Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 13, 2013

For Love of the Game

Tennis writer Tom Perrotta loves the sport, an essential quality for anyone who faces its intense demands.

Michael Gluckstadt

Tom Perrotta knows tennis. He writes about it for the Wall Street Journal and Tennis Magazine. He goes to the tournaments and interviews players. And he knows this: The only way to be any good at the sport is to love it.

Tom Perrotta
"I can spend entire sets just watching Nadal's feet, nothing else. I've never seen anyone move like him."

Tom Perrotta

A game so mentally and physically demanding, that consumes so much of even a junior player's time—tennis, if you didn't love to play it, would be torture. Perrotta recently wrote about Adam Neff, a 12-year-old with a personal tennis academy in his backyard, built by his parents. And besides the French Open replica court and six-figure CVAC pod, there's one thing Adam and his sister share that gives them hope to succeed: "The kids like to play," Perrotta says. "And that's the only way to become any good."

In the following interview, which was conducted via email and edited for clarity, Perrotta takes Gelf inside the game, discussing what advanced technology players could use to improve their games; his expectations for Andy Roddick in the studio; and why ESPN is good for tennis.

Gelf Magazine: You just returned from covering the French Open. What is it like to watch Rafael Nadal in person?

Tom Perrotta: I can spend entire sets just watching Nadal's feet, nothing else. I've never seen anyone move like him. Did you notice how Novak Djokovic stumbled a few times, including a fall into the net, when the courts dried out in that crazy semifinal? Nadal never stumbles on clay. I don't know how. And he's incredibly quick off the mark, which is more important than speed. Watch him the next time he chases down a drop shot. The ball just sits there and waits for him; he never looks like he's in a hurry.

Gelf Magazine: How much did tennis miss him?

Tom Perrotta: Tons. His game is unique, he's got incredible passion, and he's fearless. Enjoy it while he's healthy.

Gelf Magazine: Who's your favorite player to watch? To interview?

Tom Perrotta: To watch: Any of the Big Four (Djokovic, Roger Federer, Nadal, and Andy Murray), and Agnieszka Radwanska, who has the coolest game.
To interview: Bob and Mike Bryan. When you talk to either of them it's like catching up with a high-school buddy who happened to become really good at tennis. They speak their minds, poke fun at each other, and don't recite answers from a PR handbook.

Gelf Magazine: Why does tennis media have so many conflicts of interest?

Tom Perrotta: I think it's fairer to ask why there are so many conflicts in tennis, not just in tennis media. As big of a business as tennis has become, at its core it's still a small, clubby sport. For more, read Jon Wertheim.

Gelf Magazine: With ESPN going all-in on tennis, do you think their coverage is generally fair? How much do you miss Mary Carillo?

Tom Perrotta: ESPN has been very good for tennis. There, I've said it…I expect the inbox to fill up very soon with "are you crazy?" emails. Could they do better? Sure. (I could, too.) But generally the announcers are very good—Darren Cahill is exceptional—and at least they show a lot of live coverage. I wish they didn't divvy it up among so many different channels/streams. But compared to say, NBC, which infuriates every tennis fan at the French Open every single year by not broadcasting both men's semifinals live, ESPN is amazing. And yes, I miss Mary Carillo! She's unique, quick on her feet, and has the best voice in the game.

Gelf Magazine: Over/under on how long before the next American man: wins a Grand Slam; wins the French Open; becomes No. 1.

Tom Perrotta: Wins a Slam: 7 years. Wins the French Open: 12 years. Becomes No. 1: 10 years.

Gelf Magazine: You said two years ago that time delays between serves are hurting tennis. Has the sport been successful at addressing it?

Tom Perrotta: A little bit. They put some new rules in place that are supposed to encourage umpires to issue time-violation warnings, and they have done it more often (though not tons more). The numbers I've seen suggest the game is moving a bit faster now; my colleague Carl Bialik wrote a fine piece on it (Ed. Note: our colleague, too). I still vote against the shot clock, and I think Jeff Sackmann has far more interesting ideas.

Gelf Magazine: Your article last year about Taylor Townsend drew a lot of attention at the time. Do you think the USTA has learned anything from the episode?

Tom Perrotta: I'll just say that Townsend is still with the USTA and she says everything is going great (I spoke to her at the French Open this year). She seems happy, she feels like she's improving, and she still plays like she loves the game, which is great to see. She's only 17 years old; she has plenty of time to develop into an excellent pro. And if she does, people will enjoy watching her because she doesn't play typical baseline tennis. She's a good volleyer and wise beyond her years in tactics.

Gelf Magazine: How has the proliferation of players using Twitter made your job easier and harder?

Tom Perrotta: It gives writers more information to sift through, which more often than not ends up being a waste of time. Ultimately, though, it's good—better to have more information than less. I thought Ben Rothenberg recently wrote a great story based on Twitter digging.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote recently about the tennis parents who installed a tennis club in their home for their children. If you had that much money and a promising child, how would you spend it?

Tom Perrotta: A heated swimming pool with a retractable roof. I'd love to have courts in my backyard, because then my wife and I could play, too. First we'd have to get a backyard (we live in an apartment). That story stirred up a lot of debate, but having spent some time with the family, they are so far from the stereotypical tennis parents we've all read about—I saw no signs of that. Is what they're doing a bit extreme? Sure. Is it necessary? No, of course not. Are they—and their children—having fun with it? Yes. And that counts for a lot. The kids like to play, and that's the only way to become any good.

Gelf Magazine: What percentage of their earnings should the top players be spending on scouting, video, stats guys? Are any of them doing that?

Tom Perrotta: It would be great if they spent anything on this. They don't. I don't know a single player who employs someone whose sole job is to collect data, analyze video, etc. There are coaches who do it (Ivan Lendl is one), and other coaches are trying innovative approaches to scouting. But in general, tennis is an awful, awful, awful sport when it comes to data and analysis. There are so many untapped resources out there, like data from Hawk-Eye (the line-calling system). There has to be a way to use that to analyze player tendencies, how they move, what kind of shots make them commit errors. But instead of that, we see IBM "invest" in gimmicks like the "momentum" stat it had at the French Open this year. It's worthless—tells you nothing about the match, the players, anything.

Gelf Magazine: What are your expectations for Andy Roddick's new role, on Fox Sports?

Tom Perrotta: He has a lot of qualities that you'd like to see in a great commentator: Smarts, quick humor, good facial expressions. I think he'll do very well, though it sounds like he signed up for a lot of work, so I wonder if he might ask himself after a while, "Why am I doing this again?" I look forward to watching him.

Gelf Magazine: Does tennis have a drugs problem? How about a match-fixing problem?

Tom Perrotta: Tennis has a drug-testing problem. There isn't enough invested in the testing program—even some of the game's own players have said the sport needs to do more for the sake of its image (see Andy Murray). The game is putting more money behind it and talking about things like biological passports, but a lot more needs to be done. When you don't have enough testing, people begin to wonder, and it's not like no one has been caught—players have been caught plenty of times, just not big-name stars.
As for match-fixing, yes, there have been cases, largely among players who are low in the rankings and have limited income. The sport could invest more money in ferreting out this kind of corruption, too, but it won't be simple, especially at lower-level tournaments. It's easy to fix a tennis match—it only takes one player to do it, not two. Players have bad days all the time; anyone can lose to anyone in this sport if the circumstances are right—that's part of what makes it such a great game.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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