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Mailbag: Unfavorable Debut of Next-Gen ATP Finals Raises Questions About Event's Future

A word on the disgraceful debut of the Next-Gen ATP Finals and what lies ahead, plus thoughts on Rafa vs. Roger, the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai and more.

Hey everyone, quick housekeeping:

• The next Sports Illustrated/Tennis Channel podcast features guest: Andre Agassi.

• Speaking of podcasts, if you’re in the market for a sports media listen, my colleague Harry Swartout has you covered.

• On a week that saw Jack Sock and CoCo Vandeweghe enter the top10…..


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

WTF were they thinking??!?? Have they not been paying attention?? Came across this when I was online trying to learn why Gianluigi Quinzi, ranked 306, was in the draw. Because...he's Italian? Especially when there were two other Next Gen-er's in the top 100—Frances Tiafoe (No. 77) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (No. 87). There was even a higher ranked Italian player—Matteo Berrettini at No. 122. What gives?!?
Helen of Philly

• Damn, Helen stole my joke inadvertently. I had prepared a line that the ATP calendar is so long that even its executives got confused: they gave us WTF a week early. Instead of the World Tour Finals we got the more conventional acronym.

In addition to Helen, plenty of you—rightly—asked what the ATP could have been thinking enlisting models to suggestively place players in brackets in the Milan ceremony. This so outrageously tone-deaf it’s scarcely worth enumerating the how and the why. That this could have occurred as the world considers the scale and sweep of sexual harassment…it equally baffles and enrages. (One of you also raised the point: “I also follow CNN host Anthony Bourdain. I think parallels can be drawn between the Next Gen ATP Finals Draw Ceremony in Milan and the treatment of actress/director Asia Argento by the Italian media.”)

Acknowledging that this is (deeply) secondary, I am also inclined to consider this lapse of judgment in the context of tennis. The ATP has been pushing this Next Gen event for months. It’s the first year of this….well what is it? Not really a tournament but not really an exo. Apart from promoting young players who have been obscured by the Big Four, this event was to be a laboratory for all sorts of “innovations” and experiments.

So we have a first-year event with a hard-to-follow format, largely unknown players and a series of twists on conventional rules. What does this mean: marketing is absolutely essential. So is creating a favorable first impression. What do we have instead? Before the first ball is struck, there’s a worldwide controversy that somehow makes it on to my BBC homepage in a way that no match results ever could. That’s the encapsulation of an inauspicious debut.

What’s more, a core virtue of tennis is its gender equality. That men and women who are not just paid equally but compete simultaneously. That fans know players from both tours. When the ATP undercuts this with acts of commission and omission ranging from moronic to outright misogyny, it does the sport a great disservice.

To the ATP’s credit—such as it is—there was immediate contrition. Without the pro forma “if anyone was offended” the tour owned the mistake. “ATP and Red Bull apologise for the offence caused by the draw ceremony for the Next Gen ATP Finals. The intention was to integrate Milan’s rich heritage as one of the fashion capitals of the world. However, our execution of the proceedings was in poor taste and unacceptable. We deeply regret this and will ensure that there is no repeat of anything like it in the future.”

The real question now: can this event recover? Or will it, too, be something unlikely repeated in the future?

Now! As this experiment unfolds, I want you to be sure to critique both the good and bad. I already like the Hawk-Eye line judging. Not too keen on the let stuff but hell, it should throw some dice and spice into the mix. I still think both players should be forced to play without shoes, or maybe with a Great Dane tied to their belt. JON! THIS STUFF IS WRECKING TENNIS! (Well, some of it). What is your honest take on this new format? You should be able to sort it all out for us fossils.
Patrick Kramer, Icy Drammen, Norway

• We keep an open mind here. There’s a lot going on here. My sense: some of this will be better than others. In a few days we can take inventory.

Here's a remarkable fact: the only former winners in the player roster at either the men's or the women's tournaments were 36-year old Roger Federer and 37-year old Venus Williams!

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• Well played. I would feel better about this “aging of the field” trope if there weren’t so many damn injuries. I think we leave it here: the tennis authorities are unwilling or unable to correct a calendar that is not merely deeply flawed, but simply untenable.    

ATP Apologizes for Offensive Next-Gen Finals Draw Ceremony

And here comes the libertarianism I deeply support—the players will make their own scheduling choices. Players like Federer and Williams will build-in the time off and suitable rest their tours won’t carve out for them.

My wife surprised me with tickets to ATP Finals in London for my birthday. Assuming you've been/and are going again, any advice on what to see and do while there?

• That’s lovely of your wife.  We posted London tips a few weeks ago, the main takeaways being “take public transportation” and “drink at the pub but, for the love of Yahweh, don’t eat the food.”

This will sound insufferable—humble brag meet name drop; name drop meet humblebrag—but in 2010 I went to the WTF and did a piece on a prominent player. We did one interview on a boat, heading from the arena to his hotel on the bank of the Thames. We passed all sorts of sights, went under bridges, etc. I don’t know if this was special transport for the players if it’s available to the public. But this was a great way to see London and beat the traffic. Look into this.

You had quite a few references to the WTA. Just when I thought that it couldn't get any worse for them, they took that up as a challenge. My first question: Why is the Zhuhai tournament even needed? If this were a fun tournament players can limit how they expend energy. I can understand that. Am I too harsh in judging that the WTA is desperately trying to award a consolation prize to those just outside the Elite 8 that qualified for the real finals? This unnecessary appendage to an already long year seems directly at odds with the claim that the season is toooo long and contributes to injuries. 
Venky C

• This tournament lost me when it placed some players in the Azalea Group and others in the Bougainvillea Group. Sounds like the pairing before capture-the-flag at summer camp. Sounds like decks on a second-rate cruise ship. Couldn’t they do something classy like have local models determine the groups?

Seriously, your question touches on Tennis Conundrums 101. Is the world starved for an event featuring no top players, held in the same month we eat turkey? Perhaps not. But if there’s a promoter willing to pony up and put large checks into the pockets of Julia Goerges and CoCo Vandeweghe (who now IS a top ten player) shouldn't they be allowed?

Allow me a little bit of cynicism: Nadal pulls out of Basel citing a knee injury, plays the one match in Paris he needs to secure him ending the year as No. 1, and then promptly pulls out again citing same knee injury while at the same time saying he needs to rest to be able to play in London? 
Helle Hansen, Zürich, Switzerland

• Nah. I think that for Nadal, especially at this stage in his career, every decision becomes subject to a risk/reward test. I stress these two cardinal rules of sports.

1) Question an athlete’s injury at your peril.
2) Question an athlete’s decision to retire (or keep playing) at your peril.

Rafael Nadal plays until he cannot. Roger Federer can play but does not...... Discuss!

• I re-posted this on twitter and the response—predictably—got nasty quickly. Again, a wish for 2018: could fans of the Big Four please mirror the civility, respect and measured dispositions of the players they support.

I think Mise’s assertion is a bit of an oversimplification but I think there’s some truth here. Nadal plays until his body gives out. Federer sticks to his schedule to prolong health and, in turn, his career. Again, both are fashioning their own schedules in the absence of support from their tour.

This sport is filled with protect-my-fiefdom self interest. Everyone wants change. Until it’s their event or their week on the calendar that’s jeopardized. Everyone wants innovation; until it comes at the expense of their financial interest. Some China investors want to fund a World Cup! Awesome! Oh wait, it might be placed on my week on the calendar? Wait, it might drive up my purse or deplete my player field? Never mind, Terrible idea.

Watch: Roger Federer Plays in Kilt During Exhibition in Scotland

Hi Jon, I've always appreciated how objective the ranking system is in tennis, and how they dictate player seeding at events. However, del Potro's late charge for a place in London got me thinking as to whether there's scope for a slightly more subjective decision on seeding for players who have been blighted by injury. It's a fairly unique case, but I think most tennis fans would agree that del Potro would be a shoo-in for a place in London but for some pretty horrendous draws at the beginning of the year.

For example, at the majors the top 30 in rankings qualify as the automatic top 30 seeds, with a panel deciding the remaining two places based on other criteria such as: previous ranking, success at the tournament, or on that particular surface? As Jared Donaldson touched on in your recent podcast, No. 32 is a hugely significant number in the rankings that never gets discussed. Maybe this method would help recognize 30 as a very meaningful achievement that provides a significant advantage for those who achieve it.
Best wishes, Kieran Hackett

• Consider this: when you’re No. 33, you could play the top player in the first round of a major. (Which has happened, as both Novak Djokovic and Phil Kohlschreiber can attest.) When you’re No. 32, you are guaranteed not to play a higher-ranked opponent until the third round. By that time you’ve guaranteed yourself a six-figure payout and a bushel of ranking points.

But to Kieran’s point, one of the beauties is the meritocracy. Win and your ranking soars. Lose and it plummets. No judges to impress with “artistic impression.” No teammates to blame or vie with for roster spots. No coaches to impress. That as a backdrop, I would be really careful about adding subjective elements. We’ve spoken before about the necessity of wild cards. But potentially depriving the No. 31 and No. 32 players out of spots so a panel can make subjective judgments? You’re basically begging for controversy.

(A brief timeout: I’m on an American Airlines flight listening to their musical selection. Just want to be sure we’re all aware of the super-awesomeness of Cage the Elephant’s “Tell Me I’m Pretty”? At a time when albums have never been less relevant, man, is this one a tour de force.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the WTA Finals on WTA TV. All singles and all doubles shown. Great commentary too, with Kim Clijsters and Mary Pierce and even Chris Evert. Yet this didn't even rate a mention in your response? Time will tell whether the WTA is waaaay ahead of the curve or made a colossal blunder—either you'll be working there, or they'll come limping back to TTC.
Helen of Philly

• Fair point. And one that merits mention. As someone in the media ecosystem who sees (daily) the importance of controlling your own content, I empathize with the WTA. “Instead of selling our rights at a price we deem substandard, we’ll retain ownership, thanks.” I totally get that. I totally support that.

But at some point there needs to be an acknowledgement that your self-worth is really irrelevant unless someone is willing to pay that price.

Dear Jon, I got a bone to pick with tennis players, especially American and British tennis players. My beef is simple: the pervasive misuse of the adjective "aggressive" in our beloved sport. You can be aggressive, but you do not play aggressive—you play aggressively! I understand if non-native speakers don't realize the distinction (Rafa is especially fond of leaving off the -ly) but in your podcast with Jared Donaldson, he says, "play aggressive" (10:08 mark). He was talking about Rafa, so perhaps it's contagious. Jared's not alone—John Isner's guilty as well.  And it doesn't help that even journalists are making this error"Q. This match, Jelena played very aggressive." Granted, these writers may be foreign, but still. We need to aggressively rescue this adverb from further grammatical degradation!
—Sung, Washington, N.J.

• You HAVE a bone to pick. You don’t GOT a bone to pick. We jest. Not to get all William Safire here, but Sung is correct. Yet I would ask: when does a phrase that is, technically, incorrect grammatically gain acceptance? “I don’t feel well” technically means that your tactile sensitivity is poor. But we accept it colloquially.

Caroline Wozniacki Announces Engagement to David Lee

Shots, Miscellany

• A few of you asked about Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece. This link should work.

• Here’s a teenager who does an awesome impersonation of 36-year-old Roger Federer:

• Name these two young players:

• TAG Heuer is today very proud to announce the appointment of a new athlete to the family: rising tennis star Denis Shapovalov.  

• Michael Llodra will be working with Nicolas Mahut in 2018.

• The American senior tennis contingent won titles in the Alice Marble Cup (Women’s 60) and Austria Cup (Men’s 55) at the ITF Seniors World Team Championships in Miami. The tournament is the senior tennis equivalent of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup competitions, with top American tennis players representing their country in the 50-, 55- and 60-and-over age groups.

• A note from Victoria Azarenka:

“Hi guys,

As you probably saw this week, I will not be able to be a part of the Fed Cup final this year. It is heart-breaking for me to not have a chance to play and help Belarus in the final, but unfortunately, my current custody situation is keeping me in California. Even though I will not be in Minsk for the final, my heart is always with my country and my team and I will cheer for them from afar. 

While it has been a tough year for me, I am already looking forward to 2018 and playing before my fans very soon. As always, I want to send you my gratitude for the support you give me every single day with your notes and messages. I will be back stronger and better than ever!


•  Six of America's best junior tennis players ages 14 and younger earned spots to compete in the prestigious Les Petits As 14-and-under junior event January 22-28 in Tarbes, France, with their performance last week at the Les Petits As USA Playoffs at Club Med in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Evan Wen (13, Morristown, N.J.) and John Kim (13, Sunnyvale, Calif.) earned spots in the boys' main draw of Les Petits As, while Katrina Scott (13, Woodland HIlls, Calif.) and Katja Wiersholm (13, Kirkland, Wash.) earned berths into the girls' main draw in Tarbes by reaching the finals of the USA Playoff. Wen beat Kim in the boys' final, while Scott defeated Wiersholm to win the girls' bracket.

Victor Lilov (13, Raleigh, N.C.) and Vivian Ovrootsky (13, San Jose, Calif.) punched their tickets to France by winning the third-place matches, and will play in either qualifying or the main draw in Tarbes. USTA Player Development will select one additional boy and girl to travel to and play in Les Petits As and will choose whether that player or the third-place finisher will play in the main draw or qualifying. All four players will also compete in the Junior International Teen Tennis event in Bolton, England, the week prior to Les Petits As.

• Ben of Minneapolis has the reader riff:

Federer's aggressive court positioning is also, I think, the reason it appears Nadal's defensive skills are not quite what they were ten or even five years ago. I say appears because, having watched Nadal dominate Roland Garros and the entire clay season like never before, not to mention win the U.S. Open in such an authoritative fashion, I'm not convinced that Rafa has lost a step at all. But when, as any amateur can tell you, you stand in on the baseline, you take away your opponent's time and make him look and feel slower.

And an additional factor I just thought of: Not stubbornly and compulsively coming to net behind too-weak approaches. A defining element of Federer–Nadal clashes of yore was the sight of Roger way too often charging the net behind approaches that would've been good enough against basically anyone other than Rafa, only to be brutally (and quite predictably) passed, followed by a ferocious VAMOS!! and a shift or acceleration of momentum in Nadal's favor. We're just not seeing that anymore. Instead, Fed is either coming to net only when he is virtually certain to get a floater, or staying back a shot longer and depriving Nadal of the chance to deliver one of his soul-crushing passing shots on the dead run.

A great example is what was maybe the signature point of the entire 2017 Aussie final, at deuce in the eighth game of the fifth, which Federer finished with that crazy half volley down the line. There were a couple shots earlier in the rally where in the past Federer might have come to net and would've probably been passed, but instead he stayed back and refused to give Nadal the chance.

The effect of all of these elements together is that Federer has perhaps been playing Nadal the way he should've played him from the beginning, with a result that is at once shocking and boringly familiar: Roger consistently holding serve with ease while being in nearly every single one of his opponent's service games. Will Rafa respond in 2018? Can't wait to find out!