Tennis Finally Wakes up, Accepts Gate-Crasher Bollettieri into Party

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

At Wimbledon last year, I met with Nick Bollettieri and we talked about his two favorite subjects: tennis and, well, Nick Bollettieri. I told him that I’d done what a lot of journalists do in advance with famous people: I’d already written his obituary.

It should be an unsettling thing for a man in his 80s to hear, but Bollettieri just shook my hand and said, “Thanks. You’re going to need to write it again.’’

I love that. He wasn’t done yet.

Bollettieri has always been part-huckster, part-builder of tennis champions, and the first part of that turned off enough people that they didn’t notice the second part, or just didn’t want to. Despite developing the greatest generation of tennis champions, and defining a model the world would copy, he somehow managed to be seen as tennis’ gate-crasher.

He couldn’t even get into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Until he was voted in this week.

Whatever you think of Bollettieri’s methods or his carnival-barker mentality, it is just such an ugly reflection on tennis that it took so long for him to be honored. By now, you’d think this sport would have learned, would have welcomed people who don’t look like they belonged in tennis’ past. Or sound like it. Or act like it. Or worse: have the pedigree for it.

Shame on tennis for taking so long with Bollettieri.

The trend today is to sign with a coach who has won majors as a player. The more majors, the better. Andy Murray finally won his majors after signing Ivan Lendl, and next thing you knew, Roger Federer signed Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic had Boris Becker. Even Kei Nishikori had Michael Chang and Marin Cilic had Goran Ivanisevic.

Here’s one thing to remember: The best player in the world, Rafael Nadal, is coached by. . .

Uncle Toni.

This trend to ex-champs as coaches isn’t going to produce the results players are expecting.

Bollettieri was not a great player. He was not a tour player. To be honest, I don’t really even think he was much of a player at all, though he did play briefly in college.

It’s pure snobbery that it took so long to recognize Bollettieri, who developed Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and others who reached No. 1.

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Being honest, I think he changed things, too, when he went so crazy with Anna Kournikova. She is criticized unfairly, by the way, despite her incredible work ethic making her a top 10 player in a tough era. The problem is, she made a lot of people a lot of money without ever having won a tournament. And now, the premium is on good-looking young girls who can be groomed into top, marketable, players.

That’s sort of sickening, actually.

But back to Bollettieri. Take a look at who makes the best baseball managers. It’s not usually the best former players, but instead the ones who studied the game, who had to truly understand it. It’s the ones who had to find every last angle to make it to the top, or close to it.

I’ll take a career backup catcher as a manager any day. Of course, Bollettieri never even reached that height on the court.

Who cares? It was his vision that found a way to get to the sport’s mountaintop. Again and again.

He founded the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 1978, and his idea was to take the top prospects, put them all together and have them fight each other on the court all day, all night. He is no strategic genius, but did push a new attacking style, from inside the baseline with a massive forehand.

He eventually sold the Academy to IMG, and it has grown into something massive, as shown here in this recent piece by Christopher Clarey in The New York Times. The story also points out that it took a big lobbying effort to get Bollettieri into the Hall this time, from Agassi, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Chris Evert, who all wrote letters to the election panel pushing for him.

He started his first tennis camp with the help of Vince Lombardi. Bollettieri was a tennis instructor at a hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 70s, and Lombardi would come there to play golf. He stopped by the tennis courts one day and told Bollettieri that he was good working with kids, and should do more of it.

Later, when Bollettieri’s career wasn’t going well, he called Lombardi, who helped him to set up a tennis camp in Beaver Dam, Wis.

His Academy was tennis’ first tennis factory, and that led to plenty of criticism. Agassi and Courier, among others, would have a falling out with Bollettieri over his militaristic style. Eventually, they came back into the fold.

So he certainly wasn’t without controversy. But 82 years old, and his plan has led to double-digit players reaching No. 1 in the world. He’s looking to develop another one, too, so he can alter his obituary yet again.

I’ll already have to change one part in his now: The gate-crasher has finally been accepted.


Maui Vacation Refreshing. Davis Cup, Fed Cup Stale

This is where I live, in Chicagoland: 20140217_165553-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is where I went for a while, to Maui: 20140227_182652

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:

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Yes, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the two best American women, representing the U.S. in Federation Cup play against Italy. You can see it clearly right there in the ad.

And it wasn’t just that, but also the whole national team season of Fed Cup and Davis Cup. I missed Switzerland against Serbia in Davis Cup, too. Imagine that: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic.

I missed it all.

OK, so tennis fans already know what I actually missed:

Nothing.

It was just after the Australian Open, and Djokovic pulled out. He was criticized, all but called a traitor, so Serbia lost. Williams and Stephens pulled out, too, so the U.S. lost to Italy’s best. No, that isn’t right. A bunch of backup Americans lost to a bunch of the Italian backups’ backups.

And what did that prove exactly?

Meanwhile, fans had already bought tickets based on the marketing of Serena and Sloane. And fans can’t just pull out. Their money was locked in on a bait-and-switch. I’ve written before that tennis fans need a Bill of Rights, but I’ll get back to that some other time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame Williams, Stephens or Djokovic for pulling out. Why on earth would anyone play these things anymore?

The International Tennis Federation has rendered Davis Cup almost entirely irrelevant because it is so out of touch with the times. I’m sorry, but Bill Tilden vs. the Four Musketeers has come and gone.

Tennis is already an international head-to-head event every week all year long. The only thing the ITF has going as a carrot to lure top players to Davis Cup now is that it can guilt them into doing it.

This is just such an easy fix. Tennis can turn these things into two-week World Cup events. Bring all the countries together in one session in one place, play matches two out of three sets, and turn it into a tournament.

I’ve railed on this before, and an ITF official told me it wouldn’t work because there are countries whose entire tennis federation budget comes from low-level Davis Cup ties. Even Argentina, I was told, got its entire puny $2 million a year budget that way.

Fine. Then let the lower levels play things the way they are now in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup of Tennis. There has to be some way to make this interesting in a modern era. If you’re trying to grow the game, and add fans, you can’t do it with such a complicated event.

Who wants to follow a season that runs one week now, one week in a few months, one week a few months after that, with losers splintering off into multi-tiered loser brackets along the way?

No one has that kind of an attention span anymore.

But if you put the top countries together in a World Cup, then you can cut out two weeks from top players’ schedules. Twice that, actually, when you consider all the travel and practice time that would be saved.

Players are always complaining about the season being too long. And it is grueling. With a World Cup of Tennis, you shorten the season and more importantly:

You have an event that fans could really get behind. It would be seen as another major. Players could rest with the extra time off, and would have to give up only two weeks a year for Davis Cup. They’d do it. And general sports fans could understand it.

Which would make advertisers happy. Which would make TV happy.

Even better, tennis could actually use some of the time saved to add something it really needs.

A major in Asia.

But whatever. The ITF thinks it knows better. And that’s why we got matches such as Roger Federer vs. some guy named Ilija Bozoljac and Stan Wawrinka vs. Dusan Lajovic to determine whether Switzerland or Serbia is better at tennis.

Really?

Maybe Serena and Sloane will be back in April when the U.S. plays France in a World Group playoff – loser’s bracket — with the purpose only of being in the winner’s bracket in 2015?

Don’t count on it. I’m thinking Williams is more likely to be in Maui.


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Genie Bouchard. Next.

Genie Bouchard. Next.

We got an inspirational new champion, a re-invented former champion, a few possible future champions and then, well, failure and theater of the absurd. Really, Australian Open officials? It’s OK to have players out there in 110 degree heat because people used to chase antelope in Africa?

WHAT?

So here are the final grades for the Australian Open, of valedictorians, teacher’s pets, class clowns and everything in between.

VALEDICTORIANS

LI NA: In a sport in need of mainstream attention, Li not only gives tennis something every sport dreams of – something to market to the massive population and economy of China – but also a post-championship match victory speech that goes viral. As a result, Li might be the most important player in the women’s game today, maybe even more than Serena Williams. Li was able to win the Australian Open without beating a top player, but that’s not her fault. Eight months ago, with her results failing and the Chinese media ripping her, Li nearly retired. Her work with new coach Carlos Rodriguez has helped the sport big time. Grade: A+

STAN WAWRINKA: Wawrinka’s championship was even more impressive than Li Na’s, considering the tougher competition he had to beat. He spent the past few years thinking he was never going to be able to break through the Big Four in men’s tennis, but finding honor in getting up after every defeat to keep fighting anyway. And then he took down Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. You can’t win two major tennis matches by fluke. He earned this. Grade: A+

TEACHER’S PETS

ANA IVANOVIC: The game has just been waiting for her to get her nerve back. And she came out firing again. She beat Serena Williams, not to mention Sam Stosur, and showed that she’s perfectly capable of being a top 10 player again and a threat to win another major. . .if she keeps believing. Grade A-

ROGER FEDERER: New racquet, new coach (Stefan Edberg), new, aggressive gameplan. Same results? Federer lost to Rafael Nadal again. Well, that is a completely unfair analysis. Federer is finally doing all the right things. It is the only way he’s going to win another major, and he finally seems to realize that. It’s not just that he’s coming to the net, but that he’s trying to step into the ball and attack. Sure, he waffled on it against Nadal. This is all new to Fed. It was a GREAT first step. I was starting to watch him and wonder who he’d lose to next while slicing and dinking. Now, I can’t wait to see him. He still can’t beat Nadal, but he now is a threat to win another major or two. He still has game. He even has a legit shot at the French Open. Grade: A

DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA: Hard to know if Cibulkova just changed her career, but remember this: She came into the Australian Open as a known choker. She left with wins over No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Aga Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep before reaching the final. Forgive her for some nerves early in her first major final. That happens. The thing about women’s tennis is that there are only a couple of superstars. The women’s players are sort of cookie-cutter, and if someone with talent and nerves of steel comes along, then it’s going to take a top player playing well to beat her. Hope is that this won’t be Cibulkova’s Melanie Oudin-moment, and that she’ll have found her nerve for the long run. Grade: A+

ACED THE CLASS, FLUNKED THE FINAL

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Aga Radwanska plays brilliantly, wins

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

AGA RADWANSKA: She might have played the match of the tournament in beating Victoria Azarenka. She was everywhere on the court, with just enough power. Azarenka was flustered and confused. And the media hailed Radwanska as a genius for that match. But in her semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova, Radwanska played as if she had had a lobotomy. I’m not even sure Radwanska tried. When things weren’t working, she kept doing them. There was no hint of strategy. This is the problem with the almost-greats. You see incredible things, and then you are reminded why they don’t reach the mountaintop (see Tomas Berdych). Same thing happened with Radwanska at Wimbledon. So what’s the grade? Well, I think she’s good enough to win a major, and marketable enough to be a star. And that semifinal match was so bad, I can barely remember the Azarenka match. Grade: F.

TOMAS BERDYCH: He reached the semifinals, and then smiled and credited his team when he was told that he had become the only current player outside the Big Four to reach the semis of all four majors. Hey Tomas, that’s not really a compliment. Another way of putting it: You are the only player on tour to reach the semis of all four majors, but never win one. Berdych is adding topspin to his forehand, which is being credited for his recent improved play. I don’t know about that. That flat forehand was the reason he was winning matches. The way he fell apart briefly against David Ferrer in the quarters was shocking. Lost his nerve at moments against Stan Wawrinka in the semis, too, but in hindsight, it’s hard to mark him down too far for losing to the champ. One more thing: there was nothing wrong with Berdych’s much-criticized prison-cell shirts, other than his team was wearing them, too. Grade: B

DAVID FERRER: When he lost to Berdych in the quarters in what I’m calling the Bridesmaid Bowl, he lost his unofficial title as best player never to win a major. He pushed the line judge, too, but at least he isn’t hitting balls into the stands at crying babies anymore. Still fighting hard. Still stuck in the land of almost. Maybe Wawrinka’s win will show him what’s possible. Grade: C

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Stan Wawrinka Breaks Through the Big 4, Beats Rafael Nadal. His Victory in the Process of Getting There

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Stan Wawrinka wins the Australian Open Sunday

The message of Stan Wawrinka and his incredible win at the Australian Open Sunday over Rafael Nadal, a few days after his incredible win over Novak Djokovic, has been twisted a little. Simplified. Confused.

The quote Wawrinka had tattooed on his arm, is not akin to “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’’ It’s bigger than that. Wawrinka’s tattoo, from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, says this:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’’

That is not about continuing to try until you have success. It is about redefining success, finding it in the nobility of simply trying and trying no matter how many times you fail. It’s not about trying until you succeed, but rather about finding success in the effort.

It tennis terms, it was a way of keeping sanity in a world of Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. It is such a great example of a blue-collar mentality and a look into what it’s like to be a top tennis player dealing with the sport’s historically incredible Big Four.

“Before today, I always (was) saying that except Roger, Rafa, Novak, you always lose, especially every week,’’ Wawrinka said Sunday after beating Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to break up the Big Four’s stranglehold on major championships and win his first major. “So it’s not easy because tennis life, when you lose, it’s tough to get through and to take a positive from a loss, from failing from a tournament.

“That’s how I see, in general, my career.’’

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Wawrinka’s tattoo where he can always see it while playing

The Big Four had won 34 of the previous 35 majors, going back to 2005. The string was broken only by Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open win. But at the time, del Potro seemed a likely candidate to join the top group. If not for wrist injuries, maybe he would have. But he’s healthy now, and still can’t quite get back.

Wawrinka didn’t seem like the guy to break through. He was destined to be the guy Djokovic beat in a classic five sets at last year’s Australian Open, and then again at the U.S. Open.

He was The Other Guy in the picture of greatness. He was good enough to get into that picture, though, which maybe made it more frustrating. He found comfort in the Beckett quote, which he thought about for years, but didn’t have tattooed on his arm until last year.

Wawrinka said Sunday that he never believed he could win a major until after he had actually done it.

The success was in the courage it took him to keep getting up and fighting after crushing and inevitable losses to the greats. The Australian Open? That was just a bonus.

Wawrinka was 0-14 against Djokovic, 0-12 against Nadal. He’d never even taken a set off Nadal. Being from Switzerland, Wawrinka also spent his career in the shadow of his friend, Roger Federer.

Now, Wawrinka moves to No. 3 in the rankings, ahead of Murray and Federer.

But the beauty of Wawrinka’s story is in the process, the failing that led to this. We love to celebrate the blue collar guy in sports, connecting him to ourselves, and to a belief that it’s possible to break through the ceiling.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Li Na Wins Second Major, Leads Tennis Into New Frontier

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Li Na in the Australian Open final

Li Na comes off like a stand-up comic, though you’re never quite sure if she’s trying to be funny or if it just comes off that way accidentally with her blunt honesty. She speaks her mind.

But she stood on the court Saturday after winning the Australian Open and gave her joking/truths over the p.a., thanking her agent for making “me rich’’ and then her husband, Shan Jiang, for all he has done.

“Also,’’ she said to Shan, “you are so lucky (to) find me.’’

Tennis was so lucky to find her, and was lucky to still have her Saturday. The U.S. mainstream sports fan doesn’t even know who Li is, but she is women’s tennis’ greatest selling point. She might be the most important person in the women’s game, and is definitely the most important one not named Williams.

Li is the only Chinese player ever to win a major. Now she has won two, beating Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 just nine months after considering retirement rather than continuing to do endure heavy criticism from Chinese media over her falling results.

Her coach talked her into sticking around another month just to see how things went at last year’s Wimbledon. They went well, so she hung around for the U.S. Open. That’s how close tennis was to losing her.

I can’t wait to see what the TV ratings were for Saturday’s match. Think worldwide. Think hundreds of millions. Think: Super Bowl-like.

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When Li won the 2011 French Open, according to TV ratings, 116 million people watched in China. A week later, 106 million watched the Super Bowl in the U.S. I know it sounds as if a punchline is coming; there are a lot more people in China than in the U.S.

But with so many sports looking to find a way to crack China, seeing it as an under-tapped massive population with a strong economy, tennis has already been trying to ride Li’s success since 2011. It was trying before that, too, without much luck.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Reality check for Federer. Crushed by Nadal, but Oz was Great Start to Reinventing Self

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Reality is reality and facts are facts. But the reality and facts of Rafael Nadal’s easy win over Roger Federer Friday in the Australian Open semifinal are based solely on what you expected.

What I mean is this: If people expected Federer to beat Nadal, then they really haven’t been paying attention lately. He was never going to win this match. Cold reality is that Nadal is far better now than Federer.

But the fact is this: These past two weeks have been a massive success for the reality of Roger Federer.

Jack Nicklaus used to say that he never wanted to be a ceremonial golfer, that he was there to win. Without changes, Federer was going to be just for show by the end of this year. He might not have been in the top 20.

Instead, at 32, he has already not only taken the first steps, but also placed himself back in position to win majors again.

Please read the rest of the column here

 


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Federer Faces Facts, Makes Racquet Again. It’s About Time

imgres-1The first thing you noticed when Roger Federer played Andy Murray on Wednesday at the Australian Open was that his headband and wristband were bright red. So were his shoes. It took a minute to realize why that would stand out.

Here’s why: Roger Federer was playing in color again. For the past few years, he has been in black and white, playing an obsolete style with obsolete equipment, stubbornly in denial about what was going on around him.

It was sort of sad, really. He always had some excuse for his decline. I covered the match where it first should have been hammered into his head, a loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open. Federer blamed the weather for that one, as if Soderling were playing under a different sky.

That was 2010. But now Federer has finally faced facts.

Please read the rest of the column here


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