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  • Plus thoughts on the fall swing in Asia, new innovations, Rafael Nadal's time at No. 1, best-of-five-set finals and more.
By Jon Wertheim
October 04, 2017

Hi, everyone:

• A little crowd sourcing: I’ve been asked to speak about the state of sports analytics. I have some thoughts, but mostly through the prism of work. I’d be curious to hear from you guys. As fans—of tennis, but also of other sports—what’s your relationship with sports data and to what extent do analytics add (or detract) from your experience? Any thoughts welcome.

• The most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast was innovation themed and featured Tony Godsick, Laver Cup co-founder, as well as Stacey Allaster.

• The ATP should atone for its failure to accommodate Dudi Sela last week. Bad look, this.

• Another link for Monica Puig and her efforts to help Puerto Rico in crisis. 

Mailbag

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

Hi Jon, I would like to know what you think about the ATP and WTA Tour's focus on China in particular. In the past few years both tours have either moved tournaments from other Asian Countries (ATP Bangkok to Shenzhen, ATP Kuala Lumpur to Chengdu) or started new tournaments (WTA Shenzhen, WTA Wuhan etc.). Do you think this approach of focusing on one country in particular is good strategy for the tours financially and is it good for the future of the game? 
Kraisri K., Phnom Penh, Cambodia

• In broad strokes, I like that tennis has this flexibility. The NFL wants to colonize Europe, which is fine. But that means schlepping teams over to Wembley every few weeks. Tennis targets a growth area and they can simply transfer an event or—provided the financial backing is there—elevate its tier.

I have no problem with the shift to Asia and China more generically. (Especially tucked as it is in the fall schedule, where majors have been played and the meat of the calendar is unaffected.) Since the retirement of Li Na, China’s presence has diminished, as this ESPN piece explains nicely. Still, any global business that ignores China commits an act of negligence. Clearly it’s a growth market. Clearly it’s important for any business to establish a beachhead there. Gauging success is a long-term exercise. But again here’s a beauty of tennis: if this China strategy doesn't pay off, the sport can divert resources elsewhere.

Tennis
After Laver Cup Addition to Calendar, Mid-Match Coaching Could Be Next Change in 2018

Love the podcasts. How about one with Jamie Hampton?

Re: what fans want. Good point you made about where is the data. Also, as a big tennis fan here, I hear from the casual fan or even casual sports fan that they hate the grunting. People turn off tennis because of grunting.
Eric

• Thanks. Love the podcast idea. Consider yourself on notice, Hampton.

Anyway, for all that ails tennis, grunting never much bothered me. I suppose it’s the same way that nails on a chalkboard drives some people crazy while others scarcely notice. To mix metaphors, I’m somewhat torn on grunting. Realistically, how do we legislate it? Especially when athletes make the case that it’s a function of their exertion?

Yet this is inescapable: a lot of fans who object to it; a lot of fans don’t watch tennis because of it; and a lot of fans clearly feel ignored by tennis’ decision-makers. Which is never a good place to be.

I just saw Battle of the Sexes last night with some work colleagues, and we all loved it! Before I saw the movie, I read Steve Flink’s review on Tennis Channel’s website. One thing he mentioned that kind of bothered me during the movie is the Marilyn Barnett omission. What do you think about the fact that they skipped the outing of BJK and palimony suit by Barnett in the closing credit wrap-up? Upon further thought and some reading, I guess it would make practically a whole other movie to truly tell that story (Battle of the Sexes II: Battle of the Exes?!). Additionally, by mentioning King’s [current] relationship, they are inviting curious viewers to say, “I wonder what happened with that lady Marilyn,” and then they can do their own research to figure it all out. To me though, because so much emphasis was placed on BJK and Marilyn’s relationship, there should have been some mention of their break-up and what happened as a result.
Meredith

• We’ve had a few questions about Battle of the Sexes recently. My overarching thought: Finally, tennis has a decent contribution to the canon of the sports movie. The theme may be well-trodden ground. The result of the competition was hardly suspenseful. The characters are caricatured. Elisabeth Shue in underused.

But “Battles of the Sexes” is a clean winner. While Emma Stone and Steve Carrell do the heavy lifting, the many cameos really elevate the production, there many small touches that pay off in a big way and the tennis action doesn’t induce cringing. Is this transformative, transcendent cinema? No. But it’s B+/A- fare that’s worth your $15. And a few months from now, it’s definitely worth 90 minutes on an airplane or Amazon Prime session.

Tennis
Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Billie Jean King, Emma Stone and Battle of the Sexes Directors

All that said, it’s a movie, not a documentary. Which means that some licenses will—inevitably, necessarily—be taken. Most obviously, there was the heavy stressing of the romantic backstory. There was the glossing over just how accomplished both BJK and Riggs were as players. There was no discussion of the best-of-five format or where tennis resided in the culture.

But the “based-on-a-true-story-ness” also means you can determine your own chronology. Ending the plot immediately after the match, as the filmmakers tidily do, they are under no obligation to tell the full (and tragic) backstory of Marilyn Barnett. If viewers are left wondering “what happened with that lady Marilyn” it’s not a bad thing. (If they’re really curious, they can do the research and find the unhappy answer.)

Yes or no: Does Sloane Stephens win another Slam? I will hold you to this, nine years from now when you are safely living in Lake Oswego.
M.H.

• The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland! (I’d live in PDX proper, not Lake Oswego.) Anyway, where were we? Oh right. Sloane. She hasn’t exactly built on her U.S. Open triumph so far, losing early in the two events she’s played since. But, sure I’m thinking she’s winning another Big Ticket prize. Once Serena retires—provided that happens—the field becomes a gaping chasm. Take Stephens’ assets (athleticism, defense, deceptive power) add in her relative youth (she has, conservatively, 30 majors left in her?) and, sure, I’m taking that bet.

Hi, Jon, I'm a fairly avid tennis fan (I made it out to my current residence's tournament this week, the Chengdu Open), but something happened this week that I cannot figure out. So, a few days ago, the WTA announced that Pliskova, Svitolina, Halep and Williams had all qualified for Singapore. What I couldn't wrap my head around was that Williams was the sixth woman in the standings, behind Wozniacki.  I suppose this is what the Supreme Court would call a moot point since Wozniacki has now qualified, but what is going on here? I know there is math involved (ugh) but how someone with less points qualifies ahead of someone with more is really a weird one for me. Any insight?
Rob L., Chengdu, China

• Not sure if I’m reading your question correctly. Venus Williams is eight points behind Wozniacki in the standings. So, yes, it’s odd that she qualified first. Larger point though: the race to the year-end field imbues the fall with some intrigue. It’s like playoff spots on other sports. But the confusion between “race” and “ranking” still needs more elucidating for many fans.

Great patience displayed during the podcast while Stacey tried to connect on-court coaching as being "for the fans" with 2005 info from ESPN and “leaders of the game.” Trying to attract millennials and Gen Z by lengthening matches to include coaching breaks based on 2005 brainstorming? Head scratcher. That kind of logic does not bode well for the sport. I agree with you and Mary C that the optics of on-court coaching are embarrassing. The easiest thing in the world to do is survey fans through email and social media to find out what the fans want. Anyway, I was losing my patience with Stacey's arguments and am glad you didn't.
Matt

• A lot of you wrote in about that podcast. I give Stacey a lot of credit for coming on and trying to make her case, especially given that she knew how intensely I dislike mid-match coaching. Or whatever we’re calling it.

I’m 100% with her that tennis needs to embrace innovation and be open-minded about changes. My issue: if we’re making this change—a fairly radical one I’d argue—for the benefit of fans, there HAS to be data that fans actually want and like this. I see no evidence of that.

Hi Jon. You said:

"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 think the issue is how wildly people swing their opinions, particularly the press. I understand that it's a lot more fun to write in terms of superlatives and elaborate praise or blame as opposed to mixed reporting, which is dull... but the world could benefit from balance and equanimity now more than ever. I truly hope Roger's back is okay......Take care and keep up the good work!
R.F.

• No “RF” is not Roger Federer. (Unless he’s doing a Kevin Durant and using a ghost account to chastise the media and express concern for this back.)

The world could benefit from balance and equanimity now more than ever.” Amen, to that. But you know what else the world could benefit from? Less blaming of the media. To an overwhelming degree—within sports and outside of sports—I see journalists trying like to hell to be fair and decent and right, in a climate of economic challenge and hostility from the highest levels of power. “Fake news” has become this lazy catch-all that seldom comes with specifics, usually means disagreement not fraudulence, and is deeply corrosive.

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Cop Who Wrongfully Arrested James Blake to Sue Blake and NYPD

Transitioning from a quick rant to quick story: Maybe 15 years ago I wrote about an NBA player whose initials were Ruben Patterson. He had a strong game for the Seattle Sonics. As he emerged from shower, his locker was ringed by journalists. “That’s what I figured,” he said disgustedly. “Where were you all last night?” Impliedly, there was this hypocrisy. The media has clustered but hadn’t shown this level of adulation after the previous game. Someone should have said, “Last game you had two points. Tonight you had 20 points. Last game you didn’t warrant coverage. Tonight you do. Those, my friend, are the rules of engagement.”

Same here. When players tank matches or fail drug tests, they deserve condemnation. When they win or behave nobly, they deserve commendation. There’s no hypocrisy is dispensing both when appropriate.

If Rafael Nadal finishes his career with the same number of grand slam titles as Roger Federer, is he going to be hurt in the GOAT debate by that fact that he has spent much less time at No. 1 than Federer? In fact, he’s spent much less time at No. 1 than Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors, even though they all have fewer majors.
Rob, Seoul, Korea

• Again the great frustration and the great beauty of the GOAT discussion…is just that. It’s a discussion, not a conversion chart. Your points of emphasis might not be mine. To some, it’s all about the majors. To others, the head-to-head looms large. Still others will look at total titles, or distribution of wins among surfaces or longevity. I would contend that, yes, weeks at No. 1 bends toward Federer (and against Nadal.) But it hardly seals the deal.

Federer recently said he'd love to see more best-of-five set finals at best-of-three set tournaments. When Nadal first caught fire in 2005 in Key Biscayne in their second match, the two played an epic final that set the groundwork for their legendary rivalry. Is Federer onto something when he goes against tour preferences for shorter matches?
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.

• As a matter of probability, the best players want a bigger sample size. This only makes sense, right? Flip a coin ten times and you might get nine heads. Flip a coin 100 times and you are much less likely to get 90 heads.

As I see it, the move away from best-of-five marks a triumph and common sense. Best-of-five has no place in tennis, other than the second week of majors. It’s simply too much. Too much tennis for the fans. Too much inventory and uncertainty for TV. Above all, too much wear-and-tear on the players.

Shots, Miscellany

• Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal like each other:

• Ilie Nastase might be a pariah in some corners of tennis. But now he’s a diplomat. 

The Laver Cup Is What You Get When Tennis Tries To Be More Like Pro Wrestling, And That's A Good Thing

• Juan Carlos Ferrero doesn’t want your stinking Davis Cup job.

• Kingsmill Resort, the only AAA Four Diamond condominium resort in historic Williamsburg, is pleased to announce the appointment of tennis professional Tomas Gonzalez as Director of Tennis. With extensive experience as a professional player and private club pro, Gonzalez brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to Kingsmill Resort’s Tennis Club.

• Megan has LLS this week:

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