and pushed myself to try and win the 1st set. If I could do that, I would consider it a moral victory. I pushed the set to a tiebreaker, but that was as far as I was going to get that day - Marcus pulled away 7-4. I mentally checked out in the 2nd set, and although it was fun to just blast with abandon, Marcus wrapped it up 6-3.

Oh and next time? No Spaten Optimator for me, kthxbai.

Making the Horse Drink

Slow couple of weeks, tennis-wise. I started this blog up around the time of the US Open, which provided ample storylines and matches to analyze, and now that it's all over I've been a bit... flat. Oh sure, I've tried to bluff my way through it, posting occasional reports of my own tennis matches and the odd fluff picture of my wife and myself with Lincoln Brewster, but I haven't been able to come up with the TLC that readers of this blog have come to know and expect. No more! During the possibly-Federer-less leadup to the Year Ending Championships (and beyond), I'll try to tackle some of the important issues facing tennis today.

As alluded to above, the first topic up deals with the big story in tennis the past couple of weeks: Federer's decision to drop out of Stockholm, and possibly shut it down for the rest of '08. Here's the money quote from his website:

"2008 has been a tough year for me as I was always playing catch up after being diagnosed with mononucleosis at the beginning of the year. I feel fortunate to be healthy again, but I want to remain at the top of the game for many more years to come and go after the #1 ranking again. In order to do that, I need to get a proper rest and get strong again so that I am 100% fit for the remainder of the year or next year. At this point, I am not sure when I will be ready to play again, but I hope to be back at some point before the end of the year. I apologize to the tennis fans in Sweden as I was looking forward to playing in Stockholm again. The country has produced so many incredible tennis players and the tournament has such a great history. I hope to be able to come back at some point in the future."

This opens up the broader Pandora's box of player commitment and tournament promotion. Tournament directors want players to play; they bank on them showing in order to sell tickets, gain sponsorship, and grow their event from year to year. But injury and fatigue conspire to prevent players from meeting these commitments. Sometimes it's not even injury or illness, but just a lack of interest in the sport. Part of the reason I can't get into the womens' game is because the top females can't pull it together to show up consistently enough at events to create a compelling narrative. On the other hand, over the past 4 years Federer (and to a slightly lesser extent Nadal) has been an absolute workhorse, playing all year long and honoring his commitments.

Part of this lies in the nature of the sport. The international travel required of tennis players must be hugely draining; I can't imagine what it must be like to travel from one culture to another, trying to maintain some sort of balance so that your level of play on court doesn't suffer. When I travel I freak out about eating chicken in unknown restaurants for fear of salmonella (I know, I'm weird). Also, as a singular sport, you have no one to lean on when you're injured; you can't go on the DL and leave it up to your teammates to take the field in your absence. A better comparison would be golf, or even boxing, and the same holds true there. Let's face it, when Tiger doesn't show up for an event, it just ain't the same.

So what's the answer? How can you alleviate the stress of the tour so that players can hold up their end of what Pete Bodo calls the player-fan pact? There are those (and I include myself here) that have called for a shorter tennis season. This would ensure that players have sufficient time to recuperate, as well as giving fans time to "miss" the sport and want to see it again. I've decided this theory is bunk. First, most players take plenty of breaks during the season anyway. After the Australian Open and early US hard court swing, there's a break until the clay court season. To be fair, it's a torrid couple of months to get from there until the end of Wimbledon, but then you've got another break. Last year Federer took something like 4 or 5 weeks off after Wimbledon. Then you've got the 2nd half of the hard court season concluding with the US Open, break, and the weird European indoor season ending with the Year End Championships. Second, live tennis is already plenty scarce on TV. I've got the Tennis Channel and I still don't see a ton of tennis (although Kerry might beg to differ). However, the most important reason this isn't going to happen is because of the way the tour is set up. The ATP "sells" weeks of the year to promoters, and at this point the calendar is all bought up. To create more of an offseason, the ATP would have to buy back those weeks AND give up the income they generate. That friends, would be a legal and financial nightmare.

I think the key is to create a compelling cast of characters so that even when one or two don't show up, you have other stars there to shoulder the load. I'd like to see the ATP loosen up on the rules of behavior for players while they're on court. Maybe we don't need a racket or ball abuse warning every time the players let off some steam. Tennis players are coached to avoid wasting energy on emotion, but this is precisely what fans want to see and connect with. Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lincoln Brewster

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a shot of me and Kerry with my guitar hero, Lincoln Brewster, after his concert in Santa Clarita.

That is all.