hype

The Curse of the Stars and Stripes

It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

It began with Melanie Oudin.

We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.

We also know what happened next.

It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.

Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.

As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.

Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.

Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.

If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.

There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.

MURRAY RUNNING OUTTA LOVE

Rather than pick one topic to rant at/praise today, I have decided to produce a post of some random aspects of tennis I have noticed recently.

However, what cannot be ignored was Andy Murray’s revelation this week that he has “fallen out of love with tennis.” Following on from his horrific 4-6, 4-6 defeat to American Mardy Fish he looked like a lost individual, a man gripped in a mid-life crisis.

Following on from that soul-destroying tennis lesson from Federer in the Aussie Open final in January, Murray really hasn’t had things all his own way. And as noted by fellow columnist Melina Harris he may be beginning to believe his own hype.

But to come out and declare this? It screams of spoiled brat syndrome. But read on:

“I need to start enjoying my tennis again. This has been going on for a few weeks now,” he said. “I’ve been very happy off the court but just not on it, and that’s where I need to be happy because that’s my career, this is what I do. It’s only me who can figure it out.

“People think sportsmen are different to other people but we’re not – we all go through bad patches. I’ve got to get back to how I felt in Australia at the start of the season.”

Still feel the same way readers? You can understand him. The tennis tour is now so complex and all-encompassing that there is no escape without a prolonged break that can heavily disadvantage your ranking. So players may feel the need to continue regardless of their health and happiness in fear of losing ground on their rivals.

It’s a very sorry state for a young man who was being declared as the best in the world after taking the Miami title this time last year.

Great Britain will be hoping Murray pulls through and doesn’t drop out of the sport a la Borg, or a certain Mister Tim Henman may need to get out the old tennis shoes again.

*Is it me, or is tennis becoming more and more ‘showbiz’ by the day? I think during the recent matches in Miami we have had more players’ box shots of model girlfriends and celebrity chums than ever before. Gwen Stefani got more TV time in Federer’s box at the US Open last year than any participating player. And it is always a curse during Wimbledon fortnight when we have to watch Cliff Richard’s perma-tanned, beaming, puppet-like face every day for two weeks.

*That hugely cringe worthy confrontation between Sampras and Agassi at the HitForHaiti event recently – does anybody else agree Federer should look at a career taking over from Jerry Springer when he hangs his racquet up?

*I, for one, am disappointed to see Sam Querrey failing to live up to his fantastic year in 2009. The boy is a true gentleman and could well be a great ambassador for the sport for many years to come. The saying has always been that “nice guys finish last” but in Querrey’s case I really hope this is not true. Another sporting cliché: “form is temporary, class is forever.” I think that’s a better one to keep in mind.

*One for British readers: am I the only one who likes to use the red interactive button to view matches so I don’t have to listen to the Sky commentators? Their constant attempts to make each other’s careers look laughable are very tiring. If you don’t have anything interesting to say during breaks in play please keep your traps shut.

*What a joy it has been watching Marin Cilic in Miami. Despite losing to Fernando Verdasco in straight sets the man’s game continues to improve following his marathon-esque court time Down Under. He now looks more and more like his coach, and the further he progresses the more we get to see and hear from fan-favourite Goran Ivanisevic about his protégé. Goran is never one to disappoint.

*I, for one, will be screaming Mikhail Youzhny on in his upcoming Miami quarter-final with the pantomime villain Robin Soderling. There are many players I love in the modern game, and none I love to hate more than Robin.

*With Murray, Federer and Djokovic falling by the wayside early on Miami gives Rafa Nadal a real chance to put a troubled year behind him. A win here could give him the confidence he so desperately needs and imagine a rejuvenated Rafa going in to the clay-court season. It’s not going to be easy but a few lucky breaks he hasn’t received recently and this could be a real turning point.

*Finally, I should really stop making predictions! Those who read last week’s blog will have noted how wrong I was yet again with my quarterfinal picks. However my late prediction that this tournament would be a goodun has come true, so I can take small consolation in that!

Loathsome Secrets Of The Come Back Kid – Agassi’s Confessions Trembles The World Of Tennis

I have been reading up on the the Agassi hype revolving his drug abuse.  I found it slightly entertaining to say the least. Please understand this: I don’t agree with drug abuse , but I don’t condone it either. To each his own.

One of the articles I have read asked the question as to why Agassi used drugs. Well there is only answer to that: Because it makes you feel good. It makes you feel that you are  above the other people. It gives you a feeling of superiority, euphoria and it lifts a heavy weight from your shoulders. That’s why people use drugs on such a large scale.  Yes, I included alcohol too. Simply because alcohol is a drug. A hard drug too. Even though it’s more socially accepted.

Was it really wrong to have Andre come out and tell people that he has used crystal meth? And that he wants people to learn from his mistakes? Hm, now that’s a tough question.  I would say yes but I have to partially agree with Greg Couch from Tennis Fanhouse.  Agassi indeed fails the trust test. And he fails it miserably.  In no other interviews he shows any remorse of ever using crystal meth. Now how is he trying to make up for his past mistakes? What are we supposed to learn from his confessions? And that’s where the PR comes in: You want to know? Buy the book. They are hyping it up a lot.

One particular sentence from the article by Greg reminded me of The Godfather scene where Michael Corleone offers the Bishop 600 million dollars for shares in Immobiliare.  But it only took 5 million dollars for Agassi to confess his sins. He sold himself out. A guy who has more money than he can ever spend in this lifetime. Hey, he’s got money for two or three generations.  And he sold himself out. That’s shameful. Especially with the world in deep economical recession. There are lots of things that can be done with 5 million bucks! So many people that can be helped.

If he wanted to clear his soul, to confess to his sins, then why did he need be paid $5 million to do it. – Greg Couch

But it doesn’t end here.

Many players , like  for instance Rafael Nadal, who are currently playing on the tour are saying that Andre’s confessions are damaging the sport.

All it shows, in my view, is the weakness of the doping checks from back then. The vulnerabilities of the system that were fully exploited. If you can get away with a silly and simple excuse like “They spiked my drink” then it only shows how easy it is to get away with drug abuse. No double checking, no extra verification, just a simple letter and you are off the hook.

Agassi admitted today that he used crystal meth for about a year or so. Or so? He doesn’t remember clearly but how do you get away with that?  How many doping checks are there on an annual basis? Or did he simply write more letters to the ATP Tour saying that his assistant Slim kept changing glasses when Andre went to the bathroom or so? You know, just for fun.

Perhaps they just took a hair sample from his wig to see how much drugs there was left in his body. Who knows?

Question remains:  Did the ATP Tour cover this up? Were they affraid to lose one of their main attractions ?  If so then the ATP Tour as an organisation has also failed miserably and managed to singlehandedly castrate the integrity of the sport all by themselves.

The ATP however released a statement that they can’t take any responsibility for a doping case.  Only an independant tribunal has that kind of power.

Reading the confessions , I think it’s good that he did what he did.  It shows that he is just as vulnerable and susceptible as the next guy.  He is, after all a human being and not just a poster boy for philantropy and tennis.