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 light, blow trumpets and bang percussion with the rhythm of a Gregorian Chant or one suffering from amusia. In short, these ringmasters do not operate in concert. This harms the show that is tennis. They (ITF, GSB, USTA, ATP, WTA and PCs) only agree upon and follow the integrity decree or dictum which veils the sport’s troubling culture.
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 and fame. Unchecked, this is an unhealthy environment. The stakeholders and the ringmasters created and foster a culture rife with inequality: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and favoritism (nepotism and incestuous). Russian Coach Tarpischev mocks the Williams, Commentator John Inverdale disparages Bartoli’s looks, Ben Rothenberg body shames women players and Sergiy Stahovsky shares neanderthal views on closeted gay men. While the sport can’t be responsible for the action of its players, how it responds to inappropriate behavior is totally in its purview.
On August 12, 2015 during the Roger’s Cup in Montreal, Nick Kyrigios turned away from his Stan Wawrinka and mumbled, “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that mate.” The court side microphone picked up the offensive comment and commentators around the world exploited it. Before sanctions were even levied, Tennis Channel Commentator, Player Council President and American Coach, Justin Gimblestob shared on air that he had spoken to Wawrinka several times and they both felt more sanctions were required. This is indicative of the tennis culture. Not only does Gimblestob’s roles conflict, but he was heavily lobbying support for one player though his roles dictated avoidance of this. Even more telling, is the sport’s lack of sanctions on Sergiy Stahovsky‘s sexist and homophobic comments at Wimbledon a month prior to Kyrigos’ and Sharapova‘s inappropriate press conference comments about Serena’s alleged relationship with her married and divorcing coach.
Much like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice Domestic Violence case, the ringmasters, primarily ATP President Chris Kermode, bungled this ball. He was reactive and made many missteps. Initially, The ATP Tour cited Kyrigios with aggravated behavior and fined him ten thousand dollars on August 13th. He was also fined $2,500 for unsportsmanlike conduct regarding a comment to a ball person during the match. However, on August 24th he received additional penalties for the sexist remark. After an ‘investigation’, the ATP said it would impose a fine of $25,000 and a 28-day suspension from tour events if Kyrgios incurred any fines for ”verbal or physical abuse” or received up to $5,000 in fines for other offenses before the end of February.
Would his fine(s) have been fewer if: his hue were lighter, the ‘victim’ wasn’t a two-time slam holder, the comment did not pull back the curtain on the abundance and maybe age inappropriate sex on the tour? This incident shows that tennis is simply just another sport in the 21st century. It is clear, the sport’s ringmasters and stakeholders have agreed on one thing. Integrity is paramount or at least the appearance of integrity is all important. Trading on this image, this brand is incongruent with the realities of professional sports in the twenty-first century and tennis’ institutional problems, injustices.
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 or 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 name checks Federer and Sharapova, but neglects to name the athlete he later 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 often a poignant trifecta of thought, conflating nationalism, escapism and hope. When the most popular sports websites ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Reports cover tennis, they focus on match summaries/analysis and tournament reviews. They do far less opining, critiquing or investigating. Far too little sports journalism in tennis elevates or adds 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 authorities before attending to their duties or charges. Tennis’ ringmasters, stakeholders 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 permanently 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, stakeholders 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.
Of all of the problems plaguing tennis, I am flabbergasted that it is betting, match-fixing that may push the sport to abandon its tarnished integrity brand which was supplanted by transparency this year. 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 ceo/presidents like Bernie Matoff and Martin Shkreli, who are only focused on lining their pockets. Tennis’ brand of transparency has been very American; it was 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 sports 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, stakeholders, players, 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-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 the sport’s stakeholders. They can no longer act like wall street money managers, pre-Wall Street Crash of 2008. 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 mangled feral animals cornered and fighting for their lives with wild, unpredictable swings, some landing successfully and far too many flimsily missing the mark. Will they finally tame their beasts?
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 four months ago, I planned it as a single column 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 that supersedes my love for basketball, volleyball and soccer!