Be wary: Just because men are penalized by umpires more does not mean there is no bias against women.

By Jon Wertheim
September 19, 2018


• This week’s upcoming podcast guest: doubles player par excellence (and new retiree) Daniel Nestor.

• Tennis Channel will be covering the Laver Cup starting Thursday. Check your local listings, as we in the business say.

• Stay till the end here for a fantastic reader riff.



 I loves me some Andre Agassi. But if I'm Andre, I'm feeling pretty sheepish about disembarking the Djoker-train when I did, no?
Noah Baerman, Middletown, CT

• Let’s look back and marvel at the stories lost in the women’s final contretemps. The breakthrough of Osaka. The breakdown of Nadal, with another hardcourt injury. The heat and humidity. The quiet, sweaty exit of Federer. The fact that Serena, age 36.9, has reached consecutive Slam finals. 

But the story hiding in the plainest of sight: the re-emergence of Djokovic. This spring, he lost (on hardcourts) to Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire. Andre Agassi then departed, mission distinctly unaccomplished. As late as early May, Djokovic was outside the top 20 and in danger of going to the French Open as an unseeded player. A guy who had recently reached majors semifinals as ritually as the sun’s rising in the east, Djokovic went more than a year without making a “business end” appearance or taking a tournament title. 

And then, shazam. Like a bed that was made, unmade and then made again, Djokovic tidied things up. And in the course of a few months, he authored a completely new story. He’s now won back-to-back majors (always an underrated feat) with a Masters 1000 sandwiched in between. The GOAT candidacy is revived. And the plot has whipsawed. 

If Agassi were an investor, we’d say that he sold on the dip. If he were a passenger on the SS Novak, we’d say he disembarked too soon. But how do you blame him? The results simply weren’t there. And as Agassi put it delicately, the give-and-take connection wasn’t there either. This is an old tennis riddle but it yields the same answer: players need to feel comfortable with those around them. If the chemistry isn't there, it doesn't matter what the coach’s credentials are.


As has been widely reported, arising out of the events that occurred during the U.S. Open women’s singles final, USTA chairman Katrina Adams and WTA CEO Steve Simon made the following comments, respectively:

“We watch the guys do this all the time, they’re badgering the umpire on the changeovers. Nothing happens. There’s no equality. I think there has to be some consistency across the board. These are conversations that will be imposed in the next weeks.” —Adams

“Yesterday also brought to the forefront the question of whether different standards are applied to men and women in the officiating of matches. The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women.” —Simon

Jon, much of your writing over the years has covered the intersection of data and sport, including the great book you co-authored with Tufts Professor Sam Sommers: This is Your Brain on Sports.  Sadly, neither Ms. Adams nor Mr. Simon (who each have ultimate oversight for a tennis governing body charged with tournament rules enforcement) undertook a simple check of the data to determine if there is actually a gender bias (in favor of male players) when it comes to the issuance of verbal abuse (and similar) conduct violations/fines at Slams.  In that regard, Chris Clarey published in the New York Times the particular code of conduct fines issued to male players and female players, respectively, across all singles and doubles matches at all four Grand Slams (where chair umpires routinely officiate both men’s matches and women’s matches across a Grand Slam fortnight); this data was for the 20-year period starting in 1998.

As the data indicates, in this 20-year period, male players received nearly four times the number of code of conduct fines at Grand Slams for verbal abuse (and more than four times the number of code of conduct fines for the related transgression of unsportsmanlike conduct).  

Does this data not belie the above statements made by Chairman Adams and Mr. Simon, or do we perhaps chalk these comments up to these words from Mark Twain: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”  As a sports data guru, Jon, what say you?

• A lot of you asked a similar question. But this marks still another example of dirty tennis data. Let’s be sure the data we cite measures what we purport it to. This is the example I posted yesterday. I speed to work every day. But I only get pulled over by the policeman on Fridays. My wife almost never speeds. But one Monday she is running late and tears down the road only to get a ticket. At the end of the year, I have 52 tickets. She has one. That does not negate her complaints that the speed limit is not being uniformly enforced or that she was targeted or that she speeds less than I do. 

Didn't Mark Twain also popularize the quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”?

 The disparity here is far too great to sweep aside by saying “the men misbehave more than women so this is not an example of bias against the men.” I am glad someone did the homework. The tennis readership deserves to know these facts! 

Four Days Later, Re-Assessing the Serena-Ramos Controversy

People in high positions like Katrina Adams, in an organization that represents both men and women, have an obligation to know the facts before they pursue initiatives based on irresponsible statements like “there’s no equality.” 
Dan D.

• I don't disagree that the kneejerk responses were ill-advised and, especially in the USTA’s case, inappropriate and ill-conceived. But, again, I’d encourage you not to let clumsy damage control obscure Katrina Adams’ record with the USTA.

Anyway, finding bias is seldom a fact-based exercise. Perception matters. Context matters. Anecdote matters. And trying to quantify bias is still more fraught. 

Many of us who have been around tennis know that different players are treated differently. Different situations are treated differently. Male umpires can treat female players differently and vice versa. This isn’t necessarily bad. And it’s hardly unique to tennis. (I can cite you a book chapter about how umpires’ strikes zones in baseball expand and contract based on the pitch count and the score of the game; how NBA games are called differently based on the score.) But complaints can’t be so cavalierly dismissed.

You commented last week that Rothenberg is just the kind of tennis journo who Brad Gilbert should appreciate. My question regards Rothenberg and his Twitter banter with Nick Kyrgios during the Open. While I don't doubt this is a Serena-Ramos situation—one where both combatants are probably deserving of some of the blame—what I'm interested in is your opinion of the impact of such banter on the sport itself. Is tennis actually richer and more colorful for having a journalist and a player engaging in this kind of quite biting repartee? Or is the sport poorer for a prominent writer and New York Times journalist talking to a player in this way and then being charged with providing an objective account of the player's on-court controversies only a day or two later?
—Cam Bennett, Canberra, Australia

• These Twitter battles remind me of the schoolyard and parking lot fights of my Indiana adolescence—minus the ripped jeans and detention slips. A ring of voyeurs gathers round and gleefully goads, watches, and then weighs in on the winner. It’s great fun, except for the actual combatants, who bear all the risk and few of the rewards.

I don’t mind a reporter and a subject going at it; and I put it squarely in the silo of “colorful.” Neither tennis nor the New York Times nor the tennis social fabric is the worse for this kind of public badinage. In a perverse way, I give Kyrgios credit for this level of engagement.

My issue is the timing. Note his Twitter back-and-forth with Donna Vekic. Then note the time code. Clearly, Kyrgios walks off the court after his match. Because it is now written into the professional athlete code, his first move is to check his phone and his mentions. He sees Donna Vekic—and, yes, there’s obviously history here—ripping him, sledging him as he might put it. Never mind that it’s moments after he’s walked off the court. Or that, in the middle of a Slam, maybe his focus should be on weightier matters. Or that he should ignore this or hit the block button. Here come the stress hormones and the dopamine rush. Boom! Kyrgios can't resist and he fires back. Don't mind the Twitter battles. But maybe wait until after the tournament?

ATP Tour Suspends Chair Umpire Who Gave Pep Talk to Nick Kyrgios at U.S. Open


Congrats on another great Grand Slam season. After all the controversy of the women’s final, so many things have been said, fingers have been pointed but I keep thinking how little we have heard from Patrick Mouratoglou. How is this conversation not more about his coaching, breaking the rules and admitting it on live TV? If he had not coached, Serena does not get the warning and we have a great final.  I would have loved to see him take more responsibility about the situation. Instead he gives a lame excuse, "Everyone does it". He should have been the one apologizing to Serena for breaking the rules and getting caught.

Anyway, just a thought. 
—Ricky W.

• I give Patrick credit for owning this, especially in the moment, absent conferring with a crisis management specialist. I claw back a little credit because he started naming names. It will be interesting to see where Patrick and Serena go from here. And it will be interesting to see where ESPN and Patrick go from here. 

Why aren't refs made available to the press (even if it’s only to a couple of civil reporters?). Or, borrowing from the NFL—whenever we have a controversial call, Fox has an in-house officiating expert explaining things from an official’s standpoint. Maybe Tennis Channel should add an in-house ex-umpire to their payroll. Would loved to have gotten an umpiring perspective on Saturday's events, and even more importantly, I think we in the tennis world would have just loved to have heard from Carlos Ramos, and the rationale behind some of his decisions. 
Deepak, Seattle

• Excellent point. In other sports, a pool reporter would have spoken to the official. Tennis should institute this as policy.

50 Parting Thoughts From the 2018 U.S. Open

Love your stuff, but a slight correction.

Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, not IBM 

IBM is becoming irrelevant.

Keep up the good work.
Rob. C.

This is all I got, so I defer to you. 

Shots, Miscellany

• Naomi Osaka may have had some of her glory stolen on the day she won her first major. But it doesn't seem to be hurting her in the marketplace:

• Mailbag friend, former podcast guest and Most Interesting Man in the World Torben Ulrich turns 90 next month. So of course, he is publishing a book, releasing a film and has an exhibition that will open at Galleri Tom Christoffersen in Copenhagen.

FAQ on the new ITF Transition Tour.

• Name check: Tennis Channel colleague Marijana Raicevic, who didn't just pick Novak to beat del Potro in the U.S. Open final but picked a match time of 3:10. The actual match was 3:16. Damn. 

• Speaking of which: Winners of the U.S. Open Suicide Pool, send me your info and I’ll fire off prizes.

• Re: our discussion a few weeks ago about the unlikelihood of Serena Williams leaving Nike, Suvany from Valencia, CA notes: “You forgot to mention to Mitch from Ft. Lauderdale that Nike is in the process of building a structure on the Nike campus named after Serena Williams herself. 

 Doubtful she will be leaving Nike anytime soon. Now Maria Sharapova, that might be more of a possibility…

Reader Riff

Hi Jon,

We often hear how a particular fan-player interaction makes a fun tournament even more special and meaningful.  I’ve just returned from Flushing Meadows and had a similar experience, albeit with fellow fans, which I wanted to share.  

 For the past decade, my friend David and I make our annual pilgrimage to the U.S. Open over Labor Day weekend.  We leave Maryland ridiculously early, making sure that we arrive in time to be one of the first people through the gates and then we speed walk to get choice seats on Armstrong.  As we were in the cue and while we were entertained by Pam Shriver as she warmed up the crowd, we struck up a conversation with Rob and Dorian who had come all the way from the West Coast to enjoy some tennis (on a side note, this is the second year we’ve enjoyed the back-and-forth with a former player.  I hope the tourney organizers continue with this great idea and practice).  

Rob was a repeat offender, having visited the Open many times while Dorian was a first-timer.  Over the next nine-plus hours, as we sat next to Dorian and Rob who opted for Armstrong over Ashe, we shared easy and pleasant conversations.  Initially, we spoke about our shared interest in tennis, both playing and watching, and eventually, ventured into other slightly more personal areas.  At one point, our new West Coast buddies invited each of us to join them to catch some of the Djokovic-Sousa match on Ashe (David’s first time on the big court).  That evening, as we departed, I passed them a pair of tickets for the women’s semis that I was lucky enough to have won, as I would not be able to attend.  Doing so felt right and I was happy that our new friends and fellow tennis lovers would put them to good use.  

 Each year, David and I look forward to attending the Open and always have a good time.  This year was particularly rewarding; we made a couple of new friends who made the oppressive and muggy conditions a bit more tolerable.      

Yoram, Baltimore by way of Haifa, Israel