Monday, April 25, 2016

My George Plimpton Moment

Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Sports Illustrated's website as I prepared to return serve from Reilly Opelka, the reigning Wimbledon junior champion, who happens to stand almost seven feet tall.

He begins his motion but then he pauses, and asks, “Do you want me to tell you where I’m going with it?”

Bravado subverts good sense. “No,” I say. “I want to see the real thing.” And I do—I want to experience what it’s like to try to return one of the fastest serves in the game—I just hope he doesn’t serve right at me. I consulted several friends who are teaching pros beforehand for advice. “Wear a cup,” said Bobby Dowlen, a longtime Houston teaching pro, “and sit in the stands.”

But I’m not wearing a cup, nor did I strap on a catcher’s mask as I briefly considered. I bend my knees much more than I usually do and I crouch much lower than normal. I know from his trajectory that the ball will bounce up high on this clay court and hopefully go over my head. I think I can get the racket in front of my face in time, although I worry it could press the strings back into my nose. I also consider falling to the ground to save myself. 

(And for reference to the photo above, this is me with Donald Young in April 2015. He stands 6 feet.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tennis-Match Fixing and Dog Tracks: The Dogs Are Us

            "The Tennis Racket," an investigative story published by Buzzfeed News and the BBC got me to thinking about a blog post I wrote six years ago on my defunct tennis blog. Here it is, originally published January 29, 2010, on

I doubt most readers of this blog have been to an American dog track, where greyhounds run a frantic loop chasing an electronic rabbit that scoots along the rail. In Sarasota, Florida, the announcer used to start each race with a fevered, "Here comes lucky!" the dogs take off, and hundreds if not thousands of fans hold their tickets and cheer and yell and then most tear them in half and curse.
I worry that professional tennis may soon become the dog tracks of the future, where gambling on the sport is the driving source of revenue. I also worry that it will become as crooked as boxing is known to be, and that many of the matches are corrupted by players willing to hit enough bad shots to lose when they could have won. I think it will be any day now when tennis suffers a match-fixing scandal of the highest order, similar to baseball's famed Shoeless Joe Jackson/Chicago Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series or college basketball's 1951 point-shaving scheme.
I know I sound alarmist here, but two things have prompted me to say this. The first is the solicitations I've received for my blog. I do not get tremendous traffic, seeing just shy of 10,000 unique visitors in 2009, but in spite of that, I have been contacted three or four times recently by web sites who compliment me on the quality of the writing, and then ask for a link exchange with a site that purports to be a tennis blog or news page. One even offered to pay me. When I visit their pages, I find they are simply betting sites, and are hosted in spots all over the globe, including New Zealand the Czech Republic. The bets offered don't include simply Grand Slams or ATP events, but the opportunity to gamble on Challenger events in places like Lexington, Kentucky, or Biloxi, Mississippi, where players well out of the top 100 compete. How hard do you think it might be to get a player who has never earned more than $100,000 in one year (and remember, that's before their expenses of traveling, training, etc.) to throw a match for a bag of cash? All you need is one desperate player.
The second is, that in spite of the obvious risk of match fixing, gambling gets the endorsement of some of the cornerstone organizations in the game. The Australian Open is even sponsored by a London-based gambling web site, a recent report in The New York Times said. Not only are they a sponsor, the more money bet, the more money the Australian Open makes, as the article by Joe Drape reported: "[The gambling site I refuse to name here] pays Tennis Australia a share of revenue from wagers on matches during the tournament. '“We’re not opposed to gambling,” said Steve Ayles, a spokesman for the Australian Open. “It is part of our Australian culture and it is widely accepted.”'
Tennis organizations have created a lofty sounding "Tennis Integrity Unit," and a study found 45 matches that caused suspicions. But in the biggest suspected case, Nikolai Davydenko was cleared, despite that "the ATP acknowledged that its investigators were unable to review the phone records of Davydenko’s wife and brother, which were first withheld and then destroyed" the Times reported.
We clearly can't expect much investigative savvy from an organization that believed Andre Agassi's excuse for testing positive for crystal meth was that he sipped a friend's drink, or Richard Gasquet's recent claim that he didn't do cocaine, he only kissed a woman who had been, causing him to test positive. The ATP is predisposed to believing the falling down drunk who runs his car into a telphone pole and claims, "I only had two beers."
Even with crack investigative work, I don't know if match fixing can really be stopped. I love following tennis and other sports because of the unscripted nature of it, of the possibility that anybody, even someone ranked 900 in the world could beat a favorite, as unlikely as that might be. But with the growth of gambling, I will wonder. Was the upset I saw real, or did the favorite just need the money?
With the multinational flavor of tennis, tracking the exchange of currencies across the globe and through many tongues is almost impossible. I don't know what can be done, if anything, to stop it. But tennis organizations, especially prestigious Grand Slam events like the Australian Open, need to eschew any connection to gambling. But in Australia, much like the bets on a dog race, a portion of the bets made go the house. And the house always wins, and the dogs always lose. In this case, tennis fans, the dogs are us.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Greatest Men's Tennis Matches I Ever Saw--And a Few I Didn't

I appreciated the great tennis blog The Changeover publishing my personal ranking of the best men's matches I ever saw and a few I didn't. It opened this way:

To take several years to write a 352-page novel about a tennis player (including early drafts that were much longer), you have to first be obsessed with the game. Part of being obsessed means watching thousands of tennis matches—the majority on TV, but many in person. For those I couldn’t watch or the many brilliant battles that happened before my time, I’ve looked deep into the game’s history in search of the epics.

For my personal ranking of the thirteen best men’s professional tennis matches of all time, presented here in reverse order, I’ve included five I attended, five I watched on television, and three I read about. Like all such “best of” rankings, there is nothing scientific or objective about it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jack Kramer: The Racket Worthy of its Crown

My very first tennis racket in 1971 when I was four years old was a Wilson Jack Kramer. My dad had sawed off the handle to make it short enough for me to use. I can vividly remember the delicious feel of the Kramer sweet spot when a shot hit right in the center and the wood frame flexed back and put a smooth smack on the ball that sounded like the man for whom the racket was named.  


I didn’t think about this sound until I read the excellent tribute to Kramer by Steve Tignor in Tennis magazine in 2009 where he wrote about ”the three quick syllables and hard, clicking ks at the center” of Kramer’s name.  For me, Kramer’s name is like the sound of a rally: Jack! — the sound of the ball on the strings after an especially good forehand;  Krame is the shot zipping through the air; and Er is the felt-covered rubber orb landing on the court. Then it repeats.  Jack Krame – erJack Krame – er…the rhythmic sounds of tennis.
About 17 years ago when I lived in Houston I went to put up signs advertising for a yard sale at my home. I stopped off at a antique/junk store near my house and ended up buying a dozen Kramer frames for a total of $100, acquiring rackets even when I was on a mission to sell things. I’ve continued to collect Kramer rackets, even though since Wilson made about 10 million or so between 1949 and 1982, these frames are by no means rare.  I love the Jack Kramer racket nonetheless, both the ubiquitous ones with the golden crown on the throat and the 
rarer, earlier ones emblazoned with his image. A Kramer feels good in your hand, standing there swinging in the living room or the den every now and then, imagining a ball hitting squarely in the sweet spot. 

Shortly before New Year’s Eve in 2000 I spent a long time in a sports shop in New York contemplating buying the graphite Jack Kramer Autograph Millenium Edition for $250 or so.  I passed, reasoning that I already had multiples of the real thing and didn’t need one of graphite. 

They don’t make wood frames like the original anymore — rackets are all plasticized composites and near weightless and coded with numbers like software programs, bearing futuristic descriptions such as ”Microgel” and “Cortex.” 

Tennis rackets were better when they were made of wood and named after a man. Long live Jack Kramer.

Originally published October 28, 2009.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rocket Rod Laver and the Last True Grand Slam

It's more than fitting that the finals of the Australian Open are played in Rod Laver Arena, named for the compact redhead with the powerful left forearm who is the holder of the last true Grand Slam in men's tennis.    

The Rocket won the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 1969, the second year of the Open Era, repeating the calendar Grand Slam he won in 1962 as an amateur.  No man has won a calendar year Grand Slam since, and none have really even come close --Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam events,  never even reached a French Open final.  Laver, who won 11, missed 1963-1967 because he turned pro when only amateurs were allowed to compete in the slams. He surely would have won more if he hadn't missed those years, and most likely would hold as many or more as Roger Federer's leading count of 17.

Federer, Andre Agassi, and Rafael Nadal have won the career Grand Slam, but Laver won all four twice in the same year, and forty-six years ago he did it against all-comers -- pros and amateurs alike.  To his credit, Laver is very gracious, saying that the game was not as good in his day as it is now.  And three of the four slams then were played on grass and one on clay, unlike today's mixture of two hard courts, one grass and one clay. But the fact is Laver did it, not once, but twice.  

Until Djokovic or someone else comes along and lofts all four championship trophies in the same calendar year, The Rocket should still be called the Grand Slam king.

You can read Laver's beguiling memoir,  The Education of a Tennis Player, (co-written with Bud Collins and reissued by New Chapter Press) and watch his 1969 Wimbledon final win below.