Friday, 25 January 2013

They should halve women’s tennis prize money and spend the other half on catching dope cheats

I switched on the TV this morning to catch the start of the Australian Open men’s semi-final between Djokovic and Ferrer only to see a woman tennis player being interviewed on court at the end of a match. Turned out to be the reigning Aussie Open champion, Victoria Azarenka who had just beaten Serena Williams’s 19-year old American conqueror, Sloan Stevens (thanks for that, Sloan!). I couldn’t help noticing how frostily quiet the crowd remained during Azarenka’s interview – no whoopin’ and hollerin’ and barely any applause: very unlike Aussies.

Turned out the World Number One (who knew?) had taken a ten-minute medical time-out while leading 5-4 in the second set, having failed to convert five match points while serving at 5-3. As the Bulgarian admitted, she had “choked” and "couldn't breathe", and gave that as the reason for scuttling off court at the very moment when the momentum of the match had swung behind her opponent. When a female player wimps out that badly serving for a match, she’ll usually go on to lose.

But that ten-minute break – which evidently struck the spectators and Eurosport’s resident pundits as a truly shoddy and cynical piece of sportsmanship – allowed Azarenka to get over her panic attack and immediately break Stevens’s serve to clinch the match.

Later, the winner claimed she hadn’t understood the interviewer’s question and that the ten-minute break had been used to sort out a problem with her back. That’s about as likely as Eden Hazard claiming he’d spotted a deadly spider crawling all over that Swansea ballboy’s tracskuit top and that kicking the seventeen-year old in the ribs had been an attempt to save the boy’s life.

The answer to Azarenka’s sordid shenanigans is quite simple: if a player has something wrong with them which can’t be put right during a 90-second changeover, they should forfeit the match. Boxers aren’t allowed to take a ten-minute break when they lose their nerve during a contest – why the hell should tennis players?

Anyway, you’d have thought women’s tennis was in bad enough shape already without its top players adding to the sport's woes by indulging in what at best looks like stretching the rules to the limit, and at worst very much like straightforward cheating. The distaff half of the sport is almost unbelievably dull right now, because it is so pathetically uncompetitive: the number of bagel sets (i.e. 6-0) and double-bagel matches in the early rounds has got beyond a joke. Of the top players, only two have genuine charisma, but, outside the United States, hardly anyone can stand Serena “Panic Room” Williams, and Maria Sharapova – while undoubtedly glamorous – just isn’t that good. As for the rest of Top 20 – who cares? I mean – Kvitova, Errani, Kerber? Me neither! 

Meanwhile, in the wake of the disgusting Lance Armstrong revelations, the time has come for tennis to put its house in order, chemical substance-wise. Tennis’s Dope-Finder General, Dr Stuart Miller was on BBC Radio the other day, sounding a little half-hearted about catching cheats (a point often made on the excellent Tennis Has A Steroid Problem website). Between 2006 and 2011, when certain leading tennis players apparently developed stamina and fitness levels more normally associated with survivors from  Krypton, the International Tennis Federation actually decreased blood tests by 33%. In 2011 a mere 21 tennis players were given out-of-competition blood tests. That’s bizarre, because it’s between tournaments that you’d expect cheats to be doing most of their doping.

Last September, Dr Miller, defending this softly-softly-catchee-just-about-nobody strategy, claimed that “the constraints are always going to be financial”. Really? A sport as rich as tennis can’t afford more than 21 blood tests at roughly $1000 a pop over the course of a whole year? Nonsense.

To be fair to the authorities they are now – finally – talking about introducing the Athlete Biological Passport System which should help set alarm bells ringing should a player start monkeying around with his or her blood chemistry, and the International Tennis Federation is in talks with tournaments and professional bodies about chipping in more cash to increase the chances of identifying cheats.

My suggestion is a simple one – get the four slams to agree to go on paying the same levels of prize money as they do presently, but get them to decrease women’s prize money by 50%. This would have a number of beneficial effects: first, it would stop the ludicrous gender disparity by acknowledging that women play best-of-three set matches, as opposed to the men’s best-of-five, and that many women’s matches are incredibly dull and one-sided. Second, it would reflect the fact that it’s the men who attract the punters to the big events – if the women disappeared, these tournaments would survive: if the men disappeared, they’d go bust. Third, it would take into account the fact that men's tennis is in the middle of a Golden Age right now, while women's tennis is in a dreadful slump.

Of course, the woimen will moan and threaten to go on strike – but that would give tennis fans a chance to say: “Go ahead – make our day!” The organisers could fill the resulting gaps in the schedules with seniors matches (or monkey tennis, come to that). And Dr Miller and the ITF would no longer have an excuse to pussyfoot around a controversial area that’s finally starting to attract the attention of the mainstream media.


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