It takes a village – or a rich uncle

It’s a crazy expensive – and a longshot – to get to the top in tennis. 

Paris Masters champ Karen Khachanov got lucky. Uncle Alexander Zayonts is a multimillionaire.

Khachanov’s parents first came to Zayonts when Khachanov was 12, he told l’Équipe. But the kid had to beat him first. Khachanov won a set in a tiebreak. But Zayonts wasn’t satisfied. 

Finally, when Khachanov was 15, Zayonts asked how much was needed, and wrote the cheque.

Zayonts now travels nearly full-time with him – a vocal presence in the stands. “I want to bring this boy to the top!” he said.

beIN Sports out of another deal

In the wake of the announcement this week that beIN Sports is out as the broadcast rights holder for the WTA Tour in the U.S., another piece of news.

L’Équipe reports that the broadcast rights for the ATP Masters 1000s and a dozen 500- and 250-level tournaments in France were bought by the company that owns Eurosport.

It’s for the five-year period starting in 2019. beIN retains Wimbledon, the WTA, and the Davis and Fed Cups.

Notable also that in the U.K., Amazon Prime beat out Sky Sports for the ATP rights during that same period. 

Racism accusations rock French ITF event

An ITF tournament in France last week is under the microscope after Omani player Fatma Al-Nabhani went on Instagram with a list of instances of unfair treatment she attributed to racism.

The situation came to a head last Thursday, in the second round of the Engie Open against French player Myrtille Georges.

It’s a tournament in the French central city of Clermont-Ferrand, an indoor event with a $25,000 total purse.

Al-Nabhani, 27, is ranked No. 438. Other than wild cards into the Doha and Dubai events, she mostly plays ITF events at the $15,000 and $25,000 levels.

So she’s no stranger to poor line calls, spartan conditions and challenging circumstances.

But what Al-Nabhani said she experienced last week – on court as well as off – put together, was quite the package.

Here’s her Instagram post.

 

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Part 1 I never thought or imagined I could ever experience the real meaning of racism and unfairness 👎🏼👎🏼👎🏼 I am sorry I know this is a very sensitive topic but I have to stand up for my self. I Am Muslim, I Am Arab and I’ll always be proud of it. @itf__tennis @wta 1- in the first round wanting me to remove my leggings and threatening me by not able to compete my match if I didn’t while it’s approved by the ITF in the end they made me pull it up higher a bit because that 2 inch extra of skin was a big deal for them. 2- second round not giving me my right as a player inside the match chair umpire against me since beginning of the match and stealing 5 match points from me and giving me a code violation for complaining while my opponent should get it for swearing and bad language and miss behaving 3- chair umpire having conversation in French in each change over and laughing with the opponent 4- a very bad treatment from some of the staff in the tournament

A post shared by Fatma Al Nabhani (@falnabhani) on

Email to the ITF

Al-Nabhani sent an email to the International Tennis Federation.

She forwarded that to the Dubai-based website Sports 360, providing additional details.

Al-Nabhani said she’s been playing the Pro Circuit since 2007. And she had never had an issue with the leggings she always wears, to “respect her religion” and still feel comfortable playing tennis.

Until last week.

“Day 1, first round match against Elsa Jacquemot from France, the French chair umpire before doing the toss looked at me and said you need to remove your leggings. I told him that I won’t remove it and I have been playing like this since 12 years. He said then you can’t play. I told him please check with the tournament director before saying anything,” she wrote in the letter.

“The tournament director told him rules can allow her to play with leggings under the knee. So the chair umpire asked me to pull my leggings higher two inches so I can play. Because those two inches for him was a big deal. I pulled my leggings and didn’t say anything and played my match.”  

 

Other issues Al-Nabhani refers to are some of the things that occur regularly in competitive tennis matches with no electronic review system – and no ballkids.

Her reaction to them no doubt was heightened by the treatment she said she received in the first round match (also against a French player). As well, the match featured tiebreaks in the first two sets. And it was clocking in at three hours by the time things began to come to a head.

But a lot of little things added up to quite a bit.

A local newspaper report referenced Al-Nabhani’s protestations to the umpire, and the fact that Al-Nabhani called the trainer for a “diplomatic pain” before retiring. It quoted Georges as saying her opponent felt she had been robbed.

Al-Nabhani’s allegations

*Al-Nabhani said Georges would leave the ball inside the court (we’re assuming when she missed first serves). Al-Nabhani asked for the balls to be removed. But she said the umpire replied that “it’s her side and her right”. She also said the chair umpire wouldn’t even ask Georges to respect Al-Nabhani’s wishes, as a courtesy.

*Georges served to stay in the match at 5-7, 5-6 – clearly having realized the stray balls were distracting her opponent, Al-Nabhani alleges Georges would take the three balls in play. She would then keep two, and hit the third to land near the net – deliberately. After the second time it occurred, Al-Nabhani asked the chair umpire to speak to Georges again. Or, alternatively, to have the supervisor come out. He wouldn’t do either.

*There were linespeople on the match. But Al-Nabhani claims she had seven match points in the second set, and the chair umpire kept overruling balls – all against her. She said at on at least five of those match points, he overruled incorrectly. And when she went to him to tell him he needed to be fair, and focus, and that it wasn’t acceptable … he issued her a code violation. That, even though her opponent had been using bad language in French throughout the match, without consequence.

*There were additional issues both on and off the court. Those included a charge that the chair umpire conversed with her opponent in French during the changeovers, and laughed. She clearly felt they were laughing at her.

Discouraged, feeling everything was against her Al-Nabhani retired down 0-3 (just one break of serve) in the deciding set.

The ITF said, in a message to Sports 360, that it would investigate.

“The ITF takes any allegation of racism very seriously. In accordance with our regulations we will conduct an investigation into the matter, gathering information from all relevant parties. We will respond to the player and proceed with the matter promptly,” was the statement.

Views from the other side

The Sports360 story hasn’t been updated. But the French sports newspaper l’Équipe spoke to the tournament officials and opponent Georges..

The French player Myrtille Georges, ranked No. 266 and the same age as Al-Nabhani at 27, says racism had nothing to do with that occurred during their match last week.

Tournament supervisor Nicolas Peigné told L’Équipe that Al-Nabhani’s criticisms were improper and didn’t make much sense.

“She felt dismissed because she’s Muslim. But there are three other Muslims in the draw, and we have a Turkish umpire officiating here who is Muslim,” he told L’Équipe.

Peigné said the chair umpire asked him for a confirmation “to be certain”.

And that after he confirmed the leggings were regulation, she played on.

But he didn’t address Al-Nabhani’s contention that before it got to that point, the chair umpire had insisted she remove them and refused to allow her to play.

No ballkids on the court

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The Clermont-Ferrand ITF last week took place in rather modest surroundings. (Google Maps)

Peigné also said that without ballkids, each player is responsible for the balls on her side of the court. But he didn’t address whether or not that player should clear the stray balls if asked by the opponent.

(We reached out to an experienced official to clarify this. And that official said a ball that is stationary cannot be considered as a hindrance. They would only instruct a player to clear a ball if they thought it was in a position potentially dangerous to one of the players. But they would have nipped that “hitting the third ball at the net” initiative in the bud.)

Peigné said that the white badge umpire, Maxime Frèche-Thibaud, is an experienced official. He added that because the tournament was played on an (indoor) hard court, there unfortunately were no marks to check.

“The match was close; she had match points that didn’t go her way,” Peigné told L’Équipe. “It was nothing against her. She felt persecuted for no reason.”

Peigné also added that Al-Nabhani’s mother Hadia argued the line calls from the stands. At that point Peigné escorted her out of the area for a discussion about the fact that she wasn’t do that.

Witness said racism not a factor

French player Julie Gervais said the story was nonsense. “All the players got umpiring errors and we didn’t cry racism,” she Tweeted. “They also (ticked us off) about the long leggings. And we didn’t have any water for practice, either. But we didn’t create a scandal.”

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She did confirm (in between some rather offensive replies to her Tweet), that Georges did, indeed leave stray balls on the court.

Big deal over nothing

L’Équipe also published an interview with Georges, who defeated another Muslim player, Ayla Aksu of Turkey, before losing in the semifinals. 

“The story is starting to take on huge proportions for no reason. For two days, I’ve been receiving insulting messages because of a girl who just wasn’t able to finish her match. It’s a shame,” Georges said. “I’m a bit surprised about her message on social media. In no way was it racism.”

Georges said to err is human, and all the players had to deal with erroneous line calls. But she said that the chair umpire did not overrule five match points against Al-Nabhani, as the opponent claimed. Georges said Al-Nabhani only protested one call on match point, which Georges said wasn’t close (Gervais concurred).

“She knows it, deep down. Her coach was on that line. He knew it, but he chose to push her,” said Georges. She added that no one had water for practice and that the generally challenging conditions are something you expect and accept at the $25,000 level. So you adapt. “Her mother and her coach would have done better to try to calm things. Instead, they added fuel to the fire.”

Georges also made a very good point: had Nabhani converted ANY of those multiple match points, this would never have been a story at all.

What’s next

We’ll see what the ITF’s investigation turns up.

(We already know they rarely work weekends, so it might take a bit of time).

But you’d expect they’ll speak to the same parties L’Équipe spoke to – the supervisor, the opponent. And you’d expect the chair umpire will no doubt defend himself vigorously.

So it’s unlikely they will come to a different conclusion. It’s a situation that even when it occurs, it highly difficult to prove and comes down to a “she said, they said’ situation.

But one thing is certain: the French need to get off the women’s case for wearing leggings.

The most notorious example, of course, was French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli’s sortie against Serena Williams’s French Open outfit, long after the fact. His “argument” was based on these imaginary legging-limit rules.

We present, as evidence, (male) doubles specialist James Cerretani, during the French Open this year.

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L’Équipe: Is men’s tennis about to implode?

NEW YORK – A story in the French daily sports newspaper l’Équipe, published online a few hours ago, has done a deep dive on how the various forces in men’s tennis seem to be battling each other – and themselves – for a bigger piece of the financial pie.

And, in so doing, they may all pay the price.

Tennis journalists Vincent Cognet and Franck Ramella have been working their sources during this US Open.

And they’ve come up with a piece that has a ton of food for thought, as well as a number of exclusive details that add some interesting twists to the tale.

Please click here to read the story and given them the page views they deserve for doing all the reporting. 

(if your French isn’t up to it, you’ll get the gist via Google Translate).

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Here are some of the major points in the story – and a VERY abridged look at the history of men’s tennis, which has seen this before.

Top-secret meetings

Over the last few days, the ATP, ITF and the Kosmos group led by soccer star Gerald Piqué have been meeting at the US Open. The biggest topic is the “new” Davis Cup, as voted in by the ITF at its annual general meeting in Orlando two weeks ago.

Even though the date seemed to have been decided for November, after the ATP Tour Finals, we’ve all seen through this process that nothing – not the site, not the dates, or even the format – is set in stone.

The players don’t want it in November. Piqué wants September. But September has Laver Cup. And September also has ATP events in Metz, France and St. Petersburg, Russia. The Metz connection provides the story with some detail.

Bullet points

*the ATP and ITF had negotiated, as late as Wimbledon, about cooperation. But then the players signed the agreement with Tennis Australia for the Tour’s own “World Team Cup” in January, 2020.  

*There’s general agreement, L’Équipe posits, that two “new” team competitions so close together cannot both survive.

*L’Équipe reports that despite the “$3 billion” number being that’s been thrown around from the get-go, only $52 million – a tiny portion of that lofty figure – is guaranteed at this point. Which is worrying.

*There’s no love lost between the ITF and its member Grand Slams, L’Équipe writes. And even the Slams are not in solidarity. Tennis Australia, in particular, has gone rogue by its deep investment into this major potential rival to the new Davis Cup.

*The players’ voice is getting louder, in terms of getting a bigger share of the pie. L’Équipe says former player Justin Gimelstob is leading that charge, from his position on the ATP Board. The newspaper reports the players saw their share of the revenues increase 14 per cent, each of the last three seasons – but they want that bumped up to 18 per cent in 2019.

*The problem, L’Équipe says, is that tennis’s financials are on the decline. But the players aren’t buying the viability of an audit the Masters 1000 tournaments commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers that confirms their numbers. 

*A decision to approve the jump from 24 to 32 doubles teams at Masters 1000 tournaments in 2019, l’Équipe says (which gives more doubles players more prize money), has drawn the ire of all the tournament owners and directors. Let’s remember that this group once wanted to do away with doubles altogether, because it drains the revenue pot more than it contributes, with prize money and room nights and other costs.

Will the Masters 1000 events go rogue?

Unlike the Slams, the Masters 1000 tournaments (with the possible exceptions of its biggest rogue – big-money Indian Wells – and Shanghai) are more unified, l’Équipe writes.

Could they decide to jump ship and start their own elite, mega-bucks circuit that would include most of the Masters 1000s, a few 500s, the Davis Cup – and the Slams? 

Imagine a scenario where all this would be controlled by … Kosmos, as professional men’s tennis sells out to the highest bidder.

(And yes, we’re fully aware that nowhere in all these machinations do the WTA Tour or the women even rate a mention).

That’s the worst-case scenario, and l’Équipe writes that they’re not there yet.   

History repeating itself

Thirty years ago, out in the parking lot, the ATP Tour was born. (Photo from the ATP Tour).

All of this just shows that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Fifty years ago, there was a battle between rival circuits that left a lot of blood in its wake.

The WCT (World Championship Tennis) circuit, run by mega-rich impressario Lamar Hunt and his group, and the National Tennis League were the two circuits.  The WCT started with the famous “Handsome Eight”; the NTL had such luminaries as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall.

And soon, they began to manipulate the fledgling professional scene. The first open pro event in England in 1968 had no WCT players. In 1970, the NTL (info per Wikipedia) didn’t get a guarantee from the Australian Open. So its players mostly didn’t show up. 

Given their roster included two of the biggest Aussie stars in Laver and Rosewall, that was quite the statement.

Another circuit on the scene

And that led to the creation of another circuit, the Grand Prix Circuit, which was run by former player Jack Kramer (Could Novak Djokovic, who led a charge at the Australian Open to look into forming some type of players’ association, be the Jack Kramer of his generation?)

For a couple of years in the early 1970s, when the Grand Slams didn’t have the prize money or huge bottom lines they enjoy now, they went ahead without many of the top players. These multiple factions were fighting for supremacy, and the leverage used by the majors was exclusion from their events. Even Wold Team Tennis was a force at that time.

It’s hard to even believe now.

By the mid-80s, the players were unhappy about how the Men’s Pro Council (the MIPTC, ironically a cooperative effort between the ITF, ATP and tournament directors) was running things. Some of the issues have not changed. The difference now is that there is so much more money at stake.

From a story on the ATP Tour site by James Buddell back in 2013:

The players were on board to break away. But the US Open wouldn’t, at first, let them have the press conference room to announce it.

So nearly exactly 30 years ago, at this very tournament, the US Open, Mats Wilander led what’s now called the “Parking Lot Press conference”. And that’s how the ATP Tour was born.

What’s old is new again

Thirty years later, it may be about to blow itself up again.

The meetings related to it are likely being held in five-star hotels, not in the halls of the US Open or in the parking lot – or even the well-appointed men’s locker room. But the principle remains.

And somehow, it feels a whole lot different – probably because of all the extra zeros attached to the end of the tale.

Back in the early days of the professional game, the players (who until then had played for literal peanuts) were fighting to be able to make a decent living and have better working conditions, so they didn’t have to be on the road 45 weeks a year.

These days, with the interests of big business, and the bigger tournaments themselves being big business – and the millions and millions the top players earn – it doesn’t feel like the same almost noble cause, does it?

(If you want to learn more about this fascinating period in tennis history, can we recommend this book by longtime tennis journalist Richard Evans).

Schnyder, 39, gets Fed Cup call

After Stefanie Vögele pulled out of this weekend’s World Group I playoff tie against Romania, the Swiss Fed Cup captain recruited a blast from the past.

Patty Schnyder, now 39, will return to action seven years after her last Fed Cup appearance. She played from 1996 through 2011.

Retired four years and now a mom, the former No. 7 has been back since 2015 and is playing quite a bit, mostly on the ITF circuit.

She’s currently ranked No. 149.

All it’s missing to be epic would be a cameo by Martina Hingis – retired, but two years younger – in doubles.

Under suspension cloud, Cornet wins

French player Alizé Cornet was charged with an anti-doping violation in January after missing three unannounced tests.

The hearing was to be in March, with Cornet continuing to play pending a decision. She could also appeal it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

That hearing was postponed to May 1, her lawyer, Alexis Gramblat, told l’Équipe last month. So she continues to play. 

It’s a tough thing to have hanging over your head.  But Cornet is in the Charleston quarterfinals after upsetting her countrywoman, No. 1 seed Caroline Garcia, Thursday night.

Noah: Reforms will kill Davis Cup’s soul

French Davis Cup captain Yannick Noah (as with most Frenchmen) is a purist.

He’s firmly against the proposed Davis Cup changes.

‘This measure is too radical and, in my opinion, will kill the soul and the very essence of the Davis Cup. … It’ll be a bit of a circus,” Noah told the French media.

“In the old days, McEnroe saved Davis Cup by playing when Borg or Connors didn’t. Davis Cup being in danger isn’t recent.

“The current formula is fine. But when Federer or Nadal prefer to play other tournaments, it becomes more complicated.”

Wawrinka returns appearance fee in Marseille

There are a lot of things to like about Stan Wawrinka.

His rawness, for one – his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve and show his vulnerability

And his tennis, of course.

But his decision to voluntarily return his appearance fee this week to the tournament,  the Open 13 Provence, isn’t something you’ll see every day.

Wawrinka, still struggling to return to form after offseason surgeries on his left knee, had to retire after two games of the second set of his first match of the tournament, Thursday night against qualifier Ilya Ivashka of Belarus.

On a missed volley at 3-3 in the first set, Wawrinka felt a pain in the knee. He didn’t show any reaction then. But after his next serve, he did.

The scar is still very much in evidence – it almost looks angry, still.

Early in the second set, he pulled the plug. Wawrinka left the court with a towel over his head, clearly in tears, as he managed a wave for the crowd. 

Stan the Refunding Man

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The left knee began bothering Wawrinka in the middle of the first set of his first match in Marseille. It was a setback he wasn’t expecting.

“Did he come back too soon? I don’t know. But he was crushed; he didn’t think he’d have this setback,” tournament director Jean-François Caujolle told the French sports newspaper L’Équipe.

Before he left Marseille, Wawrinka told Caujolle he was willing to give his entire appearance fee back. As a multiple Grand Slam champion, this is not an insignificant sum.

“Part of it will stay in the tournament, and part of it will go towards various organizations. That was Stan’s wish, and I thought that was a good thing. We could have said we’ll keep it all, but that’s not our mentality,” Caujolle told l’Équipe. “That’ll be about 60,000 Euros, or a bit more, for various organizations. A few chosen with advice from the regional government, and two more that Stan is involved with – all of them relating to children.”

Interestingly, Caujolle said this wasn’t the first time Wawrinka offered to give back his appearance fee in Marseille. “He thought he hadn’t fully done his part. Even though once he lost 6-4 in the third (in 2015), and the next year 7-5 in the third. He did his part!” he said.  (Caujolle turned him down).

The tournamennt director added that as it was, Wawrinka already had cut his usual appearance fee in half. And that, even though he was still No. 4 in the world when the agreement was signed.

“He had already made that gesture, and now he’s giving it all back,” Caujolle said. “It’s one of the nice stories, players like that, who have a certain humanity.” 

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Supporting the smaller, struggling events

The struggles of 250-level ATP events to find the budget to attract top players, and to make a go of it generally, have been well documented.

Caujolle has played his part in bring that to light even if, with the current generation of French male players so strong and deep and generally faithful to the ATP events held in their country, the crunch hasn’t hit him (yet) as hard as it has other similar events.

It seems Wawrinka may well be conscious of that. 

His next tournament is scheduled to be Indian Wells.

(Quotes from L’Équipe; screenshots from TennisTV)

Djoker and his lookalike to meet

“Even me, when I watch him play, in certain facial expressions, I see myself,” said Pierre Vaultier, the French snowboarding gold medalist, said about his resemblance to Novak Djokovic.

In an interview on France TV with Laurent Luyat – as it happens, part of the network’s French Open coverage – Luyat said they would try to set up a meeting.

“I’d be delighted,” Vaultier said. “I’m a fan of that fellow.”

Djokovic got wind of it, so it’ll surely happen.

And Lacoste (which sponsors Djokovic and also the French Winter Olympics team) no doubt also will be delighted.

Early airport calls cost Cornet

French player Alizé Cornet, who faces a possible suspension after missing three unannounced doping tests in 2017, explained in an interview with l’Équipe.

Cornet usually puts down 6 a.m. for her “whereabouts” hour, as dictated by the anti-doping rules. But she had early airport calls to head to the Fed Cup final and the Miami Open.

She didn’t update her file to indicate she was in transit, and missed the testers

The third time, she says she was home. But there was a “huge misunderstanding”.

In the meantime, Cornet is playing St. Petersburg this week.