“Tennis conflicts of interest.” The expression is a redundancy these days, and has been for some time.
Tennis just can’t seem to deal with conflicts of interest. The desire for individuals and companies to make a private dollar is clashing with the status and well-being of cherished public events such as the Davis Cup. The ITF has been less than robust in its support of chair umpires such as Mohamed Lahyani and Carlos Ramos after their encounters with controversy at the U.S. Open, for complicated political reasons which can’t be completely divorced from the need to appear player-friendly. The United States Tennis Association has reacted the way it has — and ESPN’s tone of coverage has acquired a certain trajectory — because it is good for business to not be overly confrontational toward Serena Williams.
The fact that the conflicts exist in the first place is understandable. The reticence to criticize players too harshly is understandable, if also problematic. The bigger question, though: Are tennis leaders and tennis media companies willing to be more transparent and accountable in handling and acknowledging these conflicts of interest?
Tennis fans and observers can answer that question with considerable confidence: If leaders in the sport are more willing to display transparency and accountability, they are not making it easy for outsiders to identify such sunlight. No person more fully represented the blurry boundaries between information and spin — between an objective analyst and an invested insider — at this U.S. Open than the coach of Serena Williams, Patrick Mouratoglou.
I remarked after the Serena-Naomi Osaka women’s final on Saturday that ESPN should prevent Mouratoglou from appearing on its broadcasts as a guest studio analyst and contributor (which he was at Wimbledon in addition to the U.S. Open) until he stops coaching Serena. A number of people on Twitter jumped to the immediate conclusion that I was ignoring Darren Cahill and not applying the same standards to him. A few others felt that I was displaying anti-Serena animus in my remarks. Other tweeps made some astute media observations I will get into shortly, but the subject was — and is — potent. It is potent because tennis media outlets haven’t shown that they clearly value the dividing line between objective and partisan commentary.
Let me address one astute point made by a part-time journalist in the tennis world. Ana Mitric covered the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and writes about tennis when she can at other times of the year. She noted that she had no problem with ESPN interviewing Mouratoglou right after the Serena-Osaka match, given that Mouratoglou had become a central part of the story and the series of events which led to point and game penalties for Serena in her loss.
On that point, I have no argument. Mouratoglou was a principal figure in a breaking — and explosive — news story. His account of events was central and essential to any understanding of the story. Getting his insights was a necessary part of a journalistic effort to explain what happened to television viewers in the United States, or to anyone who also had access to the ESPN broadcast on a streaming service or device. That was fine.
Where this arrangement went wrong was not in the immediate moment and the decision to interview him after the match. The problem with the arrangement was not on the back end — at the conclusion of this tournament — but on the front end, with the decision to allow Mouratoglou to be a guest studio analyst and contributor.
European friends on #TennisTwitter tell me that Mouratoglou has a similar role on Eurosport. It is clear that he loves to put himself in front of a camera. He obviously enjoys and wants the publicity which he can use to promote (albeit indirectly) his tennis academy and thereby enhance his business interests. What is also conspicuous about Mouratoglou, though, is that ESPN has interviewed him during Serena Williams’ matches at the U.S. Open, not just after the matches ended. Mouratoglou has therefore been on ESPN airwaves before, during and after matches, but when interviewed after the women’s final on Saturday, he was no longer the in-house contributor. He was the subject of a news story.
That revolving door cannot exist if viewers are to receive trustworthy — read: objective — analysis on tennis matches and the tennis industry as a whole. Mouratoglou will spin his version of events to reflect well on Serena or at least minimize his own mistakes when he makes them. His tweet right after Saturday’s match reflected as much. It is impossible to regard him as an objective source. Yes, ESPN had to interview him after the match — on that point there should be no disagreement — but ESPN can’t then incorporate his voice into its two-weeks-long coverage of the U.S. Open and present him as an objective, detached voice.
“But what about the others?”, people asked me.
Indeed — let’s get into that. Start with Darren Cahill, the coach of Simona Halep.
On a general level, of course it is true that Cahill should not be asked to comment in any way on a Halep match or on opponents who might play Halep in the next round. You can’t have Cahill commenting on a second-round WTA match if the winner might play Halep in the third round. I think we can agree on that, and the safe move is to not allow Cahill to comment on any WTA matches whatsoever.
However, the idea that Cahill should not be a studio analyst or a regular commentator for ESPN because of his coaching association with Halep is not nearly as convincing as applying the same ban to Mouratoglou. These are hardly the same situations. They have some similarities and a certain degree of overlap, but the two men are very different.
First of all, Cahill was not interviewed by ESPN during or immediately after Halep’s first-round loss to Kaia Kanepi at the U.S. Open. Cahill, though quite visible on — and central to — ESPN’s coverage, exhibits in his own decisions a great deal of prudence, restraint and care on matters pertaining to conflicts of interest. He is, very simply, disciplined and conscientious on these topics. His ethics are sound. He won’t chase any camera he can find. ESPN sometimes puts him in uncomfortable situations by asking him about women’s tennis, but Cahill doesn’t insert himself into the spotlight. He displays the level of objectivity and detachment which are consistent with a person who steers clear of any appearances of partisanship.
The idea that Mouratoglou and Cahill set the same kind of example or represent the same level of conflict is just not supported by the facts. They both coach high-profile WTA players… and that’s about it. Mouratoglou has not shown the discipline or the sense of responsibility for his place as a public commentator which Cahill exhibits on a regular basis. If the two men seem like one and the same, let me assure you: They aren’t. The former has not earned trust that he can call it as he sees it; the latter has. Let’s not lump them together simply because they both coach elite players who occupy the spotlight.
Mouratoglou, if analogized to a teenager who was given the keys to Daddy’s new car, has crashed that vehicle and must have his privileges revoked. Cahill, if measured or described in similar terms, is the good son who dutifully avoided trouble and made sure to take exceedingly good care of that car in every way, shape or form.
Speaking on terms beyond Mouratoglou or Cahill — or any specific individual — the larger takeaway for tennis broadcast outlets is that coaches of players should not be placed in uncomfortable or potentially compromising positions. If someone such as Mouratoglou wants to have an analyst’s role, he has to be willing to avoid discussing subjects related to the person he coaches, and the TV outlet has to have the discipline needed to not ask him (through the on-air studio anchor or show host) about those subjects.
When ESPN covers the U.S. Open or the other major tournaments under its umbrella (every major except for the French Open, in other words), is it providing a public relations arm for players, or is it calling it straight?
ESPN and other TV broadcasters — in America and around the world — have to show they really take transparency seriously. They aren’t making the grade right now. Moreover, they aren’t being tough enough in enforcing standards with people such as Patrick Mouratoglou… people who are very different from Darren Cahill.