On Wednesday, Open Court (CNN’s monthly tennis show which runs videos, news stories and features) published a story penned by Chris Murphy entitled ‘Down and out: The man who rescued Serena Williams.’ With a title like that, you know what you’re getting into – yet another piece of journalism that gives Patrick Mouratoglou too much credit for Serena Williams’ WTA dominance over the past 18 months.
There are just so many things wrong with this – not just this piece, but this entire narrative.
First, the piece itself. With his words, Murphy doesn’t portray himself as that knowledgeable about the last two years of Serena’s career. In his lead, he completely glosses over her pulmonary embolism and subsequent comeback in 2011. Instead, he chooses to use this blanket statement:
After an injury-blighted few seasons that saw her sink to 175 in the world rankings, Williams had hit one of the biggest troughs in her career.
‘Injury-blighted seasons’? Perhaps the understatement of the year.
Secondly, Serena wasn’t ranked 175 when she started working with Mouratoglou. She fell to that ranking when her Wimbledon points came off in 2011 – right after she began her comeback. She was technically on a 16-match winning streak coming into Roland Garros in 2012. She won Charleston and Madrid, as well as two matches in Fed Cup, before giving Li Na a walkover (not an official loss) in the semifinals in Rome. She came into Roland Garros ranked No. 5 and was the overwhelming favorite.
She had already gotten herself back in the top 5 before they were introduced. I wouldn’t necessarily call that ‘one of the biggest troughs in her career.’
Sure, her loss to Virginie Razzano in the first round was shocking, unprecedented and any other number of similar adjectives you’d like to call it. Apart from Roland Garros, her clay court season in 2012 was pretty immaculate. Against Razzano, she was in a dominating position and let it slip. These things happen.
Nonetheless, that match is what people remember, and that’s what gives birth to this story.
I’m not going to single out Chris Murphy for doing his job. He’s not the only person writing about this. As a result, I’d really like to know where the narrative came from in general. To say that she was languishing without big, strong Patrick guiding her is just ridiculous. She’s Serena Williams. She won a hell of a lot without him on her team, and she’d probably be doing the same without him there.
Oddly enough, it might actually be Serena herself who unknowingly contributes to it.
“For me to lose in Paris was really disappointing; I was really shattered. I didn’t leave my house for two days,” Serena told Open Court in this feature video. “I was just in a bad place, and it got darker and worse and worse.”
We all know about Serena’s tendency to over-exaggerate and even be a touch melodramatic. It seems as though her comments about that match and what transpired after it are always taken at face value. Should we really be expected to believe that a woman, who has come back successfully from multiple injuries; showed strength in overcoming the murder of her sister; survived said pulmonary embolism; and defied the odds in achieving success in general, had that much trouble moving on from losing one tennis match?
That leads me to the other issue I have with this piece: the use of the word ‘rescue.’ Would anyone ever say that Paul Annacone ‘rescued’ Roger Federer in bringing him back to No. 1 and to the Wimbledon title in 2012? Of course not. In what is now the twilight of his career, Federer would be appreciated for the champion that he is and how he found a way to make those things possible. Why can’t people say the same about Serena? She overcame adversity. Things like this are what the WTA’s ‘Strong is Beautiful’ campaign should really be about.
Mouratoglou is just a support figure for her both on (and off) the court, if you like to believe the gossip and rumors. It would be false to say that he hasn’t been a positive addition to team Williams, but that’s about it. Prior to joining her team, Mouratoglou and his team were more well-known for their failed coaching experiments; players including Laura Robson, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Yanina Wickmayer and Grigor Dimitrov all suffered up-and-down results while working with the Mouratoglou academy.
What has he actually done for her game? It’s been said that she’s added more spin to her forehand under his tutelage, but close observation makes me think that has been slowly evolving for a while. It’s also been said that she’s improved her movement and footwork; she’s always had these things, but also had a tendency to get lazy. She’s a champion, and champions are always tinkering with and improving their games.
If you follow Patrick on Twitter (@pmouratoglou), you can tell how much he enjoys the publicity. He’s constantly sharing links to these stories and features written about his relationship with Serena as well as telling the world how #proud he is of her after every victory. You just don’t see other coaches publicly reveling this much in their charge’s success.
He was in the right place at the right time. Just because their partnership resulted from an (im)perfect storm, doesn’t mean he ‘rescued’ her from the precipice of falling into oblivion. She’s Serena Williams, and a player of her caliber can make any coach look good.
Since Hawkeye was introduced in tennis in 2006, it has taken on an air on invincibility. How many times has a commentator erroneously proclaimed that a player should challenge, emphatically convinced from their position in the booth that the call is incorrect? As much as John McEnroe would hate to hear it, officials are more accurate than the punditry give them credit for. The technology? Not so much.
ITF rules state that any review system must be able to judge a ball in or out within a five millimeter margin of error (0.20 inches). Incorrect calls are fine, so long as they are not wrong by more than 10 millimeters (0.40 inches). Paul Hawkins, the godfather of Hawkeye technology, said that its margin of error of the current system averages about 3.6 millimeters (0.14 inches). The standard diameter of an ITF approved tennis ball is 67 millimeters; mathematically, Hawkeye has a 5% margin of error as it relates to the ball.
Hawkeye is not a live picture, nor is it accurate representation of the ball hitting the court. At its core, Hawkeye is an “officiating aid”; it is not meant to completely replace the role of on-court officials. It is nothing more than a digitally-generated representation of court conditions and where the ball landed based on its trajectory off the racket. It’s no coincidence that the marks on Hawkeye replays look very similar to each other, regardless of what type of shot is being challenged. On clay, the mark is an actual representation of the ball hitting the court. Each ball mark will look different based on what kind of shot was hit, whether it be a lob, overhead, etc. Occasionally, there is an argument about a ball mark or reading from the chair umpire, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t happen very often at all. One misinterpretation might be beaten to death, but it doesn’t actually mean it’s an epidemic. Even though the occasional ball mark will be misread by the umpire, the risk of that is statistically far lower than a margin of error of +/- 3.6 millimeters on every ball.
In a sense, implementing Hawkeye on clay would be ‘put up or shut up’ time for the technology and its manufacturers. The mark never lies and players, officials and fans can finally see for themselves how many calls were upheld or overturned when they really shouldn’t have been. Set the scene for the worst case scenario, and a very plausible one. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are playing in a Roland Garros final, late in the fifth set. Nadal’s shot is called out on a break point for Djokovic, and Nadal challenges. The technology rules the ball in, but there’s a clear mark showing that it is in fact out. There’s no evidence to suggest that the technology is more accurate than the mark, so what’s right? That might be an extreme example but a valid, and very real, concern. The chair umpire’s hands are tied and control over the match is more or less taken out of his or her hands. On the other side of the coin, the credibility of the technology as a whole take a hit. What happens then?
So why has Hawkeye passed the test for accuracy on hard and grass courts and not clay? Briefly, the ball does not leave a discernable mark that can be read on either of these surfaces. On a hard court, Hawkeye cuts down on arguments because players recognize that the mark there is not always the full representation of the ball. In addition, the lines are painted on both these surfaces; they’re flat, and allow for Hawkeye to gauge a more accurate reading. The lines on clay are not even. This is another one of the biggest reasons why Hawkeye on clay can’t work.
“We decided not to use Hawk-Eye on clay because it might not agree with the mark the umpire is pointing at,” now-retired chair umpire Lars Graff said in 2009. “Most clay courts now have embedded concrete lines that sit a millimetre above the surface. This means that a ball that nicks the line, and therefore is in, does not show up on the clay but would show up as ‘in’ on Hawk-Eye. That would cause a problem.”
The same goes for “Hawkeye” that’s in place for television replays. It’s not an official review and used for nothing more than the entertainment of the television viewing audience. If the technology hasn’t been authorized for official use on the surface, and its accuracy on the surface called into question, it’s irresponsible to even be showing these kind of replays.
An example: In a match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Monaco at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2011, Tsonga hit a serve that was wide of the center service line which was called out by the line umpire. The chair umpire came down and inspected the mark and agreed the serve was out. Tsonga agreed with the ruling. A view of the mark on the clay was then shown, and it was clearly out.
They then showed the unofficial Hawkeye image, which was just touching the line.
If some kind of electronic review is to be implemented on clay, an entirely new system would need to be developed. While Hawkeye is a great tool, it has its flaws and has no place on clay in its current form. Reading ball marks on clay has nothing to do with the ‘purity of the game’ or ‘being stuck in the past.’ No one should be convinced that a Hawkeye replay is actually more accurate than reading a ball mark. Until the day comes that Hawkeye has zero margin of error, it won’t be. It’s simple math.
“As a player, you love Hawkeye,” Mike Bryan said earlier this week at Roland Garros. “You know that it’s right on.”
But is it?
I always tell myself that I’m never going to get involved with the two most ridiculous debates in tennis, grunting and equal prize money, but just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Let me preface this by saying this is not going to be a rant about the aesthetics of grunting. Some find it annoying, while others, such as myself, aren’t bothered by it at all. That’s completely acceptable; I’m not here to force my opinion on others, nor would I appreciate others forcing their opinion on me. However, I am here to address facts.
It is because of this that I felt the need to write this, against my better judgement; despite the fact that this non-issue has already been beaten to hell and back, the commentary on it points towards another, even more glaring issue in tennis.