Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Themes in Tennis

For the past several years I have religiously followed Jon Wertheim's column, which provides very professional and reasoned insights into the world of tennis. (Having two of my comments posted in his column has been two of the highlights of my tennis fan life, although I have yet to get in a question. Also, the fact that Wertheim graduated from Yale, went to law school, and now writes for Sports Illustrated gives me hope that one day I will in fact be able to do what I love, although right now my dream job would be to be a figure skating agent, and that's not very likely.)

ANYWAY--Ironically I was first introduced to it through Yahoo! Sports, which has since stopped linking to his articles. It's a shame, really, but it fits right in with Yahoo's general decline, particularly in its journalistic standards--I mean, Chris Chase's Busted Racquet is all they can seem to come up with now. I'm not even going to bother linking that.

Aside from the week-to-week analysis of match results, controversies, player trajectories, player psyches, and whatnot, Wertheim's column periodically provides a sustained discussion on several recurring themes. These themes are generally negative--where's the fun in prolonging a debate on something positive, right?--and overlap with the more temporal analysis. A question on the truth behind Serena Williams' foot injury, for example, will lead to an examination of her honesty and commitment in general, which in turn will lead to a discussion on burnout, long seasons, and scheduling.

The point is, of the various issues facing tennis today, two have particularly caught my attention, and I've been trying to organize my thoughts for some time now. ESPN's excessive coverage of the Little League World Series forced me to really start thinking, which has brought me here. And so...

TV Coverage
Okay, I understand. Tennis is not an especially mainstream sport--many people would probably be hard-pressed to name all of the Grand Slams--and televising lower-level tournaments simply is not profitable or practical. Actually, I would have understood that, if ESPN didn't air endless hours of poker, which I would argue isn't even a sport. Or fishing. That may be a sport, but surely more people follow tennis than fishing. But whatever.

I would have put up with ESPN's decisions until they decided to provide live coverage of the Little League World Series. It's not even the actual Little League World Series--it's the United States Regional Playoffs. That's right, while Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray--the No. 1 and No. 4 tennis players in the world, respectively--played each other in the semifinals of a Masters 1000, viewers were subject to North/South Dakota vs. Missouri. Honestly, what the hell. The only people who want to watch a Little League game are AT the Little League game. At least that semifinal was simultaneously streamed live online--the 3-set match between Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer was unavailable anywhere.

The U.S. National Championships for gymnastics, which took place this past weekend, were not covered at all, while the Kim Clijsters-Maria Sharapova final was on tape delay. Really? I know that tennis needs to get its act together and make itself more marketable (and stop the infighting), but seriously. Jon Wertheim is beyond right.

The Hall of Fame
A few years ago, I was talking to one of my friends about baseball and in particular the Yankees. This would be funny to anyone who knows me because I know so little about baseball, although I have been able to pick up a little here and there simply by virtue of living by two major baseball franchises (and courtesy of my dad's business connection-provided tickets). In any case Paul O'Neill's name came up in the conversation.

"Oh, I've heard of Paul O'Neill," I said, happily. (I was probably a little too happy--who's the tennis equivalent of Paul O'Neill? Andy Roddick? I have no idea.)

"Yeah, yeah," my friend said, nodding thoughtfully. "O'Neill was a decent player. Very good, actually. Not Hall of Fame material, I would say--but very good."

"Not Hall of Fame material"? This made me think. Although the standards for admission into the Hall of Fame should be more rigorous than what I'm about to suggest, I feel that an informal barometer for whether a player belongs in the Hall of Fame is whether the average non-fan would recognize his/her name. There are exceptions, of course, in both directions: a fan favorite, a crowd-pleaser may not have the credentials (Maria Sharapova comes to mind) while a quieter figure could exert more on the history or the evolution of the game (perhaps a Justine Henin, or someone who broke racial barriers). But in general, one would hope that a Hall of Fame would be exclusive enough to recognize only the best of the best, those who managed to capture the attention of even the most apathetic.

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