Wednesday, September 17
Talk about your bad ideas

Special to ESPN.com

There's nothing quite so heartwarming as watching tennis players complain that they are being badly treated. Listening to loan sharks complain about the capricious nature of the legal system comes close, though.

Richie Phillips
Richie Phillips knows how easy it is to strike out when you threaten to walk out.
But the Association of Tennis Professionals, which is letterhead-ese for the men, is trying to force a better deal from the tour, and especially from the sport's four major tournaments. One of its most prominent members is using it, and other players are threatening to start a rival tour.

Why, it makes you want to lead them to Richie Phillips' door and have them ask how he got that great deal for the baseball umpires back in 1999.

In truth, the only people who could guide the ATP through its present predicament are the Williams sisters, and since neither of them much cares whether the ATP lives, dies, or turns into a Dairy Queen on Route 91, the boys are on their own.

And since tennis players are notoriously bad at playing well and getting along with others, their chances of fighting the power are remarkably slim.

At least not without the input of other great labor leaders of the age.

Say, Phillips, who guided the once powerful umpires union into its present state of being, in which, having been pounded inert by Sandy (Say What?) Alderson, they are now trying to beat back a computer (QuesTec) apparently named by Hanna-Barbera.

Or Bob Goodenow, who has been marching lockstep with the NHL owners toward an Armageddon that will either rival the baseball strike of 1994, or the Ottoman Empire of 1918.

Or Billy Hunter of the NBA Players Association, whose taste for confrontation ranks with your taste for dead, raw, unboned squirrel.

Or Gene Upshaw, who knows even more readily than Hunter where the leverage lies.

Serena and Venus Williams
If only the men's tennis players had the leverage of Serena and Venus Williams, then we might take their threat of a strike seriously.
Indeed, this is about leverage, pure and simple, which is why we invoked Williams I and II a few paragraphs ago. With all due respect to our Belgian friends, the Williams sisters remain the heat behind the light of the women's tour.

The men, on the other hand, are a 15-watt microwave bulb, stocked to the gills with people you either don't know, don't like, or in the case of Andre Agassi, are much younger than.

Right now, the two most notable men are Lleyton Hewitt, who could make Mickey Rourke turn up his nose, and Andy Roddick, whose main achievement is that he's still on the come. And while we don't tend to make our judgments based on television ratings, we do enjoy a good tavern conversation, and men's tennis doesn't create them.

Oh, and before you start getting snotty about this, at my tavern, women's tennis does create them. My bartender, for example, is conversant on many sports, and can actually pronounce Justine Henin-Hardenne's name without sounding like he has a deviated septum.

The next time he says David Nalbandian's name will, I assure you, be the first.

This is why the ATP's case is so hard to make. That, and the fact that tennis players and golfers don't exactly wear the union label, if you know what we mean and we think you do. They were trained to be divas, or in this case Devos, and the idea of sublimating their own selfish needs to combine for the selfish needs of all players is something we find them profoundly incapable of doing.

This is why they need to either coax Marvin Miller out of retirement, Don Fehr into diversifying, or the Williams sisters into joining their walkout. They can't pull this off on their own, not by a long shot, nor would many people care all that much if they did.

Marvin would teach them how to think as one (and in some cases, to think at all). Don would teach them how to keep their wits when the promoters are losing theirs. And the Williamses would teach them that ... well, it sure is good to be the Williamses.

But in their present state, short on stars and shorter on buzz, their ability to bring the game to its knees is roughly equal to Hewitt's ability to be confused for David Niven.

Should they get more money? Hey, a raise is always good. Should they be able to dictate to the tour operators? You mean they don't already? Are they oppressed? God, where do we sign up?

But leverage isn't about public approval anyway. It's about supply and demand. The players win only if they make people believe that they are the supply and can demand what they want.

And therein lies the problem. They're not supplying much these days. This is, of course, a cyclical thing, but bicycles don't exactly fly off the shelves these days.

Were I them, I'd wait until more people were interested, and more people in power feared their unanimity.

Either that, or send Serena and Venus in the room and do a little good-natured neck-twisting. Which, if nothing else, might be worth televising all on its own.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com