Tennis Needs Todd Woodbridge’s Help

To state the obvious, Marco Cecchinato getting to the semis of the French Open was awkward for tennis. If you’re not familiar with the story, Cecchinato was formally alleged to have participated in match-fixing in 2015. He was hit with a suspension that was eventually lifted because prosecutors for the Italian Tennis Federation missed a deadline in the process. To the best of my understanding, he has not been exonerated, at least not publicly.

Ben Rothenberg, a freelance journalist who writes about tennis for the New York Times and others, wrote about the match-fixing case for the Times a couple of days ago and put out a Twitter thread explaining it — because, as he noted, information on the case wasn’t widely understood. Rothenberg’s article and thread were pretty straight-forward, putting the established facts out there. Todd Woodbridge, the former doubles great who does tennis commentary for Australia’s Seven Network and is a very visible presence during the Australian Open, replied to Rothenberg on Twitter with the following:

One consistency in your reporting of our sport is how you manage to focus on the negative. Very rarely do you see the brighter side….

Let me say, I don’t know Todd Woodbridge. I don’t know Ben Rothenberg. Or Marco Cecchinato. I don’t have a dog in this fight except that I’m a tennis fan. A lot of the reaction I saw on Twitter was in defense of Rothenberg. “Stupid” and “juvenile” were among the terms used to criticize Woodbridge.

I believe that Woodbridge’s response was irresponsible. Let’s take a step back. The premise of any tennis match, any sports competition, is that the participants are trying to win. That is the premise. Everything a tennis journalist or a commentator like Woodbridge does — analyzing a player’s chances of winning, their tactics, their fitness — is based on the notion that the players want to win. I think at times there’s hesitancy to thoroughly discuss match-fixing because the implication is overwhelming, the notion that some players aren’t even trying to win.

If some players aren’t trying, we’re all wasting our time watching tennis and talking about it. Right? I’m not suggesting that match-fixing happens on a broad scale, or at big tournaments. I seriously doubt that. The evidence so far points to it occurring at the Challenger level or below. But if fans start thinking that matches even might be fixed, the sport is in trouble. Fans will stop caring.

Match-fixing is about the integrity and the credibility of the sport. You cannot mess with that. And Woodbridge should understand that as well as anyone. He was a great player, and now he is paid to talk about tennis. (I assume he’s paid.) So he can’t be less interested in the integrity and credibility of the sport than some random, unknown fan like me. People in his position need to be the most vigilant about protecting the integrity of the sport. People in his position need to speak out about the importance of preventing and punishing match-fixing.

Now, to be fair, Woodbridge wasn’t defending Cecchinato. But by using the article on match-fixing to criticize Rothenberg for being negative, he diminished the importance of the issue, whether he intended to or not. I imagine that was not his intention. But context matters. If you reply to an article or Twitter thread on match-fixing to complain about a reporter’s negativity, it sure comes off as not caring much about the match-fixing allegations.

Perhaps Woodbridge doesn’t understand that journalists aren’t supposed to promote the sport. They’re supposed to cover it — warts, roses and all. Woodbridge may think his job is to help the sport, and in some ways it is. But you don’t help the sport doing what he did. You hurt it. There is no middle ground or acceptable nuanced position on match-fixing. If you care about tennis, you cannot muddy the waters on an issue that goes to the core of the sport’s credibility.


Nadal’s Opponents Should Have Taken the Advice of Pete Sampras

Let’s get this out of the way: Rafael Nadal is a beast. He’s unthinkably and historically superior to the field on clay. So what I’m about to say isn’t intended to take anything away from him.

The other guys are capitulating too readily. I’m not the first to express this view. I’m told that Mats Wilander was saying the same in his commentary at Roland Garros this week, and others have said it before. But it’s not just a whiny gripe. There’s some logic behind it.

Every generation has a male baseline warrior who plays that game better than everyone else. He just beats you into the ground, especially over best-of-five sets. Nadal is obviously this generation’s baseline master and the greatest backcourt player of all time. (Though for a few years Djokovic took the title from Nadal or shared it with him). Last generation it was Andre Agassi, at least the years he was at his peak. Before that Ivan Lendl. And before that Bjorn Borg. The point is that if you’re a baseline basher — even an excellent one — and that’s your game, you’re going to lose to Nadal/Agassi/Lendl/Borg. You’re playing the same game they do but you just do it a tad worse. So you’re going to lose 90 percent of the time.

A couple of examples: Peak Agassi, which I would define as 1994-95 and 1999-2003. He was certainly beatable back then, but not really if you were playing the same style he was. Pete Sampras could take him out because he rushed the net. Even Mark Philippoussis was able to beat Agassi at Wimbledon in 2003 because he played an attacking game. Of course, Sampras and Philippoussis (or Richard Krajicek or Goran Ivanisevic) didn’t have to go out of their comfort zones to attack. That was their game. Today the closest thing we have is Mischa Zverev, but he’s just not good enough. Agassi had to contend with Becker, Edberg and Rafter, in addition to the players I’ve mentioned above. There were a lot more net-rushing players a couple of decades ago, and they were good at it.

In the late 1970s, Guillermo Vilas was an amazing baseliner, an all-time great. But Borg was a bit better at the exact same game. Not a lot. But being a little bit better at the same thing translates into one of the two guys winning all the time. At one point during his 1976-80 peak, Borg won 11 straight matches against Vilas, who himself was beating every other baseliner. (I’m not counting Jimmy Connors, who came to the net enough to give both Borg and Vilas more complicated matchup issues.) Borg was brutal against players who had similar games. He was 16-0 against Harold Solomon, 13-0 against Eddie Dibbs and 6-1 against Wotjek Fibak. Everything they did he could do better. There was little point to even playing those matches.

I once saw a comment from Pete Sampras that I will very loosely paraphrase. Here’s the gist: Sampras was saying that when he played the Spaniards (think Bruguera, Moya, Corretja, Mantilla and Costa), even if it wasn’t on clay, he would try to prevent any point from going more than about eight shots, especially early in the match. It wasn’t necessarily about that particular point.

His view was that these guys would get in a groove the more they hit the ball, both within a particular rally and in the match more broadly. They hit the 12th ball of a rally better than the eighth. And then the next point they play even better, because they’re getting grooved. And a half-hour later they’re even stronger. It’s like they get better with practice, and you give them practice by letting them hit lots of balls. So when a rally got to about the sixth or eighth shot, Sampras would do something to try to end it — go for an ultra-aggressive groundstroke or chip and charge. In other words, he could feel the narrative of the match getting away from him if the individual points went on for too long. For Sampras, it was about controlling that narrative, the rhythm of the match. Make the points reflect the kind of match you want. It appears that not enough players today think in those terms. Definitely not against Nadal.

There are basically three ways to ensure that points don’t go on for very long: Go for a winner; go to the net; hit a drop shot to bring your opponent to the net. That’s what Nadal’s opponents should be doing once the point gets about six shots in. Does that mean they would beat him on clay if they did that? No. But it increases the chances, at least slightly. I mean, if a guy plays his normal baseline game against Nadal on clay, there’s about a 98 percent chance he loses. That’s Nadal’s winning percentage at Roland Garros. So if there’s a 98 percent chance you’re going to lose, why play your normal baseline game? We don’t know what Nadal’s winning percentage would be if players tried different tactics, because the sample size of people actually doing that is minuscule. But I would guess it would have to go down to at least 85 percent. I know it can’t get much higher than 98 percent.

Today we have very few top players with big, attacking games. Federer is about as aggressive as we have in the top echelon, but his is more of a surgical strike rather than a big game. And yeah, he’s not playing the French Open. Not only do we not have the equivalent of a Philippoussis-Krajicek-Ivanisevic type, but we also don’t have a Becker or a Rafter or an Edberg — great players who liked coming into the net. Dominic Thiem may or may not charge the net in Sunday’s final, but if he does, he’ll be hoping for the best up there. He’d rather not have to do it. On the subtler side, I’ve seen glimpses of players trying a drop-shot strategy against Nadal, with some success. In Barcelona this year, Martin Klizan was using the dropper a lot against Nadal in the second set, and served at 5-4 before losing. The drop shot has worked very well for Djokovic at times against Nadal, as long ago as the first time he beat him, on a hard court in Miami in 2007.

Catherine Whitaker on The Tennis Podcast this week mentioned that she had talked to Maximilian Marterer before his fourth-round match against Nadal, and Marterer essentially said he would play his normal baseline game and hope for the best. Whitaker’s response was much like mine: Seriously? That’s not going to work.

I can sort of, maybe, a little, understand why the players shy away from trying a different strategy. For one, most of them are pretty lame at the net. They don’t want to be there, and it shows. Two, it gets demoralizing to watch passing shots fly by you. When that happens, players shy away from the net. On drop-shotting, players may fear, perhaps legitimately, that if they overuse the drop shot Nadal will start reading it and pounce all over them. And finally, since Nadal crushes everyone on clay, playing your normal game and losing 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (as Marterer the martyr did), seems like a dignified result. If you try to play a game you’re not comfortable with, you could lose by an even worse score and feel foolish.

Still, these guys need to break out of their comfort zone and do something different. Empty the toolbox. Throw the kitchen sink at him. Stare him down after doing a kamikaze rush to the net. Get him out of his comfort zone. You might lose anyway, but at least you’ve actually given it an honest try. Otherwise it’s just capitulation disguised as a dignified loss.

Serena, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic Have Done Us a Disservice

OK, the headline is a bit clickbaity. The point is, those four players have made winning Slams look too easy. As a result, tennis fans and journalists have lost proper perspective.

Twenty Slams for Federer. The record before he broke it was 14. So Federer has 43 percent more Slams than the previous record-holder, Pete Sampras. From Wimbledon 2003 through the 2007 U.S. Open, Federer won 12 of the 18 Slams played. Serena won 11 Slams from 2012 to 2016. That’s more than two per year over five years. Djokovic won four in a row. Nadal has won one of the Slams 10 freaking times.

Those numbers and those players are not normal. They are historical anomalies. But those four have taken so much of the hardware over the past 15 years that if you’ve only been watching tennis for 15 years you would reasonably think that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s not.

In the old days, way back in the 20th Century, Jim Courier was a big deal for winning four Slams in two years. Agassi, Becker and Edberg were considered all-time greats for winning eight, six and six Slams respectively. Six Slams is an awesome career. But it has somehow been downgraded to be merely the distance between Federer and Sampras, who had previously been considered the greatest male player ever.

So when Serena drops out of the French because of injury, and Djokovic loses to a scrub in the quarters, we really shouldn’t be that surprised. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Not every Slam, but yeah, a couple times a year even the greatest ever are supposed to succumb to injury or journeymen. That’s what’s normal. Slams are hard to win. You can’t just roll out of bed and lift the trophy — even if those four make it look that way.

We’re only shocked when these players don’t win because they have spoiled us with their abnormal greatness.   

Too Much Ado About Court Placement

Over the next few days I will be registering my curmudgeonly complaints about things related to the French Open, in no particular order.

This one is a complaint about a complaint. There’s a bit of noise, at least on tennis Twitter, about where certain players or matches are placed. OK, I understand the prestige issue. It can be seen as a snub that Roland Garros is putting Simona Halep, the No. 1 seeded woman, on Court 18. I get that.

But no one is actually hurt by stupid court placement, other than possibly fans attending the tournament. That is, if you are there and you can’t see Halep because the stands at Court 18 are full. Other than that, it has no impact on anybody. The playing surface is the same for both players. The dimensions inside the lines are the same whether it’s Chatrier or Court 18. I know the space behind the baseline varies from court to court, but it’s the same for both players. It’s not like getting a shorter left-field fence in baseball depending on what stadium you’re in.

It’s also the same for fans at home. TV networks can show the match on Court 18 if they want. The tennis looks the same to TV viewers regardless of what court it is. (I will concede that if it’s a court without cameras that’s a different story.)

Back to the prestige point: If fans of women’s tennis (and I am one of them) feel dissed because Halep is on Court 18, fair enough. But far more people are watching the tournament on TV than in person. So the much, much, much bigger issue is whether TV is giving women enough time. If I’m there in person and I want to see Halep, I probably can. It doesn’t matter what court she’s on. TV has a far bigger role than court placement in the dissing of women’s tennis. That’s where the complaints should be directed.

One counter-example from a fan’s perspective: I went to Roland Garros last year from Monday to Wednesday of the first week. Del Potro was playing his first-round match against Guido Pella on a small outside court, I believe Court 6. Despite his No. 29 seeding at the time, Delpo is one of the most popular players in the world. We all know that. So putting him on Court 6 created a logistical nightmare. The line of fans waiting to get in during the entire match snaked around and blocked the pedestrian thoroughfare in that area, creating human gridlock all around. It was a mess. The dude’s a rock star; you can’t put him on Court 6. (I got in, but had to wait about 40 minutes.)

So that decision was almost certainly a mistake for fans at the event. But not for the players or TV viewers. Delpo and Pella could play on Court 6 just like anywhere else. TV cameras can get on that court (though perhaps not at the usual angle), so fans at home could see the match if the TV networks wanted to show it.

I’m not saying court placement is totally irrelevant, but it’s just not as big a deal as tennis fanatics are making it out to be. TV coverage is the much bigger deal.