I did want to see if Maria Sharapova could win an important WTA tournament and I did want to see if Jelena Jankovic has rediscovered the formula that once took her to a U.S. Open final.
But it was more important Sunday to see how ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, whose husband is an executive with the agency that represents Sharapova, would perform in what seems to me to be one massive media conflict of interest.
I’ve previously written extensively about ESPN using Fernandez to interview Roger Federer, who is personally represented by Fernandez’s spouse, and I thought the network had gotten the message after other media mavens also issued criticism.
But there was Fernandez again on Sunday working the telecast of the Cincinnati final. It leaves you wondering how ESPN, which has pretensions of being a great international sports media outlet, could allow this sort of obvious conflict to take place, which calls its integrity into question.
Let’s get one thing clear before we go any further. Fernandez is a fine person who was committed to representing the U.S. in international tennis events. And it’s not her fault that she’s assigned to matches involving players who are represented by the company that helps pay the family bills.
But she should have recused herself. She shouldn’t be commenting on Federer, Sharapova or any other player who is in the IMG stable. It diminishes the credibility of ESPN’s tennis coverage and leaves fans wondering if they can trust any announcers doing tennis on television.
In all fairness, Fernandez had a few mildly critical remarks to make about Sharapova. At 3-3 in the second set, Sharapova had a gimme backhand at the net and whacked it wide. Both Fernandez and commentator Pam Shriver pointed out there was no need to go for so much.
But there also was a controversy in the seventh game of the opening set, in which Mary Joe defended Sharapova and took a rip at Jankovic.
Jankovic was about to deliver a second serve when Sharapova put up her racket, an indication that she wasn’t ready — even though she was squared up at the baseline to receive. Jankovic went to the chair umpire to complain.
The chair umpire sided with Sharapova and, if this had been a men’s match, there would have been a great deal of analysis of this controversy from ESPN. There was virtually nothing, however, from Fernandez, thhough she did make a couple of remarks.
She said Sharapova had “a ritual” she goes through before serving and she wasn’t trying any gamesmanship here. Then, inexplicably, she commented that Jankovic had once been accused of quick-serving another player.
Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not, but by attacking Jankovic she illustrated exactly why she shouldn’t be involved in telecasts of players represented by IMG. Even if that was an honest defense of Sharapova and an honest criticism of Jankovic, if you know Sharapova is a client of her husband’s company, you’re left wondering about her motives.
There should be no room in tennis for conflicts of interest — real or perceived. Period.