SportingLife

Scandals? 0-15. Decline? 0-30. Gloom? 0-40. Tennis must protect its advantage

"My reputation," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "grows with every failure," but Maria Sharapova, her smile as cold as a stalactite, might not see the humour in it. Neither will tennis. A few years ago this was the shining, Disney-ish, feel-good kingdom of Federer, but now this game resembles an old boxer a little worn around the edges.

Seen a rivalry recently? Met an authentic young star ready to launch a coup? Rafael Nadal needs surgery to his confidence as Federer had to his knee. And if you can name the women's top 15 you get a free lunch with Donald Trump. Tales of match-fixing and suspended umpires hover like a bad smell and Novak Djokovic's father tells Newsweek of Federer: "Why does he still play?" Elsewhere, the behaviour of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios suggests they should return to the under-10s.

Now, of course, a drug suspension. And not any player, not Viktor Troicki, not Marin Cilic, but a player so precise in adjusting her hair and in turning her back at every point that you cannot imagine she forgets e-mails. It's what they say of athletes, don't they: She's only human.

Tennis isn't in decline, nor is it a sham, but it's had better days. It's got Kristina Mladenovic being called brave for pelting Sharapova with accusations of not being "polite" but since when did "brave" become kicking the fallen? Still, there's a lesson here for would-be Sharapovas: You need not swop pedicure tips in the locker room, but if you offer a hello as the men's champions do, it makes for a gentler reaction from rivals when you fall.

Reputation is at stake here, of a player and also a game. It's been said reputation is akin to a sandcastle, a flimsy edifice that takes a while to build and a half-hearted wave to demolish. Actually it takes a lot of officials going to collective sleep at the seaside for reputation to erode.


Maria Sharapova during the quarter-final loss to her nemesis, world No. 1 Serena Williams, at the Australian Open this year. The Russian failed a routine drug test later that day, after the defeat. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Athletics' reputation has been polluted through slothfulness over performance-enhancing drugs. Football is immensely popular but Fifa officials resemble those megalomaniacal villains from Bond movies. And cycling simply turned into transfusions on tyres.

The moment tennis thinks it is safe it is in trouble. Of all the dangers facing sport, it is the threat to legitimacy which is the greatest. The fans' faith in the honesty of the competition is the basis of devotion. If they feel a match is fixed, or a player on steroids, they might still watch but will bring cynicism to romance.

Sports get greedy, complacent and swell with conceit. Once, golf folk used to think their game's honour system - you call your own penalties - meant that no club-swinger would use drugs. It only confirmed that country clubs do not belong to the real world. The Tennis Anti-Doping Programme began in 1993 and on golf's US PGA Tour only in 2008.

Tennis wasn't an ideal sport, but it was an evolved one. In 1961 the PGA of America finally removed its Caucasian Only clause, but by 1956 an African-American woman, Althea Gibson, had already won a Grand Slam in tennis. It's not that racism wasn't present, or that it didn't fester in some corners as the Williams sisters might testify, but tennis has advanced far beyond sports such as football, where TV commentators have been known to wear a tie and prejudice in the box.

Similarly, after decades of wrestling with a patriarchal system, equal prize money appeared at tennis' Grand Slams. Women cricketers must sigh when they see Angelique Kerber holding the same A$3.4 million (S$3.52 million) winner's cheque as Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, considering they were all flown economy to the recent Twenty20 World Cup while their delicate male counterparts rested in business.

Tennis hasn't fiddled idly with its rules as Formula One has, nor tinkered with scoring systems like badminton; it hasn't needed to invent a new form of the game like cricket's Twenty20 or ever been a place where kids would feel consistently threatened in an ugly crowd or embarrassed by an athlete's behaviour.

It has kept its tryst with tradition and yet found room for yellow shoes, no sleeves and Hawkeye. It has agreeable champions who are fined if they do not submit to interrogations after every match. It has retained its holy places and yet taken its caravan to far-flung nations. Conquering football is still out of Asia's reach but tennis already has a Chinese Grand Slam singles winner.

Even though the game appears in fine order, its insides are rusting. It is absurd that the Tennis Integrity Unit had an annual budget of US$2 million. It is unthinkable that an athlete, Andy Murray, complains about under-testing for drugs. It is sad that Chris Evert says, "I know players on the women's tour who were using" in her time.

The moment tennis thinks it is safe it is in trouble. Of all the dangers facing sport, it is the threat to legitimacy which is the greatest. The fans' faith in the honesty of the competition is the basis of devotion. If they feel a match is fixed, or a player on steroids, they might still watch but will bring cynicism to romance.

Sharapova - even if oversight is her only crime - has done the game she loves a disservice and a favour. When the great player fails a drug test, the natural corollary in the public sphere is "who else?". And yet the great player's error will, hopefully, force introspection and investigation to prove there is no one else.

Tennis isn't used to headlines of "cover-ups" and nor can it be ready for the end of the exceptional. The long reunion tour of Roger-Rafa is nearly done and the writing of history by Serena Williams is in its last chapters. Together they won 52 Grand Slam singles titles between them and seven Laureus sportsman/woman titles and to paraphrase what the novelist Scott Turow said of Michael Jordan, they were playing tennis better than anyone else in sport did anything else.

Djokovic is engineering an astonishing consistency these days, but can one man's skills hold an audience and can one man's charisma distract from the controversies? We don't yet know. We don't know either if there is a pimpled band of 15-year-olds out there planning a racket revolution. What we know is that tennis' beautiful age is passing gently before us. But if tennis stays alert, it need not be followed by an ugly era.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Scandals? 0-15. Decline? 0-30. Gloom? 0-40. Tennis must protect its advantage'. Print Edition | Subscribe