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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: March 3, 2009

3/3/2009 1:12:00 PM

LaRosa"s Sweet Spot Main Page

March 3, 2009

For anyone who didn't see the Billie Jean Cup on HBO Monday night, it basically amounted to this: Bill Clinton, lackluster tennis, big $$$, tiny trophy.

But this is a 750 word column so let's break it down.

The format was creative, and necessary if you're going to jam two semifinals and a final into one evening. Single no ad sets leading into a best of three set final.

What went right? Lots, actually. Starting with the very idea behind the evening: showcasing the very best of women's tennis. HBO paid for the best commentators in Johnny Mac and Mary Carillo (apologies to everyone else…though I was missing Pam Shriver and her microphone), the pre-taped packages were slick, and the homage to Billie Jean King was simply sparkling. It featured not only the former president (sans wife, home doing crafts with the kids, or in the Middle East, whatevs) but a who's who of female sports superstars (though judging by Nancy Kerrigan's face, I'm not entirely sure she knew where she was - though that's my impression of Nancy in general so I could be wrong), and Ivan Lendl. And the stands were surprisingly full on a snow day (take that early rounds of nearly every other tournament on earth).

I learned a lot during the actual broadcast. McEnroe thinks Jelena Jankovic has more of an upside long-term than Ana Ivanovic. McEnroe was thrilled to be able to mix tennis commentary with cursing (though I didn't hear a single blue word out of him once unfortunately). McEnroe said it was a sign of the apocalypse that he's now working for event promoter Lendl. Okay, maybe I learned a lot about John McEnroe.

There wasn't much drama as Serena received the Billie Jean Cup.
Overall it was a brilliantly packaged night, one which they hoped several times out loud would be repeated for years to come. Tennis was back at Madison Square Garden! As a sales pitch, it was spectacular.

So what went wrong? Sadly, the merchandise they were hawking.

Now, I bristle at even the hint of anything being fixed in sports. But this is an exhibition, so are there rules about putting Venus and Serena Williams on opposite sides of the draw? Not that it would've mattered. I'm not sure either of their Serbian opponents could've played worse. Between Jelena's inability to keep the ball in the court and capitalize on Venus's obvious wear and tear from back to back titles in Dubai (hiss) and Acapulco and Ana's inability to convert break points in nearly all of Serena's service games, the final was a foregone conclusion. 

Here ladies, here's $250G for your trouble.

The final was hardly the best match between Williams Sisters. In fact, I nominate it as the worst. Again, Venus was far from fresh, and after the sixth game she toppled like a house of cards. But not before, during one insanely long game that went to deuce more for double faults than any genius play, the lady for whom the event was named complained over the lack of no ad scoring in the final as well. Ouch!

The fact that the whole shebang was an exhibition was always going to give it a strike in my book and I own that. They hold about as much interest for me as a practice match, which is all they really amount to. They promote the sport, and that's great, but you're not tricking me into believing Sampras was every going to take one of those exos against Federer (yes, I'm wearing my protective cup when I say that - and it too is sponsored by BNP Paribas). Minus a bunch of dough, which these players already have, there's nothing truly at stake here. No ranking points. No psychological advantage the next time they meet. Nuthin'.

I also had issue with the line-up in general. I get that it was originally meant to be the Slam winners, and when the event was proposed Maria Sharapova fit the bill. I wish they were able to get her. I also wish, in addition, they went for someone a little juicier. Justine Henin is playing an exo this year. Wouldn't she have been a great get? Donate the money to one of the thousands of tennis academies she's opening across the world? That might have given us more of a dogfight.

As it was, as far as something truly showing off the best of women's tennis, it was barely a catfight. And with this much promotion, I really wish non-fans flipping past HBO might've been stopped by something really special on court as well as off.

Maybe next year.