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.

 

Nadal’s Opponents Should Have Taken the Advice of Pete Sampras

Let’s get this out of the way: Rafael Nadal is a beast. He’s unthinkably and historically superior to the field on clay. So what I’m about to say isn’t intended to take anything away from him.

The other guys are capitulating too readily. I’m not the first to express this view. I’m told that Mats Wilander was saying the same in his commentary at Roland Garros this week, and others have said it before. But it’s not just a whiny gripe. There’s some logic behind it.

Every generation has a male baseline warrior who plays that game better than everyone else. He just beats you into the ground, especially over best-of-five sets. Nadal is obviously this generation’s baseline master and the greatest backcourt player of all time. (Though for a few years Djokovic took the title from Nadal or shared it with him). Last generation it was Andre Agassi, at least the years he was at his peak. Before that Ivan Lendl. And before that Bjorn Borg. The point is that if you’re a baseline basher — even an excellent one — and that’s your game, you’re going to lose to Nadal/Agassi/Lendl/Borg. You’re playing the same game they do but you just do it a tad worse. So you’re going to lose 90 percent of the time.

A couple of examples: Peak Agassi, which I would define as 1994-95 and 1999-2003. He was certainly beatable back then, but not really if you were playing the same style he was. Pete Sampras could take him out because he rushed the net. Even Mark Philippoussis was able to beat Agassi at Wimbledon in 2003 because he played an attacking game. Of course, Sampras and Philippoussis (or Richard Krajicek or Goran Ivanisevic) didn’t have to go out of their comfort zones to attack. That was their game. Today the closest thing we have is Mischa Zverev, but he’s just not good enough. Agassi had to contend with Becker, Edberg and Rafter, in addition to the players I’ve mentioned above. There were a lot more net-rushing players a couple of decades ago, and they were good at it.

In the late 1970s, Guillermo Vilas was an amazing baseliner, an all-time great. But Borg was a bit better at the exact same game. Not a lot. But being a little bit better at the same thing translates into one of the two guys winning all the time. At one point during his 1976-80 peak, Borg won 11 straight matches against Vilas, who himself was beating every other baseliner. (I’m not counting Jimmy Connors, who came to the net enough to give both Borg and Vilas more complicated matchup issues.) Borg was brutal against players who had similar games. He was 16-0 against Harold Solomon, 13-0 against Eddie Dibbs and 6-1 against Wotjek Fibak. Everything they did he could do better. There was little point to even playing those matches.

I once saw a comment from Pete Sampras that I will very loosely paraphrase. Here’s the gist: Sampras was saying that when he played the Spaniards (think Bruguera, Moya, Corretja, Mantilla and Costa), even if it wasn’t on clay, he would try to prevent any point from going more than about eight shots, especially early in the match. It wasn’t necessarily about that particular point.

His view was that these guys would get in a groove the more they hit the ball, both within a particular rally and in the match more broadly. They hit the 12th ball of a rally better than the eighth. And then the next point they play even better, because they’re getting grooved. And a half-hour later they’re even stronger. It’s like they get better with practice, and you give them practice by letting them hit lots of balls. So when a rally got to about the sixth or eighth shot, Sampras would do something to try to end it — go for an ultra-aggressive groundstroke or chip and charge. In other words, he could feel the narrative of the match getting away from him if the individual points went on for too long. For Sampras, it was about controlling that narrative, the rhythm of the match. Make the points reflect the kind of match you want. It appears that not enough players today think in those terms. Definitely not against Nadal.

There are basically three ways to ensure that points don’t go on for very long: Go for a winner; go to the net; hit a drop shot to bring your opponent to the net. That’s what Nadal’s opponents should be doing once the point gets about six shots in. Does that mean they would beat him on clay if they did that? No. But it increases the chances, at least slightly. I mean, if a guy plays his normal baseline game against Nadal on clay, there’s about a 98 percent chance he loses. That’s Nadal’s winning percentage at Roland Garros. So if there’s a 98 percent chance you’re going to lose, why play your normal baseline game? We don’t know what Nadal’s winning percentage would be if players tried different tactics, because the sample size of people actually doing that is minuscule. But I would guess it would have to go down to at least 85 percent. I know it can’t get much higher than 98 percent.

Today we have very few top players with big, attacking games. Federer is about as aggressive as we have in the top echelon, but his is more of a surgical strike rather than a big game. And yeah, he’s not playing the French Open. Not only do we not have the equivalent of a Philippoussis-Krajicek-Ivanisevic type, but we also don’t have a Becker or a Rafter or an Edberg — great players who liked coming into the net. Dominic Thiem may or may not charge the net in Sunday’s final, but if he does, he’ll be hoping for the best up there. He’d rather not have to do it. On the subtler side, I’ve seen glimpses of players trying a drop-shot strategy against Nadal, with some success. In Barcelona this year, Martin Klizan was using the dropper a lot against Nadal in the second set, and served at 5-4 before losing. The drop shot has worked very well for Djokovic at times against Nadal, as long ago as the first time he beat him, on a hard court in Miami in 2007.

Catherine Whitaker on The Tennis Podcast this week mentioned that she had talked to Maximilian Marterer before his fourth-round match against Nadal, and Marterer essentially said he would play his normal baseline game and hope for the best. Whitaker’s response was much like mine: Seriously? That’s not going to work.

I can sort of, maybe, a little, understand why the players shy away from trying a different strategy. For one, most of them are pretty lame at the net. They don’t want to be there, and it shows. Two, it gets demoralizing to watch passing shots fly by you. When that happens, players shy away from the net. On drop-shotting, players may fear, perhaps legitimately, that if they overuse the drop shot Nadal will start reading it and pounce all over them. And finally, since Nadal crushes everyone on clay, playing your normal game and losing 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (as Marterer the martyr did), seems like a dignified result. If you try to play a game you’re not comfortable with, you could lose by an even worse score and feel foolish.

Still, these guys need to break out of their comfort zone and do something different. Empty the toolbox. Throw the kitchen sink at him. Stare him down after doing a kamikaze rush to the net. Get him out of his comfort zone. You might lose anyway, but at least you’ve actually given it an honest try. Otherwise it’s just capitulation disguised as a dignified loss.

Serena, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic Have Done Us a Disservice

OK, the headline is a bit clickbaity. The point is, those four players have made winning Slams look too easy. As a result, tennis fans and journalists have lost proper perspective.

Twenty Slams for Federer. The record before he broke it was 14. So Federer has 43 percent more Slams than the previous record-holder, Pete Sampras. From Wimbledon 2003 through the 2007 U.S. Open, Federer won 12 of the 18 Slams played. Serena won 11 Slams from 2012 to 2016. That’s more than two per year over five years. Djokovic won four in a row. Nadal has won one of the Slams 10 freaking times.

Those numbers and those players are not normal. They are historical anomalies. But those four have taken so much of the hardware over the past 15 years that if you’ve only been watching tennis for 15 years you would reasonably think that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s not.

In the old days, way back in the 20th Century, Jim Courier was a big deal for winning four Slams in two years. Agassi, Becker and Edberg were considered all-time greats for winning eight, six and six Slams respectively. Six Slams is an awesome career. But it has somehow been downgraded to be merely the distance between Federer and Sampras, who had previously been considered the greatest male player ever.

So when Serena drops out of the French because of injury, and Djokovic loses to a scrub in the quarters, we really shouldn’t be that surprised. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Not every Slam, but yeah, a couple times a year even the greatest ever are supposed to succumb to injury or journeymen. That’s what’s normal. Slams are hard to win. You can’t just roll out of bed and lift the trophy — even if those four make it look that way.

We’re only shocked when these players don’t win because they have spoiled us with their abnormal greatness.   

Too Much Ado About Court Placement

Over the next few days I will be registering my curmudgeonly complaints about things related to the French Open, in no particular order.

This one is a complaint about a complaint. There’s a bit of noise, at least on tennis Twitter, about where certain players or matches are placed. OK, I understand the prestige issue. It can be seen as a snub that Roland Garros is putting Simona Halep, the No. 1 seeded woman, on Court 18. I get that.

But no one is actually hurt by stupid court placement, other than possibly fans attending the tournament. That is, if you are there and you can’t see Halep because the stands at Court 18 are full. Other than that, it has no impact on anybody. The playing surface is the same for both players. The dimensions inside the lines are the same whether it’s Chatrier or Court 18. I know the space behind the baseline varies from court to court, but it’s the same for both players. It’s not like getting a shorter left-field fence in baseball depending on what stadium you’re in.

It’s also the same for fans at home. TV networks can show the match on Court 18 if they want. The tennis looks the same to TV viewers regardless of what court it is. (I will concede that if it’s a court without cameras that’s a different story.)

Back to the prestige point: If fans of women’s tennis (and I am one of them) feel dissed because Halep is on Court 18, fair enough. But far more people are watching the tournament on TV than in person. So the much, much, much bigger issue is whether TV is giving women enough time. If I’m there in person and I want to see Halep, I probably can. It doesn’t matter what court she’s on. TV has a far bigger role than court placement in the dissing of women’s tennis. That’s where the complaints should be directed.

One counter-example from a fan’s perspective: I went to Roland Garros last year from Monday to Wednesday of the first week. Del Potro was playing his first-round match against Guido Pella on a small outside court, I believe Court 6. Despite his No. 29 seeding at the time, Delpo is one of the most popular players in the world. We all know that. So putting him on Court 6 created a logistical nightmare. The line of fans waiting to get in during the entire match snaked around and blocked the pedestrian thoroughfare in that area, creating human gridlock all around. It was a mess. The dude’s a rock star; you can’t put him on Court 6. (I got in, but had to wait about 40 minutes.)

So that decision was almost certainly a mistake for fans at the event. But not for the players or TV viewers. Delpo and Pella could play on Court 6 just like anywhere else. TV cameras can get on that court (though perhaps not at the usual angle), so fans at home could see the match if the TV networks wanted to show it.

I’m not saying court placement is totally irrelevant, but it’s just not as big a deal as tennis fanatics are making it out to be. TV coverage is the much bigger deal.

Seedings Should Pass the Smell Test (Or How Not to Seed Querrey No. 1 on EuroRed Clay)

In 1988, a Swede named Kent Carlsson ended the year ranked No. 6. The five guys ahead of him were Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. Jimmy Connors was No. 7. Other than Carlsson, all of them finished their careers with six to eight singles Slams. Carlsson had a 50-6 record that year (just a tad worse than Federer’s 52-5 in 2017). All of those matches were on clay. If Carlsson had decided to play the 1989 Australian Open, he almost certainly would have been seeded fifth (Agassi didn’t enter), even though he hadn’t played on a hard court in the previous 23 months.

I was thinking of Carlsson — but in a bizarro world kind of way — when I saw that Sam Querrey, No. 13 in the ATP rankings, was seeded first at this week’s tournament in Geneva. Then I looked at the draw. Of the 27 other players in it, I probably wouldn’t pick Querrey to beat any more than six of them in a match on European red clay. I imagine that most knowledgeable tennis fans would have made Querrey a slight underdog against his first-round opponent, Guido Pella. Sure enough, Querrey lost 7-6 in the third, a rather predictable outcome.

This happened as a debate was simmering over how much flexibility tournaments should have in seeding players. The discussion centers around whether the French Open would seed Serena Williams (it didn’t), who has played only two tournaments this year after returning from childbirth; and to a lesser extent Victoria Azarenka, who has played only four tournaments due to her child custody dispute.

One question around Williams is how long the WTA should protect a player’s ranking after she comes back from having a baby, and whether the protected ranking should also include a protected seeding, which it currently does not. I’ll leave aside for now the specific return-from-pregnancy question, and instead discuss the ranking-seeding relationship more broadly — because this issue is also about how much flexibility tournaments should have when seeding players.

My view is that seedings, first and foremost, need to pass the smell test. There should be criteria, but criteria with sensibility built in. Querrey is a good player. He has earned his No. 13 ranking — generally. But he should not be seeded No. 1 in a European red clay tournament. Any decent tennis fan would look at the Geneva seedings and think, “C’mon, that doesn’t make sense.”

So how can that be fixed? First, we need to start ditching some long-standing assumptions. It is understood in the World of Tennis that a ranking number corresponds directly to a seeding number. It’s the way things have been for a long time, so players, fans and journalists have come to accept it. The thinking is that if you’re ranked, say, No. 7, you’ve earned the right to be seeded at least No. 7 at Roland Garros, even if no knowledgeable tennis follower thinks you are anywhere near the seventh-most likely winner of the tournament. I would argue that the assumption should be different. The assumption should be that if you’re No. 7 and you don’t have good clay results, the tournament can knock you down several spots.

I’m not saying there should be no relationship between ranking and seeding. Of course there should be. But the tie should be much less direct than it is now. Perhaps rankings should account for about two-thirds of a seeding criteria, with the other third coming from a mix of surface aptitude and recent results. Tournaments should have to justify their position. Show their work, so to speak.

Wimbledon has a formula that allows straying slightly from the rankings, but I’m suggesting even more flexibility. Other than Wimbledon, seeding is a rules-based, or bright-line system. You could also have a principles-based system with no hard rules, which would be too loosey-goosey. Or you could have a hybrid, which is what I’m advocating.

Look at the NBA draft lottery. The team with the worst record doesn’t necessarily get the top draft choice. It’s a weighted lottery system. I know this isn’t a great analogy, but I use it to make the point that you can change the expectations of the participants. Before the 1980s, the teams drafted in precise reverse order of win-loss record. Similar to today’s tennis seedings, NBA teams back then knew their exact draft position as soon as the regular season was over. It was a direct relationship. But the system was changed almost three decades ago. Now people are used to the weighted system and barely remember how it was done before.

Over time, you can change the expectations of players. Today, if a player goes into the French Open ranked, say, 29th, he knows he will be among the top 32 seeds. But there shouldn’t be any such guarantee. A player ranked 29th going into the French should think: “Well, that’s probably good enough to be seeded, but it’s not a sure thing.” There should probably be a cut-off at which you know you’ll be seeded. Maybe around 20th. So we just need to change the expectations. If you want to ensure a seeding, you need to go into the Slam ranked in the top 20. Anything lower and you can’t be sure. When they go to 16 seeds, I’d say top 10 should assure you a seeding. But not anything below that.

I reject the notion that a seeding should be a reward for a good ranking. Querrey has not earned being seeded No. 1 at a European red clay tournament. His ranking isn’t based on his play on red clay. On hard courts and grass he has earned a seeding that reflects his ranking. On grass, perhaps even better. If Wimbledon bumps him up from No. 13, that would make sense. But on red clay in Geneva, he should be dropped several notches.

I should reiterate that if tournaments stray from the rankings, they should have to show how they came to that decision. Rome can’t give Fabio Fognini a top-four seed just because they want to help the local. Wimbledon can’t shoot Andy Murray to the top of the seedings. But if Roland Garros wants to seed No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut ahead of Querrey, it should be able to. It can be justified based on surface. And most important, it would make sense.