Born on Independence Day, Lives Actively & Family Focused

Reflections on the 2016 Australian Open

January 31, 2016

The Australian Open (AO) is known as the Happy Slam for its slightly lower key and casual atmosphere when compared to the other three majors. The AO has the best player service department, even helping former players with their needs. Not once in my thirty-seven years of coming to Melbourne, even the last twenty years as a broadcaster, has AO transportation not been able to transport me to where I needed to go.  This sets the stage for great tennis.

This year’s play on the court has provided some memorable moments. Angelique Kerber’s surprising win over Serena Williams means that with Flavia Pennetta’s US Open upset win in 2015, more women players will believe they can win a major in the Serena Williams era. Serena will reach Steffi Graf’s twenty-two singles majors. It seems that Serena’s four-month hiatus did hurt her in the one three setter she had at the AO. Novak Djokovic’s complete dominance is remarkable in this era formerly knows as the era of the “Big Four,” but now must be called the “Era of Nole.”

Andy Murray, a gallant finalist again in Melbourne, is about to be the third member of the big four to have at least one child. Roger Federer, of course, has two sets of twins. This generation of male champions are special for many reasons, but perhaps their ability to win majors as fathers may lead to a global resurgence as tennis as the best activity for kids and families to do together. Imagine the tennis spokespeople talking from this perspective.  Let’s throw in other tennis parents like Lleyton Hewitt, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport and Kim Cljisters, recent champions, now coaches and/or commentators that have kids.

As parents, we teach our children family values which is vital as they grow up in the 21st Century. What are the values of our lifetime sport?  This is an important question. Those values and ethics came into question when the BBC Buzzfeed story was released at the start of the AO. According to the BBC Buzzfeed report, the eight-year old, Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), based in London and funded by seven professional tennis entities, failed to be transparent and did not pursue enough alleged offenders for match fixing.

While I knew in some countries betting on tennis matches was culturally acceptable, I had no idea that tennis was the second most bet on sport behind soccer (football) in the world. That fact alone indicates a problem. Since I had only seen betting in London during Wimbledon and Melbourne at the AO during my career, I had no clue of the amount of betting that goes on in the minor leagues of tennis such as the ITF Futures events. Nor did I realize the numerous opportunities for in match betting, not just the simple bet, who wins or loses a match, but bets that involve the number of aces and double faults, for example. No wonder we have at least a perceived problem, if not a very serious scandal on our hands.

I am not a gambler, but during the AO I spent a lot of time concerned and educating myself about match fixing, TIU and now The Lewis Review will go about it’s charge. I also attended both news conferences in the main media room at the AO. The first media conference ran twenty minutes late and questions were limited to five or six. More questions swirled than were answered. Ten days later at the next news conference, it began closer to the scheduled start time, was not rushed, and the media was allowed to ask many questions, and follow ups. Phil Brook, the rotating Chair of the TIU board, and Chairman of All England Lawn and Tennis Club (AELTC) where Wimbledon is held, was seated prominently in the middle of three executives. Wimbledon, of course, has no back wall endorsements from corporations.  The William Hill Company, a large gambling company based in Australia, has a major sponsorship with the Australian Open. The AO seemed to have advertised William Hill everywhere from back walls of the major courts, to TV advertisements ending with “please gamble responsibly.”

I don’t think major Grand Slam tennis has an issue of match fixing, but I can see how the lowest levels of our sport might be more vulnerable to the wrong influencers making contact with players who barely make a living. Also can someone please explain how the TIU considers there to be about 23,000 professional tennis players when only about 4,000 players have earned at least one ranking point on the ATP and WTA rankings. Who are the other almost 20,000 players?

The era of transportable technology in the form of lap top computers, smartphones and tablets keep at any ones’ fingertips instant scores at all levels of tennis. This information is transmitted globally, enabling corruption to be much more tempting and easier. One text message from a player or a person in a players “team” to the wrong person can become match fixing. One umpire who manipulates the electronic score timing at the lowest level tournament when very few people are around can become match fixing.

Professional tennis is in bed with the gambling industry. Gambling is an activity that can lead to obsession and compulsion very easily. Mix obsessive compulsive human behavior with money with a global sport with today’s technology in the early internet era, it’s no wonder we have what could become a crisis for tennis.

A generation before this, the establishment of professional tennis did itself no favors to enlist trust, when it covered up a failed drug test of one of it’s super stars. There can be no cover ups, but instead transparency with frequent updates for everyone involved in the game.

Perceptions and reality can be joined with a grey common area. Today’s players will be under the microscope for any signs of not trying (aka “tanking”), even if just a game or a point, because of this ridiculous mid match betting. If an injured player, who still takes the court, then can’t perform as normal or who retires mid-match, are then attached to irregular betting patterns, then more trouble will arise. Many more journalists will be eyeing these situations and reporting any links or irregularities.

Adam Lewis QC, the lawyer slated to handle this review, has his hands full as he undertakes this “open independent, transparent, and comprehensive” review of the TIU. This review is being paid for by the TIU board, which does call into question whether it still can be 100% independent if it is paid for by the entity it is reviewing.  Lewis is a well respected expert in international sports law, who should partner with an expert in gambling law, as well as an expert on how technology, the internet, and hand-held devises are enabling the perceptions that our sport of tennis is way too vulnerable to match fixing, which threatens our values and our sport’s reputation like nothing ever has.

Some of the seven entities that make up the TIU might need to be willing to leave sponsorship dollars on the table whether from gambling companies like William Hill or data technology companies who pay tennis entities for the rights to put out instant data globally.

It was reported during the AO, that even the British Parliament is going to examine this tennis match fixing issue. Now that seems like a more independent body to review and examine match fixing or is it? At least none of the seven tennis entities is paying the MPs!

The match fixing scandal casts a shadow over some great matches and positive stories being played out at Melbourne Park these last two weeks. There were two other unusual situations, one involved a coach collapsing mid-match in Rod Laver Area while watching his player compete, and the tragic death of one of our ESPN colleagues in Melbourne.

Having known Nigel Sears for over thirty years as a coach, mostly on the WTA Tour, we were all shocked to hear he collapsed and fell backwards after leaving Ana Ivanovic player box. Sears suffered a medical condition that required immediate intervention, while still lying inside Laver Arena. He was taken to a Melbourne hospital for tests. The good news is he is back home in London receiving care, while awaiting the birth of his grand child.

Ted Brown had worked with our ESPN tennis team for a few years in the graphics department. He was 36 years old, married to Erinn, and father to two-year old, Henry. Ted died overnight during the middle weekend of the Australian Open from a massive heart attack. Everyone on the ESPN team, especially those who worked along side Ted in graphics, worked the back row of the control room with Ted, and knew him from Bristol, Connecticut, were devastated. There is a GoFundMe campaign established in Ted Brown’s name to help Erinn and Henry immediately. At a later date, I am sure other memorials or tributes and funds for the benefit of Henry will be established. My thoughts and prayers are with Ted’s family.

I left Melbourne two days early with ESPN’s blessing. I really felt a need to see my kids sooner than Sunday. Now I get to spend more time with them which especially after this Australian Open seems even more priceless.

Ready, Play!