The recent report on corruption within tennis lacks a necessary distinction between ATP/WTA stalwarts and what we call "hobbyists."
• Rennae Stubbs, having relocated to New York, popped by for an in-studio podcast appearance.
• Next up on said podcast: Michael Chang.
• Steve Kerr greets Manu Ginobili at midcourt and whom do they reference? Roger Federer, of course:
• Special acknowledgement to Wimbledon. The obligatory prize money increase announcement was accompanied by this note: The Club announced it remains strongly opposed to the introduction of any form of sanctioned coaching, whether it be on-court or from the stands. The USTA is going to find itself on the wrong side of history here…
• My birthday is months away. But do note that the bastard child of the Roomba Robot Vacuum and a ball-hopper sure would make a nice gift.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim
Lots of questions this week about the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis that was released last week, citing a “tsunami” of corruption and integrity issues.
Ironically, days earlier the Rice Commission released a similar report on the integrity issues within the NCAA. The reports concern two different sports but the same fundamental issue: rational actors behaving rationally, if not ethically. In college sports, billions of dollars slosh around. Schools get fat. Assistant—assistant!—coaches make seven figures salaries. And the labor is free, save a college scholarship. It doesn’t take Adam Smith to tell you the market will self-correct. In this case, that means athletes seeking payment for their services and schools taking elaborate measures to provide it.
This is the same issue in tennis. The market for small-time tournaments is de minimis. At low-level events the winners—winners!—may not earn enough to cover their travel and expenses. Yet there is a robust betting market, thanks largely to the short-sighted data deal the ITF signed. So what happens? Enter the market: bettors approach players about match-fixing, which—and this is an important point—no longer entails dumping a match and losing, but something far more nuanced like dumping a game or even missing a few serves. This is, of course, inconsistent with sportsmanship and honest competition. But it is wholly consistent with rational acting. I win a tournament and I might make $1,000. But I can dump a game and get paid $10,000? The real question: how could the ITF have not predicted this outcome when it signed a deal effectively sanctioning wagering on these rinky-dink events?
Here’s how I put it in a note to friends last week:
The critical figure in this report is not the $23M spent on an investigation that broke little new ground. It’s not the $70M Sportsradar deal that accounts for so much of the ITF revenues. It’s the casual reference to “3,200 players.” What? This is like investigating steroids in baseball and including not just the 1,200 or so Major Leaguers but 20,000 pro baseball players, from the Yankees clubhouse to an independent league in Venezuela. The tennis messaging has been really sloppy, failing to differentiate between prominent professionals (that is, the 125 or so ATP and WTA players actually making a full-time living playing pro tennis) and what [a friend] calls “hobbyists.” (The vast majority of players implicated here enter pro events but have no tennis future and may make more for one act of corrupt behavior than in career winnings. These people have a totally different incentive structure and risk/reward calculus than ATP and WTA stalwarts). This is a critical distinction that needs to be better articulated. Inasmuch as there’s a “tsunami” of bad behavior in “pro” tennis, that’s terribly unfortunate. But, overwhelmingly, it’s in the lower levels, where many of the players cited have barely made bus fare in prize money. Someone needs to assure the public that, by and large, the players that fans are paying to watch are competing not amid a tsunami, but in sunlight.
As Nadal captured his latest Barcelona trophy, I was struck by this stat: Nadal won his 400th clay court match when he beat Goffin in the semis, becoming the fourth player to pass that tally. Really? There are four predecessors who won more clay court matches on tour than Nadal? And the leader, Guillermo Vilas, won 659 clay court matches, almost 260 more than Nadal has so far. How is that even possible?
—Teddy C., New York City
• PS. I saw the stat near the bottom of Tennis.com's coverage of Nadal's semifinal victory over Goffin.
"Speaking of stats, Nadal has now won 400 clay-court tour matches—the fourth player in the Open era to do so, behind fellow left-handers Guillermo Vilas (659), Manuel Orantes (502), and Thomas Muster (422)."
I think this is mostly a function of A) a time when players entered more tournaments and 2) a time when more tournaments were held on clay. I’m pinching Vilas’ Wikipedia here but check this out: “In 1977 he won seven consecutive titles after Wimbledon—Kitzbühel (clay), Washington (clay), Louisville (clay), South Orange (clay), Columbus (clay), US Open (clay) and Paris (clay)—and set up a 46-match all-surface winning streak, third all-time behind Björn Borg's records of 49 and 48 consecutive matches won.” Nadal will play five clay events all year. Vilas won 14 clay court events—and played seven after Wimbledon—in 1977.
Considering the past month or so, is this year still Roger’s best chance at capturing a second French Open, as had been the narrative at the beginning of the year?
• The narrative arose when Federer won in Australia and—even more relevant—Nadal’s health was in doubt. You (or I anyway) tended to look around and say, “Wait a second, Nadal might not be at full strength. Novak Djokovic is seeking answers. Stan Wawrinka might be at full strength. Alex Zverev still needs to prove himself in best-of-five matches. Dominic Theim hasn't won a Masters 1000 or been to a Major final. Um, what’s preventing Federer—you could argue the second-best claycourt player over the last 15 years— from winning this event?” Then, of course, Nadal recovered physically and, almost 32 years old, is back in beast mode. And the fatal blow to Fed’s chances at Roland Garros: when he announced in March that he’d skip the entire clay court season, including Paris.
Your last column mentioned how Rafa's career winning percentage on clay is 92%. His set winning percentage, while smaller in amount, is almost more impressive. After winning 26 straight sets on clay in 2018, Nadal has now won 86% of all the sets he's played on clay in his career. If you only look at his results since 2007 on the dirt, he's won 88% of sets.
And somehow, someway a guy at Roland Garros has to win 3 out of 5 sets against him on a single day?? This is dominance at an insane scale.
—Rohit Sudarshan, Apia, Samoa
• Our next guest is currently on tour in Europe. He’ll be working out some material at Giggles Comedy Club in Mallorca this week, then he’s off to Rome, Madrid and Paris, where he’ll be headlining. Later this summer you can catch his special on Tennis Channel. Very funny stuff here. A warm welcome: Rafael Nadal’s clay court statistics!
Lleyton Hewitt, 37, is coming back from retirement once again to play doubles with 19-year-old Alex de Minaur. Hewitt is de Minaur’s coach—has such a player/student doubles pairing vver happened before?
• We haven’t leaned on [Greg Sharko, the ATP’s Media Relations director], for a while. Here he goes: “Here are some well-known player/coach combos over the years. Special thanks to former Tour managers Vittorio Selmi and Weller Evans who assisted with the list going back to the 1970s:
Rafael Nadal/Francisco Roig
Lleyton Hewitt/Roger Rasheed
Mardy Fish/Kelly Jones
Pete Sampras/Paul Annacone
Michael Chang/Brian Gottfried
Jose-Luis Clerc/Patricio Rodriguez
Bjorn Borg/Lennart Bergelin
Mary Pierce has 2 Slam singles titles, was 4 times the runner-up at Slams, has a doubles Slam title, a mixed-doubles Slam title, 16 other titles on the WTA tour, and a compelling backstory of triumph over a horrific childhood. How the Hell is she not in the Hall of Fame?!
• It was Julius Caesar (lefty; prone to baseline attacks) who said: “All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures.”
Three points of Mary Pierce:
A) How did she get voted down the first time around? Six Slam finals— including two titles—over an 11-year span. Eighteen singles titles overall and 10 doubles titles.
B) We can debate how much weight to accord Pierce’s backstory and the challenges she surmounted. But can we all agree that this ought to qualify as a “plus factor”?
C) Yes, there are separate categories for non-players. But for candidates like Pierce, at what point ought we to consider their contributions after their career? In her case, she’s been a broadcaster and a coach and generally good-for-the-game type.
Couple thoughts: not that you need it, but I’m coming to your defense for addressing Tennys Sandgren again. A lot of fans were wondering. It’s not like variety in your columns is lacking. Kudos to you for addressing the backlash, too. Second, I didn’t become a Danielle Collins fan after watching her play one match (which she happened to lose), but listening to her SI podcast turned me into one. There’s great value to players doing this type of media. Thirty of forty-five minute conversations—good ones, at that—accomplish a lot more than a drip of social media posts, most of which I probably won’t see in my feed. Keep ‘em coming!
• Thanks on both counts. But let’s table Sandgren for today and go right to point B. I don’t look at it as an either/or. Social media can co-exist just fine with longer and more substantive media. (Long-form writing; books; six-part docs like Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country, which I encourage you all to watch.) But in terms of forming real connections with figures—athletes or otherwise—and in terms of really expressing your true self, I’m totally with Megan. A thoughtful podcast, like the performance Danielle Collins turned in last month, is worth 1,000 posts.
I’m a Rafa Nadal fan and very proud of his amazing tennis records. Thank you for your beautiful article on him. I, however, have not seen any article about his unbelievable history of tournament wins without losing a set—three times in Slams, eight times at Masters 1000s and 11 times at 500s. Isn’t that worthy of an article? Twenty-two times winning tournaments without losing a set—that record will also stand the test of time. Nadal is out of this world incredible.....
• You know the fortune cookie where you add “in bed” to the message? I do feel like we need to add “on clay” to these Nadal plaudits. With dirt underfoot, he is remarkable. But in the interest of fairness and balance—and in tempering some of this gushing—we ought to make the point that the records in play here are specific to one surface.
Going for the gold...to paraphrase De Gaulle's famous cheese quote:
How can anyone govern a sport that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of constituents?
• Well played. For more on that reference:
The Cheeses of Europe are funding the spree
To let tennis pros show how good they can be
And if things start to slip and they sink with the ship
They can reach out and cling to a piece of de brie
—Elsie M., Washington, D.C.
• We laugh like La Vache qui Rit.
I hope that Novak Djokovic doesn't Feta way.
—Jan Conlon, Manchester, Ca.
• Perhaps he draws encouragement from watching Feta-rer.
Rick M. of Los Angeles has our LLS of the week:
Film director Dan Trachtenberg, of 10 Cloverfield Lane fame, and Grigor Dimitrov, of "Look at me. As a man, I'll remember this" fame.
• From the wires: Wimbledon announced a hefty prize-pot hike on Tuesday, along with a new sustainability project aimed at ensuring it is not just the grass courts that remain green at the All England Club. Organizers of the oldest grand slam tournament revealed a prize fund of 34 million pounds ($46.57 million) for the 2018 championships, up 7.6 percent from last year.
That figure includes awards of 2.25 million pounds each for the men’s and women’s champions – an increase on the 2.2 million pounds Roger Federer and Garbine Muguruza received in 2017.
• Dunlop announced an agreement with IMG Academy, located in Bradenton, FL, to become the official tennis racquet, ball, and accessory provider of its world-class tennis program. As part of the agreement, all tennis coaches will use Dunlop racquets and balls for lessons and training.
Here is a very interesting article which has an explanation for why the use of composite rackets at first helped younger players, but now favors the more mature. Without having to resort to the idea that is driven by the increased ‘physicality’ of the sport, which always seemed a bit of a stretch to me, because younger athletes in other sports are more rather than less able to be physically dominant.
• Taylor Townsend, 22, of Atlanta, will make her fifth consecutive main draw appearance at the French Open after clinching a spot in the main draw by winning the 2018 Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge this weekend. Townsend holds 157 points in the challenge and no other players are able to pass her this week at the $80,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Charleston, S.C.Look at the points and it appears that Noah Rubin is likely to get the men’s wild card.
• Discuss: the USTA’s reciprocal wild card agreement with Roland Garros is morally reprehensible
Something I've always loved about tennis is that even though there are unquestionable superstars, tennis fans and journalists know the difference between things that are awesome (in the true meaning of the word: worthy of awe) and things that are routine. I think (and hope) that most of us realize that Rafa beating Benoit Paire in straights in the first round of his quest for La Decima deserves about half a sentence in the day's recap. That match is only a story if Rafa loses (or drops a set). Compare this to coverage of the NBA playoffs. For the second straight game, SI.com’s coverage of the Celtics-Bucks series has been limited to an Associate Press recap and the box score. For Game 6, SI.com and ESPN.com both posted the AP recap while teams with bigger names, brighter stars, less interesting results, got the spotlight.
No disrespect to the AP, but it makes me crazy that Kevin Durant and the Warriors get an in depth story after doing typical GSW things (like scoring a ton of points against an inferior team in the playoffs) after Game 1 of a best-of-seven series while the Celtics-Bucks series gets footnoted after GAME SEVEN of a thrilling series. (Full disclosure: I'm a Celtics fan.) I can't speak for NBA fans, but the media seems obsessed with superstars and super teams doing expected, benign things while exciting, dramatic events, players, and games fall by the wayside. Though LeBron has shown that one player can carry an entire team (which I agree is a story worth covering), the C's are reminding us that basketball is a team sport, that you don't need a superstar or three to do compelling things. I'm convinced that the Celtics aren't getting deserved respect because they are being led by a guy that Eric "Drew" Bledsoe and others outside New England have never heard of instead of Kyrie Irving.
I get that drama in the NBA is fun to watch, but I wish that coverage of the playoffs was more like the coverage of Slams that you and many of your peers provide—coverage that focuses on truly exciting stories, like the best match rather than the best player, or the path of a scrappy underdog with an inspiring story struggling against all odds. American sports fans have shown time and again that they love the underdog, so why not feature that for a change? Recognizing that basketball is a team sport and its fandom is different than tennis fandom, I'm not asking anyone in Milwaukee, or outside of Boston, to root for the Celtics. I just wish that sports journalism would stop paying such close attention to the obvious. Do NBA fans really need in depth analysis of how Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green can put up record numbers and win without Stephen Curry? Do we need to see a LeBron James dunk on every Sports Center Top 10 plays to stay interested in basketball?
(For my next rant: Why dunks should be banned from SC Top 10 in favor of any Roger Federer drop shot, soccer goal, or Ultimate frisbee diving grab or full-field huck...but I'll just leave it here.)
—Taylor, South Kingstown, R.I.