Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why It's Kicking Off At The Tennis

The trouble with blogging about sport this summer is the sheer number of events you can cover. No sooner have you got your head around the Olympics than the athletics trials take place, when you’ve watched the cricket the football starts… So it’s catch up time on Inside Left as we revisit David Nalbandian kicking out at – and then being kicked out of – the final of the Aegon Championships tournament at Queen’s Club.

Nabandian, a set up against Marin Cilic, stretched to reach a ball out wide and hit a forehand return that landed a good distance beyond the baseline. In his frustration he lashed out, kicking a small advertising hoarding. What is a fairly commonplace occurrence was transformed into controversy by the presence of a line judge sat immediately behind the board, which crashed into his shin at point blank range leaving a nasty gash. Nalbandian quickly apologised to the judge, who in an almost Masonic gesture, rolled up his trouser leg and pointed at blood heading down to his sock. It was a scene more centre stage at a West End farce than Centre Court at the premier Wimbledon warm up. Nevertheless Nalbandian was disqualified and the match came to a premature end.

Almost immediately Nalbandian was grabbed by the BBC to be interrogated by Sue Barker, who seemed intent on playing the role of moral arbiter demanding that the Argentine present a mea culpa to the disappointed crowd. What she got was something quite different. Nalbandian’s acknowledgement that rules had been broken was accompanied by a stinging rebuke of the tennis establishment, the ATP, players’ schedules and the quality of playing surfaces.

Nalbandian certainly had the air of a man intent on getting his retaliation in first. But he reminded me of that person you work with who, having been caught breaking some rule or other, figures they have nothing to lose and gives their boss both barrels. With months or years of pent up frustration bubbling away under the surface the pressures of the ATP tour burst out with righteous indignation.

And he has a point. There are more than 60 ATP tournaments this year, not to mention the four Grand Slam events, the Davis Cup and the Olympics as well. Players are under huge pressure to compete to earn ranking points and to fulfil the wishes of the sponsors who pay a pretty penny to associate themselves with the game. At the start of the year 140 players got together to discuss a boycott of the Australian Open in protest against what Andy Roddick called the “insanity” of the tour. The Australian former world number one is contractually obliged to appear at the Slams, most of the Masters series and a whole host of smaller events.

"U2 doesn't ask to go on tour,” said Roddick. “They go on tour. So I think that's kind of the fundamental issue at hand." Tennis players, like so many other sportspeople, are governed by rules and organisations whose primary purpose is the delivery of a sporting product. The players have little if any control over the game when compared to corporate sponsors and television execs. The financial rewards may be extortionate but the effect is that players are treated like machines, their bodies broken by the constant stress and exertion. As the BBC’s Jonathan Overend has said, The time has come for tough negotiations and hard decisions for the long-term health of the sport. That's not to mention the leading players who, let's face it, are the ones who do the most to sell the sport to the world.”

Is there no other way of structuring the tennis calendar? Do the players have to be run into the ground for the sake of profit? Is it really necessary to fence in officials with advertising? Is the ATP really so hard up for cash that they need to create corporate boxes for individual line judges? And when you look at these issues is it any wonder that the crowd at Queen’s Club were so sympathetic to David Nalbandian?