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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, July 2, 2020

 
Pam Shriver

"What’s being attempted in a little more than a month, it’s one of the biggest moments in our sport’s history,” ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Pam Shriver says. 

Photo credit: ESPN

Pam Shriver is both a student—and creator—of tennis history.

The owner of 22 Grand Slam doubles titles—21 in doubles and one mixed doubles major—Shriver and Martina Navratilova formed one of the sport's most dynamic doubles teams.

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Relentlessly attacking net, the pair were practically invulnerable to lobs commanding the frontcourt reeling off a record 109-match doubles winning streak, including sweeping the Grand Slam in 1984.

Shriver was born on the Fourth of July, a fitting arrival for an American revolutionary with an independent streak. In recent years, she’s celebrated nearly every birthday at Wimbledon except for 2004 when she didn’t travel to SW19 following the birth of her son.

Like fans all over the world, Shriver is experiencing Wimbledon withdrawal symptoms this month.

“I miss calling moments and matches,” Shriver says. “Reporting on fun things like the Hill or the excitement of a Murray run or a Henman run—those are always exciting things.”

An ESPN analyst since 1990, Shriver was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.

In 2014, the Hall of Fame honored her decades of broadcasting work presenting Shriver the Eugene L. Scott Award, given annually to honor an individual who embodies Scott’s commitment to communicating honestly and critically about the game, and who has had a significant impact on the tennis world.

The USTA’s attempt to play the US Open as scheduled, starting on August 31st, without fans or media in a safety bubble is a flash point in Open Era history, Shriver says.

“What’s being attempted in a little more than a month, it’s one of the biggest moments in our sport’s history,” Shriver says. “Because if we can’t get it going in a safe way with all the protocols. And the players aren’t feeling safe enough to play, then I’m afraid that the sport may have to pause until there is a proper vaccine that gives people the confidence to play on.”

The Baltimore native and lifelong Orioles fan shook up the tennis world at age 16 with an inspired run to the 1978 US Open final. Wielding the oversize Prince racquet, Shriver shocked top-seeded Navratilova 7-6(5), 7-6(3) and tested second-seeded Chrissie Evert in the final before bowing in two tight sets.



We caught up with the Hall of Famer to discuss what she misses most about Wimbledon, why 2020 may well be the most important season in modern tennis history, her thoughts on the USTA’s aim to host the US Open in August and the prospect of an ATP-WTA merger.

Tennis Now: Pam, this must be the first time in years you’re not at Wimbledon. What is Wimbledon withdrawal like for you? What do you miss most?

Pam Shriver: I’ve had my birthday there for years. Except for the year my son was born, which was June 12th of ’04—he turned 16 this month—so I was home that year.

’04 was the year of Roddick final and then Sharapova upsetting Serena and so I missed that year. I think that was the year too that Venus and [Karolina] Sprem misplayed the tie break. So it’s funny how the one you miss, you still have really strong memories of watching at home.

What I miss? It’s countless things I miss. It’s been so long since I played. I last played singles in ’96 and doubles in ’97…

Tennis Now: Right, you played Kournikova and Likhovtseva in your last Wimbledon doubles match.

Pam Shriver: And I served for the match—thank you for reminding me. I was playing with Liz Smylie. I served for the match, I want to say out on like Court 8. It was one of the back, tiny courts that had a few seats.

It’s kind of interesting my first Wimbledon doubles I lost to Goolagong and Stove and then my last Wimbledon I go down to Kournikova and Likhovtseva so it’s like a 19-year span of what can happen.

More recently, I really miss working for ESPN and being part of the broadcast. Before ESPN got the rights I was part of the BBC team. So more recently, I miss calling moments and matches. Reporting on fun things like the Hill or the excitement of a Murray run or a Henman run—those are always exciting things.

The year the roof opened; I think was it Stan who had the first match under the lights? Because of rain and we were all there till pretty late. A year ago, I did this fun thing on the queue. I spent some time out there in the tents and with the people in the queue. I was thinking about that there’s so much about Wimbledon that there’s no social distancing: getting strawberries and cream, waiting in the queue, trying to get into the grounds, trying to get to a seat in a small outer court match that’s 11-all in the final set. Everything about Wimbledon you have on the grounds your space is limited because it’s the most popular global tennis event

I miss the traditions. I miss seeing who’s in the Royal Box every day is an interesting thing. The middle Saturday ceremony, they celebrate the athletes, and seeing other people from British culture. Seeing the order of play, I always find that interesting when I played or broadcast. When they release the order of play that’s always good to see who’s playing where.

At ESPN, obviously we want to know who is on Centre and who’s on One, but also who’s playing in front of us live on Court 18. Because Court 18 has had some pretty big matches, not just the Isner vs. Mahut match, and some good stuff going on over the years.

TN: You and Martina won the doubles Grand Slam in 1984 and during that season you only lost two sets in four Grand Slams. You lost a set in the French Open final and Wimbledon quarterfinals to Hana Mandlikova and Claudia Kohde-Kilsch. What do you remember about that Wimbledon and that year?

Pam Shriver: Well, to be honest I don’t remember either of those two matches. I remember very general things about ’84. I know it was in the middle of our 109-match win streak. And so therefore, ’84 was the year we didn’t lose a match. Because the streak started in the spring of ’83 and then we lost in in the Wimbledon final in ’85 up a break in the third against Smylie and Jordan. That I remember well.

As far as doubles matches in ’84 I don’t remember a match where I felt we were going to perhaps lose. I did feel that way a few times in ’85 before we did lose. There was one at Madison Square Garden, but I don’t remember those three-setters at all. I think it was because even though we lost a set, I think we still felt in control.

The fact that I don’t remember it indicates I still felt confident that these were not going to be the matches that would end our streak.

Honestly, when we won the Grand Slam, I don’t remember….I mean today even I remember the Bryan twins at the Open a few years back, it was really built up that they had a chance to win the Grand Slam. It was really important. I don’t remember [1984 Grand Slam] getting that big of a mention. I think we got a trophy commemorating it. I think because Martina was winning everything in singles—she was just in her dominant, dominant form—and I think I was probably in the Top 5 somewhere. Even for us it was more about singles, but the doubles was important.

TN: You’ve had record-setting seasons. From a historical perspective, who will this coronavirus shortened 2020 season impact most? Is it more impactful on Roger Federer, who had the knee surgery, or Serena and her quest to match court or Rafa trying to match Roger? Or something else?

Pam Shriver: I think the brave and hard-working attempt by the sport to comeback during this pandemic is going to rest a lot on whether a global sport like tennis can play on during this pandemic. I mean, we don’t know yet.

These little regional events don’t count yet. What’s being attempted in a little more than a month, it’s one of the biggest moments in our sport’s history, I think. Because if we can’t get it going in a safe way with all the protocols. And the players aren’t feeling safe enough to play, then I’m afraid that the sport may have to pause until there is a proper vaccine that gives people the confidence to play on.

So I feel I can answer your question better in the middle of August than I could right now on the first of July.



TN: Given everything you just said, how do you feel about the USTA’s decision to play the US Open? Obviously, the USTA is in a very tough spot—they just had the 110 layoffs and US Open revenue funds pretty much all they do—at the same time as you said safety is vital. Also, how do you think the players will respond actually showing up and playing the US Open as we get closer?

Pam Shriver: I think it’s a little soon to say because of what’s happening in the U.S. right now. I’ve thought a lot about if I was a player based in Europe or Australia or Asia how would I feel with that big international trip flying into New York City?

Obviously, New York went through the worst and from what I can understand they’re holding their own during this difficult part of the first wave compared to other parts of the country. But you can’t feel confident about flying into the United States right now. You just can’t.

Now, things can change in a month as we saw from the middle of March to the middle of April. I know in New York middle of April was horrendous. Here in L.A. when we seriously went into lockdown for that period of time we were able to flatten the curve. Now, things have relaxed and it’s gone a little bit more out of control than it had previously. So I’m just saying that things can change.

It depends on the tightness of the bubble. How confident players feel that the bubble will be honored. And the Djokovic event did not help that because players made decisions that went against protocols. Common-sense protocols, I don’t care what government protocols, it’s what we know about how to do things safely. It’s not in crowds, it’s not indoors, it’s not in close.

Overall, tennis, especially singles, it’s hard to have a better socially-distanced safe sport than singles. So that fact it’s not a team sport, you don’t have to have contact with another athlete. Obviously, in doubles you do with your partner, but let’s assume you’re in a tight quarantine with your partner it can be just about as safe as singles if you have the same partner quarantine bubble.

TN: What factors and pressures are players considering now in terms of deciding whether to play the US Open?

Pam Shriver: I’ve never seen anything like [coronavirus crisis] both for its impact on my kids and the sport I love. It’s unprecedented. To get back to the USTA, I think business-wise they have to try and I think they’re doing everything possible to make it as safe as possible during the most unsafe public health time of our lives. So there’s a lot of anxiety for everybody.

I think each individual player has to measure their own personal risk. And see what their level of comfort is. What I find difficult, Richard, is the ranking point situation. Let’s say you’re a player that you have an immune-compromised condition that you haven’t made public or maybe you go home to a family member or you go home and you live in a multi-generational home with some older family. So it’s kind of like you don’t think about it as a tennis player, you think about it in its entirety.

It’s gonna be a difficult decision for each and every player. What they’re willing to risk. Going back to rankings. Prize money is one thing, but if rankings are tied into the return and there’s a big enough group for all good reasons that feels they just can’t participate. I feel like it’s a little unfair during a global pandemic where public health is at such risk, I think you have to be really careful with the rankings.

TN: Some players, notably Rafa and Andy Murray, have suggested going to a two-year ranking system during this coronavirus era?

Pam Shriver: You can think about all sorts of things. We’re sort of used to a two-ranking system now. You seed on the 12 months, but then as the year goes on it’s the race to London or race to Shenzhen or race to wherever the year-end tournament is held in the past. So we’re sort of used to seeing two ranking systems.

Maybe for a while during the pandemic, and I would suggest it would even be longer than two years affected by it, certainly 2020, for sure 2021 and let’s hope by 2022 it’s all over with, but there’s no guarantees here. I think that idea of a longer, two-year ranking or just keep those frozen rankings and you publicize them as the rankings at the time when tennis changed for the pandemic. When tennis paused and then perhaps resumed, perhaps not, we don’t know. Then you have the second set of rankings that gives players the opportunity to earn points during the pandemic if they think they can safely get to the tournament and play.

I just think until we know when people can return safely, that’s really when the overall decision on rankings should be made. I look back on the Seles situation when we didn’t know how long she would be out.

That was a health crisis for Monica, it affected the number one ranking and I felt at that time we made decisions on that number one ranking too soon. Like we needed to realize how long was it going to last? How long was Monica going to be out of the sport to be ready to play again?

Two-and-a-half years it turned out. Well, we had no idea. It turns out the first decision we made on the rankings wasn’t the right decision. So I think we can learn a little bit from the past. As far as rankings go, you don’t make a decision before its time.

Pam and Venus
Photo credit: Pam Shriver Facebook

TN: Plus, you don’t need to make a decision on rankings right now.

Pam Shriver: You don’t. What if 50 percent of the top 128 players feel like they can’t get there [to the US Open]? And others, for whatever reason, feel that they can. I don’t know, to me, it just feels like the rankings can’t go on as normal.

TN: ESPN owns US Open rights. Do you see yourself going to New York to cover it?

Pam Shriver: At this point, I’m not prepared to say either way. Because I haven’t had that conversation with ESPN yet.

I will tell you certain things go into my consideration—and I don’t think it’s that different from players. One of my three children has type one diabetes, so that’s an auto-immune. My kids’ dad, even though we’re divorced, he’s in my bubble. He is in our quarantine bubble, so to speak. He’s over 80 so he’s at risk.

I’m a single mom of three high school kids. We don’t know what the return to school is going to look like. I want to be a part of every ESPN event that takes place—especially majors.

But everyone has to go down their list of things you have to consider and then you figure out what’s best.

TN: We started talking about your last year as a player on the Tour. Looking at your WTA player page I noticed one of the last doubles matches you ever played was you and Steffi Graf vs. Hingis and Gigi Fernandez. I mean that’s almost 100 Grand Slam titles on the court. What do you remember about that match? What are your thoughts on Hingis as a doubles player as Gigi once told me she thought Hingis was one of the most interesting and creative of all players she saw.

Pam Shriver: I do remember that match.

It was in Japan right after Australia. I knew I was about to retire. We were never close on the tour, ever, but I had so many different partners over that years that I kind of just asked Steffi. I got brave enough and I said “I don’t want to go my whole career without playing one doubles match with you.”

So she agreed to play. It was an interesting match. I mean, we weren’t favored. We were nowhere near as good as they were at the time. I was the weak link by far.

As far as Hingis goes, I can still flash back to the late ‘90s, close my eyes and just see point-after-point of creativity from all parts of the court. And in doubles, creativity from all parts of the court is one of the best skills you can have. The angles, the lobs, how Hingis could stretch teams out. She was brilliant.

Hingis’ decision making was so clear. And she worked well with a variety of partners. Hingis could play with anybody—she couldn’t get along with everybody (laughs)—but she could play with everybody.

TN: Last question: Roger Federer re-raised the prospect of an ATP-WTA merger. I know you were actively involved in WTA politics for many years and Billie Jean has proposed a merger for many years. How realistic is the concept of an ATP-WTA merger and do you think it should happen—that it’s the right move for the sport?

Pam Shriver: I definitely think it should happen.

It had some momentum earlier. In so many ways it makes good business sense. It would totally change the political power structure of the game. It would make the players a much more formidable group if they’re together.

Think about women’s tennis being the most pre-eminent female professional sport in the world and it has been that way for decades. Since the ‘70s and Billie Jean King and the Original Nine made their move which is why we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary. So for 50 years women’s tennis has been the most pre-eminent female professional sport.

That’s very important in this time in the history of sports. Women’s sport world-wide is really growing at a beautiful rate—obviously everything is on pause now because of the virus—but that’s a great value. If men’s tennis can say here’s our international partner the most well-known women’s sport in the world. It’s number one in the world of women’s sport and you can’t say that about men’s tennis compared to all the other sports out there.

So when I look at all the reasons why the ATP would want to partner with the WTA, you’d want a partner in your industry that’s the best, that’s number one in the world. So I see it plain and simple, but I don’t have to deal with the politics. I just look at it from a practical business standpoint.

It makes total sense. Obviously, there are things you’ll have to negotiate and figure out. In certain parts of the world, men’s tennis is going to have a bigger advantage in terms of TV rights or this or that. But when you think about the future and you think about the strength of women’s tennis past, this is clearly the way to go.

 

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