2015/03/03

“On The Call” – ESPN Australian Open Conference Call with Darren Cahill and Pam Shriver

Darren Cahill

Darren Cahill

(January 17, 2015) ESPN tennis analysts Darren Cahill and Pam Shriver spoke with media on Friday evening about the Australian Open, which starts Sunday, Jan. 18 (Monday in Melbourne), with 100 live hours on ESPN television and 800 from a record 13 courts on ESPN3.

 

Soundbites:

Where Roger Federer is now, explaining his longevity:

  • This one is not so much the fact that he’s playing at this level at this stage of his career because it’s actually territory that other players have traveled down before….  I think really the remarkable thing for him is his love and enthusiasm for the sport still.  It never wavers.  The moment he steps on the practice court, from the moment he steps onto every single match, you see a dedicated guy that is loving exactly what he’s doing, and he’s a little more forthright in the way he’s playing now.” – Cahill
  • The new racquet played a big role.  He’s finally getting totally committed to a bigger frame.  It gave him a little more, especially on the backhand side… I think Stefan Edberg…can help things, not just little tactical things moving forward, shortening the points, the way Edberg used the serve, attacking weak second serves and the volley, but also the way Edberg managed great rivalries of his time psychologically.” – Shriver

 

From who knows, a mother of twins, what to watch for concerning Federer’s creaky back:

  • His back getting more healthy (was key in 2014).  How long that remains with his set of boy twins starting to become more mobile, and as he starts to get down on the ground again with another set of twins, we’ll see how his back goes in the next year or two.” – Shriver

 

Venus…rising?

  • First off, Venus one of the class athletes in this sports generation.  I thought, when she won in Auckland over Wozniacki, just her style and her sportsmanship, and she just shown through.  Whether she wins or she loses ‑‑ and I love that about Venus…slowly but surely, she’s gotten some belief again that she can contend.  She’s got to get through the early rounds.  She’s got to win three‑set matches, and she’s got to be smart.  The weather’s got to break her way.  But you know what, I love it.  I love her fight.  I love everything about Venus Williams.  We should feel really lucky that we’ve got some great athletes, great champions of the last 15 years in their mid‑30s still contending to win majors, in the case of Venus, still somebody to keep an eye on, and she’s my outsider pick on ESPN.com to win the Australian.” – Shriver

 

Is Nadal ready to contend for the title, coming back from health issues?

  • “He’s very, very underdone coming into the Aussie Open.  The first two or three matches, obviously, all eyes will be on Rafa to see how his game is…His game is rusty.  Obviously, he needs miles in his legs to feel his game.  That’s what he’s been desperately trying to do.  He’s been practicing incredibly hard.  I watched him play a couple of practice sets as well, and he’s struggling a bit with his game.  He’ll be vulnerable in the early rounds.  But you know Nadal, if he can find his legs and find his way into the second week, he becomes more and more difficult to beat as the time goes on.  If he makes the second week, he’s going to be a threat.” – Cahill

 

I would just like to ask both of you about Roger Federer.  He really came close last year to getting his 18th slam, and 33 years old, father of three (stet), he continues to surprise everyone and doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere, beating Raonic and Dimitrov, both young guys.  What do you see for this Australian Open, and how remarkable is it what he’s doing? 

PAM SHRIVER:  I’ll step up.  I want to reflect quickly on a year ago, where we were with Federer because (there were) a lot of question marks a year ago.  He entered the Australian Open, having really not done that well in the majors a year before.  I think that win over Tsonga right at the end of week 1 really kind of started to set the table for a really good year for Roger.  Then he followed it up with a really good win over Murray even though Murray didn’t have a great year in the majors, and got to the semis of the Australian.  Even though he didn’t get the finals or win it, I thought last year’s Australian Open was really important for Roger’s year.  I think the Wimbledon final was the match of the year in tennis.  It was historic either way, Novak finally ending the string of disappointing losses.  For Roger, obviously, it would have been an extraordinary win.  Personally, to think that this great athlete at the top still of the men’s game has two sets of twins and is juggling it all with his usual incredible class just means that we’re lucky to have him, and we’re lucky to still have him as a great force.  He’s entering the year as a 2 seed, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to win another Australian Open.  He’s not my pick, but it’s certainly possible.

DARREN CAHILL:  I agree with everything Pam has got to say there.  Everything has been remarkable about Roger’s career.  This one is not so much the fact that he’s playing at this level at this stage of his career because it’s actually territory that other players have traveled down before.  We’ve seen guys like Connors, Agassi at 33, 34 years of age, even 35, do remarkable things on the tennis courts.  I think it also gives Roger a lot of confidence that age doesn’t really play a part at this stage of his career.  I think really the remarkable thing for him is his love and enthusiasm for the sport still.  It never wavers.  The moment he steps on the practice court, from the moment he steps onto every single match, you see a dedicated guy that is loving exactly what he’s doing, and he’s a little more forthright in the way he’s playing now.  I think a couple of things add to that.  You have a few less options the older you get.  The edge starts to come off of you physically, slightly, ever so slightly when we talk about Roger.  So he’s a little more forthright in what needs to be done on the court, game plans and tactics to get it done.  And we’re seeing someone who’s totally committed to that.  He’s got a great team around him.  He’s got Stefan, who’s been there before and certainly played some great tennis around these years as well.  He’s going out there, and he’s executing a strong, attacking game plan, which is also helping him physically to cut a few corners and make a few matches shorter than they normally would be, and I still think he’s capable, for the next couple of years, of winning any Major.  He just needs to continue to put himself in a position.  Obviously, for anybody to win a Major these days, you need a little bit of luck and need a few things going your way, and he’s certainly still capable of doing that.

 

Last year, the improvement from Roger, what part coaching and tactics and what part health, his back? 

PAM SHRIVER:  I think we all thought the three adjustments.  The new racquet played a big role.  He’s finally getting totally committed to a bigger frame.  It gave him a little more, especially on the backhand side.  His back getting more healthy.  How long that remains with his set of boy twins starting to become more mobile, and as he starts to get down on the ground again with another set of twins, we’ll see how his back goes in the next year or two.  But the back being healthy, and I think Stefan Edberg, those little subtle things that a great champion ‑‑ Edberg can help things, not just little tactical things moving forward, shortening the points, the way Edberg used the serve, attacking weak second serves and the volley, but also the way Edberg managed great rivalries of his time psychologically.  Of the four, the big four is just getting a little edge on how to manage these incredible matchups.  So I think all of those things have helped Roger a lot.  Actually, helped Roger a little, but all you need is a little bit of a help, and it makes a huge difference.

DARREN CAHILL:  I think that was well said, Pammy.  I think that Roger’s got such a great sense of the history of the game as well.  He spoke last week about when he first came up with the likes of Safin and Hewitt and those types of guys, that they were pushing the Agassi and Sampras’s out of the game, but that rivalry to take on the best in the sport at that time was enthusiastic for all the young kids, and they pushed each other.  He got to see Hewitt winning major championships and doing well from an early age, and that spurred him on to be better and work harder and be more professional.  Now he’s at the other end of the spectrum where he’s one of the older guys, and we have the younger guys coming through and trying to push him out of the game.  It’s remarkable how he can sort of look through the years and see those rivalries and have great respect for them and know that he’s part of something pretty special now.  I think that’s also what keeps his enthusiasm so high for the game and the love of the game is that he doesn’t want these young guys to come along and push him out of the game.  He wants to continue to try to get better and hold his place for as long as possible and for as long as he enjoys getting onto the tennis court.

DAVE NAGLE:  We’ll move on, but let me just add Patrick McEnroe’s voice from a press release I did about 10 days ago, looking ahead to this year.  He said, “I’ll say it again.  This is Roger Federer’s last year to win a Major.”  I think that expresses Patrick’s ‑‑ how he was impressed with Roger’s 2014.

 

Hi, Darren.  I was wondering about Milos Raonic and John Isner.  Two players with a big serve and a big forehand.  I was wondering what it is about Raonic that has allowed him make the next step that Isner hasn’t quite been able to take quite yet. 

DARREN CAHILL:  We can only speak to what happened last year, and I feel like he made major steps forward in feeling like he belonged in the big stage, in the big situation.  We saw him move to his first ever major semifinal at Wimbledon.  Obviously, he got blown away by a pretty tough matchup against Roger.  Even since that particular tournament, he’s made several adjustments to his game to counter that, and he’s played better against Roger the last couple of times.  So you’re seeing constant improvement in Milos’ game.  And some of that comes from those around him as well.  They know what it takes to get to the top and to get the most out of him.  I think from a logic sense, for the first couple of years on tour, he was not one‑dimensional, but he was able ‑‑ his weaknesses were attackable for the better players in the game.  Once you got his serve back and once you got a pretty decent read on his serve, you felt like you were in the point with an extremely good chance of winning it, and you could cause a bit of panic into his game, but you don’t see that now.  Even in that final that Federer played against Milos in Brisbane, and Milos was right up against it.  And he was up against a guy who played pretty incredible tennis at the start of the match, and Milos was able to claw his way back into that match and put himself into a pretty good position late in that first set.

 

So I feel like you can’t rush these things.  We’re up against a generation and an era of player that has been so dominant in these top four guys that it’s nearly impossible to say that anybody can come through and just join the top four.  It’s been a slow process for most of these players.  And Milos has had a couple of injury concerns over the last few years, which he’s been able to shake off.  He’s maybe one of the most professional players both on and off the court.  He works just as hard as anyone, if not harder than anyone on and off the court.  And this guy has more of a desire than anyone I’ve seen to win a major than most of that generation of player coming through.  I think you just have to be patient.  With the taller athletes, it takes a little longer for that strength to kick in and for them to really become great athletes, but he’s well on the way.  I think for John also, it’s a little bit of the same thing.  John’s also been given a greater appreciation for what needs to be done the last three or four years.  You’ve seen much more consistent results for John.  Being 6’10” is not an easy thing for anybody to find their way around the tennis court.  He’s taken on a new coach this year.  He’s going to be more forthright with the way he approaches these tennis matches.  For him to have a chance in the majors, he has to find a way to try to shorten some of the long matches he gets into, and to be point blank, he really just has to improve his return game and find a way to break serve.  If you do that, it’s going to make life much easier for him.

PAM SHRIVER:  From what Darren said, not a lot left unsaid about Raonic.  From what Darren said, 100 percent professional in his attitude.  Darren pretty much covered it.  I think we all feel that way.  When Raonic sort of burst onto the big time Major scene, it was at the Australian Open four or five years ago.  When he visited us on the ESPN set, he just came with an aura of total professionalism.  Even though he was very young, he was extremely serious.  You could just tell every day he was ready to work in order to get better.  That kind of hunger and preparation, day in, day out, year in, year out, and when you have the kind of size and weapons he has, one of the great serves of this current era in men’s tennis, it’s going to make you a force.  So it’s physical weapons.  It’s his mental approach.  It’s his desire to get better and the team around him.  It’s a pretty awesome package.  Isner, to me, a generation older and five inches taller.  That’s a big five inches in tennis.  It’s an awkward size to stay injury free and to have the kind of movement that’s necessary on tennis court with a quick change of directions.  I think Isner’s done incredibly well, and he’s actually my outsider, my dark horse.  I tend to put my ESPN hat aside, and I tend to want to cheer for him.  I want to see him have more break‑throughs at majors because he is such a compelling figure.  We’ll see what the influence of a new coach, and I think Justin has some good ideas about Isner shortening up, not trying to be a baseline player at 6’10”, but using the big serve, the big forehand, and moving forward and having that target at net where it can really be intimidating.

DAVE NAGLE:  Sounds like the insights about Isner come from personal experience, learning the game.

PAM SHRIVER:  Also, at 6’1″ was my height in the women’s game, I don’t know what that equals to in women’s terms, but Venus Williams is an example of a phenomenal mover at a height for women that tends to be awkward, but for Isner, it’s just tough to move quickly and nimbly.

 

Hello, guys.  I’m nothing if not predictable.  I’m going to talk about Andy Murray again.  Darren, I guess, in the first instance, changes to his kind of back room setup again with Dani leaving.  Amelie is still there.  He seems from afar to be in pretty good place and pretty content and happy with life.  What do you make of his chances going into the Aussie Open? 

DARREN CAHILL:  I got to see him play all of his matches at the Hopman Cup.  I spoke to him at length, and he’s very happy with the way he feels leading into the 2015 season.  He’s changed a little of his preseason program.  He’s added some sprint work and power work into his program.  He’s feeling great on the court.  He was playing very good tennis.  A lot of stuff in his game that can normally get him in trouble against some of the players, it looks like he’s becoming more forthright in the way he’s approaching his baseline rallies.  Certainly his serve is a constant thing he continues to work on.  Hopefully, we’ll see some improvement, especially in the second serve, in 2015.  He looks great.  He looks happy.  This is a new year for him.  He’s got new challenges ahead of him.  As you said, he’s got a couple of members, a bit of a new looking team, and that can only create new challenges for him to find a way to get it done this year.  I think the form that we saw him at the end of the year was very encouraging, to see him fight so hard to get back in the top eight and become part of that London Masters was great for him.  I think you can take every loss and learn a lot from it, and that loss that he had to Federer, I think he took that in the right way, the right fashion, and it was remarkable that a couple of days later sitting on the couch, he got the phone call from the tournament to come and play an exhibition match and fill in, and he went down there.  That shows you the quality of the guy.  I’m expecting a big year for him.  He’s going to put himself back into the mix.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins another Major this year.  He’s got a bit to prove.  He likes being the underdog.  He likes proving to people.  When you tell him, listen, you can’t get it done, he likes to go out there and show people he can get it done.  I suspect Andy will have a great start to the year.  To be honest, he may be playing the best tennis of all of the players just at the moment.  We’ve probably seen him more than anyone else, he’s played quite a bit of tennis coming into the Australian Open, but he’s been pretty faultless so far.

PAM SHRIVER:  Just quickly, I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, but I think it’s interesting when you think about what Andy Murray did as far as starting this new trend of hiring ‑‑ and I guess Roddick did a little bit with Connors a few years ago, but really this move towards a top player hiring a former great.  And what he got out of the Lendl relationship.  Obviously, he’s moved on to Mauresmo.  Could that start another trend?  I don’t know.  Very seldom do top players have so many changes.  He got engaged.  He’s got a new clothing line.  He’s got new people on his team.  But I think someone like Andy, who’s grinded so long and tried to chase down Federer and Nadal, probably having some changes on court and off court is probably going to be a good thing, and I agree with Darren.  He’s going to have a good year.

 

I want to ask about Venus.  Talk about someone that we have made ‑‑ I don’t want to speak for others, but had sort of written off, and now she’s back in the top 20, number 18, won a tournament, beat Wozniacki.  Can you just talk about her sort of resurgence here. 

PAM SHRIVER:  First off, Venus one of the class athletes in this sports generation.  I thought, when she won in Auckland over Wozniacki, just her style and her sportsmanship, and she just shown through.  Whether she wins or she loses ‑‑ and I love that about Venus.  She’s had a lot of adversity in her life.  She’s also had a lot of incredible ups, winning seven majors, but it’s been a long time.  She’s had to deal with quite a bit.

 

I think about last year, the very first match we had on the Australian Open was on the Margaret Court Arena, and it was Venus playing Makarova.  And Venus was up a set and a break, and it was a really tight match.  She ended up losing in three sets.  She lost early at the French, and I thought she played one of the women’s matches of the year when she only lost serve once, lost to Kvitova in a tough draw in the first round.  Kvitova goes on to easily win Wimbledon after that.  That match was a match that I’ll always remember in women’s tennis because it was only one break for each player.  That just seldom happens.  So I actually thought Venus, if she could have snuck out of that Kvitova match, I thought she had a chance to win Wimbledon, and I think Venus believes that, slowly but surely, she’s gotten some belief again that she can contend.  She’s got to get through the early rounds.  She’s got to win three‑set matches, and she’s got to be smart.  The weather’s got to break her way.  But you know what, I love it.  I love her fight.  I love everything about Venus Williams.  We should feel really lucky that we’ve got some great athletes, great champions of the last 15 years in their mid‑30s still contending to win majors, in the case of Venus, still somebody to keep an eye on, and she’s my outsider pick on ESPN.com to win the Australian.

DARREN CAHILL:  Pammy, you picked Venus?  I like that.  I did as well.  A couple years ago, I didn’t think there would be a chance that I would be doing that.  I was one of those people who felt that tennis was beyond her and a couple of years ago, thought she wasn’t going to be able to put herself back into a position.  But I fully agree with everything Pam said there.  I felt Wimbledon was going to be very interesting.  A couple of matches she played at Wimbledon were some of the best matches we’ve seen from her in five or six years.  She’s had a great start to the season.  I saw her final against Ana Ivanovic in New Zealand, and she did great to come back and win that match.  No doubt she’s coming into the Aussie Open confident, and she’ll be very tough to beat.  She’s got a little bit of what Federer has in the sense that, every time she steps onto the court, be it practice or be it a match, she’s just loving being there at the moment, and that says a lot about these athletes.

 

So given the way that Federer and Nadal have both been playing lately.  Nadal won in Doha.  Federer was pretty hot last year.  We don’t want to look too far ahead in these tournaments, but if they were to meet in a potential semifinal, how would you guys project that going? 

DARREN CAHILL:  So I think the thing with Nadal is he’s very, very underdone coming into the Aussie Open.  The first two or three matches, obviously, all eyes will be on Rafa to see how his game is.  We had a chance to see him play one tournament and then a couple of practice matches he played on Wednesday night in a big charity match here in the tennis launch.  His game is rusty.  Obviously, he needs miles in his legs to feel his game.  That’s what he’s been desperately trying to do.  He’s been practicing incredibly hard.  I watched him play a couple of practice sets as well, and he’s struggling a bit with his game.  He’ll be vulnerable in the early round.  But you know Nadal, if he can find his legs and find his way into the second week, he becomes more and more difficult to beat as the time goes on.  If he makes the second week, he’s going to be a threat.  I’ve taken him as my ESPN.com tips as the hardest road on the men’s side.  He’s got a couple of tough guys in Youzhny and a couple of floaters in his section that have been very difficult.  But if he gets to the semifinal and plays Federer, there’s a head‑to‑head matchup issue there that Roger struggles with, and that’s a different ball game all together.  We’ve got to wait to see what happens with that.  If you have to look through the draw, I think the most interesting section of the draw is that Dimitrov ‑‑ sort of the Murray section, to be honest.  He’s got Dimitrov possibly in the fourth round, to play Federer, to play Nadal, to play Djokovic.  That’s how difficult it is these days.  Even if you’re ranked sixth in the world or seeded sixth, the draw to win one of these majors can be incredibly difficult.

PAM SHRIVER:  The only thing I’d like to stress really about Rafa, November 3rd he had an appendectomy.  Even though they are so good at doing arthroscopic stuff, that’s still your abdominal part, that’s your core part of an elite athlete.  November 3rd, sure, he’s had some time to heal, but you know what, it only takes a fraction to be off.  I think, as Darren stated, he likes to have the matches.  He likes to kind of work his way into form.  He doesn’t have that confidence.  Can he get it in the first week of a Major, the way we’ve seen Serena so many times through the years?  Sure, he can.  But he hasn’t shown through the years that he’s as comfortable being underdone and playing at the usual great level that he can play.  He’s had a rough six months.  So I think Darren’s pick, even though he’s not my early upset pick, that’s probably a good one, but you can never underestimate one of the greats of all time.

DARREN CAHILL:  Remember also, Pam, we were speaking at the same time last year when he was out for that period of time, about the fact that missing the Australian Open was probably a blessing in disguise for him because it is difficult to come back after a long layoff ‑‑

PAM SHRIVER:  You mean two years ago.

DARREN CAHILL:  Two years ago, exactly.  And to play best of five.  We saw the year that he had two years ago when he did come back and played those smaller clay court tournaments and found his legs and then launched himself into the bigger tournaments.  So it’s a little bit of a different challenge for him this year.  Any challenge that he has, he’s more than capable of stepping up to the plate and making it happen, but the first week definitely going to be interesting, and I think a lot of eyes are going to be on Rafa’s form.

PAM SHRIVER:  And also you think through the years he’s had quite a few little niggling injuries that crop up second week of the Aussie.  So there’s no indication that he’s not going to physically feel at his best.

 

Just a quick followup, I guess.  You said Andy may be playing as well as anyone, and I guess another guy we haven’t really spoken about is Novak Djokovic.  Is he still the man to beat?  If I can throw in an extra one, what did you think about the Aussie challengers with Kyrgios and Kokkinakis and Saville and those guys? 

PAM SHRIVER:  Let me put in a little tiny bit.  Then, Darren, I’m going to hang up and go get my kids, and you can finish up on Novak and what you saw down there with the fundraiser.  I just think Novak, this is the tournament that Novak fell in love with first when he won down here in ’08.  He’s won it more than any of his other Majors.  I know it was disappointing, his loss to Wawrinka last year, but I expect he’s going to be right in there.  Most people have him as the favorite.  I would have gone with him, but I felt like making an unusual pick, Nishikori, at least unusual with Nishikori outside the big four we usually always go to the last five years.  So Novak, one of the great athletes we’ll ever see on a tennis court.  Dave Nagle, thanks so much for hosting.  Darren, continue.  I’ll see you in a day.

DARREN CAHILL:  Three wins in the last four years down here for Novak.  It’s been a remarkable love affair that he’s had with the Australian Open, and his game suits the conditions down here incredibly well.  He’s been able to overcome obstacles with the Heat in the last six or seven years to become one of the greatest athletes the game has ever seen.  He doesn’t have any weaknesses in his game.  He’s so difficult to beat.  We haven’t seen a great deal of him.  Obviously, he didn’t play the final in the exhibition event against Andy.  I didn’t get to see that particular head‑to‑head matchup.  I don’t think it matters.  Coming into this, he finished the year incredibly well again, winning the London World Finals.  He is the man to beat until it’s a little bit like ‑‑ not quite as strong, but a little bit like the French Open when we talk about Rafa.  Until somebody can prove they can beat him here, he is the man to beat in my eyes.  Even though he did lose in the last quarterfinal match to Wawrinka, but it was an incredible match.  He’s my pick to win.  I feel he’s got a pretty decent section of the draw to play into the tournament, and it’s going to take a pretty outstanding performance by anyone to beat Novak Djokovic.

 

And on the Aussies coming through, any hope at all?  What, ’76 was the last home winner, you think? 

DARREN CAHILL:  That’s right with Mark Edmundsen.  I think that Nick Kyrgios is a little bit injured at the moment with the back issue.  He didn’t play the Hopman Cup.  I watched him play last week, and it looked like his knee and cramps set in into his match.  Coming into the Australian Open, I feel like physically he’s improved a ton over the last 12 months physically, but he still has that issue that, if he gets deep into a match, a fourth or fifth set, then the physical aspect plays a big part.  Whilst he can cause a lot of players a lot of trouble, it’s a little too early for him to say he can go all the way at the Australian Open.  There’s a lot to look for to in his future.  Thanasis Kokkinakis, winning a match or two at the Australian Open, getting more experience playing the big tournaments, that’s important for him.  He’s a year younger than Nick.  Going to take Nick a little longer.  Sam Groth is coming through.  He’s had a good couple of years.  Lleyton Hewitt, obviously, Lleyton is nearing the end of his career.  Not sure if this is going to be his last Aussie.  He might play one more next year.  He’s had a great preseason.  His form in the leadup to the Aussie Open has not been great, but he’s in good spirits and looking to do well.  He’s actually in a pretty good section of the draw, so he’ll be looking to get his teeth into it from that point of view.  I think from an Australian point of view, the one who stands out that has struggled the last three years, he’s kind of gotten out of his career what he’s put into it, and that was very little, and that’s Bernard Tomic.  At the moment ‑‑ be that because of these younger guys coming through and taking a little of the spotlight, be it because he’s maturing a little more, be it because some of the funding’s been pulled from him now and he’s not making the same money that he was previously, he’s got a different attitude at the moment.  And we saw the last six months of the year that Bernie is starting to put in off the court and putting in much more effort in every single match he plays, not just here in Australia.  He always plays well in Australia.  I expect him to play well in the Australian Open, but the biggest test for Bernie will be how he performs the rest of the nine or ten months.  That’s the big issue whether he can break through to the top 20 or top 10.  I actually picked him as my dark horse in the men’s draw.  I think his section is really good.  He’s playing extremely well.  We always know he steps up and plays great tennis in Australia.  The big test of him becoming a top player is can he take that form and reproduce it overseas?  We have to sit back and see if that happens.

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Say “No” to Best of Three

By Dave Seminara

Why is it that tennis writers and former players always seem to be agitating for changes that would result in less tennis being played in the pro ranks? For years, we’ve been hearing that the Davis Cup shouldn’t be an annual event, and that tennis’s offseason should be longer. Now during the first week of this year’s U.S. Open, the buzz was all about reducing the men’s matches from best of 5 to best of 3 in majors.

 

Ben Rothenberg made a best-of-3 pitch in the New York Times’ U.S. Open Preview issue, ESPN tennis analyst’s Darren Cahill and Patrick McEnroe said that the idea was getting some traction and merited further discussion and Billie Jean King wrote a piece for The Huffington Post arguing the same point.

 

I’m a tennis fanatic and I live for dramatic five setters. While Cahill and others have said that the Olympics best of three until the final format proved that best of three could be as compelling as the best of five majors, I had the opposite experience. For me, the Olympics felt no different than a Masters 1000 series tournament like Toronto, Cincinnati and the rest.

 

King maintains that the men should play less in order to avoid injuries like the one that’s kept Rafael Nadal out of action this summer. But there are scores of current and former players that continued to win into their 30’s under the best of 5 format- Jimmy Connors, Ken Rosewall, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi- and some athletes from every sport will sustain injuries no matter how many sets they play.

 

Rothenberg’s primary justification for paring back the length of men’s matches is the notion that the player who is leading at the end of 3 sets nearly always wins the match. He cited a statistic indicating that the player leading after the first three sets won 90% of matches in the last five years, but this year’s Open certainly bucked that trend.

 

There was a total of 23 five setters, with 10 players coming from 2 sets to love down to win in the first four days, tied for the second most in the Open era, and only 4 behind the all time record set at the 2002 Australian Open. Of the 23 five setters, the player who was winning at the end of the 3rd set won on only six occasions.

 

If the final had been straight sets win for Andy Murray, just imagine all the drama we would have missed out on. The match was full of plot twists, and despite the fact that it lasted almost five hours, the crowd didn’t want it to end. After Murray won the first two sets, the crowd seemed to shift allegiance to Djokovic-because they wanted more tennis- and then shifted back to Murray in the 5th.

 

One could argue that this year’s draw has been the exception, not the rule, but consider how different tennis history would be if the men had been playing best of three in the majors during the Open era. Roger Federer wouldn’t have a career slam, because at Roland Garros in 2009, his one win there, he would have lost to Tommy Haas in the Round of 16. And he wouldn’t have regained the #1 ranking, breaking Pete Sampras’s record for weeks in the top spot, because he was down two sets to love in the 3rd round of Wimbledon this year against Julien Benneteau.

 

Then again, he would have won the 2009 U.S. Open over Juan Martin Del Potro and could have fared better in other majors, like the 1999 Wimbledon, the 2011 U.S. Open, and the 2002 and 2005 Australian Opens.

 

In a best of three set world, Rafael Nadal would have lost to Robin Haase in the 2nd round at Wimbledon in 2010, rather than winning the title; Novak Djokovic wouldn’t have won this year’s Australian Open or the 2011 U.S. Open; and McEnroe would have a career slam, having beaten Lendl in the final of the ’84 French, rather than blowing a two set to love lead, but he wouldn’t have won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open in 1980.

 

Neither Michael Chang nor Boris Becker would have won majors at 17, and Becker wouldn’t have won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open in 1989. The point here is twofold: first, it isn’t that uncommon for players who are trailing at the end of three sets to win the match and then go on to win the tournament, and second, the better player is more likely to prevail in best of five set encounters. For obvious reasons, fans want to see Rafael Nada late in the final, not Robin Haase; Roger Federer not Julien Benneateau. If the men’s game switched to best of 3 sets now, it would also make it difficult to compare records from one era to another.

 

But the most important reason for keeping the best of five format is that five set matches test a player’s mental and physical strength in a way that three setters don’t. All of the most dramatic men’s matches I’ve seen in my lifetime- Federer-Nadal in the final of Wimbledon in 2008, Federer- Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009, Borg-McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980, Lendl-McEnroe at the ’84 French, Connors-Krickstein at the ’91 U.S. Open, Isner- Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, and McEnroe-Becker at the Davis Cup in ’87- were five setters.

 

Yes, five setters are tough on the body, but at most majors, the players have a day off in between most of their matches. And, let’s face it; watching guys overcome cramps and other injuries to win is high theater. Who could forget watching Pete Sampras gut out a win over Alex Corretja at the U.S. Open in ’96 after throwing up in the plants at the back of the court?

 

Tennis writers often suggest making dramatic changes to the sport, but I love tennis too much to advocate any changes that would result in less tennis. As far as I’m concerned, the sport is just fine the way it is.

 

 

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Jamie Reynolds of ESPN on Approach Shots

Jamie Reynolds (Photo by Rich Arden/ESPN)

Tennis Panorama News had the unique opportunity to visit the ESPN broadcast compound  and spend time in the control room in Melbourne during coverage of the Australian Open back in January. Senior Vice President of Event Production for ESPN Jamie Reynolds took time out from his extremely hectic schedule to speak to us about the logistics, technologies, philosophy and personalities of ESPN’s Australian Open coverage.

Karen Pestaina for Tennis Panorama News: How are the logistics of planning different for the Australian Open versus the other slams?

Jamie Reynolds: The way that we approach the Australian Open is similar in the way we do all four majors. And ESPN is unique in the aspect that we literally take apart our entire operation, our entire family, our entire circus and we take it three continents and an island.

We go to Australia and then go on to Paris, we then go up to the UK for Wimbledon and them back down to New York at the end of the summer. The nine month rip is pretty aggressive. So we probably pick up 115 people, and literally land on these hotspots for these events, move them in for three weeks. And I think we are probably the largest broadcaster who does all four majors at that level of commitment or the magnitude of the production assets that we bring. So it’s pretty challenging.

The biggest thing, the hardest thing for us, relative to the Australian Open, candidly is that we are upside down on the time zone to our audience and the fact that we don’t start until 9pm and we run the overnight hours, that’s great, but when we are trying to grow the sport, it’s a little challenging. How do you get people to stay up all night long or want to get invested, either TIVO, record, DVR the matches, because they are that much of a tennis fanatic to take advantage of what we are doing versus what they getting immediately either texting, news reports, Morning wheel of the news, they can get all that social currency to get up to steam.

So our challenge really, for this particular event is probably more editorial that logistic.

 

TPN: What is the biggest technological challenge in covering the Australian Open?

JR: This event is technically, is one of the easier events for us to handle technically. We’ve got a partnership going with Channel 7 Australia, who is also the host broadcaster. So ESPN comes in and effectively we are a world feed embellisher. We put our own character, our own personality, our own voices, graphics, music. Pick the asset that can actually tailor the world feed presentation to look and feel like a standard ESPN product.

So perhaps our biggest challenge is what if we don’t necessarily agree with you on covering a match? Or perhaps the isolation plan for Tomic or for Federer or for Roddick or for Rafa perhaps. That assignment of cameras may not be perhaps the level or the rate or philosophy that we might bring to a match. So how do we cover that chasm?

Technology wise we continue to push the envelope by bringing assets like the Spidercam, the aerial system that you see out on Rod Laver, that’s a device that we on ESPN brought to the tennis world and introduced at the majors at the US Open three years ago, convinced Tennis Australia, Channel 7 that it might enhance their coverage, convinced all the parties to come together and bring it down and fly through Rod Laver.

This year we’ve been very aggressive in trying to help Channel 7 understand how that could be an asset to enhance the coverage package. I think that everyday we chip away at it and get a little bit bolder with its flight pattern and we kind of rely on it a little bit more. I think that it enhances the value of its coverage.

 

TPN: Now that we are down to one American left in the singles draw, what are your angles going to be?

JR: Without the Americans doing well for the first time in the open era and not get to the round of 16, that’s challenging for us. Because we’ve got a lot of personalities and lot of what we do look at from the access to a lot of these players, what the interest is back home. Our particular productions have migrated to a new way of thinking. Specifically this is truly an international event with so many great personalities form around the globe, and because we do reach a lot of countries with ESPN, we think a little bit broader in how we are actually in going after a Hewitt story, a Roger or a Rafa or a Raonic or Tomic and any of the ladies as well.

That our goal now is to make that as personable, as desirable, in terms of wanting to understand the back story, getting our audience invested inn them, just trying to figure out the best way to convey that to our audience so they don’t mind that there are no Americans. We don’t have to put the red, white and blue all the time but there’s really great tennis out there that is fun.

 

TPN: Any new technology being implemented at this year’s Australian Open.

JR: The Australian mindset is very unique. They are gregarious fun loving good folks down here. They tend to be incredibly open-minded in terms of progressive introductions of new ideas to help convey the event and one of the initiatives they’ve helped us achieve is what we call our behind-the-scenes franchise. And that behind-the-scenes franchise as effectively as I describe to our teams is this: “Take behind the velvet ropes. Give me discovery and access. Take me places I couldn’t get to if I had a ticket or if I had the ability to watch every hour of what ESPN puts out, I need to feel like I actually in the event and going somewhere where no one else can go.”

And with that kind of mindset and philosophy with Tennis Australia, “where can you give us access to?” Well we can go to the workout room, we can go to the locker room, we can go to the hallways, the waiting rooms for the players, the player lounges. We can go to the car park area, where a lot of them just go and out their headsets on and just get into a zone and just kind of shut the world out to deconstruct their match. They’re very open-minded, progressive in terms of allowing that access. With that comes the ability to kind of shape the way we convey this event as opposed to just a rectangle on a screen, two players back and forth, three-hit rally or a 17-hit rally. It’s a little sexier, a little bit more valuable, more attractive presentation. I actually feel like I’m part of it, a part of the community, behind the velvet ropes and going somewhere where I couldn’t even go if I were on site.

 

TPN: What would surprise tennis fans about being behind the scenes?

JR: There’s an incredible amount of camaraderie and I think that what doesn’t convey that whether it’s the ATP or the WTA, these athletes and personalities do travel the circuit week after week and what you actually see behind-the-scenes is the feeling of family amongst the players themselves. As combative or as aggressive as they can be with each other out on a court there is sincere appreciation, chemistry, commitment to one another, whether they are having a good year or a poor year. There’s respect but there is a dynamic that these athletes share with each other. It’s not as adversarial as it might convey over an 11-hour show window where we are just showing guys beating back and forth with each other.

 

TPN: What is a typical day for you and the talent?

JR: This is probably the most challenging because of the sheer number of hours that we televise. When we say first ball to final ball, it is a very solid commitment to coverage of the most important matches from front end to back end. That really requires commitment of literally hours per day. So when you look at the first ball starting at 11am and often times ending like New York ending after Midnight, if not later, keeping people motivated through that 14-day stand is challenging. And with a roster of  personalities, our talent roster, keep them enthusiastic, keeping them invested and focused on being “on” for that 10 hours a day waiting for a match, getting ready for one that is coming up tonight,  and you really gotta go through your head for 2 hours and come back with the same enthusiasm, that’s challenging. You are asking a lot of people.

So what happens behind the scenes to help that? It’s the sense of community, family and respect for each other we all try to create. This isn’t just a group of specialists, assassins coming into do a single job. We’ve got to keep everybody working with the chemistry and taking advantage of that. So we’ll rotate teams. You might see Chris Evert working with Pam Shriver today or you will see Patrick McEnroe and Darren (Cahill) or Patrick and Chris Fowler so we can actually keep them involved with each other because they don’t have to always rule out “ Oh God I’m just sitting with my partner for this match and I’m doing every single match him for the next 14 days.” It changes up the dinner table a little bit.

 

TPN: Who are the practical jokers behind the scenes?

JR: I think that those in the tennis community and those of us who are running the sport know what kind of personality a Brad Gilbert brings. And we know, we look loving and fondly at Cliff Drysdale. He’s the godfather of our team, the elder statesman. As a perspective, he is the longest running talent on ESPN, bar none. He’s been with us since 1979, so we look at that history, having done Davis Cup that year, he is the man who is the franchise longer than anyone.

And then you look at Darren Cahill. Cahill with the Aussie wit, terrific personality. Patrick McEnroe, that’s pretty good – an acerbic wit. And McEnroe has a pretty good timbre to work with. Look at the gals – Mary Joe (Fernandez) and Pammy (Shriver) are well respected. Pammy can be polarizing, she’s got a great personality, she will go off on a flyer and make us all laugh and look at things a way many of us would never think about. She connects the dots on a lot of different stories and a lot of personalities. So that’s kind of like a really valuable spark. It’s a good roster.

Follow ESPN’s tennis coverage on ESPN2, ESPN3.com, on twitter @ESPNTennis and @ESPN10S and online on their tennis home page.

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