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Talking Points 2007
 
 
 
Being CEO means never having to say you're sorry?
Given that the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was formed to protect the interests of male professional tennis players, and given that Etienne de Villiers, the current chief executive, is frequently heard stressing the importance of marketing the top players, it seems curious to witness the governing body become an accessory to the character assassination of one of the tour's leading players.

After losing to Andy Roddick in his opening round-robin match at the season-ending Masters Cup, Nikolay Davydenko intimated he would love to resume the low profile that kept him out of the media limelight prior to the current season. "That was better," he told reporters as they strained at the leash to quiz him about betting irregularities and accusations of "tanking".

The ATP fined the Russian for making disparaging remarks about the Sydney International at the start of the season. The Russian responded in Monte Carlo by launching a vitriolic attack on De Villiers, ridiculing the CEO's knowledge of the game. At this point, Davydenko appears to have forfeited his right to a relatively inconspicuous career. The ATP went very public with news of Betfair's suspicions of irregular betting patterns in a match between Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello at the Poland Open. Since then, the hapless Davydenko has been warned by an umpire for not trying and subsequently fined for "a lack of best effort". At the Paris Masters, he was admonished by another umpire for serving too many double-faults and was instructed to "Serve like me" and "Just try your best, Nikolay".

Davydenko's attorney, Frank Immenga, is livid about the perceived persecution of the 26-year-old
"witch-hunt"
player. "It is the ATP's duty to stop the umpires doing this," he said. "Nikolay is a modest, fun young guy, and one of the nicest guys I have ever met, but he is showing the classic signs of depression. He is mentally burnt out because of the investigation by the ATP. You can see that on the court - that he has been affected by this. This has been extremely hard for him mentally. I believe that he is being victimised by the ATP. The ATP are conducting a witch-hunt against him." Davydenko and his lawyer, from the Frankfurt firm Bird & Bird, have expressed concern about the loss of millions of pounds in earnings as potential sponsors pull out of negotiations. "The ATP should be protecting Nikolay and talking to him, but instead they have been pushing him into a corner," Immenga alleges. The ATP has so far failed to unearth any incriminating evidence against Davydenko in the betting investigation but has done nothing to scotch rumours of his culpability. "He has co-operated fully with the ATP, including letting the investigators talk to his wife and his brother, but they keep pushing him more and more into the corner," Immenga added. "I think it is unbelievable how the ATP are treating Nikolay."

In a further outburst of hostilities, Davydenko recently told a German newspaper: "He (De Villiers) seems to be willing to set a model punishment with me. Maybe it is because I've already faced him many times. I think the ATP does not represent the players' interests any more."

Davydenko has just won his appeal against the fine imposed on him for not trying hard enough during his three-set defeat to Croatia's Marin Cilic at the St Petersburg Open. The penalty was rescinded after the match was reviewed on video. That presented the ATP with an opportunity to extend an olive branch to Davydenko, but De Villiers, still smarting from the Russian's verbal salvos, could not bring himself to utter a single official word of apology.

Dave Winship (14 November 2007)

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No news would be great news for tennis!
If you've been uncomfortable with the negative tenor of these articles in the last few months, my advice is to stop reading this right now, scroll back to the top of the page and click on the "humour" hyperlink. Because, if you think it's safe to venture back into the troubled waters of the pro tennis tours, think again, folks! Cue the ominous music and the menacing dark shape slithering beneath the surface! No sooner has umpire Cedric Mourier sunk his teeth into the hapless figure of Nikolay Davydenko than we become aware of the horrible end to the career of Martina Hingis.

Frequently criticised in the past for being too anonymous and boring, Davydenko has been
"try your best!"
doing his best to redress the balance recently. Still under investigation by the ATP following a defeat in Poland in August which attracted suspicious betting patterns, the Russian was fined "for a lack of best effort" during a defeat to Croatia's Marin Cilic in St Petersburg and then, just days later, he became embroiled in an extraordinary exchange with Mourier during a match against Marcos Baghdatis in the Paris Masters. Having served three double faults in the first game of the second set, Davydenko came up with three more in his next service game to go 0-3 down, prompting the French umpire to advise the world number four that he should "serve like me! If you serve like me, you put it in the box, that's it". When the Russian looked perplexed, Mourier added: "Try your best, Nikolay."

These are dark days indeed for tennis. Some contend that any kind of publicity is good publicity, but no one in tennis will profit in the long term from this drip, drip, drip of stories about doping, corruption and match-rigging. It will not be long before the sponsors start bailing out and the TV stations direct their cameras elsewhere. It's ironic that, at the very time the sport boasts probably its greatest champion ever, its integrity should be taking such a buffeting.

Blues master Albert King once sang: "If it wasn't for bad news, there would be no news at all." Just now, no news at all would be excellent news for tennis.

Dave Winship (2 November 2007)

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Put up or shut up, Andy!
When ATP officials quiz Andy Murray about his match-fixing allegations, they should surely censure him for his lack of discretion if they fail to squeeze names out of him. The governing bodies are fully aware that the integrity of the sport is jeopardised as much by speculation as by hard evidence that players have been taking bribes to throw matches.

Hard evidence would at least give them the opportunity to impose a swingeing penalty on an
"stringent procedures"
errant player to act as a much-needed deterrent to others. Until that moment arrives, the ATP and their counterparts in the WTA must rely on tightening up their anti-corruption procedures. An ATP spokesman has stated: "Nothing is more important than the integrity of our sport and the ATP has shown that it will act where it has information which requires investigation. Our anti-corruption programme has stringent procedures in place to deal with any suspected corruption." The plan is to tighten this up further by ruling that players will risk disciplinary action if they fail to inform the authorities within 48 hours if they have been approached to throw a match. ATP chairman Etienne de Villiers has disclosed that he will meet with the ITF, the WTA and the grand slam tournament organisers to consider setting up a tennis anti-corruption unit. "A dedicated global tennis integrity unit is a key priority for the sport and plans to create one are well-advanced," he said.

Certainly, some joined-up thinking would be nice. The approach to sports betting legitimacy is handled in a wildly inconsistent fashion around the globe. Bookmaking is highly regulated in some countries, criminalised in others. And those committed to curbing the industry now find themselves thwarted by the proliferation of online gambling websites. Gambling policy is riddled with contradictions anyway. It's an embarrassment that governments become so reliant on the revenue raised by the taxes they introduce ostensibly to control the social damage caused by excessive gambling.

The suppression of gambling on moral grounds is an untenable notion. Laws that are blatantly ignored and routinely violated are worse than useless. Gambling may be a vice, but it's a matter of personal choice. People who succumb to excessive eating, drinking, smoking or gambling have only themselves to blame. It's highly debatable if governments should be in the business of protecting people from themselves. But the rigging of sporting contests falls into the category of external harm and the state does have a duty to protect its citizens from it.

Anyone who cheats at sport and profits by betting on their action should be subject to the full rigour of the law. Until procedures are in place to facilitate the apprehension of these criminals, players like Andy Murray must put up or shut up. They must cooperate promptly and fully with the authorities if they have any incriminating evidence. If they are merely spouting uninformed conjecture, they would do well to reflect on the effect of their "revelations" on the reputation of their sport.

Dave Winship (10 October 2007)

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Why can't the LTA cut some slack?
The problem with having such paragons of virtue as Roger Federer and Justine Henin at the pinnacle of the sport is that their style of behaviour, laudable as it is, becomes the template for coaches nurturing new talent.

Why should that be a problem? Well, because a cursory glance at the lives of great sporting achievers reveals the inconvenient truth that champions are not cut from the same cloth. For every Steffi Graf and Sebastian Coe, there is a Diego Maradona or a Shane Warne or a Mike Tyson. Sad to relate, the off-field misdemeanors of sporting heroes continually litter the pages of today's newspapers.

Two of Britain's top aspiring players have had their funding suspended by the Lawn Tennis Association for alleged "unprofessional behaviour" following the discovery of their "partying lifestyle" on a social networking website. The British press caught the mood, gratuitously naming the culprits and castigating them for their wanton and profligate abuse of privilege. An LTA spokesperson explained: "When any player receives LTA funding, they sign an agreement that includes a code of conduct, which the two players in question have breached."

So one strike and you're out? That would seem reasonable if there was evidence of a falling-off in performance linked to a serious ongoing alcohol problem. But what we have here is an over-reaction by the LTA to a little showing-off on Bebo - feckless and brainless, yes, but career-threatening, not necessarily. No one from the LTA claimed the pair's tennis had deteriorated as a consequence of these episodes of teenage hedonism. So, surely a ticking-off, with warnings of consequences in the event of unsatisfactory performances, would have been the appropriate response?

The LTA should heed the words of sports psychologist Chris Harwood of Loughborough
"it was stupid"
University: "The fact is that if you want to make it as a professional athlete you have to sacrifice a hell of a lot in certain aspects of your life. But no-one wants to take such control of an individual that they can't sometimes go out and let their hair down. Seeing that someone is possibly drinking and eating the wrong food on occasions isn't necessarily massive cause for alarm. You also need to look at what they are or are not doing in terms of commitment to their sport, their effort and performance. At the end of the day they are getting a subsidy from public money to pay for the best coaches and facilities so that they can travel, compete and eventually win prize money. The money can run into tens of thousands of pounds, and governing bodies rightly set targets for athletes to reach and put a player agreement in place with criteria about behaviour. It was stupid of the individuals concerned to publicise excessive social behaviour, but to prevent such mistakes being made there should be education about lifestyle and motivation."

Pete Sampras has said: "I didn't party, I didn't go out, I didn't chase girls. I have kind of a low-key personality anyway, so that worked for me." Yes, it worked for him, and aspiring young players should be persuaded that a place in history requires sacrifices. But a policy of relentlessly driving up standards of behaviour may backfire on the LTA if they simply shut the door on talented players who struggle to function properly within the confines of a spartan lifestyle.

Dave Winship (27 September 2007)

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Qatar's bumpy playing field
Shahar Peer's inexorable rise up the rankings may present the WTA Tour with a headache following the recent announcement that Doha, Qatar will host the 2008-2010 Sony Ericsson Championships.

Although Qatar has closer ties with Israel than any other Gulf country, Israeli passport holders cannot expect the red carpet treatment when they arrive at Doha International Airport. If Peer were to qualify for the 2008 season-ending Championships, the welcoming words of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Faleh Al Thani, President of the Qatar Tennis Federation, will doubtless come under closer scrutiny. "We look forward to welcoming the world's best female athletes and making the Sony Ericsson Championships in 2008-2010 the best season-ending finale ever," he said, glossing over the possibility of an Israeli's participation. Judging by her public utterances, Peer herself is reluctant to make a big issue of it, but the WTA Tour already bills the Qatar Total tournaments - and the Dubai Duty Free events for that matter - as "Open", when in fact they are anything but.

The Qatar authorities know they risk jeopardising their role as hosts if they ban Peer from playing. They are likely to make an exception for her. But all those who advocate a level playing field in sport (or some approximation of one) should examine the nuts and bolts of such a concession. A dim view should be taken of any conditions applied. If, for example, Peer is allowed to play in Doha but her coach and family are not allowed to accompany her, this should be viewed as an unacceptable act of discrimination.

WTA CEO Larry Scott has said: "The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and our player and tournament members believe that through sport we can act as a positive influence for social change and equality." He will surely therefore agree that tennis must be seen to embrace people of different ethnic backgrounds. If Peer, or any other WTA player, should encounter a bumpy playing field and be discriminated against on race grounds, Scott should review the Tour schedule accordingly, lest he be obliged to eat his own words.

We all want Doha's first stab at hosting the WTA Championships to be peerless in one respect, but not in another.

Dave Winship (6 September 2007)

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Straight from the horse's mouth
ATP officials, investigating suspicious betting patterns on a match involving Nikolay Davydenko, have resolved to turn to Paul Scotney, director of security for the British Horseracing Authority, in an effort to avoid the potential corruption of tennis by match-fixing.

Scotney, a former police superintendent, spent four years trying to crack down on illegal gambling practices among punters, jockeys and trainers. It must be devilishly difficult to gather evidence to convict such cheats. These days, a jockey would not risk falling foul of a video replay showing him actually 'pulling' a mount or deliberately interfering with another horse and rider. Likewise, a professional tennis player would never risk obviously 'tanking' a match. No, the modern curse of sports betting is the use (or abuse) of 'inside information'.

In the world of horse racing, trainers, stable staff, jockeys and owners are human beings and they talk. They talk about their lives and they talk about their jobs. Inevitably, they also talk about horses. How can you legislate for people talking to each other? That has been the challenge facing Scotney and his colleagues.

Nikolay Davydenko pulled out of a second round match against Argentine outsider Martin Vassallo
"very odd"
Arguello in Poland, citing a foot injury. Online gaming company Betfair, which has an agreement with the ATP to share information on any irregular betting activity, voided all bets. "We think the market quite clearly wasn't fair," said Betfair managing director Mark Davies. "The prices seemed very odd. As a result, in the interest of fairness and integrity and in consultation with the ATP, we have decided to void the market and return all stakes." The match attracted ten times the usual amount of money - about $7 million in bets - and most of it was on Arguello to win, even after Davydenko won the first set 6-2. "Normally I try to fight to the end but it was very painful and I may have done even more damage by trying to finish the match," Davydenko told reporters after the match. "Since the beginning of Monday I have had a problem with my left toes. Today that became a problem with my foot."

Obviously, there was talk about the injury between Monday and Thursday when the match took place and the relevant information filtered through to gamblers.

While the Davydenko match gave rise to fears about the integrity of sports betting, it was just a whisper of smoke compared to the revelations it sparked in its aftermath. Wimbledon doubles champion Bob Bryan broke the glass of the fire alarm when he claimed that players on the tour have received calls from anonymous individuals trying to influence the outcome of games. "I don't know of any players that have ever gambled on tennis," he said. "But there have been some anonymous calls to players' rooms with some monetary offerings. I know that. And I know every player I've talked to has turned it down."

There is now genuine concern that tennis is being targeted by match-fixing syndicates and the ATP's approach to Paul Scotney could not come soon enough. A spokesman said: "We can confirm that a group of our officials will meet with Mr Scotney early next week. He is obviously someone with a lot of valuable experience in this area and we have always made it clear that we want to work with the best available people when looking into particular cases." It seems that some kind of licensing regime will have to be introduced so that the exchange of information can be ring-fenced. It's time to shut the stable door.

Dave Winship (11 August 2007)

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Lazy players squander Wimbledon surplus
Tim Henman's recent rant about British tennis slackers should serve not only to provoke the targeted freeloaders into acquiring a harder-edged, more competitive disposition but also to remind the national association that it would be better served addressing the shortcomings at grass-roots level than continuing to pump disproportionate amounts of funding into the elite end of the sport.

Jamie Murray spared British blushes by carrying off some silverware for his mixed doubles exploits at Wimbledon, but the fact remains that only Henman and Katie O'Brien made the second round of the main singles events, prompting Henman and others to rail against the British "acceptance of mediocrity".

Challenged to come up with suggestions for improving the situation, Henman pulled his punches
"it's about the individual"
in reference to the British LTA and took a lusty swipe at the players themselves instead. "The Lawn Tennis Association have been the first to admit that there have been things that they have done OK, and things they have done poorly," he said. "Whatever. At the end of the day, we're in an individual sport, so why do all our players rely so much on the LTA? If they don't think that the LTA is very good, or they don't think that the LTA has good coaches, and if they don't think that the LTA has good facilities, then that's fine. But it's not about the LTA. It's about the individual. How come all these players from many other countries, with far less financial backing, all become players of quality? And the answer to that is very simple - because they have the hunger and the desire to do it."

Henman was not a direct beneficiary of LTA funding. His career was the product of a scholarship scheme involving financier Jim Slater, former Davis Cup player David Lloyd and Reeds School. "I haven't had the most to do with the LTA, and Greg [Rusedski] really didn't either," Henman explains. "And you can debate what degree of involvement Andy [Murray] had. But why haven't there been other players, who, irrespective of the LTA, have made themselves players? Some of them aren't good enough. But there have been enough that have been good enough, but they haven't had the hunger and the desire and the determination and the drive to make it happen."

For a short period before the appointment of Roger Draper as chief executive, the LTA was inclined to turn down elite player support in favour of community-based funding. But since Draper's arrival, we have witnessed the Wimbledon surplus being swallowed up by the recruitment of Brad Gilbert, Paul Annacone, Carl Maes, Peter Lundgren and Steve Martens on lucrative contracts. 40 million has also been lavished on the new National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. It's a cause for concern because a geat deal of promising work had been in progress before Draper took over the helm. Mini Tennis had been launched. Better links between schools and local clubs had been forged and indoor tennis facilities were springing up all over the country. Now there is a distinct risk of a funding drift, away from grass-roots infrastructure, towards the pampered elite so disparaged by Henman.

No doubt the British obsession with producing a Wimbledon champion is a source of some amusement around the globe and the LTA is understandably sensitive about it. Nevertheless, it's perverse to throw money at indolent under-achievers when there are potential champions out there who have probably never been introduced to the game in the first place.

Dave Winship (25 July 2007)

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Hawk-Eye needs more carrots!
Hawk-Eye may have been "killing" Roger Federer during the Wimbledon men's final but the All England Club has hailed the introduction of the electronic line-calling system as a resounding success. "It's been an overwhelming success and it will be here to stay," a Wimbledon spokesman announced. However, Hawk-Eye's creator, Dr Paul Hawkins, has been forced onto the defensive by Federer sympathisers and other assorted Luddites.

Already trailing by a break of serve in the fourth set of the final, Federer, serving at 30-30, declined to play a ball that appeared to have landed beyond the baseline. The line judge, the umpire and all those who saw the BBC freeze-frame replay were also persuaded that Rafael Nadal had missed the opportunity of another break point. But the Spaniard's challenge was upheld by Hawk-Eye, prompting an uncharacteristic meltdown of Federer's concentration that threatened to cost him the match.

Dr Hawkins explained:
"definitely in by 1mm"
"The ball will be in contact with the ground for about 10cm. In the very first impact, it will compress so that the bottom half is flat. Then it will start to roll and skid and uncompress. The freeze frame the BBC used showed the ball about 7cm after it touched the ground." Having repeatedly insisted the technology is accurate to within 3mm, Hawkins provoked some ridicule when he was quoted as saying that the contentious ball had been "definitely in by 1 mm". When the designers say Hawk-Eye is accurate to within 3mm, one assumes that means plus/minus 1.5mm accuracy (giving a maximum deviation of 3mm), but if it means plus/minus 3mm accuracy, a Hawk-Eye replay could potentially mislead everybody by as much as 6mm!

Hawkins says the TV cameras do not work at a high enough frame rate to capture the precise initial moment of contact with the ground and he makes a valid point about balls compressing and skidding. It explains discrepancies where the naked eye and video replay show balls to be 'out' when Hawk-Eye judges them to be 'in'. Unfortunately, though, some of the disputed judgements involve balls shown as 'out' by Hawk-Eye when the naked eye, backed up by freeze-frame video, perceived them to be 'in'. There are rumours that the reason Hawk-Eye is not used at the French Open is that when they tested the system on clay, the ball marks frequently proved the technology wrong!

Some players already exploit Hawk-Eye's unreliability by making speculative challenges on big points. If you see your shot go a fraction long on a big point late in a set and you've got a couple of challenges left, why not take a "chance" card? It could get you out of jail free.

Whilst acknowledging that ball-tracking technology is better than the alternative, I believe tournament organisers should be a little more circumspect in their assessments. Gushing praise might encourage Dr Hawkins to rest a little too much on his laurels. The Grand Slams and the Tours missed an opportunity when they awarded contracts to just one supplier. If a rival system such as Auto-Ref was also allowed a slice of the action, there would be a scramble for the carrots and the technology would improve more quickly.

Dave Winship (13 July 2007)

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© 2006 Dave Winship

 
 
 
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