When is Lack of Effort Okay? When is it not Okay?
The breaking story about match fixing in tennis has me thinking. There is not enough known on this story for me to say much yet, but it does have me thinking about how deep a player should dig in a given situation. NPR’s story notes that hundreds of billions of dollars (!) are bet on tennis matches per year now that we live in an era of internet gambling. I am going to start with an obvious example of an unacceptable effort level. I will follow that by the question that I think has the most implications for tennis as we know it: do top players have to dig as deep as possible risking new injuries or aggravating old injuries in tune-up tournaments? Finally, I will look at two instances when players clearly do not have to lay it all on the line.
Wrestlemania or the Australian Open Semifinal Round?
Unacceptable Lack of Effort – The 1996 Australian Open Semifinal
Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open detailed his heated rivalry with Boris Becker in 1995. Becker shocked Agassi by coming back from 1 set and 2 breaks down to win their Wimbledon semifinal clash in 4 sets. Becker blasted Wimbledon for treating Nike’s players better than everyone else in a thinly veiled shot at Andre Agassi. Andre launched a “summer of revenge” that culminated with an acrimonious 4 set semifinal win over Becker at the US Open. Boris Becker reached the 1996 Australian Open final and awaited the winner of Michael Chang and Andre Agassi. In Open, Agassi claimed he did not have the stomach for another brawl with Becker so he tanked his semifinal match with Michael Chang. Maybe the meth revelation overshadowed this, but I found Agassi losing a Grand Slam semifinal on purpose as the defending champion to be a transgression for which he never really got hammered (but should have). Chang’s 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 win over Agassi in an era of greater gambling on tennis might have earned Andre a Pete Rose type banishment. Still, many people bought tickets, watched on TV, and even bet on that match in 1996 and got short changed.
“It’s (tanking) almost harder than winning,” he said.
“You have to lose in such a way that the crowd can’t tell.”
What a difference 2 weeks makes
Lendl vs. Noah in Early 1990: Acceptable or Unacceptable?
As tennis is becoming more and more physically demanding, the question of how deep a player needs to dig in smaller events will become more and more relevant. Yanick Noah blasted Ivan Lendl 6-1, 6-4 in the quarterfinal round of the 1990 Sydney International lead in to the Australian Open. Noah went on to win the title and entered the Australian Open with momentum. The two met in the Australian Open semifinal round with Lendl reversing his Sydney fortunes and winning 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. Maybe Lendl just played a lot better in Melbourne. Maybe Noah played a lot worse. It is possible if not somewhat likely that the 1989 Australian Open champion ran into a tough match and did not necessarily pull out all of the stops to defeat Noah in Sydney because the goal was a second Australian Open. In a world where so much money is being bet on tennis, can a top player put in a B+ or even A- effort to save legs and lungs for an upcoming Masters 1000 or Grand Slam event with more prestige and ranking points? This is a key question in my mind.
Acceptable Lack of Effort – Roger Federer’s Cincinnati 2007 Practice Court Time
Roger Federer arrived in Cincinnati after losing Masters Series Canada’s final in 3 sets. A practice court backed up to a match court. Many fans on the match court’s back row were peering over to the practice courts to see the then 11 time major champion get in his first hit in Cincinnati. Federer and his hitting partner went through a few paces and started playing practice points. Federer’s hitting partner dominated these points as Federer looked sleepy and leg weary. I can’t blame the guy for taking it to the world #1 as how often can one expect to pummel the best in the world? The practice court crowd got a little antsy as Federer lost point after point. Roger heard some murmuring and hit a few winners to the crowd’s delight. Roger wrapped up his hitting session on a high note after smoking a few aces past his sparing partner. Roger going through the motions was no scandal because although he attracted a crowd of paying customers there was nothing on the line in this hitting session. No one could view this as a scandal.
Acceptable Lack of Effort – Exhibition Matches
A lot of strange things happen at exhibition matches. That was true even before the whole business of seeing how well a player can impersonate other tennis luminaries. Anyone buying a ticket to an exhibition match should expect the unexpected. Anyone betting on exhibition matches may need to take up fishing or meditation.
In an era with so much money tied into the outcome of tennis matches, I cannot imagine a player publicly admitting to tanking. Anyone who has played tennis for a substantial amount of time has probably had a match in which going through the motions is a good description for what happened on court. However, a pro admitting to that seems impossible. The trickier question to me comes from a non-tanking situation at a tune-up event. If a player could dig deeper at 250 level or 500 level event at the expense of one’s form for a major or masters 1000 event, does he or she need to go to that next gear? I wish I had an answer.