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'I think we deserve better': How and why tennis lets women down



'I think we deserve better': How and why tennis lets women down

This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic, which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here.

Last month at the Madrid Open, Coco Gauff was warming up on the least desirable practice courts when she saw some male players — without small numbers next to their names — on the much better courts.

Gauff is familiar with the misogynist history of the tournament. She partnered with compatriot Jessica Pegula against Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia in the women’s doubles final in 2023, after Azarenka and other players commented on unfair scheduling and the size disparity of birthday cakes for Carlos Alcaraz and Aryna Sabalenka.

Officials refused to let the foursome speak after the match.

Gauff said she had seen progress this year. But she couldn’t help but notice the weirdness: she, a Grand Slam champion and the world No 3, was warming up at an event just one rung below the U.S. Open on “really bad” courts.


“When you look out on the practice court and you see guys who are ranked 30 or 40 spots lower than you on the court, you’re like ‘OK, what happened?’” she said a few days later.

Gauff during the Madrid Open (Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal. She played her match on the top court, in a desirable time slot. There are plenty of benefits that Gauff and a handful of other women at the top of tennis enjoy, including prize money and endorsements that can reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

Still, to exist as a female tennis player in 2024 is to endure what can feel like endless slights: the micro-aggressions baked in; the structural inequality foundational to a sport run mostly by men; stark set-piece examples of inequality that can be hard to comprehend and harder to endure, for their magnitude, their reasoning, or more commonly both.

“I get a little bit frustrated here because I feel some tournaments in Europe can fancy men more than women,” Ons Jabeur, the two-time Wimbledon finalist from Tunisia, told The Athletic in Madrid.

“I see that especially on social media, more posts about the men, more this more that and for me it’s really frustrating because we play really well. And it’s such, you know, an amazing sport for women. So I wish we can be more seen,” she said.


“I think we deserve better.”

It’s not just Europe.

Jabeur, 29, just finished playing the Italian Open, where the women competed for a prize pool of $5.5 million. The men’s equivalent was $8.5 million.

In August, the men and women arrive at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. The men play for $7.9 million; the women for $6.8 million, even though the tournament owner, Ben Navarro, has a daughter, Emma, who plays on the WTA Tour.

A tournament spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.


The knee-jerk reaction is that women don’t bring in as much money as the men, and if they did they wouldn’t be second-class citizens. Yet consider a counter-narrative: during the 55-year history of the sport’s modern era, if women had received the same exposure and investment as men, and didn’t have to confront countless barriers and aggressions, maybe they would be bringing in the same amount of money.

Consider that more generally, the WTA Tour’s most lucrative route to additional funding centers on being in lockstep with the ATP Tour men, over letting Saudi Arabia, a country where women do not have equal rights, pump money into tennis.

How else do elite women get the short end of the racket handle in the sport to which they dedicate their lives?

Let us count — just some of — the ways.



Tennis’ top women say the sport is broken. This is why


Ever the bridesmaid

It’s the final weekend of a Grand Slam tournament. The women’s singles final takes place on the Saturday. The climax arrives 24 hours later, with the men’s final.

It’s been that way basically forever. There’s an implicit message that everyone in tennis, from the little girl who just started taking lessons to the world No 1, receives.

Tournament officials often say it has to be this way. The men play best-of-five sets in the Grand Slams; the women play best-of-three. (We’ll get to that. We have thoughts.)

Whoever plays the final on Saturday has to have one day during the tournament where two players compete on consecutive days, between the second day of quarter-finals and the semi-finals. Since the men play longer matches, it wouldn’t be fair for their semi-finalists to have to play on consecutive days, would it?

Marketa Vondrousova collapses after winning Wimbledon 2023 against Ons Jabeur (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Perhaps not. The French and Australian Opens now stretch their first round over three days, and the other Grand Slams could follow suit. Surely there is a permutation that allows the men and women who have reached the late stages of the peak of their sport equal rest?


Of course, there are also television contracts that exist — television contracts that get renegotiated all the time. If there is a will, perhaps there is a way.

If there is a will.

Darren Pearce, chief spokesperson for Tennis Australia, said they have looked at a swap and will continue to do so. They moved the women’s final to Saturday night in 2009 to maximize domestic exposure, but they have to consider time zones and international exposure as well. Pearce cited Australian Ash Barty’s win in 2022 as an example of the Saturday offering “so much more coverage and exposure in Australia.”

The U.S. Open has looked at swapping the two finals “in an effort to optimize viewership and interest,” said Brendan McIntire, a USTA spokesperson.

Last week (Wednesday May 15), ESPN announced that its free-to-air broadcaster, ABC, will show the U.S. Open men’s final, though the women’s final the day before will remain on the pay channel, ESPN, because ABC has contractual commitments to college football that Saturday.


The U.S. women’s final has outperformed the men’s final four of the past five years in television viewership, and the men’s final competes with the opening weekend of the NFL. In this case, the second-class spot may be a blessing.

A Wimbledon spokesperson said the current set-up offers “the right balance.”

What about the big mixed events where both the women and the men play best-of-three sets? 

Indian Wells has a finals Sunday on which both the women and the men play — guess who plays first? Cincinnati will hold the finals on the same day this year, and we’ll see who goes first. Miami, Madrid and Rome have the women play Saturday, the men Sunday. 

I don’t really think that it’s just a question of money, but also respect,” Jabeur said. “It’s small details that make the difference.” 


It happens in a macro way, too. The WTA Tour Finals take place the week before the ATP Tour Finals. The Billie Jean King Cup wraps up before the Davis Cup, although there will be overlap from this year.

Swiatek triumphed in this year’s Indian Wells (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Next year, Great Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association will host a women’s WTA 500 at the Queen’s Club in London. It will begin immediately after the French Open, the week before the men take the stage at Queen’s, and in the build-up the focus has been not on the benefits of a women’s tournament at such a prestigious event, but whether or not the ATP is happy that the grass will be pristine enough for male feet after a week of tennis.

There will not be equal prize money.



What’s the one thing you would change about tennis?

Games, sets, and matches

Jessica Pegula, the world No 5 and a member of the WTA Player Council made it very clear at the French Open in 2022.


“I don’t want to play three out of five,” Pegula said. 

She’s hardly the only one. It’s a slog, with matches that can stretch beyond five hours, and then you have to do it all over again two days later. There is not a throng of women’s players clamoring for best-of-five tennis at the Grand Slams.

It’s still the third rail of equality in tennis. 

Aryna Sabalena en route to victory at this year’s Australian Open (Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

Best-of-five sets only exists at the Grand Slams, where women and men compete for the same prize money — and a lot of folks complain that it’s equal pay for less work every time it comes up. It’s a prime example of another uneven dynamic, where women have to account for every possible bad-faith accusation that could emerge before opening their mouths on the biggest issues in their sport.

Duration isn’t the only element of work. Best-of-three requires immediate competitiveness, with little time for recovery. It’s not Swiatek’s fault that she is so good at plowing through the competition, and it’s no player’s fault that the best players in the men’s game might drop two sets to lesser opponents and have to claw back three.


It’s also not any WTA player’s fault that tennis audiences sometimes dismiss the variety of styles in the women’s game as “boring” — though they’re probably talking without watching. Anyone who has watched a WTA match this year, especially between Swiatek, Sabalenka, Gauff, and Rybakina would have to agree with the Pole’s comments after her Madrid final against Sabalenka.

Who’s gonna say now that women‘s tennis is boring?



Men’s grand-slam matches are 25% longer than in 1999. Does something need to change?

Stardom also fluctuates. When Wimbledon, and the French, U.S. and Australian Opens sell tickets, sponsorships and media rights, they mostly don’t sell separately for the men’s tournament and the women’s tournament. There were plenty of days and nights when Serena Williams was the featured match in New York and elsewhere, and a couple of guys were the undercard or the afterthought. In Rome this month, where men and women play best-of-three, the WTA semi-finals featured the top three players on tour and the best form player of 2024 in Danielle Collins, with the final again between world No 1 Swiatek and world No 2 Sabalenka.

The men’s semi-finalists had an average ranking of 19, with one of the finalists, Alexander Zverev, about to defend himself in a domestic abuse hearing while continuing to play. Some of that is to do with the caprices of injury and form — but they are intrinsic parts of tennis, and they don’t change the fact that the WTA Tour appears to be locking in to a generational rivalry while the ATP Tour is in relative flux.


If a similar dynamic emerges at Roland Garros, is the men’s event still qualitatively better because of two more sets?

Billie Jean King, the trailblazing Grand Slam champion and founding figurehead of the WTA Tour, is adamant: as long as there are different formats, there will be inequality.

Hang around with her even a little bit, and three phrases keep coming up.

“Same format.” “Equal content.” “Equal exposure.”

To King, if a women’s match only lasts 60 percent as long as a men’s match, then they will receive 60 percent of the television exposure as the men, and spend 60 percent of the time on the biggest courts in the biggest tournaments.


Sue Barker with Serena Williams on the BBC in 2016 (Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images)

That math practically guarantees that women are less well-known and attract less money. There are exceptions — Williams, Maria Sharapova, Naomi Osaka, Emma Raducanu, Coco Gauff — but the numbers are hard to overcome. World No 1 Swiatek has recently bagged the huge sponsorships her status deserves, but it’s taken time.



Iga Swiatek’s 100 weeks as world No 1: The streak, the slams, the bagels

Tournament directors say having men and women play best-of-five is impossible from a scheduling perspective. Too many too-long matches. Too few courts. And the players don’t want it.

King and others have offered a solution — best-of-three for everyone the first week; best-of-five the second. There’s precedent — 50 years ago at the French Open, the men played best-of-three for the first two rounds. Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert won their first Grand Slam titles, and you might remember that they did pretty well after that. The sun also continued to rise in the east.

The knock-on effects of the current system on scheduling also virtually guarantee more conflict and inequality — sometimes in the name of equality.


As night follows day

Tennis players of a certain age who spent time around private clubs remember times not very long ago when men got first dibs on high-demand slots. Elina Svitolina said that the men (regular players, not tour stars) still get the prime slots at the club near her home in Monte Carlo. Svitolina, top 20 in her sport, formerly a world No 3, had to practice early morning or at dusk.

Three years ago, the French Open started holding a night session with a featured singles match, which now starts at at 8:15 p.m. in the main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier. The tournament markets it as the match of the day. The U.S. and Australian Open schedule two matches in their night sessions, until the late rounds.

An empty night session on Chatrier between Swiatek and Marta Kostyuk during the Covid-19 pandemic (Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images)

During the first three years, Roland Garros organizers scheduled a total of four women’s matches at night. Amelie Mauresmo, the former women’s world No 1 and tournament director, initially justified the disparity by explaining that men’s tennis is more appealing.

She tried to walk that back but also explained that charging a premium for a session that might finish in an hour is problematic — a knock-on effect of those unequal formats that deprives top women of a primetime audience. Moving a doubles match onto Chatrier after Iga Swiatek blows through an opponent 6-0, 6-1 isn’t seen as viable.

Swiatek made it clear last year that she doesn’t care for playing at night.


“There are players who like the hype and the energy, and maybe the conditions, but for me it’s more comfortable to just have the normal day/night rhythm,” Swiatek said. “I think it’s more healthy for me to play day sessions.”

That was arguably a self-inflicted wound, as were Aryna Sabalenka’s recent comments about preferring men’s tennis. However, this also illustrates another unspoken dynamic: women have to be extra careful not to say anything denigrating about their sport, lest they get criticized for not supporting fellow players, even though a top men’s player saying something about their sport would likely not be considered an existential threat to its repute.

It’s also rare that male players speak up. Andy Murray’s corrections of journalists’ “first…” stats are an exception: the three-time Grand Slam champion has routinely reminded journalists of their forgetting about the Williams sisters, most notably in 2017 when a reporter claimed Sam Querrey was the first American to reach a major semi-final since 2009. Canadian Denis Shapovalov wrote that “I think some people might think of gender equality as mere political correctness” in an essay on the equal pay in the Players’ Tribune in 2023.

Furthermore, it’s well-documented that top men’s players have unspoken preferences, which they often communicate to tournaments, and which tournaments — unspokenly — try to accommodate or nudge around. (They do this some for top women, too). Rafael Nadal has said clay-court tennis should never take place at night, and it goes on.

The clock ticks past 3:12 a.m as Garbine Muguruza defeats Jo Konta in Melbourne in 2019 (Peter Parks/AFP)

The other scheduling inequality also happens at night. No-one, man or woman, wants to play the second late match at the U.S. or Australian Open, with a ridiculous start time.


The men argue that if women are getting equal pay then they should play the late match half the time. OK, but then a men’s match goes five sets in four hours and the women start at 11:30 pm in an empty stadium.

Sometimes scheduling benefits to men happen so fast no one really notices. The Madrid Open experimented with a new doubles format this year, cramming the men’s event mostly into the second half of the second week.

That meant men who weren’t playing the singles got an extra week off. A highly-ranked man who lost early could find a doubles partner, and with him an extra few days of free food, lodging and practice. Nice.

The women’s doubles? It started at the start. They didn’t have that option. Organizers didn’t purposefully set out to deprive them; it just happened, and they had to deal with it.

This attitude extends to matters of inequality in planning and infrastructure off-court, too; anxiety about change doesn’t just extend to the number of sets played or matches scheduled.


Wimbledon only relaxed its all-white dress code after concerns from players about menstruation last year, where the tournament previously required all clothing, including underwear, to be white. At the time, Magda Linette told The Athletic that she has “had a couple of situations at Wimbledon where I felt very uncomfortable,” and welcomed the change, but it had required strident protest at the previous year’s tournament to make it happen.

Top players have become increasingly open about discussing the impact of menstruation on form and performance, with numerous female players talking about PMS’ impact on their game — albeit while coding it as “girl things” in press conferences. China’s Zheng Qinwen saw cramps derail what would have been a famous victory against Iga Swiatek at the French Open in 2022, while Swiatek herself opened up about PMS contributing to her loss to Maria Sakkari of Greece at the same tournament in 2021. “PMS really hit me that day. I’m telling this for every young girl who doesn’t know what’s going on. Don’t worry, it’s normal. Everybody has it,” she said.

Iga Swiatek and Zheng Qinwen at the net in 2022 (Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images)

Women also suffer speculations about general injuries and “illness” that men never have to go through. Combined with the sport’s limited provisions for players that want to have children — there is no maternity pay, even though players that take time out can retain their previous ranking to enter 12 tournaments over a three-year period after giving birth — these changes and the increased visibility, through players like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elina Svitolina, also reinforce that tennis’ women are playing in a structure built for men.

On the tour, it is ever thus.



Wimbledon are relaxing their all-white dress code to ease the stress of women’s periods


(Down) the bottom line

Ultimately, the starkest measure comes in dollars, euros, pounds.

Women and men have received equal prize money at all of the Grand Slam tournaments since 2007. Amid some fanfare, last year the WTA Tour announced that the 500-level tournaments would follow suit, along with that 2027 plan for the 1000-level tournaments one rung below the Grand Slams. But not until 2033, in almost a decade. At the time of the deal, Paula Badosa said, “I don’t know why it’s not equal right now.” Tour officials said new sales and marketing efforts need time to produce more revenue.

The WTA requires top players to participate in every Masters 1000 tournament as part of that deal. World No 4 Elena Rybakina, and Swiatek too, have previously expressed disappointment at the way the WTA communicated these changes. Last year in Rome, Rybakina had to lift her title gone midnight after rain delays. Organizers refused to move the match to Sunday, because of the men’s final. Schedule, audience, money.

Floodlights reflect off the trophy after Rybakina’s win (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

Tournament organizers have long complained that equal prize money is impossible when WTA media deals are worth about 20 percent of ATP equivalents. Consequently, the WTA contributes far less than the ATP, and the prize money reflects that. That’s how two tournaments in Auckland, New Zealand organized essentially by the same people have the women playing for $262,000 and the men for $660,000. 

Last year, male players shared $336million in prize money, including the Grand Slams. Women shared $170million.


Why are those media deals worth so much less? Women often receive second billing in mixed tournaments, play less desirable schedules and don’t get the same television coverage, because their matches are shorter. And then the players get blamed for not being able to bring in as much money. This is how it all coheres, into the ultimate self-fulfilling, blame-the-victim ouroboros that is seemingly impossible to slay.

The coin toss before Vondrousova against Svitolina at Wimbledon (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Last year, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, struck a deal with CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm, which bought 20 percent of a WTA commercial subsidiary for $150 million. The tour has launched a commercial ventures entity aimed at enhancing sales and marketing efforts and improve the visibility of tournaments, part of which is improving streaming and online showings of matches, which are currently limited in comparison to the ATP Tour.

“I would love to go to the hotel and open the TV and see a woman’s tennis match,” Jabeur said midway through the Madrid Open. “I haven’t seen once one tennis match of woman. For me, it’s really frustrating to see that.”

There are more improvements. After a series of disastrous decisions on venues, scheduling, and promotion which came to a nadir in Cancun last year, women will compete for about the same amount of prize money as the men at the season-ending Tour Finals — the WTA’s premier event and a knock-out showcase for the top eight players in the world — for the next three years.

They’ll just have to do so in Saudi Arabia, a country with a long history of human rights abuses, that has jailed women who have run afoul of the country’s leaders by pushing too hard for equality.


Welcome to the new dawn.

(Top photos: Hannah Peters; Julian Finney/Getty Images; Design: John Bradford)

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The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him



The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

PINEHURST, N.C. — Randy Smith saw something that needed fixing, so he went about fixing it. It’s what he does. He pulled a piece of paper out of his desk at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas and scribbled down his idea. A line here. A line there. All the details. He folded it up, walked across the club and handed it to his student.

“This,” Smith said, “will work.”

Tom Landry took the paper.

The Dallas Cowboys coach eyed Smith, then looked down at a page of Xs moving this way and Os moving that way. The key, Smith explained, was putting Roger Staubach into shotgun play-action and allowing Drew Pearson to operate in space. Pure genius, in 1976, at least.

Landry, a Royal Oaks member, studied the play for about a minute. “Randy, I absolutely love it,” he finally said. Smith, then a 27-year-old golf pro and teaching instructor, nodded.


“Star-right 47,” Landry said.

“What?” Smith asked.

“We already run it,” Landry said. “Star-right 47. That’s the play.”

Turns out, Smith’s design already existed, but with a different pre-snap motion. Nonetheless, the young golf coach from Odessa proved he had an eye for how to play, how to design Xs better than Os, and how to scheme up a win.

Fifty years later, nothing is different, except Smith is now coach and confidant to the current greatest player in professional golf.


Randy Smith, left, has been working with Scottie Scheffler for more than 20 years. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Smith is the genius who told young Scottie Scheffler it was OK to let those feet fly; the visionary who knew a gift when he saw it. He first met a 7-year-old Scheffler at Royal Oaks around 2004. What was supposed to be a 10-minute youth lesson turned into an hour and 40 minutes. Smith, hand on chin, unblinking, only interjected here and there. “Can you try … yep.” “And how about … yep.” Smith knew immediately that Scheffler was one of one. He had not seen anything like him since a boy named Justin Leonard showed up on the driving range nearly 25 years earlier. Scheffler was somehow better.

And now, in 2024, Scheffler is the best. The hottest player in golf. Winner in five of his last eight events. A visitor from another planet. The 27-year-old can make it six wins in his last nine with a win at Pinehurst this week, where he’s trying for his third career major and first U.S. Open championship. A victory feels oddly inevitable. Scheffler is playing so well, so often, that fellow players are seemingly content to acknowledge their own inadequacies.

“He is the gold standard right now,” Bryson DeChambeau said Tuesday, “and we’re all looking up to him going, ‘All right, how do we get to that level?’”



U.S. Open Big Board: After Scottie Scheffler, how does the field stack up at Pinehurst?

It won’t be easy, in part, because no one else out here has been hard-wired by the hands of Randy Smith. The coach is, in Scheffler’s words, “a savant,” and they are now two decades into a lesson that’s proving to have some staying power. It’s all worked because it’s never felt like work.


“Randy has always been really good at not overthinking things,” Scheffler says.

Which might sound simple, yet is anything but.

Now 72, Smith walked along Pinehurst No. 2’s back nine on Tuesday trying to explain what gets so often confused in golf — that once a player has the basics down, their swing must be their own creation, not someone else’s. This is why, while recent generations of players were told the same four misguided words — “Keep your head down.” — Smith told his young players the opposite.

“The head’s gotta move, man,” Smith said, stressing hard. “That’d be like telling a basketball player to keep his eye on the ball during a free throw.”

Smith still spends more than half of his time at Royal Oaks working with kids and when he does, he first wants to see good contact. Then a good grip. Then a reasonable ability to aim the body at the target. Then comes the interesting part. “You see if they can create.” Instead of tweaking the form, Smith wants to see what’s in the instincts. He hands the player a 7-iron and asks, “How would you make the ball fly really high? How about really low?” He wants to see imagination before imitation.


“You know, the body moves in response to action,” Smith said. “Most people say, ‘You have to make the body do this to create this and this.’ That’s bulls—.”

Smith picked up an imaginary baseball.

“I’m gonna throw this ball right at Scottie’s ass,” he said, pointing across the green at Scheffler.

Smith shifted his hips, cocked his arm and made a throwing motion.

“See, there were 42 things going on to make that motion,” he went on. “No one told me to shift my weight into my hip or use 30 degrees of knee bend or tilt my shoulders to the angle or the throw or … ”


The point: A swing need to be a product of instincts and action. This is how Smith sees the game and keeps kids interested in playing. Then, little by little, “I sneak up on ’em with the technique stuff.”

Scheffler has won five tournaments in 2024, including last week’s Memorial Tournament. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

When Smith is dealing a player who’s struggling, he’ll take him or her out to the course, stick ‘em behind a tree in a fairway, point to a green in the distance and say, “You gotta slice this sucker 40 yards to get to that target. Figure it out.” Lo and behold, the student stops thinking and instead creates a swing to shape the shot.

“But if they’re out there 170 yards, middle of the fairway, staring at the pin, they’re thinking about all kinds of other stuff,” Smith said. “You gotta get that out of there.”

No wonder Scheffler swings how he swings, thinks how he thinks. His game was shaped by Occam’s razor.

Perhaps that’s the secret to what is, in golf parlance, a heater, turning into something much bigger. Scheffler is turning into this era’s greatest player with a recipe that can seemingly fit on a single page. All the fixes are uncomplicated. All the solutions are straightforward. In April, at the Masters, when Scheffler felt he escaped the first round with a 66 despite a swing that “felt like I was using all hands,” he spent five minutes with Smith on the driving range.


“He gave me a little tip with my grip,” Scheffler said Tuesday. “I hit a couple shots, felt exactly what I needed to feel. Then it was over, from there.”

Scheffler won by four shots.



Scottie Scheffler’s secret: How a ‘venomous’ trash talker became the best golfer in the world

Now it’s the U.S. Open, where Smith is by Scheffler’s side, like usual, and keeping everything simple, like usual. On a week that should present extreme tests and stressful shotmaking, such a disposition feels like a cheat code. When Scheffler inevitably paints a masterpiece one of these days, and builds his lead, and looks like he’s playing a different game than everyone else, it’ll be worth remembering that nothing is by accident.

Walking around Tuesday, Smith studied Pinehurst’s rolling fairways and turtleback greens. The old coach was drawing up some Xs and Os.


“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent is here,” Smith said, pointing to his left, “There,” he said point to his right, “What shots to hit and where. How about here? Maybe there. Where to hit it low. Where to hit it high. That’s uphill. That’s downhill. Where is the false front? Where’s the best way to access this pin, that pin?”

Smith stopped, then raised his hands.

“But nothing here,” he said, forming a grip, “And nothing there,” he said, bringing that grip to impact position.

Smith paused, then called a play.

“Target, feel, create.”


(Top photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold



U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

The U.S. women’s basketball roster was officially announced Tuesday, and in six weeks, the 12 players will go after a record eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal. With seven players who’ve already appeared on Team USA (and an additional two who were on the three-on-three team, known as 3×3, the last time around), this is an experienced group that enters the Games as the favorite.

Experience and maturity are only heightened considering the roster skews toward players in their late 20s; the youngest players are 26 and Diana Taurasi at 42 is the oldest. Unlike previous iterations of Olympic rosters, no recent college grads were included. Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark’s exclusion from the roster has been the subject of much debate, and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston also wasn’t selected.

With 12 versatile, slightly older players, coach Cheryl Reeve has plenty of flexibility with lineups and rotations, similar to how the defensive-oriented coach operates with her Minnesota Lynx squad. She is known for getting the most out of her players, orchestrating the Lynx’s run in the 2010s to four WNBA titles in seven seasons. This will be Reeve’s first time at the helm of the national team at the Olympics. She was named the head coach for this cycle in 2021 after being an assistant for both Geno Auriemma (2016) and Dawn Staley (2020).


Team USA chair explains Olympic roster decisions, Caitlin Clark’s absence

Get to know the players who will represent Team USA in France this summer.

Collier, 27, was the 11th or 12th player on the Tokyo roster, but for this Olympics, she’s a probable starter alongside Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. Her game has continued to evolve (which is no surprise considering Reeve is her coach with the Lynx) — she’s shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers this WNBA season. Collier showed in an Olympic qualifier game earlier this year that she potentially can become a statistical leader, after tallying 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in a tightly-contested game against Belgium.


Copper, 29, is playing the best basketball of her career in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury, averaging 24 points a game while shooting 39 percent from long range as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Unlike many other players on this Olympic roster who came up through the youth system, Copper’s first time in the Team USA pool was in 2021, and her game has only gone up. Her versatility is accentuated on defense, where she can guard multiple positions, both matching up with larger, more physical players and keeping step with perimeter guards.

Gray, 31, has yet to play this WNBA season after suffering a leg injury during the 2023 WNBA Finals. However, Team USA said it had been in regular communication with Gray and her medical team and feel confident she’ll be able to compete in France. Assuming that holds true, Gray will be the team’s best passer and its engine. For the Las Vegas Aces, she has been a dynamic scorer-facilitator, but if her role from the 2022 World Cup repeats, expect Gray to settle in more as a primary facilitator, especially because there’s not another pure point guard on the roster. Reeve will need a high-assist, low-risk floor general, and that’s Gray.


When Griner, 33, returned to the U.S. from her 10-month detainment in Russia, she said she’d only go overseas again to play for her country in the Olympics. Now, that’s happening as Griner makes her third Olympic roster. She recently returned to the floor in the WNBA after recovering from a toe fracture, but even in two games, she looks great, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks a game (in 30 minutes of play). She started all six games in Team USA’s 2021 run in Tokyo (averaging 16.5 points and over 7 rebounds a game while shooting nearly 70 percent). At 6-foot-9, she’s the tallest player on the roster, providing Team USA an instant mismatch against any opponent.

Napheesa Collier

A young role player the last Olympic cycle, Napheesa Collier now steps into a more prominent position for Paris. (Dirk Waem / BELGA MAG / AFP via Getty Images)

Ionescu, 26, is another potential backup ballhandler who likely will split responsibilities with other guards, but her versatility as a scorer and rebounder will come in handy. Like Alyssa Thomas, Ionescu can go off for a triple-double. With her long range and quick release, she could be used off the bench to help build a lead, or in close games, she could be inserted for her reliable free-throw shooting (over 90 percent for her WNBA career).

With no true backup point guard on the roster, Loyd, 30, likely will be called into some backup ballhandling responsibilities — a task Team USA probably will take on by committee. Loyd could be considered for the final starter, a spot that remains a bit of a question mark and might be determined by game-specific matchups. She’s a tried-and-true scorer and an excellent rebounder who can get Team USA out on the break and either distribute or score. One of the many perks of this roster is the number of players who have shown they can catch fire even after a slump, and Loyd is one of those.

A member of the inaugural 3×3 squad, Plum, 29, could find herself in that starting two-guard spot, or she could be a burst of energy and instant scorer off the bench. She’s a high-volume 3-point shooter for the Aces, but she can also get downhill and finish through contact. With Gray out, the Aces have shared facilitating duties, and Plum is averaging nearly 5 assists a game. Her familiarity with Wilson, Gray and Jackie Young is an important benefit for potential playing time, and that unit could be used as a “reset” at times, especially early in pool play, when Team USA needs to get on the same page.

Breanna Stewart, F

At 29, Stewart will play in her third Olympics. In tandem with Wilson, Stewart provides versatility and steadiness on both ends of the floor. Her 3-point shooting has been down this WNBA season, but Stewart is a three-level scorer with a knack for making defensive plays. Expect Stewart and Wilson to start regardless of the matchup as Reeve uses them as centerpieces and builds out from there.

Diana Taurasi, G

This will be Taurasi’s sixth Olympics. Her first came in 2004 in Athens, where at 22 she was the youngest player on the team. Her eldest teammate that year? Then-34-year-old Dawn Staley, who — 16 years later — would coach Taurasi at the Tokyo Olympics. Taurasi’s deft passing and sharp shooting will be helpful, but her experience is irreplaceable compared to any other player in the Team USA pool. “We knew Diana’s basketball ability would be clutch for us in so many moments, but we also knew that her leadership was something this team didn’t have,” U.S. women’s national team committee chair Jen Rizzotti said.

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi, a staple of the U.S. national team for two decades, will go for her sixth Olympic gold medal. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Alyssa Thomas, F

Known as “The Engine” in the WNBA, Thomas, 32, is a triple-double threat every night in the league. She’s not the tallest on any court, but she might be the strongest 6-2 player in the league. The common storyline for commentators about the 10-year vet is that Thomas has two torn labrums (cartilage in her shoulders) so she uses an unconventional shooting form. However, that hasn’t stopped Thomas from being so effective that Reeve actually asked her to return to the Team USA player pool before the 2022 World Cup after Thomas spent several years on the outside looking in.

A’ja Wilson, F

The two-time WNBA MVP has been successful in Olympic and international play. As an Olympic rookie in Tokyo, Wilson was a standout, averaging over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while playing for Staley, her former coach at South Carolina.  She’ll again have a comfort level in France from being surrounded by three of her Aces teammates. She also has added a 3-point shot to her offensive arsenal. Wilson — and Stewart — are the new faces of Team USA in a changing-of-the-guard era, a new challenge for both. Wilson, 27, has handled that same responsibility on and off the court for the Aces, and she appears primed for the occasion.

Jackie Young, G

Young, 26, was a member of the Tokyo 3×3 squad. She was called into preparation at the last minute after initial 3×3 team member Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19 before the team’s departure. Young has been one of the most improved players through the most recent Olympic cycle, becoming a more prolific scorer and passer. She’s a tough perimeter defender and reliable scorer who, like the other guards on this roster, could find herself filling Gray’s shoes when she’s not on the floor.


(Photo of Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, A’Ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu celebrating their gold-medal win at the 2022 FIBA World Cup: Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

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The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye



The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

PINEHURST, N.C. — It can trick you, this place. It’s all so charming and whimsical, Mayberry turned golf mecca in the sandhills of North Carolina.

You stroll along the brick walking paths through the village, passing the two-story brick buildings filled with cute shops and quaint pubs. More than a million people travel here each year to this Disney World for idyllic golf-themed getaways.

It can trick you into thinking you stumbled onto a golf oasis. Trick you into forgetting this place is a juggernaut, a resort, a full-on corporation with luxury hotels and cottages and 10 courses designed by renowned golf architects. Yes, it may have started with a pharmacy chain owner offering tuberculosis patients a chance to recover in a haven designed by the same man who designed Central Park. But the reasons a place begins are very rarely the same reasons that keep a destination thriving.

Now, Pinehurst Resort calls itself the cradle of American golf. The USGA announced it as the first of its new “anchor sites,” which will host U.S. Opens every 5-6 years for the next 30 years, beginning this week.

Pinehurst brought back the World Golf Hall of Fame. Its relationship with the town is strong and it’s a bucket-list destination for generations of recreational golfers. It is, for the foreseeable future, a central focal point marrying the casual and professional golf worlds.


But it wasn’t that long ago this place was climbing out of $70 million in debt, that it was at war with the people of this town and embroiled in countless lawsuits focusing on issues ranging from predatory management strategies to members feeling cheated.

And it wasn’t so long ago that a private detective who called himself “the Fat Man” had a poster of Pinehurst’s owner on a chair in front of his desk with a simple mission: “I just want this guy nailed to the wall.”

There’s a mantra Robert H. Dedman Jr. repeats at will: “Always Pinehurst, but always better.”


From the shadow of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, a game-changer emerges


But progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. What began as a company town turned into something else when James W. Tufts hired Donald Ross as golf pro and formed Pinehurst No. 1 before completing his masterpiece — Pinehurst No. 2 — in 1907. Ross finished his fourth Pinehurst course before 1920 and the resort had become a premier golf destination with three inns. The town and the resort were so intertwined that resort employees were paid during the Depression in scrip redeemable only at Tufts-owned businesses. And it started its entry into pro golf circles, hosting the 1936 PGA Championship and 1951 Ryder Cup.

But in 1971, the Tufts family sold Pinehurst to Diamondhead Corporation, a real estate project owned by Malcom McLean that took a place rooted in tradition and lined the courses with condos and attempted to modernize the look of Ross’ design. Sacrilege. The prestige of the resort declined, as did its quality, and it compiled $70 million in debt by the time Diamondhead had to hand Pinehurst over to a consortium of eight banks in 1982.

Spectators are turning out in droves to watch Tiger Woods and the rest of the U.S. Open field at Pinehurst this week. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

In came the savior, a moniker that became a point of contention for many.

Robert H. Dedman Sr. was the founder of ClubCorp, a Dallas-based corporation that made a killing buying distressed private golf and country clubs and rebuilding them. They eventually owned more than 200 properties around the world, and Dedman Sr. was a billionaire often named by Golf Digest as one of the most important people in golf. He was a charming, self-made man from Arkansas who successfully branded himself as something between a capitalist and a romantic.

“The first time I stood in front of the clubhouse and looked out on all those ribbons of fairway, I got tears in my eyes,” Dedman Sr. told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I had always venerated Pinehurst for its place in the history of golf, and when I finally saw it I knew instantly that we would take this fallen angel and make it not as good as it was, but better than it had ever been.”


Always Pinehurst, but always better. But better usually comes with costs. Capitalism is a game of winners and losers, and progress often leaves others behind.

Pinehurst was the crown jewel of ClubCorp’s empire, and Dedman Sr. made good on those dreams by restoring tradition and returning Pinehurst to its rightful place in the sport. In fact, he elevated it.

Fifteen years and $100 million after buying it, the 1999 U.S. Open came to Pinehurst. Dedman Sr. died in 2002, but Dedman Jr. (known as Bob) was running much of the company by the 1990s. It hosted the U.S. Open again in 2005. The Dedmans sold ClubCorp in 2006 but kept Pinehurst as their baby, and after a successful restoration it made history by holding the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks in 2014. The men’s tournament went 10 years without returning, but with its new anchor site designation Pinehurst has successfully cemented its place at the forefront of American golf.

That build, though, came with pushback. Starting in 1991 and carrying on through 2000, as much as 55 percent (more than 3,000) of Pinehurst members contributed to legal funds for a lawsuit claiming the club brought in too many outsiders, denied them agreed upon access to tee times and improperly raised membership fees.

In 1990, ClubCorp sold its stake in nearby Pinewild Country Club to Japanese cookie maker Tohato Inc. with a deal for Tohato to pay ClubCorp to manage it. By 1996, Tohato sued ClubCorp because it felt hoodwinked, claiming the latter used Pinewild as inexpensive overflow courses for guests paying to stay next door at Pinehurst Resort. Tohato officials also claimed ClubCorp tried to purposely mismanage the property to force Tohato to want out and sell back to Pinehurst at a fraction of the original cost.


Things turned dramatic when Tohato hired the celebrity private detective William Graham to help with the case. Graham was an eccentric who appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “20/20” and was in talks with studios to produce a movie about his life. Graham pursued ClubCorp so hard they ultimately sued him for libel. And in the meantime Graham caused the Dedmans constant headaches.

In 1997, Graham sent out faxes across the country detailing 33 alleged “civil and criminal violations” against ClubCorp. He was quoted in South Carolina’s The State newspaper calling Dedman Sr. and his company, “a bunch of backstabbing, corkscrewing, double-dealing, lying, cheating, stealing (SOBs).”

All of this ClubCorp of course used in its libel case, which was folded into a seven-figure settlement paid by Tohato to ClubCorp. But those faxes led to major outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times investigating and publishing large pieces painting ClubCorp in an unflattering light. In the two years before the U.S. Open, at least seven of the company’s 70 country clubs were involved in lawsuits against ClubCorp filed by either members homeowners or a co-owner, per the New York Times. (ClubCorp eventually pulled out of its management arrangement at Pinewild, telling members in a letter it had “been placed in a position that makes it impossible to do our job.”)

So when Pinehurst hosted the 1999 U.S. Open — what was supposed to be Dedman Sr.’s crowning achievement — he instead sat with Sports Illustrated for a profile on how such a beloved figure was suddenly disliked by so many around the club.

“Just because we have a great reputation, people think that if they make a few grandiose statements we’ll cave in and pay their blackmail,” Dedman Sr. told SI. “We can’t afford to do that. We have had people go to obnoxious lengths to try to get a settlement. We have zero tolerance for that behavior. Our philosophy, to quote one of our former Presidents, is millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”


When Pinehurst hosted the 1994 U.S. Senior Open the No. 2 course barely resembled Donald Ross’ original design. It’s been since restored. (Gary Newkirk / Allsport via Getty Images)

But the public relations issues for Pinehurst really took over when the battles started with the townspeople. In 1995, a Pinehurst resident named Edmund Dietrich wrote a letter to The Pilot, the local paper in Southern Pines, saying tips given to resort employees were being withheld. Dietrich was sued for libel, though ClubCorp later dropped it. Then, ClubCorp reportedly threatened local businesses for using Pinehurst in their names, citing trademark infringement. It claimed Pinehurst was only the name of the resort and facilities, and that the town was the “Village of Pinehurst.”

ClubCorp lawyer Stephen Trattner famously said: “I don’t believe there is a Pinehurst, N.C. You may call it that, and the mail may get there that way, (but) you don’t live in Pinehurst. You live in the Village of Pinehurst.”

Dedman Sr. had created an environment in which members and guests were treated like royalty, with staff remembering their favorite cocktails and making sure to use their name at least four times a trip, but the people who lived in the town — a town founded to help people get healthy — felt alienated. Pinehurst Business Guild became the Village of Pinehurst Business Guild. Companies like Pinehurst Interiors had to change their name to Village Design Group, which still stands today.

If Dedman Sr. was the charming personality who could light up a room, Bob Jr. was the hard-nosed, forward-thinking CEO who, his father admitted, was a more organized executive. But if at the time Dedman Jr. was labeled as a bottom line executive pushing for growth, he’s also been the one overseeing its public rehabilitation.



U.S. Open Big Board: After Scottie Scheffler, how does the field stack up at Pinehurst?


Another funny thing about progress is success tends to mend most wounds. Pinehurst has become more and more of a powerhouse in the world of golf, bringing millions and millions of tourism dollars to the area each year. Dedman Jr. founded a local Boys & Girls Club chapter in Pinehurst in 1999 and now receives local hospitality awards. While the mayor back in 1999 was calling his father arrogant and a bully, former Pinehurst mayor Nancy Roy Fiorillo (2011-2019) raved about all the good Dedman Jr. does and how great Pinehurst Resort is for the town.

“Bob Dedman Jr. is Doing All the Good He Can” was the headline of a story in The Pilot last week. Similar pieces have been written by Global Golf Post and PineStraw Magazine. Maybe some of it is from the ClubCorp sale — it’s far easier to be magnanimous proprietors when you’re running one iconic club and not a conglomerate fighting for every little margin.

What’s clear is Pinehurst is now thriving. More than 12 million Americans have traveled to play golf each of the past two years, up about 20 percent over the historical average, according to the National Golf Foundation. Pinehurst attracts a large chunk of that.

Every resort is trying catch up to it, a place that can boast both incredible history with everyone from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods having played here, mixed with constant innovation and new courses. The restoration of No. 2 by the architect team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw took the already famous course to new heights by removing rough and leaving tough, sandy areas off the fairways. Gil Hanse’s redesign of No. 4 has boosted it in significance. All of the top designers of past and present have contributed to one course or another.

And the resort keeps pushing itself off the course, turning an abandoned steam plant into a brewery and refurbishing the clubhouse with lush new digs for members. They expanded the Deuce Grill, restored one inn and renovated another. All of that on top of the USGA’s new Golf House Pinehurst and the World Golf Hall of Fame, which returned from St. Augustine, Fla.


The Dedmans tried to ensure that it was always about Pinehurst but always making it better, and they’ve continued to push and push to a point it seems unstoppable going forward. And now, the conversation of the week is entirely about the course and how great it will be to watch. Not the issues of the past.

They couldn’t pin the Dedmans to the wall.

(Top photo: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour via Getty Images)

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