In Response to ‘The Man Who Rescued Serena Williams’

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.

Sloane Stephens Singlehandedly Destroys American Media Narrative in…Four Pages

The prevailing media narrative over the first third of the tennis year was the supposed, and completely ridiculous, mentor-mentee relationship between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens.

We now know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this was completely staged invented…actually, I really don’t know what to call it. Granted, much of this entire farce was put forth by Stephens herself, but Serena wasn’t totally innocent either.

 “She’s like one of my really good friends,” Stephens said to ESPN at the start of the year. “Everyone thinks she’s so mean, but she’s like the greatest person ever. We’re just young kids together. We never take anything too seriously.”

“I noticed Sloane I think years ago at TeamTennis maybe four years ago,” Serena said prior to their match in Melbourne. “I saw her in the locker room. She was another black girl. I was like, ‘Hey!’ That’s when I first noticed her. ‘What up, girl’?”

We never take anything too seriously. Oh?

After beating Bojana Jovanovski in a heated fourth round match in Australia, Stephens said that Serena told her “she should make more noise on-court” in her post match interview. We all know what happened next; Stephens defeated an injury hobbled Serena in three sets in the quarterfinals and quickly became the next media darling of American women’s tennis. Granted, since that match in Melbourne, Stephens is 2-8 while Serena is 15-1 with two titles.

Well, if Brisbane and Melbourne cracked the framework, then the perfect empire came crashing down on Friday when Stephens’ incredibly candid interview with Marin Cogan was released in ESPN: The Magazine. In it, the American #2…well, completely tears Serena a new one.

Some of the juiciest quotes are as follows:

“I’m annoyed, I’m over it,”she says of the Serena comparisons. I’ve always said Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.” She attributes the media hype over her relationship to the star to “just being African American and they want to link to something.”

“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia…And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”

Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”

The interview peaks when Stephens recounts an incident from when she was 12, the first time she had seen Venus and Serena play in Delay Beach during Fed Cup. Her mom took Stephens and her brother to the tie to see the sisters  play, and the family waited to try and get autographs.

“…I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters…I hung it up for a while. I was, like, devastated because they didn’t sign it, whatever, and then after that I was over it. I found a new player to like because I didn’t like them anymore.”

Rawr. It’s like this. The “mini-Serena” angle gave the mainstream sports (non-tennis) media, particularly in the United States, a reason to focus on tennis. Stephens’ win over Serena in Australia was the best thing she could’ve done for them…and the worst thing she could’ve done for everyone else. It was the changing of the guard, they said. The “new American hope” had arrived, they said. “Little Serena” was here to save us from the death of American tennis, they said.

“For the first 16 years of my life, she said one word to me and was never involved in my tennis whatsoever,” says Stephens. “I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal that she’s not involved now. If you mentor someone, that means you speak to them, that means you help them, that means you know about their life, that means you care about them. Are any of those things true at this moment? No…” I offer: “They want the next great American player.” Stephens says: “They want another Serena.”

Why Stephens and Serena (albeit briefly) felt the need to cater to this delusion rather than just be straight about their professional, competitive (lack of a) relationship from the get go remains a mystery to me.

Survive and Advance: The Real March Madness

This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

For those in the United States, “March Madness” is a household event. The umbrella term for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championship is the harbinger of spring and has risen to cult status across the country. The men’s tournament, which features 68 teams, has become one of the most popular annual sporting events in the United States. Fans began associating the term March Madness with the NCAA tournament in the early 1980s. During that time, perhaps the second most famous phrase associated with the NCAA National Championship was born.

The 1983 Wolfpack of North Carolina State University, led by head coach Jim Valvano, finished the regular season 17-10; the result was incredibly short of impressive. Throughout the postseason, Valvano knew his team would have a difficult task in front of them. “Survive and advance,” Valvano always said; he wanted his team to stay close in every game and put itself in a position to win at the end. The Wolfpack, the fourth seed, took their coach’s words to heart, perhaps too literally. They recorded a last-minute win against Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament; the squad followed that up with an overtime win over No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals and a three point win over No. 2 Virginia in the conference championship.

The team eventually won the national championship which is celebrated to this day as a victory for underdogs everywhere. As a result, Valano’s words have become the rallying cry for many teams during March Madness. Although the NCAA has trademarked the phrase, tennis also has its own version of March Madness every year. Outside of the Grand Slams, the back-to-back two week events in Indian Wells and Miami are the first big, combined ATP and WTA events of the year.

After stellar tennis from the California desert, the event in South Beach has been a bit of a dud. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t make the trip to Miami. Some players, like Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur and Stanislas Wawrinka, fell victim to injury. Others, like Juan Martin del Potro and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to build on final runs in Indian Wells and fell victim to early upsets. Novak Djokovic had some strong words for his fourth round upset loss to Tommy Haas, calling it “definitely the worst match I’ve played in a long time.”

And the rest? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy V’s famous words are plastered on the walls of the locker room.

Serena Williams rallied from 6-2, 4-1 down in her fourth round match against Dominika Cibulkova to eventually prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The World No. 1 found herself in trouble for the second consecutive match in the quarterfinals; after winning the opening set against Li Na, Williams was down 5-2 in the second set before rallying to win in a tiebreak.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champion, was dealt the most difficult hand when her draw came out. Radwanska rallied past Magdalena Rybarikova in nearly three hours in the third round, and was forced to rally from a set down against Sloane Stephens and Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Against Flipkens, Radwanska singlehandedly paired tennis highlights with NCAA ones on the evening SportsCenter with the shot of the year so far.

Maria Sharapova, in the bottom half of the draw, probably benefitted the most from Azarenka’s injury withdrawal. Despite playing some vintage tennis to take home the trophy in Indian Wells, the Russian has been less than impressive this fortnight. She peaked in the quarterfinals and survived 14 double faults and over 50 unforced errors in a two-and-a-half hour, 7-5 7-5 win against Sara Errani. Nonetheless, she has not dropped a set in 2013.

Let’s not forget about Jelena Jankovic, long considered past her peak. In Miami, the Serb is NC State; she’s the underdog who’s dug deep to get this far. Jankovic trailed by a break in each of the three sets she played against Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals, but rallied for the 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 victory. Her wins against Vinci and Nadia Petrova marked her first top 15 scalps in an age and a half.

While the tennis might not be pretty, wins are wins. The difference between those who remain and those who’ve gone home is huge; the former found ways to win. The goal for each and every player in tennis, like it is for each and every team in March Madness, is to get to the “business end” of the tournament and to have the opportunity to play for a title.

Their goal is to survive and advance.

“She’s As Much of a Fairy Princess as I Am” – 2012 Wimbledon Players’ Party

One of Wimbledon’s many glorious traditions is the annual WTA players’ party, which takes place on the Thursday before the tournament begins. There is no tennis to tear apart until Sunday, so we can slam the outfits instead! Presenting: Your Obligatory WTA Fashion Police Blog Post!

Petra Kvitova

The defending champion continues to shine when given the chance. After being thrust into the public eye following her Wimbledon win in 2011, the soft-spoken Czech has embraced her outer sparkle off the court.

Jelena Jankovic

As we know, the only reason why Jelena even bothers to play tennis these days is for extra spending money, clothes and parties. She can’t even do that right anymore.

Venus and Serena Williams

Venus and Serena’s fashion choices over the past decade have sometimes wowed us, and other times, have left us scratching our heads. Both opted for classic options, but the jury’s still out on the hair.

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova doing what Maria Sharapova does with commanding presence as always. She wouldn’t look out of place on a Hollywood red carpet. Bonus points for the shoes.

Victoria Azarenka

Azarenka, who also opts for casual looks at these events more often than not (yes, that debacle at Indian Wells excluded), sports a new layered hairdo to go with her trusty black leggings.

Caroline Wozniacki

If you’re experiencing deja vu, don’t fret! I am too. Wozniacki sported a similar off the shoulder black dress and up-do at last year’s players’ party. Stella, get the girl another look, stat.

Li Na

Take me to your leader. China’s first Grand Slam champion rocks the makeup and hair as always, but I do wonder if the dress picks up radio signals. Or at one time sustained alien life.

Ana Ivanovic

Ivanovic, unlike her compatriot Jankovic, never fails to disappoint. Although this picture does. The only negative of this dress was the fringed monstrosity on the bottom that I’ve spared you from seeing. Thank me later.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska rocking a simple, black floor length gown. Although, if I were her, I’d lose the number of Kuznetsova’s hair dresser.

Elena Vesnina

The Russian knocks it out of the park, and the dress really brings out her eyes. My winner for sure.

Circus Chatrier: Starring Serena, Virginie, Some Pigeons and More Hindrance

Virginie Razzano’s stunning 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 upset of Serena Williams in the opening round of Roland Garros on Tuesday handed the American her first loss in the first round of a Grand Slam. Razzano, who reached a career high ranking of #16 in 2009, has suffered through numerous personal and physical setbacks in her tennis career. Shortly after she reached her career high ranking, she was plagued by multiple injuries, and plummeted back down the rankings. Prior to the start of the 2011 French Open, Razzano’s fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, passed away due to a brain tumor. Coming into Roland Garros, Razzano was ranked #111, exactly 106 spots under Williams. Williams, undefeated on clay in 2012 and the champion in Charleston and Madrid, was considered the favorite by many to win the title.  Why do we love tennis? No one gave the Frenchwoman a chance, and she proved everyone wrong.

The match has reignited a debate regarding the rules of tennis and how clear they actually are. Once again, the hindrance rule takes center stage at a Grand Slam. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki penalized Razzano three time in the match citing the rule. I’ve read and heard some of the most ridiculous things in regards to the rule over the past two days, and it doesn’t help that most of the former players commentating, especially for major American TV networks…I’m looking at you McEnroe and Carillo, are completely unaware of what the hindrance rule actually means. The ITF and WTA hindrance rules read as follows:

ITF rule:

26. HINDRANCE
If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

WTA rule:

H. HINDRANCE RULE
If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or deliberate.
1. Involuntary Hindrance
A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled deliberate.
2. Deliberate Hindrance
Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in the loss of a point.

In both instances, the first involuntary hindrance is regarded as a let, while any subsequent involuntary hindrance is ruled intentional, and penalized accordingly.

“Well if Razzano is going to get penalized for that, than Azarenka, Sharapova, etc, who are louder, should all be defaulted in the first game. Can’t wait to see her umpire them.”

First off, it’s laughable that a decent amount of people think Asderaki has never umpired Azarenka, Sharapova, Schiavone or your other favorite noise maker before. She’s experienced and one of the best in the game, and has chaired all of them. Secondly, Razzano WAS NOT penalized for grunting. I cannot stress this clearly enough. Razzano was penalized for a verbal utterance of pain, which is an entirely different issue according to the rules. Also, the volume of the hindrance is irrelevant in determining whether a act of hindrance has taken place.

Razzano’s first verbal utterance is considered involuntary or out of her control, as it was the exact moment that her cramp/injury/ailment occurred. Asderaki, in correct procedure, asked her if she needed the trainer, she said no, and then warned her if it happened again it would be a point penalty. It happened twice more, and you know the rest. There is literally nothing here outside the letter of the rules. The clarity of hindrance rule has long been hotly debated in tennis circles; however, the language of the rule is clear. Those intent on crucifying Asderaki should know she is just an umpire; she doesn’t make the rules, she and the others just enforce them as instructed.

Those who have an issue with grunting as it relates to “deliberate and unintentional,” should realize that if the umpires were stricter in the 80’s and 90’s regarding it, there would be no issue today. Grunting is covered in a different section in the rules, and is also amended for 2012 in the notes and comments section of the 2012 USTA Friend at Court.

USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits the overhead. (See The Code § 34.) Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.

Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of an official. Grunting and the making of loud noises that affect the outcome of a point are hindrances. Only an official may rule that these actions are hindrances and order that a let be played or a loss of point, depending on whether an official had previously warned the offending player.
Keep in mind, and I STRESS THIS GREATLY: This rule was rewritten by the USTA for 2012 in an attempt to provide further clarity on this issue. The rules, while they may vary slightly from federation to federation, are by-in-large consistent across the board, and with ATP, WTA and ITF rules. The point remains that officials are supposed to distinguish between grunts and shrieks of pain in regards to hindrance. The bolded portion of the grunting amendment is where this distinction happens; how are officials to rule if grunting affects the outcome of the point if no player seems to take issue during the match? As the rule stands, grunting is only considered a hindrance in VERY specific circumstances. Razzano’s shrieks of pain came as Williams was preparing for her shot, and fall clearly under the hindrance category.

“Why was Serena penalized right away but they replayed the point on the first hindrance?”

The hindrance ruling at the US Open was 100% correct because it falls under the category of deliberate. The word deliberate in this context covers BOTH the deliberate action performed with the intent to hinder AND a deliberate action which causes a hindrance anyway. The situation at the US Open fell into the latter; the phrase “Come on!” is considered a deliberate verbal utterance. The intent was not to hinder, but since it is a deliberate action, it falls under deliberate hindrance. The point penalty is given immediately.

“Why is this umpire the only one calling hindrances?”

Mardy Fish was called on a hindrance in his loss to Matt Ebden by Felix Torralba at the 2012 BNP Paribas Open. Marion Bartoli was also called on hindrance against Christina McHale at the 2011 US Open. Unintentional hindrances such as hats blown off by wind or balls falling from skirts (a notable example of this coming in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open in a match with Maria Sharapova and Camille Pin) are common. End of discussion.

Far too often, chair umpires have been criticized for being too soft: this player takes too much time in between points, this player gets illegal on court coaching, etc. Asderaki followed the letter of the rule to a T, and her implementation of the rule was spot on for the first two hindrances. The third, which many have taken issue with, was arguably a judgement call, but was still correct. Don’t shoot the messengers because the rule is hazed under 50 shades of gray.

Can we stop talking about it now?