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The constant tension between change and consistency

Matt Zemek

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

If you look at the photo attached to this story, you will see a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey on Billie Jean King. That’s no accident: She is part of the Dodgers’ ownership group. What does this have to do with tennis on the WTA Tour and the ATP Tour? I will try to make a connection.

You might have heard that the Laver Cup is going to be an ATP Tour-sanctioned event — not with points, but in terms of having logistical support, and in terms of head-to-head match results (retroactively and currently) being acknowledged as ATP Tour match wins and losses.

Is this good or bad? We all have our opinions. The larger reality flowing from the Laver Cup changes is that yet another special international event — in other words, an event lacking a normal one-week tournament structure — exists on its own, with a very particular set of qualities not replicated by others.

Pique Cup, Laver Cup, ATP Cup — these Cups are all one of a kind, not only in their structure, but in the timetables accompanying the announcement of their formats, the size of the fields, the criteria for qualification, and more.

They all represent attempts by tennis to do something new, not to adhere to a familiar consistency. The fact that these concepts exist is refreshing. The lack of consistency in terms of process, regulation and governance is unwelcome.

Change isn’t automatically good, but it is encouraging that new ways of connecting with fans are being considered. Laver Cup, for example, has certainly been a commercial hit in Prague and Chicago. New tennis fans (or more ardent tennis fans) were likely created by those two events. That’s good.

Consistency isn’t automatically good, but it would be appreciated if one had the sense that each new idea in tennis was approved only after it became clear that the money attached to an event would be used, at least in part, to benefit the lower tiers of the tour and of the larger professional tennis community.

The four majors plus the two year-end championships have become money grabs for top players, representing an enormous imbalance in the distribution of resources. It is not inherently a bad thing that these new “Cups” give piles of money to high-profile players, but if the sport possessed better mechanisms of governance and oversight, this collection of “Cups” would be helping the sport, not just a relatively small collection of players.

Billie Jean King knows what it means to help everyone, not just a select few. She, with the help of Gladys Heldman, Rosie Casals, and the other pioneers of her time in women’s tennis, formed a women’s tennis tour. She spoke about this and many other subjects in Racquet Magazine’s must-listen tennis podcast from June 6.

I encourage you to listen to this podcast, but I will let you in on a few basic details: One is that King — who, as shown in the photo attached to this story, has a vested interest in the Los Angeles Dodgers — wants to see either women’s softball or women’s baseball succeed commercially.

King spent a lot of this podcast explaining that women’s sports will not have “made it” in the United States until team sports commercially thrive. King isn’t resting on what she did in the past. She continues to want to make various women’s sports more successful as businesses and as television properties.

King is still including tennis among the sports she wants to reform through structural and TV-based lenses. She said in this podcast that she wants college tennis championship tournaments to be held on one actual court, not spread over several courts, with men and women both being part of the same competition. King said that if college tennis was reformatted to become TV-friendly, the sport could become the third-biggest collegiate sport (I am presuming in relationship to television and media reach) in the United States.

King also proposed a “rookie school” in which tennis players would learn about their sport’s history and about the business of the sport before beginning their pro careers. They would get either a card or license after completing an educational course or seminar.

What is the point, you might be asking? The point is that King, even now, wants to change so much of both tennis and other sports. She is an icon, but she is and has been (and will continue to be) an icon not because she adhered to longstanding notions of what tennis should be (consistency). She is an icon because of her relentless push to change things, to create new realities, to substantially alter if not completely overturn previously existing structures.

Change isn’t inherently good or bad — what purpose or mission does the change serve?

Consistency isn’t inherently good or bad — what purpose or mission does consistency serve?

Change and consistency have many manifestations. Before we insist that change is necessary, or that consistency must be a virtue, let’s consider what any change or any argument for consistency are meant to achieve.

Tennis is awash in change and lacking in consistency. Both realities are exciting and exasperating at the same time. Seeing the right path isn’t defined by wanting less change or more consistency, but by wanting the right kinds of both.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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