01 June, 2013

Playing Fair


As often happens at big events such as Roland Garros, the story is often simmering below the money quotes.  What we all heard yesterday was seven time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal complaining that his opponent scored an unfair advantage when officials scheduled his second round match on Thursday latest than that of his future opponent, Fabio Fognini.  Nadal's profile ensures that the press will run with the quotes ruefully filed out to the press.  .... "You think this is fair.  I tell you this is not fair," opined the Spaniard.  In fact, the fairest thing might be that it was happening to a top player for a change.  Sport is the world's purest meritocracy, except when it just quite isn't. 
The last few years have seen players continuing in the history of their storied predecessors who launched the ATP and WTA tours.  Venus Williams was famously on the frontlines of the battle for equal prize money for the men and women at Wimbledon.  Andy Murray's suggestion of labor action (aka a strike) at the US Open seems to gone a long way in increasing the players' share of revenue from the Open and its sister major events.

But things in tennis overall, probably won't ever be as equal as prize money (no matter how much copy the press inspires a Gilles Simon-type to produce), while that ship has sailed and the majors are now on the right side of history, there are still issues with equality and they mirror those in society at large.  Specifically, the (re)widening gap between the have and have nots, the top guns and the rank and file. To the credit of the top players, there has been consideration for the rank-and-file with regard to prize money; tourneys have newly committed to paying the journeymen enough to keep them filling out draws from Australia to S'Hertogenbosch and back, but for a change, money is neither everything nor the only thing. 


The roof has been on fire for a few years now. While no one was particularly concerned about putting a chapeau on their show courts when Tennis Australia opened Rod Laver Arena in 1988, Wimbledon's move to cover Centre Court, two decades later, set the tennis world ablaze.  A roof suddenly became a no-brainer on the order of online ticket sales (ahem, Wimbledon).  Any major without one was in danger of having the players revolt, having TV networks turn away and having their tournament sanction sold to either the Far or Middle East...or Ion Tiriac's Caja Magic.  When the rain comes, matches are obviously delayed, like Nadal's; except on those covered showcourts.  Wimbledon's covered Centre is all well and good as a hedge on finals weekend, but what happens when it rains in week one, for days.  Would a Daniel Gimeno-Traver and Viktor Troicki be afforded a center court berth if the event were backed up?  What about Irina Camerin-Begu vs. Silvia Soler-Espinosa?  Would the tournament put those players on their hallowed center courts?   What would the fans say, let alone TV?   Let's be honest, it would be ugly.   How far are we from an event where the golden geese,  your  Djokovic, Serena,  Federer, Rafa and Maria types are playing under the roof in the fourth round before the players who are often perceived as their fodder languish in round two.  Sodden messes waiting to move on. 

What about the what esteemed commentator Mary Carillo refers to as game show that is electronic line calling?  The ShotSpot/Hawkeye system that gives players three incorrect line challenges per set is only available at most events on "show courts," tennis code for the TV enabled courts where the top dogs feast on their prey.  Except for the BNP Paribas Open which invested in the line calling system for every court at the complex hosting tour matches, the technology (approved in the wake of a horrendous bout of line calling during a Jennifer Capriati / Serena Williams US Open match) is only available on a regular basis to the very top players.  Even when it is available, the system does not automatically overrule bad calls, it requires a player to stop play and request a review.  While players accustomed to the system generally navigate it flawlessly, newbies often suffer. 

These issues are cracks in the foundation of the game itself.   You can play under the roof if its raining, if you're famous.  You can challenge bad line calls if you happen to be on the right court. In sport, the conditions of play are supposed to be equal, fair, even.   Nadal was right, his scheduling on Thursday was unfair, but considering the advantages he and other top players take for granted, perhaps this instance of unfairness was a way of bringing him back to the mean. 

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