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.


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.