Comings and goings
WTA CEO is out; Hingis may be next
Posted: Monday January 20, 2003 2:25 PM
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
Right to the mail this week. But before we start in earnest, two questions came up repeatedly.
1. What's with the "Martina Hingis is retiring" rumors?
As we noted in the 2003 predictions column a few weeks ago, talk that Hingis' career is in real jeopardy has been brewing for the past several months. A top-10 player told me in November that "Martina is not optimistic" about playing again. Her foot never really healed correctly and, depending on whom you believe, this injury occurred years ago and has been aggravated every subsequent time she stepped on the court.
I have no inside info, but here's my take: Clearly this is a serious injury. Hingis, of all people, relishes (note I'm using present tense) competing, has a certain affection for being a celebrity and genuinely loves tennis. But it's probably premature to talk retirement. If she took the next, say, three years off to undergo treatment and see if the injury responds, she'd still be only 25. Maybe Hingis will never return to the top 10, but with some time off, perhaps she'll return to the tour. Let's hope so, anyway.
Incidentally, Paul Kik of Springfield, Va., wondered whether Hingis, if she retired tomorrow, would be inducted into the international Tennis Hall of Fame. My response: Shoo-in would be both a weak and inappropriate pun that I will refrain from making. But unless Sergio Tacchini himself is on the induction committee, it would be well-nigh impossible to turn away Hingis. In addition to winning five Grand Slam singles titles and coming within a match of winning the Grand Slam in 1997, Hingis is probably the best doubles player of her generation. Add in her other titles, her assorted Slam finals, her cerebral style and the fact that she is third on the all-time prize-money list, and you can start clearing wall space in Newport now.
2. What's with the shakeup at the WTA Tour? Was CEO Kevin Wulff forced out or did he really resign? How come there seems to be no stability within the organization?
Martina Navratilova may go off on more rants than Dennis Miller, but she was spot-on when describing the tour last week. "I said 15 years ago that they should blow it up and start all over again," said the ageless one. "I still feel that way."
The structure of the tour is so bass ackward and the terrain so mottled with land mines that it's nearly impossible for there to be effective leadership. Way too many constituents have interests that are completely adverse. (One of a few dozen examples: Players want to play fewer events, promoters want them to play more.) The management groups -- which is to say, Octagon and IMG -- exert entirely too much influence and often run roughshod over the tour's rules. Too many parties at the table put their own interests and self-preservation before the overall health of the tour and the good of the sport. A CEO with the patience of Gandhi, the wisdom of Solomon and the diplomatic tact of Jimmy Carter would have an over-under of two years running the tour, before moving onto a more feasible challenge. Like, say, brokering peace in the Middle East.
As for Wulff, he had two big goals when he accepted the job barely a year ago: landing a big-time sponsor and getting the Tour Championships, the WTA's signature event, on firm footing. Owing in part to the shaky global economy, a title sponsor proved elusive and the regional sponsorships he envisioned never really materialized either. After moving the year-end championships out of Munich -- thus incurring the wrath of both European tournament directors and IMG, all within a few weeks of taking the job -- Wulff's fate may have been sealed following the Staples Center fiasco.
Whether he was forced out or resigned of his own his accord is a matter for debate. A board member "swears" that Wulff wasn't fired; a prominent agent tells me otherwise. Still, the fact that he was clearly angling for other jobs this winter suggests that the writing was on the wall. (Or at least on the courtside signage.)
Like his predecessor and fellow Oregonian Bart McGuire, Wulff was a decent and personable man. But he wasn't a "tennis guy," and in the world of tennis (a provincial world, to be sure) insiders don't particularly like taking advice from outsiders. When Wulff held court at board meetings and didn't know that such-and-such event was a Tier I or that Iva Majoli was Croatian and not Russian, it created a credibility gap he never really bridged. His tough talk with both the ATP Tour and the Tennis Channel didn't help build much support either. Compounding matters, Wulff and his family were reluctant to move from Portland to Florida. In his new job as an executive with adidas, Wulff will remain in the Pacific Northwest.
So what now? The tour will begin an executive search for the next sadist ... uh, candidate. In the meantime, wouldn't it be nice if all concerned parties held some sort of forum and configured a business model that made more sense and promoted some stability? Something is fundamentally wrong when a supposedly "hot" sport can't recruit sponsors, when well-compensated leaders don't last a year before fashioning an exit strategy. Blowing up the tour and starting all over again might be a tad extreme. But after blowing through CEOs and sponsors much as the Williams sisters blow through opponents, it's clear that the tour in its current incarnation ain't working.
You've mentioned many times the great shotmaking skills of Fabrice Santoro. In her very entertaining loss to Serena Williams last week, there was more great shotmaking from Santoro's compatriot, Emilie Loit. I love to watch these players, and maybe it's a longshot way for some women to handle the Big Babe brigade. I imagine most of these players are also great in doubles, which I wish would be televised more. Who do you think are the top three or four shotmakers on each tour?
—Blake, Beachwood, Ohio
You know, before I get to the list, you raise an interesting point. Just as Santoro flusters superior opponents with junk and unpredictable shotmaking, maybe the key to beating the Big Babes is to do likewise. Loit's quirky style and bizarre shot selection induced tons of unforced errors from Serena and precluded her ever getting into a rhythm. Same thing for Marlene Weingartner against Jennifer Capriati, albeit with a different result. A player such as Justine Henin-Hardenne -- who has considerable game but ritually is outhit by the top guns -- might do well to play riskier tennis.
Anyway, my list of shotmaking men would include Santoro, his countryman Nicolas Escudé, Hicham Arazi, Fernando Gonzalez and Paradorn Srichaphan. I might also add Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who will be in the top 20 by year's end. (You could certainly make a case for Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin as shotmakers, too, but I've always considered a shotmaker to be merely a dangerous, flashy player, not a top gun who can hit ridiculous winners.) Among the women, I would place Weingartner near the top. Off the top of my head, Virginia Ruano Pascual, Nicole Pratt and Patty Schnyder would probably make my list, too.
What kind of a year do you think Lindsay Davenport will have? People have been writing her off ever since she was injured and started dating Jon Leach. But from what I saw and heard at the U.S. Open, she seems to be one of the few women with the proper attitude to chase Serena and Venus Williams.
Davenport's problem isn't her romance; it's her ability to close out matches. She looks fit. She has regained her timing after last year's lengthy layoff. And she can still bang with the best of them. But with the match on the line, Davenport has been uncharacteristically shaky these past few months. Be it against Maggie Maleeva in Moscow, Monica Seles in L.A. or Henin-Hardenne the other day, Davenport has demonstrated a disturbing tendency to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.
Until she wins those matches, it will be hard for her to get the chance even to meet the Williams sisters in the draw. On the bright side: During her 1998-2000 salad days Davenport was the anti-choker, a player exceptionally skilled at winning tight matches and bringing her best stuff when the chips were stacked highest. (Consider: She won her first three Grand Slam finals.) You sense that success begets success, and that once she gets over the proverbial hump she'll be a lot tougher to beat.
What's the story with Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs not playing doubles together in Australia? Is this another breakup along the lines of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver's?
—Cathy Gotti, Miamisburg, Ohio
Raymond and Stubbs have [insert cliché here]: gone their separate ways, dissolved their partnership, decided to pursue other interests. You get my drift. Still, give them credit for their successful union over the past eight or so years, winning every major other than the French and dozens of lesser titles. Raymond will play bigger events with Davenport and probably recruit partners at other tournaments on an as-needed basis. As for Stubbs, I had heard that she plans to play with Conchita Martinez, but here in Melbourne she's partnered with Mary Pierce.
Much to my surprise (and delight!) it was announced recently that the first round of the Fed Cup will be played in my hometown in April. Assuming that the top five singles players for the United States are all healthy (Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport, who I feel will be ranked ahead of Chanda Rubin by April), who do you predict will be named to the squad by Billie Jean King? Is it safe to assume that we won't see Capriati playing after last year's fiasco? Also, will Lisa Raymond be set aside again if the Williams sisters are available for doubles?
—Bruce Rondeau, Lowell, Mass.
Bruce, I hate to break it you, but if three of the top five players descend on historic Lowell, Mass., my name is Mickey Ward. Capriati is a nonstarter, and I highly doubt that both Williams sisters will make it. If I were a betting man, Seles and Davenport are the singles players, and Raymond and Davenport play doubles. It's probably worth noting that Meghann Shaughnessy and Alexandra Stevenson are likely candidates, too. All that said, it's still nice that top-tier tennis is coming to your town. Encourage your fellow Bay Staters to buy tickets.
I really don't understand why you're so upset about Anna Smashnova's name change to Anna Pistolesi. Think this over: Smash is pretty cool, but Pistol is even better!
—Dax Spencer, Wichita, Kan.
I think Dax is better than either. But I suppose you have a point.
Speaking of Smashnova-Pistolesi (I have taken the liberty of hyphenating it, even if she doesn't), as she was getting tuned by Amanda Coetzer the other day, she must have felt as though she was playing against a more consistent, more experienced simulacrum of herself.
In your seed report you wrote that we've "never seen a style like [Evgenia] Koulikovskaya's." Unfortunately, until she defects to the U.S. or begins to win Grand Slams, we may never see her play. Will you please explain her style? Many thanks!
—L. Esaj, Baton Rouge, La.
Koulikovskaya is not merely ambidextrous -- she essentially has two forehands and switches the racket between hands during points -- but she plays Ping-Pong tennis, gripping the racket way up on the throat. I realize this description doesn't do the nine-syllabled one justice. I'm telling you: Next time you're at a Slam and see her name on the drawsheet, check her out.
Could you give me an update on Taylor Dent's injuries? He pulled out of Adelaide, Auckland and the Australian. Am I to assume it's the same injury as before? I have a lot of curious fans on my hands, and I could be in a lot of trouble if I don't find out soon.
No one I've spoken to really knows the details. Dent suffered a knee injury, but there's no word on whether he'll have surgery soon. I don't want you to be in any trouble, so I'll keep you posted.
Long Lost Siblings
Take a look at the photo of Andre Agassi in the head-to-head stat section of the ATP Web site, and tell me that he's not a dead ringer for Vlad U. Lenin.