As a former high-school tennis player in the early 1990s, NBC’s “Breakfast at Wimbledon” was one of my favorite annual television events. The youthful and rebellious Andre Agassi and his 1992 singles championship at the All-England Club, along with surprising upset wins by Michael Stich in 1991 and Conchita Martinez in 1994 are among the top highlights of my sports-watching youth. Sadly the man who can certainly be described as the heart and soul of tennis journalism, Arthur Worth “Bud” Collins, passed away last Friday at the age of 86. Although his name might not resonate with the casual sports fan, nearly everybody who has ever watched professional tennis’s two biggest events, also including CBS’s coverage of the U.S. Open in August, has been a party to Collins’s unmatched narration.
As a fellow eloquent country club sport columnist himself, John Feinstein called Collins “the First Gentleman of American Tennis,” writing that he “taught countless young reporters how to cover tennis and how to love the game even when many of those in it were anything but loveable.” Still, with all of the divas and antagonistic characters in tennis’s rich history, the sport has avoided many of the attacks on its integrity that have permeated the rest of America’s mainstream sports (not to mention FIFA). This is why the ascension of Collins to the great centre court in the sky seems so sadly poetic, as 2016 is shaping up to be the year that earthly tennis loses its halo.
When career grand slam title holder Maria Sharapova scheduled a press conference for Monday, March 7th last weekend, many in the sports world including myself assumed that the 28 year-old Russian would be announcing her retirement from the sport. Instead, Sharapova told the world that she failed a drug test during January’s Australian Open for taking performance enhancing Meldonium, which was only recently added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. Initially, it would seem that Sharapova, the world’s top-earning female athlete for 11 straight years, is taking full responsibility for what appears to be a plausible mistake. In her statement, she added that she received the doping revisions in an email in December, but failed to read it, and that she had been prescribed the substance for the past ten years.
Meldonium, largely unknown to the western world, was designed in Latvia and used to treat several cardiac ailments, although in higher doses it can be used as a performance enhancing drug (PED) to boost aerobic endurance. The drug is not approved for use in the U.S., the country in which Sharapova has resided in for years, however, there have been widespread reports of athletes testing positive for the substance in multiple sports since Melonium’s January 1st inclusion on the banned-substances list. In a vacuum, Sharapova’s revelation may not seem to be that big of a deal, especially for a cynical American sports consumer. But tennis is not football, and its governing bodies have gone out of their way to convince supporters and critics alike that the elite nature of the sport makes it impervious, if not at least much less vulnerable, to the same sins of the more brutish and primal sports out there. Furthermore, the company that produces Melonium threw the superstar and her doctor under a rapidly accelerating bus by announcing that the drug’s normal course of treatment is four to six weeks and not for several years like Sharapova told the media on Monday.
To illustrate how significant the failed test is to Sharapova’s career, three of her major revenue streams, Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porsche have already backed away from sponsoring the icon, who will likely be suspended for at least a year. Additionally, her public admission means that the executives from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) will have to deal with the issue of doping head-on, and not handle its disciplinary measures in hushed and often secretive manners. In a sport that requires a massive amount of endurance, a ten-month schedule, and a large increase of prize money purses, tennis authorities have appeared reluctant to police themselves on doping issues. This comes even as top players such as Roger Federer and Andy Murray have argued for years for increased drug testing. Although higher-profile players Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki both served suspensions in 2014 for PED violations, Sharapova’s admission puts a much higher-impetus on the issue of doping.
As if the 2016 Australian Open didn’t have enough of a negative cloud swirling over it, the biggest bombshell regarding tennis’s bad, bad winter was dropped on January 18th during the start of the season’s first major. BBC and Buzzfeed News revealed that at least 16 top-50 ranked players were flagged by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) for suspicion of match fixing over the past ten years. Although names were not mentioned, one report stated that half of the players under question were playing in this year’s Australian Open. Among the eight, the report stated, was a Grand Slam champion. Perhaps not coincidentally, another source identified that player to be hometown legend Lleyton Hewitt, who had previously announced that he would retire after the tournament. Also, current world number one Novak Djokovic told reporters during the Open that a gambling syndicate had approached people that worked with him in 2007, offering $200,000 for Djokovic to lose in the first round of a tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia. Not only did Djokovic ignore the offer, he didn’t attend the tournament. Still, he told a media gaggle, “It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this kind of – you know, somebody may call it an opportunity.” Djokovic added, “For me, that’s an act of unsportsmanship, a crime in sport honestly. I don’t support it. I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”
At first ATP president Chris Kermode fended off the reports by saying that they “mainly refer to events from about 10 years ago,” and adding that, “we will investigate any new information, and we always do.” Due to the lack of a direct link between the suspected players and the Russian and Italian gambling syndicates accused of orchestrating the scheme, Kermode defended the lack of disciplinary action of any players suspected, saying that, “In its investigations, the Tennis Integrity Unit has to find evidence, as opposed to information, suspicion or hearsay. This is the key here – that it requires evidence.” One of the investigators, Mark Philips, strongly disagrees with this assertion telling Buzzfeed and BBC News, “They could have got rid of a network of players that would have almost completely cleared the sport up. We gave them everything tied up with a nice, pink bow on top, and they took no action at all.”
Unfortunately for Kermode and professional tennis in general, there is plenty of additional evidence of match fixing, as well as of blind-eye regulation in recent years as well. The European Sports Security Association flagged over 50 matches to the TIU in 2015 alone, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the TIU sent a statement to CNN following the initial Buzzfeed/BBC revelations the two umpires had been banned from the sport in 2015, with four others under investigation for suspicion of match fixing. It would appear that the ITF tried to keep the bans and investigations a secret, at least according to a scathing report by the British newspaper the Guardian. The report also accuses the ITF of bringing some of the problem onto itself in 2012 after signing a five-year, $70 million contract with sports data provider Sportradar, which can allow real-time scoring for small tournaments around the world. According to the report, “in-play” betting, where odds change depending on how a particular match is transpiring, is very popular in some circles. According to the agreement, umpires must update each point on a tablet computer to upload to the system. Some umpires however, have been accused of delaying the scoring by mere minutes, yet still significantly and artificially altering the odds.
Many believe the problem is much more pervasive than the ATP or ITF is willing to admit. Roger Federer, arguably the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, is among those who want more information provided to the public, telling reporters “I would love to hear names, then at least it’s concrete stuff and you can actually debate about it. Was it the player? Was it the support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which slam? It’s so all over the place.” Federer added, “It’s super serious and it’s super important to maintain the integrity of our sport. So how high up does it go?” Kermode has alluded to the fact that the TIU operates on a $14 million annual budget and has led to 18 convictions and six lifetime bans since its 2008 inception, but little had been known publicly about the match fixing scheme prior to the January revelations. Federer admitted that tennis is behind some of the other major sports on these critical matters and saying, “Hopefully there’s more funding to it, same as doping. Yes, absolutely, got to be super aggressive in both areas.”
The truth may be that the culture of professional tennis has just not kept up with 21st Century sporting sensibilities. Whereas the NFL and MLB have dealt with a series of critical issues like long-term injuries and PEDs head-on, ultimately treating them both like the vital threats to their respective sport’s survival that they are, tennis officials have been caught living in a pre BuzzFeed/Twitter/Sportradar environment. Perhaps the death of tennis’s great “gentleman” clears one of the final obstacles blocking the sport from travelling the road to perdition that every great game has endured in recent years. It even happened to tennis’s pretentious roommate golf, in the form of the Tiger Woods fiasco and the related twirling media circus that story became. Although golf has not been rocked by any major PGA Tour-related scandals in recent memory, Tiger’s pubic infidelities proved the golf world was also no longer above the fray of TMZ-level scrutiny or sensationalized narration. Welcome to hell tennis, welcome to hell…Get used to it and make yourself a comfortable swath of turf. It can get a bit stuffy and crowded in here at times.
Despite the challenges faced by the sport, tennis is a great way to get exercise and have fun. If you’re interested in getting involved in the game, please read this excellent guide on tennis training, written by the good people at Sports Fitness Advisor.