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.  

Want Fewer Injuries? Speed Up The Courts (Or the Balls)

The injury debate, which never really went anywhere, is getting even more attention after Nadal’s retirement from his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic and his post-match comments basically blaming tennis’ Powers That Be for the legions of (barely) walking wounded.

Some in the tennis community are proposing shortening matches from best-of-five to best-of-three, or using no-add scoring, or abbreviating the pro tennis schedule. In sum: I have mixed feelings about going to best-of-three. I see the benefits, but fear unintended consequences (e.g., upsets producing too many anonymous quarterfinalists or semifinalists). But I get it and could live with best-of-three. I’m not a fan of no-add scoring. I’d love to see a longer off season, but I don’t see it happening because you can’t prevent someone from putting on a tournament, and players will participate if the money is good enough.

But rather than debate any of those ideas at length, I’d like to raise what I think is a more important issue: Court and ball speed.

Put simply, long rallies on hard courts are brutal on players’ bodies. I just finished watching Chung vs. Sandgren. If you saw the way they covered the entire court, sprinting from side to side and throwing their bodies into every ball (except on that peculiar slicefest rally in the last game), you can see why so many players get injured. The wear and tear on their bodies is obvious. And that was just one match. Multiply that by dozens and wonder how they can walk at all.

Though both Chung and Sandgren were successful coming into the net, they didn’t shorten points nearly as often as they would have on a faster court. The Australian Open surface is considered quick, but it’s slow enough that players can retrieve repeatedly, forcing the offensive player to hit five or six shots that look like winners.

Those 16- to 25-hit rallies are causing the injuries. Keep in mind that players aren’t doing this only during matches. To play like that they have to practice like that. So these guys (and women) are out there between tournaments and in the off season pounding their bodies on slow hard courts. Twenty-shot rallies in practice to prepare for 20-shot rallies in the matches. I’m no doctor or smart person, but it’s pretty obvious that the cumulative stress on joints and muscles from all those practices and matches is a perfect recipe for injury.

We need to speed up the courts or balls a bit so that it doesn’t take so many full-body groundstrokes to complete a point. Not a lot faster, but somewhat. If you take a 16-shot rally and turn it into a 12-shot rally, that might not seem like a big difference, but over time it is. Make the courts fast enough that players feel they are rewarded for coming into the net and finishing off points sooner.

Contrarians will remember a short period in the 1990s, when it seemed courts were too fast and matches were getting boring. Sampras, Ivanisevic and Krajicek were taking advantage of speedy courts, and the points were too short. But that was mainly at Wimbledon and indoor tournaments. It wasn’t the case at the U.S. Open, where Sampras and Agassi played a terrific final in 1995 on a court that rewarded both net and baseline play. The iconic point of that match was indeed on the long side. But it was an outlier. As amazing as that point was, we don’t need them all to be that long.

Tennis Biases: Beat Reporting, Needing Access and Regulatory Capture

As I mention in a previous entry, Tennis Biases: Me and Monica Seles, tennis fans and journalists have their biases. It’s unavoidable, though the best commentators do a good job of hiding their biases. If you follow tennis you will have a bias toward certain players over others. Some commentators prefer stylists to grinders. Some prefer net rushers to baseline huggers. Others like players who fly off the handle, while some like those who take a professional approach.

For example, some commentators love Nick Kyrgios because they view him as interesting, different, and someone who could help grow the game’s popularity. Others dislike him for his behavior and the fact that he hasn’t always given his best effort. Whatever the case, we all have leanings, consciously or not.

Perhaps the most contentious topic in tennis is the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry — which shows just how little real conflict there is in the sport today. Fans are drawn to one or the other for various reasons. I will explain my Fedal bias in a future entry.

The commentators and journalists who cover tennis can have biases that stem from personal interaction with the players. That’s perfectly reasonable. They might like players who give good interviews or seem thoughtful, characteristics that journalists appreciate.

But some biases, or at least the expression of a bias, can stem from the need for access. Let’s say you’re an Argentine tennis journalist. You basically need Juan Martin Del Potro. You probably need him to talk to you. You also might need him to do well in tournaments, because it’s possible that your employer will send you home as soon as he loses. Same is true for Swiss journalists covering Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

Those journalists can be objective, but it’s not easy. The need for access is a deterrent to honest criticism. It’s probably a wiser career move for the Argentine journalist to say Del Potro lost because of a nagging injury instead of saying he choked — even if he choked. (This is a hypothetical example, not a criticism of any Argentine tennis journalist or a reference to any real incident.)

For at least some TV commentators, there must be a tendency to soften their words about certain players they want access to, whether it’s Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Federer or Nadal. I’m not saying no one is telling it like it is, but there are powerful reasons not to. It’s not easy to call out Kyrgios’ lackluster effort in a summer tournament if you think you’d like to do an interview with him ahead of the U.S. Open.

Access and proximity can impact coverage in significant ways. In all kinds of journalism, some beat reporters desperately need access to the people they cover. If you report on the White House, or the Treasury Department (as I used to), or the local city council, it can be very difficult to do your job if top officials at those places won’t talk to you. Some journalists will say “Screw it,” and develop other sources, including lower-level officials. Often those journalists break the biggest news.

Beat reporters who attend all the briefings and are on-site every day often resent the columnists and analysts who occasionally parachute in with an opinion piece or scoop. Totally understandable. The beat reporters will say the columnists don’t really get what’s going on because they’re not around the place every day. Often they’re right. But the columnists have an advantage in that they don’t have to worry as much about pissing off the officials they’re writing about. Their job doesn’t depend on access to those people.

Similarly, there’s historically a lot of tension in sportswriting between beat reporters and columnists. A reporter who covers a baseball team and travels with it most of the season can’t stomach a columnist who — from the comforts of an office or living room — writes an opinion piece proclaiming that the manager stinks.

The columnists will argue that the beat reporters are too close to the team, too chummy with the players and manager. Often they’re right, too. It can be hard for a baseball beat reporter to write a piece vigorously pointing out a bunch of strategic errors by the manager if that reporter has to see the manager the next day. Some reporters can do it.

It reminds me of an ongoing debate in my field on so-called regulatory capture. Traditionally, some  bank examiners at regulators such as the Federal Reserve have desks on-site at the banks whose books they scrutinize. This raises the question of whether those examiners develop a variant of Stockholm Syndrome and develop sympathy for the bankers. For example, maybe the examiners become friendly with bank employees after running into them in the break room or lobby. Perhaps some of the regulators would actually like to get a job at that bank at some point in the future. The key question is whether the regulators get “captured.”

But you could also make a strong case that being on-site allows the examiners more access and information than they could get through occasional visits. If the examiners are honest and properly trained, proximity shouldn’t be a problem.


Injuries, Tennis Journalists, Excuses and More Injuries

The ongoing spate of injuries affecting the Australian Open raises a lot of questions about issues including the tennis schedule, the strings, the rackets and even the way players hit the ball. (Mary Carillo recently made a strong point about the impact of the open-stance hitting position during an episode of Jon Wertheim’s Beyond the Baseline podcast.)

But let’s not get into the causes of injuries in this piece. I want to explore how tennis commentators and journalists address injuries in their reporting of specific matches. (To start, I should note that I think the vast majority of the tennis journalism community does excellent work. The TV commentary, in my opinion, is better and more intelligent than it was a decade or two ago. Therefore the criticism that follows is, I admit, very nitpicky.)

My minor complaint is that commentators and journalists often seem reluctant to write/talk about whether an injury might have affected a match. That’s understandable. First of all, it’s speculative. We usually don’t know how much Federer’s back, Nadal’s knee or Madison Keys’ thigh is hampering their play. Even if we agree that the player is injured, we can’t know whether it’s worth a set, a few games, a couple points, the entire match, or what. Second, it’s not classy, as it clearly takes credit away from the other player. It makes sense that commentators don’t want to take part in that.

Sadly, the mere suggestion of injury these days gets wrapped up in partisan fandom, especially when it concerns Federer and Nadal. If you suggest that Nadal is hurting, to many it’s because you’re a Rafa fan making excuses for your man. If you say Federer isn’t moving well to his forehand side since his back is bothering him, the suspicion is that you’re in the tank for Roger. There’s also the reality, which many commentators reasonably cite, that most players are suffering from some niggling injury pretty much all the time. How do you distinguish between injuries if everyone is hurting? Why even bother trying? As the old Aussies used to say, “If you play, it means you’re fit. No excuses.” (Or something like that.)

But it feels like commentators go too far in avoiding making excuses for players. Injuries determine the outcome of matches far more often than we’d like to admit, and when we don’t recognize that, it can lead to flawed analysis and expectations. A few examples: Let’s start with Sam Querrey. I’m sorry to pick on Sam, who deserves credit for getting better with age, but he’s been the beneficiary lately of some hobbled opponents. At Wimbledon 2017, Andy Murray was a shadow of himself for much of that quarterfinal match. Murray winning only two games in the last two sets to Querrey is obviously a freakish event. On grass, at Wimbledon, Murray basically can’t hold serve against Sam Querrey, and we’re supposed to chalk that up to Querrey’s awesome return game? Seriously? To be fair, commentators mentioned Murray’s hip issues, but they were a tad generous regarding Querrey’s play. Murray not being able to move well demotes him from being the No. 1 player to basically a top 350 player. The guy Querrey beat 6-1, 6-1 in the last two sets could have been No. 337. Murray’s injury changed everything in that match. As it turns out, he hasn’t played since.

Therefore, the optimism we heard after the match that Querrey might then beat Marin Cilic in the semis was based on a false narrative — that he played well to beat Murray. But he didn’t beat the real Andy Murray. He beat someone like, say, Raymond Sarmiento. (Apologies to Raymond, who was an All-American at the University of Southern California and probably a fine human being — even if there’s not an ATP bio for him.)

Querrey also got too much credit when he beat Novak Djokovic a year earlier at Wimbledon, even though Djokovic admitted that he wasn’t 100 percent healthy.

Again, when Querrey destroyed Mischa Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open, it spawned talk that Querrey was the favorite to win two more matches and advance to the final. The narrative was that Querrey had played out of his mind, losing only five games to Zverev. But it was evident that Mischa was suffering from a shoulder injury. Yes, it looked like Querrey was playing fine tennis, and he was. But Zverev was giving him a much easier ball to hit than a healthy Zverev would have. And sure enough, when Querrey came up against Kevin Anderson in the quarters, it was a different story. Anderson’s weight of shot was far more difficult to handle than anything the hampered Zverev had thrown at Querrey. If you discount a losing player’s injury, you are probably overstating how well the winner is playing.

Easy as it is to say now, it was always obvious that Federer wasn’t in shape to win the 2017 U.S. Open. What absolutely cemented it in my mind was a post-match interview during the tournament when he was asked about his now-famous practice session in Central Park. Federer mentioned that he was looking to hit somewhere close enough to where he was staying so that he wouldn’t have to sit in the car for long — because of his back. Federer detractors can say he was making excuses. But it’s highly unlikely he made up that story, especially after a victory. Someone who can’t sit comfortably in a car long enough to get to Flushing Meadows isn’t someone who’s going to win the U.S. Open. Not even Roger Federer. That comment by Federer should have led to more questions for him and more skepticism about his ability to play well enough to win the tournament. If there had been more scrutiny of Federer’s remark, the loss to Del Potro wouldn’t have seemed such a surprise.

The point is, these injuries matter. They determine the outcome of matches, and failure to adequately discuss them leads to unreasonable expectations about future matches. Commentators should try to get over their understandable reluctance, and address the topic head-on.


For Men’s Tennis, 2018 = 1998 (And Why Federer Won’t Win the Australian Open)

Making tennis predictions is almost always a lose-lose proposition. If you ask at the start of the tournament whether so-and-so will win the Australian Open (or finish the year No. 1), the best answer is always no. The chances are far greater that one of the other 127 players will.

Prognosticating when it’s down to the last 16 or eight is a bit more sensible, because you have a better idea of the matchups. And matchups matter a lot in tennis. But at the beginning of the tourney, bet the field against any one player. Despite what Serena Williams and Roger Federer might make you think, these things are really hard to win.

That will become increasingly evident in men’s tennis (it already is in the women’s game) over the next couple of years. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka may all continue to be top players, but common sense and the laws of aging mean they won’t be as piggish with the big titles. We’ll see the occasional Slam title by one of them, surrounded by far more frequent “surprises.” But they shouldn’t be surprises. It’s historically abnormal for the top players to take so many of the majors.

For the men’s game, think 1998. That year, Petr Korda, the No. 6 seed, won the Australian Open, beating ninth-seeded Marcelo Rios in the final. Carlos Moya, the No. 12 seed, won the French Open, beating 14th-seeded Alex Corretja. Top-seeded Pete Sampras won Wimbledon against 14th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic. No. 3 Pat Rafter won the U.S. Open, beating unseeded Mark Philippoussis in the final. The women’s game was more top-heavy at the majors, which were won by the No. 1, 4, 3 and 2 seeds respectively.

Mark down 2017 as the last year for a long time that the top men’s players will hog the majors. I’ll venture that there’s less than a 20 percent chance that any male player wins multiple Slams this year, and that the Big 5 will combine for only one. The women’s game will be similar. Any number of players could win Slams, but it’s hard to see any of them winning more than one.

Federer appears to be the runaway favorite among both bettors and commentators to win the Australian. On the Tennis Channel this weekend, all three prognosticators queried in a draw- breakdown show predicted a Federer-Kyrgios final, with two choosing Federer to win. I don’t see it happening. Here’s why:

Federer won last year largely because he was loose, free from expectation or self-imposed pressure. That allowed him to swing from the hips on his backhand. He was attacking and short-hopping that shot without giving it much thought. That kind of looseness, which resembled how Federer played back in 2004, can’t be forced. Once you think about playing loosely, you’re not loose anymore.

There are plenty of reasons why I could turn out to be wrong. Other than Nadal, who appears to be sharp in practice (and frankly, should be getting more love from the oddsmakers), many of the usual top contenders (Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic) are either out with injuries or in questionable health. The court is presumed to be fast, which favors Federer over pretty much everyone. And of course, more than anyone else, he knows how to win majors. During a tight moment, he has no doubt that he can do what’s needed. Can the same be said for Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev, Kyrgios, or many others?

But the best guess here is that Federer will fall short. It’s not that I don’t want him to win (I do), and it’s not because he’s not the best player on that surface (he is, assuming Djokovic isn’t fully healthy). It’s because he won’t be able to play quite as freely as he did last year. And it only takes one subpar match, or really just a subpar 30-45 minutes, to lose a major. Again, it’s really hard to win these things. I’m taking the field.

An Apology to Stan Smith

cropped-161020145601-spc-open-court-stan-smith-00011217-full-1691.jpgSeveral years ago — around 2010 but I’m not sure precisely which year — Stan Smith was making an appearance at the USTA bookstore on the U.S. Open grounds. (It used to be where I believe there’s now a Polo Ralph Lauren shop.)

I was there as a fan and wandered in with my son when Smith was wrapping up. I approached and told him I admired him, or something along those lines, which was certainly true. Then I asked him a question, which I’ve regretted ever since. First, some background on why I asked what I asked, so that if you think I’m an asshole you’ll at least know the backstory.

I’m a career journalist, most of it covering finance and economics (though a couple of years ago I shifted to something of an offshoot — Washington policy analysis). Non-professionally, I’m a tennis fanatic, and have been so since the early 1970s. (I was born in 1963.)

I’ve always been drawn to what I think of as turning-point matches, moments that change a player’s career. It seems there are fewer of them than there used to be, which is probably worthy of an essay itself. Players have more lives nowadays. So when Djokovic hits that slapshot forehand return and comes back to beat Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, you have to think that’s it for Fed. He’ll never win another Slam. But he wins Wimbledon the next year. And then he suffers a few more heartbreaking losses to Djokovic in Slam finals in 2014 and 2015, but defies logic and returns to win two Slams in 2017.

One match that fascinates me, in part because it seems to have been forgotten by the tennis cognoscenti, is the 1993 French Open final between Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera. If you’re not old enough to remember or weren’t a tennis fan at the time, it’s hard to describe just how surprising Bruguera’s victory was. Courier had won the previous two French Opens. (Before Nadal, that was a pretty big deal.) He was playing with an aura back then. Though Pete Sampras had taken over the No. 1 ranking, at the time most people considered that a head-scratching technical glitch. Courier had won that year’s Australian Open, his second in a row, and was considered virtually unbeatable on clay. More important, he was far and away the best big-match player in men’s tennis. Super clutch.

It wasn’t just that Courier lost that final to Bruguera. He lost in five sets, after having won the fourth. You could maybe get your head around Courier losing if he had a miserable day and got wiped off the court in straights. But the notion of him losing a close match after regaining the momentum seemed implausible. On fumes, Courier reached the final of Wimbledon a few weeks later, losing to Sampras. Courier was 22 at the time. Though he had a very nice career for several more years, including as a Davis Cup stalwart, he never made another Slam final. He was never again the great player he was before the Bruguera match. I don’t know what happened. I can’t get into Courier’s head. But it was a hugely consequential match that may have changed the course of men’s tennis for the rest of the 1990s. If Courier wins that match, maybe he wins Wimbledon. Maybe he stays atop the men’s game. Maybe Sampras and Andre Agassi don’t hog as many of the big trophies of the mid- to late 1990s. Maybe Courier wins a couple more French Opens.

My interest in matches like that helps explain why, when I saw Stan Smith that day, I made the mistake of asking him about a match that probably marked the end of him as a great player.

I’ve long been intrigued by two matches Smith played. One is his victory against Ion Tiriac in the 1972 Davis Cup final in Bucharest. It was marred by a hostile crowd and blatant cheating by local linespeople. Smith showed amazing poise while all hell was breaking loose around him. I don’t recall the match; I’ve only read about it.

The other was Smith’s 1974 Wimbledon semifinal loss to Ken Rosewall. I was 10 at the time. I remember reading about it later in my local paper, The Washington Post. (My recollection is that back then the Wimbledon semifinals weren’t even on television in the U.S.) Smith was the quasi-defending champ that year. He had won Wimbledon in 1972. In 1973, most of the top players, including Smith, boycotted Wimbledon.

Against Rosewall in 1974, Smith was up two sets to love and 5-3 in the third. He served for it at 5-4, and then had a match point in the tiebreak (which was played at 8-8 in those days). Smith lost that tiebreak, and the following two sets.

Rosewall ended up getting waxed by Jimmy Connors in the final. The same thing might have happened to Smith if he had managed to beat Rosewall. Or maybe not; we’ll never know. Smith was 27, not ancient for tennis but not young. He continued as a regular on the circuit for about another decade. But aside from making the quarters of the U.S. Open a couple of months later, he never again got farther than the round of 16 of any Slam. Put simply, he had a great career (later overshadowed by his shoe fame). However, he was never the same player after that match.

Knowing all that, when I saw Smith I went into hard-hitting journalist mode and asked him about the Rosewall loss. I don’t recall exactly what I said. I might have just asked what happened. I could see his face fall, and after a few vague remarks he said, “You just ruined my day.” I felt terrible, as I should have.

Let me be clear: It was a total shithead move on my part. I wasn’t intending to make Smith feel bad; I just hadn’t thought it through. The question could be appropriate if I were on the job as a journalist and writing a big profile on Smith. In that case, if he had agreed to an actual interview and I was doing a story on his life, pretty much anything could be fair game. But I wasn’t there as a journalist. I was a fan, sucker-punching him with a question about what might have been the most painful loss of his career.

I’m sorry, Stan Smith. I didn’t mean harm. If I ever meet you again, I won’t repeat my apology, because I don’t want to even bring up the topic. But I’d love to ask you about that Tiriac match.