Sunday, January 4, 2009

The first change I would like to see in tennis

I used to live on a small island where I belonged to a volunteer organization that supported music programs for children. I was invited to join by a founding member whom I met in the supermarket. (Many of the stellar moments of my life seem to have started in supermarkets -- but that‘s for another column.) Thanks to joining this group, I got an eye-opening view of the process and politics behind small organizations that dream of doing big things. Now whenever I attend a concert or any musical program, I find myself wondering at the core group of individuals who work tirelessly, and often without pay, to make sure that the show goes on.

But there was a downside to this experience, and it came from the notion of the ownership of this group that had been in existence for umpteen years. Some of the founding members had since died. Many volunteers had come and gone. As a newbie, I was encouraged to give my ideas and suggestions, but most of these were ignored. Things continued to be done the way core members felt they should be done. And after a while it became easier to just go along with the existing plan than to experiment with something new that just might bomb.

I don’t know what caused the last founding member to quit the group. It may have been because we did not vote her back in as president and elected to go instead with someone new. It may have been the new concert master who had his own ideas about how the music programs should be run and did not alw
ays seek her approval of changes he wanted to make. Or perhaps it was the time I decided to ditch the customary folded sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper and seek sponsors to cover the cost of designing and printing up lovely programs that the children and their parents would want to keep as mementos. Or perhaps it was all of the above.

In any event, not only did this founding member quit the organization but she thereafter refused to speak with any of us and never again attended another music program. At the time, I found this to be a saddening and frustrating experience. In hindsight, I wish we could have found a way to honor her tremendous contributions while allowing new blood to flow. History is important, but so too is innovation, and sometimes they make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

I have since remained ambivalent about any single individual who manages to place themselves in such key positions in organizations that one fears that the house of cards would crumble were they to pack up and move on. Or at least, that seems to be what they come to believe -- that they are the organization and that the organization is them, and that it cannot function without their input and control.

This is kind of how I feel about Billie Jean King and h
er centrality with respect to decision-making for the WTA tour. On the one hand, I very much appreciate Ms. King's many contributions to tennis. I am especially happy for her that late in her career as both a professional tennis player and a tennis decision-maker, she has managed to make the kind of income that was denied her years ago at the inception of the tour. I admire her as a feminist figure not just in the world of tennis but in the wider spheres of influence over the minds and hearts of young women who need images other than the insipid types promoted by the Hollywood machine for them to look up to and admire.

I have long respected Ms. King’s truthfulness about her discovery of her sexual orientation and her struggles against the forces of homophobia that threatened to destroy her career and take the WTA tour down with it. I admire that despite being forced unceremoniously out of the closet, she not only survived the severe backlash by corporate sponsors, but continued to contribute her energies into growing the sport that I love, where others may have just turned their backs completely on it. And most of all I admire that, at a stage of life when most people choose to retire and start planting gardens, Billie Jean has chosen to remain active, with creativity and energy to burn. She deserves every honor and accolade her life work has attracted.

But the word ambivalence implies that there are other feelings that co-exist alongside these positive ones. And yes, I am concerned that Billie Jean King, founder of the WTA tour, seems to have maintained a stranglehold on women’s tennis that will probably abate only with her death. Which brings me to the topic of this entry. I intend throughout this year to compose a series of articles on the top ten changes I would like to see in tennis. And the first change I would like to see is for tennis to become less linked to specific personalities in positions of power. I would like to see a better marriage between history and innovation.

It makes me uncomfortable when any one person becomes the be-all and end-all of any organization. That kind of power is not good for human nature. It is too hard for us to resist abusing it. We humans don’t seem wired to be able to manage power well. History is littered with examples of people whose personality and behavior ended up indelibly changed once they achieved and were allowed to remain in positions of power. Human nature seems to thrive healthily on checks and balances that prevent power from becoming a corrupting influence. And this is true regardless of the institution in which this power is being expressed.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no evidence that Ms. King has abused or is abusing the centrality of her position as founder of the WTA, nor am I intending to imply that she has done so or will do so. Think of this only as a life lesson learned and shared by a blogger who is so chuck full of opinions that she has to unleash them somewhere -- here, to the tune of 100 opinions per year. (I’d give you more but not for free).

Ms. King has, in interviews, taken justifiable credit for many of the innovations that have been introduced to the WTA tour. But my biggest concern with most of these innovations is that they seem to have been taken exclusively with the TV camera in mind. Ms. King’s relationship with the TV camera is probably best defined by the widely-promoted “Battle of the Sexes” against then 55-year-old showman and hustler, Bobby Riggs. Her view of what’s good for tennis seems to have remained indelibly affected by the impact of TV. My concern for women’s tennis is that it seems to have become irrevocably tied to the opinions of Billie Jean King. I love me some BJK, don’t get me wrong. But the first change I would like to see in tennis is for its development to become less tied to any single personality. And trust me, I would say the same thing if Tennis Australia became tied irrevocably to Evonne Goolagong or Margaret Court, or if Tennis Germany started being dictated by the views of Steffi Graf. And these are all women for whom I would take a figurative bullet.

In my view, Tennis USA has become overly tied to the small screen. TV seems to have been the biggest factor into why the rules governing the tie-break were changed. Players stopped sitting down after the first game but sit after the third, in keeping with the expected cutaway to a TV commercial. World Team Tennis has been foisted upon our TV viewing options, with Ms. King’s partner, Ilana Kloss, as leader, (not that I am making accusations of nepotism or anything).

And now the latest tinkering -- on-court coaching. Never mind that the ATP experimented with and discarded this stupid idea ten years ago. Here we go again. But this time, the coaches will be mic’ed up so that the TV audience can listen in as coaches tell their charges what the players apparently are unable to figure out for themselves. Many of the top players have spoken out against this silly idea. But of course most will probably eventually succumb. Even Federer can’t resist challenging calls after speaking out against the idea initially.

On-site coaching will be a tremendous boon for those strategy-limited players who can hit the ball hard but can’t think their way out of a paper bag. And excellent scouts like Brad Gilbert can theoretically make a killing from this new rule. But what happens if the person at the other side of the net has the same coach? And how are we to avoid situations like what happened to Andre Agassi who faced Andy Roddick a few years ago at Stella Artois and lost to him shortly after Andre’s coach -- the said same Brad Gilbert -- started coaching Roddick? I guess that ethics don’t matter, as long as we have good TV ratings.


hectopascal said...


Just thought I'd drop by and say how much I love reading your views and stories. I might not necessarily agree with everything you say, but the way you write things is almost enough to convert me :P

I think it's good that the tennis chiefs are aiming for higher TV ratings as this can only increase the popularity of the sport. But, yeah, I kinda agree with you about the on-court coaching dilemma ("players who can't think their way out of a paper bag" - hilarious!) but we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

miko said...

lol i remember that