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SERENA’S “MINI-RETIREMENTS” HELP HER LONGEVITY

By Blair Henley

It’s been almost three months since Serena Williams last played a tennis match.

Since her victory at the Australian Open, she has visited Kenya to open a secondary school in her name, appeared on the Home Shopping Network to sell her Signature Line and even enrolled in courses to become a nail technician. Her interests outside of tennis have raised eyebrows regarding her dedication to the game, but perhaps her frequent layoffs, injury related or not, are actually what have enabled her reign atop the women’s tour for so long.

It’s easy to root for the grinder who eats, sleeps and breathes tennis. Society says that hard work pays off, and we love seeing proof. When Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008, fans cheered her gritty style of play and analysts seemed to think there were big things in store for the marketable Serb. Her ranking now sits at No. 57 and she has not come close to replicating her Grand Slam success. The same could be said for Nicole Vaidisova, who went from the world top 10 in 2007 to the top 200 in 2010. She recently announced her retirement at the ripe old age of 20. Jelena Dokic is another young and promising baseliner who reached the top 5 in 2002 before slowly sliding out of the spotlight.

These are just a few examples of players who have clawed their way to the top only to have trouble staying there. On the other hand, Serena has proved herself against the best in the world for over ten years and doesn’t seem fazed by the pressure of heightened expectations that has knocked many would-be stars off their short-lived pedestals.

Despite her incredibly successful career, critics are quick to say that she has failed to make the most of her talent and athleticism. They wonder what she could achieve if she completely immersed herself in the game, but I’ve yet to hear anyone laud Serena’s unusual approach as a contributing factor in her unparalleled longevity in tennis’ modern era.

There’s no denying that tennis is a training intensive sport, and any top tour competitor has paid her dues. For some, however, tennis becomes all-consuming – and not in a good way. There is pressure to train constantly and play as many tour events as possible at the expense of a well-rounded existence.

Serena seems to shrug off what people think she should be doing and as a result comes into events with a rested body and a fresh outlook. If all her spare time were spent on the court and at the gym, perhaps her career would have fizzled a long time ago like so many of her peers.

Tennis fans were amazed at Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters’ recent comeback success, but their dominance was simply a result of a renewed perspective. The intermittent breaks from competition that we are used to seeing from Serena are, in a sense, mini retirements. Like Henin and Clijsters, she returns refreshed and hungry after having pursued other passions.

While it may not be in every player’s best interest to step away from the game to develop a new line of merchandise, I do think there is value in Serena’s approach. Taking time to remember that there is more to life than wins and losses on a tennis court could be a good thing.

LTA AS ERRATIC AS MURRAY

If you thought Andy Murray was uncharacteristically erratic in Monte Carlo on Wednesday, the whole match served perfectly as a metaphor for the strange behavior of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in recent weeks following the findings of the government’s report. The appointment of Murray’s former mentor Leon Smith as the new Davis Cup Captain has certainly raised a few eyebrows within the tennis world, with many left wondering if the experience of mentoring the Scot during his undoubtedly temperamental teenage years is enough to merit entrusting the 34-year-old with the future of British tennis? No doubt it must have taken some strength of character to handle 13-year-old Murray in a strop, but does he have the charisma to stir the team to victory and lure his former apprentice, the black sheep of British tennis, back into the fold?

Smith’s appointment signifies a distinctly strange choice for the LTA to make considering Greg Rusedski, an experienced Davis Cup player and popular choice amongst the players, was in the running for the job. It must be noted that great players do not always make the best of coaches, but still the decision symbolized one of Murray’s wild forehands out of court, rather than a safe topspin drive two feet within the baseline for the governing body. What is interesting is the motivation for this decision.

Smith described the appointment as “a huge honour and an irresistible challenge for me,” and went on to say, “I know the players, and I know that together we can get Britain back to winning ways in the Davis Cup.” Despite only reaching junior county level tennis for the West of Scotland and never coaching anyone over the age of 16, he has been appointed LTA head of men’s tennis following the recommendations of a review carried out by LTA player director Steve Martens, along with the accolade of Davis Cup Captain. Perhaps I should have applied for the job considering my similar levels of playing and coaching experience!

Martens commented, “Leon is the perfect fit for this important role, at this stage in the development of British men’s tennis. He’s a young British coach full of energy and passion, who’s already proved he’s a quick learner, and has the respect of the players” but was it simply a case of bowing to peer pressure from Murray?

It has appeared in recent weeks that the LTA can’t seem to make an independent decision of their own, with high profile employees delegating decisions left, right and center, while the appointment of Smith looks significantly as if they were blindly following the consensus of Murray who vocalized his opinions on Rusedski and the type of coach he would want as captain, although he has gone on record stating he had not named Leon Smith personally as his choice to the LTA. They were publicly criticized for the acquisition of high profile coaches such as Brad Gilbert, but once again this would suggest a knee jerk reaction to public opinion in appointing a relative unknown, a stab in the dark rather than a reasoned choice; only time will tell whether they have made yet another mistake.

Public opinion of the governing body cannot have been improved following their president, Derek Howorth’s erratic and strange public performance at The National Premier Indoor Tennis League’s official dinner, when reportedly during his speech, instead of politely commenting on the event, he took the opportunity to tear the British press to shreds, celebrated the LTA’s achievements and commented weakly that all will be put right eventually, clearly unconvinced that there is anything wrong with his beloved institution. Unsurprisingly, like a horrendous contestant on the X-factor, he was heckled by a lady in the audience. I have an idea what Simon Cowell might have said.

Indeed, it is clear the cracks are starting to appear deep in the armour of the establishment. According to reports in The Times, the LTA made another embarrassing bloomer, when their sports journalist was the one to point out that the LTA had got their entry procedures wrong for the ITF junior tournament in Nottingham – oops! The LTA should have submitted a top 75 ranking list to the appropriate authorities, but this was not carried out thus leaving the selection to be random, leaving out a number of top British juniors. Suffice to say, there were a number of seriously annoyed parents sulking across the country, shaking their heads in disbelief. The LTA’s response was: “New regulations were introduced for 2010 allowing national associations to submit a list of nationally ranked players after players with an ITF ranking. Communication on this new rule was not picked up in time to be implemented for the first two events in GB for this year. To cater for this, any relevant players adversely affected were considered by the national coaches for wild cards into qualifying.” The LTA admitted, “We didn’t apply the regulations as in effect per January 2010. This is unfortunate and, hands up, we made a mistake. The wild cards that were given out in qualifying could cater for a large group of the players without an ITF ranking but with a good domestic ranking; however this is not perfect”. Surely with a 60 million turnover, someone could have noticed and implemented this rule change?

This echoes with my own experience as an LTA ranked junior player aged 15, when results were not put in from a ratings tournament in which I embarked on a run so impressive that I faced Britain’s former No. 1, Anne Keothovong in the final, only to be told the points I had amassed from the tournament had not been added to my junior rating. This meant that my rating did not go up to where I belonged that year and when trying to rectify the situation, my mother was faced with the same kind of ‘closed shop’ treatment as the government, who recently commented that had the LTA been more open as an organization, the report would have been much easier to compile. It’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for the game dropped like a deflated helium balloon as I chose the safer option to pursue higher education, rather than a career as a professional tennis player.

Unfortunately, it is clear the chasm does run deep into the junior ranks and it is of no shock that this ripple effect over the years caused the tsunami of that infamous Davis Cup loss and the subsequent earthquakes of media attention the president is so obviously riled up about. So where is the solution? Well Mr. President, perhaps a look into the pool of unemployed graduate talent could be a start as replacements for the incompetent employees missing crucial rule changes and being about as decisive as a kid in a candy shop? Now, there’s a thought. Hopefully he’ll start ranting about me next!

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter.   She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.