February 19, 2014

No. 15 Kei Nishikori, a four-time winner, is the highest-ranked Asian player on the ATP Tour.
The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Kei Nishikori won the Memphis title again last week. Despite the growth of tennis in Asia, an increase in players just hasn't been coming yet. Will that change?
-- Rohit Sudarshan, Somerville, Mass.

• Absolutely. The WTA's "Russian Revolution" of the late 1990s and early 2000s -- aside: On taste grounds, we resist calling the first decade of a century "the aughts" -- was a rapid phenomenon. One day half the top 10 was Russian, simple as that. Even the Serbian success of the past five years -- three players ranked No. 1, a Davis Cup success -- was quite sudden.

In the case of Asian tennis, the rise has been far more gradual. And yet, take inventory: China's Li Na is No. 2 in the WTA singles rankings. China's Peng Shuai is No. 1 in doubles. Japan's Nishikori has been ranked as high as 11th and is 15th now. Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan is a quality player ranked No. 46. Hyeon Chung, 17, of South Korea was the Wimbledon boys' runner-up last year.

There are all sorts of forces afoot, of course. Investment in the Beijing Olympics accelerated tennis' growth in China, as did Li's success. Technology has made it easier for tennis to penetrate the Asian market. Last week, we talked about how the diminishing number of American tournaments hurts the sport here; in Asia, it's the opposite. More pro events not only means more propinquity to the pro game but also more playing opportunities for Asian players. (More opportunity = more points = more players.) Right now, Asia is clearly the "emerging market" in tennis. I can't imagine we won't see big payoffs in the near term and long term.

In light of soon-to-be NFL player Michael Sam's coming out, I have thought about journalists, tennis and sexual orientation. As a journalist who is very familiar with many pro players, have you learned of any gay players who are comfortable with their orientation but simply unwilling to broadcast it? Why do you think that a male tennis player, playing in front of quite accepting fans, has never come out while now a leading college football player has?
-- David, Angus

I've written about this in the past, and I agree that it's surprising that there are no "out" players on the ATP Tour. In a lot of ways, tennis is singularly well suited to accommodating a gay player. In an individual sport, the player need not worry about stodgy general managers uneasy about drafting him; coaches making subjective decisions about playing him; teammates declining to pass him the ball; or these nebulous "distraction in the locker room" issues, such as they are. (See last week's rant.) In an individual, democratic sport, the players need only win matches to succeed.

Culturally, tennis is -- and has long been -- far more socially progressive than it's given credit for being. On the WTA Tour, players have been openly gay for decades.** On the ATP Tour, playing a global sport and meeting all sorts of people almost necessarily breeds tolerance. One example among many: Note how many male tennis players have supported Athlete Ally to take a stand against homophobia. What's more, an openly gay player would be instantly popular among a large sector of fans.

Why isn't there an openly gay player in, say, the top 250? Who knows. Obviously, this is personal decision that has all sorts of consequences. Martina Navratilova, rightly, suggests that it's not as easy as the sideline advocates make it out to be.

I know of multiple cases in which players are, themselves, comfortable coming out, but don't want to burden their family. I spoke about this issue once with a former pro who asserted that players are creatures of habit. Coming out could be a huge disruption. In a sport without guaranteed contracts, the prospect of the unknown and the prospect of complications are truly daunting.

As a strict matter of statistics, there are almost undoubtedly gay players who are full-time ATP pros. Given the rapidly changing views, I think it's a matter of time before a player comes out. And, after that, a matter of time before it's a non-story. That's the hope, anyway.

** You know who doesn't get nearly enough credit here? Amelie Mauresmo. She was 19 -- 19! -- when she had the self-possession and self-confidence to hold a mini news conference during the first week of the 1999 Australia Open and not only come out but also tell journalists that they should feel free to write about her girlfriend.

First, she went on the reach the final in Melbourne, thwarting the argument that this would adversely affect her career. Then, it was business as usual. With the exception of a few ill-considered remarks, there was no backlash. Mauresmo lost no sponsors. Her relationship with fans and the media and sport's gatekeepers went beyond tolerance; she was widely liked and well regarded. She went on to win two Grand Slam titles. Precisely because her attitude -- much like Michael Sam's -- was, "It's just a part of who I am and it's not a big deal; can we get back to sports now?" we tend to forget her role. I would argue, though, that Mauresmo's blithe confidence -- and the absence of fallout -- was terrifically significant.

Could you explain how the Davis and Fed Cups work? How are countries seeded? Who determines who plays? Even though I follow tennis very well, these events just seem like a never-ending tournament with no winner declared.
-- Ralph, Jackson, Miss.

• I got quite a bit of response, both in the Mailbag and on Twitter, to recent pleas for the ITF to reconsider Davis Cup. Another reader sent me this link, suggesting that player participation is respectable.

Even discounting the caviling Americans, I still can't see how anyone claims that the Davis Cup is a healthy, vital sports organism. Roger Federer hasn't missed a Grand Slam tournament since the 1990s; his Davis Cup play has been sporadic at best. Rafael Nadal was once a Davis Cup stalwart; more recently, he has lost his zeal. Juan Martin del Potro declared himself uninterested in representing Argentina this season.

As is the case with Fed Cup -- which is even less relevant -- the ITF has made Davis Cup participation a prerequisite for Olympic eligibility. Take away what might charitably be called a carrot (others might use a less benign word on the order of "blackmail") and one strongly suspects that participation and enthusiasm dwindles even more Beyond the measurables, we need to consider the event's prestige. Time was, it was akin to a major. Now, it's barely a blip. When we have our GOAT discussions, Davis Cup successes and failures are rarely considered. How many fans can name the last three or four countries to win?

The ITF is surely aware of the mandate for change. Surely it's seen ratings take a dive. Surely it realizes the diminishing significance in the current format. Surely it sees events like the European Championships and World Baseball Classic and witnesses other sports cash in on nation-versus-nation competition. That Davis Cup languishes and its format confuses even committed fans like Ralph ought to be a wake-up call. Alas, those in power have been pushing the snooze alarm for years now.

To Ralph's question, the format and rankings are explained quite well on the Davis Cup website.

The U.S. Open is played in Arthur Ashe Stadium and there is also the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. This is due to them being great players but also making contributions outside of tennis on different issues. Due to this, don't you think that Andre Agassi should receive some type of honor at the U.S. Open for not only being a great tennis champion but also doing wonderful work with his foundation? Not only has Agassi helped fund the fight against AIDS but his work with building charter schools for the children in Las Vegas is an awesome accomplishment.
-- Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.

• A few points:

-- The short answer to Bob's question is: Sure. Instead of playing the "humanitarian sweepstakes" and debating which player has made the greatest social contributions, why don't we simply agree that Agassi -- like Ashe and BJK -- has done an awful lot of good that transcends tennis and should be acknowledged accordingly? I'm not sure what's left to name at the National Tennis Center -- the Agassi Food Court? -- but it's hard to see much objection to an Agassi honor.

-- That said, there is something a little strange about the USTA christening a tennis facility in honor of a player who has spoken so disdainfully about the sport itself.

-- For as often as some of you rail against everything the USTA does (and doesn't do), the organization comes in for much credit here. There is real value in naming rights and, given the rampant commercialism that pervades the U.S. Open, surely the USTA could fetch an eight-figure price tag for, say, the JP Morgan/Chase National Tennis Center or Liberty Mutual Stadium Court. Instead, the USTA has chosen to recognize the sport's socially conscious pioneers.

How about scrapping the March 3 exhibition between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic at Madison Square Garden and replacing it with a match between John McEnroe and Donald Young? It would be very entertaining and quite competitive. I think Mac would take him. Young's serve and groundies would not trouble Mac, whose game would rattle Young. I would rather pay to watch that matchup, which has contrast, than the boring Murray-Djokovic match.
-- Ben, Queens, N.Y.

• To me, the chance to see Murray and Djokovic play a match -- within walking distance of my apartment, no less -- is a circle-the-date-on-the-calendar event. Or the modern equivalent. (ALL CAPS in the iCalendar?)

I would, though, pay money to see Young play McEnroe. Two lefties. Two combustible types. You have the whole protégé-mentor, Socrates-Aristotle, John Malone-Brian Roberts thing going. I'm not sure what Young has to gain, outside the paycheck. The only thing worse than beating a 55-year-old man is losing to one. But I'm watching that one. For the record, I think Young would win.

Any news on whether Camila Giorgi has paid her investors' money back?
-- Ahmed Mahmoud, Cairo

• No, but you've given me a setup to say this: The purpose of that piece was not to humiliate anyone. It was to tell a story -- admittedly, one with a particularly unusual fact pattern -- that exposes the underbelly of trying to make it as a pro. It's nice to see Giorgi continue to play well and work her way up the rankings. Hopefully she can forge a reputation that goes beyond her arrears. If the success enables her to repay her debts, so much the better.

Shots, miscellany

Tennis love is in the air.

• Meet Djokovic and Murray and raise some money for a good cause.

• Miles Uhlar of Berkley, Mich.: "Did anyone else find the U.S. team spirit during Sam Querrey's Davis Cup choke job extravaganza vs. James Ward a little less than impressive? Why were the Bryan brothers not on the team bench (or even, as it appeared to this spectator, anywhere in the stadium)? Why did John Isner see fit to stroll out for only about 20 minutes of a 3½-hour match (maybe your support would have been more valuable before it was 4-0 in the fifth set). And what was Donald Young doing on his smart phone the entire time? As someone who flew more than 2,000 miles and spent close to as many dollars for the matches, it was all tremendously disappointing. The stink from that weekend remains; I can still smell it here in Detroit."

More John McEnroe at ESPN.

ATP players as Winter Olympians.

• Nadal did some sightseeing before the Rio Open.

• Venus Williams has committed to the Family Circle Cup next month, joining her sister Serena, Jelena Jankovic and Sloane Stephens.

Congrats to tennis fan Eric Hutchinson, whose new album, Pure Fiction, comes out soon. Listen here.

• Sam of San Diego has long-lost siblings: Federer and New Zealand freestyle skier Lyndon Sheehan, who is competing at the Sochi Olympics.

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