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I was waiting to ask you about Serena and a possible show at Indian Wells until after the Australian Open, and she beat me to the punch! I found her statement and video announcing her return very thoughtful and touching. The tie-in to charity was a nice touch, and also shows this decision was purposeful and in the works for some time. Aaron thinks this is a big deal for tennis. What says you?
-- Aaron Mayfield, Chicago, Ill.
• It’s funny, Serena was on the entry list last year for the first time since the incident. She withdrew at the last minute, but doesn’t even put her name down—and lord knows, the tournament doesn’t leak it—if there aren't some discussions. So clearly she approached this with great deliberation.
I give Serena a great deal of credit here, both for taking a principled stance and then having the flexibility to reconsider. She is at a much different point in her career and her life and acknowledges that a lot has happened since the incident. I give the tournament a lot of credit, too. The folks at Indian Wells handled a delicately situation with deft care and deliberation, essentially saying, “We respect your decision; but please know we’d love to have you back and we will assure you’ll be treated with maximum respect.”
No sport does irony quite like tennis, though. And on the same day Serena made her announcement, Malek Jaziri retired from a match. Had Jaziri won, he would have had to play Dudi Sela. Jaziri is Tunisian and Sela is Israeli and it insults all of us to pretend this is a coincidence. Especially since Tunisia has just finished a suspension from Davis Cup over Jaziri’s declining to play an Israeli opponent in 2013.
Jaziri claimed he withdrew on account of injury, but that strained credulity. All the more so given that the ATP match results cited an injury to Jaziri’s shoulder; yet the in a statement to me, the ATP claimed: “The official reason for Jaziri’s retirement in Montpellier was an elbow injury, as verified by the ATP physiotherapist on-site. He also withdrew from doubles. However, given a previous incident involving the player's national federation in 2013, we are looking into any wider circumstances of his withdrawal as a matter of prudence.”
When I began discussing this over Twitter, independently, two tennis insider types urged me to go easy on Jaziri. One wrote: “He is a genuine[ly] nice guy with many interracial ties…His entire family leaves in Tunisia and they probably don't have an easy situation there with some likely pressure.” Another made reference to Jaziri being in a “no-win” situation.
As a thought exercise, it's all very interesting. To what extent can an individual be held accountable to the policies of his country? Should we condemn Jaziri or pity him? Would suspending him unfairly forestall his career when he might simply be a pawn? While we can discuss in the abstract, there’s a more urgent practical matter. How can the ATP retain credibility as a global sporting concern when one player can, without consequence, refuse to compete against another player—for any reason, much less for reasons of bigotry? This is a real issue. The ATP needs to set real policy. The ATP needs to take a real stand. If “matters of prudence” were of paramount importance, at a minimum, a strong condemnation—be it of Jaziri or the Tunisian Federation—would have been issued by now. The current silence equates to a moral failure.
Both Serena and Sharapova are equal in mental strength and competitiveness, and Serena has an edge in athleticism and movement, but the real difference maker is Serena's all-time great serve. If Serena and Sharapova were to switch serves would the record in their rivalry be reversed, or at least much closer?
-- Cheers, Franklyn
• Good question. I would modify and say “Serena’s serve against Sharapova” is the difference. Serena had 11 aces in her first match against a player ranked outside the top 100. She had five aces in her next match against Vera Zvonareva. Against Sharapova? She had 18 (!) aces, which is as many as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had combined in their title match that was twice as many sets.
Speaking of Sharapova and Serena, a longtime reader, Stewbop, had a really savvy observation from last week that I wanted to share: “We all knew Williams and Sharapova weren't exactly drinking buddies. They respected each other as players and competitors, but not necessarily as people. But after two hours of battling intensely to see who would “COME ON” first across the finish line, when they shook hands, they seemed to look at each other with new eyes. Perhaps with a realization that they're more alike than not. And although they probably won't be going out to dinner or exchanging Christmas cards, they might take each other's photo off of their dartboards.”
I heard John McEnroe commentating on ESPN the first week of the Australian Open. By the business end of the tournament I didn't hear him at all. What happened?
-- Chuck Murray, Cincinnati, Ohio
• Simple answer: McEnroe only worked the first week for ESPN. (Which was a bonus considering it been years since he had been to Melbourne.) From the as-long-as-we’re-here department: from time to time some of you take issue with my warts-and-all fondness for John McEnroe. Listen to this podcast with Alec Baldwin and it pretty sums up why, in a warts-and-all kind of way, I can’t help but like the guy.
Who would have thought there would be an openly gay NFL player and NBA player before an ATP player? I don't think anyone has addressed this issue for years, and back then the explanation for the complete absence of out players had to do with locker-room and sponsor acceptance, and maybe less-accepting attitudes in other countries (given that tennis is an international sport). Do those reasons still hold water? Seems to me a gay player would automatically score a ton of positive media and fan support, which sponsors would love. Where does this stand? Is it a non-issue in the sport?
-- Megan Fernandez, Indianapolis, Ind.
• First I point you to this story. I wrote this more than (gulp) ten years ago: “In team sports, the ‘clubhouse’ is a real epicenter -- bonds among teammates harden, card games are played, film is watched, interviews conducted. In tennis, the locker room is where players shower and massage before going home. Sure, some meatheads might make the odd crack in passing. But who cares. The gay player doesn't depend on these guys to throw him the ball, or block for him, or allot his playing time. He doesn't sit with them on the team flight and he doesn't have to worry about how his sexuality affects team chemistry.
My sense is that other players can handle a gay colleague. I've asked a few players about this in casual conversation and the question was met with shrugs. You'd think I'd had asked, "How would feel if another player announced he had an allergy to peanuts?" I've argued this with a few of you this week, but I still maintain that tennis players are, on the whole, more tolerant than other athletes. Tennis players come from six continents (Note to the Antarctica Federation: get with the program!). They're old and young, married and single, tall and short, black and white, come from wealth, come from poverty. The tent is so big as is, I'd like to think there is room for an openly gay player as well.”
I used to think that if an ATP player were to come out, he would enjoy cult hero status. He’d be widely supported. He would be an instant fan favorite. It would be an interesting litmus test with regard to other players, but those who have been outspoken on the issue of inclusion—I’ll single out James Blake because I recently saw him at an Athletes Ally event—would come to the fore.
Today? I think that if an active player were to come out, he would be applauded. He would do a few extra interviews. And after a few weeks, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. I don't want to minimize the courage this would entail or the justified concern a gay player would have or the complications—the potential disruptions in a career with a short shelf life are not an insignificant consideration. That’s how far we’ve come on this issue in a short amount of time.
So what is the pecking order of the Masters 1000 tournaments?
-- Lynn, Yorktown, Va.
• Well….let’s put it this way: Indian Wells is clearly the leader. Monte Carlo has the optional status, so, de facto, it is last in line. The autumn events are swell but they suffer the fate of most fall events. A) The players are worn down and/or conserving energy for the ATP World Tour Finals. B) Since no Major is played indoors—weather willing—there’s a nagging sense that, by virtue of the surface, they’re not as important.
I’m a huge fan of you and your column but I was left scratching my head regarding your answer to the question about Nick Kyrgios’ outburst and not getting a penalty. I think you are undermining the rules when you say: “Even if it comes at the cost of inconsistency, I think it’s important to imbue the chair umpire with discretion” or “But why disrupt the rhythm of the match with some tsk-tsking?” If a rule is intended to be followed then there is not room for discretion or worrying about disrupting a match. If the guy is misbehaving it shouldn’t matter if he’s playing a challenger or a Grand Slam. Enforce the rules. A rule’s a rule—either follow it or get rid of it. It’s not fair to have it both ways.
-- Scott, Jacksonville, Fla.
• Thanks, Scott. This is a point that goes beyond tennis. There is a case to be made for uniformity. As Scott says, “A rule’s a rule.” What is a foul in the first quarter should be a foul at the end of the game. What is a strike on the first pitch of the at-bat should be a strike on a 0-2 count. In tennis, remember when Serena was called for that foot fault and threatened the lineswoman at the 2009 U.S. Open? I always thought it was interesting that the commentators (looking at you, McEnroe) didn’t object to the call itself. They objected to the timing. “You can’t make that call at this point in the match.” Wait, so what’s a foot fault at 1-1 isn't a foot fault later in the match?
But as I see it, you have to give the officials some discretion. For totally objective calls (foot faults, feet on the line, ball kicked through uprights or into goals) there should be total consistency. For subjective calls, I would argue that officials ought to have latitude that they apply in keeping with the rhythms of the contest. In this case, the tantrum was self-directed, not a show of anger at anyone else. We’re talking about a 19-year-old kid—under incalculable pressure—in a match that he is losing decisively. Apart from adding insult to injury, citing Kyrgios for a violation risks inflaming the crowd and completely changing the complexion of the match. (Sidenote: if I’m Murray, I don’t want any disruption of the atmosphere; everything is going my way.) I have no problem with the chair showing sensitivity and restraint and swallowing the whistle so to speak.
Has there been any update on Jack Sock's brother? I would like to think that he is well on the way to recovery at this point, but I have seen no news.
-- Lilas Pratt
• Here’s Jack Sock retweeting Eric Sock on Jan. 27:
As for Jack, we were sorry to see that, following his off-season surgery, he was not in the Memphis event as he’d initially hoped. With any luck—and Lord knows this family is due some of that—he’ll be back soon.
Martina Navratilova won nine Wimbledon titles. Yes, she lost 3 finals, as opposed to Nadal’s one, but she played in two more than he has so far. His percentage may be better, but the number of wins is equal.
-- Marsha Francis
• Yes, Martina has won as many Wimbledons as Nadal has won French Opens.
• Cam Bennett of Canberra, Australia: G'Day Jon. Here's a take on Nick Kyrgios I thought I'd pass on.
• “Longtime reader seeks to rent a lovely 3-bed, 2-bath townhouse in Palm Desert March 13th-20th.” I’m happy to play yenta if anyone has a rental.
• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Mike Mewshaw. Tennis tie-ins: a) Mewshaw is a longtime tennis writer, author of classic Short Circuit and Ladies of the Court b) Vidal was a keen fan of tennis. In fact, his famous second novel, The City and the Pillar, starts with a tennis match and is told from the point of view of a gay tennis instructor.
• A few of you asked about this. Here’s the SI piece from a few weeks ago on swimmer-turned-trucker Siphiwe Baleka.
• Press releasing: The McEnroe Challenge, a one-day, free admission special event on the Saturday ahead of the BNP Paribas Open, will feature McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Blake, Rick Leach, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys.
• The North Carolina Tar Heels are the 2015 ITA Division I National Women's Team Indoor Champions after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs, 4-1, on Monday.
• Matthew A. Witenstein of Camarillo, Calif., has LLS: Andy Murray and Beavis.