Category Archives: Players

Roger Federer, a Master of Public Relations

Roger Federer may have missed his best chance to add the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 title to his resume by losing in the finals to his compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, but there is little doubt that he is the ultimate winner in terms of managing his public profile more profitably than any other athlete in tennis – perhaps in sports. The number of records held by the 17-time Slam winner probably overlaps that of any other player in the history of the game. Nevertheless, his career earnings in prize money from his athletic performances pale in comparison to his yearly income from endorsements from companies such as Nike, Rolex, Credit Suisse, Moet & Chandon and Wilson. In fact, the amount that he earns from endorsements in just two years – around $95 million – surpasses the amount that he has earned throughout his career in prize money – over $80 million and counting.

If one needed an example of how Federer & his PR team successfully negotiate his impeccable image, they need not look any further back then the series of announcements and press conferences since Federer’s public acknowledgement back in December of 2013 that he and his wife were expecting their third child. The brief and celebratory announcement that hit the waves via twitter included one sentence: “Mirka and I are very happy to share the news that Myla & Charlene will be big sisters in 2014! Happy Holidays.” No other information was provided and there is good reason for that.

Since then, Federer, who notoriously – and rightfully – draws a clear line between his public and private life, rarely mentioned anything about his wife’s pregnancy during any press conference, outside of a few words here and there indicating how happy they are. He made statements that were designed to uphold the image of a tightly-knit family, and that image is not hard to maintain because it comes naturally. Federer has always affirmed how much his family means to him, and he has frequently praised Mirka’s role in his success. There is no doubt that the happiness that Roger and Mirka and their children display has very little to do with image. They are a very close family.

Peculiarly, or so it seemed at first, none of the announcements included a due date. In this day of improved medical technology, due dates can often be estimated to the exact date, if not within a week of delivery date. However, on each occasion that a journalist initiated the ‘when-abouts’ of the due date during the press conferences, Federer’s reply has been a consistent “I don’t know.” Some saw it as pandering to the media, while others simply felt that he could opt for honesty and choose to say that he refuses to answer the question. I believe anyone who has had any experience with the media can agree that the latter option goes nowhere with media members. The pandering option is not Federer’s style either. He is no Vitas Gerulaitis who gave details of his night life or Boris Becker who has a reputation for wanting to be in front of any camera including the one that you set up in your garage. In fact, when journalists insisted in the Indian Wells tournament, he simply said that even if he knew the date he would not tell them. It’s his way of saying “move on to the next question.”

Shortly before the Monte Carlo Masters, the tournament organizers announced that Federer will indeed be a part of the field, accepting a Wild Card. In the social media, some speculated that it may have to do with his intention of solidifying his ranking in the top 4 (he is currently ranked #4). There were others that he wanted to try one more time to see if he could capture one of the rare titles that have eluded him. On the Tennis Channel they speculated that he wants to gain more points in case he has to miss a big tournament due to the delivery of their child. However, if I am connecting the dots correctly, I see an even more nuanced picture, one in which the Federer camp is carefully treading the line between providing too much information to the media and making sure that he can make the most of the clay court season during a period where the delivery date falls on a delicate time.

After his second round win over Radek Stepanek, Federer had to deal once again with more questions on the expected delivery date. Once again, he handled them masterfully. He revealed that he would put the birth of their third child ahead of any tournament saying all the right things about how supporting his wife was a “priority” to him. When pushed a bit further and asked if he was willing to miss the French Open specifically, he once again crafted his message to imply that the questions should stop there as politely as possible: ”Yeah, let’s talk about it when it would happen. At the moment we hope it’s not going to be that way.” Then, he added ”If it is, that’s what it is, you know.” He essentially came across as a great family man, a dedicated competitor, while not committing to any obligations before due time.

Seeing how delicately Federer is handling the flow of information, I do not believe it is a stretch to assume that the delivery date falls around the French Open: perhaps around the beginning, or late in the second week. If Federer were to announce the date, it would put him in the position of either withdrawing prior to the French Open, or forfeiting a match late in the tournament, making him appear somewhat inconsiderate since everyone would know that he went into the tournament with the knowledge that he would not play it out. If my speculation (and it is not much more than that at this point) turns out to be the case, it would make sense for Federer to avoid revealing the date in order to keep his options open.

For example, if the due date coincides with the final weekend at Roland Garros and Federer has made it that far, it would certainly render his decision to play the final (again, if he makes it that far) more acceptable in the eyes of the public. In another case, if the due date falls within the first couple of days of the tournament, I believe the tournament director would gladly honor his request to schedule his match on the last day of the first round matches, or even in an unusual move, schedule it on the first day of second rounds (provided ATP regulations has no mandate against that). Neither the participants nor the tennis world would perceive that as preferential treatment in the case of a man who puts his child’s birth ahead of his work. French open tournament director Gilbert Ysern would happily make that adjustment rather than lose a prime name in the draw. However, none of those options would remain if he were to make an early announcement about the date, basically forcing him to withdraw earlier, even if in hindsight, the actual delivery date would have shown that decision to be a hasty one. Of course, these are mere speculations and Federer may announce the date sooner than later. The string of announcements do however show an intention by the Federer camp to wait as long as possible prior to making a final decision in order to keep the options open.

In any case, this article does not intend to judge Federer’s business decisions or his decision-making process in family matters. It simply shows how well he and his camp are handling the situation despite him being the highest-profiled tennis player, and one of the most prominent sportsmen and/or celebrities in the world (a google search will reveal several Forbes’ rankings indicating just that). Whatever the outcome of his child’s birth, he will come out of this squeaky clean, with his image untarnished, as well as with earning the maximum amount of points to keep his ranking up, thus remain a contender on the tour. The case of the timing of the birth of the Swiss star’s third child and how efficiently Federer’s PR strategy relates to it should be a case study for all other sports celebrities in order to analyze how they could improve theirs.

2013-08-15aFedererFederer signing autographs for his fans in Cincinnati (2013)

Invented Categories: Diluting the Greatest Player of All-Time Debate

Is it Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer? Will Novak Djokovic soon be added to the list? In any case, the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) debate has been alive since the mid-1990s and furiously kicking since the second half of the 2000s. While the debate has mobilized some intriguing research with regards to the history of men’s tennis in the Open era and stirred considerable passion for the sport, the partisanship in the debate has in many ways hurt the objectivity of the public opinion.

The most glaring examples of this “my-guy-must-be-the-greatest” anxiety come in the form of invented or overrated categories that have, in reality, no business in the GOAT debate if reason and objectivity were to prevail. This article will not make a case for any one player; instead, it will attempt to foreground the problems of partisanship’s over-involvement in the debate by pinpointing to a few of those artificially created measuring sticks.

Davis Cup Titles

This is one category that has no place in the GOAT debate, yet through the “if-repeated-enough-people-will-swallow” tactic, it has made its way into the debate as many times as it should have never been a part of it. First of all, no player wins the Davis Cup, officially or unofficially. In the tennis record books, you don’t see that “Borg has won the Davis Cup”; instead, it reads that Sweden has won it. Second, this category is not only inaccurate, but also non-existent. It was born out of the desire of John McEnroe fans back in the early 1980s to lift their player above his main American rival, Jimmy Connors, who regularly snubbed the Davis Cup, and further strengthened in the late 2000s by the wishes of the fans of players other than Federer, with the aim to place their chosen player ahead of Federer in the debate.

There is no doubt that when a player wins both his singles and doubles matches, he plays a major role in his team’s march to the Davis Cup title (for example Borg in 1975, and McEnroe in 1982); but “he” does not win the title!  There are four players and a captain on the team, contributing to the victory, and the country’s name goes on the records as having won the title.  A player wins two matches maximum by himself, which is neither enough to win a single tie nor to win a title.

The fans of this category somehow try to paint a portrait that shows their man winning the tie/title by themselves, which shows disrespect to the team and the country since on the Cup the country’s name is carved and not the player’s name. It also inaccurately assumes that a particular doubles competition — that of the Davis Cup encounter on the middle Saturday — somehow has more value than any other doubles matches or titles. Doubles play no role in the GOAT debate. If it did, one would need to include Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan individually in the debate since they would then have more Slam titles to their names than Sampras or Nadal and more Grand Slams to their names than any other player in the Open era (not to mention their Davis Cup titles — not the USA’s!), and John McEnroe would be looking better than ever with a total of 16 Slam titles and several Davis Cup titles.

But this is not how the GOAT debate operates because doubles’ results are not included in the debate. McEnroe’s doubles titles do not get weighed in when discussing his GOAT status versus Borg or Andre Agassi. Whether doubles should be included or not, that is a debate for another day, but the way the GOAT debate is conducted today, doubles are basically a non-factor, thus so should the doubles match in Davis Cup, effectively erasing any illusion that a single player wins the Davis Cup. But again, one does not have to go that far to see that Davis Cup titles have no place as a measuring category in the GOAT debate. As noted earlier, it is a category that does not exist. A country, not a player, wins the Davis Cup, and so it goes into the records, period.

Slam Titles

This is the most ironic category in the sense that the same group of experts who pushed this category’s rise to the dominant category in the determination of the GOAT probably now regret that they ever did it. While this is certainly not an invented category and should definitely contribute to determining the GOAT, the impression that exists today that this has always been the determinant category could not be more false.

In the 1970s and 1980s, accolades such as the number of Slams won in succession, the amount of time spent at No. 1, and achieving the Grand Slam outclassed the number of Slams won as far as the players and fans were concerned. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s, most top players did not even play the Australian Open, simply because its timing was odd and it was considered too far away. Borg openly said that he would only consider playing the Australian Open if he won the U.S. Open and had a chance to complete the Grand Slam. He never won the U.S. Open, thus he never played the Australian Open, except one time in 1973 as a youngster. As a result, he won 11 Slams in eight years, playing only three Slams per year. McEnroe played the Australian Open for the first time in 1983, and Jimmy Connors never played it after 1975.

The importance of Slam titles got put on a pedestal when Pete Sampras began collecting Slam titles in the 1990s.  The American media galvanized its viewers once they saw that one of their own could come out of the shadows of Borg and Laver that Connors and McEnroe could never quite surpass, and grab the GOAT title by focusing on the number of Slams.  The likes of Bud Collins, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe and Mary Carillo quickly reduced all statistics-related discourse to the number of Slam titles.

In this tactic, they saw the means to quicken the process of officially naming their man the GOAT.  As soon as Sampras surpassed Borg’s 11 Slam titles, he was essentially declared the GOAT; the 13th and 14th titles were the icing on the cake.  The American media clung on the number of Slam titles as long as it could, in the name of keeping an American as the GOAT.  The reality was that by the time Roger Federer won his 12th and 13th Slam titles, his list of accomplishments was already superior to that of Sampras, including titles on a surface that Sampras never came close to mastering.  But all that mattered was the number 14, and the American media reminded the public at each opportunity, through eye-catching graphics and colorful vocabulary, that Sampras was still the GOAT due to his 14 Slam titles.

The irony is, several years later, what Federer fans considered a farcical tactic to keep their man behind Sampras in the GOAT debate became their biggest asset when their man began collecting loss after loss against his main rival Nadal.  It seems that in the next couple of years, the number of Slams will remain Federer fans’ biggest ally.  Once again, the partisanship in the GOAT debate has accorded a category more importance than it deserves.  The number of Slams was not the most important category for two and a half decades into the Open era.

Even after two decades of a powerful push by the American-led tennis media, the number of Slams should still not be the central factor in determining the GOAT.  Sampras should not have kept the GOAT status when Federer had 12 or 13 Slam Titles, and Federer should not keep the GOAT status simply because Nadal’s titles (possibly) remain below 17.  On a similar note, I would not hesitate to already put Nadal ahead of Sampras, albeit by a small margin, even though the latter has more Slam titles to his name.  Nadal’s ability to win on all surfaces and his career Grand Slam, along with his record as the most Masters Series titles should at least be enough to trump Sampras’ one more Slam title over Nadal.

Head-to-Head

While this category shows who you may pick in a match between two players if your life depended on it, it does not say much about which player should be considered in a higher status than the other in the GOAT debate.  A given player becomes great not by consistently beating one player, but by consistently outperforming the rest of the field against which he is competing.  Once again, this is an invented category that Nadal fans cling on to due to their player’s fantastic head-to-head record against Federer.

Currently, it will matter in roundtable debates since both players are active and their fans can banter on message boards and blogs.  But tennis historiography shows that, twenty years from now, it will matter very little.  Guillermo Vilas, the player that history considers as one of the top 5 clay court players in the Open era had a 5-8 record on clay against Manuel Orantes, with one of the five wins coming in a walk-over, and another on an abandoned match.  Despite this one-sided head-to-head record, history would hardly consider Orantes a better clay-court player than Vilas.  Would anybody consider Vitas Gerulaitis ahead of Ilie Nastase in the ranking of the best players in the Open era?  I hardly doubt it and so would most tennis historians.  Yet, Gerulaitis had a crushing 10-1 record against Nastase, simply because he would endlessly chip-and-charge to Nastase’s backhand force ‘Nasty’ to use his weakest shot to pass him, the one-handed backhand topspin off of a slice that stays extremely low.  The bottom line is that history accords, and rightfully so, very little importance to the head-to-head record between two players.  Tennis rankings are not determined by how well a specific player does against another specific player; they are determined by how a player performs against the rest of the ensemble of ATP players.

I am sure others can find more frivolous, overrated, or invented ‘false’ categories if needed.  The truth is that partisanship consistently hurts the older players on the hand – how many ‘Laver fans’ or ‘Borg fans’ remain today compared to Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic fans? – and hinders analysis based on facts by diluting the debate with unhealthy emotions and inaccurate (and sometimes false!) data on the other.  It is understandable that fans of particular players fall into this trap.  After all, they have the right to be emotional, which is a major component of fandom.  However, it is utterly worrisome that the leading figures in the tennis media fall into this trap and wrongly influence the public opinion.

Coaches for Top Players: Necessary, Not, or Not Necessarily?

Last week Gasquet revealed that he had come to an agreement with Sergu Bruguera, the two-time French Open Champion (1993-94), and that the Spaniard will begin his duties in February of 2014. This is on the heels of a bizarre development during the ATP Tour Finals in London, when Ricardo Piatti abruptly walked away from coaching Gasquet after his second loss in the round-robin matches. Gasquet admitted to being in shock as much as anyone else, especially considering that he was closing the curtain on his career’s most successful season that culminated in qualifying for the year-ending even in London, reserved for the top eight players of the year. By the way, Gasquet also employs Sébastien Grosjean as a coach with whom Piatti was splitting his duty. Thus, Bruguera will become co-coach with Grosjean, probably spending more time with the player over the year. Why? Because Grosjean is also the Davis Cup Captain for France, and he can’t quite be a full-time coach for a single player. In fact, he is the one who recommended Bruguera to Gasquet, meaning a coach suggested to his employer which co-coach to hire. Are you, the reader, keeping up with this? Because, you better get used to it. Coaching changes are coming at increased frequency, co-coaching has been the new trend for a few years, and some coaching changes are done quicker the replacement of a light bulb. Player-Coach duos like Li Na & Carlos Rodriguez (pictured below) who stayed together through the 2013 season are progressively in the minority.

If you have not heard, in 2013, Sharapova let Thomas Högstedt go after the second-round loss at Wimbledon, despite having a successful season until that loss, and having the best results of her career since Högstedt began coaching her in 2010. She hired and fired Jimmy Connors in less than a week, after one loss to Sloan Stephens in Cincinnati, in one of the quickest turnarounds in coaching-changes history, with Connors getting the news one day after announcing that the loss to Stephens was a bump on the road and he was looking forward to working with her. Sharapova has since hired Sven Groenefeld, and Högstedt has moved on to coaching Caroline Wozniacki.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, split from his coach Roger Rasheed in August because of, get this: “language barriers and geographical issues”. Uhm, how did they manage to collaborate for ten months with those kinds of complications? Why not simply announce “for reasons undisclosed”, “or private reasons” than produce such a tall tale? In any case, Rasheed moved on to Grigor Dmitrov since, and Tsonga recently hired Thierry Ascione and Nicolas Escude, – yes you guessed it: co-coaches. They also coach another Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, joining a rare category: co-coaches simultaneously coaching their co-employers.

In the meantime, Simona Halep just split with her Coach Adrian Marcu following the most successful season of her career; Samantha Stosur hired the ex-Murray coach Miles McLagan after splitting with long-time coach David Taylor. I could go on and on, and I have not even mentioned Jelena Jankovic who certainly must hold the record for most coaching changes since her career rose to prominence.

The increasing frequency of coaching changes, the reduction in the durations of collaborations, the ever-expanding ‘co-coaching’ concept, and the results that some players have had without a coach begs the question, how much is the coach’s role in the player’s success? Moreover, who is helping whose career? Did Nick Bollettieri help Andre Agassi’s career more than Agassi ultimately helped Bollettieri, and his floundering academy, come back to limelight? Similarly, did Brad Gilbert help Agassi’s career or did Agassi actually make Gilbert’s career? In a more obvious and contemporary case, is Patrick Mouratoglu helping Serena’s career more than Serena is helping his?

There are no black-and-white answers to the preceding questions, but in any case, I would maintain that thinking that a coach is absolutely can lead to more disastrous consequences than choosing to be without one. Hiring a coach that does not fit the frame of what the player needs is more likely to happen if hiring a coach is seens as the only and absolute road to success. Roger Federer had arguably the best season of his career in 2004, and spent most of 2007 & 2008 without one. It is true that Severin Lüthi has supported him, but only since 2007 in any significant amount, and anybody who is familiar with that partnership will tell you that Lüthi’s function approaches being the ‘solid foundation’ of his team more than acting uniquely as a tennis coach. Tsonga spent over a year coachless, resulting in possibly the best 12-month period of his career in terms of results. Did Serena really have a successful year because of Mouratoglu or was it another routine year for Serena who has had 13 Slam titles and ‘Serena Slam’ far before she hired him? For now, I am more inclined to agree with the latter.

Gone are the days of long-term successful coach-player relationships, such as Bjorn Borg & Lennart Bergelin, Boris Becker & Ion Tiriac, Stefan Edberg & Tony Pickard, Steffi Graf & Pavel Slozil, and Sampras & Tim Gullikson, each lasting more than five years, at least. Currently, the only high-profile players who would fit that type of description are Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Lo and behold, they are the top two players in the world; and Serena Williams, the current number one women’s player in the world, got there years ago in the first place coached by the same person with whom she began playing tennis as a child. Thus, the question is not “does the coach serve a purpose?” The answer is obviously, yes! However, my answer to the conventional belief that a player is always better off with a coach than without one would be “not necessarily.” Not necessarily, because finding the right fit comprises of a tedious process that requires more than a trial-week at the local courts with a prospect coach; not necessarily, because if the right fit is not found, the time spent together can not only turn to waste, but it can regress the player’s development; not necessarily, because a player who feels rushed to get a coach will hire one after another for short periods of time until finding the right fit, and will face continuous adaptation periods, confusion, and interrupted developments in technique. On the one hand, I agree that any player will thrive with the right coach who aims for long-term success and knows the player’s ‘soul,’ because coaching is not just telling the player to ‘follow-through’ or ‘move the feet.’ On the other hand, a player without a coach, and spending that period of time to reflect on his/her game while taking the time to do a sensible search for a new coach, has a better chance of success than a player who hires a coach simply due to the belief that having a coach trumps not having one.

The Most Famous #100 Player in ATP History

Derek Tarr and his daughter (2013)

Derek Tarr and his daughter (2013)

The year is 1984 and the location is the U.S. Open in New York. In the first round, the 12th-seeded player and one of the most buoyant characters of the Golden Age of tennis “Disco” Vitas Gerulaitis plays a little-known South African player by the name of Derek Tarr (pictured in 2013 with his daughter Lauren). Gerulaitis wins in three straight sets and Tarr gets in his car later that day to drive back to his residence in Birmingham, Alabama. He plans to drive for a day, take a break, and arrive the next day to his destination.

At the press conference, a journalist asks Gerulaitis to compare the skills of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova who happen to be the number 1 players in the world in men and women respectively. The days of being politically correct have not quite arrived yet and women’s tennis is still climbing the steep hill to equal prize money in tournaments. Gerulaitis bluntly says that Navratilova is so dominant because 95% of the women don’t know how to play tennis, and insists that men’s tennis rankings are much deeper. Then he casually adds fuel to the fire by claiming that he bets his 2-million-dollar home in Long Island that the number-100 men’s player in the world would beat Navratilova! Ironically, he is not aware that the guy he has just beaten in the first round, Derek Tarr, happens to be ranked 100 in ATP that week. Wheels begin turning in the media and Gerulaitis’ claim is all over the wires. Everyone has an opinion, including well-known players of the period. Harold Salomon, ex-French Open finalist who was contemplating retirement claims he can take Navratilova on “anytime, anywhere”. Ilie Nastase says he will put on a skirt and still beat Navratilova. Navratilova claims on a given surface she could have a chance to win. Chris Evert-Lloyd disagrees with her rival and says that even male college players or some men over 40 could beat the top women. Derek Tarr’s name gets around in the media, but he is nowhere to be found.

I recently talked to Derek, whom I have known for a long time, about those days. He has been an American citizen since 1986 and still lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He never left the world of tennis: he coaches the University of Alabama in Birmingham Men’s Tennis Team and he is the Tennis Director at Brook Highland Racquet Club.

Before getting into what Derek had to say about the episode, let’s clarify the chronological context. The concept of “social media” is about two decades into the future, internet has yet to be invented, and the only cell phones in the early 1980s are the size of a large coffee maker. The idea of carrying around a cell phone has not integrated into everyday life. Thus, while Derek is driving back to Birmingham for a day and a half, he is completely oblivious to the mayhem back in New York gravitating around Gerulaitis, Navratilova, and his name. He arrives the next day and finds himself baffled when a friend asks him if he would play “that” match with Navratilova. After inquiring about what his friend meant, Derek slowly begins to understand that while he was on the road, there has been a lot of noise about an encounter between him and Navratilova back in New York. He even tries to get in touch with Gerulaitis to learn directly from the source what has precisely taken place, but Gerulaitis’ mom answers and says that her son is not at home. Gerulaitis later distorts the purpose of the call to the media saying that Derek called to talk to his mom and that “he is so nervous he can’t sleep”! When I talk to Derek, he quickly sets the record straight by pointing out that it must be either Gerulaitis’ mother who misinterpreted or Gerulaitis who tried to entertain the journalists. Derek simply wanted to talk to Gerulaitis to get the full scoop. In any case, Derek takes a break for a few days to rest at his place. Eventually, the tournament moves on and other stories take over – this is the year of the famous “Super Saturday” at the U.S. Open.

In retrospect, Derek regrets not having pursued the affair while it was hot and on the front page. He was in and out of top 100 few times in the early 1980s and his career-high ranking was 87 in 1983. He has notable ATP wins over Tim Mayotte, Henri Leconte, and a young Andre Agassi, and had a respectable doubles career, reaching the quarter finals of the French Open in 1982 with partner Brad Guan of Australia. He says that, on the days following Gerulaitis’ quote, he should have gone straight back to New York and “talked it up”, and promote the idea of a possible battle of the sexes match between him, the number 100 player, and Navratilova, keeping Gerulaitis’ claim on the front page. Back then only a small portion of the player had agents, and Derek was not one of them. He adds that having an agent would have helped in this particular situation. The agent would have known with whom to get in touch and what is required to increase the chances of such an encounter taking place. Few weeks later, Derek did indeed get in touch with an agent who, in turn, got in touch with Navratilova’s agent. The latter said that Navratilova had no plans to play any male player under any circumstances at any moment in the future (although she did in 1992 against Jimmy Connors in Las Vegas). Derek admits that he may have missed a potentially lucrative opportunity by not adding fuel to the fire when the topic was hot. Then, he smiles and adds: “I guess I had my 15 minutes of fame.”