Bad Medvedev, Average Osaka, Serena’s Analysis, Five-Setters & Tony Trabert

Due to popular demand — or more precisely, someone named Leena today and someone named Colin several months ago — we’re going to weigh in on the Australian Open. Yeah, like no one else has already done that.

Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Djokovic was good, but Medvedev was a lot more bad. There’s a tendency in the post-match commentariat to want to praise the champ rather than trash the loser. That’s understandable and nice. Everyone should hail Djokovic’s accomplishment. Going nine for nine in AO finals would be unfathomable if Nadal hadn’t already done even better at Roland Garros. Nothing we say here diminishes Djokovic’s greatness. But Djokovic needed to play well for about 10 minutes, when the first set got tight. The last two sets were way more about Medvedev stinking than Djokovic playing well. We know, people love to say that one person playing well makes the other play poorly. But remember, you get to serve half the games. You have some control over the match. Medvedev lost serve seven times in 14 service games. Even given that Djokovic is probably the best returner ever in the men’s game, a top five player shouldn’t be losing anywhere near half his service games to anyone — not even Djokovic — on a fast hard court. I would guess that both Medvedev and Djokovic would agree with that. It was a bad, bad performance by Medvedev. People are reluctant to say that after a final, but if that were a quarterfinal, the consensus narrative would have been that Medvedev was just plain awful.
  • The problem with five-setters is the aftermath. We don’t favor eliminating best-of-five. But it has to be recognized that Bo5 produces many disappointing matches late in tournaments. We would have bet the entire ranch and crypto vault that Tsitsipas would lose to Medvedev. Everything. That’s because Tsitsipas had just come off a brutal four-hour slugfest against Nadal. No matter what Tsitsipas says, there was no way he was going to have the energy to hang with Medvedev after that. Nadal takes your legs out from under you. When you beat Nadal 7-5 in the fifth on a hard court, it had better be the final, because you ain’t going to have much left in the tank after that.
  • Osaka’s average game is good enough to win more than 90% of her hardcourt matches. For her to lose on a hard court, she needs to play badly. Her current play reminds us of peak Federer on hard courts from late 2003 to 2006. He took the occasional loss, but only if he played very poorly. An average performance was good enough to beat anyone. Osaka doesn’t have that talent cushion on clay and grass, but on a hard court her safe game is better than anyone else’s roll-the-dice game.
  • Serena’s analysis. For her entire career, Serena Williams has made her matches about herself. It’s the way she and Venus were taught growing up, and that approach has served them darn well. Pete Sampras did the same thing. Their view has been that if they play their regular game, they win. It’s a helpful defense mechanism that’s been wired into them from a young age. It’s comforting and useful to think something is totally in your control. Sometimes Serena will go the other way, and say her opponent played out of her mind, the best the girl ever played. But that’s just a different way of saying the same thing: For me to lose, something really weird has to happen. The vast majority of the time that analysis has been correct. It has never been as untrue as it was in the Osaka match. Serena said afterward that the loss was all about her mistakes, but it wasn’t. She had three more unforced errors than Osaka. It seemed every rally had the same pattern — Osaka moving Serena around and then hitting the ball into a wide-open court. If they had started each point by dropping the ball and hitting it, rather than with a serve, the score would have been even more one-sided. Serena has a good tennis mind. She knows that.
  • It’s about the tennis. In this COVID era, there’s been much debate about the impact of crowds or lack of crowds on the players. But we see the results of the three Slams played since the pandemic started and will make the case that the results seem pretty much exactly what one would have expected in non-COVID times. On the women’s side, two of the three Slams were won by the best player, Osaka. In the third, a gifted clay-court artiste, Iga Swiatek, beat the Australian Open champ, Sonia Kenin, in the final. On the men’s side, Nadal won the French and Djokovic won the Australian — the perennial result. The U.S. Open was won by Dominic Thiem, the guy who was, at least at the time, the best player outside the Big Two or Three. Nadal and Federer didn’t even play the tournament, and the third, Djokovic, got disqualified. One can really overthink this stuff. Nadal likes crowds. Djokovic does sometimes. So-and-so benefits from the crowds. Someone else doesn’t. But it’s really about the tennis. The best players keep winning.
  • Ash Barty and the break. Full disclosure: We like Ash Barty and would like to have seen her do better. There was much discussion of the injury timeout taken by her opponent, Karolina Muchova, when all looked lost. But this kind of discussion gets tiresome. The injury timeouts are allowed under the rules. Would it be better if no one took them? Sure. Would it be better if there were no bathroom breaks? Sure. But they’re allowed. And as long as they’re allowed, players need to be prepared for such “surprise” breaks. It’s not a surprise if it happens all the time. And players could actually adapt their training to be better-prepared for such breaks. We don’t know exactly what went wrong with Barty, and to her credit, she didn’t seem to make a big deal of the injury timeout. But anyone who has played juniors or college tennis has seen way worse gamesmanship. As long as this stuff is legal, let’s move on and stop the hand-wringing.
  • Homage to Tony Trabert. ESPN did a nice but short tribute to Tony Trabert during the men’s final. Trabert died this month at age 90, and was a key figure in tennis history. Spend some time Googling if you don’t know about him. In addition to being a great player and a Davis Cup captain, Trabert was an important tennis commentator in the U.S. during the tennis boom of the 1970s. He was, along with Bud Collins, the voice of tennis for so many people of a certain age. And his role in the tennis boom — at a time when there was much less tennis on TV — is greatly under-appreciated. 

On L’Affaire Djokovic, Precedent and Waking Up With Fleas

Random cranky tennis fan thoughts about the Djokovic mess, fan reaction and the media/social media coverage:

Precedent doesn’t matter. One of most annoying things about the reaction to Djokovic’s default is all the talk about other infamous tennis episodes, as if they were relevant. And usually it has something to do with Serena. The Grand Slam Rulebook isn’t a court of law, and there’s no stare decicis. It’s exhausting to hear all the examples of offenses from the past that were either worse or not as bad as what Djokovic did. Yes, in the history of tennis, people have done more and been punished less, or done less and been punished equally or more. So the eff what? John McEnroe committed all sorts of offenses more than 30 years ago that probably weren’t adequately punished. What does that have to do with Djokovic? The tournament referee had to make a decision based on what Djokovic did, what happened to the lineswoman and what the rule book says. That’s it. He wasn’t basing his decision on what Serena did in the 2009 U.S. Open, or Guillermo Coria in the 2003 French Open, and he’s not supposed to abide by some ruling from the past that might have been wrong.

Show the rule. Though I’m generally a fan of ESPN’s tennis coverage, the network should have shown viewers the rule long before it did. There was a lot of talk and opining for what seemed like 20-30 minutes before they discussed what the rule says. What good is anyone’s opinion on whether Djokovic should have been defaulted unless that opinion is based on what the rule states?

Enough with the crazed fandom. As it was all going on, I received an email from a friend saying I must be happy because I’m generally a Federer fan. My response was: No, I’m pissed off. I like Federer, but I’m a tennis fan more than I’m a fan of any player. I’ve been a tennis fanatic since 1973, long before any current players were even born. I had sat down Sunday to watch a tennis match. I wanted to see if Djokovic could figure out Carreno Busta and get his game in gear. I was curious if he would rebound from that shoulder injury (which by the way has been almost completely forgotten). Frankly, I wanted to see him play Medvedev. This might be the most naive thing ever written, but it would be nice if more people could put aside their moronic fandoms and just root for good tennis.

It wasn’t a fluke event. It’s not rare for Djokovic to hit balls in anger. He did it once earlier in the set, in fact, and James Blake astutely commented on ESPN that it could get him in trouble. Djokovic has been asked about it before, for example during this 2016 press conference, and treated the question and questioner derisively. If you’re playing on a court lined with linespeople and ballkids, and you occasionally fling balls around in anger, it’s only a matter of time before you hit someone. Rather than it being a fluke, I think you can make a case that it’s surprising this didn’t happen sooner. What’s surprising is that Djokovic does it at all. He’s so meticulous about his preparation and so detail-oriented, it’s hard to believe that he has been so willing to take the risk of default.

Waking up with fleas. The lineswoman has received death threats online. Some of the threats may have come from hardcore Djokovic fans, but some almost surely came from those who had bet on Djokovic to win the match or the entire tournament. It’s just a little reminder that if tennis wants to encourage gambling on the sport, it’s willingly inviting these people into its house.

Hey Djokovic, Shut Up and Hit Service Returns

Let’s get a couple of personal feelings out of the way:

  1. I’ve always liked Novak Djokovic. It dates to when I saw him play several of his matches at his breakthrough tournament, the 2007 Miami Masters. I was taken by the way he dismantled Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, paid homage to Monica Seles and played with a smiley-face vibration dampener.
  2. I have no doubt that he is well-intentioned. I also have no doubt that when you are as famous as he is and have a platform as large as his, being well-intentioned is not nearly enough.

For ages, there have been discussions about whether and when athletes should weigh in on other matters, like politics. Stick to sports, the naysayers say. But there’s a big difference between a high-profile athlete giving a political opinion and making statements on public health issues. If LeBron James criticizes President Trump, 40.9% of the U.S. population might not like it, but no one gets sick. LeBron’s comments don’t give anyone COVID-19, and certainly not diphtheria or polio.

But Novak Djokovic opining on vaccinations, supporting pseudo-science (he’s been doing that for years) and flouting even Serbia’s social distancing guidelines can get people sick. It already has. I, for example, could toss out some public health pronouncements in this blog, but the six people reading it couldn’t give a rat’s ass what I think and wouldn’t act on it. Djokovic, however, is one of the most famous athletes in the world and the most popular person in Serbia. If he gives bad advice, even really bad advice, someone will follow it. That’s why he has a huge responsibility with what he says and the example he sets — always, but especially during a global pandemic.

I think Djokovic is a bright, curious guy. But he takes short-cuts that he would never take in his training or preparation as a tennis player. If you have a platform as large as his, and you want to speak publicly about vaccination, you should read some light history. Even something in chart form might do the trick, though a period piece could be more interesting. Does he know that smallpox killed an estimated 2 million people in 1967 and was eradicated just over a dozen years later? If it weren’t for vaccines, tennis players would pull out of tournaments because of German measles, not groin injuries.

People are complicated, and Djokovic is no exception. I read his book Serve to Win, and a lot of it makes sense. Drink plenty of water in the morning. Be disciplined about sleep. Eat more protein later in the day and carbs earlier in the day. But then he marvels that a “researcher” made water turn slightly green by swearing at it and communicating negative vibes in its direction. And Djokovic rattles on about how putting a piece of bread or a cell phone against your stomach for a moment significantly weakens your arm muscles.

What are you supposed to think when you read all of that? Is Djokovic intelligent or an idiot? I think the answer is both. He’s generally intelligent, but he’s an idiot on the important stuff. Everyone, including him, would be better off if he just stuck to playing tennis.

 

Australian Open Takeaway: Why Reaching 21 Slams Just Got Tougher

Is it now more likely, or less likely, that a man will reach 21 slams than it was before the AO started? Logic would tell you it’s more likely, since Novak Djokovic just got a bit closer, winning his 17th. We disagree. Here’s why:

The main challenge to Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer isn’t Dominic Thiem or any particular individual. It’s “the field.” Especially in the best-of-five format, it’s the field that has the best chance of wearing them down before Djokovic can win four more Slams, Nadal two more or Federer even one. And the field improved more during the Australian Open than the Big Three did.

Thiem got closer than ever to winning a Slam, and one could make a decent argument that it was the field, not Djokovic, that ultimately beat him. Thiem was softened up by grueling matches against Nadal and Alexander Zverev. It’s reasonable to wonder whether he would have beaten Djokovic if he had fresher legs in the fifth set and was able to run around his backhand to hit more inside-out forehands. That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality of the best-of-five format.

Granted, Thiem had to go through Nadal, but Djokovic was fresher in the final because he took care of business better than Thiem did in the previous rounds. We love best-of-five matches because they provide the greatest moments in men’s tennis.  However, it’s undeniable that five-setters, and even long four-setters, compromise players later in slams, and many matches end up being determined by who has the least-empty tank.

How does this affect the Big Three going forward? Increasingly, as they age, their tanks can be depleted before a slam final because the second tier is getting better. Thiem clearly has to be reckoned with at any slam, except perhaps Wimbledon. If he’s ranked No. 3 or No. 4, he could take out either Djokovic or Nadal in a slam semifinal. Zverev just got a huge confidence boost by reaching the AO semifinals, and should now become increasingly difficult to beat at slams. Tsitsipas, Medvedev and also Rublev will probably come out of Australia motivated to get better.

So let’s look at some scenarios for the next slam, Roland Garros. Let’s say Nadal faces Zverev (or Tsitsipas or Medvedev) in the quarterfinals. Would one of those three beat Nadal? Not likely. But they could definitely make him work long and hard to advance —  much harder than Nadal has had to work in past RG quarterfinals. Then if a beaten-up Nadal plays Thiem in the semis, especially if Thiem goes into the match fresher than Nadal, Thiem has a good chance of winning. You can substitute Nadal in this scenario for Djokovic, and then it’s Djokovic who is defeated or at least exhausted before reaching the semis or finals. We simply don’t accept the conventional wisdom that Nadal will win several more French Opens. Let’s say, using our scenario above, that he doesn’t win it this year. He’d then be trying to reclaim the crown in 2021 as a 35-year-old. Sure, it’s possible he could do it, but far from likely. By then the field will have caught up to him. 

Federer, for his part, is already getting beaten by the field. Yeah, it was Djokovic who got him at Wimbledon last year, and Djokovic would have been a clear favorite at this year’s AO even if Federer were fully fit. But it was the field (i.e., wear and tear) that made the AO semi a non-match. Federer’s last two U.S. Open defeats were essentially due to wear and tear/weather conditions, which is to be expected of someone in his late 30s. Federer could win one more slam, but it’s unlikely. So many, many things would have to break his way. 

Another challenge that’s sometimes forgotten in the slam record chase — and is impossible to quantify — is nerves. You can see Nadal feeling more stress late in slams as he approaches Federer’s total. He overcame those nerves in last year’s U.S. Open final, but they clearly influenced his performance in the Thiem AO quarterfinal. As Djokovic draws closer, he won’t be immune to the pressure, either. 

Lots of tennis fans ask who will be the man to supplant the Big Three. But that’s not the right question. The question is when will the field be able to collectively stop the Big Three. We think the answer is probably this year.

Obviously these are just guesses: We think the chances of either Nadal or Djokovic getting to 20 slams is about 55-60%. We’ll put the chances that any of the Big Three gets to 21 slams at a tad less than 50%. And we’ll put the odds of anyone getting to 22 slams at one-in-three.  

A Snobbish Curmudgeon Takes On the U.S. Open

The first time I went to the U.S. Open, in 1983, I bought tickets for the semis and finals of both men’s and women’s singles at what I believe was a Ticketmaster counter at Hecht’s department store in Tysons Corner, Virginia. I don’t remember the cost, but it was more affordable than it is today, even in relative terms. I was in college and went that year with my mother.

Since then, I’ve been back, usually a couple of days each time, in 1988, ‘89, (only once or twice in the ‘90s when I was living outside the U.S.), and every year except one since 2007. This year I went for the first day of qualies and the first two days of the main draw. I went with my wife and my son, who’s already out of college.

Before I launch into a predictable curmudgeon’s rant about a few things I don’t like about the U.S. Open, I should say that overall, the fan experience is much better now than it was 36 years ago. What was cool back then was the intimacy, and competing with far fewer fans for seats on outside courts. Security wasn’t as big a deal in the 80s, so you could see Wimbledon champ Stefan Edberg and his coach, Tony Pickard, walk right by you unaccompanied — no burly guard shouting, “Clear the way!”

There was no Internet or apps, so the only way to know scores on other courts was to leave a court and go to the main plaza with the scoreboards. This was a huge advantage for tennis nerds like me. If you studied the order of play and knew the grounds well, you could get a sense of what was going from the sound coming from nearby courts. A certain kind of roar punctuated by a series of “Vamos Gaby” meant that Sabatini just broke serve and we’d better hustle over to the Grandstand. A relatively quiet court meant a serve-fest, probably not worth leaving the court you were on at the time. Repeated sustained applause typically meant an engaging duel with long rallies.

One of the things I liked best in the ‘80s was that you could get very close to the courts. I remember hearing Mary Jo Fernandez muttering to herself in Spanish. Fun stuff. But to the credit of the U.S. Open, you can still get very close. I could practically stand on the edge of Court 6 for Pella and Carreno Busta on the first Monday this year. And watching players practice is probably easier now than it was three decades ago. So that’s all good. Here are a few things I don’t like:

–Music that blares loud enough to be heard on court during play. Monfils and Ramos-Vinolas on Court 10 had to compete with the raucous tunes from the plaza. At the expense of sounding my age: Turn that crap off and let them play tennis!

–Arthur Ashe Stadium. It pains me that such an abomination was named for such a noble man. I have trouble getting my head around the notion that someone thought it was a good idea to build a tennis stadium that large. As much as that venue is criticized, it’s not criticized enough.

–The new Armstrong Stadium is much better for watching tennis, but the traffic flow of people is way too disorganized. Lines of people are going every which way, and no one seems to know how to actually get out of there.

–The greeters near the entrance gates spread fake news. I entered for the Monday night session at 6:15pm, and one greeter was telling everyone walking by that there was no tennis until 7pm. In fact, at that moment, there was tennis on about 10 courts that any fan on the grounds could watch. I knew better, but not everyone did.

–One thing is exactly the same as it was back in the ‘80s. I know it sounds snobbish, and it is, but: The sad truth is that the U.S. Open crowd is almost surely the least knowledgeable tennis audience of any decent-sized tournament. (The greeters aren’t helping.) This is obviously an unprovable assertion, but my own anecdotal experience supports it. Back in ‘88 and ‘89, I attended the Open with a friend and we came up with the idea of a sort of roving Tennis Truth Patrol. We thought we’d go around and correct all the conversational misinformation we overheard. But we couldn’t, because it would take too long and we had lives and stuff.

Sample:

Fan: That’s Darren Cahill, the guy who beat Becker at Wimbledon last year.

Me: No, that was Peter Doohan.

Fan: That’s Peter Doohan (pointing to player)?

Me: No, that’s Darren Cahill. It was Doohan who beat Becker at Wimbledon last year.

Fan: No, it was Cahill. 

Enjoy the last few rounds, everyone!

 

On Rooting for Gauff, Kids and Tracy Austin

A pair of tweets I saw Friday about Coco Gauff gave me two flashbacks, one to the 1977 U.S. Open, and another to the 1994 French Open — and both involving Tracy Austin.

Memories can get distorted over time, but I remember walking into a Northern Virginia indoor tennis facility where I hung out as a teen one day during the ‘77 Open, and people there were gathered around a TV watching 14-year-old Austin play Virginia Ruzici in the round of 16. They weren’t the only ones. As the New York Times reported, President Jimmy Carter saw the match and called Austin afterward to congratulate her. In the previous round, Austin had crushed the No. 4 seed, Sue Barker. As a result, the hype was intense, even way before 24-hour TV, internet or social media.

One moment during the Ruzici match stuck somewhere in my memory, and Friday’s tweets (by Hannah Wilks and Courtney Nguyen) jarred it loose. We were all rooting for Austin. So were the fans at Forest Hills (the last year the tournament was played there). A woman near me watching the match on TV said something like, “I can’t imagine anyone is rooting for Ruzici.” And everyone there agreed.

All of that came back to me on Friday. I can understand, sort of, why we pull for adolescents to beat adults. There’s the feeling of watching history, and everyone likes to be in on history. On Friday I was showing family members a brief video I shot with my phone while in the stands for Gauff’s first WTA main draw win, against Caty McNally at this year’s Miami Open. My way of saying I knew her before she was famous.

But Gauff’s victim on Friday, Polona Hercog, is 28 years old, ranked 60th in the world, and has been toiling away on the WTA tour for more than a decade. Her Grand Slam record is almost entirely filled with R128s and R64s. She’s never reached the Round of 16, and now everyone is delighted that a child stopped her from getting there while achieving it herself for the first of what will surely be dozens of times. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to root for Hercog? Gauff has time. Lots of it. She may be playing for titles for the next quarter-century. Think about it: Gauff could quite plausibly be in the second week of Wimbledon in 2041.

But then I had my second flashback. I was helping the Associated Press cover the French Open in ‘94, and Austin was there as part of a comeback — two years after being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her brilliant record as a teen, including winning the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981, assured her a place in Newport. Injuries cut her career short. She tried comebacks, one of which was stopped when she was in a serious auto accident in 1989.

In 1993-94 she tried again, playing the ‘94 Australian Open and then the French, even though she hadn’t played a Slam in 11 years. I remember attending a press conference she did in a small interview room at Roland Garros, I believe before her first-round match — which turned out to be her last in a Slam. Austin’s appearance at the French that year didn’t get as much attention as one might have expected. Then again, she had been out of the sport for so long that many in the media had never even seen her play, and she didn’t last long enough at the tournament to create a buzz.

Two U.S. Opens and a No. 1 ranking are a great career. Thankfully, when Tracy Austin was a teen she wasn’t thinking she had many years to win big tournaments. She went ahead and won them when she could.

Even with that in mind, I’ll be pulling for Simona Halep against Gauff on Monday, because Gauff probably has many years to win Slams. Probably. But you never know. She should try to win them as soon as she can.

Goldilocks, Osaka, Tsitsipas and Overthinking. Hitting Venus When She’s Down. No Guarantees for Zverev. Embracing the GOAT Debate.

A handful of random thoughts after Day One of Wimbledon:

Osaka and Tsitsipas Need to Find Goldilocks

There’s a Goldilocks just-right range of on-court thinking that’s optimal for playing tennis well under pressure. You want to think some, because you might need to strategize your way out of a tough match or unfavorable rally patterns. The great players either instinctively know or over time figure out how much thinking is needed, but even they sometimes fall victim to overthought. If you ponder too much, especially on a grand stage like Wimbledon, you’re toast. It was pretty clear through his comments late in his career that Andre Agassi thought too much about the limited opportunities he had left after he got to about 33 or 34 years old. It’s hard to play your best if you’re thinking: Oh crap, this might be my last good chance to win this tournament.

Naomi Osaka and Stefanos Tsitsipas are seriously overthinking. With emphasis on seriously. Part of the reason they’re so appealing to fans and the tennis media is that they’re thoughtful, interesting people. If you read Tsitsipas’ comments after his loss Monday, it’s clear he was thinking way too much about everything. Osaka appears to be an instinctive player, but from her own words it’s evident she spends a lot of time contemplating her state of happiness or unhappiness. That’s a reasonable thing to do, normal for a 21-year-old. But it’s not conducive to great tennis. Both of them need to figure out how to unplug their brains more often. I suspect they will, but they both might be prone to occasional bouts of overthinking throughout their careers.

Today We Start Feeling Sorry for Zverev

Under the closely related category of dealing with expectations, there’s Alexander “Don’t Call Me Sascha” Zverev. We have just entered a new stage with Zverev. Sympathy. That isn’t something a lot of people have felt for him before. Though generally amiable, he can come off as a bit arrogant, and his view that any question he has answered previously is a stupid one doesn’t endear him to, well, anyone.

But he talked after his loss to Jiri Vesely about the distractions stemming from the legal battle with his agent, or former agent, Patricio Apey. And while there may be a bit of excuse-making or a defense mechanism going on there, it’s probably fair to say the mess hasn’t helped his preparation. Also doesn’t help that, to borrow Lleyton Hewitt’s 2005 description of Gilles Muller, that Vesely bloke can play. Especially on grass.

My take on Zverev has been that when he gets tight, he retreats way behind the baseline, starts pushing the ball, and relinquishes the talent advantage he has over most players. He turns a lot of matches that he starts with, say, a 70% chance of winning into a 50-50 venture. With most top players it’s not always easy to see how nervousness manifests itself. With Zverev it’s obvious. He becomes a pusher. Separately, I thought it was interesting that Andrei Medvedev, who knows the Zverevs pretty well, recently suggested that Zverev might not be taking it all seriously enough. Who knows?

We’ll see if the eternal optimism that analysts seem to have regarding Zverev continues after this loss. I have for a couple of years now been yelling at computer screens and podcasts when I hear commentators say it’s absolutely certain Zverev will win many Slams. No, it’s not. They don’t give these things away. They’re really hard to win. Well, hard for everyone not named Serena, Roger, Rafa or Novak. And while one player like Zverev is letting an opportunity slip, another is getting better. (Probably Auger Aliassime) If Zverev doesn’t figure out how to overcome his issues in big matches, he won’t win any Slams. Do I think he’ll win at least one in his career? Yes, but I think it’s like a 55% thing. It’s nowhere near certain and it never was. (For comparison’s sake, I would give Tsitsipas probably a 75% chance, and Auger Aliassime around 80%.

By the way, a little random name-dropping here. Apey’s grandfather sometimes strung my rackets in Key Biscayne, Florida, in the late 1980s. I believe the father was coaching Gabriela Sabatini at the time. The elder was getting up there in years, and strung rackets at a hotel’s shack of a pro shop. If I recall correctly, he was well-meaning but lacked customer service charm. One day I go to pick up my Yonex, and the conversation goes like this:

What are you doing here? I told you I’d have it ready on Tuesday.

It is Tuesday.

Oh. 

Stop Telling Me to Stop Debating the GOAT

Some tennis commentators I respect say we should cease with the male GOAT debate and just enjoy the Land O’ Plenty in which we live. To that I say: Poppycock.

I’ll clarify by saying I don’t like the uncivil GOAT debates I see on Twitter. I’m not sure whether uncivil idiots are attracted to Twitter or whether Twitter turns people into uncivil idiots, but Twitter isn’t the place to have a civil, intelligent, fact-based debate.

Still, we shouldn’t shy away from a polite discussion, or delay it until the principals are retired. Baseball, especially in New York, never had better days than when guys in bars argued over who was better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle — or Duke Snider. (The answer is Mays.) The barroom banter reflected the sport’s popularity and turned non-fans into fans.

A decade later, the NBA became more mainstream than ever before thanks to the Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell debate. (Here I feel sympathy for Chamberlain. Basketball is a team sport, and Russell had far better teammates.) Fifteen years later, when the NBA was suffering through the doldrums of the ‘70s, the league would have loved a return to the Chamberlain-Russell days.

All of tennis should lean into the GOAT debate. Seven or so years from now, it will be much harder to get people to care whether Auger Aliassime (six slams) is greater than Tsitsipas (five slams). Don’t just enjoy Federer, Nadal and Djokovic while they’re still around. Argue about them while you still care. Just be nice about it.

Venus Losing Was No Big Surprise

Sure, this is easy to say now, but is there anyone else out there like me who isn’t very surprised Venus Williams lost to Coco Gauff? I can’t prove it, but if someone had asked me before the match, I would’ve given Venus no more than a 55-60% chance of winning. Meaning I thought it was more likely than not she would win, but not much more likely.

There’s what I would call a Venus wishful thinking phenomenon among tennis fans and media. We want her to do well. I do, too. She’s an elder stateswoman (though she doesn’t actually say much), and has been around long enough that people are nostalgic for when she was a great player. Everyone always wants to think that if she gets on a roll, she could be playing in the final days of the tournament. Sure, it’s possible, but an early-round loss seemed more likely. She’s ranked 44th, one spot above Ekaterina Alexandrova and one below Saisai Zheng. Which is fine, but not even remotely the Venus of the aughts. Furthermore, it was likely she would enter the match a bit tight, feeling pisher pressure (i.e., the pressure of playing a tyke). This was not the match Venus wanted. 

Sorry, we’d all like to see Venus do well, but this wasn’t a shocker and we shouldn’t act like it was.

Nadal Stunk Epically; Penciling in Osaka; Murray Played With His Food

Some rando Australian Open thoughts:

  • We know it’s classier to say that Djokovic was flawless, and to give all the credit to the victor. Yes, at times he was terrific. Winners flew off his racket, and he hit some impressive shots on the full stretch. But Nadal really sucked. We’ve been watching him since 2004, and that was one of the very worst matches he’s played at a Slam. There are two people on the tennis court in a singles match. If Djokovic is hitting superbly, you have to ask from what position is he hitting those superb shots. Most of them were right in his wheelhouse.
  • It reminded us of watching top players practice. Sometimes you’ll see a pro working on getting into a groove with a hitting partner. The partner is putting the balls mainly in a comfortable position. The idea is to work on consistency, to just kind of groove the strokes. Your garden variety pro tennis player can hit 75 or 100 balls consecutively in the court if he or she wants to. We can’t quantify this precisely, but it looked like perhaps 70 percent of Nadal’s shots were of that let-you-get-grooved variety, and 30 percent were legit shots that put some strain on Djokovic. We don’t think Nadal played poorly because Djokovic forced him to. We believe that Djokovic played great because Nadal allowed him to. One analysis we heard today that we agreed with was from the Tennis Podcast.
  • Also keep in mind that Nadal gets to serve half the games, so he has a lot of control over those. Nadal won 51 percent of his first-serve points. We’ll defer to data dudes like Jeff Sackmann and Carl Bialik, but that sounds extremely low for a pro tennis match. We’d argue that winning eight games in a three-set match is overachieving if you’re losing half your first-serve points.
  • This will sound very cynical, but it wouldn’t surprise us if someone in Nadal’s camp comes out in the next few days and says Rafa is resting for the next month to recover from X. Of course, he might not have planned to play in February, anyway. But the post-tournament injury claim from the losing Slam finalist’s camp has become pretty routine.
  • All of a sudden it seems the women’s tour has gone from anybody can win to Naomi Osaka wins everything. We’re fine with that. If you’re looking for a hot take to counter the Osaka media lovefest, you’ve come to wrong place. Leaving aside her endearing personality, we were blown away by both her competitive grit and her athleticism. If last year’s U.S. Open was Osaka hitting a purple patch a la Federer at 2003 Wimbledon, Osaka at the Aussie was all grind, guts and desire. In addition, her transformation in the last 18 months from great ball striker to nimble-footed athlete has been amazing. She hasn’t gotten enough credit for her movement. We don’t want to pile on the expectations and predict that she’ll win double-digit Slams. But what seems clear is that her normal level (at least at Slams) should keep her near the top of the game for a long time. We’ll see how well she takes to the clay, but right now it looks like she could roll out of bed and make at least the semis of most Slams.
  • We’ve written about it before, but we’re waiting for a blowup of this whole thing of chair umpires telling players whether an “out” call affected their shot. It’s going to happen at a crucial moment of a huge match. And it will get ugly.
  • We don’t have much to add to all the kind words for Andy Murray. People like him because he’s real. He gets extra credit for sticking up for the women’s game. But that’s not part of any agenda. He’s just stating what seems to him to be common sense because he’s a guy with common sense. Beyond the good-bloke stuff, we have a couple of thoughts about Murray’s career…
  • In the GOAT or accomplishments debate, we bump Murray up well above where three Slams would normally put someone. That’s because of his eight Slam runner-up performances. We cannot figure out why Slam finals don’t get more credit in GOAT debates. We often hear analysts going from Slam wins straight to the Olympics or Davis Cup. Ay, caramba! If winning the finals of a Slam is the most important metric in the GOAT debate, then surely making the finals has to be worth a fair amount. It’s simply illogical to figure that in a GOAT debate you will give all the points to one person and zero points combined to the other 127 participants. It’s nonsense. We can debate the criteria, but if a Slam win is worth, say, 10 points in the debate, reaching the final should be worth perhaps six, or at least five. Right?
  • Murray left several Slams on the table because of lapses in concentration early or midway through the tournament. That is, he won those matches but didn’t finish them as quickly as he should have, and it caught up with him at the tail end of the Slam. One thing that Federer and Nadal have done better than their rivals is be efficient early in Slams. Don’t play with your food. Finish it and move on to the next meal. Djokovic has gotten better at this in recent years, but earlier in his career he had the same problem as Murray. Below are just a few examples of Murray unnecessarily taking the scenic route. There surely are others. You could argue that some of this is cherry picking, but still, as a fan, it seemed like Murray often emptied his fuel tank before the final weekend.

Australian Open

2011

Up two sets to love against Dolgopolov in the quarters. Loses the third in a tiebreak, wins in four. Then beats Ferrer in a long four-setter, 7-6 in the fourth, in the semis. Won nine games in the final against Djokovic.

2014

Was up 6-1, 6-2 to lucky loser Stephane Robert in the fourth round but loses the third set in a tiebreak. Wins in four but then loses in the quarters to Federer in four.

2016

Went five with Raonic in the semis, then lost in straights to Djokovic in the final.

French Open

2016

Went five sets in each of his first two rounds. First against Stepanek and second against wild card Mathias “Not Bjorn” Bourgue.

Wimbledon

2008

Five-setter with Gasquet in the round of 16 left him with little in the tank for Nadal in the quarters.

US Open

2008

Three four-setters and a five-setter before the final.

Muster, Cuba and the Old Davis Cup

At first we thought it was a watch. You know how if you move your wrist a bit to align with the sun you can make the reflection off your watch shine onto someone’s face? That’s what we figured a guy in the stands was doing to Thomas Muster. Maybe that was it, or maybe it was a mirror, as Muster claimed. Or both.

It was Davis Cup, Brazil vs. Austria, Sept. 21, 1996, at the Hotel Transamerica in Sao Paulo. Turned out to be one of the craziest weekends in Davis Cup history. Just this morning, I was getting nostalgic about a couple of my own Davis Cup spectator experiences. Was watching Marin Cilic close out the last final of its kind. Or at least that’s what people are calling it. I wouldn’t be surprised if tennis ends up going back to a slimmed-down version of this traditional format in five or 10 years. The new plan seems to have trouble written all over it.

At the time of that 1996 tie, my wife and I were living in Sao Paulo, and she was about 35 weeks pregnant with our first child. Just don’t go into early labor before the reverse singles, I thought. The tie was played on outdoor hard courts. Brazil normally would choose clay against any difficult opponent. But Muster, then No. 3 in the world, was a monster on the dirt and forced the Brazilians to leave their comfort zone for a faster surface. Ironically, one of them, Gustavo Kuerten, won the first of his three French Opens less than nine months later. And unfortunately, he never got to play Muster in singles that Davis Cup weekend. (By the way, the Davis Cup website says the tie was played indoors. That’s incorrect. In fact, Muster’s complaint was about sunlight being reflected into his eyes.)

Muster crushed Fernando Meligeni in the first rubber to give Austria the lead. In the second match, Kuerten was on the precipice against Markus Hipfl, down two sets to love before winning the next two sets in tiebreaks and the fifth 6-1. He brought the crowd along for the ride, waving his arms in a circular motion after what seemed like every point he won. That set up the Saturday doubles. Muster and doubles exclusivist Udo Plamberger against Kuerten and Jaime Oncins. (Oncins is something of a legend in our household. Once when watching him on TV my wife noticed that he was wearing his shirt buttoned up unusually high on his neck. Maybe it was cold out, or he was covering up a rash. Who knows? My wife called him “el mejor de la clase” in Spanish, literally meaning best in the class, but she meant it facetiously, like goody two shoes. Now, more than 20 years later, whenever we see someone unnecessarily wearing a shirt buttoned to the top, we chuckle and say “Jaime Oncins.”)

The doubles went into a fifth set. Muster had been complaining for a while about crowd distractions, but it built to a boil early in the final set. He told the chair umpire that someone was shining a light in his eyes. We were seated on the opposite end from where Muster said the light was coming. I recall thinking that something was going on, but I couldn’t be sure how frequent it was. Muster ended up walking off the court 2-0 down in the fifth, forfeiting the doubles match. He said he had received shouted death threats. The Austrians apparently wanted to play Sunday, but without spectators. That request was denied, so Austria refused to play and Brazil was declared the winner. Austria later appealed unsuccessfully. Within days of the tie I wrote a letter to Brian Tobin, then president of the ITF, describing what I did and didn’t see, only because I figured I was one of very few impartial observers among those present. In sum, my impression was that someone probably was messing with Muster’s ability to see, but I wasn’t close enough to hear any death threats. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I remember being pleasantly surprised when Tobin wrote back thanking me for my letter.

My other favorite Davis Cup experience was in 1994, when I was living in Argentina but on a weekend visit to Montevideo to watch an Uruguay-Cuba tie. Especially back then, Cuba didn’t let many of its citizens travel the world freely. So a Cuba away tie could be a lonely experience for its players. During the tie at the Carrasco Lawn Tennis Club, the Uruguayan fans were predictably loud. The Cubans had about a dozen supporters, whom I presume were mainly from the Cuban Embassy in Montevideo. They made an impressive amount of noise for a group so small. One of them, a middle-aged woman, continually shrieked the names of the Cuban players. PEEEEEE-NOOOOOOO for Juan-Antonio Pino-Perez. And TAB-AAAAA-RESSS for Mario Tabares.

The Cubans were way outmatched, winning only one set in the five rubbers. If anyone ever questions my dedication as a tennis fan, I point out that I paid to attend two dead rubbers of a Cuba-Uruguay tie. Back then the Uruguayans were very solid. Diego Perez and Marcelo Filippini were both top 30 players during their careers. Perez by then was past his prime, but Filippini made the French Open quarters five years later.

In an “only in Miami” story, I ended up meeting Tabares — albeit briefly — years later at the Key Biscayne/Miami Masters. He had gotten out of Cuba and was teaching tennis in Miami. A friend of mine who hit with him occasionally introduced us. Tabares was still playing well. Was ITF world men’s singles champion in the 40-and-over division in 2010.

The new Davis Cup format may not totally end the kind of fun fan experiences I had, but it sure looks like they will be less frequent. The main reason for changing Davis Cup was to get marquee players to participate more often. Now several of the top men say they won’t participate. So that’s not promising. And it’s fair to question whether all the money ($3 billion) the organizers used to persuade the national tennis federations to approve the change will materialize. Mark me down as very skeptical. At least I have some nice memories.

Tennis Needs Todd Woodbridge’s Help

To state the obvious, Marco Cecchinato getting to the semis of the French Open was awkward for tennis. If you’re not familiar with the story, Cecchinato was formally alleged to have participated in match-fixing in 2015. He was hit with a suspension that was eventually lifted because prosecutors for the Italian Tennis Federation missed a deadline in the process. To the best of my understanding, he has not been exonerated, at least not publicly.

Ben Rothenberg, a freelance journalist who writes about tennis for the New York Times and others, wrote about the match-fixing case for the Times a couple of days ago and put out a Twitter thread explaining it — because, as he noted, information on the case wasn’t widely understood. Rothenberg’s article and thread were pretty straight-forward, putting the established facts out there. Todd Woodbridge, the former doubles great who does tennis commentary for Australia’s Seven Network and is a very visible presence during the Australian Open, replied to Rothenberg on Twitter with the following:

One consistency in your reporting of our sport is how you manage to focus on the negative. Very rarely do you see the brighter side….

Let me say, I don’t know Todd Woodbridge. I don’t know Ben Rothenberg. Or Marco Cecchinato. I don’t have a dog in this fight except that I’m a tennis fan. A lot of the reaction I saw on Twitter was in defense of Rothenberg. “Stupid” and “juvenile” were among the terms used to criticize Woodbridge.

I believe that Woodbridge’s response was irresponsible. Let’s take a step back. The premise of any tennis match, any sports competition, is that the participants are trying to win. That is the premise. Everything a tennis journalist or a commentator like Woodbridge does — analyzing a player’s chances of winning, their tactics, their fitness — is based on the notion that the players want to win. I think at times there’s hesitancy to thoroughly discuss match-fixing because the implication is overwhelming, the notion that some players aren’t even trying to win.

If some players aren’t trying, we’re all wasting our time watching tennis and talking about it. Right? I’m not suggesting that match-fixing happens on a broad scale, or at big tournaments. I seriously doubt that. The evidence so far points to it occurring at the Challenger level or below. But if fans start thinking that matches even might be fixed, the sport is in trouble. Fans will stop caring.

Match-fixing is about the integrity and the credibility of the sport. You cannot mess with that. And Woodbridge should understand that as well as anyone. He was a great player, and now he is paid to talk about tennis. (I assume he’s paid.) So he can’t be less interested in the integrity and credibility of the sport than some random, unknown fan like me. People in his position need to be the most vigilant about protecting the integrity of the sport. People in his position need to speak out about the importance of preventing and punishing match-fixing.

Now, to be fair, Woodbridge wasn’t defending Cecchinato. But by using the article on match-fixing to criticize Rothenberg for being negative, he diminished the importance of the issue, whether he intended to or not. I imagine that was not his intention. But context matters. If you reply to an article or Twitter thread on match-fixing to complain about a reporter’s negativity, it sure comes off as not caring much about the match-fixing allegations.

Perhaps Woodbridge doesn’t understand that journalists aren’t supposed to promote the sport. They’re supposed to cover it — warts, roses and all. Woodbridge may think his job is to help the sport, and in some ways it is. But you don’t help the sport doing what he did. You hurt it. There is no middle ground or acceptable nuanced position on match-fixing. If you care about tennis, you cannot muddy the waters on an issue that goes to the core of the sport’s credibility.