Tennis Biases Take Shape Early (Agassi, Federer, Nadal version)

In a previous blog entry on Monica Seles, I mentioned that I saw her in the stands watching Andre Agassi play Aaron Krickstein during the 1988 Lipton tournament on Key Biscayne. Agassi, then 17, was up two sets to love and had a match point in the fourth before retiring one game into the fifth set. Apparently he had some sort of injury, but the feeling I had from where I was sitting was that Agassi didn’t want to gut it out after blowing a big lead, and quitting seemed a more attractive option than giving Krickstein the satisfaction of a straight-up victory. Of course, I couldn’t get into Agassi’s head, so I don’t know.

A few months later, in July 1988, I was watching a U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup tie on TV. Agassi was absolutely grooving on his groundstrokes and crushing Martin Jaite, a likeable player who was simply overmatched. With Jaite serving at 0-4 in the third set and down two sets to none, Agassi caught a Jaite serve with his hand, giving the Argentine the point and the game. It was a show-up-the-opponent move unlike any I’ve seen before or since, regardless of whether Agassi intended it that way.

A couple months after that, Agassi reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, losing to Ivan Lendl. Even Lendl thought Agassi wasn’t interested in fighting it out. “He was giving up, hitting shots he knew weren’t going in,” Lendl said. (I often think of on-court 1988 Agassi when watching Nick Kyrgios.)

By then I believed that I had enough of a sample size to decide I wasn’t an Agassi fan. And then this: Several months later, in February 1989, I finagled a press credential to a U.S.-Paraguay Davis Cup match in Fort Myers, Florida. Paraguay was going through a bloody coup that same weekend, and it was unclear exactly what was going on in Asuncion. Agassi, asked if he felt any sympathy for the Paraguayan players, answered in the negative and added something to the effect of wanting to stomp out the Paraguayans like bugs. He owned it, too, saying, “I’m making fun of Paraguay.” (If a player did that today — and I can’t think of any who would — it would cause an uproar on social media. In pre-Internet 1988, it was barely noticed.)

So I was all in for Jim Courier and Pete Sampras when they developed rivalries with Agassi. Even 15 years later, long after Agassi became a philanthropist who took the sport seriously and respected his opponents, I was still rooting against him most of the time. Eventually, I came to admire Agassi, but never totally embraced him. Perhaps it’s ironic that Agassi changed, but I really didn’t.

I often think about my view of Agassi when considering the biases that fans and tennis journalists have in favor of or against certain players. We process what we see, and then make judgments based on our own values and personal tastes. I don’t mind flashy players, but I like to know that whoever I’m rooting for is trying really hard. It doesn’t have to be the extremely visible Lleyton Hewitt-Michael Chang-Jimmy Connors-Rafael Nadal-kind of effort. But I can’t feel like I want it more than the player does.

My bias for Roger Federer also started early. The first time I saw him in person was probably the 2001 Key Biscayne tournament. I was living about a mile from the stadium court at the time. Federer made the quarterfinals, only to get thrashed by Pat Rafter, who would lose an epic Wimbledon final a few months later. Over the next year Federer’s game blossomed, and he reached the Miami final in 2002, taking out then-No. 1 Hewitt before losing to Agassi.

By then I was already a fan of Federer’s game. Then when he annihilated the field at Wimbledon in 2003 (losing only one set, to Mardy Fish, in his seven matches), I remember thinking: I don’t know if he’s the best tennis player, but he definitely plays the best tennis.

The die was cast, and then solidified in 2004 and 2005. I was in the Key Biscayne stadium when Federer lost to 17-year-old Nadal, and it sort of annoyed me that Nadal got a win over a Federer who was clearly still feeling the effects of having been ill with a fever and vomiting a couple of days earlier. I was also in the stadium a year later, when Federer won an epic five-setter against Nadal in the 2005 final. Though I admired the way Nadal played, I wasn’t a fan because of something I saw up close that year.

During his round of 16 match against Ivan Ljubicic on the Grandstand court, I was sitting just feet away from Toni Nadal, who was coaching his nephew continuously and not trying to hide it. (I’m aware that the Nadals speak to each other in Mallorquin. I speak Spanish, and some words are similar, though not the same. He was clearly giving Nadal directions. For example, words sounding like “dret” or “diret,” indicating either “right” or “forehand,” which is “derecha” in Spanish.) Not the worst thing in the world, but I didn’t dig it.

I will also admit that one reason I like Federer goes back to the 2004-2007 period. I was a business columnist and reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, but I would pitch in to help cover the Key Biscayne tournament on off days or after work at night. In either ‘05 or ‘06, I asked Federer a question or two during press conferences. It wasn’t a lot. I wouldn’t have expected him to remember me.

Days later when we walked past each other in the tunnel that connects the locker room/interview areas to the stadium court, he nodded at me in acknowledgment. Not a big deal. But it struck me as unnecessarily polite. Keep in mind that at the time he was basically untouchable in any match that wasn’t against Nadal on clay. Tennis God says hello (sort of) to me. Why wouldn’t I root for him? I suspect that a lot of tennis journalists have been influenced by similarly pleasant experiences with Federer. The guy comes off as a mensch. (To be sure, for all I know Nadal is equally courteous.)

So I started rooting for Federer because I was drawn to him relatively early in his career, and didn’t have a great initial impression of Nadal. But if it weren’t for that, it would be more logical for me to root for Nadal. It’s easier to associate with Nadal’s game. He seems to have to try harder. As great as he is, it’s so obvious how hard he’s working.

Of course Federer is working hard, but it’s not so easy to see. You can admire Federer’s game, but you can’t associate with it. Who actually plays like that, gliding from place to place? How could anybody, except maybe Mikhail Baryshnikov or Nadia Comaneci, relate to how Federer plays? The athletes in U.S. team sports that most remind me of Federer are Derek Jeter and Tom Brady — people who give you the impression they have barely had a bad day or uncomfortable moment in their lives. Why would you root for someone like that?

In Federer’s case, it’s probably because he plays the way people would like to play. Federer is the tennis equivalent of aspirational marketing. He’s the attractive people in beer and car commercials who always seem to be having a good time while surrounded by cool people with flat stomachs.

In Federer’s case, even though he keeps winning, he became more sympathetic after 2004-08, the period when it seemed he lost one meaningful match per year — against Nadal at the French Open. His public crying probably helps, too.

But for me, it all stems from some early impressions. The biases start early and don’t change easily.

Forget Head-to-Head in Any GOAT-ish Debate

In my most recent blog entry I proposed criteria for a data-driven GOAT discussion. Except that it’s not for GOAT, but for MAP, the Most Accomplished Player. And beyond that, it’s helpful to have a set of criteria to compare any two players. Was Ivan Lendl more accomplished than Jimmy Connors? Who was better, Becker or Edberg? For years I had a running debate with a friend over who had the superior career, Michael Chang or Yefgeny Kafelnikov. There needs to be criteria.

As I mentioned, I would leave head-to-head records out of any such debate. I have a few reasons, which I’m sure will be seen by some as the rationalizations of a Federer apologist. But they’re not. The main reason I would leave out H2H is because it’s redundant. It’s double-counting. I explained this in a January 2011 comment to Jon Wertheim’s Sports Illustrated Tennis Mailbag, just before that year’s Australian Open. Here’s what I wrote:

As Nadal-Federer maybe, hopefully, move toward another Slam final, can we drop this silly debate over how much or not to factor in their head-to-head when considering their places in tennis history? It’s unnecessary. Since most of us look first at Slam wins in the G.O.A.T. discussion, and Nadal and Federer have played eight times in Slams (with Nadal winning six, including five finals), their head-to-head is already factored in. This is neither a pro-Federer nor pro-Nadal argument. It’s just that their matches have had a huge impact on how many Slams they’ve won, so no separate debate is needed. In other words, Federer’s losing record against Nadal hurts his legacy not because he has a losing record against his main rival (would we really care if all their matches were played in Doha or Memphis?); it hurts his legacy because it has cost him several Slams. On the other side, Nadal’s ability to beat Federer has been essential to his success in Slams. Their head-to-head record is organic to their places in history, not separate from it.

Jon’s response was: That’s way too logical. You have no future as pontificator in the comments section.

I use the H2H argument against anyone who contends that Federer’s 4-0 record against Nadal last year made him the best male player of 2017. Federer’s wins against Nadal are already factored heavily into their 2017 records. Because of those victories, Federer won the Australian Open and at least two, if not three, Masters events. (They played in the finals of Miami and Shanghai, but in the Round of 16 at Indian Wells.) If Nadal had won a couple of those matches, say the Aussie and one of the MS finals, he would have been No. 1 in a landslide. Because all of the matches were in Slams or MS events and three were in finals, those wins were a huge part of Federer’s record last year. Without them, there’s not even a discussion that he could have been the best player of 2017.

And so the same is true for their careers. Nadal is 9-3 against Federer in Slams — 6-3 in finals and 3-0 in semis. In other words, their matchups have decided at least nine Slams and as many as 12. The impact of these matches on tennis history, their careers, their Slam totals and their legacies has been enormous. The GOAT debate is a debate precisely because Nadal has done so well against Federer in Slams. Give Federer say, two more of those matches, and he has 22 Slams against Nadal’s 14. The point is, it would be redundant to set up a separate category for H2H. It’s taken care of because of the importance of their matches.

 

A few other reasons:

  • H2H isn’t an organic objective or achievement. Top players go into Wimbledon, or any other tournament, trying to win it. They’re not going in trying to improve their head-to-head against X player. And you can only play who’s in front of you.

 

  • H2H can reward players for losing too early. Federer got clobbered by Nadal in the French Open four straight years, three in the finals and once in the semis. That’s because Federer was good enough to reach those later rounds, but not good enough to beat Nadal. Federer, however, was in the finals of seven (!) non-French Slams before Nadal had reached the final of any non-French Slam. In other words, Federer didn’t have the chance to beat Nadal in any of those 2003-05 non-French Slams — when he was a better hard- and grass-court player than the young Nadal — because Nadal was losing too early for them to play each other. You can’t penalize someone if his rival loses before they get to play.

 

  • No two players’ careers are symmetrical. That is, rivals don’t start and finish at the same time. For example, H2H hurts players who stay on the tour a long time and rewards those who retire early. Connors’ and McEnroe’s records against a lot of players suffered because they decided to play longer than most. The Borg-McEnroe H2H is a study in unfairness on both sides. It ended up 7-7. Borg is almost three years older than McEnroe. If Borg hadn’t retired so young, McEnroe almost surely would have had the better H2H. On the other hand, you could also argue that the H2H wasn’t better for Borg because they never played on clay. If McEnroe had played more on clay and reached more clay finals, he surely would’ve taken some beatdowns from Borg. And yes, Borg was the more accomplished player even with a much shorter career.

 

  • If the younger of two players isn’t ready for prime time when the older player is highly ranked, the two might not play each other, which hurts the H2H of the elder. For example, Federer is 22-23 against Djokovic. But at one point he was 13-6. If Federer hadn’t played so long, his record would be better. To be fair, Djokovic lost his first four matches to Federer in 06-07, when Djokovic was still establishing himself. But it could’ve been much worse. Federer could make a strong argument that he gets screwed, because he is five to six years older than Nadal and Djokovic and has been playing them into his mid-30s. While Nadal and Djokovic get the chance to beat Federer as he is (supposedly) aging, Federer didn’t get to rack up wins against them on the front end because they were too young. To be sure, Federer lost to Nadal in their only match in 2004, but he didn’t get to play Nadal earlier, when Federer was already a top pro and Nadal was just starting. Federer ended 2001 as No. 13, 2002 as No. 6  and 2003 as No. 2, yet he didn’t get to play Nadal or Djokovic any of those years. That’s not surprising, because the younger two simply weren’t ready yet. The point is that the player who is five to six years older assumes the risk of taking beatings when his career is winding down, but doesn’t get the relative benefits of being older earlier in this career. H2H is too easily distorted by when in their careers players play each other. It’s just too damn random.

 

  • Not all H2H is created equal. Obviously, matches in Slams matter more than matches in small tournaments. Boris Becker was 25-10 against Stefan Edberg. But Edberg won three of the four times they played in Slams, including twice during the three consecutive years they played in the Wimbledon final. Those finals were by far the most memorable of their H2Hs. Whether he would admit it or not, I imagine Becker would have traded several of his lesser wins for one of those Wimbledon finals or his five-set loss to Edberg in the 1989 French Open semifinal.   

Changing the GOAT Debate to a Data-Driven MAP Discussion

The most frustrating thing about GOAT debates, aside from the absence of civility, is the lack of definition. It’s not clear what we’re discussing. It should be about the MAP — Most Accomplished Player. It needs to be data-driven with agreed-upon criteria.

First let’s go over what shouldn’t be considered, not just for the MAP but in any discussion about whether Player X was better than Player Y. There should be no style points, no aesthetics, no impressions, no feelings. I’m talking to you, Federer fans. If we want to have a debate over who’s the most aesthetically pleasing great player ever, Federer would probably win easily. (Shout-out to Suzanne Lenglen on the women’s side, with honorable mention to Evonne Goolagong.)

Likewise, you can’t take away points for lack of style or for technical weaknesses. I know people who discredit Steffi Graf because she spent a career running around her backhand. But the way a player plays is not an end; it’s a means to an end, with the end being the results. If Graf can win 22 majors avoiding her backhand, so be it. I have a friend who thinks Serena Williams can’t be considered the greatest-ever women’s player because he says her footwork is often poor. Even if that’s true, it’s ridiculous. It’s the results that matter. If one wants to argue that she could have won 30 majors by now if her footwork were better, fine, but that’s a different debate.

There are also no points for personality, or being a credit to the game. Federer doesn’t get a bonus for being a globally admired tennis ambassador. I mean, he does, but not in a MAP debate. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors don’t get penalized for boorish behavior, and Ivan Lendl doesn’t get docked points because some people found him to be dour. I have found that when fans debate the merits of those 1970s-‘80s stars, it turns into a personality discussion. People were understandably drawn to or away from McEnroe and Connors. You’re allowed to have your favorites, but that doesn’t change the data if we are judging who was more accomplished as a tennis player.

So what should the criteria be? I haven’t tried to devise a points system, though I would love to hear suggestions. What I’ll do here is offer broad guidelines that should be accounted for in data-driven MAP criteria. First, we need to allow for different kinds of accomplishments. I see three broad categories: Dominance, consistency and longevity.

I would weigh dominance the most, followed by consistency and then longevity. But I haven’t thought through how much weight I would give each. One challenge here is that consistency can overlap with both dominance and longevity. Are Federer’s 10 straight Slam finals from 2005-2007 (which is pretty insane) an achievement of dominance or of consistency? Consistent dominance? Dominant consistency?

There’s a reason why a calendar year Grand Slam hasn’t been accomplished since 1969 on the men’s side and 1988 for the women. It’s really, really hard. That dominance accomplishment adds a lot of points on the men’s side for Rod Laver, who did it twice. You can argue that he wasn’t playing against all the best players the first time, in 1962. But he was when he won the calendar year Grand Slam seven years later, after the start of Open tennis. I would rank Novak Djokovic’s four straight Slams very high in the dominance category. But I would give even more points to Federer’s run of winning three Slams in three of the four years of 2004-07. Here’s an often-forgotten stat that’s mind-blowing: Eighteen Slams were played from 2003 Wimbledon through the 2007 U.S. Open, and Federer won 12 of them. That’s Djokovic’s entire Slam haul, and a sustained period of dominance that no one has approached before or since. I would also give a lot of points to Pete Sampras for his six straight years as year-end No. 1. That’s dominance. (And a stat I think is often overlooked because of the recency effect. Poor Pete. He retired in 2002 considered the greatest ever, and within 15 years it was widely believed that at least two, and possibly three,  players had surpassed him.)

There should be some points awarded for domination of one event, like Nadal at the French (10) and, to a lesser extent, Federer at Wimbledon (8 plus three runners-up). But there should also be points for domination of multiple majors. I remember thinking after Federer won the U.S. Open in 2008 that the same guy won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon five consecutive years, and that he could just quit and be considered the greatest ever right then. (This is for another blog entry or debate, but I think Federer weakened his legacy with the public in the post-2009 period, because a lot of people have forgotten how dominant he was before 2008. He is remembered by many younger fans as not being the best player in the world from 2010 to 2016.)

But I’m digressing. On to longevity. In this discussion, longevity means being great — not good — for a long time. I wouldn’t have given Federer a lot of credit for longevity before his three Slams starting in 2017. That’s because while he was very good from 2013-16, he wasn’t great. Almost great, but not great. His last three Slam titles have given him a huge boost in the longevity category.

As for consistency, here I’m thinking steadiness in the rankings, such as X years or consecutive years in the top 2 or 3, or X number of consecutive years winning Slams or reaching Slam finals.   

Now we have to address which criteria to use. Broadly, I would look at 1) Slams; 2) Rankings; 3) Significant non-Slams (such as World Tour Finals and Masters Series events); 4) Other titles. I’m not sure how I would weigh each, but maybe something like 45 percent Slams, 25 percent rankings, 20 percent significant non-Slams and 10 percent other tournaments.

But each of those categories needs to have its own internal system awarding a certain number of points. For example, you shouldn’t get X number of points for winning a Slam and 0 points for all other results at a Slam. The Slam conversation can be largely about number of Slam titles won, but it can’t be totally about that. You have to award some points for a final, and a small number for a semifinal. Otherwise, you’re giving no value to someone winning a Grand Slam semifinal, which is a very important match. If you asked players if they would want to win a Slam semi even if they knew they would lose in the final, they would of course say yes. You’d rather win a Slam semi than lose it. So if we do an internal Slam points system, maybe we give 100 points for winning a Slam, 50 for a final, and say 20 or so for a semi. I think I would cut it off at the semis. Yes, it’s arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. You could convince me to give some points for a Slam quarter, but it would have to be a small number, like 5. It wouldn’t be enough to make a difference.

One problem with majors is that the Australian Open wasn’t played by most of the top players for a pretty long time, basically from the early 1970s to around the mid-1980s. Connors and Borg, in particular, almost surely would have added to their Slam totals if they had played it more often. Borg played it once, as a 17-year-old. Connors played twice, winning it once. Furthermore, there wasn’t one specific year when it started to be a first-rate tournament again, adding to the difficulty of judging the Australian. Many of top Europeans returned a bit before the top Americans. 

After the Slams I would look, at least since the 1980s, at the rankings. (For the men, the computer rankings have been around since 1973, but they were suspect in the early years, when there was a huge premium of quantity over quality.) And again, within the rankings, there needs to be an internal system. I would give the most points for being year-end No. 1. I’d give some for being year-end No. 2 and No. 3. But I’d cut it off somewhere around No. 3 if the discussion is about the most accomplished players. Even if you want to stick to the GOAT nomenclature, keep in mind that the debate is about greatness, not goodness. Total weeks at number 1, or in the top 2 or 3, should also be given robust consideration. That would fall under the consistency category.

Then I would consider important non-Slams, such as the World Tour Finals and Masters events. There has to be a separate discussion about how much to weigh the year-end championships. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s a big deal, and you have the best players there. But it’s a round-robin format, played indoors in the winter, and it’s all a bit weird. Plus it’s a format that only goes back to the 1970s, so it’s unfair to use it when comparing a player of today against, say, Laver or Rosewall or anyone before them. I would weigh it similarly to how the ATP ranking points system does now — fewer points than a Slam but considerably more than a Masters series.

Another problem in this category is that the Masters events only date back to 1990, and they have been taken more seriously by the current generation than by previous ones. And even today the top players occasionally skip some of them to be fit for majors that follow shortly thereafter. Some have started skipping Cincinnati to be ready for the U.S. Open. So this category is fraught with complications. Furthermore, not all Masters events have the same value to most players. Indian Wells and Miami are viewed as more important than Shanghai. Monte Carlo isn’t mandatory. 

Then I would factor in other tournament titles and finals. Sure, these are the lifeblood of the tour and they matter, but it’s not where greatness is established. So I would give them some, but not much, consideration. Connors has the most tournament titles, and no one thinks he’s the most accomplished player of all time.

I would not consider doubles, since I view this conversation as being about the most accomplished singles players. Keep doubles separate. Besides, no great player since McEnroe has spent much energy on doubles.

I also wouldn’t use head-to-head in a MAP debate. I will explain why in a future post, but let’s leave it at that for now. Suggestions, comments and civil criticism are welcome.

Tennis Biases, Part 2 or 3 (Slams vs. The Others

I’ve written in this blog about tennis biases stemming from the need for access and about my personal bias for Monica Seles. Now let’s dive into the biases tennis journalists and fans have for either the Grand Slams or the non-major tour events.

TV commentators who parachute in for the Slams and attend few if any other events talk like the majors are the be-all and end-all of tennis. The commentators for Masters Series events sometimes opine that it’s harder to win one of those than a Slam. (More on that below.) It’s human nature to think that what you attend as a fan or cover as a journalist is important, and what you don’t see is less important.

Journalists or fans who attend smaller tournaments will typically say that those tournaments don’t get enough love, or aren’t awarded enough ranking points. They see players busting their behinds in places like Umag or Buenos Aires. It would be hard for anyone who covers those events to say they don’t matter after seeing the effort exerted. To the supporters of the tour events, a player who does well at Slams but often flames out early in smaller tournaments (think Garbine Muguruza) has a weak link on her tennis resume.

It seems the most rabid fans and commentators, such as those who are on tennis Twitter a lot or do tennis podcasts, tend to stick up for the smaller events. That’s logical. They follow the tours very closely, so to suggest that the small events aren’t essential would be saying they’re spending their time on something unimportant. And of course, it makes sense that the more intensely you follow something, the more important it is to you.

There is, perhaps, a bit of vague snobbery in this as well. If you’re the type who attends Winston-Salem or a Cuba-Uruguay Davis Cup match (brag alert: I’ve done both), it’s easy to look down on the fan who attends only the occasional U.S. Open night session. Not a perfect analogy, but if you’ve seen the Rolling Stones in a since-demolished football stadium, you’re a fan. But if you saw them at the Warner Theater when they were still great, you’re in a superior category of fandom. (I made the former, but sadly not the latter.)

Thank goodness for the denizens who talk up the small tournaments, because casual fans and parachuting Slam journalists won’t. Sticking up for minor events goes hand-in-hand with pointing out the exploits of up-and-coming or second-tier players. One of the nice things about the explosion of media options in recent years is that we have a plethora of sources for non-Grand Slammy tennis stuff. We can hear Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen touting Daria Kasatkina months before she reached the Indian Wells final, and Jeff Sackmann and Carl Bialik discussing the clay-court efficiency of Elise Mertens. Though with less exposure, today’s in-the-weeds podcasters and bloggers carry on part of the legacy of Bud Collins, who was best-known for his Wimbledon broadcasts but reveled in highlighting lesser-known players and tournaments.

Nevertheless, I admit I have to fight a personal bias toward the Slams that’s derived from a few different things. The first one is age. I became a tennis fanatic in an era long before the Internet or even cable sports networks. Most of the tennis on TV was Wimbledon, the U.S. and French Opens, and occasional recorded events like the old WCT matches. And even those were only on weekends.

When Bjorn Borg played his annual (1976-81) Wimbledon semifinal on a Friday, I had to find the sports minute on an all-news radio station and hope it would have the result. (My other go-to was the old Washington Post sports score line, which had an occasionally updated recording of results that might or might not include Wimbledon.) If you were a tennis fan in the 1970s, the Slams (except the Australian, which had fallen on hard times) were what you knew, and the winner of the most recent U.S. Open or Wimbledon was generally regarded as the world’s best player, even if the rankings said otherwise.

Another reason for my bias stems from a personal belief that we all need priorities. A work-related anecdote: At one publication, my editor, who was otherwise excellent, emphasized the importance of everything. It was essential to do big projects. Investigative stuff. But it was also important to break news. And write features. And do the little briefs. So at one point I asked what’s the priority. And the answer was “All of it.”

I found that to be an unsatisfactory response. Can you even have a lot of priorities? The pri- and pre- prefixes mean first or before. Primacy. Primero in Spanish. You can’t say everything is a priority. Something has to be most important.

To me, it makes sense for a player to unabashedly say the Slams are by far the most important events, the ones where he or she wants to peak. You can’t play your best every week, and planning to do that would be a fool’s game. That doesn’t mean you don’t try all the time. It means your schedule and your approach to training are constructed around trying to play your best at the majors. I think most of the very best players of the past 30 years have viewed it basically that way. However, I believe that the current crop of great players, including the Big 4 men, take the Masters Series events more seriously than previous generations took the second tier of tournaments. That’s a credit to the professionalism of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, et al.

I’ve heard the arguments that Masters 1000s are the toughest to win because you face higher-ranked players earlier in the tournament and don’t have a day off between matches. There are some Masters series when the winner faced a murderer’s row of opponents and one could make that case. But not usually. If Federer and others skip Cincinnati to be ready for the U.S. Open, how can Cincy be as tough to win as a major? Pete Sampras was candid about experimenting in tournaments, even Masters equivalents, to hone his game before a Slam. He was still trying to win, but he was working on his game so that it would be better a couple of weeks later.

The Masters 1000 format (which previously had other names), didn’t exist before 1990. That makes those tournaments a little less useful for historical comparisons and GOAT-ish debates. So when the TV screen has the number of Masters events Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won, remember that there’s no comparable number for Borg or Lendl, never mind Laver or Budge.

There’s a great anecdote in John Feinstein’s book Hard Courts about how Andres Gomez admitted not using his full arsenal when he played Thomas Muster in Rome (then called the Peugeot Italian Open) in 1990. Gomez said he was saving a few wrinkles for Roland Garros, where he beat Muster a few weeks later. That might be an extreme example. Again, it’s not to say Gomez, or other players, weren’t trying at Rome. It’s just that they wanted to peak at Roland Garros.

Let’s also take into account fan exposure and media attention. For the men, the Slam winners receive twice as many ranking points as Masters winners get. But does the U.S. Open get twice the TV viewers or media attention of Toronto or Cincinnati or Shanghai? Of course not. It gets many times more. Attendance for the 2017 U.S. Open was 691,143. Cincinnati, for example, typically brings in close to 200,000. I couldn’t find the relevant TV numbers, but surely the difference in TV viewers between a Masters and Slam is even greater. And if there’s a good way to measure media coverage overall, the comparison between say, the U.S. Open and any Masters would be ludicrous.

I’m not suggesting that the Slam winners receive more ranking points than they do now. If you give too many points for the Slams you undermine the other events. I would suggest, however, that players don’t get enough points for reaching the middle/late rounds of Slams. Quarters and semis of Slams should be worth more than they are now. I would venture that most players would rather reach the semis of Wimbledon (720 points) than win Shanghai (1,000).

After writing all this, it dawns on me that I need former Czech player Karel Novacek to more precisely express how I feel. Novacek beat Stefan Edberg in 1993 at the U.S. Open, which Edberg was trying to win for the third consecutive year. In his imperfect but charming English, Novacek summed it up:  “…[t]oday I beat Stefan Edberg two times champion here, defending champion, and in this tournament U.S. Open, one of the biggest ones in the world, that is really what counts and I think that is — that is when nobody can say like that he tried or maybe he didn’t sleep well, or whatever they say, the people, after these big stars losing the matches in the small tournaments, so that is what I am really happy about that I was able to beat him at the U.S. Open.”

From Paradise to a Parking Lot: A Personal Tennis Loss

One afternoon in late March 2001 (or March 2002; not sure which) my wife was walking with my son, who was then 4 (or 5), past the tennis courts of Key Colony condominium in Key Biscayne, Florida, on their way to his swimming lesson. Pete Sampras, then regarded as the greatest male player of all time, was leaving the courts after a practice session. He was warming up for a match at the Key Biscayne tournament, which is held a mile away.

My wife wanted an autograph, but didn’t have any paper. So Sampras signed the yellow foam kickboard that my son was taking to the pool. I believe we still have it in storage somewhere.

That’s just one of dozens of fun memories I have from the tournament (now called the Miami Open), which has been played on Key Biscayne since 1987 but is leaving after this year for a parking lot sandwiched between a football stadium and Florida’s Turnpike. I lived on the Key during two periods of my life, from 1987 to 1990 and again from 2000 to 2007 — and attended the tournament several years in between. I’m planning to be back again this coming week for one last nostalgic visit.

The tournament runs through the bloodstream of Key Biscayne village. For tennis fanatics who live on the island, it’s their Wimbledon. Though it may be an exaggeration, they feel the same attachment to the tournament as residents of Wimbledon village feel toward theirs.

I don’t want to over-dramatize the tournament leaving Key Biscayne. No one is dying because of this. But it does feel personal. (I still call it “The Lipton,” a shortened version of its original name, I guess the way Joe Frazier stubbornly or spitefully forever called Muhammad Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay.)

For a while when I was living on the Key in the late 1980s I rented a room in my apartment to a friend of mine. On the weekends we played tennis, and his two young sons, about 7 and 8 years old, were always in tow. We’d load up on Gatorade and snacks at the 7-Eleven. They were a part of my weekend life. So you can imagine how cool it was when, almost two decades later in 2006, I watched the oldest of the kids, Luis Fernando Manrique, partner with his friend Guillermo Coria in a doubles match on stadium court against Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri. (Manrique-Coria lost, but still…)

When you live near a big tournament, the fondest memories aren’t necessarily of watching the matches — though there are many of those, too. To me it’s more about how the tournament and players interact with the village.

Watching practice sessions at Key Colony’s 12 hard courts was an event in itself. In the early years, the condo didn’t have a formal set-up for tournament players to practice there. They would get in through a teaching pro or someone they knew who lived there and just show up. I didn’t witness it personally, but I was told that when Chris Evert was practicing at the condo courts the morning of her 1989 final against Gabriela Sabatini, her session was cut short by residents who had that court reserved for their regular doubles game. I guess they felt she should take her 18 Grand Slam singles titles and try the public courts down the road at Calusa Park.

(Sabatini won that match, boosted by Argentine supporters who made far more noise than Evert’s many fans. Evert never hid her annoyance that Sabatini got more, or at least louder, backing than an American who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, a 45-minute drive away. Sabatini was a part-time Key Biscayne resident, and you would see her around between tournament stops. Her coach’s father strung my rackets. She went to my gym. Shoulders as broad as the Key. I remember the day after she beat Evert, I saw her going for a run. I shouted, “Felicitaciones, Gabi!” She waved back.)

By the time I moved back to the Key from South America in 2000, Key Colony had worked out a deal with the tournament allowing players to practice there in exchange for a bunch of free tickets that were given to condo residents via a lottery.

But the connection with the players wasn’t only about watching them practice. It was also the random encounters. It was turning to my right in traffic and seeing Patrick Rafter behind the wheel of the car stopped next to mine. It was seeing Amelie Mauresmo jogging by as I was walking down Crandon Boulevard. I once learned that Kim Clijsters’ sense of direction wasn’t nearly as good as her forehand. Several hours after she won the 2005 final, beating Maria Sharapova, my daughter and I were walking down Crandon — the only road entering and leaving the island — and saw Clijsters in a car, turning onto Crandon with a confused look on her face. She was driving deeper into the island, not leaving it. My daughter and I commented to each other that Clijsters was probably lost. Sure enough, a few minutes later we saw her zooming back by us, heading off the island.

In 1988, the tournament’s second year on the Key, I was volunteer co-chair of the press tent, before there was a proper, air-conditioned press center. Though I was young, they gave me the job because I was a foreign desk copy editor at the Miami Herald and had some idea of reporters’ needs. (Perhaps not coincidentally, within a couple of years the tournament professionalized that position somewhat and put tournament employees in charge.)

I’m not around the tennis tour at all these days, but I feel safe saying that the players were more unguarded around the press and fans back then. It was before the Monica Seles stabbing, the Internet and social media. The word troll had a different meaning. Back then, you might see Yannick Noah in the press tent puffing on a cigarette. There was a bulletin board (a literal cork bulletin board, not the virtual kind) where newspaper articles were posted with thumbtacks. The players would wander by to check out the clippings. I remember once I was reading a Miami Herald column that was fawning over Sabatini. When I looked up, there was Evert standing next to me reading it on the board. She made a comment aloud about how the piece was over the top. She wasn’t totally wrong, but I’m not sure that these days a double-digit Grand Slam winner would, in front of a total stranger in an area swarming with press, make a remark that could be twisted to sound critical of a rival.

I remember that a young German woman who volunteered in the press tent but had no affiliation to any media outlet got an interview with Steffi Graf. The two of them were sitting in folding chairs outside the tent talking for about an hour, with everyone walking by like no big deal. Just the two of them. No press handler, no agent. Keep in mind that was the year Graf won everything. The calendar year Grand Slam, the Olympic Gold, and of course Key Biscayne.

The press conferences were held in a steamy makeshift room within the tent. The presser that stood out to me most in 1988 was with Jimmy Connors. After one of his wins, a reporter asked him about a rough patch of play he had during the match. Connors’ reply: “You think you could do better?” Connors played well that year but lost the final to Mats Wilander, who won three of the four Slams in ‘88.

In 1989-90 and 2004-07 I had press credentials, which allowed great access. A handful of memories from those years and many others when I attended as a fan:

  • Seeing Andre Agassi’s two young children run to greet him as he entered the tunnel attached to the stadium court after losing to Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-3, in the 2005 semifinals. At the time, Agassi was a month shy of his 35th birthday but generally playing well enough to beat anyone on a hard court — except Federer. And he knew it. The look on Agassi’s face was of resignation. In the post-match presser he described Federer as “somebody playing a level above.”
  • Serena Williams, uttering one of my favorite lines of all time. She was on the Grandstand court in 2001 against bullet-serving Uzbek Iroda Tulyaganova. This was when Williams had one Slam title and was a star, but not yet the megastar she is today. Her father, Richard, was yapping at her the entire match. The court is small enough that everyone could hear him. Finally, the chair umpire had enough and issued Serena a warning for coaching. “Coaching?” Serena exclaimed. “I’m trying to ignore him!”
  • There’s something about the Grandstand and coaching. In 2005 I sat a couple of rows behind Toni Nadal, who was coaching his nephew during a match against Ivan Ljubicic and wasn’t trying to hide it. That didn’t sit well with Ljubicic, who mentioned it in at least one interview as much as a year later. Though Toni was speaking in the Majorcan dialect, you could tell he was giving instructions because of the similarities of some directional words with Spanish.
  • I watched Nadal play Federer at Key Biscayne twice, in 2004 and 2005. The 2004 match was their first, and a huge upset for the 17-year-old Nadal. Federer had just won the Australian Open and Indian Wells. But the word was that Federer was struggling to recover from a fever when he got to Key Biscayne. The 2005 tournament was Nadal’s breakthrough and totally legit. He reached the final, and went up two sets to love and 4-1 in the third before he ran out of gas and Federer caught him in five. It was the first time Nadal got into Federer’s head, and the first time most of us had seen Federer slam his racket to the ground. If I recall correctly, during the on-court ceremony after the match, Federer remarked that he’d better beat Nadal while he can because the kid is going to keep getting better. People thought Federer was being modest. He was more right than anyone could have imagined.
  • One of the neatest things about having press credentials was getting to talk with Bud Collins. He was famous for being generous to newbies to the press center, and from my experience, that reputation was understated. I recall sitting next to him for a 2006 quarterfinal between Federer and James Blake. We discussed how they were two of the only players who would just get on with it and not take much time between points. During that 2005 Federer-Nadal final, a few of the Spanish journalists in the press seats were cheering boisterously for Nadal. At one point Collins admonished them: “No cheering in the press box.” The man had spoken, and there was not another peep from those journalists.
  • I saw Roddick, then 18, defeat Sampras in 2001. Some weeks later, I believe in mid-May, I happened to be in the food court of Boca Town Center mall in Boca Raton, about an hour north of Key Biscayne. My wife poked me and said, “Hey, it’s the guy who beat Sampras.” Sure enough, there was Roddick, who lived and trained in Boca, seated at a table conversing with a girl/young lady. Nobody there knew who he was. Based on his schedule, Roddick would have left within days for Europe ahead of the French Open, where he had a memorable five-set win that year over Michael Chang. It has occurred to me that there were probably few if any times after that when Roddick could hang out in a shopping mall virtually unrecognized and not be approached by anyone. Some years later, I heard Brad Gilbert on ESPN saying that when he coached Roddick they referred to the serve down the T as the “BTC,” for Boca Town Center, because “you can hit it all day.” 
  • As a spectator, probably the most dramatic match I’ve ever seen in person was the 2001 women’s final, when Venus Williams saved eight — yes eight — match points to beat Jennifer Capriati. (And kudos to Capriati for being able to clear that from her head and win the French Open two months later, 12-10 in the third set in the final over Clijsters.) 
  • In a separate essay I wrote about being blown away by the play of young Monica Seles and the great spirit of her parents. But there were many other up-and-comers I saw early in their careers. If I recall right, I saw Jim Courier’s first match at the tournament, when he was 17 and beat Glenn Michibata in 1988. I was also there for the last match win of Courier’s career, 12 years later, when he beat an 18-year-year ranked No. 473 named David Nalbandian. I saw Victoria Azarenka’s debut on an outside court when she was just 16.
  • Some years there was a small junior invitational tournament held concurrently, called the Luxilon Cup. I went to the 2002 girls final and saw 14-year-old Sharapova beat 17-year-old Gisela Dulko.
  • If you went the weekend before the tournament started or the first couple of days, before seeds were playing, you could find top players beating each other’s brains out in practice sets. One time I saw Agassi hitting wicked kick serves that bounced over Tim Henman’s head in the ad court. I remember watching Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt burn each other in volley drills, and Nalbandian — by then No. 3 — whipping Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was desperately trying to regain his No. 1 form of a few years earlier. He never did.

And so, like Ferrero, the tournament moves on to another chapter. Maybe the new site will be better for corporate sponsors, or maybe even for players. But for anyone who has a connection to Key Biscayne, the new location will surely be a sad reminder of what once was.

How Twitter Is Taking the Fun Out of Tennis Fandom

I’ve always rooted for John Isner.

A few reasons: One is that he is almost always involved in close matches, and I like the drama of competition. I enjoy observing how players handle the key moments. Isner seems like a straight-up, honest competitor — a good guy I can feel good about rooting for.

I also appreciate the irony that he’s known for winning the closest and longest match ever, yet what has held him back from greater success are his losses in close, important matches. I have defended Isner in arguments with tennis buddies who complain that his game is one-dimensional. But that’s what makes Isner’s competitiveness not just good, but valiant. His margin for victory is crazy thin. One bad service game from him probably loses the set. If he hits just one kick second serve in a tiebreak that sits up a tad, that alone could cost him the set. Isner competes with the burden of that knowledge. He can’t think, “Oh, I’ll just get the mini-break right back.” With his return game, that would be delusional. So for those reasons, when I went to Isner’s first-round match at the French Open last year, I was probably the loudest voice out on Court 3 cheering for him against Aussie Jordan Thompson. (Isner won in four sets.)

But Isner complicated my fandom when I later read about views he has expressed on Twitter. Obviously he has every right to put whatever he wants on social media. And I have the right to like or not like him for his views. Of course, John Isner has no reason to give a rat’s ass whether I like him.

But none of that’s the issue here. It’s not that I agree or disagree with Isner’s views. It’s that I don’t want to know them. I didn’t ask to know them. I don’t want to have to read his, or anyone’s, Twitter timeline, Facebook posts or Instagram messages to figure out whether I want to root for him. It’s too much work. I didn’t become a sports fan because I wanted to do research. I was rooting for Isner because of what I saw on the court. He’s never been on the ballot of any election I’ve voted in. He plays a sport. I had all the information I thought I needed.

You can argue that I could quit Twitter and not see the opinions of Isner or any other players. But that’s not realistic. These things have a way of getting around, into news stories or the comments sections of unrelated articles.

So, what did Isner tweet that got me thinking? It was him describing as “amazingly disrespectful” the statement one of the Hamilton actors read aloud to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence a couple of weeks after the 2016 election. In another tweet, Isner complained that the actor and cast weren’t being “tolerant.” Pence, for his part, later said he wasn’t offended.

Here are three things I thought at the time: 1) The United States is a great country. 2) One of the things that makes this nation great is that someone can lecture the vice president-elect in a theater without getting punished. Sure, most countries have freedom of speech. But it’s more institutionalized and ingrained here than pretty much anywhere else. I’ve lived in at least one other country where that actor might have gotten roughed up or killed for that later on. 3) I liked Pence’s response more than Isner’s.

Twitter is a terrible forum for engaging in complex conversations. Isner isn’t doing himself any favors trying to express his views in such a truncated format. It’s possible that if he had written a 750-word essay on why the Hamilton lecture bothered him, he would have come off as thoughtful. Instead, with just a few words, he made a lot of people think he’s narrow-minded.

Not to compare Isner with Tennys Sandgren, but Sandgren also didn’t help himself communicating via Twitter. He complained to the media during the Australian Open that he was portrayed unfairly. But all the information everyone had on Sandgren was put out by Sandgren. Perhaps if he had explained his thoughts in a longer format he wouldn’t have felt he was being mischaracterized.

In his podcast interview this week with Ryan Harrison, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim noted that when he started covering tennis in the late 1990s, he didn’t know what the players’ political views were. That was essentially the same thought I had reading Isner’s tweets. When I was a kid watching tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s, I didn’t have to sort out the cultural or political opinions of the 18th-ranked male player.

So, do I keep rooting for Isner? Maybe not quite as enthusiastically as before, but yes. I don’t have to agree with everything an athlete says or does. It’s also hard to change old rooting habits. Still, if I could choose, I’d like to go back to having less information about the players’ views. It made fandom more fun.

Stop the Overrule Unfairness

After the senseless tragedy in Florida this week, nothing could be more trivial than this little rant below, which I had already written at the time. But if you’d like to escape the madness of the real world for a few minutes and geek out on a tennis micro-issue, here you go:

One of my irritations with tennis lately, and it was especially true during the Australian Open, is when the chair umpire overrules an out call and gives the point (instead of replaying it) to the player who hit the ball that was initially called out. The umpire typically explains the decision by telling the other player that he/she attempted to return the shot before hearing the out call from the linesperson.

There were several notable examples of this during the Aussie. Here are just a few: Caroline Wozniacki was serving at 6-4, 5-3, 15-30 in her third-round match against Kiki Bertens (start watching this at 1:25:00) when the umpire overruled a very bad out call on the baseline. Wozniacki swung and hit the ball into the net. I obviously don’t know exactly when Wozniacki heard the call, and one could make the case from the video that she might have argued even more vociferously if she really believed she was right. But it was close, and it looked to me like she might have pulled up short on her follow-through, which would have affected her shot. (More on that below.)

There was this (start watching at 56:50) between Agnieszka Radwanska and Su-Wei Hsieh. Radwanska had the panicked look of someone trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The chair umpire was about to award the point to Hsieh when Radwanska pointed out that she actually hit the disputed ball back onto Hsieh’s side of the court. The umpire was so quick to give Hsieh the point that he didn’t even consider whether Radwanska had returned the shot. Radwanska successfully demanded the intervention of a tournament supervisor and they ended up replaying the point, thankfully. Kyle Edmund had a similar complaint returning a Marin Cilic serve during their semifinal. A description of the dispute is here.

The week after the Aussie, in St. Petersburg, Caroline Garcia lost when a replay overturned an out call on match point against her. You can watch the point and her argument here, though the Russian commentators talk over much of it. This one might not have involved an overrule, but the issue is the same. Yes, Garcia appears to take a pretty full swing at the ball. But if the call came during her swing, and it almost surely did, it would have affected the shot in some way. And to not give the player the benefit of the doubt on a linesperson’s error on match point is very unfair.

I’ll predict right here that there’s going to be some kind of rule or interpretation change on this issue before long, because the status quo is so illogical. They will end up replaying the point on most of these. That would be progress. I’ll break down my argument into three parts: Ethical/moral, mechanical and technological.

Ethical/moral: A linesperson calls a ball out, the chair umpire says, “Correction, ball was good,” and while doing so makes the speculative judgment that the player swung before hearing the linesperson’s call. The mistake was made by the linesperson, or possibly even worse, the umpire making the overrule. The aggrieved player should get the benefit of the doubt since he/she didn’t make the mistake; one of the officials did. The way it works now, the umpire essentially shifts responsibility for the bad call onto the player. It’s simply unjust.

There’s also a strong element of arrogance here, as if the umpire knows better than the player whether her shot was affected. The situation is different from the typical line-call dispute, when a player thinks a ball was in or out but doesn’t actually know. In this case, most of the time the player knows whether her ability to make the shot was impaired. And when you see how strenuously the players argue when the point gets taken away (e.g., Wozniacki, Edmund, Garcia), it’s hard to believe they’re all knowingly and passionately lying every time. I know that a player can convince herself that she was wronged and argue based on that. But it’s hard to believe that all these players are mistaken that the out call affected their shot or that they are willfully lying about it so often. Call me naive, but I think most of the top pros aren’t ethically corrupt.

Mechanical: This is probably the issue that I find most maddening. The discussions on court, and in the TV commentary booth, revolve around whether the player made contact with the ball before or after the line call was made. This isn’t even the right question to ask. Anyone who plays a decent level of recreational tennis knows that the complete swing, including the follow-through, determines where the ball goes. That whip-over-the-head forehand swing of Nadal’s isn’t just for decorative purposes. It’s what keeps the damn ball in the court. In other words, if a player makes contact with the ball and then is disrupted by a shout before finishing her swing, her shot will be affected. Period. If this weren’t the case we would all just stop our swings right when the racket meets the ball. Therefore, the player should get a do-over if the call came at any time during her swing. I find it amazing that umpires — at least the times I’ve been watching — haven’t acknowledged this.

Technological:  I will admit that on this point I have more questions than answers. On these disputed calls, we hear/see the TV replay of the sound of the line call and watch the player’s swing. Based on that, the TV commentators and we at home form an opinion of which came first — the call or the swing. Notwithstanding that it’s not even the appropriate question (as I argue above), are we even getting accurate information from the TV replay? I have my doubts that the time gap between when we hear the linesperson’s call and see the player make contact on a TV replay is exactly the same as what happened in real time on the court. Does Wozniacki, who may be 10 to 12 feet away from the linesperson, hear the out call at the same instant we hear it on TV? I wouldn’t assume so. This is a question a tennis journalist or fan with a math/science inclination — someone like Jeff Sackmann or Carl Bialek, who have done interesting work with tennis analytics — could perhaps dig into. There must be someone at MIT who can answer. The question is basically this: Is the sound/vision sequence obtained from a TV replay exactly the same as what happened on court? If the answer is no, let’s stop coming to conclusions based on the TV replays.

The arguments on this issue will continue — until umpires get guidance that they have to give the player the benefit of the doubt. And I suspect that will happen before long.

I Was Almost Right About Federer (Which Means I Was Totally Wrong)

In this Jan. 14 entry before the Australian Open, I observed that making tennis predictions is almost always a lose-lose proposition. Turns out I was right!

I picked the field against Federer. So yeah, I was wrong. To quote myself (what’s more self-indulgent that that?), I wrote that Federer wouldn’t “be able to play quite as freely as he did last year. And it takes only one subpar match, or really just a subpar 30-45 minutes, to lose a major.”

I would argue that I was almost right. That is, Federer didn’t play as freely as he did last year, especially in the final. And if that stretch of subpar play at the end of the fourth set against Cilic had gone on for another five to 10 minutes, he would have lost. I also forecast that 2018 will be like 1998, when a mix of players shared the Slams. (Little did I know that 1998 Aussie champ Petr Korda’s son would win the boys title.) I’m not yet backing off my prediction that the Big 5 men won’t dominate the Slams this year. Yes, Federer won it all, and he’s the biggest of the five. But Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka all had tournaments that didn’t live up to their usual Slam standard, and of course Murray didn’t play. 

There are some other reasons I was wrong about Federer in the Australian:

  • He is unique, and betting against him is so stupid.
  • The competition (basically Cilic) wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of Federer’s lapses. Maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising, since it’s been that way for the past year.  But I thought that by now the field (basically Cilic) could do better than missing forehand returns of serve on two break points in the first game of the fifth set. I was wrong about that, too.
  • I’m kind of old. To explain: Patrick McEnroe made a good point at the end of the ESPN broadcast, noting that it used to be when a player fell from the top of the game he never made it all the way back. The observation merits some expansion. If you are like me (or Patrick McEnroe, who’s a few years younger), you started watching tennis in the 1970s. So we remember very well that Borg basically quit after not being able to beat John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final. John McEnroe played for EIGHT years after winning his last Slam title and seven years after reaching his last Slam final. He was occasionally very good during those last years, but never great. Jimmy Connors took the same path. Though everyone remembers his emotional semifinal run at the 1991 U.S. Open, that’s as good as it got for him after reaching his last Slam final seven years earlier. After finishing 1989 as No. 1, the sequence of Ivan Lendl’s year-end rankings went like this: 3 (1990), 5 (1991), 8 (1992), 19 (1993) and 55 (1994)
  • In other words, the longer you’ve been watching tennis, the less likely you are to predict that a 36-year-old could win the Australian Open.

So yes, I was wrong. But I have a lot of excuses.

Yo Bros, Stop Dissin’ Women’s Tennis With Your Double Standards

A couple of the people with whom I often discuss tennis are men who view the women’s game with something between disdain and indifference. This is puzzling to me, in part because they are otherwise intelligent people. And I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist. I’m just a guy who likes sports, especially tennis. I like close, hard-fought, dramatic matches, and don’t care much who’s playing.

If this Australian Open can’t open the minds of my tennis bros, nothing will. You could argue that the women have been more compelling than the men at most of the recent Slams. Reporter Ben Rothenberg raised that question in a tweet after the women’s final. Notwithstanding that Federer and Cilic have yet to play their final, there’s no question that the women at this tournament have been WAY more interesting than the men. It’s not even close. In fact, so far the most compelling thing about the men’s tournament has been the injuries.

What bothers me about my tennis bros is the double standard they apply. A few examples:

The mental frailty thing (Part 1). The bros like to talk about how women players break down under pressure. Often they use the serve to make this point. Sure, Halep vs. Lauren Davis was exciting, they say, but Halep should have served out the match much earlier. She had three chances. This point isn’t absurd, but it applies the standard of men’s serving to the women’s game. For the most part, the men are bigger and stronger than the women. They are harder to break. Nadal, who isn’t considered a huge server, holds 89 percent of the time. I’m not finding updated stats for the women, but based on percentage of service points won, most of the top women are in the 60s. That’s a big difference. You can’t apply the 90 percent-plus certainty that Federer will hold serve at any given time to Halep.

The mental frailty thing (Part II). Kyrgios can double-fault at a key moment, such as against Federer in Miami or facing set point against Dimitrov in the Australian, and the commentariat explains that it’s Kyrgios being brave. He’s “going for it” because he has so much respect for his opponent’s return. Eh, not so much. He’s trying to hit through his nerves. Regardless of his strategy, a double-fault is the same whether the ball is going 125mph or 71mph.

The mental frailty thing (Part III). The bros will pick on Slam underachiever Svitolina (who was apparently hampered by an injury) for fading in her quarterfinal against Mertens, and for choking generally in the majors. I won’t go out of my way to defend Svitolina’s Slam performances. But there’s a two-word rebuttal: Sascha Zverev. The No. 4 men’s player won five points in his 0-6 fifth set against Chung. That must be the single most embarrassing statistic of the entire Australian Open. And it follows his loss to Borna Coric at the U.S. Open, which ranks among the least intelligently played matches I’ve ever seen. Zverev chose to turn that one into a push-fest, which was the only way he could have lost. We could also pick on Dominic Thiem, but let’s leave that for another time.

The fitness thing. About 20 years ago you could make the case that several relevant women players weren’t in good enough condition. People didn’t like to talk about it, especially on television, which is understandable. But fitness matters in tennis. A lot. Today there’s no question about the fitness of the top, or even middling, women players. The Halep-Davis match, or Halep-Kerber, or pretty much any match involving Halep or Wozniacki, should be bottled and used as an advertisement touting the benefits of interval training. As for endurance, Wozniacki ran the New York Marathon at a 7:53/mile pace a few years ago, obviously while still an active player. Are you kidding me? I wonder how many current men players could match that time. Impossible to know, but the answer might rhyme with Nero. (We would guess that David Ferrer would have the best shot. Truth is, none will try because they’d be afraid of having a slower time than Wozniacki.)

Dud matches. This is often brought up as a metric for the quality of a tournament, and that’s fair. There were a couple that didn’t live up to expectations on the women’s side. I’m thinking of Keys-Kerber and Pliskova-Halep. Maybe Sharapova-Kerber, too. Indeed, it’s disappointing that the losers in those matches either couldn’t or wouldn’t modulate their games when it became clear that blasting the crap out of the ball wasnl’t working. But the great matches — including Wozniacki-Halep, Halep-Kerber, Halep-Davis, Kerber-Hsieh and Suarez Navarro-Kontaveit — were far more numerous. The men had Dimitrov-Kyrgios, and a draw littered with duds whose outcomes were decided by injuries.

C’mon my bros! Open up your minds and enjoy the tennis — like a real sports fan.

Will the Women’s Runner-Up Be The Greatest Never? A Look at the Data

There has been talk in tennis circles that the Halep-Wozniacki final starting a couple hours from now features the two best women never to have won a Slam.

Among others, The Tennis Podcast suggested that’s the case, while mentioning Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina as other contenders. Upon hearing that, we thought: Oh yeah, Dementieva. She was damn good. Was she better than Halep and Wozniacki?

We’ve also heard support for Helena Sukova, recently announced as an entrant to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which feels like it’s turning into the Hall of Perfectly Nice People Who Happen to Be Good at Tennis.

Before we assess the candidates, let’s be clear that while Slams are the most important markers for tennis greatness, they’re not the only criteria. We would take the careers of Halep, Wozniacki and Dementieva over those of Slam winners Iva Majoli or Anastasia Myskina.

So let’s set some arbitrary criteria. Logic would tell you that the best players never to have won a Slam are those who have frequently come close to winning one. Since the Slams obviously aren’t the only determinant of a player’s success, let’s also look at year-end rankings. We think year-end rankings are a cleaner evaluator than highest ranking. Seems like if someone hits a career high of No. 3 but finishes that same year ranked No. 6, the latter is a fairer assessment of their accomplishments around that time.

As long as we’re being arbitrary, we would draw a pretty thick line between quarters and semis. Making a Slam quarter is impressive. But making a Slam semi is a big ‘effin deal. We view it as similar to the difference between a top 5 ranking and a top 10 ranking. Top 10 is nice, but top 5 and top 3 are elite.

Here are the numbers (at least by our count; if you see any errors, please advise):  Halep has been in five Slam quarterfinals, two semifinals and two finals (We’re not including this Australian Open in these tallies). Halep also has been ranked in the year-end top 5 four different years, one at No. 1. Those are the only years she has finished top 10.

Wozniacki has made three Slam quarters, four semis and two finals before this tournament. Like Halep, she has four Top 5 finishes, including twice as year-end No. 1. But she has also finished three other years in the top 10, for a total of seven as a top tenner. While it’s a fairly close call, Wozniacki has had a slightly better career going into the final. Six times in the semis or beyond beats Halep’s four, and Wozniacki has been a relevant top player for longer.

Dementieva, fans of the Aughts may recall, was in three Slam quarters, seven semis and two finals. That’s nine times in the semis or deeper of Slams, more than any of the others. Surprisingly, she never finished a year in the WTA top 5, but finished four years in the top 10.

Jankovic has been in two Slam quarters, five semis and one final. She has two year-end rankings in the top 5 — including one as No. 1 — and a total of five in the top 10.

Safina’s career is perhaps the oddest of all. She was in three Slam finals, a mark Halep and Wozniacki tie today. She was in another two semis and two quarters. But she was in the top 10 only two years, both of them in the top three. She wasn’t a top player long enough to win this Greatest Never title.

As for Sukova, she has the most impressive Slam record of them all, with 11 quarterfinals, three semis and four finals. She was top 10 six different years, but never finished in the top 5.

The verdict: It’s damn close, but up until this tournament, we think Wozniacki has been the best of those mentioned here, followed by Dementieva, with Halep and Sukova close behind. Slam-wise, it’s tempting to give Sukova the crown because of her four finals. But she was never a top 3 player.

Dementieva’s nine Slam semis without winning a title is an excruciating stat. But since Halep and Wozniacki will both be in their third Slam final, compared with two for Dementieva, we’ll give the loser of today’s final a tiny edge over Dementieva and Sukova for the Greatest Never. But don’t worry, Elena/Helena. Today’s runner-up has a good shot at winning a Slam someday. There’s hope for you yet.