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  • You can make the moral argument, but the pratical one is just as compelling—Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic should call off their scheduled exhibition sponsored by the Saudi Arabia government. That, and much more in Jon Wertheim's latest mailbag.
By Jon Wertheim
October 24, 2018

Hey, everyone...

Housekeeping

A) Our most recent podcast guest was the legenary Mats Wilander.

B) Next up: journalist Reem Abulleil—the rare tennis journalist based in the Middle East—talking about the WTA Finals and the intersection of sports and the Arab World.

C) Some quick reaction thoughts from last week on Wimbledon’s decision to install a tiebreak at 12-12 in decisive sets.

Onward...

Mailbag

Jon,

With your article calling for Nadal and Djokovic not to play an exhibition in Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi’s apparent murder, are you heading down a very slippery slope of mixing politics and sport? Many countries that sponsor or host tournaments are bad actors on the world stage. When and how does a player draw the line? Not so easy. 
Martin, Westchester NY

• I’ll start by teeing up my colleague Stanley Kay, who wrote the article you're speaking of. 

You take a moral route. You can take a practical route. Either way, you come down concluding that it’s not in their best interest to play. We can invoke the slippery slope. Yes, pick a country and you will find a human rights violator, an environmental rogue state, a repressive government. Some of you have asked whether it’s hypocritical to ask the players to boycott this but endorse shoes and apparel made in sweatshops.

I would argue that state-sponsored murder of a dissident can—must—be differentiated, especially when the tennis event is not just being held in Saudi Arabia, it’s being staged by the government. I would also contend that by accepting money and participating you are sanctioning this government (such as it is) and enlisting yourself as part of their branding campaign.

But even if you are unmoved morally or unconvinced that Saudi Arabia is any worse an actor on the global stage than other nations, I can’t figure out why Nadal and Djokovic would subject themselves to this kind of controversy and erosion of good will. Especially—and this is critical—as this is still an unfolding and fluid story. It would please many if they took a stand and offered condemnation. “I can’t in good conscience take part in this.”

But short of that, why not simply say, “I appreciate this generous offer, but while this investigation is pending and difficult questions remain unanswered, I choose to exercise caution.”

Jon,

In light of their most recent great match at the WTA Finals, who has the greater upside: Osaka or Stephens?

I know you won’t like answering this - and we could just flip a coin.

Nonetheless, I lean towards Stephens. Osaka’s greater strengths (first serve, backhand) are easier for Stephens to learn than vice versa (resourcefulness, athleticism).

Their forehands probably cancel one another out (although I personally give the edge to Stephens here.)

Curious to hear your thoughts!

Would love to see them play French and Wimbledon finals back-to-back—French to Stephens and Wimbledon to Osaka.

Love these two so much!

Thanks
Damian T.

• One easy answer: flip a coin. The other easy answer: Osaka just turned 21; Stephens is 25. If the question pertains to “upside”—a favorite sports lexicon word—just by virtue of age, you’d take Osaka. In terms of pure power, I also give the edge to Osaka, who’s a bit bigger physically. In terms of athleticism and defense, it’s Stephens, though not by much.

But as I think about Damian’s question, comparing the two most recent U.S. Open champions makes for an interesting study in contrasts in a lot of ways. Two very different personalities and two very different approaches to the sport. My dimestore theory on Stephens: she likes tennis but doesn’t necessarily love tennis. This will make for mercurial results and this may limit the number of Slams she wins. This will also prolong her career. She knows herself. She knows her burnout threshold. There’s a certain confidence she carries knowing that she can shrug off losses that might devastate other players. And there’s a confidence she carries knowing that when she is engaged, she can win majors.

Despite her age, despite the flights of fancy in interviews and despite the video game obsession, Osaka loves tennis. She is fiercely driven as a tennis player. Now more than ever. We’ve heard from her camp that, in recent weeks, she’s gotten antsy when “extra-tennis” commitments have taken away from her practice time. There’s also family ambition with Osaka. That differentiates her from Stephens.

For better or worse, she will now play under pressure that few athletes will know. Someone tweeted yesterday that whereas Shohei Otani is the most prominent Japanese male athlete, Osaka takes the honors for female. Especially with the 2020 Olympics looming, this will only be accentuated. This expectation will be as much a challenge to Osaka as the player on the other side of the net.

Take a step back and appreciate, to Damian’s point, what a textured rivalry this could be. Take another step back and, how cool is tennis? You have an African-American woman whose late father played in the NFL, whose mother was a college swimmer, who came to the sport almost by happenstance and is, to use her term, “totally chill,” about tennis. You have another player who is half-Japanese, half-Haitian, raised following the Richard Williams blueprint. Those are two very different paths up the same mountain.

Tennis
Mailbag: Examining the Year-End WTA Awards Ballot

Wimbledon’s adoption of a final-set tiebreak at 12-12 is a welcomed change. What I would love to see Wimbledon change is the grass blade length—increase it. Make the game faster.

The goes for the U.S. Open.  Make the surface faster. Let the French Open be the slow Slam. The greats will always adjust, but I want the specialists back who could win a Slam or two but only on one specific surface.

Do you think there is any chance of seeing this reversal?
Subhadeep Gan

You mean shorter grass or longer grass? For what it’s worth, Wimbledon maintains that the length of grass is consistent despite claims that the courts are playing slower than in previous eras.

In the spirit of a counterpuncher destined to fail on grass—I push back here. The surfaces are already inherently so different, it remains a feat to go from clay to grass to cement. The relative homogenization of speed has made it easier for players (see: Djokovic and Nadal, for starters) to win on a variety of surfaces. Who did it benefit when the speeds were so different that a player like Peter Sampras struggled to reach the second week at Roland Garros and an armada (often Spanish) of French Open champs got bounced in week one of Wimbledon?

Jon,

You can use this in next week’s Mailbag with respect to the continued good form of Sacha Zverev in non-Slam events: “It’s like Sascha Zverev has a peanut allergy at Grand Slams, but brings his EpiPen to all the other big Tour events.”
Spencer, Brooklyn

Smart money says the person who came up with that analogy has a child under the age of 10.

Zverev is quickly emerging as the personification of the Slams’ heft and weight. Here’s a guy who will finish 2018 in the top 5, winning more than 50 matches and winning more than $5 million in prize money. That is a golden year by most standards. Yet after still more disappointments at the majors, there’s a nagging sense that Zverev remains a work in progress, that he hasn’t quite completely clawed his way out of the eggshell. And Zverev carries this burden—a burden that accumulates until it doesn’t—to every Slam.

He’s too good not to win. The impatient crowd needs to be reminded that he’s only 21. Eventually he’ll manage this peanut allergy. But it is interesting to me that he can win on all surfaces; he can beat the best; he can win three titles. And yet complete the season with a sense of….incompletion. Such is the power of the majors.

Hi Jon,

Can you explain why Julia Goerges, who, based on her WTA ranking, should have gone to Singapore when Halep withdrew, yet is ranked way down at #16 in the Porsche Race to Singapore tally?
Miles Benson, Hudson, Mass.

• Remember that Goerges won the title (and a whopping $670,000) in Zhuhai at the end of last year:

Diego Schwartzman is now 2-0 vs Gilles Simon. Man, those little guys give a big guy like Gilles fits.
James, Portland, Ore.

• At 152 lbs., Gilles Simon might not normally qualify as a big guy. But, yes, it’s a sport of match-ups, this one. Tomas Berdych (now outside the top 50) is 12-0 against Kevin Anderson. Nikolay Davydenko was 6-5 against Nadal. Serena Williams is 19-2 against Maria Sharapova. All part of the appeal…

Do the players have any say as to who umpires their matches?  I read an article that said Nadal also told Ramos he’d never ump one of his matches again. I think back to the infamous Serena-Jennifer Capriati match. I can’t imagine anyone would have objected to Serena not ever wanting that ump again. But do the players really have that power?
Bob Romero, Monee, Ill.

• There are some basic rules for assignments. Chair umpires cannot be from the country of one player and not the other. (In other words, Serena Williams will never have American chair umpire, unless she’s playing another American.) I was once told that language is sometimes a consideration. It’s bad optics if Player A is conversing with the chair and Player B cannot understand the exchange.

There are some cases—Nadal and Carlos Bernardes a few years back—when it makes sense to create some separation and have a “cooling off period” after a dispute. Don’t expect Carlos Ramos to be in the chair for any of Serena Williams’ next, say, 3,692 matches. But players cannot pick and choose their chair umpire.

Hey Jon,

I’m sure you must have received several inquiries about this (or at least contemplated it), but I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet. At this point, what do you think Novak’s chances are for capturing a non-calendar slam in 2019 (I always still think of it as the Serena Slam)? I wouldn’t bet against him at the Aussie Open. If healthy, I’d still take Nadal at the French, but only slightly. Despite being a diehard FedFan, it’s been amazing watching Novak’s trajectory this year. I hope it continues. 
Best regards,

L.T., Toronto

Tennis
Mailbag: Handing Out ATP Year-End Awards

• To your latter point, this is a fundamental rivalry in tennis: Dominant, reliable champions versus anyone-can-win parity. I’m inclined to side with the former. The sport thrives when there are stars and towering champions. (And the sport really thrives when those stars come equipped with rivals.) But others would contend that unpredictability is the lifeblood of sport, that depth of field and any-given-Sunday suspense makes for the better experience. You (and I) might prefer the dominance of players like Djokovic. But others would prefer if the four 2019 Majors went to four different players.

Anyway, yes, Djokovic has to be the considerable favorite in Australia, based on both recent form and long-term—i.e. the last 11 years—track record. One more title and we can almost start talking about his relationship with Melbourne the way we do Federer at Wimbledon and Nadal in Paris. Even if he takes Melbourne, it would be hard to imagine he would overtake Nadal as the Paris favorite. But he would surely be the No .2 contender. Suffice to say we’re in a much different place than we were a year ago.

I have to express my indignation about this absurdity that is this Pique Cup. Does only money that matter? Tennis is perfect the way it works now, as ever was, with few exceptions, not so easy to fix, but challenges are part of the game.  

Thank you for this opportunity.
Magno, Sao Paulo

• By “Pique Cup,” Magno refers to the new Davis Cup. I would hardly characterize the old Davis Cup as “perfect.”  

Shots, Miscellany

• Changing the world through tennis. Here’s a piece on Kourts CEO Walid Fattah.

• Ivo Karlovic became the oldest champion in ATP history last week:

• Old news but here’s the official wording of the Wimbledon announcement:

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) is pleased to announce the introduction of a final set tie-break for all Championship events, commencing at The Championships 2019.

Informed by a thorough review of match data from the past 20 Championships, and upon consultation with players and officials, the tie-break will be played when the score reaches 12-12 in the final set. This rule, which will be processed with respect for the Rules of Tennis governed by the ITF, will apply to all events at The Championships across Qualifying, Gentlemen’s, Ladies’, Mixed and Junior singles and doubles. The match winner(s) will be the first player(s) to win seven points with an advantage of two or more points. There will be no change to the current format of the Wheelchair and Quad Wheelchair events, which are the best of three tie-break sets.

Long-lost sibling

This week's submission comes courtesty of Anitha Vijayan: Singer/actor Riker Lynch and Canadian up-and-comer Denis Shapovalov

Getty Images

Reader Riff

I’m writing on behalf of Ken Flach’s widow, Christina. Ken was a professional tennis champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, and lifelong athlete, but he died suddenly due to sepsis. So many things went wrong to lead to his premature and preventable death, but one thing that haunts her most is the lack of public awareness when it comes to sepsis. 

Christina is looking for ways to teach people about sepsis, so they can save their own lives, or the lives of their loved ones, when presented with symptoms. I think Ken’s story would intrigue your audience. 

Learn more in this press release.

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