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Beneath the Death Star 03/03/2009 - 6:02 PM

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by Pete Bodo

It turns out that my thoughts on Venus and Serena Williams' performance at Madison Square Garden in the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup last night were a little more complicated than I had anticipated, so it took me a little longer to rassle them down onto paper than I had expected. But those speculations ought to be live, over at the ESPN tennis home page, sometime soon. Here are some further thoughts:

To to tell you the truth, I'm still feeling torn about last night's festivities, and probably in a way that I won't  be able to reason my way out of any time soon. The event seemed to be trying to do many different things at once, and that's sometimes a recipe for not doing anything well.

Was it a significant, historic moment, as evidenced by the presence of former US President Bill Clinton (although that's not exactly a causal relationship) and that ceremony honoring Billie Jean King?

Or was it a fairly grotesque exercise in waste and excess, representing a certain tone-deaf attitude on the part of the promoters and sponsors in these stressful times, using "social awareness" as cover?

Here's how it worked. Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic were the "seminfinal" opponents for, respectively, Venus and Serena Williams. These semifinals were one-set affairs, with no ad-scoring to boot. Jankovic and Ivanovic, who both lost, walked away with $250,000 each for what amounted to a half-hour of work - and work that was undertaken largely with something like a clock-puncher's resignation.

Who could blame them, though? They were made an offer was impossible to refuse (250k guaranteed, for stopping in New York to do half-hour's work as I make my way to California?). Besides, is anyone nuts enough to think that Jelena and Ana felt morally obliged to prevent an all-Williams final in Madison Square Garden, on a night honoring Billie Jean King?

And while it was certainly a welcome, helpful gesture when the suits (during the trophy presentation ceremony) trotted out the great big replica check representing a $50,000 gift to a charitable foundation associated with the event (the Dream Vaccine Foundation), that donation - while it sure beat a poke in the eye with a sharp stick - seemed oddly meager, when compared to the prize-money showered on the four ladies who performed on the court (Serena earned $400,000 for her win, Venus got $300.000).

I don't know, maybe I'm just channeling the financial anxieties that beset us all in this crazy time,  but wasn't it John McEnroe (one of the commentary team last night) who - in a much more solvent time - said that the $1.5 million dollar winner's prize offered at the Grand Slam Cup (a week-long, November tournament, bringing together the best performers at the Grand Slam events of the year) was "obscene?"

Like I said, there was an awful lot going on at once, and some of it was jarring and conducive to creating cognitive dissonance (dang, I'd promised myself never to use that term, but I'm caving). Bill Clinton made a speech about Billie Jean's towering contribution (his exact quote was: She has probably done more than any other woman in the world to empower women and educate men. . .

Quite an endorsement, that. But I had to wonder what Jelena and Ana were thinking as (or if) they listened to Clinton address the crowd and wax poetic about social justice, and how they privately viewed this Clinton, who isn't exactly a beloved figure in Serbia. Did that matter to them at all?  Did the girls want to meet Clinton? Marvel at the silver-haired, smooth-talker's gift for American-style self-celebration, self-indulgence, and self-congratulation?  Were they aware of Bill's history with women, and think, Maybe Billie should have worked a little  harder on educating that one. .  . Did they smile and think that American are perpetual optimists? Preposterous hypocrites? Deluded uber-materialists? Wishful thinkers?

I'm fond of Billie Jean and respect all that she's accomplished. But there's a template to these celebrations now and a familiarity to the rhetoric and encomiums, and a number of people today have asked or said something to the effect: Surely there must have been some other women in the world who advanced the causes of freedom, dignity and justice, maybe even before Billie Jean came around?

   I think Billie Jean really needs to be careful about "the brand"; she's untouchable now, but nobody remains that way forever. Eventually, she may be coming up against the same problem as Clinton - the perception (in Clinton's case, it's already got traction with many people) that she/he is an icon for sale, happy to go to the highest bidder.

These issues had to be percolating in the minds of anyone who cares about such things, although the audience at the exo seemed to consist of the already converted, with a healthy segment of the indifferent  - those who were there first and foremost to see Venus and Serena, and to a lesser extent the Serb stars. In a way, packaging this show as something far more significant than a tennis exhibition may have been a strategic error, at least in terms of how it impacted the tone and tenor of things. While there was some good shotmaking on display, especially from Serena and Venus, their approach was all-business in a ho-hum, Wednesday afternoon second-rounder kind of way. There was no electric moment, nothing to make you sit back with a big grin on your face. They did not pull me into the match; instead I could almost feel them keeping me out. Funny, how that works.

I suppose it was serious; the intent was serious, yet it was impossible to mistake this for the proverbial "serious" tennis moment. For gosh sakes, the warm-up act semis were one-set, with no-ad scoring! That doesn't scream Roland Garros final - it screams Ronald McDonald, sneaking out behind Serena to snatch the racket away from her in a comic moment while all the little kids in the stands laugh. But it seems tha even Venus and Serena wanted this to be something more than an exhibition featuring the stock, crowd-pleasing elements, and that's probably where all those other, weighty elements came into it - as part of a quest for instant credibility and legitimacy earned somewhere other than on the field of play. But tennis is an enterprise in which all that usually matters is what transpires on the field of play.

Clinton So by the end, I found myself wondering if it wouldn't have been more fun for all concerned if we had a few more clowns and a few fewer speeches, or overwrought words of adoration. If we had a few, well, hokey exo moments. Perhaps it might have been more fun (or isn't that on the agenda anymore?) if it were some kind of tennis festival, with the sisters and the Serbs and, what the hail, Bill Clinton and Billie Jean running around, engaging the crowd, showing of their talents, the way I've seen other great players do it in exhibitions.

I had an interesting conversation with Jerry Solomon, president and CEO of StarGames, promoter of the event. In the run-up, I hadn't really boned up on this Tennis Night in America idea, which is wholly Solomon's (or so he told me). This exhibition was a the centerpiece of that effort, and it's pretty impressive. Over  700 different tennis facilities, community centers and other recreational outlets took part in the festivities last night, holding special viewing parties (for the exo, which was broadcast on HBO). At the same time, those facilities collected registrations from youth for their various tennis programs. Twice, you may have noticed, HBO cut to a Chicago tennis club that was part of this 700 tent global village, the way the networks cut away to a tavern or restaurant back in the town of some basketball team that's involved in a critical road game.

"We had a staff meeting (at StarGames) last year, and I said, we should make this 'Tennis Night in America,'" Solomon told me. "I don't even know what that is, but it will be the first night of the year when pro tennis is back in the USA in a big way - before Davis Cup and Indian Wells and Miami, when everyone is traveling westward, even from Europe. Put it on TV, pipe it into theaters, have tailgate parties. . . You may not have noticed, but we had the TNA logo around last year, at the Pete Sampras/Roger Federer exhibition. We just didn't even know what it was then."

This is a fine idea, and I hope Jerry (and his partners, including Ivan Lendl) can pull it off. Whatever they do, it ought to be less of a hybrid. One plan Jerry is floating is bringing in the eight Grand Slam singles winners of the previous year and having a two-day event, with legitimate best-of-three "semifinals" on the first day, and the finals on the second day - along with escalating prize money.

It's a great idea, although it doesn't cure my personal problem. Madison Square Garden is a very different place from what it was when serious tennis was last played here eight or 10 years ago, and once again I found myself struggling to enjoy the experience while realizing what a joy it is to attend an event and watch matches outdoors, in the late afternoon sunshine. 

The PA system in the Garden, which is almost eternally pumping out music, is loud - so loud that you literally bang heads with a companion if you're trying to converse. The Jumbotron hangs over the arena like a Madison Square version of the Star Wars saga's notorious Death Star - it's a huge presence, and when it begins to spit sound, color, and light, watch out! The overall effect, to me is disconcertingly Orwellian. And the audience is the ceature's plaything.

Venus: I love New York, I really love it here. I want to live here!

Crowd roars approval and pours out the love, but why?

This isn't really a Venus issue  - she's just being nice, and what young, well-heeled person doesn't enjoy New York, or fantasize about living here? It's a crowd issue - New Yorkers love being told how great they are. The idea that Venus might choose to buy a loft in Soho confirms their self-importance. At the same time, the reaction suggest the opposite - that somehow Venus living in Soho would. . . validate New Yorkers. Reflect well on them. In other words, New Yorkers are both self-important and insecure about their importance.

And one last thing: for all the honor showered on Billie Jean King, how come the things her name gets attached to always end up constituting a mouthful? There's the USTABJKNTC (the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center) and now the BNPPSFBJKC (the BNP Parisbas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup). If you really want to step up for the old gal, how about a Billie Jean Avenue, or the San Francisco Billie Jean King Tower?

This is a red-meat post, so please keep it on topic move to Your Call for match-calling.


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Posted by Andrew 03/04/2009 at 01:11 PM

Morning, all.

What did it all mean? Not much, in the end, I think.

I concur with Slice-n-Dice above that BJKs instincts with respect to increasing the attention given to tennis don't align with mine. I heartily dislike cheering and noise during points, harlequin-shaded courts, no ad scoring, let serves and the like.

If BJK and WTT can get people to pay to watch it, fine. Just let's not call it tennis.

The same really goes for exos in general - if you don't have a chance to attend a major tournament, going to an exo can be great fun - you get to admire the skill and athleticism on display. Just don't mistake it for a competition. And I don't mean to say that the scores are rigged, just that the participants aren't bringing all their powers to bear.

Media events are fine - no one gets hurt, someone deserving gets praised, some people are modestly overcompensated. Worse things have happened at sea.

Posted by TENNIS.com 03/04/2009 at 01:13 PM

Tim, you should know me well enough to know that I don't do "nervous breakdowns". Glad you dropped by to liven things up, though.

And Kaygee, I've had plenty of sit-downs with BJK, thank you very much. I'm fond of her, although I don't always agree with her, or the way she's presented to the world. It's allowed, you know.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 03/04/2009 at 01:13 PM

My one and only experience of tennis in Madison Square Garden was back in the mid-1970s, when I saw Brian Gottfried versus Harold Solomon. Not exactly heavyweights, but not also-rans either. It was akin to watching Davydenko versus Ferrer.

Posted by yello fuzzy 03/04/2009 at 01:15 PM

Ruth@12:30
well said

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" *ReRe hollywood starlet ;-) 10-time grand slam Champion* 03/04/2009 at 01:21 PM

"Being a huge Venus fan, I'd been hoping that Serena would pull one of her famous low starts (sorry avid :))

I had to laugh when Serena was pouring it on in the final, and someone sitting among the mid-section seats where I was shouted, "Serena, that's your sister you're playing." LOL"

Ruth - apology accepted ;-) After she took that tumble, even I was like, hey it's ok, It's just an exo LOL!

And to those who say the matches were scripted and that an All Williams final was in the works, I will have to disagree with you.

For those interested, nice pics of the ladies from the luncheon before the match ;-)

http://greattennisphotos.blogspot.com/2009/03/ana-jelena-venus-and-serena-attends.html

Posted by Cata 03/04/2009 at 02:04 PM

"So on that basis, am I to understand that any person of historical significance should recognize that the value of their contribution to society is measured entirely by how well they're remembered by the great unwashed?"

not really. every person (not just those of historical significance) should understand that people might not like them or care about their accomplishments, and, no matter how big those are, if they keep pushing them on people who are not that interested in a particular domain where you excelled (like tennis) to begin with, they will slowly become resented.

look, i am actually talking from the perspective of billie jean. it's really for her benefit. personally, i am not particularly bothered by it though i am not likely to tune into an event because of her. but if one wants to remain popular (and it seems to me that she does) then one should take into account other people interests and preferences. from what i read here, it seems to me that those preferences were not takne into account.

Posted by Ruth 03/04/2009 at 02:22 PM

avid: There were lots of Ana and JJ fans sitting around me, and I don't think that they would have been unhappy if Ana or JJ made it to the final. Neither would I -- especially if it were Ana? :)

Michael Barkann said that Venus seemed to injure her leg in the final, but she pooh-poohed the idea in the post-match interview, as she always does with injuries. And I really thought that Serena had hurt herself when she fell hard because she just could not let Venus's amazing backhand volley beat her. I guess that was in the "script," too. I hope that, as Andrew said upthread, no one got hurt. But if there were any small injuries, V&S have 3 weeks to take care of them.

I have always heard and believed that it takes an enormous amount of skill to delibarately sing or act or dance -- or play tennis --badly if you normally do so very well. I think that I'd be able to recognize a thrown set or match if I saw one. And I didn't see one on Monday night.

skip1515: I thought that Sampras legitimately won the sets he won in Pete-Roger exos. But I guess my skepticism or cynicsm needs to be a lot more toxic. :)

BTW I don't like those outsized replicas of the prize checks that they lug onto the court after matches, but a friend of mine just called to get a report on my NYC adventure, and here is her theory on the $400,000.00 check: The tennis honchos are hoping that there's another Richard Williams looking at the exo on HBO and thinking, "Four hundred thousand dollars for one night? I think I'd better make my girls play tennis." LOL

Posted by skip1515 03/04/2009 at 03:50 PM

Ruth: I think Sampras won those sets fair and square, too. In the case of those exhibitions I didn't believe it was Split Two Play The Third, though there have been others where that was the case.

Whether or not the level of play at the Federer/Sampras exo's, or any exhibitions, is as adrenaline fueled as a real tourney is another matter. In that respect I'm not sure the Federer/Sampras matches were indicative of anything definitive outside of fun and the occasionally interesting point and dramatic moment.

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 03/04/2009 at 03:54 PM

..."My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts."

Ruth, I see you've met my mother.

I enjoyed the match last night (at least I thought I did until I read the post/comments). Unlike some of you, I'll never tire of watching Venus and Serena play each other. There's something about competing against a family member that draws me in each and every time. I admit I may be more focused on their faces for reactions than I am on the tennis.

Posted by Heidi 03/04/2009 at 03:55 PM

I am really interested in the discussion here... and going back to Pete's post, possibly the thing that he pointed out that strikes me as the heart of the problem is the $50,000 donation compared to the big prize money. I do see the issue there about... well, it's a self-congratulatory exo with no real sporting or historical impact and it's not for charity. So if you're going to make the night about BJK and women's rights (bear in mind I didn't hear the speeches), it does sit oddly.

OTOH, as "Tennis Night in America," it makes sense. Perhaps as I suggested before, it was poor staging/marketing?

Posted by Jenn 03/04/2009 at 05:04 PM

Interesting comments, and nice to see Tim gearing up for the clay court season - I know you are looking forward, Tim!

I have always been indifferent to exhibitions, but if they generate more "populist" interest in the game and allow people to see more of favorite players, then great. But Pete's comments about the guaranteed money really rung true for me. Wouldn't it have been nice if these players, who have more money than they could spend, chose to donate all or a substantial chunk of that money to some kind of charitable cause related to women or otherwise tied in to the focus of the event? or heck, any charitable cause. To me, that would have made the evening more significant than a $50,000 donation, 1/24th of the guaranteed appearance fees paid to the players. Just my idealistic 2 cents this afternoon.

Posted by darthhelmethead 03/04/2009 at 05:35 PM

I didn't read the post, or see the exibition. But I felt the need to leave a comment just because of the post's name and my moniker..

May the Swartz be with everyone.

Posted by steve 03/05/2009 at 12:54 AM

It does seem like an obscene amount of money to pay the 4 players for so little time spent on court, but it's obviously far less than the actual revenue generated. If the money hadn't gone to the players it obviously would've gone into someone's pockets, unless the organisers lowered the admission or transmission fees...
I guess we're seeing what they're actually worth... :|

Posted by C Note 03/05/2009 at 04:27 PM

Hey Pete,

Loved your write up and I pretty much agree. I thought there was a lot of overreaching at times that led to missed opportunities. I guess I was expecting a celebration of the players and what they had accomplished in 2008, but they didn't really touch on that.

I had a fine time. But the whole experience was a bit hollow.

Posted by Nobady 03/07/2009 at 04:12 PM

Its shameful for Ana and Jelena that was making a photo with that terrorist Bil Clinton, same one who was bombarding them 10 years ago! They should spit his face!

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