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TTI Talks: When Players Pair with Commentators

The advent of social media has made the tennis community feel larger than ever; yet in practice, the world is still quite small. Players who step away from the game quickly settle into roles as commentators, coaches or, as has been the latest fashion, both. Player-coaches have become all the rage with high-profile pairs ranging from Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic to Lindsay Davenport and Madison Keys.

But for coaches like Davenport, the addition of one hat hasn’t led to the removal of another; she and others like Martina Navratilova have sought to balance their ever-increasing number of courtside jobs, but to what end? What effect does this overlapping have on how the game is framed and explained? In honor of Valentine’s Day, René Denfeld and David Kane have a sit down to discuss these matches, just how many “coachmentators” have left one foot in the booth and another in the coaching box, and whether this blurred line is best for the game.

René Denfeld: I don’t know about you David, but this year’s Australian Open was an interesting one – not only for the on-court stuff, but also in how it was presented and broadcasted. Over in Germany, we had long-time hitting partner/good friend of Serena Williams Sascha Bajin sitting in the commentary booth for quite a few matches. The German is currently nursing an injury and didn’t travel to Australia – so Eurosport Germany scooped him up. The 30-year-old provided some intriguing insight on women’s tennis, general tour life, relations between players, and so on.

In my opinion, Bajin was a great addition over the fortnight, particularly because this gig was a one-off for him – rather than an additional job.

Over in #merica, the situation is a little different on the whole, isn’t it?

David Kane: That it is; I think we’re used to these kinds of overlaps stateside – and on a much more permanent basis. I can recall a fair amount of side eye several years ago when Mary Joe Fernandez was papped sitting in Roger Federer’s box; the ESPN commentator is married to the former No. 1’s agent, Tony Godsick. The question was asked almost immediately: should one charged with delivering unbiased play-by-plays of a match have such close ties to one of the game’s most prominent athletes?

I’m not sure if we got a clear answer; Fernandez rarely covers a Roger Federer match (or too many ATP matches in general), but she has been the United States Fed Cup coach since 2009, a position that often allows her to shed light on up-and-coming Americans – likely because they’ve been scouted for her team.

This kind of relationship has hardly led to the same sort of moral dilemma; in fact, the number of commentators doing coaching work on the side has only increased of late, with Tennis Channel stalwarts Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova each taking on protogées in Madison Keys and Agnieszka Radwanska, respectively. Throughout the young American’s breakthrough run to the semifinals, we saw Davenport in the stands, cheering her on and receiving much of the credit for the teenager’s sudden improvement.

When a Brad Gilbert, for example, took to coaching Andy Murray in the mid-00s, we saw him disappear from the commentary scene, only to return when the partnership ended. With both Davenport and Navratilova taking on ostensibly more limited roles – the latter deemed a coaching consultant used specifically during major tournaments – how does that affect their courtside analysis?

RD: Sidebar re: Fernandez: – even that was a little awkward when Serena Williams walked off Centre Court with her fifth Venus Rosewater Dish in 2012 and thanked the Fed Cup Captain – who was working for ESPN – in the interview zone for the notes and tips she gave her on how to play runner-up Radwanska.

As far as I’m concerned, there are definitely two sides to this medal: it’s a very intriguing insight into the camps of the top players, there’s an undeniable potential for awkwardness (at best) and conflict of interest (at worst). Or a little bit of both: when Martina Navratilova analyzed her charge’s fourth round match against Venus Williams on Tennis Channel, she did not exactly beat about the bush when it came to voicing her opinion on Radwanska’s performance:

It is a very fine line to straddle. Talking about Gilbert – another who has pretty much disappeared from the commentary booth since entering the coaching ranks (perhaps surprisingly): Boris Becker. The German had a fairly nice job at the BBC for many years, but immediately quit after he began working with Djokovic. The coach of the ATP No. 1 told German newspaper “Bild”: “I cannot analyse matches on TV and be a coach the next day!” This is something Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has never really had an issue with, it seems.

DK: When it comes to the Navratilova incident, I think that might have played out similarly even if the Czech-American had taken a formal sabbatical from the booth; Navratilova has always been stringently honest, and if you’re Radwanska, I don’t think you hire the Hall of Famer if you’re looking for a sugar-coated opinion. I could easily see these quotes delivered in an interview or even in a special segment with Tennis Channel or ESPN.

When Navratilova has something to say, she has no problems saying it.

Becker, by contrast, has to put up with a lot of ribbing on Twitter – the German has made enough gaffes on the medium that he became an easy target – but his stance here is an admirable one. The acknowledgement of a potential conflict speaks to just how seriously he has taken this position; how each in his situation respond to that acknowledgement can be different, but I do believe most in the tennis world take that very basic step.

Would Navratilova’s remarks have bothered you if they were in a different context? Or was it the fact that they were sandwiched between other Tennis Channel segments that made the dissonance that much more apparent?

RD: No, I thought Navratilova’s words might have been harsh but coming from a coach, they were refreshingly honest, and as you said, she’s been outspoken in the past, so why change now? However, the grey area just become a little more obvious in these situations.

Mind, none of that compares to the position Justin Gimelstob is in – ATP player board, Tennis Channel commentator and coach to John Isner? That is an absolute bucket load of different jobs and they all overlap to a certain extent. Surely a chair umpire career must be just around the corner, right?

DK: Tread softly; the rather ubiquitous American doesn’t exactly take well to that sort of criticism, but I suppose it’s not his job to decide what should and shouldn’t be allowed, anyway; if no one is stopping you, why wouldn’t you try to balance as many of your interests and abilities as possible?

But just because he or she can, should a person primarily meant to see to the benefits of all players be taking time to ensure the advancement of one? If I’m a Top 100 player, I might not like the idea of one of my representatives working so closely with, and ultimately wanting to protect the interests of, someone in the Top 20. At the same time, Gimelstob is smart and politically-minded, a likely exemption to the rule, but that doesn’t mean the rule ought not to be in place for everyone.

The amount of overlap would seem to stem from the notion that tennis, however global, remains a niche sport, and only those firmly entrenched in this world can understand it. In that way, I belueve tennis has taken a step back; when Navratilova herself was at her peak, she looked beyond the smaller sporting circle to people like basketball player Nancy Lieberman, whose varied training routines spurred her into a non-calendar year Grand Slam between 1983 and 1984. There are a lot of tennis minds helping one another, and it’s all largely kosher according to the rules, but could this generation do even better by avoiding this grey area entirely – or at least not relying on it exclusively?

RD: See, here’s the deal: I think for a tennis player, hiring someone who has been in their position previously (late stages of a Slam, pressure of big events) is one of the most logical things in the world. I don’t think that is a step back, per se. The ones who have to worry about the grey areas first and foremost are the broadcasters: “Is it sensible for us to employ people who have very close ties to certain players? Does it affect the quality of our product? And if so, how?” Unless I’m mistaken the only ESPN analysts not affiliated with anyone in particular are Pam Shriver and John McEnroe – everyone else has or has had some sort of tie to players or coaching organizations while commentating for the network.

Sometimes it shows (#tbt: “sleeper pick Tatishvili”), but more often than not, it really doesn’t.

I do understand that it puts ESPN, Tennis Channel, Eurosport, the BBC (etc.) into a predicament. They’ve always been working with a lot of greats of the game and in recent years, a fair share of them has been approached by currents players. I even understand why broadcasters want to hold on to familiar names, particularly Davenport and Navratilova, who usually do a very good job in the booth.

What I don’t understand, however, is hiring familiar names who are clearly coaches more than anything else these days. And while no one at the BBC seems to have an issue with approaching Goran Ivanisevic last year and Patrick Mouratoglou for the last few years, I do. Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I struggle far more with that than with commentators heading to the coaching bench.

Am I being hypocritical here, Dave?

DK: Maybe a little, but I see what you mean. A Davenport has spent quite a few years in the booth, and therefore a foray into coaching might add another dimension to her commentary; a coach with less experience commentating – especially one lacking the ties of a Navratilova, a McEnroe, or even a Darren Cahill (who is a major force within Adidas Player Development) – can seem less appropriate in the eyes of the viewing public.

I’m not sure if the two are as different as they appear, but when half of your commentating staff begins coaching on the side, what is the immediate solution? Fill the booth with unfamiliar names with inexperienced commentating games? A Navratilova can argue that hers is a much smaller role in the Radwanska camp than Davenport with Keys, anyway, thereby creating another loophole for those looking to do both.

Perhaps the crux of what we’re debating comes down to this: is the viewing experience diminished by these overlapping interests? Have those in the booth egregiously mislead an audience into believing something in line with what we perceive to be their own biases?

To put it in Tumblr terms: is something problematic truly a problem?

RD: Ha! It won’t be a problem if the ones who take on double (or even triple) duties manage to draw clear boundaries. I absolutely agree that you can’t just switch out half of your staff haphazardly – now that is something that would really diminish the viewing experience for the majority of the audience, whether they are a hardcore tennis audience or not. But irrespective of that, it would be foolish to completely overlook this development.

(After all, it’s not like we just overlook the way pharmaceutical companies mingling in medical sch- well, nevermind.)

But in all honesty, I trust a fair amount of the experts employed that they are able to give their honest analysis of a tennis match regardless of their involvement with players/agencies of academies. But I do believe the current overlaps give reason enough for broadcasters to be more clear upon the guidelines of hiring former pros or coaches in the future.

What do you think of overlaps in tennis? Sound off in the comments, and have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

1 Comment on TTI Talks: When Players Pair with Commentators

  1. Great discussion, very fair and objective (“it’s not his job to decide what should and shouldn’t be allowed, anyway”).

    I took an objection to Martin’a remarks though, or rather the situation in which they were said. And for many reasons. (Disclaimer: Aga fan talking here. Maybe keep a grain/bag of salt handy. I will try to be objective.)

    When you are a coach, you are part of the same team as the player. And it is unprofessional to criticize your own side in a public manner. It shows lack of trust between the parties. If the relationship was trustworthy before, this public airing of dirty laundry may damage it. Honest & direct feedback is great but it should be given face-to-face. Public advice/criticism is ineffective. Martina telling Aga: “I told you not to hit to her BH, but you did it anyway. We need to work on how you can stick to a strategy throughout the match”, during a coaching session will probably be way more productive.

    In a different context, the same rule should apply to Spanish players criticizing Gala Leone. After you say “She has no rapport built with us players” in public , you have scuttled all chances of actually building one with her.

    In a typical office environment, the advice managers should follow is to not criticize your charges in public. It breeds negative emotions (embarrassment, resentment) which become the focus rather the actual feedback. In a player-coach relationship, player may technically be the boss but this rule should still apply. Unless you have explicit understanding with the other party, a player/coach should never criticize the other in public, until their relationship is active.

    I was happy that Aga hired Martina. Having someone that accomplished cheering you on might prove to be a great morale booster. I also thought she could help Aga’s S&V game. Aga needs to keep points short, especially during first week of slams. She could also help Aga with fitness and avoid losses like AO’14 SF. Their relationship is still very new though, and may take time to show results.

    I put the remarks down to this being Martina’s first coaching relationship and hence, not completely delineating her roles as commentator and coach. She did apologize later (sort of) on Twitter saying she may have been “too harsh”. In my opinion, the actual feedback was fine; just the situation was wrong.


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