The Backboard: The Things I Love…and the Things I Love to Forget About the Grand Slams

Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Tuesday here at The Changeover (today is an exception due to travel). You can find past editions of The Backboard here

The Things I Love…and the Things I Love to Forget About the Grand Slams

Last week, as I endured a hellish flight from Dallas to Philadelphia, I remembered what I always recall when I’m on an airplane: I hate flying. I’ve long joked about how I’m patiently waiting for teletransportation to become the common way of traveling – simply because I love so many aspects of leaving my home and visiting new lands, old friends and family, but never enjoy the part with the big flying machines. I firmly believe that traveling (as in, the act of being somewhere other than your home for a period of time) is a crucial human experience, and one that never fails to enrich the soul – even if you’re traveling to a familiar place.

In case this wasn’t clear from the paragraph above: I absolutely detest flying. I hate the crammed airplanes. I hate the lying, chaotic, and bankrupt airlines. I hate going through security. I hate airports, which are an apt representation of what purgatory might be like (if it indeed exists). I could go on and on.

And yet, my brain manages to block out all those things I intensely dislike about air travel until the very moment when I’m actually experiencing it again. I don’t know how my brain does it, but it’s a wildly effective strategy: the days before a trip are never filled with dread, and instead they are full of optimism for what’s at the other end of yet another miserable experience on an airplane.

What does all of the above have to do with tennis? I realized that my relationship with travel is very similar to the one I have with the four Grand Slams. Every time a major comes around, I’m full of optimism and expectation for what’s in store. And until the event finally begins, my brain manages to forget all the many things that make me cringe during the eight weeks of the year that these four events reign supreme:

  • When I turned on the TV during the first day of the French Open, I was immediately reminded of the endless army of talking heads hired by ESPN and the Tennis Channel that I must somehow learn to live with for the next two weeks. A forgotten feeling of frustration seeps in, as minutes go by where the only thing we see is people talking about tennis as opposed to any of the many dozens of matches taking place in Paris. It never ceases to amaze me how networks think that people will be drawn to a sport that is being discussed instead of shown.
  • It also doesn’t take long for me to remember the star-obsessed (star-centric was too light of an adjective) nature of the broadcasts themselves: it’s all about the top males and females, for whom the first week of a major is little more than a formal practice session. The matches are usually blowouts, but God forbid the networks show us a competitive match instead. Who on earth thinks showcasing blowouts is good for the sport? Who will say in a few weeks, “Man, I loved watching Federer dismantle that guy … what was his name again?” We’re drawn to sports because of the uncertainty of the outcome. If we show lopsided matches, where’s the mystery?
  • Trying to follow a competitive match on TV can be a challenge. More often than not, the match gets cut off because of a talking-head segment, an inconsequential interview, or highlights of things that already happened.
  • But most of all, I have to listen as John McEnroe, probably the most recognizable name in tennis broadcasting, produces some of the worst commentary the sport has heard. It feels like the man barely prepares, and just falls into his broadcast booth straight from another planet (or from the previous slam). The clichés come thick and hard, the tired narratives start getting woven once again, and the impression I get is that tennis only exists during the Grand Slam matches that John McEnroe commentates. Compare that with Brad Gilbert at ESPN, who was talking up the chances of Carreño Busta ahead of his match with Roger Federer. Gilbert talked about Futures events. FUTURES. John McEnroe, on the other hand, during the Berdych-Monfils match, was unsure of Tomas Berdych’s ranking, even though the Czech has been the World No. 6 since October of last year. Johnny Mac also talked about how many coaches Gaël Monfils has had, used it as a reason for why his ranking plummeted, and failed to mention the serious injuries Monfils has had to go through in the past year. Personally, I would’ve rather heard what Mac thought about the fact that Gaël has switched racquet and shoe deals three times in the past few years. Alas.

I could keep going. We all could, really.

But it’s not all bad. Far from it.

When an airplane descends peacefully upon a metropolis at night, the spectacle of lights never ceases to amaze me. I love looking at cities from above when the moon is out. Looking at Houston as midnight drew near was a wondrous sight: the city’s humongous size becomes that much more tangible and impressive. That’s the kind of feeling you get when Marion Bartoli is going through her entire repertoire of eccentricities in order to survive a battle that seemed lost. Bartoli’s effort gets magnified by the magnificence of the setting: an old stadium that has seen plenty of elite athletes battle for a chance to advance in this most historic event.

When the plane lands smoothly and you are now fully secure that you won’t die on this day because of the flying contraption, I think of the rare occasion when the match you want to watch is on the right court, with the right announcers, the appropriately enthusiastic crowd, and no silly studio interruptions. Life can continue.

Maybe flying is just like the first week of a Grand Slam. All the things that annoy me tend to disappear once the first weekend is in the rearview mirror. Then a slam becomes much more like what happens after you leave the airport and go explore a new city, or simply return to one you love. Anything can happen: you might discover a great new restaurant, or follow the rise of an up-and-coming player. You can visit a special place, or you can watch an unexpected classic. Because once all the nonsense involved in physically getting you to this place is behind you, you now get to enjoy it.

I can’t wait for the second week to start. Maybe that’s when I start forgetting all the nasty things my brain knows I’d be better off without.

Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think

1. Rules makers might soon make a call on phones on court – Douglas Robson (USA Today)

This was an interesting piece by Doug, which was triggered by the Monfils and Stakhovsky incidents from the past few days. Neither incident involved any malicious use of smartphones on court (Monfils tried to take a 360° video of the Chatrier crowd doing the wave, while Stakhovsky took a picture of a ball mark he thought was poorly judged), but there are potential illicit uses of this kind of device during matches, mainly involving coaching or some sort of match-fixing/inside info for gambling.

I completely understand the worry for how phones can be used maliciously, and really, the only way to prevent that type of activity is to ban phones from the court. But, I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it could be if players connected with social media during their matches. I mean, wouldn’t you have loved it if Gaël Monfils live-tweeted his win over Gulbis? How about Angelique Kerber during one of her SarcastiKerber moments? What if Stan Wawrinka and Ben Paire were playing matches on different courts and tweeting to each other? Maybe Serena Williams and Sara Errani could advance their Candy Crush level during changeovers. What other videos would Gaël Monfils shoot? Who’d do the first live-match Vine? Who’d be the best photographer?

The possibilities are endless.

Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons


Translation: “By accident, I was a witness to the meeting between some of the Davis Cup captains at Roland Garros, and the format they’re asking for would be similar to the FIFA World Cup.”

Javier Frana, for those who don’t know, is a former pro from Argentina. Frana competed on the ATP World Tour between the late ’80s and into the ’90s. He reached a career high ranking of No. 30, and he retired after having won three titles. Oddly enough, all are on different surfaces: Nottingham on grass, Santiago on clay, and Guaruja on hard. But the main reason I was happy to see this tweet is because Javier Frana has been working for ESPN Latin America for years doing color commentary for all their tennis broadcasts. Growing up, ESPN was synonymous with tennis in Latin America: they showed all four Grand Slams as well as the Masters 1000s. And Javier was always paired with Venezuelan play-by-play man Luis Alfredo Álvarez. They remain my favorite tennis announcers: both men get along supremely well, and their love for the sport always made their broadcasts enjoyable, as well as educational.

Anyway, onto the subject of Frana’s tweet: I’m not surprised this is happening, and I’m delighted to hear about it. Davis Cup has immense potential to be an enormous event – one that the whole world would pay attention to. However, the ITF and the national federations have stubbornly stuck to a model that’s geared towards maximizing profits in the local markets instead of looking for ways to turn Davis Cup into an event that appeals to a worldwide audience.

This is where the World Cup model makes perfect sense, because it’s a happy medium between the traditional structure of Davis Cup (thus taking care of the national federations’ need for the cash they get for hosting home ties) and the need to create an event that truly takes a firm grip on the tennis calendar and the sports world.

For those of you who don’t know, 31 out of the 32 teams (the host nation gains automatic entry) that show up for the FIFA World Cup have to go through regional qualifying (which is somewhat similarly structured to the regional groups beneath the World Group in Davis Cup). What the Davis Cup captains want, I imagine, is for the World Group (in some manner) to become the World Cup of tennis.

Arriving to a compromise won’t be easy: some sacrifices will need to be made by everyone involved. But I do hope that the powers that be see the long-term benefits of staging such a potentially lucrative and exciting event that would be geared towards the global sports audience. The tennis establishment has been quite happy to favor the local and regional in favor of the global (the ITF being a main culprit of this line of thinking). It’s like the proverbial big picture is either too intimidating to tackle, or simply invisible. This initiative, which hopefully will gain traction in the next few weeks and months, could be a watershed moment for the sport – a turn of the tide, if you will. I can’t wait to hear more about this in the near future.

Music Used to Write this Column

I tried with all my might to use something other than the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to write this column. Believe me, I really did. But I just can’t escape this album. I joked on Twitter that I should sign up for Mellon Collie Rehab. And since I already wrote about this album, I’ll just leave you with a story and a song (after all, there are 30 tunes on it).

On Monday night, my wife and I drove with my brother-in-law from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. We left at night to avoid the nightmarish D.C traffic, and it worked well: we made it to the nation’s capital in less than three and a half hours. During the trip, my brother-in-law let me pick the music to accompany our drive, and after we listened to The National’s High Violet, I found Mellon Collie on his Zune (remember those?). We managed to listen to almost the entire double album before we made it to his place, and it was yet another wonderful listen. But what struck me from the experience was that when “1979” came up, I suddenly had to fight back (unsuccessfully) a few tears. For some reason, this gorgeous song that I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of times moved me in a most powerful way, as my brother-in-law’s old Maxima rolled through the night. I’m still not sure if those were sad, melancholic tears, or just happy tears due to listening to the perfect song at the most perfect time. As if my soul had detected some rare synchronicity within the universe. Still, once the moment passed, I couldn’t stop trying to find an explanation as to why a most familiar piece of music had been so emotionally powerful after all these years.

Two days later, on the flight back to Texas, I listened to the second half of Mellon Collie once again. But when “1979” started to come through my headphones, I didn’t feel any of those strong emotions that flooded me just two days before. The song was there, I tapped my fingers to it, but I didn’t feel much of anything. In fact, I might have continued reading an old Rolling Stone.

Looking back, I wonder if a part of me was mourning/delighting at the fact that during that drive to D.C., I experienced something that was quite similar to what a big chunk of my teenage years were like: talking about all sorts of things with my friends back in Quito. My brother-in-law (who is just two years older than me) and I had been talking loosely about Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin, and some of the stuff that went on in the ’90s as we drove through the night and listened to Billy Corgan’s master opus. Perhaps the spirit of our conversation was akin to the ones I held in a different language so many years ago with other people. And since “1979” is the official song of nostalgia for one’s teenage years, maybe a part of me was moved by revisiting the type of experiences that heavily influenced the person I am today. Those are all theories, of course: I’m not sure the answer is out there for me to catch.

You’ve all listened to “1979” at some point, so this week’s song is another gem from Mellon Collie: “By Starlight.” It’s the next-to-last song on the whole thing, and I’ve completely fallen for it in this latest bout of Mellon Collie addiction. I somehow missed it during my first few listens of the album, back in Buenos Aires over a decade ago. Here is the album version:

And here’s Billy Corgan performing a devastatingly beautiful acoustic version of the song:

If you have any questions or suggestions for topics to be covered in this column, feel free to  tweet or email them to me. See you next week!

Juan José loves a well struck backhand down the line, statistics that tell a story, a nice lob winner, and competent returns of serve.

6 Responses

  1. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne May 31, 2013 at 5:49 am |

    Could not agree more in re the dichotomy between the love of going to new places, and the dismal process whereby one gets there.

    Also, while occasionally the talking heads do a nice job of reviewing the importance or putting in context what we have just seen or are about to see, too often it appears that they’re doing ten studio minutes every hour or two so that the on court camera and sound crews can take a break. I have no evidence whatever for that belief, but otherwise the too-often pointless banner is incomprehensible.

    There is one thing worse than John McEnroe doing the commentary on men’s tennis. That is McEnroe doing the commentary on women’s tennis.

  2. skip1515
    skip1515 May 31, 2013 at 6:16 am |

    I don’t know why (age?), but this year the format for showing the French at Tennis Channel has been ex-treeeemely off-putting. Two days ago, when Monfils/Gulbis was being played and I was keeping track while at work, I looked forward to seeing it. I’ve managed to see, oh, perhaps 6 or 8 games, all during the early and middle parts of the match. No concentrated chunk, no ability for a viewer to get wrapped up in its ebb and flo.

    If watching a sporting event is akin to having a story unfold in front of you, then watching a recorded sporting event is like having a story read to you whose outcome you already know. (Shit, the butler!) But, okay, even that can be done well, and be really interesting.

    But not if the chapters are read to me 3 at a time, with interminable breaks of complete non sequitur fill in-between.

    John Facenda’s narration of NFL Films had a stronger narrative thread, and I rarely knew who he was talking about.

  3. MattV
    MattV May 31, 2013 at 6:27 am |

    Great read JJ – I also have a love/hate relationship towards travel in general. It inspires me and puts me in a special mindset, but the actual travel itself is often tedious to me.

    As far as the tennis goes – the European combo of Jason Goodall and Robbie Koening usually works quite well for me. It’s sad they don’t cover Grand Slams (as far as I know) but only masters1000. They provide just enough insightful commentary and the occasional excited exclamations to pepper your otherwise silent tennis match – perfect.

  4. RZ
    RZ May 31, 2013 at 9:33 am |

    I totally agree re: not wanting to watch a top player dismantle a lower seed…except when Federer is in maestro mode. I can see myself saying “man, I loved watching Federer dismantle that guy.” 🙂

    Also agree on the non-stop talk from the ESPN pundits. I like listening to BG and Cahill, but really don’t get much out of the others (and really can’t stand McEnroe’s commentary). I try to watch live streaming from the European feeds available through LSHunter so that I don’t have to listen to talk during play.

  5. Wendy
    Wendy May 31, 2013 at 11:42 am |

    Could not agree more on the coverage of the Majors and always showing the non-competitive matches of high seeds. I much rather watch a close, unpredictable match. I am glad I am not the only one.
    I do not mind BG’s commentary but I am tiring of all of those nicknames. Is he trying to be the next Chris Berman? Please Brad, stop with the shtick. You do not need it.

    As always, great piece.

  6. toot
    toot June 1, 2013 at 6:41 pm |

    A couple of years ago, Rafa talked a lot about his vision of what Davis Cup could and should be. It involved the FIFA World Cup format as has been proposed and he had thought it through very thoroughly and could talk about tv rights and national federation compensation and preliminary rounds and the whole bit. However, as usual, he got slammed for expressing his opinion and was called all sorts of names not only by the anti-Rafa bloc on so many forums but by a lot of the media too. Jon Wertheim comes to immediate mind as one who called his ideas selfish and self-serving.

    As with so many other interesting ideas and opinions Rafa has/had, he learned to quit expressing them publicly which is a shame. He may not have all the answers to scheduling and Davis Cup and court surfaces and innumerable other issues but he has ideas and opinions. Unfortunately getting Federer and the players council and/or the ATP or ITF to consider them is well nigh impossible. Strangely enough though, last fall Fed and the new ATP Competition Committee thought the time between points was a critical problem that needed to be addressed as their first rule change.

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