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.

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.