The rings are inches apart but miles different. The ringmaster or Monsieur Loyal directs my attention to the first ring and I am enthralled. Before I can fully expel my joy, he directs my attention to the second ring where my jubilation lifts me out of my seat with wild applause. When I am finally drawn to the third ring not even my cotton candy can shift my focus…
Like my fifth grade trip to NYC’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, tennis too has its ringmasters. They lack the pageantry of the red topcoat and tall top hat as they direct us to ring after ring around the world in the largest traveling circus on earth. This band of promoters shine lights, blow trumpets and bang percussions with the rhythm of one suffering from amusia. In short, these ringmasters do not operate in concert. This harms the show that is tennis.
Tennis whites, silence during points, hand shakes, net-cord acknowledgments and curtsies to royalty; the game is full of rituals and etiquette. Known as the gentleman’s sport, tennis has traditionally been an exclusive club for the one percent. The cacophony of wealthy stakeholders (tour owners, media rights owners, sponsors, partners, investors…) are motivated by their self-interests: money, power, fame. Unchecked, this is an unhealthy environment. The stakeholders are the ringmasters. They create and foster a culture rife with inequality: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, nepotism and favoritism:
- Russian Coach Tarpischev mocks the Williams at a tournament.
- Commentator John Inverdale disparages Bartoli’s looks on camera.
- Ben Rothenberg body shames women players in the NYTimes.
- Sergiy Stahovsky shares foul views on gay men at a press conference.
- Sharapova calls-out rival’s, Serena Williams, alleged relationship with divorcing coach during a press conference.
- Nick Kyrgios committs a sexist act on court.
Much like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice Domestic Violence case, tennis’ ruling bodies (ITF, GSB, USTA, ATP, WTA and PCs) bungled said cases. Without the guidance of a commissioner, the stakeholders put their self interest above all else. They only agree upon one thing, keeping a veil of integrity over the sport. This is their integrity decree or dictum. The sport’s brand is incongruent with the realities of professional sports and tennis’ institutional problems.
Tennis media have upheld this image, this lie. There is a tacit agreement between the ringmasters and the media. Journalists are given entry into this closed world where star personalities are coddled and old world ideas are embraced. In return, their reporting does not disrupt the brand, the lie. Journalists are cautious about how they represent players and the tour. This caution is beyond simple humanity and professional ethics; it is one of fear and intimidation. Tennis media have been handcuffed by the sport for far too long. The relationship between tennis media and the sport should be tenuous, not necessarily symbiotic. All parties should be cordial, respectful of each others’ roles, and independent enough to responsibly bring light to any issue in the sport. Can this be currently said of tennis media?
In Rohit Brijnath’s The Art of the Sport’s Interview, he explores the relationship between sports journalist and player. He positively name checks Federer and Sharapova, but neglects to name the athlete he calls a jerk. If he were writing about another sport he would not be this cautious.
Her performances used to be a study in athletic intellect but her manner is a study in haughtiness. She lolls in a chair, clad in a tracksuit bottom, a top and a perfume of disdain. I am with a young colleague and she is startled. It is among her first introductions to the entitled star. When you’re young and blissfully naive you tend to confuse great athlete with great human being. Then, as a writer, you cross the divide between fantasy and reality, you meet the poster on your wall, and it is occasionally shattering. The hero is a jerk. But if you get another interview you’ll always go. Even jerks have tales to tell.
The sport’s insular culture has also resulted in group think, redundant tennis tropes and narratives. Tennis writing is generally a trifecta of nationalism, escapism and victory. When the most popular sports websites (ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Reports) cover tennis, they focus on match and tournament summaries. They do far less opining, critiquing or investigating. Tennis journalism does not elevate or add depth to our understanding or interest in the sport.
Tennis media cannot be restricted to reporting. The sport has to be critiqued. Tennis fans need and appreciate reporting and descriptions of players’ games, but we also need writers and commentators who will be critical and fair in voicing opinions and investigating issues. Tennis media cannot aim to or be required to befriend players, agents, publicists and coaches. Angering a player’s fans also should not be a fear or major concern of the tennis media. Tennis media should not operate like university police on a campus answerable to school authorities before attending to their duties or charges. Tennis’ ringmasters and players won’t uncuff tennis media easily. It is the media’s job to take-back the reigns!
It is not surprising then that the one media piece that may unveil the sport, was published by Buzzfeed, a known disruptor not part of the tennis circle. The report, The Tennis Racket, details the sport’s inability to respond to documented match fixing. As a result of the report and The British Parliament’s anticipated private hearing, tennis is under attack. The ringmasters (ATP, WTA, ITF and the GSB) agreed to an Independent Review Panel (IRP) to investigate allegations of corruption and the effectiveness and appropriateness of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Programme (TACP), the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) and the Tennis Integrity Protection Programme (TIPP). The report is expected to take at least a year, but there is no fixed end-date. The tennis community eagerly awaits the interim report and the consultation process which is to be open to the public. It will not be surprising if the tennis community of fans on twitter provide more authentic and rigorous feedback than those in the sport.
With a now universally tarnished brand, tennis is yet again feigning transparency via the IRP. Aside from the ringmasters and PR minded tennis players, very few hold any hope that this panel is truly independent, has the access or power to identify, recommend and see the implementation of changes that will truly benefit the sport. The fact that the committee chair, John Lewis, was selected even though he has deep and wide relationships with the ringmasters is indicative of the sport’s problems. More troubling is the sport’s widely accepted betting relationships: several betting organizations have partnered with the sport via sponsorship and data access (scores and stats). However, it is the lack of international sport laws on corruption which will render the IRP impotent.
The sport needs true transparency. Rigorous honesty is the sacred tenet of organizational transparency; this isn’t manipulative or defensive. It is the opposite of every mission statement crafted by psychopath CEOs/presidents like Bernie Matoff and Martin Shkreli, who are only focused on lining their pockets. Tennis’ brand of transparency has been very American; it is capitalistic. In this hashtag, pop-culture obsessed world, how long till a scandal totally eradicates tennis’ veil of integrity and transparency? When TMZ runs an exclusive that topples any notion of tennis as a genteel sport, we will all have to mourn. Unlike, football and soccer, tennis is not likely to survive much less thrive after a major and prolonged scandal. Or maybe, it is just what we deserve.
We don’t need the IRP to verify what we already know. Tennis continues to be sexist, racist, homophobic and corrupt. Now have the levels of injustice and corruption risen to that of FIFA or NFL? Maybe, but if that is the litmus test being used, the sport has bigger issues to tackle. The ringmasters chose to brand the sport on integrity and transparency. This branding isn’t authentic and is in fact disingenuous; this disrespects the fans and inhibits the sport’s popularity. Had the ringmasters used their clout to align the sport with their branding the sport may have moved beyond its niche to mass popularity. If only the ringmasters were more ninja-like and less illusionist-like they would have addressed the ABCs, you know accessibility, betting, calendar, doping…
Though we would like to think that tennis is simply a microcosm of the world we live in like other organizations, it is not; it is an amplified and dangerous world. The ringmasters, media, players and tennis enthusiasts squirm with any mention of tennis’ perilous state. They find reasons, sometimes obscure, to obviate or circumvent the issues. Yes the tours have a wide breath or depth of talent, yes the game is dynamic on different surfaces, yes the sport is global, yes the sport has become less exclusive, yes ATP and WTA top personalities are among the top paid athletes in the world, and the list goes on. In many ways, tennis has been golf’s cooler, more accessible mate. But the sport has failed its fans and to some degree, its players. The ringmasters have saturated the market with endless tournaments that yield the same match-ups time and again. How many times are we to see Djokovic annihilate Murray in a long final before we tired of it? No fan relishes four-hour matches; no temporary, local, devoted, fanatical or dysfunctional fan wants to see this regularly, yet this is what the sport has become. Quantity over quality. The British sport is serving a rather typical American meal.
The ringmasters can no longer masquerade under the hospices of integrity and transparency. They can no longer only serve themselves. They can no longer act like wall street money managers. They have irrefutably damaged the sport and broken the all important relationship with the fans and the public at large. The hope is no longer one of mass appeal and popularity for the sport. The goal now is avoiding a FIFA like investigation and arrests. The ringmasters now have the stench of feral animals cornered and fighting for their lives with wild with unpredictable swings, some landing successfully and far too many clumsily missing the mark. Will the sport finally tame the ringmasters?
As I prepare to watch the circus that is tennis, my heart quickens in anticipation. My gaze will bounce from one ring to another: Fed Cup, Davis Cup, Grand Slams, Olympics and Tour Finals. No longer a child, cotton candy and popcorn are replaced by dark chocolate and wine as I watch and listen as the ball whizzes by at velocities only the best pitchers or pristine engines can achieve. This fan hopes that the next show will be as great as the first.
The Fan Series: When I started writing this piece, I planned it as a single post examining the sport’s lack of popularity in America. After many weeks, I began to wonder if the sport was satisfied with its niche status or if it was willing to address core issues to achieve popularity, mass appeal. This five-part series addresses some of the issues that thwart the sport’s popularity. This is not a tennis elegy; this is my love letter to the sport!
- Game, Set and Match
- Tennis Fandom: Niche and Rabid
- Accessibility: Not Relegated to Availability
- Organization: Fan, Player and Sport Well Being
- Culture: The Veil of Integrity and Transparency
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