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  • Recapping a weekend of Europe vs. the World and Federer-Nadal in Prague, plus what's next for Sloane Stephens, Maria Sharapova's book and more.
By Jon Wertheim
September 27, 2017

Programming notes:

• While the rest of the sports world was swept up in Hurricane Trump, it was quite a week for tennis. A new—and largely successful—event featuring Federer and Nadal. And a new—and largely successful—Hollywood movie featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. This sport might just make it, after all.

• The most recent podcast features Emma Stone and Billie Jean talking about “Battle of the Sexes.”

• The next podcast guest: Tony Godsick talking about the Laver Cup and Stacy Allaster of the USTA gamely coming on our show to make the case for on-court coaching.

• Monica Puig is leading a fundraiser to support Puerto Rico. 

• Gordon Hayward is the best tennis player in the NBA:

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Laver Cup: I’ll take this over Davis Cup any day!!!
Duane Wright, Washington, D.C. 20004

• To use everyone’s favorite phrase these days, the Laver Cup versus Davis Cup is a bit of a false equivalence. I’m not sure it’s an either/or proposition. And yet it’s natural to compare the pre-existing weekend-long international competition to the new weekend-long international competition.

This week, we fielded lots of questions and comments about Laver Cup; but lots of questions on this point in particular. My feeling: Uber didn’t ruin taxis. Amazon didn't ruin retail. You had existing industries that did not evolve. In some cases, it was a matter of customer service. (Been in a New York cab lately?) In other cases, the logistics didn’t work. (Why go to the mall when you can order the same product online while waiting for the traffic light to turn green?) You had new industries target sectors ripe for disruption and…boom.

Tennis
Mailbag: The Case Against On-Court Coaching

That’s essentially what happened here. At a time of unprecedented connectivity and technology and globalization, of dwindling attention spans and historically low thresholds for confusion, Davis Cup declined to adapt and innovate and simplify. And now the disruption is underway.

As for the Laver Cup itself, it was great success. The fans liked it. The television audience liked it. The players liked it. It’s trying to thread the needle between a fun, unsanctioned event, but not an exhibition. But by and large, it succeeded. The matches were entertaining. The format worked. The players were sufficiently invested. We saw—yet again—that best-of-five is an excess. The black court looked cool. Federer and Nadal playing alongside each other was tremendous.

A few minor gripes: To me the sideline antics and the social media barrage were great from an entertainment standpoint; but they undercut the gravitas. Not all the camera angles paid off. Even without Djokovic and Murray, “Europe versus the world” is a mismatch.  But overall, this was a rousing success. Your move, Chicago….

I hope Krygios’s enthusiasm at the Laver Cup helps repair his reputation. He was a blast to watch on the court (well, I only saw the Federer match) and on the sidelines. He was obviously gutted to lose to Federer after holding match points. Perhaps the team setup appeals to him more than the lone-wolf nature of tennis. But never mind his attitude or whether he truly wants to be a professional tennis player. Let’s assume (and hope) he decides he really does want this career. What’s missing, technically? What does he need to work on? Is it mainly a matter of being more disciplined with shot selection?
Megan Fernandez

• To me it’s all about professionalism and conviction and decision-making both within the match and more generally. It’s not about forehands and predictable patterns and over-reliance on the slice. I’ve long thought we’ve been too binary on Kyrgios. He’s the “the most talented player in all of tennis” and a “surefire No. 1.” No, wait. He’s a “talent squanderer” and “a tank artist” and “Bernie Tomic with a jump shot.”

Maybe Kyrgios just is what he is. An indisputably talented player whose skills surpass both his commitment and his emotional maturity. He’s a candidate to win a major AND he’s a candidate to capitulate—especially when he’s less than 100% physically—and lose in the first round. Meantime, he’s a colorful cast member who rejects tennis convention, speaks his mind and gives us all a reason to care.

As long as you brought up Kyrgios, a mea culpa: Last Sunday, as I was watching a slew of NFL players take a knee in protest to Trump, I was alerted to Kyrgios in Prague. Knowing what we know about the guy—his antipathy toward Trump, his kinship with American athletes, his connection to Kaepernick via his agent—I assumed this was an act of solidarity and tweeted accordingly. This assumption was proven to be false. Rookie error by me. And it recalls the old shibboleth: when you assume you risk making an ass of you and Uma Thurman.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Laver Cup and really commend everyone involved in being "serious" about it to make it more than a standard exhibition. Before we start theorizing on what year in our golden era would have made the best teams for the Laver Cup, I think I speak for many saying that it was an awesome experience to see Nadal and Federer on the same team and cheering on each other. Without trying to make it even more lopsided than it was (in terms of accomplishments), did you, like me, wish we could have seen Djokovic and Murray on team Europe as well to see all of the Big 4?
Anthony

• Sure, what event wouldn’t benefit from the presence of Murray and Djokovic? Anytime the Big Four is present together, it marks a special occasion. (Though it would have reinforced what was already a theme of Laver Cup: Europe is, unmistakably, the sport’s nerve center.) We look forward to seeing them in Chicago.

I was happy to see Sloane Stephens win the U.S. Open. An amazing story for a number of well-documented reasons. I'd love to hear your assessment of her future prospects as a multiple slam winner as she moves forward in her career. Given what you have seen of her game and what you know about the rest of the field in women's tennis, do you see Stephens having a career/Grand Slam record like Iva Majoli or Anastasia Myskina (caught fire for two weeks but didn't make much of an impact in subsequent Grand Slams while winning some smaller tournaments,) like Mary Pierce or Amelie Mauresmo (won a couple of Slams and played deep in others with a good record at other tournaments) or like Martina Hingis (five Slams in singles, played deep in other slams and multiple tournaments victories)?

P.S. I have the same question for you regarding Jelena Ostapenko.
Prasant

• This is always the drill. Players are toasted for winning their first major. Then the conversation pivots. Can they do it again? Or are they one-Slam wonders?

I’m bullish on Stephens. The athleticism and the game has always been there. At the U.S. Open she showed a maturity during her seven matches and also a maturity dealing with the attention. At age 24—having already been through the media controversies, having already been through an Under Armour deal, having already answered the “Are you the next Serena?” questions—she is poised for what comes next.

Here’s something else to consider: as I write this, Stephens is ranked No. 17. That’s a 52-week ranking and she is defending ZERO match wins until the second week in August of 2018. It’s hardly out of the question that she could be ranked No. 1 by next summer.

Ostapenko is a more limited and less accomplished player. She’s far less experienced in dealing with the pressures to attend stardom. She’s also almost a half-decade younger than Stephens so time is an ally. Do I see her winning another major in 2018? Perhaps not. But neither do I think she’s a fluke.

You seem to have steered clear on commenting on the thinly veiled racist jabs lobbed by Sharapova to Serena in her oddly named book "Unstoppable." Why does the tennis media treat Maria with kid gloves? I nearly fell off my chair watching the Open when I heard Chris Evert say that Maria "took a break from the game." Is Sharapova THAT popular? I don't know a single hardcore tennis fan who can stand her, so I'm baffled by the double standards covering her. 
MB, Salt Lake City

• I’m not sure I see many double standards. Any number of journalists and fans and other players have been vocally critical of Sharapova, of her catastrophically bad damage control, of her victim posturing, of the unanswered questions that linger. Deadspin asks: “Are you buying what Maria Sharapova is Selling?” I pointed out last month that someone who has, by her reckoning, “a family history of diabetes” and still puts out a line of candy has revealed an awful lot about her values. Sharapova’s book has been reviewed critically. This Serena Williams Reddit essay—rightly applauded and widely circulated—was squarely directed at Sharpova.

Do I think those were thinly veiled racist jabs? I want to give Sharapova the benefit of the doubt here. Do I think they were in sensationally insensitive, the kind of sloppy syntax you pay an editor to flag? Absolutely.

But I’m not seeing a lot of free passes here.

And at the same time, I admit to having a measure of sympathy for Sharapova. It's not as though she skated. She was suspended for more than a year. (While other players caught for the same substance were able to take advantage of a loophole.) Her career was put on hold. Her reputation has been damaged. Her buttoned-up operation has become unbuttoned. Now, at age 30, she is not merely trying to repair her tennis and ranking; but in many ways trying repair a damaged brand.

Been remiss, as the tennis has been a bit boring of late. All except the Laver Cup. The optics gave a sense of great emotion and team spirit. Top players and also a hybrid exhibition/serious tennis fun and grit! I hope it survives (and maybe they will have one match for seniors (as Roger and others get older). Great stuff. Give it a plug please!!! (Should replace that antiquated Davis Cup stuff.)

What I really wanted to bother you about was this Stevens win at the U.S. Open. You know we all had a picture of her as a queen B (a real stuck up, entitled primadonna). When she parted ways with Paul Annacone after some horrific losses where she barely gave an effort, I guess she lost all credibility. Well... I must say that I am the first to apologize to this woman. OK, the tennis wasn't great (but hey, both Vika and Serena were out), but the way Stevens deported herself was truly something to learn from. She was better at being the champion than I can ever remember almost any of the other ladies. Brilliant! 
Dr. Patrick Kramer

• Let this be a reminder: tennis players, like all of us, do evolve. Careers don’t move linearly. You write players off at your peril.

The periodic reminder that this is one of the beauties of tennis, of sports, of life. Let this also be a reminder that observers are entitled to follow the plots and change impressions of the characters accordingly. When Nick Kyrgios tanks a match or Serena Williams threatens an official or Sharapova fails a drug test, we can—and should—condemn. When is Nick Kyrgios beating Djokovic and Serena Williams is being Serena Williams and Sharapova is beating Simona Halep, they can—and should—be praised. Doesn’t mean there’s hypocrisy or fair-weather fandom.

I'm with Mary (and, I believe, along with  John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova) who thinks, and says, that [mid-match] coaching is the worst thing to happen to tennis since…

It deprives players of the essential tools they need to overcome a poor performance, that is, the ability to think on their feet (no pun intended) and solve problems. The great ones do it every match. It truly is demeaning to a player to have a coach come out in front of a large crowd, eliciting something like "poor [fill in the name] need a coach to help her through a bad moment."

“Everyone does it on the sly” is not an answer to permitting it. I'm sure that with an additional referee on each side of the chair umpire, AND with real penalties for surreptitiously coaching, it may solve the problem. My "nuclear solution" would be to have the team seated in an area of the venue that is not down in front. Perhaps in the sky boxes with those other folks who are too busy making deals to even watch the match. What to do on outside boxes? I leave that to your fertile brain.
Emilio Bandiero, Shedd, Oregon

• There are no fertile brains in this precinct. But thanks. And here’s a suggestion: go totally libertarian here. You want to cheat? Knock yourself out. I’ll single out Caroline Garcia here, whose father/coach may as well be auditioning to be a third base coach when she plays. It's an open secret that she receives illegal coaching.

a) she’s subject to fines.

b) she’s subject to reputational damage

c) if I’m a player and I know my opponent is dependent on her coach for tactical help, I am internalizing that knowledge and using it to my advantage.

Both Serena and Venus Williams have intimated this. They are independent and scarcely look to their cheering sections. When their opponents are forever communicating with their box, they know who has superior self-belief and character when it’s 5-5 in the third set.

Unlike a lot of media pundits I am not impressed by Nadal's U.S. Open win and the notion that the GOAT debate should be back on. In that vein—here's my question: Has anyone else in the modern era ever won a Grand sSam title without having to beat a Top 25 player? I am flabbergasted that anyone is impressed by Nadal's win when he literally won by default of being the healthiest Big 4 player in the tournament—and on a court that was slower than it's been in a few years and seemed tailor made to suit Nadal's game. And still he struggled against some of thee "journeymen.”

Round - Rank - Opponent
F - 32 - Anderson
SF - 28 - DelPo
QF - 53 - Rublev
R16 - 64 - Dolgopolov
R32 - 59 - L. Mayer
R64 - 121 - Taro Daniel
R128 - 85 - Dusan Lajovic

Average Ranking: 63.14

This is easily the most underwhelming achievement in Grand Slam history. How far back do you have to go find a less impressive list of players? There's the oft-injured former Slam champion Del Potro, a 19 year-old, and a bunch of guys that while I hesitate to call them "bums"—it's a close call.
Stacy A.

• This letter was particularly uncharitable but this theme has been sounded by others, so we use it as a chance to say unequivocally: We have to stop this line of reasoning and attack.

a)  A player can only beat the players put before him. It’s terribly unfair to demean someone’s title because other players may not have performed as expected.

b) Rankings are misleading. DelPo, in that kind of form, was a top five contender.

c) Almost by definition, part of winning a major entails fighting through rough patches and saving your best for last. Which major champion doesn’t peak and play better in week two than week one?

d) Only LeBron James can call people bums.

When I first read that comment from Bob about the 2017 Fed/Nadal H2H being skewed because Fed skipped the clay season, I was angry. But now I'm laughing. Over the years the Nadal fans have used the H2H like a “Badge of Honor.” Well, what goes around comes around, doesn't it? Fed has a 3-0 record against Nadal this year and some folks want to cry foul and claim "asterisk" because they didn't play on clay? Well, too bad. You can't have it both ways.  
Michelle

• You lost me here. Can't imagine this triggering anger or laughter. My point: Federer’s decision to skip the clay court season was completely validated in retrospect. This is the surface that exacts the biggest price on his body. This is the surface on which he’s won the fewest majors. This is the surface before grass court season, so a back tweak or a dinged foot on clay would undermine his Wimbledon.

But if we’re picking a MVP and two guys have split the four majors, I have to give the edge to the guy who played the full season. You could—and others have—made the case that you side with the guy who is 3-0 head-to-head. A) Candidly, I don’t feel particularly strongly here. B) We still have almost two months to play, so the positions can—and will—shift.     

As they get ready to serve, most players twirl 3 to 5 balls in their hands before picking one or two to serve with, while throwing the rest back to the ball persons. As an amateur tennis player, I wonder if there is any real factored decision-making here or is it just a ritual that servers go through. One would think all balls at a professional match would be very similar.
Nauman Khan, Oakville, Canada

• As a server getting first whack, you’d want the balls with the least air resistance. (Which is why servers like new balls.)

Shots, Miscellany 

• Some of you may remember Neil Harman, who covered tennis for the Times of London. He has a new book out, Gambling For Life.

Engaged Tennis Players Prefer to Be on the Same Side of the Net.

• ATP and ATP Media announced that Amazon Prime Video is now an official streaming partner of the ATP World Tour. The new deal covers the worldwide distribution of the Next Gen ATP Finals through Amazon Prime Video.

Tennis
44 Years Later, the Battle of the Sexes Returns to the Spotlight

The Next Gen ATP Finals, held in partnership with the Italian Tennis Federation and the Italian National Olympic Committee, takes place from November 7-11 in Milan and will showcase the very best men’s tennis players aged 21-and-under, as well as introducing many new innovations to the game.

• The total average audience for ESPN’s exclusive coverage of the U.S. Open from New York through Tuesday, Sept. 5, was up 8% to 874,000 viewers on average, compared to 809,000 for the first nine days of last year’s event.  The increase includes a 45% rise in the audience for streaming.  The television rating across ESPN and ESPN2 is a 0.6, up from a 0.5 at this stage of the 2016 tournament.

• James Blake, in response to the end of the disciplinary trial into Officer James Frascatore, who tackled and slammed Blake to the ground before improperly placing him in handcuffs outside of his Manhattan hotel in 2015:

“It's been more than 2 years since NYPD Officer James Frascatore attacked me in front of a midtown Manhattan hotel – slamming me to the ground and wrongly handcuffing me in broad daylight without ever even identifying himself – yet he is still an active NYPD officer. He was the subject of 5 misconduct complaints by civilians in the span of 7 months before he attacked me, and it seems he was never disciplined for any of them.

Tennis
Disciplinary Trial of Cop Who Wrongfully Arrested James Blake Concludes

“Had there not been a video of this attack, the NYPD and Officer Frascatore would have continued with the false account they initially put forward about the incident and the public would likely have not known about this case or even the identity of the officer, as is sadly true for so many other incidents of police abuse. The video makes clear that Officer Frascatore intended and carried out the use of excessive force, yet still he has not been held accountable and even now there is the attempt to sweep it under the rug with his potentially receiving a slap on the wrist that the NYPD has stated it intends to conceal from the public

“Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O'Neill must fire Officer Frascatore and make the discipline decision public—not just for me, but to send a clear message that excessive force by officers will not be tolerated. Anything less is continuing the broken 'politics as usual' approach that fails to protect communities of color harmed by police abuses and brutality.”

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