An interview with:
(May 22, 2018) Tennis Channel held a media conference call with analysts and tennis Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova and Jim Courier. Here is a transcript of the call held on Tuesday:
ERIC ABNER: This year Tennis Channel is going to show about 86% of all the live tournament coverage on U.S. television. That starts this Sunday. That runs through the men’s singles semifinals. On championship weekend we’ll have live desk and on court production of every singles and doubles final. Subscribers to our Tennis Channel Plus will have access to 350 matches of their choosing live and on demand, which is a little bit more than 700 hours of tennis.
What’s new for us this year is a doubling ever our digital courts. We had five last year. This year we have 10. All this week Tennis Channel Plus subscribers for the first time are able to see every Roland Garros qualifier live and on demand. What is not new for us, we have names like Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, James Blake, Mary Carillo, Ted Robinson and, and of course Martina and Jim. We’re proud to offer their insight to our viewers again, especially points of view from people who know what is takes to win this event.
Q: Serena has not played much this year. What do you think if she should be seeded or not and also your thoughts on the possibility they might change the rules to have a protected seeding for somebody who is coming back from maternity leave? How hard will it be for her to go in really basically cold, without much play this year?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I never had a baby, so I can’t speak from that experience as to what it’s like to try to come back, what your body goes through. Even if I had, those experiences vary woman by woman, athlete by athlete. There’s that total unknown for most.
But just from a tennis perspective, purely tennis perspective, Serena hasn’t had a match in a long time. She’s had a few matches since the Australian Open. Is it four matches or something she’s played, six maybe? So that just in itself is really hard to overcome. Combine that with the fact that the French Open and clay is Serena’s least favorite surface, at least result‑wise. Her game doesn’t pay off on clay nearly as much as it does on other surfaces. I can definitely relate to that. It makes it that much more difficult to win matches. You can’t just blast through people, you have to work the points, hit a lot of shots. Clay makes it more difficult when you are rusty to succeed.
I’m thinking that Serena is always going to a tournament thinking she can win. But realistically speaking, she’s maybe thinking more in terms of just getting some matches under her belt, hit a lot of balls so she’s ready for Wimbledon. She still is a favorite for me to win Wimbledon. The clay is going to be a tricky proposition for her.
As we saw in Australia about 10 years ago when she came in really out of shape but played her way into shape during the tournament. We could see that happening, but again more difficult to do on clay.
As far as the seeding is concerned and making the rule for women that have given birth, trying to come back, I think something does need to be done about that. Clearly if I were still playing, I certainly don’t want to play Serena in the first or second round. I want her to be seeded. I want her to be seeded reasonably well. That rule needs to be looked at, maybe penalize somewhat the seeding, take your best six results instead of 12 results from when you last had a full ranking or something.
I don’t know, I haven’t really thought it through. I definitely think there should be an exception made and players should be seeded somewhere because the players that’s on the tour, you do not want to play Serena early on.
JIM COURIER: I think the WTA is looking at making an adjustment, making a new rule for maternity leave. I think that would be very appropriate, especially given how much longer players now seem to be playing. Not everyone played as long as Martina did, but that seems to be coming more standard. This is clearly not an injury, if you get pregnant, are going to have a baby. It’s different than having an injury, which all players are susceptible to in various stages of their career.
I don’t know what parameters they’re going to lay out there, but I think Steve Simon and the WTA team will put something thoughtful together and present it to the players. Hopefully they’ll all come to an agreement that the players should be protected when they have this special moment in their lives.
I think Martina nailed Serena, there’s a lot of unknowns. If she gets to the second week, she’s a threat to win. Can her body withstand the rigors of the tournament having not had a lot of match play. Martina and I both understand you can practice all you want, you can’t replicate adrenaline that you get when you play a match. Your body just feels on a day after a match. Even if you beat somebody 1‑1, my experience was that I was more fatigued and more sore than after having a pretty tough training session just in a regular practice week.
There are a lot of unknowns. She’s been through it before, but not having come back from a maternity break, but also the seriousness of some of her issues on the back end of that pregnancy, which were substantial. It will be fascinating to watch. Can’t wait to see her back on the court.
We know she loves Paris. She has a home there. She’s going to want to stick around.
Q: It’s the 50th anniversary of Open tennis. If you had to say the one prime change in our sport over this period, what would it be? Focusing ahead on the US Open, what was your favorite moment, recollection from the US Open?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Which way? I have to go with the strength, the strength in the racquet. It’s just made the court so much bigger. Fabio Fognini serving a kick serve in the ad court, center court in Rome, hitting the side thing. If there had been a linesman, it would have taken his head off. That’s how far off the court players are. They are hitting groundstrokes from places I’ve never been on a tennis court, so far out. It’s just made the strings and the racquets hitting the groundstrokes a lot easier, but difficult to defend because you’re in places on the court where you really shouldn’t be. Because of that you have to be so fit and fast to be able to cover much greater distances.
You used to have a cross diagonal sprint twice a match. Now you have it twice a rally. It’s just made the court so much bigger, wider, longer, everything.
Q: It makes serve and volley more challenging?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Again, if you hit those kick serves, players are 20 feet behind the baseline, if you get your racquet on the ball, good chance of winning the point. The key is getting to that first ball. It’s more tricky to volley, no doubt about it. Everybody is hitting bigger balls. The spin makes it more tricky. You have to have amazing hand‑eye.
It’s still doable. If I was playing now, I wouldn’t are chip‑and‑charging, I’d be ripping forehands. You have to work the point a little bit differently, but I’d be looking to come in, set it up differently. Chip‑and‑charging, you’re too much of a sitting duck here with these racquets. It’s doable, just more difficult.
Q: Favorite US Open moment?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I’ve had so many. Defects in ’75, losing to Tracy in finals, totally winning the crowd over. Then ’84 when I won, but I was crying because I was sad that the crowd was against me. Winning the Triple Crown, the only Triple Crown of my career I won in ’87, when I should have been winning it. When I shouldn’t have won it, I did. When I should have, I didn’t.
The last one in 2006, winning the mixed doubles with Bob Bryan. My last ever. I can’t give you because there’s so many special moments.
JIM COURIER: Going in reverse order, my most memorable US Open was the first US Open I played as a pro. I lost early in the tournament, but I came back for something related to a junior award. I was able to be there and sneak into the court with my players pass to watch the last game when Steffi Graf won the calendar year Grand Slam. They don’t happen that often. I just wanted to see history made as I was just coming into the game, being exposed to the pro tour for the first time. It was pretty amazing to be able to witness a piece of history, a slice of history. I’ll never forget that moment of feeling electricity when she was playing that last game to close it out. That was very impressionable early on for me.
Q: Did it rain during the award ceremony?
JIM COURIER: I don’t remember. Once they shook hands, I left. I didn’t have a seat. I wasn’t anywhere that I was going to be comfortable. I wanted to be there for that last moment. I think I went back to the locker room from there.
As far as Open tennis goes, there’s so much that’s changed. From a fan standpoint, think about how much tennis people can see on Tennis Channel now, just for starters, how many matches you can see. How many matches that Martina and my parents didn’t get a chance to see, they’d read about or hear from us on the phone. They can see it streaming on apps. The technology, not just the strings and racquets, but the information we have now because of groups like Hawk‑Eye that are GPSing shots. We can see things in virtual reality as well as the line calls back there.
The amount of people that players travel with now. That’s changed dramatically because of the prize money shift. We could spend weeks talking about the changes, for sure. Just from a fan standpoint, I don’t know there’s ever been a better time to be a tennis fan because you can see anything that’s happening pretty much around the world in real‑time. Pretty incredible.
Q: In terms of Rafa, barring an injury, is there anyone that can beat him in Paris? If so, who has the best chance? Is it Novak or Thiem? Also say a word or two about Roger, still the favorite going into Wimbledon?
JIM COURIER: Barring injury, no, I do not believe that anyone can beat Rafa. That withstanding, I think the people with the best chance, if the draw broke, Novak was able to play Rafa in something like the quarterfinals or semifinals, even that late in the tournament where he was able to build on what he just accomplished in Rome, the confidence that he built there, he would be my pick as the player most likely to take Rafa out. We know he’s been able to do that at that tournament.
Sascha Zverev is another player who has every reason to believe he can compete with Rafa.
Dominic Thiem beat him in Madrid. That’s a different scenario because of the altitude. Madrid doesn’t play at all like Paris does. I would put a discount on that win, but that would give Dominic some confidence.
Anyone beating Rafa that can’t overpower him, take the racquet out of his hand, best‑of‑five sets, that’s really hard to do as history shows with him.
Q: Do you see Federer as the favorite going into Wimbledon still?
JIM COURIER: I do. There will be some warmup tournaments that he and everyone else will play. We’ll get a better feel for his health and where his tennis is. There’s no reason to believe that he isn’t the favorite based on how well he plays on that surface, how well he’s been playing this year when he’s been on tour.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I agree with Jim on the Rafa overview. I think the only two people realistically that would have a shot would be Zverev and Novak. Much harder three‑out‑of‑five than two‑out‑of‑three, unless he was injured, which is about the only time he’s lost there.
As for Roger at Wimbledon, just had the honor of being at the All England Club last Saturday. There was a wedding going on a couple miles from there. We were playing tennis. It was the opening of the grass courts. The courts were really hard. That’s the hardest I ever felt them. It felt like Kooyong. They had rolled them, rolled them. Bounce was high. The slice stays low, which nobody hits better than Roger. But the bounce is pretty high. That made me wonder. If those courts hold, if the weather holds, that would be a slight disadvantage for Roger and an advantage for Rafa, so we’ll see. You still have to put Roger as the favorite, but not as big a favorite as Rafa is in Paris.
Q: You have both been in the broadcast game quite a while now. I’m interested in what you enjoy about broadcasting, what challenges you face along the way?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I think staying current. There’s so many players now that are capable of really going through and beating the top players, going deep in the draw. You have to have a bigger picture, more knowledge of who all is out there. I’m lucky enough to do both men’s and women’s matches. I really have to prepare a little more than I used to. Used to be able to wing it more.
The best part about it is you don’t really have to warm up. Yes, you do some reading. When you play matches, you warmup for the warmup. Now you can basically come 15 minutes before the show starts and catch up. You would have been done some homework beforehand, but it’s no pressure, no stress. I don’t miss the stress. To be able to live through it through the players, but it’s nothing personal. You still feel what they’re feeling, but it doesn’t impact you personally. It’s kind of no‑stress stress, if that makes sense. I just love being a part of it.
The best part overall is that we can still be a part of the game that we love.
JIM COURIER: For me, being able to witness history at all the majors each year is what I cherish the most about working in television in these tournaments. I like the challenge of trying to unpack what I think is going to happen in a match, maybe give some insight to the viewer what they should be looking for that might dictate the outcome of the match. I also like the real‑time problem solving. Takes you back to your player days where you’re trying to figure out what’s happening, you how you might make adjustments. When you do it from the broadcast standpoint, you do it from both sides. We have a lot of metrics with the data we’re able to gain from our Hawk‑Eye partners, at the French Open they can give us a lot of insight. They can also sometimes tell you what you think you’re seeing might not actually be happening. Have they changed their serving patterns, feels like they’re serving more wide. When we look at the information, it’s not, may just be happening on a couple key points.
It’s a very interesting time to be in the broadcast business because there are many more resources at our disposal which are wonderful, but the essence of the game is the same and we’re still trying to do the same thing, which is trying to make it more interesting for the viewer at home.
Q: Juan Martin del Potro’s health may hold him back at the French Open here. If we’re talking about players that have the ability to take the racquet out of someone from the big four’s hands, we’ve seen what he’s done already this year against Federer at Indian Wells, your thoughts on maybe where you see del Potro right now after what’s been a good 16, 18 months back from the lowest injury points of his career, making some of his biggest career wins recently, where does he go from here?
JIM COURIER: Del Potro would have been on my top contenders list had he not suffered the grade one groin strain in Rome. It’s in doubt very much whether he’s going to make it to the starting gates in Paris. I certainly home he will. He is a guy who knows how to win majors, we know that. He’s the guy that has the firepower on the serve and forehand. He has the heart to challenge the top players. He’s become a top player again, which has been wonderful to see.
His backhand, he’s been able to overcome some of the wrist problems, make that more of a neutral shot. He doesn’t have to slice it quite as much as he was slicing when he initially came back from that left wrist surgery. He’s made some nice adjustments. He just doesn’t have any current momentum in the clay season. He didn’t play much in the clay. He just hasn’t had any kind of form to really point to him going deep in the tournament, if he even is able to make it to the starting line. A groin strain going into a best‑of‑five tournament on clay is just about the worst place for an injury to have, given you’re going to be sliding so much on clay when you play defense.
I’m hopeful he’ll be healthy, but I’m not optimistic that he’ll be much of a factor in this tournament because of the health issue.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I would probably advise him not to play. It’s going to pull, most likely. If you don’t take care of it from the beginning, it can become chronic very easily. With these long matches, we’ll see. I don’t know how bad the pull was to begin with. You never know how severe it is. If it’s still any twinge, any twinge whatsoever, do not play, save it for the grass.
But great to see him playing so well. Ranked No. 6 in the world. He’s a threat anywhere. Beating Roger in Indian Wells, that was very impressive. I’m looking for him to be a threat on the grass if he’s healthy much more so than on the clay. Even without the injury, I think he’s a bigger threat on the grass than the clay.
JIM COURIER: And further down the line to the US Open, as well, where he’s won that tournament before.
Q: What is your opinion on Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Both hot, red hot. Kiki Bertens made a huge improvement these last 12 months. Svitolina, we had high hopes for her last year when she won Rome, but had a meltdown in the quarters. She has not lived up to her top billing or potential top billing in the majors yet. She has yet to make a semifinals in any of the majors. The more it keeps happening, the more pressure builds up. We’ll see how she handles the pressure in Paris. So much of the game is played between the ears, especially now when there are so many players that can give you a hard time, you really have to be close to at your best. On a scale of 1 to 10, you need to be a 7 or 8. 6 doesn’t win matches any more, 7 maybe, 8 you’re good to go. She has not been able to play that 8 or 9 at the slams. She certainly has the momentum, really dominating Halep in that final, playing her best tennis yet.
Bertens, big improvement. She’s really improved her movement. She always had a big game, but very inconsistent, up and down. She just seems to be much more focused, intense, really seems to have much more of a game plan. She was more of a basher, but now she has variety, using the slice. A nice improvement in every facet of the game. Maybe the biggest one is the movement, which enables her to hit those shots, doesn’t have to go for such a huge shot when she gets a first crack at it. She’ll have more cracks at it because of her movement. It’s snowballing in a good way for her. She’s a threat. We have to be talking about her, for sure, the way she’s been playing this year.
JIM COURIER: On Svitolina, I’m seeing a lot of similarities between where she is and Sascha Zverev as far as trying to translate that regular tour success, lots of it, into the majors. They’re both looking for that breakthrough. I found it really fascinating this year that after Zverev lost in the Australian Open, he was in the locker room, and Roger Federer, apropos of nothing, went over to him, talked to him, said, Hey, you don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to play these tournaments. Relax and let it happen. I didn’t play well in the majors until I was in my early 20s. Which was very generous of Roger to do. Rafa’s comments after the final in Rome also indicate both Roger and Rafa have a lot of confidence that Sascha is going to do just fine in the majors. He’s not lacking in fitness. It was a weird mental collapse at the Australian Open in the fifth set against Chung this year. He didn’t look like he was cramping or anything like that.
With Svitolina, you’re not playing best‑of‑five, it’s the same as Rome. You have an extra day to think about it.
Does that play in, Martina, at all? You certainly had no problems translating tour success to slam success. Why do you think Svitolina is struggling in the majors? Is it the moment?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Now the majors are just so much ahead of the regular tour in terms of prestige and money that players put that much more pressure on themselves to do well. Maybe the day off in between doesn’t help. It would be easier if we just played back‑to‑back. I like to play doubles, so I usually played singles and doubles the same day, took a day off. I felt like I was in the tournament, never had that much time to think about it.
I think the pressure is just exponential nowadays with the prize money you set. You’re really set for life with just one major win. You have that on your résumé anywhere you go. It’s not just the money for winning, but the money that comes with it, the fame, everything else.
I think the players are putting too much pressure on themselves and need to say, This is just another match. You know it’s not, but you need to dial down that stress. As Roger said, Just let yourself play. You will have so many opportunities. Try to imagine what an Olympic athlete goes through, one or maybe two Olympics in them, and this is it, four years waiting. We have four of those majors in a year. Just lessen that amount of pressure you put on yourself, just enjoy it, embrace it.
Q: Do you think it’s viable that Serena will win slams again? Also Venus is about to be 38. What is realistic for her?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Anything in the 30s, everything just took longer to recover from, as Jim was alluding to earlier. It’s just harder to recover from matches. The older you get, the longer it takes.
Both of them have stayed actually more healthy in their 30s than they were in their 20s, which is odd. For Serena, of course she can win another major. You cannot write her off until she retires. That’s when we can say she won’t win another major because she won’t be playing any more. Chances are it won’t happen at the French. Would I be surprised? Well, surprised but extremely impressed most of all if she did it at the French. At Wimbledon, I wouldn’t be that surprised at all.
Yeah, for both of them now it’s about staying healthy. They’re definitely still hungry. It’s amazing that the game still has them at this stage.
JIM COURIER: I think the over/under for Serena on slams won from here on out, if I had to place a number, I’d say it’s one and a quarter. I think she’s very likely to win at least one more. Winning two, I might not say that. I might say maybe it’s one more. I think that’s more health driven than anything. Can she stay healthy? Can she juggle being a parent? We know she wants to be a good parent because you can watch Serena, see a lot of what’s going on behind normally closed doors. She’s very involved.
It’s going to be a question of fitness, then a question of focus. If she is fit and focused, I think she could win two to maybe four majors from here on, which would be pretty expectational, but she is.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: If anything could mellow Serena, it would be being a mother. We haven’t seen it yet. She’s not mellowed yet. But tennis is such an explosive sport. You have to get not angry, but show fired up when you’re playing that match, playing each point. We’ll see if Serena can build up to that again. Being a mom, she’s been so involved obviously, it will be interesting to see if that fire is still burning as deep. It’s hard to turn it on and off. It gets harder with age. It gets harder, I imagine, being a mom. It has to mellow you out. We’ll see if that fire still burns just as much. Chances are it does, but we’ll see.
Q: Martina, going to Wimbledon every year, you see the formality of British culture, fun to compare it with the spontaneity of American culture. At the wedding, seeing Serena in the front, Oprah there, the preacher. Some say it was an amazing interaction of the two cultures. What was your take on all that?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: I didn’t see all of the wedding. You probably got different feed than what we got on BBC, because I saw the Queen more than I saw Serena. You might have been getting different camera angles in the U.S. I was also playing that afternoon, so I didn’t see as much of the wedding as I otherwise would have.
What I did watch I watched from the lady members locker room or the members restaurant, which was pretty funny. Everybody dressed in white watching the wedding. It was a contrast.
Q: All the impact of the African American culture on the Brits.
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: You saw it was fantastic. The diversity of everything that went on in that wedding ceremony was really amazing culturally, intellectually, spiritually with all the different religions, viewpoints and everything thrown in. Then they drive off in an E‑type Jaguar that has been converted to an electric motor. That’s as good as it gets.
Q: Davis Cup and Fed Cup have given us great moments. A lot of people say it brings the sport to the people. All players have had wonderful moments. What are your thoughts about the Davis Cup proposal going to a year‑end?
MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: It’s tricky because the game has grown so much, there’s so many more demands, so many tournaments, exhibitions, et cetera. It’s always been there, but even bigger now. With the extra weeks with Davis Cup, then the year of the Olympics, the schedule goes crazy.
Fed Cup used to be just one week, then they changed it, now it’s three weeks during the year. With the guys, four weeks is just brutal. It’s a shame because I think overall it’s great to have the four weeks and have it in all the different countries. It makes the sport that much more global, brings it to places that would never see that kind of level of tennis, with the Davis Cup intensity thrown in. At the same time because of the schedule, the top players make a decision at the beginning of the year, Am I going to get involved this year or not? It changes the whole schedule. It’s difficult.
I have mixed emotions about it. For me personally, I only played Fed Cup when it was one week in a given country. We were only a home team once when I played in Santa Clara. In fact, I’m organizing my storage units, and I just found the Fed Cup trophy from ’89 when we played in Japan. I played with Chris. What is this trophy? The next house it’s going to go in. It brought memories. It was the last time Chris and I played on the team, the last time I won Fed Cup.
The emotions are there. I think for tennis overall it’s better to have it in the four weeks, but for the players it’s better to have it in one week. That’s the best I can do on that.
What do you think, Jim?
JIM COURIER: I think the players have long signaled now that Davis Cup has not been their top priority. I think that’s a real shame. I think that demands reflection from everyone that’s involved with it. When you have an event that takes up four weeks on the calendar, disperses those weeks all across the globe, will players are having to add demanding travel to their already dense schedules, you’re not running an event that’s built for 2018. I think Dave Haggerty and the ITF realize they need to make some adjustments because they continue to lose ground to the Grand Slams and the Olympics as far as importance in the players eyes, not just the fans eyes.
Davis Cup has incredible moments, no matter where you are. But it doesn’t have the impact that the majors have. To take up four weeks on the calendar, to not have the impact that one two‑week event has, I think is a poor use of the resources that the ITF has. Players want to play for their country, they do. It just needs to be in a format or environment where they can do other things that are important to them. We see they prioritize the Olympics over Davis Cup and Fed Cup. The ITF has realized that, have had to use the Davis Cup and Fed Cup as hostages. If you don’t play a certain amount of times for Davis Cup and Fed Cup, you can’t go to the Olympics. I think they’re realizing slowly but surely they need to make a change. It’s unclear whether the change that’s currently on the table for a vote this summer is going to pass. I think it’s going to be close one way or the other.
I don’t think that the format that is currently proposed will be where it is in 10 years’ time. If they go to a one week, year end, I think there will be more adjustments made to it. I don’t like it being an additional week after the London Tour Finals for the men. I don’t like that the women aren’t involved. The best product we have is when men and women play together. Fed Cup and Davis Cup should be played together at one site. I have said this before. You can read transcripts of past interviews from me. Ultimately Davis Cup and Fed Cup should be a fifth major that everyone who is not a tennis fan around the world pays attention to if their country starts to get going. I use this analogy all the time, I don’t follow soccer at all, but when the men’s team or women’s team is playing in the World Cup, I start watching. We can have people that don’t watch or like tennis, they can start following these events if there’s a storyline. They don’t have to wait four months to play again, they get to play in the next couple days.
There needs to be a narrative, a story to be followed. It should be more prominent. That’s my point of view. There are many people in the sport that disagree with that. That’s okay, too.
Transcript courtesy of Tennis Channel and ASAP Sports.