There was a time when I used to completely ignore the results of exhibition matches. I’m talking about the era of players like Anna Kournikova who had the ability to attract hordes to her matches. Her opponents would invariably throw her some fluff balls so that she would not look like a complete moron. Pretty much the way she is now treated during Arthur Ashe Children’s Day or certain WTT matches. She seems irrelevant to the outcome, but she still looks good being irrelevant so everyone seems to play along.
I also sometimes got the impression that the outcome of certain exhibition matches was pre-determined, a gentleman’s agreement as it were. I can’t prove this of course but can you think of a better example than the series of matches between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras? One got the impression that Federer was trying at times to make Sampras look good. I wondered at the time what kind of financial inducement it would take for Federer to whore himself out so that Sampras could look relevant again.
So I admit that I never used to take exo matches seriously. I’ve never understood why people count exo wins among the accomplishments of their faves. I’ve always maintained that exos are all about the Benjamins and not about the fans. To me they reflect nothing but players’ greed and their desire to be set free from the accountability of the regular playing schedule so that they could earn easy money at the expense of fans. And yes, I’ve harped on all of this before.
But lately I’ve started wondering if some exo results may be more significant than I have been willing to acknowledge. For example, when Federer recently lost to Nadal at the season-opening Capitala exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, I found myself wondering if this was a presage of things to come. And when Robin Söderling made it all the way to the finals, I felt that it showed that his performance in the second half of 2009 was no fluke because here he was getting things started off the right way in 2010.
And then there was Justine Henin, who quit the tour in 2009, but announced her return several months later, signing on for a series of exo matches. And she has won them all. Her first win came in Belgium against Flavia Pennetta, with a score of 6-4, 6-4. Being a cynical chick at heart, of course I found myself wondering if Flavia could be financially induced to throw a match against Henin on the latter’s home turf. But then came the win against Nadia Petrova in Cairo, which Henin won with a decisive 7-6, 6-2. I could no longer doubt that the diminutive one’s lethality seemed to be roaring right back.
Not to be outdone, Henin’s countrywoman (and I believe the main reason for her return), Kim Clijsters, also defeated Venus Williams 6-1, 7-5 in the Diamond Games exhibition in Antwerp. The score line seemed believable. Was it time I lost my doubt?
Principally because of the Nadal win in Abu Dhabi as well as Henin’s stunning results, I have found myself wondering if I need to rethink my position on exhibition matches. Maybe they are not all fraudulent. Maybe not all are a set-up. Maybe some of these results need to stand right alongside other significant tournament wins. Maybe I need to lose some of my cynical doubt as part of a package of New Year resolutions.
And just as I was about to get carried away in a fervor of emotional generosity, here comes news that Serena Williams lost an exhibition match to Melanie Oudin in Georgia. Two factors immediately stood out. First, that Melanie Oudin is from Georgia. And second, that Serena Williams lost to Melanie Oudin.
And just like that, not unlike Henin’s lethal ability, my cynicism came roaring back. Just as I stood on the brink of giving some of these greedy players the benefit of the doubt, came proof that I absolutely cannot. They’re all whores. They’re all willing to whore themselves out for a buck. My only regret is that I did not see the Serena Williams match. It must have been a stellar acting performance. She probably needs to convince IMDB to include it among her acting credits in which she appears as Herself.