Commentary

Tumultuous times for tennis

Some other year a figure like Martina Hingis being taken down by a drug charge would rock a sport. In this case, tennis, the business, has already had its world spun sideways -- and it's going to be spinning for some time.

Originally Published: November 5, 2007
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Here's the current state of tennis in a thimble: During a changeover at the Paris Masters last week, a player in the midst of a dismal straight-sets defeat actually found himself being lectured by the chair umpire … on how to serve.

This is fact, not fiction. Chair ump Cedric Mourier, apparently no shrinking violet, told the player to put more serves in play and avoid the costly double faults that were killing him in the match, adding at one point, "Serve like me. If you serve like me, you put it in the box. That's it."

Other highly ranked professional tennis players might have been infuriated, or at least verbally dismissive. (John McEnroe, even on an exhibition tour 15 years from now, most likely would break something valuable, be it living or dead, just on general principle.) But the man of the hour, Nikolay Davydenko, simply responded with a shrug, as if to say, "What else can I do?"

Nikolay Davydenko
David Boily/Getty ImagesA week after being fined for "lack of best effort," Nikolay Davydenko's serve was questioned by the chair umpire in Paris.
And why does the ludicrous exchange rate even a mention? Well, of course, because Davydenko under scrutiny in connection with the new fear in tennis of players tanking matches in order to satisfy the betting line. It's the fear of corruption, plain and simple. And that fear, deep and gripping, lies a world away from Martina Hingis and the use of a party drug sometime around Wimbledon.

Let's not put lipstick on a pig. Tennis, the fan-based industry, is in some trouble. It is in trouble on a couple of fronts, from the lack of depth in American-based star power (always a concern for self-immersed Americans, maybe not quite so much for the rest of the world) to the genuine shock of seeing a multiple Grand Slam champion like Hingis go out in the flaming wreckage of her career, undone by positive cocaine tests and her own decision to retire on the spot even while proclaiming her innocence.

In the end, none of that will rise above footnote status if the match-fixing issue goes fully viral. And as one chair umpire at the Paris Masters has just powerfully suggested, this is not the kind of concern that can be simply overwhelmed by the artistry of the players or the excitement of a match. This goes to the heart of things. And it's going to be a companion on the Tour for some time.

Justine Henin, the great women's champion, found herself Monday answering questions about doping and match-fixing, neither of which she has had the slightest connection to. Henin was candid and smart in her replies, pledging her support for zero tolerance and at one point calling the tanking issue "a scourge" that affects all sports, not just tennis. Fair enough. But the fact that Henin was dealing with such topics, rather than the upcoming WTA Championships in Madrid, tells you very clearly where things stand.

Davydenko is a lightning rod for the match-fixing suspicions, but one lone wolf wouldn't concern tennis officials the way they're concerned today. There exists already a list, acknowledged by leaders in the sport, of suspicious matches and outcomes dating to 2002, these apparently on the men's side. How much of it ultimately checks out, or is even worthy of a further look, is for time and investigation to decide. In the here and now, the presence of the suspicion is enough to knock an industry off its stride.

Given all that, the announcement by Hingis last week of her positive cocaine test stacks up as a weird, badly timed sort of piling on rather than any epidemic problem in itself. It has nothing to do with match scandal, but everything to do with the question of how many body blows the sport can take at once.

The question of whether Hingis did or didn't have the drug in her system, while intriguing, is perhaps not so critically important. For one, she tested positive after a third-round defeat at Wimbledon, so there's certainly no credible suggestion her performance was enhanced. For two, that question may never be fully answered. Hingis' retirement leaves it unclear how lustily she'll pursue the clearance of her name; right now, she's depending upon hair-sample analysis that she says showed no traces of the drug in her system. (Sports generally don't rely on hair samples because they do an inferior job of pinning down more recent drug use, but rather throw open a 90-day window of such.)

About that: You'll just have to believe what you will. Martina says she'd be terrified of doing cocaine, and her lawyer suspects the doping procedure was botched. That's usually the last refuge of the accused sports figure, to question the system -- and considering how often the system has in fact been corrupted across the sporting landcape, it's not something to be dismissed out of hand.

It is also not the story of the year. Some other year, perhaps, a figure like Martina Hingis being taken down by a drug charge would rock an industry. In this case, tennis, the business, has already had its world spun sideways -- and it's going to be spinning for some time.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Six Good Innings," about one town's ability to consistently produce Little League champions, will be released in July 2008. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.