Your Serve: Serving the Tennis Public?
A longtime sports journalist says the conflicts of interest in tennis breed a lack of accountability and stunt the sport’s growth.
By L. Jon Wertheim
Andy Roddick’s foot smudged the baseline as he served and, to his misfortune, the official stationed at the baseline saw it clearly. “Foot fault!” she yelled, her voice echoing through the National Tennis Center this night at the 2010 US Open. With that, Roddick snapped, serving up a petty and prolonged tantrum, playing to the crowd and humiliating the lineswoman — all over a correct call.
Roddick’s explosion begged for condemnation. But in the ESPN booth there was an awkward silence. The notion of John McEnroe offering credible analysis of a player-official conflict is, of course, comical. His brother, Patrick, was not only the U.S. Davis Cup captain at the time — the success of his team dependent largely on Roddick’s willingness to play — but had recently served as Roddick’s informal coach. Meanwhile, Brad Gilbert was in a conflicted position, too. Having once coached Roddick, Gilbert has long been reluctant to say anything disparaging about his former charge.
The scene was a familiar one. A year earlier Serena Williams also launched an ugly eruption after a foot-fault call. It was memorably ugly, but who was there to call her out? Not John McEnroe. Not Patrick McEnroe, also the head of USTA Player development. Not Mary Joe Fernandez, who moonlights as the USTA’s Fed Cup captain, a job that consists mostly of beseeching Serena to commit to playing every now and then. Not Pam Shriver, who shares an agent with Serena.
Welcome to tennis. The sport may be perceived by so many as prudish and chaste, but truth is, everyone is in bed with everyone else. The Tours represent both labor (players) and management (tournaments). The USTA has a stake in tournaments and the media entities. Management agencies represent players, own and operate tournaments, and negotiate broadcast rights.
In the media, it’s conflicts galore. Though only occasionally disclosed, ESPN’s Darren Cahill is on the Adidas payroll. Justin Gimselstob of the Tennis Channel is also on the ATP Board. In addition to her USTA duties, Mary Joe Fernandez is married to Roger Federer’s agent. I don’t exempt myself here: While my day job entails writing for Sports Illustrated, I also work for Tennis Channel at the Majors.
The justification for these tangled webs goes something like this: The same relationships that might compromise integrity also help grease the skids for access. (It stands to reason, for instance, that an ATP player might be more inclined to accept a Tennis Channel interview request when one of his representatives on the ATP board makes the request.) What’s more, these conflicts have always been in tennis’s DNA. Decades ago, it was Donald Dell who, memorably, offered television commentary on the match of a player he represented at an event he was running. As Gimelstob recently put it to me, “Tennis is an incestuous, conflicted sport. If you are going to allow that, you can’t blame someone for taking advantage of it the best he can.”
Yet when tennis allows these cozy relationships, it has the effect of stunting the sport’s growth. For one, in the eyes of recreational players and casual fans, tennis comes across as clubbish and niche, a sport that is not big enough to trigger the usual rules. The overarching message: It’s “just tennis.” (Ask yourself: Would ESPN ever allow an active NFL league executive to serve as a Monday Night Football commentator?) More passionate players and fans are ill-served too. Lord knows what questions aren’t being asked and what information isn’t being imparted, given the relationships and the financial ties.
Worse, the cliquishness breeds a lack of accountability, stifling serious discourse and examination and the kind of difficult discussion and inquiry that ultimately help businesses grow. So long as Patrick McEnroe is on the payroll, ESPN is unlikely to undertake an expose of the USTA’s difficulty in harvesting top junior talent or the controversy surrounding the 10-and-under program. And so long as he draws a check from the USTA, Patrick McEnroe is unlikely to speak critically on-air about the lack of a roof at the National Tennis Center or address players seeking a greater share of revenues from events like the US Open.
Like a team in a three-legged race, tennis stumbles and moves clumsily when all the major parties are tied together. To Gimelstob’s point, yes, tennis is an incestuous, conflicted sport. But maybe we shouldn’t be so cavalier about allowing it.
L. Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Full disclosure: He also works for Tennis Channel.
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