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Steve Flink: New book on 2012 Season a fine read

8/6/2013 2:00:00 PM

The 2012 tennis season was uplifting on numerous levels. Four different men—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray—took the top honors at the Grand Slam championships. Three women—Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams—walked away with the trophies at the four majors. Murray and Williams garnered the gold medals at the Olympic Games. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the political world of the sport was ever compelling, filled with intrigue, rich with drama, fascinating in every way. Across the board, it was an extraordinary year for the sport, a time of triumph for a wide range of players, a trying time for some individuals, a bright and buoyant stretch for others.

All in all, it was a terrific year, and, thankfully, esteemed British tennis journalist Neil Harman of The Times crisscrossed the globe throughout the season, covering all of the majors, reporting on the Olympics, getting to every event of consequence on both the ATP and WTA Tours. Harman took on more than his customary work writing for a prominent newspaper. He was consumed with a larger and more enduring project, writing a recently published book entitled, Court Confidential (“Inside The World of Tennis”). In the book, Harman superbly captures the essence of an annual campaign in tennis. His unimpeachable credentials as one of the sport’s most well-informed international scribes are showcased admirably in Court Confidential. Harman is ubiquitous as he reports judiciously on a landmark year in the game.

He takes his readers to all of the important locations, allows them to gain a larger understanding on the plight of the leading competitors and the pressures they confront so regularly, and brings everyone much closer to the center of the game. Harman writes lucidly and stylishly in the book; the opportunity to become more expansive than he can ever be in the newspaper suits him nicely. He takes us on an entertaining and often exhilarating journey through the inner chambers of the tennis world. His observations are largely sound, and his interviews are revelatory and informative almost without exception.

For example, Novak Djokovic recollects his grueling title run at the Australian Open of 2012, when he played for nearly five hours in ousting a resilient Murray in the semifinals, and then halted Nadal in an epic five set final that lasted five hours and 53 minutes. Djokovic tells Harman, “Those were two of the most exciting matches I played in my life and winning a Grand Slam title in such fashion was fantastic. It was so grueling and physically so demanding that at times it felt like an out of body experience.”

Early on in the book, Harman accurately describes the incomparable era in which he is reporting, writing, “The superstar players are truly stunning in so many respects, as people, as athletes and as representatives of their sport. Golden age is an over-used phrase but it is difficult to come up with anything better. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray are the John, Paul, George and Ringo of the men’s game, a set of four individuals who make such sweet music. Yet, like the Fab Four, they have their foibles. On the surface they get along fine, but underneath they want to beat the others’ brains out. There are those who want to join the band, but they have not been allowed to play along. The four men at the top have lent the sport a mystical, magical sense of well-being such that tennis wishes it could stay like this forever and fears what might happen if one or more of them fades away.”

Harman’s travels took him to the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells, and the emphasis in that chapter is fittingly on the role of Larry Ellison, someone he describes as “the third-richest man in the United States.” Harman explains the background of how and why Ellison came to the financial rescue as the owner of a tournament that has long been one of the two or three most prestigious events outside of the four majors. Ellison tells the author, “I like the quality of the people who play tennis. Both Roger and Rafa are very bright, high-quality people and that is very important in terms of me spending my time (and money) working on this. I like to be inspired by people. Business is more of a marathon and there is something beautiful about ‘you won, you lost, give me the trophy, go home’. I think that is why we all love sport—it’s the challenge, the competition and the clarity when it is over.”

Before he moves on from Indian Wells, Harman reflects on Federer, who won the tournament. Federer says, “I think I’m the most honest guy to interview out here. I try to be candid because I don’t have to change who I am. People know who they get on and off the court and for me it has worked well. Sometimes people don’t like what I say but I don’t say anything bad on purpose. I’m being honest with my opinions.”

Harman then writes, “Some players feel that this ‘honesty’ encroached a little too far. There were occasions when Federer’s fluency (he is the only player to give interviews in three languages after each match) ran away from him and privately there was a degree of resentment, even outrage, about some of his statements.”

On the political front, Harman gets to the heart of why a somewhat exasperated Nadal decides to leave his post as a Vice-President on the ATP Player Council. Nadal explains, “I have been there for a couple of years. I really don’t know how to do things without putting my one hundred percent. If I go to play golf, I try my best every moment. If I go to the player council, I try my best in the player council. I put all my energy there. Finally, I believe I put too much energy there. I believe we did a few things well for the sport but I believe it’s not enough. So today I believe I am not the right one to keep working there. I think other people can do better than me today.”

Harman brings in Sergiy Stakhovsky to bemoan the struggles of the lesser ranked players who have worked so hard to earn a living. Stakhovsky says, “ To be competitive with Federer, Nadal and these guys, you have to have a coach, a fitness coach and a physiotherapist which means spending around $400,000 on travel, paying checks and accommodation, but no one from 100 to 60 in the rankings is making this money. We are not even saying that by hiring these people you are going to be competitive, but just to give you a chance.” Harman’s reporting is fundamentally fair, which is why he allows ATP board member Justin Gimelstob to counter Stakhovsky with this comment: “We need to remove emotion and look at this in a business sense. What is the player’s market value? Is Ashton Kutcher worth $ 1 million for each episode of Two and a Half Men? The market says so, so why not Federer and Djokovic? How much of that money do they bring in?.. I can’t imagine there’s ever been a period where the top four have been more engaged [with the ATP Tour}. And that’s power. That leverage.”

As one would expect, Harman turns to Maria Sharapova in his chapter on Roland Garros. Sharapova, of course, completed a career Grand Slam with her victory in Paris a year ago. He speaks with Sharapova a few days after her victory on the red clay. She reveals, “The other three Grand Slams, the days after I had that excitement where you almost want to scream. But this one I’ve just been happily content with what I’ve achieved. I still want to scream a bit, but it has been a case of walking around with this huge smile on my face. You can never really tell when something is going to happen. I did doubt. You also have to be realistic and have a very clear head. It is one thing to believe that I’m so good at what I do, I’m bound to achieve this or that, but you always have to find a way to get to that place. It doesn’t happen because you believe. My motivation was based on the fact that it was the French Open and I wanted to win it. How much more motivation does a person need?”

Meanwhile, Nadal afforded Harman some time to offer his reflections during the fortnight that he won his seventh of eight French Opens. He asked the Spaniard if he considered himself artistic.  Nadal replied, “I really wouldn’t know how to paint a house. With the music and with the art, I was a disaster…. The best was the physical. I was always good. The thing is that when I was in the school I didn’t have a lot of time for school. I went every day but my timing was 9/12 school, 12/3 tennis, 3/5 school and then 5: 30 to 7 football and 7/8:30 tennis for another time. I arrive to my home completely destroyed. But I have the personal satisfaction that I finished the [obligatory] school and I’m very pleased to do that.”

Naturally, some of Harman’s most inspired writing is in his chapter on Wimbledon, the preeminent tournament in tennis, the one he cherishes the most as both a journalist and an Englishman. As he puts it, “There is tennis, and there is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club—or, more simply, Wimbledon. It is where tennis in its current form originated, is showcased to a gold standard, where great champions are glorified by virtue of winning the event which is watched my millions across the planet—and yet precisely how it is run, by whom, who the members are and how they became members, is something very few know a great deal about.” He then puts into perspective the mentality of reporters like himself and says self-deprecatingly, “We in the press ranks put on our best suits and ties, sharpen our pencils and our act, make believe we are quite important, talk in chintzy tones and become a bit la-di-da.”

Harman does some fine reporting from the U.S. Open that transcends the swirl of on court events. He converses in depth with USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith about the complexities of finding a way to raise a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Open was forced to play a Monday men’s final in 2012 for the fifth year in a row, and Harman asked Smith about why it was such a complicated task to put up a roof. Smith says of Ashe Stadium, “Ashe will be here long past the time any of us are present at the Open. It just needs a roof.”

Harman explains that the area required for covering Ashe Stadium is five times larger than for the Wimbledon roof. The “underlying” soil was not designed to carry any additional weight. Smith then speaks to Harman about the central dilemma: to put up a roof over Ashe would require building another building over the current building. Smith asserts, “We spent a lot of time and money with the world’s best architects, mechanical engineers and structural engineers to see if it was feasible and reasonable. For the last ten years, we’ve undergone four separate studies dealing with firms who have built cutting edge stadiums around the world, moveable roof stadiums, no-roof stadiums, all sorts. We determined that a building over this building did not make sense.”

And yet, while Harman devoted justifiable space to issues like the roof over Ashe, he always returns to the players and their pursuits. Unsurprisingly, while he does not give other top players short shrift, his central character is none other than Murray, and why not? The 2012 season was monumental to the British standout. Taking the Olympic gold medal on the lawns of Wimbledon was a crucial step, but in a larger sense his U.S. Open triumph was the seminal moment for a gifted player who had endured so many hard setbacks over the previous four years. His first major final was at the U.S. Open in 2008. He did not reach a final at a Grand Slam event in 2009, but then was beaten in one major final a year from 2010-2012 before he came through in New York, ousting Djokovic in a five set final.

For Harman—and all of the widely-travelled British writers—Murray’s breakthrough in becoming the first British man since 1936 to rule at a major was almost ineffably gratifying. The story transcended tennis in some ways. Harman vividly describes the atmosphere after Murray had won the tournament: “The scene in the corridors near the players’ locker rooms was controlled pandemonium. Sir Sean Connery wad giving interviews, and although I was admonished to ‘hug the walls’ by a security man, when Murray came past heading to his interview on SKY TV, I offered my hand, looked him in the eye and said ‘Very well done.’ He nodded and said, ‘Thanks, Neil.’ It was the best I could think of at the time…. The Djokovic backroom staff passed by, offering hugs and handshakes because, in the despair at their man losing a Grand Slam final, they said they were genuinely pleased for Andy and I suspected, for me as well. Nole paused to shake hands but didn’t stop to say any more.”

A couple of days later, Harman talked with Murray about the importance of his arrival as a champion at a Grand Slam event, and all of the pain and frustration that had gone along with it. Murray spoke with candor about the tough knocks he had taken in the process of establishing himself as an authentic champion. He said, “ It wouldn’t have mattered how many times I said, ‘I’m playing against the greatest players of all time,’ and how hard it is to win, it didn’t stop people thinking ‘oh he’ll never win’ and ‘mentally he’s not strong enough’, whatever. They thought I was just not that good. It took performances like the one at the Olympics and then the Open to change that, to make people finally realize I did have that grit and determination and an ability to win against the best in the world in the biggest matches.”

Not only did Harman encourage Murray to open up freely and candidly, but he also managed to get some excellent material from Ivan Lendl, who took over as Murray’s coach at the start of the 2012 season. At one point, Lendl says, “The human brain is the biggest area left for improvement in sports. We don’t know enough about how the mind works. When I was playing I was throwing my sentences out there in the hope that someone would contact me who understood that I was trying to get at. A lot of it can be luck. You can say something at a certain time that is looked upon as a negative and suddenly it is a positive. Part of it is feel. I have seen Andy saying about me that I have had a feel for the situation [losing Grand Slam finals] which I believe is one of my strengths.”

Lendl’s modesty is also captured by Harman. He tells the author, “I have got a lot of credit for Andy’s play this year and I’m not sure it is justified. I have tried to help him the best I can. I am there for him and if he wants to ask questions, I point things out and try to make the practices the best they can be for him. However, he’s the one who plays and if I wasn’t around, he could have had the same year. The timing could just be luck. We will never know.”

Harman’s interviews in the book are far ranging and multi-dimensional. He sits down with CEO of the WTA Stacey Allaster late in 2012 to discuss prize money. Allaster says, “This summer, I heard for the first time from my players that it is getting tougher financially and when we did our 2013 prize money distribution, we made a conscious effort to get more prize money down to the early rounds, the first group of players…. We need to show these young athletes that tennis is a sport in which you can have a viable career. To be 100 in the world you should be able to make a good living, and that is what we are trying to calibrate.”

The book covers a wide spectrum. “Court Confidential” is a very good read. Harman knows the game exceedingly well from all perspectives. He was fortunate that 2012 turned out to be such a compelling year. As Harman wrote in his preface, “I propose this book as a conscious attempt to shine a little light on a pastime where what you see on the court is merely a twinkle in the galaxy of goings-on, intrigues and tales to be told when the lights are turned off and the net taken down. There will invariably be players and officials who do not want to have me around, who don’t appreciate what I choose to write, who will fall out with me over what some might consider trivialities but which they take very seriously. A lot of people trust you, some do not. It is the way of the journalistic world.”

On balance, Neil Harman achieved his objectives and realized his primary goals. “Court Confidential” is the work of a reporter who knows his territory and appreciates the opportunities tennis has given him. His book will enlighten fans from all over the world about the world of tennis, both behind the scenes and in the public spectrum. I recommend it highly.

Buy Court Confidential: Inside the World of Tennis
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.