- Why holding the first major early in the season is a good thing this year, plus thoughts on format changes, Maria Sharapova's 2017 schedule, Ana Ivanovic's retirement and more.
Welcome back, everyone. Brief as it was, this was quite an offseason—filled with all sorts of “life events,” some joyous, others horrific—but here we are again, bellying up to the bar to discuss the sport that thrives in spite of itself. Hope everyone has a prosperous 2017 and avoids the metaphorical call to the trainer. Pleasure to be back with you. To the questions….
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Jon, here it is the first week of the year and already I am reading about the Australian Open about to start. What? This is like starting the NFL season with a Super Bowl. Who thought that it was a good idea to hold the first major two weeks into the season?
• I’ll go contrarian here. I like this scheduling. Remembering that there are four Slams—so we’re not expending all capital here—there’s something different and fun about placing one early in the calendar. (In the past, I’ve likened it to putting one of the big awards early in the Oscars show.) Instead of easing in, the season starts with heft and meaning. In an instant gratification the-hell-with-foreplay kind of way, the fans are rewarded are almost immediately. Players have a high stakes event early in the season. The narrative begins early; we get an immediate sense of how players stack up. A tone is set. Then we refract, as it were, smoking our cigarette, eating brunch in sweats, deferring full commitment, and going four months without another major assignation. (I can stop this analogy? Oh, good.)
Anyway, the scheduling is thrown into sharp relief in 2017. For all intents, we haven’t seen three of the sport’s biggest stars—Federer, Nadal and Serena—since the U.S. Open last September. Now, they reappear early in 2017, competing at a Slam, seizing our attention.
In an orderly, rational world, the four Slams are spaced evenly. Or the folks in marketing (and the analytics department) have determined the optimal distribution dates on the calendar. I prefer the quirky and think, ultimately, the early placement of the Australian Open serves the sport well.
Hey remember when you said Ronda Rousey was the world’s most dominant athlete. #LOL
• This struck me as a harmless bit of troll-dom that I was prepared to delete, but I think there’s a point here worth stressing. Yes, two years ago, I wrote a piece on Rousey in which she was declared “The world’s most dominant athlete.”* Seemed reasonable at the time. Opponents were having a hard time simply making it out of the first round against Rousey, much less standing a chance of hurting her—much less actually, you know, winning. That’s obviously changed. Rousey has now lost two consecutive fights and her aura of indestructability is totally gone. (Someone should beat the crowds and start making this 30-for-30 already.)
This is sports. This is sports media. This is sports fandom. We’re not discussing movie characters or novel protagonists here. Nothing is scripted. Plots migrate. Fortunes fluctuate. I remember a few years ago getting an email saying something to the effect of, “You were always dismissing Djokovic in favor of Roger/Rafa and now you lemmings are all on the bandwagon.” The implication: there was this hypocrisy or disloyalty. You were critical when he wasn’t beating Federer and Nadal and now that he has, you’re showering him with praise. My response: Yes! Precisely! Guilty as charged! Such are the rules of engagement. After the game, you surround the locker of the star quarterback who threw the winning touchdown. You don’t do it the following week when he throws four interceptions. You condemn the 21-year-old player for tanking. When he wins a big tournament, the assessment is more generous. For that matter, it’s not just sports.
You Your friend bought Mariah Carey’s CD in 1991 and admired her virtuosic range. When she botches a live performance on New Year’s Eve a (gulp) quarter-century later and is criticized, it’s not an act of treason. You’re changing your assessment in response to new evidence.
*Note the passive voice: One of the cardinal rules of journalism: the writer of the story doesn’t write the headline.
Typical bias & bigotry from SI, one of them writes like his rival's pondscum fans & other one retweets it #SodOff
• Here’s another discourteous social media exchange that I will rescue from the delete file and instead use to make a broader point. First the backstory: my colleague happened upon this New York Times humor column and noted, in particular, the line about Djokovic. I absently retweeted, thinking that—especially at this point in the game—it's interesting that the mainstream sports press, perhaps in need of an updated scouting report, still sees Djokovic for his overarching desire to be liked. (And nice to see tennis—and Bud Collins—getting so many references.)
Anyway, here’s a modest wish for 2017: what if, here in the tennis space, we resisted the incivility and division and hotheadedness that thrives elsewhere and kept perspective and decorum? One of the great virtues of this Big Four era, but the sport more generally, is that you don't have to pick sides. There are, truly, no villains in the bunch. It may be antithetical to like Trump and Hillary, the NRA and gun control, settlements and prospects for a two-state solution. But here in our little village, it’s completely reasonable to like Federer AND Nadal; Djokovic AND Murray. Instead of seeking “bias” and “bigotry” where there is none…instead of turning tennis into this binary proposition….instead of portraying quirks as deep-seated flaws (“He’s arrogant!” “He wastes time between points!” “He mumbles!”)…instead of turning social media into a toxic lake…check yourself, as Ali G. would say. By all means, pick your favorites. You like Djokovic. She prefers Murray. Great. But your support need not come at the expense at the others. Save your energy for real outrages and abominations. Such as golf.
Fast 4: a great exhibition format. Otherwise...not. How about shortening baseball games to five innings and reducing numbers of balls and strikes? Might overcome the long stretches of time in baseball when *nothing happens*.
—NP Fisher, Aiken, S.C.
• While there aren’t, obviously, calls to shorten baseball games to five innings, there has been the advent of Twenty20 Cricket which, I’m told anyway, has been a success. Two points: a) I do get the sense that format change is coming. There’s an awful lot of momentum, especially by tennis standards. Four-game sets might be extreme. But I would be surprised if some moderate adjustments don’t get eased in by year’s end. B) Inasmuch as you guys form a focus group, I’m surprised by the resistance.
Any news on Sharapova's 2017 schedule? I'm eager to see if she'll make her return at a smaller tournament like Rabat or Prague and (likely) cash in on a huge appearance fee. This would allow her to front load on clay tournaments, potentially playing four before the French Open. She could also add a Wimbledon warm up, which she hasn't done in years, or do you think she'll ignore her time off and stick to a rather specific, minimal schedule like she has in years past potentially playing only a handful of tournaments up to the U.S. Open?
—Jordan, Madison, Wisc.
• Far as I have heard, there is not an official schedule. But it stands to reason that Sharapova will continue to seek simulated competition before her spring return. And it stands to reason that she will return under low-intensity and not at a Slam. It also stands to reason that that she’ll want clay preparation before the French Open—ironically, the major she might be most likely to win.
As I said before, a) Sharapova ought to be welcomed back to the fold without prejudice. She made a mistake. She got caught. She pursued the appeals process. She will have served her punishment. She is owed the right to reintegrate without bias. b) I see this comeback going one of two ways. Fueled with motivation and, perversely, helped by the time off, she will be an absolute force again. Or she will struggle and—having tasted life without tennis—will treat the rest of the year as a victory lap.
Call me Mr. Burns, but Ana Ivanovic hasn't really retired right? Can we call this an indefinite sabbatical? Happy New Year Jon...
• Mr. Burns, is that Scott or Montgomery? You never say never with retirements. As we discussed a few weeks ago, this is an overlooked dimension to being an athlete. You’re often in your late 20s or early 30s and must confront some steely truths: “I may never ever be as good at anything else as I have been at this job I am now leaving….I may never replicate this level of excitement and competition (and income)….The entire rhythms of my life are now about to change.” Some athletes have no problem with this transition. Others struggle mightily. Still others regret their choice and, as Deepak puts it, treat the “retirement” as a restorative sabbatical and return to play.
In the case of Ivanovic, I suspect this decision stands. We’re closing in on nine years since her major title and stint at No. 1. It’s not as though the savor of the highest success is fresh. She is newly married. She hasn’t won a match in more than six months so simply getting back in playing shape would take some time. Most of all, she was always—even at the height of her career and the marketing opportunities—strikingly grounded and curious about matters beyond tennis (the rare player you’d see stick a book into her bag!). Who knows, of course. But I have the sense that, constitutionally/financially/intellectually, she is well-positioned to move on.
In the NBA’s battle between Steph Curry vs. Lebron James, I see Andy Murray vs. Novak Djokovic. Do you agree?
• I am sucker for the inter-sport analogy. But you lost me here. For one, Murray and Djokovic are—by a matter of days—the same age. So the comparison falls apart already. Maybe there’s a Steph Curry/Federer comparison: two naturally talent players who discharge their duties with a certain artistic flourish. And their success does not seem to have exacted a price on their niceness. But again, the chronology falls apart. Federer has won 17 majors and is closer to 40 than 30. Curry, the reigning MVP is still in his 20s. And maybe Nadal could be LeBron, the devastatingly effective taurine player, who arrived as a man-child and fulfilled expectation….I think I need to call an ATP trainer after all this stretching. Again, happy to indulge this as a thought exercise. But I’m not seeing it. What about Djokovic: Ronaldo….Murray: Messi?
2017 is [upon us] and this was first announced months ago. What gives?
—Helen of Philadelphia
(Not a millennial, but cut the cord during the 2014 World Cup and never looked back...)
• I must have gotten a dozen of these questions over the past few weeks. I’m going to play middle-man. Given the importance of digital and mobile and media platforms in 2017, I can’t imagine that the WTA had taken this decision or strategy lightly. Consider this an invitation for the WTA to weigh in and I will happily devote the space and pixels to the response.
• Our last podcast before the break was with Pam Shriver and she was, as you would expect, excellent.
Next guest: James Blake.
• Speaking of Blake, he will be appearing at the Barclays Center alongside Jim Courier, John McEnroe, and Andy Roddick.
• Introducing Rafa Nadal.
• A Genie (Don't call me Carole) Bouchard update.
• You want John McEnroe in January; you got John McEnroe in January.
• The USTA announced that top young juniors Ryan Seggerman (17, Coronado, Calif.; Coaches: Angel Lopez, Chris Tontz) and Chelsea Kung (16, Fort Worth, Texas) won the USTA National Winter Championships Boys’ and Girls’ 18s singles titles last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., each earning wild card entries into future USTA Pro Circuit events.
• Carl Sechen of Allen, Texas, has this week reader’s riff:
The “constipation” in tennis with regard to change relates primarily to the disparity in views of those “experts” of tennis and the common fan. Tennis gets the overwhelming majority of its revenue from the common fan. While an expert might view a six-hour match as historic and wildly entertaining, the common fan will rarely watch more than a third of that match, unless they happen to be at the event … and even then, they’d rather watch six hours worth of *several* matches rather than just one. For example, I have gone to Indian Wells several times (including this coming year) but would never go to a Grand Slam. Even though I play at a reasonable level of proficiency (top 15 of my age group nationally), I have zero interest in watching a five-set match. Even during the grand slams, I never watch anything close to a whole five-setter on TV (even if I recorded it). Common fans just don’t have the same time available for leisure, and don’t have the same attention span, as common fans from decades ago. And frankly I don’t see how that would ever change back.
Therefore, more common fans would be interested in tennis if the matches were limited to three sets, both for Davis Cup and the Grand Slams. As it is, some of these three-set matches are too long, approaching three hours.
Perhaps equally important from the players’ perspective, tennis demands far, far more from the human body than it did a few decades ago. Even for common fan players!! Can you imagine the outcry if NBA games were lengthened to 60 minutess or more, compared to the current 48 minutess? Or, if hockey games were lengthened to a fourth 20-minute period? Yet tennis is at least as equally demanding on the human body as those two sports *with* extended times. Worse still, the tennis player may have to play 2-3 hours EACH day for six days in a row. Now think of the outcry if NBA players had to play six days in a row, or if hockey players had to play six days in a row?
This is exactly why I would never buy a ticket for the semifinals or finals of a professional tennis tournament. The winner is usually whoever is less exhausted and/or less injured. I learned that the hard way many years ago, paying well over a $100 a ticket (back then) for total wipeout matches or players not showing at all.
Unfortunately, the decision makers in tennis are “experts” who have significant difficulty in relating to the common fans, even though they should realize that’s where the revenue comes from. Imagine if people like myself would actually want to buy tickets to semis and finals of major tennis tournaments …how much more revenue (higher ticket prices) would that mean? Imagine how many more common fans would watch matches on TV if the entirety was done in less than 90 minutes? How much more revenue would that mean due to higher viewership?
Very sadly, I don’t see the constipation ending. At least not until tennis hires someone from another sport to lead it. Tennis needs a whole new perspective. By the way, even in national caliber age group tournaments matches (not to mention NTRP matches that demand two matches per day for singles) are quite often won by whoever is less broken down by that round in the tournament. Imagine if in other sports that was the case! You know, the state high school football team wins a round in the playoffs because they were less exhausted compared to their opponent. I mean, why does the NBA and NHL limit to three games a week during the playoffs? Yes, strictly so that the outcome is based on talent and skill (and yes, fitness and good fortune) rather than who had tougher games to get there.
Tennis is such a great game…it’s a pity that it cannot respond at all to how dramatically the game has changed over the last 40-50 years, both in terms of player physical demand and the time available (and attention span) from common fans. The “experts" will undoubtedly say look how rapidly the revenue has grown! I say, let’s see how much greater the revenue could have been…and could be.