Tennis

Tennis sold out stars for TV, money

French Open
Instead of history, this may be what stands out about the 2012 men's final.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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You can’t force history to happen. But you sure can stop it with greed, stupidity, recklessness. Tennis ruined a great moment Sunday, just sold it out to broadcasters, to NBC.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

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Seeing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in a final is becoming commonplace. Relive their memorable matches.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two all-time greats, were both going for historic heights in the French Open final. It was a dream buildup in a great, new rivalry for a sport that needs as many big moments as it can find. But it rained the whole match, and officials, trying to keep broadcasters happy, kept letting the match go on and on, anyway.

What happened? Not historic greatness, that’s for sure. The showcase was ruined. Everyone lost. Fans saw a crummy match, and it never even finished. Nadal led two sets to one, and trailed 2-1 in the fourth when the match was finally stopped because, well, it’s hard to say why it was stopped, really.

Nothing had changed over the final hour of the match. It just kept drizzling. Maybe officials realized that their greed over TV money, their desperation to make broadcasters happy, had stolen Nadal’s magic and was turning their party into a disaster.

Well, the match is supposed to start up again at 7 a.m. (ET) Monday. But the forecast in Paris calls for more rain. This could drag on for a while.

It really comes down to this: They never should have played that match Sunday.

Djokovic, trying to become the first man in 43 years to win all four majors in a row, was worn out. His knee might hurt, too; it’s a little hard to tell. But he had little energy.

Meanwhile, Nadal, trying to become the first person to win seven French Opens, was great for 15 minutes and then saw his play slowly drop off the rest of the way. After a rain delay, he finished off the second set, led 6-4, 6-3, and then took a 2-0 lead in the third.

Then, he lost eight straight games. And that was the buzz after the match. Who could possibly have thought that Nadal could lose eight straight games on the red clay at Roland Garros, where he is god?

The whole thing was simple, really: The tennis balls were rolling around in water the whole time. Nadal relies on getting heavy spin on his shots, but the balls kept getting wetter and wetter and heavier and heavier, and he simply could not get them to spin as much as he needed.

He couldn’t control his shots, which made him tentative.

Meanwhile, Djokovic, who hits a much flatter shot, wasn’t affected. So he started rolling over Nadal.

If they hadn’t stopped the match when they did, Nadal might not have won two more games, even though Nadal was the better tennis player Sunday. Djokovic was coming back not because of his tennis but because of whatever freak show the day had become.

Nadal had been complaining to officials for the final half hour of play, asking the chair umpire sarcastically if he thought conditions were acceptable. He finally broke his eight-game slide and held serve to pull within 2-1 in the fourth set. That’s when tournament officials decided to stop the match.

“Now we can stop, after one set (that) we cannot move the ball?’’ Nadal said, as heard over the TV mics. “Because the balls did the same one hour ago.’’

Some people thought he was complaining about the match being stopped just as he won a game. No. He was griping that it should have been stopped an hour earlier.

Nadal has been known to let little things get to him. He lines up water bottles, and whatever else he’s drinking, in the exact same places and goes through the same routine taking sips from different bottles between games. Before serves, he touches his nose, pulls the hair back behind his right ear, touches his nose, hair behind left ear. Maybe he tugs at the shorts on his backside.

So he gets a little carried away with affectations. And when things aren’t quite right, he doesn’t take it well.

But this time, he was dead right. And tournament officials nearly stole the tournament, and history, from him. You can say that tennis players, any athletes, have to deal with changing conditions. Cold, sun, wind.

And if Nadal can’t adjust, then that’s his problem.

This wasn’t about weather, though. It was about the balls getting too wet and too heavy. It wasn’t a tennis issue. Imagine if the basketball in the NBA Finals suddenly got twice the size and weight. Would it be the fault of jump-shooters for missing?

Honestly, they probably could have fixed the problem by using new balls in every game, but rules don’t allow them to change often enough. The balls were soaked, as if you had held them under your kitchen faucet.

The players weren’t bothered by the rain, and the court was absorbing the water well enough. The lines were slippery, so any ball hitting them just slid like a flat rock on water.

But look, this wasn’t just about the record books. What sells a sport is fantastic quality. That’s what this match could have been, with records on the side. Fans wanted to watch tennis, not this goofy mess.

When the balls were dry at the start of the match, Nadal was crushing Djokovic. That might have been the only real tennis played.

Officials kept coming out and looking at the court, which wasn’t even the issue. It was just the balls. And they were so soaked that by the end you might as well have asked the players to use broken racquets.

So, they’ll try to finish Monday. And no one is happy now. Nadal would have won handily if they’d waited to play actual tennis. He probably still will. Djokovic would have won if they hadn’t stopped the freak show. Fans didn’t get what they wanted. The match didn’t win over any new fans.

It wasn't just a washout. It was a sellout.

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