When one thinks of the greatest rivalries in the history of tennis, John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors is near the top of the list.
While many remember their epic duels at the US Open and Wimbledon, one of their most combative confrontations may have come in an exhibition match!
As documented in the mobile app and book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY (www.TennisHistoryApp.com), this famous match took place on January 10, 1982, and unfolded as described below.
In a match in which Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe nearly come to blows, Connors edges John McEnroe, 6-7, 7-5, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, in the final of the Michelob Light Challenge in Rosemont, Ill. – an eight-player exhibition event used as warm-up to the Masters tournament. The match is highlighted by several point penalties and verbal exchanges between the two rivals, including a fifth-set confrontation that nearly got physical. Writes Neil Amdur of the New York Times, “Connors stepped across the net and confronted McEnroe for what Connors considered abusive language and delay tactics; the two players were ”about a whisker apart,” in Connors’s words, before being restrained by officials.” One day later, in a pre-Masters press event in New York, Connors is asked what McEnroe said to him to irk him so much. Says Connors, “I hope I misunderstood what he said.” Continues Connors of his relationship with McEnroe, ”I think we both have the same attitudes. He’s aggressive, I’m aggressive. We both stick up for our rights. But I stick up for my rights in a different way. If I feel like I’m in the right, I’ll step up. I want some respect, not sloughing off. But there are certain limits.”
The McEnroe vs. Connors rivalry still continues as the two will compete against each other on the PowerShares Series tennis circuit on Wednesday, March 12 in Nashville, Tennessee at the Bridgestone Arena and on Thursday, March 13 in Charlotte, N.C. at the Time Warner Arena. For more info, go to www.PowerSharesTennis.com
By Thaddeus McCarthy
As we are in the (short) off-season, I thought now would be a perfect time to look at some historical aspects of our great game. Rather than discussing my opinions on the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate (which is a boring and tedious one), I will instead talk about the GROAT (Greatest Record of All Time) debate. Whether it is Roger Federer’s 17 Grand Slams, or Rafael Nadal’s 81-match clay-court win streak, we certainly have an array of options. The records I will compare will be only men, as it is too difficult to compare both sexes. I also don’t want to get into a debate on the relative importance of the two.
Two factors are most important here; the first is the difficulty of acquiring the record, and the second is how important the record is too the game’s history in general. The difficulty of acquiring the record can be looked at by the closeness of the results, the quality of the opponents, and the next person in the category. How important the record is can be looked at by how widely known is, and is revered by players and historians.
I would like to start off by talking about a record that unfortunately never was, Federer’s 19 consecutive Grand Slam finals. The match which broke this streak was the 2008 Aussie Open semifinal versus Novak Djokovic, which coincidentally your writer watched from the stands. I remember thinking that Fed was not his normal self. He did in fact have mononucleosis, which did slow him down. But let’s for now go back to fantasy and believe that Federer won this match, in which case I believe we certainly would have had the greatest record in tennis, and arguably in sports. Why? Well there were many close matches throughout, such as Janko Tipsaravic at Aussie 08, won 10-8 in the 5th. The opponents Federer had to face in this time (2005-2010) before the final were very good; such as a young Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, and David Nalbandian. The next person in the consecutive finals category is Rafael Nadal with 5, which is not even close. And it’s standing in the history of tennis and sports would undoubtedly be exemplary. It would be near on five years of constantly finishing in the top two of sports major tournaments… ridiculous.
As it is in reality land, we have Federer’s 23 consecutive semi-final streak to admire. The matches were close and the opponents were still very good. The next person in the category though is Novak Djokovic with 14, which is much closer than five. It is probably the best known record in tennis, and has been talked about as one of the greatest in sports. But is it the greatest? His own 17 Grand Slams stand out as maybe a better known record. Nadals 81-match clay court win streak, or his 7/8 titles at 4 different tournaments (French Open, Monte Carlo, Rome, Barcelona) were both far beyond anything else. Jimmy Connors 109 single titles record will likely never be approached. Guillermo Vilas’s 16 titles in a single season will not be overtaken in the modern age. You could also include Rod Laver’s two calendar year Grand Slams or his 200 total titles in this company.
For Nadal’s two greatest records there is one match which stands out above all others, and that is the 2006 Rome Final, which went over 5 hours. It was the longest match in the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Winning this match enabled Nadal to break Vilas’s record 53 straight clay wins. Jimmy Connors total titles record of 109 is a reasonably known record throughout the tennis public. The next person in the category is Ivan Lendl with 94. Seeing that Fed only won a single title this year to notch up his 77th, we can clearly see how difficult it is. The Vilas record of 16 titles in one season (1977) is practically unbreakable. Especially considering that Federer in his best year of 2006 ‘only’ won 12. Most of those for Vilas were on clay though, so one has to question his all-court mastery. Rod Laver’s calendar Grand Slams, one in the amateur era and one in the professional; will be hard to emulate. It has to be remembered though that these were the transition years when neither (amateur/professional) had all the great players in their respective competitions. One has to think that it would be somewhat easier to accomplish the true Grand Slam then, than from the 70s onwards.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to that which is best known by the general public and appreciated by historians. And unfortunately Vilas’s, Nadal’s and Connors records; while undoubtedly great, are not well known by the general public. The Laver calendar Grand Slams are well known, but the quality of the opposition in those days was spread across two separate competitions. The record which stands out I believe (and I know it may be obvious) is the Federer semi-final streak of 23. The reasons for it are many. It is one of the best known records in tennis and is revered by historians and the public alike, most importantly though it demonstrates consistent excellence over a prolonged period. Among the great records in sports it is arguable where this stands alongside the likes of Tiger Wood’s 142 consecutive cut streak or Wilt Chamberlains 100 point game. Within tennis though, nothing is on par with it. We needn’t live in a fantasy land, because the reality of 23 consecutive top four finishes isn’t half bad.
InsideOut Sports & Entertainment today announced the dates, venues and fields for the 2014 PowerShares Series tennis circuit, highlighted by the debuts of Andy Roddick and James Blake, who will join the 12-city tour and play alongside tennis legends such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
The PowerShares Series will kick off on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 in Kansas City and will conclude March 21 in Surprise, Arizona. Players competing on the 2014 circuit are Roddick, Blake, Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Connors, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin and Mark Philippoussis. Each event will feature two one-set semifinal matches, followed by a one-set championship match.
An exclusive USTA member pre-sale offering a 15% discount for USTA members begins today. Tickets and unique VIP fan experience packages will go on sale to the general public next Tuesday, October 22. Tickets start at $25 and all ticket and VIP information is available at www.PowerSharesSeries.com.
“We are eagerly anticipating the 2014 PowerShares Series season with an exciting blend of all-time greats from different generations competing in 12 cities across the country,” said Jon Venison, Partner at InsideOut Sports & Entertainment. “We are excited to welcome Andy Roddick and James Blake as they join our eighth year of Champions Series tennis and look forward to seeing them, along with the other legendary players, compete and entertain crowds around the United States this season.”
“I am looking forward to playing on the PowerShares circuit,” said Roddick. “Having a chance to stay connected with tennis and compete on a limited basis through events like these fits perfectly with my life these days.”
“It’s going to be exciting to start a new chapter of my tennis life playing on the PowerShares Series circuit,” said Blake. “Having just retired from the ATP tour, you’d think I have an advantage over some of the guys, but players like Andy, Andre and Pete are so talented and competitive that is going to be a great challenge for me to win some titles. I look forward to the challenge.”
The full 2014 PowerShares Series schedule with field of players are as follows:
Wednesday, February 5, Kansas City, Missouri, Sprint Centre – Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Michael Chang
Thursday, February 6, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Chesapeake Energy Arena – Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Michael Chang
Thursday, February 13, Birmingham, Alabama, BJCC – John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Jim Courier, Mark Philippoussis
Friday, February 14, Indianapolis, Indiana, Bankers Life Fieldhouse – John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Mark Philippoussis
Wednesday, February 19, Denver, Colorado, Pepsi Center – Andy Roddick, James Blake, Jim Courier, Mark Philippoussis
Thursday, February 20, Houston, Texas, Toyota Center – Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Andy Roddick, James Blake
Tuesday, February 25, Salt Lake City, Utah, Energy Solutions Arena – Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, James Blake
Wednesday, February 26, Sacramento, California, Sleep Train Arena – Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, James Blake
Thursday, February 27, Portland, Oregon, Moda Center – Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, James Blake
Wednesday, March 12, Nashville, Tennessee, Bridgestone Arena – John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander
Thursday, March 13, Charlotte, North Carolina, Time Warner Arena – John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander
Friday, March 21, Surprise, Arizona, Surprise Stadium – Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Michael Chang
Gun Shots, Protesters, Bomb Scares and Religious Fanatics – The Most Unusual Delays In Tennis History
By Randy Walker
There is nothing worse than when you are locked into playing – or watching – a great tennis match and there is a delay in play. Rain and sometimes darkness are the most commons delays in play but in the history of tennis, there have been some rather unusual ways where play was delayed.
Here are six of the most unusual delays as documented in my book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY, which is also a mobile app (www.TennisHistoryApp.com) listed in no particular order. Which one do you think is the strangest? Please share any other worthy episodes in the comment section below or via TennisGrandstand@gmail.com.
March 18, 1984 – A bomb scare forces the Rotterdam men’s singles final between Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors to be called off. Lendl sweeps through the first set, 6-0, and breaks service in the first game of the second set when the police, reacting to an anonymous telephone call, order the evacuation of the Ahoy Sports Hall. The caller, claiming to represent an anti-capitalism movement, tells the police that a bomb had been placed close to center court. A search does not yield any suspicious articles, and spectators are then allowed to return to their seats. However, the crowd is then informed that Lendl and Connors would not be resuming their match. Wim Buitendijk, the organizer of the Grand Prix tournament, fails to persuade Lendl to stay and finish the match. He says Connors may have been persuaded to resume the game but ”Lendl was not prepared to take any risks.”
March 30, 1980 – Bjorn Borg dominates Manuel Orantes 6-2, 6-0, 6-1 in the final of the Nice Open in France in a match delayed by 25 minutes when a group of local physical education students storm the court and stage a “sit-in” to protest their department being closed by the French education ministry.
April 16, 1977 – Anti-apartheid protestors spill oil on court to protest the United States competing against South Africa and disrupt the doubles match between Stan Smith and Bob Lutz and Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram in Newport Beach, Calif. U.S. Captain Tony Trabert hits one of the two protestors with a racquet before police apprehend the culprits. After a 45-minute delay to clean the oil, Smith and Lutz defeat McMillan and Bertram 7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to give the United States an insurmountable 3-0 lead over the South Africans.
April 27, 2006 – The only thing bothering Rafael Nadal during his 6-4, 6-2 second round match with Spanish qualifier Ivan Navaro-Pastor at the Barcelona Open is a female intruder, who bursts onto the court and handcuffs herself to the net post. Nadal is leading 6-4, 4-0 when the woman enters the court and a brief delay ensues while the protester is cut loose and taken away by security guards.
September 4, 1977 – James Reilly, a 33-year-old resident of New York City, is shot in the left thigh as a spectator at the John McEnroe – Eddie Dibbs third-round night match at the U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. The shooting, from a .38 caliber gun, occurs at the start of the match near Portal 8 in the north section of the stadium and delays play for about six minutes as Reilly is taken from the stands to the first aid station and then to nearby St. John’s Hospital. Most of the 6, 943 fans in attendance are not aware that a shooting had occurred. Police conclude it was likely a shot that came from outside the stadium. McEnroe wins the best-of-three set match 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
October 20, 1985 – A religious fanatic walks on the court, serves drinks to Ivan Lendl and Henri Leconte and preaches a sermon in the middle of the final round match of the Australian Indoor Championships in Sydney. In the ninth game of the third set, the man, wearing a caterer’s uniform, walks onto the court with a tray with two glasses of orange juice and religious pamphlets that he presents to both Lendl and Leconte. Reports the Associated Press of the incident, “To the astonishment of the players, officials and crowd, he put the tray down in the center of the court and proclaimed loudly, ‘I would like to bring these gentlemen two drinks.’ He then began babbling about the evil of credit cards and the devil before being escorted away by embarrassed officials. The tournament was sponsored by a credit finance company.” Says Lendl of the incident, “I was really, really mad at that. Not for the security reason, but because they were too gentle with him. They should have been rougher with him.” Lendl wins the match from Leconte by a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 margin.
The Ivan Lendl IJTA, one of the world’s premiere tennis academies, has taken up residence in our “Coaches’ Corner” series to dish out instructional tips and on court analyses straight from the Academy’s top coaches and directors.
By David Lewis, Director of Instruction at Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy
The open era of tennis began in 1968 when amateurs were allowed to compete in world-class tournaments with professionals. Until then, amateurs were only allowed to play the Grand Slams.
In the 1970’s, the style of play for most was “serve-and-volley,” using a continental grip for all shots including ground strokes. Tennis was learned on a faster, lower bouncing surface, whether it be a grass or a hard court. The continental grip allowed for plenty of wrist action to control the ball and ability to move toward the net quickly because the ball didn’t bounce high. Some professionals, like Connors and Evert, used the double-handed backhand and hit flat ground strokes.
Surprisingly, wooden racquets were still commonly used, but the small, heavy frame and delicate sweet spot didn’t allow players to hit the ball hard. Metal equipment with lighter frames and bigger heads became more popular.
A player with great agility and speed could chase down most shots from the baseline because the ball didn’t travel as fast. For the same reason, players who came to the net were more difficult to pass. This provided wonderful match ups with tactics becoming crucial. The game required plenty of finesse, craft and athleticism to outmaneuver an opponent.
During this time period, the U.S. dominated the game with players such as Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert. Later in the decade, a player named John McEnroe burst onto the scene.
Bjorn Borg popularized use of the western forehand grip and double-handed backhand, which produced incredible amounts of topspin. He won many Wimbledon and French Open titles and, in the process, became one of the first to modernize the game of tennis. Borg proved he could win on all surfaces with his different style of play.
Conversely, McEnroe used a continental grip, allowing him to take the ball on the rise which had seldom been seen before. An intriguing rivalry was starting to develop between these two stalwarts and helped increase the popularity of the game. By 1980, tennis was reaching a whole new level due to the double-handed backhand, hitting the ball on the rise and modern equipment.
Several full-time tennis academies in the United States opened in the 1970’s. Harry Hopman, a famous Australian Davis Cup coach, operated a facility in Florida where many top professionals and juniors trained for the international circuit. He was renowned for getting players into peak shape. During the same period, another coach named Nick Bollettieri started working with top juniors, developing them into some of the best professionals of the 1980’s.
Next month, we’ll continue with the evolution of tennis in the 1980s.
About David Lewis
David Lewis, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, is the Director of Instruction at Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C., a full-time tennis program for grades 5-12. For the past 20 years, he has coached top juniors and professionals around the world including Marina Erakovic, ranked as high as No.49 on the WTA world rankings.
Ivan Lendl IJTA exemplifies Ivan Lendl and Lewis’ desire to give back to tennis and develop future champions through a new-era curriculum and holistic training approach. The Academy focuses on classic fundamentals, leading-edge biomechanics, strength training / fitness and mental preparation. The staff subscribes to a hands-on approach with students instilling dedication, focus, hard work, motivation and overall preparation.
For more information: www.LendlTennis.com/info, 888.936.5327.
By Lisa-Marie Burrows
Andy Murray is still one of the main topics of discussion on TV and in the newspapers (particularly the British ones!) after his epic battle against defending US Open champion, Novak Djokovic on Monday night, after a grueling five set match that lasted almost 5 hours that boasted exquisite rallies in each of the 5 sets played.
Ivan Lendl, the coach of Murray since January 2012, has admitted that Andy Murray and his ‘Slamless’ situation very much remind him of himself when he was younger and competing on Tour, but the comparisons do not end only there…
Andy Murray has become more known for his tough mentality as he has for his great physicality. Yes, there have been moments on the tennis court where he has admitted that his mind let him down (e.g. most famously during the Wimbledon final this year against Roger Federer where he could have been up 2 sets to 0) but as his tennis has developed, so has his mental toughness and ability to win attitude.
This is also comparable to the attitude displayed on court by Ivan Lendl. He too played in an era alongside tennis greats such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg and experienced some crushing defeats at the hands of them, but just as Murray has done, he never gave up and always believed that he could win. Like Lendl, Andy Murray has learnt from his painful losses.
Pressure in their prime
Throughout his career, the Olympic champion has frequently single-handedly shouldered the weight and expectation from the British public to do well, win tournaments, knock out the top 3 three players in the world and win a Grand Slam. Not much to ask of a young player in their early twenties? Now at 25-years-old, Murray seems to be able to deal with that pressure and has finally answered the call and hopes of many after his victory at the US Open.
Ivan Lendl as a coach and player has been a good influence on Murray as he can relate to the pressure and strain which Andy Murray has been under. He too had experienced it at a very young age and having lost to Connors, Borg and Wilander, he admitted that he did not know how to play against the big players in his prime and it was something that he learnt to do.
Fitness vs fatigue
Andy Murray did not have an easy start early on his career, having been criticized heavily for his personality, his mentality, for having a low first serve percentage, he was also targeted about his fitness. He experienced cramping during long matches in his early twenties and he knew that in order to compete at the top level, against the top players of the world, he had to become physically stronger as well as mentally stronger and this was also the case for Ivan Lendl. Like his coach had to when he was younger, Murray has spent hours at the gym and during training he has become increasingly stronger and has trained hard to keep his endurance levels up to sustain his energy levels during long matches – which have paid off extremely in recent years. Murray continues with his same demanding regime on the practice courts and in the gym today.
Fifth time lucky
Ivan Lendl could relate to Andy Murray and his sorrow after yet another Grand Slam final defeat at the hands of Roger Federer at Wimbledon this year, as he too experienced crushing losses and lost four Grand Slam finals before winning in his fifth appearance, à la Andy Murray. After his quartet of heartbreaking defeats, Lendl went on to win another eight Grand Slams and if history really does repeat itself, who knows if and when Andy Murray will lift another major title – or eight?
It took 5 sets for Ivan Lendl to win his first Grand Slam in Roland Garros against John McEnroe and he rallied back from a two set deficit to secure his victory, whereas for Andy Murray at the US Open, he also needed 5 sets to lift his first major but he needed to rally back after losing the third and fourth sets before sealing the championship title in the penultimate set.
The strangest thing of it all is that during their encounter, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic equalized the record for the longest final of all time played at the US Open after their 4-hour and 54 minute battle and they equaled the record of – yes you guessed it – Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander in 1988 which saw Lendl win after 4-hours and 54 minutes too.
Andy Murray has now laid his demons to rest, as his coach had after finally winning that elusive Grand Slam that he was so desperately chasing and yearning for. I just hope that now the talented Scot has got time to enjoy this momentous occasion he relishes it immensely before another dreaded question starts to beckon…. ‘Andy, do you think you can win more majors?’
by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand
When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman. He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.
His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.
Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.
Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.
“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell. We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”
Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.
From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.
Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.
As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.
During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.
After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.
So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?
It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.
Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”
He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer. I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”
As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”
Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”
Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s FrancisTiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. ”We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, NadiaGizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”
They say one of the hardest things to do in sports is repeat—a task Novak Djokovic will try to accomplish 10 times in 2012. Coming off one of the best tennis seasons of all time, questions abound on whether the Serbian will be able to go “back-to-back” performance-wise. He’s not the first player to have to prove their career year was a fluke. Here’s a look at five stars that pulled off some of the best repeat performances in the Open Era.
Great Year: 1988. Graf became the only player—male or female—in the game’s history to win the “Golden Slam”; that being all four Majors plus an Olympic title.
The Follow-Up: In 1989, “Fraulein Forehand” won the Australian Open to start off the year in Grand Slam play, and then advanced to the finals at the French Open. She shockingly fell to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, but rebounded to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, bringing her two-year Slam record to 55-1.
Great Year: 1974. Connors only happened to go 99-4 during his breakout season, winning three Grand Slam singles titles that year: Wimbledon and the Australian and U.S. opens. He missed out on the French, mainly due to the fact that he didn’t even play the event.
The Follow-Up: Connors repeated his final-round efforts at the three Majors he won the year prior. However, he lost in all three of them. Still, he won nine titles over the course of the season and made three other finals besides the second-place finishes at the Slams.
Great Year: 2004. This is the season when Federer first reached number one in the rankings, and it was years before he ever looked back. He won three Majors in a year for the first time and 11 titles overall.
The Follow-Up: While he “only” won two Slams in 2005, Federer fell one match shy of equaling John McEnroe’s record for winning percentage set in ’84. Federer won 11 titles again and of his four losses on the year, none came before the quarterfinals.
Great Year: 1993. It had been some time since Sampras’ breakthrough win at the 1990 U.S. Open. He only made one other Slam final—at the 1992 U.S. Open—before ’93. That loss to Stefan Edberg in the finals lit a fire under the American and he went on to win his first Wimbledon crown, as well as the U.S. Open.
The Follow-Up: Among a lot of dominant years in his career, this one might be the most complete. Sampras captured his first Australian Open, making it three Slams in a row won, then repeated at Wimbledon. Overall, he won 10 titles, which included the year-end championship and three Masters crowns—the most impressive and unexpected of them being the Italian Open, the second-biggest clay-court event in the game.
Great Year: 2000. Younger sister Serena beat her to the punch as far as winning a Grand Slam singles title. When Venus finally did win one at Wimbledon in 2000, it was as if a great weight had been lifted and she went on to win the U.S. Open, too, keeping the New York-based Major in the family after Serena won in ’99. Big sis also captured Olympic Gold, too.
The Follow-Up: Venus started off 2001 by reaching her first Australian Open semifinal. And aside from an opening-round loss at the French, the Majors were good to her as she successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. She also wrapped her career Slam in doubles by winning the Australian with Serena.
Though his 2011 campaign didn’t end exactly as he hoped, the year was still a successful one for world number four Andy Murray: five titles won (including two Masters Series 1000 victories); advancing to the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams; and a period spent back in third place in the rankings.
Now there’s only one way Murray can follow up on those achievements, and that’s win a Grand Slam singles title in 2012. He’ll have his first opportunity to do so before he knows it.
And once the first one is out of the way, more can surely be expected.
And if he were looking for inspiration in that regard, he could do worse than look at the career arc of Hall-of-Famer Ivan Lendl. In the early-1980s, Lendl was known as a “choker” because for all of his success at the regular weekly tour stops, when it came Slam-time, more often than not, he fell short. Lendl actually lost his first four Major finals before prevailing at the French Open in 1984. From that point on, he never looked back, winning eight Majors total from ’84 to 1990.
But back to his early defeats in those Slam finals: They came at the hands of three of the game’s greatest players ever: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander. Murray has finished runner-up three times among the Majors: twice at the Australian Open and once at the U.S. Open. Last year’s loss at the Aussie was dealt to him by Novak Djokovic over the course of his dream season, and his other two defeats in Slam finals were meted out by Roger Federer.
In this day and age, there’s no shame in losing to those two, particularly in the later stages of a big tournament.
Of course, skill plays a tremendous part in making a breakthrough at tennis’ premier events, but luck can’t be discounted. Looking at Lendl once again can be cited: He was down two sets to none against John McEnroe before the American lost his concentration and let Lendl back into the match.
How the draw shakes out can be a big factor in determining victory: If Robin Soderling doesn’t beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open, does Federer complete his career Slam then?
In other words, a lot of outside factors go into making tennis history. Once it all comes together for Murray, it should become a little easier to add more titles to the ledger, and that “best player to never win a Major” tag will be a thing of memory.
There have been plenty of opinions voiced lately by players, media and fans alike about how the men’s ATP tour calendar needs to change and what can be done to alleviate the tension felt between players, tournaments, and sponsors. And now we can add two more players’ thoughts to the mix: legend Pete Sampras and current Davis Cup captain Jim Courier.
The most recent verbal outpouring on the topic resurfaced at the U.S. Open where players such as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal expressed concern over scheduling woes and even threatened to strike. There have been talks of a possible players’ union to address their issues, but will any party ever be fully happy with a deal? It’s an endless argument that has only brought minimal change in the past and on a time scale that moves very slowly. It has taken several years to finally move the ATP World Tour Finals to two weeks earlier in the calendar (starting with next year), but is that really enough to quiet the conflict?
Ideas such as decreasing the number of mandatory events for players, introducing a second off-season after Wimbledon, and players simply needing to be better managers of their own tournament scheduling have all emerged as an attempt to solve this problem. But what do past players who have fought these same battles in their time believe? I had a chance to chat with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier last Friday during the Washington, D.C. stop of the Champions Series and got their opinions on the matter.
Romana Cvitkovic: “Recently, a few players have vocalized their desire to form a players’ union. What is your take on the situation and do you think it could change the sport?”
Pete Sampras: “I don’t know if it will change the sport. I think if the players want to get things done, they all have to get in the same room, the top ten guys, they all agree upon one thing, and they walk out of that room with a definite decision, that’s the only way things will get done. Everyone is complaining about the schedule. In Davis Cup, even when I was playing and before, [the scheduling] didn’t work, we complained about it, but nothing really got done. If the top ten guys agreed upon one thing, like on the schedule of the U.S. Open with the Saturday semifinals and Sunday finals, they could change that if they wanted to. The top guys have so much power, they have all the power. It’s a name-driven sport. If Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and Federer don’t play something, or threaten to do something, it will get done, trust me. I know these promoters, they want [these players’] names [in their tournaments].”
In reference to the same question, Courier commented on how players have an influence on the development of the sport, especially with the forthcoming appointment of a new CEO for the ATP men’s tour.
Jim Courier: “I think we’re in for an interesting time period in the next few months because the players’ association, which I was a member of, changed into a union between the tournaments and the players. So ‘union’ is maybe not the right word, ‘association’ may not be the proper word here for the players to form, to have more of a unified voice, because right now they are in a joint venture with the tournaments. So they are in a 50/50 partnership as opposed to having full representation. And there’s a new CEO that is going to be announced at some stage here in the coming months, for the ATP, and [the players] can influence his mandate. Because they are the ones who are hiring him; he is working for them. But if [the players] want to make some impact, now is the time. And we’ll see. But let’s be clear, that everyone in this sport, since Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith fought for Open tennis, we’ve all been overpaid, grossly overpaid, for what we do. So let’s be clear that this not a pity party, but I don’t think that player representation is necessarily a bad thing.”
Courier elaborated with an interesting transition to today’s game, the heavy physicality of the sport, and how we should preserve our players.
Jim Courier: “But there are probably some things that could create longevity for the players which would benefit everyone. I played Jimmy Connors last night and there is so much appreciation and love for Jimmy. Jimmy lasted so long on the ATP circuit. And there’s Andre [Agassi] – he lasted so long, played until he was 35. If you could extend the careers of Serena [Williams], and you could extend Roger [Federer], and you can extend Rafa [Nadal], these brand names, it would help the sport. Tennis doesn’t have the Capitals, the Redskins. Those don’t exist in tennis. You don’t have people who were born an Andre Agassi fan, and their kids will be Agassi fans and their grandkids. You don’t have that legacy; you have to build it every time with players. So, the longer you can have those players be in the sport, the healthier and the better it is for the sport. That’s really where the focus needs to be. It’s not about the immediacy of ‘we want this’ or ‘we want that because we need immediate gain.’ In my view, it’s the long view of how do we make the sport better for the players and therefore better for the fans and for everyone that surrounds the sport. And the off-season is a no-brainer, it needs to happen, but we’ve been saying that for thirty years and it hasn’t happened.”
Courier concluded by remarking on today’s players having “arguably more” respect for the game than his generation of players, particularly with the current struggles.
Jim Courier: “If you look at players on the men’s side and their sense of responsibility for the sport, I think we’re seeing [this respect] right now, with what they’ve been discussing with players getting a little more representation … When you look at Andy Roddick and these other players standing up, understanding that they’re lucky and wanting to protect the sport, and also protect themselves at the same time. I think we’re in a golden era of tennis.”
(For my USA Today piece on the Champions Series, please go here.)