The Championships, Wimbledon, is the apex of tennis guided solely by tradition, or so it would make you think. There’s no doubt that this Grand Slam is the oldest, the one players want to win the most and the one fans relate to the most when they hear “tennis.” But what about Wimbledon as a brand? Does it live up to its tag line, “In Pursuit of Greatness”?
This piece points out how savvy the august tournament actually is when considering the amount of marketing that’s necessary to carry the image forward year after year.
Beneath the veneer, though, remain attitudes that are slow to recognize social change, namely sexual bias. Many can be tied to the fact that The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is a private entity with 300 members who keep an iron-fisted grip on how the tournament presents itself. After all, these people want to preserve their traditions and lifestyles.
Yet the show must go on, which points to tournament management. This group is so secure in its artistry of salesmanship that it created several ads for television this year. The ads announced to the world that although the club stands by its immaculate presentation, it knows a thing or two about the value of premium production.
“There are 120 broadcast cameras around Wimbledon grounds,” the voiceover tells viewers as a montage of technological accuracy etches a scene of circles, lines, geometric figures, arcs and tracked tennis balls. “The movement of the players and the ball is tracked around the court by ten different cameras. We hide as much of the technology as we can to stay true to our original idea.”
Without saying a word about its 141-year history, the advertisement demonstrates in modern terms how Wimbledon is staying on top of those required elements, without which the pursuit of greatness would crumble in the face of fans whose expectations have been formed by Wimbledon itself… and by heightened demands for instant information.
Last year, for example, Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital at Wimbledon, worked alongside NextVR, a leader in virtual reality for the sports and entertainment industries, to “bring virtual reality to the All England Lawn Tennis Club,” Sports Illustrated reported earlier this month. Willis wanted built-in cameras, but they had to match Wimbledon’s purple and green motif. NextVR “had to custom 3D-print a shell so the cameras would blend in.”
That precision perfectly illustrates the lengths Wimbledon goes to maintain and advance its brand.
NextVR, this year, has made it possible for fans to stream “free Wi-Fi” matches around the grounds. “Spectators can point their phones at stadium plaques to trigger augmented reality experiences.” Coupled with Wimbledon’s directive to keep it abreast of things virtual comes the tacit understanding not to make these additions seem “too forward.”
For those without tickets, tracking matches outside the grounds, Wimbledon has partnered with Facebook and Snapchat to show audiences instantaneously produced match highlights plus paths to what Wimbledon calls its “English garden,” all though virtual magic.
From the technology angle, then, “industry insiders say it is one of the most technologically aggressive sporting events in the world.”
However, its scheduling of women’s matches on the two show courts — Centre Court and Court 1 — has been a struggle.
Last year Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko – the reigning Roland Garros champion at the time — all complained about court assignments as men, for example Roger Federer, were given premium real estate. This year, though, court assignments have been more equitable. Through the first six days of competition, the number of women’s and men’s singles matches played on those two courts is equal, with the exception that 11 women’s matches were put on Centre Court to 10 for the men.
This alteration in scheduling only came about because of activism, which makes many conclude that tradition at Wimbledon rates higher than equality. At least the appearance of that was clear until this year.
A July 3 story in The Guardian titled, “Wimbledon ‘has made no progress’ on male bias on top show courts,” asserts through analysis that the imbalance has existed for decades and that last year, “Only 40% of scheduled events on the two main courts at Wimbledon last year were between women.” Additionally, the article graphically depicted that over the years 2013-2017, “there were 109 men’s matches on main show courts and 71 women’s matches.”
The man responsible for compiling the data, Mark Leyland, an English fan, met with Wimbledon officials, according to The New York Times. “I love your championships, I love your tradition, but this gender inequity is one tradition that you need to change,” he said.
The tournament’s logic was indeed archaic when compared, for example, to its aggressive contracting with NextVR that could produce a virtual world for fans on site and around the globe.
How the players are addressed came under the microscope this year, as well.
Serena Williams, who recently married, was called “Mrs. Williams,” after winning a match this week. But Roger Federer remained “Federer.” This has to mean that Wimbledon chose to air Serena’s marital status but not that of Federer, a father of four.
Additionally the Board of Champions, which hangs inside the clubhouse, lists females who have married by their married names: Billie Jean King is Mrs. L.W. King; Evonne Goolagong transformed to Mrs. R. Cawley; and Chris Evert had been Miss C.M. Evert until she married John Lloyd, when her name was etched as Mrs. J.M. Lloyd. In contrast, Federer’s name is recognized eight times as only R. Federer.
Women are not women at Wimbledon either. They are “ladies,” aka, the ladies’ singles championships. No other Grand Slam refers to women as royalty, to which “ladies” directly relates.
And where money is concerned, Wimbledon was the last in 2007 to pay equal prize money thanks to concerted lobbying from Venus Williams.
All four Grand Slams compete with each other. Each has a unique flavor, its own “pursuit of greatness” angle. The U.S. Open goes overboard for big and loud… an extravaganza of the Big-Apple kind in the biggest metropolitan area on the East Coast, a commercial and residential den of millions run by the biggest tennis organization in America, the U.S.T.A. After all, it built a stadium that sits over 23,711 people, which took years to roof.
The French Open is somewhat unorganized and pinched inside its tiny neighborhood south of Paris, but its allure is unique.
The Australian Open, meanwhile, forces players and their entourages to come to the other side of the world. And because of Melbourne’s location the tournament initially had trouble filling draws. Then it extended a travel incentive: a stipend of sorts, according to tennis journalist Mert Ertunga. The check, or cheque, is issued for 2500 Australian dollars before a ball is struck. The perk is one reason why that Grand Slam is traditionally called the happy slam. Plus, the grounds showcase three covered courts compared to only one at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and none at The French Open. (All three have plans to cover more courts.)
Luckily for Wimbledon this year, the weather has cooperated. Only a few matches have carried over to the next day. But the focal point of the tournament, the grass courts, have suffered, interfering with the immaculate perception. Hot, sunny weather has dried the lawns and the grounds have hardened underneath, transforming the uniqueness of what had been a throwback tournament — recalling an era when three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass — to a hardcourt event.
That means game styles will not resemble those from the days of Rod Laver, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, and even Roger Federer when he started as a serve-and-volley player. The footprint of bang-bang tennis has permanently dug up tradition at Wimbledon, and there’s no technology or paint-matching fixes that can stop that train.
This conversation about the Wimbledon brand, then, comes down to perceptions. And when those are tallied, this age-old Grand Slam makes out better than the others… if only it would step into the sunlight about meaningful social issues. This is where business and tradition must find common ground with club members. Otherwise, the obvious will make it look like old fogies, not one pursuing greatness.
Serena Williams being placed second on court on Manic Monday gives her and fellow mother Evgeniya Rodina the shortest turnaround to Tuesday’s “ladies’ day” quarterfinals, an oversight Wimbledon just can’t make if it wants to build a brand people can respect.
The tradition of Wimbledon is impossible to ignore — if only that tradition was married to common sense, especially regarding the treatment of women’s tennis players.
Consider this appraisal of Wimbledon’s luminous aura:
“I think Wimbledon is a specific example of the amazing slight of hand,” Richard Evans, lifelong tennis journalist, began during a podcast from Tennis With An Accent. “If Bill Tilden or Fred Perry walked through the gates, the Fred Perry gates, they’d know instantly know where they were. It looks the same even though Court 1 has been moved and even though there’s a roof on Centre Court, and there’s a television building with studios and all the equipment. They’ve managed to do all that. They’ve managed to keep pace and actually lead technologically in many ways as to how a sporting event should be covered and presented to the public while maintaining the traditional feel of the place.”
The Championships Wimbledon does have a lock on tradition. And, it is flawed like all other Grand Slams. Wimbledon, though, hides its flaws to an extent. It refuses to join the outwardly commercial ranks that would certainly mar its gardens of delights in perfectly matching purple and green. Corporate logos are hard to notice on TV, unlike the other majors. You’ll never see colored outfits on players. You’ll never see the uniforms of linesmen and chair umpires change. Ball kids will wear navy togs and the grass, well, there’s nothing much to do about that.
So, yes, Wimbledon does pursue greatness, which it defines in its own way for business and historic success.
WIMBLEDON ATP REVIEW: RESILIENCE FROM DJOKOVIC AND OTHERS
This is technically an ATP review of Wimbledon, posted one day after my WTA review of The Championships at the All England Club. To be sure, this piece will primarily focus on the past fortnight in men’s tennis. However, if we’re being honest, the theme of resilience pervaded both singles tournaments at SW19 this year.
Stop and consider how much — and how often — players worked to overcome towering obstacles. In some cases, these were injuries or interruptions. In other cases, the hurdles were mental blocks, the familiar demons of so many performers in a solo-athlete sport.
This tournament produced seven players who made their first Wimbledon quarterfinal: Camila Giorgi, Julia Goerges, Kiki Bertens, Daria Kasatkina, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, and Kei Nishikori. Of those seven players, Giorgi and Goerges made their first major quarterfinal of any kind. Isner made just his second major quarterfinal, his previous showing coming seven years earlier at the U.S. Open.
Several additional players made the second week of Wimbledon (the fourth round) for the first time. Karolina Pliskova did so for the women, among many others, and Gael Monfils finally broke through on the men’s side, in addition to several other peers.
This was the tournament of the comeback, the fortnight in which players who had undergone profound hardships in varying contexts took big steps forward. Monfils and Pliskova were the comparatively modest examples of this dynamic.
At the top, the two singles champions could not have made more emphatic statements about their ability to take a roundhouse punch, get off the canvas, dust themselves off, and become number one, lifting a trophy on the most famous court in tennis.
Angelique Kerber and Novak Djokovic both went through a tennis version of hell in 2017. The reasons for the hell were different, but the misery was profound in both instances. No great champion — barring an extremely rare exception — goes through a career without some form of interruption or adversity. Even the very best in a profession get knocked down at times. When that moment occurs, and they must process the pain of injury, or the anxiety of doubt, or the sting of a narrow loss that shouldn’t have happened, they absorb the frustration every other human being goes through. More precisely as tennis players, they confront the negative vibes an 89th-ranked player confronts after letting a round-of-64 match slip through his fingers.
All tennis players go through these moments of biting, searing disappointment… but only the great ones use those moments as fuel to get back to the top of the sport. Many good players use those occasions to go on a quarterfinal or semifinal run, but the elites know how to squeeze every last drop of education, awareness, and improvement from past hardships at the biggest tournaments. Kerber and Djokovic, given fresh life by coaches new (Wim Fissette) or old (Marian Vajda), didn’t climb three-fourths of the way up the mountain. They scaled the peak, as champions do. Djokovic in particular — since this is mostly an ATP review — wrote his name in the great book of tennis history alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by completing his own comeback from injury. All three men can now say they were kicked to the curb by a physical derailment and lifted a major trophy in response.
This was the Wimbledon of the bounce-back.
One can very reasonably say, without hyperbole, that the eight singles semifinalists — four men and four women — all authored stories of considerable resilience at this Wimbledon.
Jelena Ostapenko served terribly in her first-round Roland Garros loss. Playing poorly is never good, but Wimbledon demands the ability to serve at a reasonably high level. One can’t advance deep into this event without having a moderately productive serve. Ostapenko — who reminded us that she, too, is a champion — transformed her serve in the short period of time between Paris and SW19, making the semifinals and changing the course of her season.
That was a profound turnaround, and yet of the eight singles semifinalists, it was the least substantial one in a larger context.
Kerber’s and Djokovic’s ascendancies have already been noted and discussed, en route to stirring and memorable championships at the All England Club. Then consider Serena Williams, doing what she did near her 37th birthday, as a mom, with very little 2018 match play, after a literal near-death experience in the process of childbirth. No embellishment there, just straight truth.
Julia Goerges made her first Wimbledon semifinal at age 29. She had never gotten past the fourth round of any major before. She tightened up so many times at the biggest tournaments in tennis. Finally, her moment came. Finally, she freed herself up and played with the right balance of clarity and relaxation.
John Isner, age 33, made his first major semifinal of any kind. We all knew that Isner’s lack of mobility, a consistent backhand, and a credible return of serve, plus a taller strike zone for his groundstrokes, prevented him from being CONSISTENTLY good at Wimbledon. To be very clear here, it’s not a surprise that Isner OFTEN failed at Wimbledon. Isner’s margin for error in five-set matches is plainly much lower than in three-set matches. The surprising aspect of Isner’s career at Wimbledon — and at the majors in general — is not that he failed to make the second week most of the time. It’s that he failed to make the second week with relentless and numbing regularity. A player with Isner’s serve — one would think — would surely make a major quarterfinal once every eight or nine majors, every two years or so. Yet, entering this Wimbledon, Isner had just one major quarterfinal to his credit, in 2011. The paucity of good results at majors was a profound source of disappointment. Isner could have let that reality drag him down once again. (To be honest, the rain very probably saved him against Ruben Bemelmans in round two — but credit to him: He used that delay well.) Instead, Isner made history and came within two points of a Wimbledon final.
Isner has gone where more talented players such as Nicolas Almagro and Philipp Kohlschreiber have not yet gone (and probably never will go): to a major semifinal.
Rafael Nadal — remember him? — has been written off by many tennis analysts at Wimbledon, but the point many missed was that if Nadal got the right draw — NO BIG SERVERS — in the first week, Nadal could make a deep run again. He did, coming within an eyelash of another Wimbledon title. As Milos Raonic might have told Juan Martin del Potro, “Rafa technically didn’t reach the final, but hypothetically, the Djokovic match WAS the final,” as anyone and everyone could see on Sunday.
Nadal might still win Wimbledon. We were reminded what a problem solver and competitor he is at this tournament. Djokovic made the biggest and strongest statement of all, but Nadal’s feats are not to be forgotten… or taken for granted. None of the Big 3 should be written off — they keep reminding us of that.
I close with the man who didn’t win Wimbledon, but who won a lot of new fans and captured new hearts at this tournament.
Kevin Anderson, much like Julia Goerges at all four majors — and much like Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon in particular — kept bumping his head into a relatively low and specific ceiling at important tournaments. For the longest time, Anderson had trouble getting past the fourth round at majors. Like John Isner, Anderson arrived at age 30 with a surprisingly barren resume at the majors, relative to his talents. Many people in and around professional tennis — in the coaches’ boxes, in the locker rooms, on the practice courts — will tell you that hitting the ball well is not the primary task of tennis players. They can all do that at a relatively high level. Managing Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis” — the game between the ears — is almost always the foremost challenge (and gateway) on the road to greatness. Sorting out the mind unlocks achievement, and with Anderson, it has been no different.
What is special about Anderson’s rise — and what will be special about this Wimbledon 30 years from now — is that Kando did something extremely rare in the Open Era of tennis: He made his first two major finals after turning 30. Andres Gimeno, born in 1937, made the 1969 Australian Open final and the 1972 French Open final. Not many other names, if any, can be found on the list of players who made their first two major finals after hitting the big 3-Oh.
What Anderson also owns is the satisfaction of knowing that he has now made more major finals than these big names: Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer, and David Nalbandian. Does this mean Anderson has had a better career than some of these guys (Delpo and Berdych in particular)? No. However, it does mean that Anderson has changed the way he will be remembered. You always get remembered differently in tennis when you cross the river from “once” to “twice” in any meaningful achievement. More precisely, Anderson — unlike his U.S. Open, in which Sam Querrey was his quarterfinal opponent — had to beat Roger Federer in these Wimbledon quarterfinals, from two sets down, to make the final. He had to win a 6:36 semifinal against (arguably) the most imposing server in men’s tennis to make his first Wimbledon final. He competed as well as his body would allow him to in the final. Everyone could see he gave it all he had.
Anderson — a socially conscious, gentle, and generous man whose initial reaction after Friday’s semifinal was to comfort Isner more than celebrate his own victory — is a terrific ambassador for tennis. He will carry this heightened “ambassadorship” to the U.S. Open and should then do the same at the Laver Cup in Chicago, where the University of Illinois man will receive a hero’s welcome. He reached the ATP top five (just in time, too, given the hardship of defending his U.S. Open points from last year) and became a bigger tennis star at just the right time. He deserves these blessings on the merits of his play; it sure helps when the person is someone everyone in tennis can easily cheer for.
From Djokovic to Kerber, from Isner to Goerges, from Serena to Rafa, from Ostapenko to Kando, this was the Wimbledon of resilience. This tournament was a banquet table of inspiration, a buffet laden with stories marking the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
WIMBLEDON WTA REVIEW: THE BLURRED LINE OF BALANCE
The WTA of 2018, like the WTA of 2017, is nothing if not balanced.
In 2017, the WTA produced only one repeat major finalist over the course of the season: Venus Williams, a finalist in Australia, returned to a major final at Wimbledon. The other six slots occupied by major finalists belonged to one-time participants in 2017: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys.
We are done with three of the four majors in 2018, and so far, the same dynamic applies: Only one player has repeated as a major finalist. Simona Halep made the finals in Australia and Roland Garros. The other four slots were occupied by four different players: Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Serena, and Angelique Kerber. Serena might become the season’s second repeat major finalist at the U.S. Open. Kerber will face a much tougher road in New York with players such as Elina Svitolina and Wozniacki — who don’t know how to handle Wimbledon — being back in their element on hardcourts.
So there you have it: A woman nearly 37 years old might be the only player who can prevent the WTA from having seven different major finalists (in eight possible major final slots) for two straight years. If neither Serena nor Kerber make the final at the U.S. Open, the days of 2016 — when those two players occupied six of the WTA’s eight major final slots, three apiece — will be long gone.
It is true that Serena is back on tour, which makes her the force to be reckoned with more than any other in the sport. It is also true that after making the Wimbledon final — greatly exceeding expectations, very much including her own — the idea of Serena doing more incredible things not just next year, but at age 40 (should she want to play that long), is hardly ludicrous. Maybe Serena will end the year 2021 (when she turns 40) still imposing, still the toughest out in women’s tennis, still the player at the epicenter of the drama. She’s Serena Williams — as she reminded us this Wimbledon, of course she is capable of pulling that off.
But what if she doesn’t? Then what?
That’s the question on my mind — and on the minds of a lot of people who follow women’s tennis — after Wimbledon.
Here’s the two-sided reality of the WTA’s world of balance: On one hand, lots of seeded players have a shot to win majors. Halep and Wozniacki were highly ranked when making major finals this year, but Stephens, Kerber and Serena were seeded 10th or lower en route to major finals this year. Halep and Kerber have been the two most consistent players on tour this year, but after them, the notion of consistency has eluded many of the WTA’s top players.
This brings up the other side of the WTA’s existence: While lots of seeded players have a chance to win majors, few can be trusted. Wimbledon underscored this reality.
Of the top 10 seeds at Wimbledon in 2018, only three had previously made a Wimbledon final: Muguruza, Venus, and Petra Kvitova. Muguruza — who seems to do well at either Roland Garros OR Wimbledon in a given year, but never at BOTH in the SAME year — remained true to her history by crashing out of the Big Dubya in week one after making a semifinal run in Paris. Muguruza remains erratic and enigmatic at the majors, and her Stan Wawrinka-like tendency of showing up once every few majors is still intact. “Trust” is not something she merits on a relentlessly consistent basis; “trust” is better applied to the notion that she will raise her game in France or at the All England Club each year, but not at both places, and certainly not in Melbourne or New York, where she has yet to flourish.
Venus is 38 and going through a tough season. Kvitova needs comfortable playing conditions to be at her best, and the warm-to-hot weather at Wimbledon did not line up in her favor. All in all, none of the top 10 WTA seeds at Wimbledon entered the tournament meriting complete trust. Past performance at Wimbledon or on grass was unconvincing for most; for the three women who had previously reached a Wimbledon final, the circumstances attached to 2018 did not offer much reason for encouragement.
Sure enough, none of the top 10 seeds performed at levels which justified any particular degree of trust. Reasonable people will disagree, but for me, Madison Keys’ third-round loss to Evgeniya Rodina was the most disappointing result of any top-10 WTA seed at Wimbledon. Not at least being able to test her game against Serena in the fourth round represented a wasted trip to the All England Club. Keys should be so successful on grass, and yet Wimbledon is the one major where she hasn’t yet reached the semifinals.
What we have on the WTA Tour is a picture of health. Balance, depth, unpredictability, quality tennis — they’re all evident, and they all emerged at Wimbledon. Yet, alongside the compelling tennis lies the accompanying reality that the top-10 seeds weren’t part of the fun. Interesting matches were played and a number of proven players stepped up, Kerber most of all, but the absence of any top-10 seeds from the quarterfinals was impossible to ignore.
This is why the question raised above — what if Serena doesn’t remain a top-tier force akin to 2016? — hangs over the WTA Tour. Will each major tournament be a “wheel of destiny”? I hasten to say: This is not a bad scenario. The WTA’s unpredictability last year and this one has coincided with highly entertaining tennis — so what if there’s a different final matchup each time? If the journey is pleasing, the destination is easy to accept.
This question about Serena’s staying power is not meant to suggest that the WTA has a “good future or a bad future” ahead of it. No — that’s not the intent behind that query. The purpose of the question is to determine if we’re going to continue to witness constant variety in finalists and champions, or if a few players will become regulars and replace Serena at the year’s biggest tournaments.
Sloane Stephens, in her last four majors, has gone from champion to first rounder to finalist to first-rounder. That’s Muguruza’s music, played to a higher volume level on your radio dial. Jelena Ostapenko lost in round one in Paris and then made the Wimbledon semifinals. Madison Keys thrived in Paris and stubbed her toe at SW19. Svitolina made the quarters in Australia but then failed to get out of the first week in France and at Wimbledon. 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Julia Goerges are not portraits of rock-solid consistency at majors, either.
This is a volatile tour right now — again, that’s not a bad thing, but when evaluating players, I am looking at the WTA and waiting for the next player who will subdue most of the tour at majors. Halep and Kerber are exemplars of a positive consistency… but are conspicuously isolated in that regard (and even Halep lost early at Wimbledon, but after winning Roland Garros, she gets a pass). Where is the next especially great career coming from? Muguruza and Stephens, at their best, look like 10-major-winning players, but they don’t yet exhibit 10-major-winning tendencies. Ostapenko needs to beef up her serve, but when she is crushing return winners, she is a matchup nightmare for much of the tour.
The bottom line after Wimbledon: Women’s tennis, collectively, is in great shape. So much good tennis was played at Wimbledon, producing a blockbuster final between two players who are proven champions and offered a delicious contrast in styles. The uncertainty attached to WTA tennis is not a negative, but for the top players on tour other than Serena, the task of creating a career which will be spoken of in reverential tones seems more remote and unrealistic than ever. The 2018 U.S. Open might begin to change that dynamic, but we won’t truly know if the sands are shifting until next spring at Roland Garros.
CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF OPEN TENNIS: TREAT DOUBLES WITH RESPECT
This year is supposed to be a celebration for tennis. It’s the 50-year anniversary of the Open Era for the game. In 1968 professionals were invited to join the amateurs to play at the biggest tournaments, the grandest being Wimbledon.
That year also marked a divergence. The quintessential doubles teams that featured Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court, and further back, Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen and Don Budge, faded. In their place stepped marketing. A proud American invention, it reshaped tennis by selling demographics, psychographics, and the benefits of individual accomplishments. Gone was the notion that doubles teams could make a living at tennis.
“For years before the Open Era, U.S. doubles championships at Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts was an entirely separate tournament from singles, which was held in Forest Hills, New York,” Douglas Perry of Oregon Live wrote.
Those, too, folded.
In came the promise of a return on investment that, according to marketing, required targeting individual performances and, as a result, elevating celebrity. This pair of business priorities replaced on-court teams.
Sponsorships and broadcasting contracts steered the game. Tournament committees were tied to bottom-line results. Court assignments became centerpieces of daily discussions. Placement on Centre Court became a singles garden because each player now had a backstory, millions of followers on Facebook and Instagram, plus the longevity of titles and promises of more. Tennis, perceived as an elitist sport from its beginning, had swallowed the poison pill. The nature of the game changed.
Racquets became space-age weapons used in battles. Polyester strings let players swing out, as fast as they could, the thwacking sound when a ball hit the stringbed a bullet to the chest of viewers. This was a fight.
The term “doubles specialist” became fashionable, even if it sounded somewhat derogatory. Were these men and women less athletic? Not really, but they could not compete individually given the intensity of the game and its 24-7 drumbeat of fitness requirements, on-court practices, sponsorship pressures and media demands.
Here’s where tennis took another tumble: It did not teach advertisers, broadcast executives and the public, the would-be fans, the far more complex and entertaining nature of doubles, despite knowing that more “club players” favored it. The cry, “Why don’t they show more doubles on TV?”, went unanswered because no one of import heard it or wanted to hear it and address it.
Doubles didn’t have enough stars, the marketers said. They were unknown entities, not salable. It was bad for TV. No close-ups. No backstories. No storyline. And yes, no celebrities. Teams were flung together, for the most part, on tournament registration deadlines.
In an attempt to revive doubles, the ATP in 2006 introduced no-ad scoring for the first two sets and a super tiebreak, first to 10 by two, for the third set.
“The ATP said the changes were designed to help tournament officials and broadcasters with their scheduling because the duration of matches it easier to predict,” ESPN reported.
Truncated doubles matches were nowhere in sight when the Bryan brothers made their Grand Slam debut at the 1995 U.S. Open. The identical twins, Bob and Mike, are now the most widely recognized doubles team. They’ve won 16 men’s doubles Grand Slams and Saturday, at Wimbledon, Mike won his 17th, a record he now shares with John Newcombe. That 17th title was won with Jack Sock. It was Mike’s first major without Bob, who hasn’t played since Madrid due to a hip injury. Earlier in the week Mike reclaimed the number one ranking at 40 as well, becoming the oldest doubles player to do so and expanding his legendary notoriety.
These two fought the idea and reality that shortening doubles matches would open the door for top names such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to climb on board, although they entered tournaments occasionally for giggles. Playing doubles and singles would increase the chances of injury, from their perspectives. But the cameras were sharply focused on Federer and Stan Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when they won Gold: two famous singles players.
Venus and Serena Williams were and are the exception to marketing dictates. Singles Grand Slam champions. Doubles Grand Slam champions, in women’s and mixed. Olympic gold medalists in singles and doubles. They are always a top priority for tournaments, broadcasters and advertisers, much more so than the Bryan brothers. The Bryans could probably walk through LAX without being stopped for a selfie. Can’t say that for the Williams sisters.
The Williams sisters transcended tennis and sport, reaching the heights of international celebrity, just as Federer has done. But Serena and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, attended the wedding of friend Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. Federer wasn’t there.
Ten years after the ATP and the WTA bit the apple of promise with no-ad scoring, their failure is palpable. Doubles did not gain more TV time; it was not seen as a money winner.
“It’s nonsense, I think,” Jamie Murray said, as reported in Tennis. “They’re not putting matches on center court or on TV, so just put us on the outside courts and let us play normal scoring.”
Sunday at Wimbledon, ESPN broadcast Jamie Murray and Victoria Azarenka against American Nicole Melichar and teammate Alexander Peya in the mixed doubles final. ESPN broadcast the match almost in its entirety, which Murray and Azarenka lost, 7-6(1), 6-3. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also showed the men’s and women’s doubles finals on Saturday.
Brad Gilbert, Jason Goodall, Pam Shriver and Rennae Stubbs went a long way to teach viewers about the magic and mystery of doubles. They were fountains of knowledge, presenting reasons behind team movements, tactics and opportunities grabbed and lost. They filled in players’ backstories, recognizing each person’s contributions to the match and tennis. They educated viewers. They should meet with tournament directors, broadcasters and media, and sell them a package deal of ideas that would boost bottom lines and expand viewership of tennis. They should advocate for doubles, which would be a grand way to celebrate 50 years of Open tennis.
If something’s not done soon, the Bryan brothers and Williams sisters will retire. Then who will carry the torch for doubles?
“There’s no need for me to keep going out there if he [Bob] is gonna be on the shelf for a long period of time,” Mike said, ESPN reported. “I figured out that why I love this game is playing with him.”
One last comment on Wimbledon’s court scheduling.
Jana Novotna died last fall from cancer. She coached Barbora Krejcikova, a fellow native of the Czech Republic, up until her death. How fitting it was that all four players in Saturday’s women’s doubles final were born in the Czech Republic.
Krejcikova partnered with Katerina Siniakova, while the opposing team was the aforementioned Melichar — born in Brno, Novotna’s birthplace — and 43-year-old Kveta Peschke. What a rich tribute — and story — this could have been if placed on Centre Court, but this championship match was put on Court 1 Saturday. Krejcikova and Siniakova won, after which Krejcikova dedicated her Wimbledon title to Novotna in one of the more powerful moments of the whole fortnight.
Let’s not delay the point. These women lost out because 20 years ago, in 1998, Novotna won her one Wimbledon singles crown on Centre Court. That cathartic moment came five years after a televised and painful loss in 1993 to Steffi Graf, when Jana cried on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent. The image is deeply ingrained in our minds. Had the women’s doubles final been assigned Centre Court, instead of the men’s doubles, Wimbledon could have promoted the moment forged by Krejcikova and Siniakova on Saturday, marketing to its continual pursuit of tradition and greatness.
A saving grace for Wimbledon? Melichar and Alexander Peya won the 2018 mixed doubles title, defeating Murray and Azarenka… on Centre Court.
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