Addressing the allegations made by Julian Benneteau about Roger Federer and the Laver Cup, forecasting Naomi Osaka's 2019 season and more. 

By Jon Wertheim
November 14, 2018

A quick Mailbag from the road…

a) On the most recent podcast, Jamie Lisanti and I hand out year-end awards for 2018.

b) Reassure me we’ve all seen this video:

c) We didn’t quick get the Greg Maddux/Kris Bryant payoff….but credit Petra Kvitova and Tag Heuer for the effort here:

Let’s start here: We had a late flurry of questions about this piece on Roger Federer and allegations leveled by Julien Benneteau—not coincidentally, the newly retired Julien Benneteau—that Federer receives preferential treatment. Predictably, the partisans jumped on this. The pro-Fed crowd took issue with it. The voters for opposition parties reveled in the charges.

I divide this into a few categories. The bits about scheduling were much ado about nothing. Every player with any juice—male or female—lobbies for preferential match times and conditions, or at least sends their agent into the referee’s office to do their bidding. Always has, always will. I often cite this piece, which is aging well.

Note that if Mardy Fish’s preferences were duly noted, you can bet that the top players’ were, too. (And this is a Slam we’re talking about.)

Federer plays a lot of night matches? So what? It’s not like a special session is being created for him. Someone has to play at night. It might as well be the guy who moves the most tickets, drives the most ratings and singlehandedly carries a session. And if it suits his scheduling preferences, so be it. It’s not as though he gets two bounces or starts every game up 15-0. You could argue that his agent wouldn’t be doing his job if he were NOT lobbying aggressively for his client.

Sure, in a perfect world, it would be democratic. Maybe events want to consider a rule that no player can have more than X night sessions or six Centre Court appearances. (In a perfect world, Federer plays a match or two on an outside court so those other than the fat cats can watch him.) But top players are within their rights to wield their political capital to their competitive advantage, and tournaments are in their right to accommodate or decline requests.

Same goes for the riff about appearance fees. Players are worth what promoters are willing to pay for their presence. Who wouldn’t want their agent to seek fair market value? We’ve all heard stories of players changing their fees. (I know of one highly regarded player who showed for an event and then announced on-site, “I’m pulling out with an injury unless you double my rate.”) Ultimately, the market does its thing and either promoters blink or they don’t.

To me, the lede was buried here. The story alleges that the Australian Open tournament director received payment from the Laver Cup. Wait, what? Inasmuch as that’s true, that’s a flagrant conflict of interest, even by tennis’ limbo bar standards. It’s problematic enough that both Tennis Australia and the USTA have made significant financial investments in Laver Cup, a non-sanctioned, for-profit event spearheaded by Federer. (When the new Davis Cup—which the USTA voted for—comes charging hard after the Laver Cup calendar date, imperiling the USTA’s multi-million dollar Laver Cup investment, the proverbial rubber meets the road.) But when administrators from one tournament are, in effect, on the Federer payroll, a line has been crossed—foot fault!— and the tennis compliance department must be summoned. If only such a department existed.

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

I loved watching Naomi Osaka win the U.S. Open and hope she will be a star for many years to come! How do you see her doing in 2019?
Ritsuko, Tokyo

• “To what extent can Naomi Osaka continue ascending?” marks one of the great mysteries/pressing questions heading into 2019. She reinvented herself at the U.S. Open, and it’s not simply that she’s now a Slam winner. It’s that for a variety of reasons—unanswerable power, youth, intrigue, demographic desirability—she might well be the most intriguing WTA player this side of Serena.

This we already know: she will enter year with an unholy and perhaps unprecedented amount of attention. The Japanese media went crazy for her when she was outside the top 20. Imagine the circus now that she is a reigning major winner…and a new Nissan endorsee…and the player Adidas conferred the most sponsorship lucre of any female athlete…at the Australian Open, which that brands itself as the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific”…with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon.

The plus side: Osaka hardly aspires to be a star or a celebrity; there’s a sense that she can avoid distraction. She doesn’t live in Japan, so the publicity crush might be an adjustment (an annoying one, even) but she’ll still have her privacy and some anonymity in Florida. And I wonder if the bizarre conclusion to the U.S.  Open doesn’t have the effect of making her feel as though her first Slam was somehow incomplete, firing her with motivation for a second one, this time with a proper celebration.

I hate to predict how many Slams she’ll win next year. On the basis of the U.S. Open performance alone, you have to consider her a contender, especially on hard courts. But if N.O. had a year similar to Sloane Stephens’ 2018—no second major, but some fine results, a monster title (Miami in this case) and top-six ranking—that wouldn’t be too bad either.

It's a known fact that Roger Federer is one of the most popular players to ever play tennis, and there's no doubt he should be, given all he has done for the game. However, I sometimes wonder if having 80%-90% of the crowd on your side is always an advantage. It seems like some players get more fired up if they have the crowed against them. Do you ever think Federer secretly wishes he wasn't always the crowd favorite?
Aaron R.

• Interesting theory, but I’m not sure I’m buying it in tennis. While Federer has a “home game” virtually every time he takes the court, that doesn’t mean it’s an “away game” for the opponent. The crowd is there for the Federer and roots for him, but that doesn’t mean they root against Grigor Dimitrov or Tomas Berdych or whomever is on the other side of the net. Federer gets the support; the opponent doesn’t really get the motivation of feeding off a hostile crowd. Some players (see: Djokovic, Novak) can convince themselves otherwise. But I suspect most are simply happy to be on a show court and the opportunity to take down The Mighty One is the source of galvanizing.

When people talk about Serena versus Federer, Nadal, Djokovic in the “greatest” conversation (in the professional era) they seem to always put Federer and Nadal ahead of Serena. I just have one question: How many doubles majors have Federer, Nadal or Djokovic won? At last count I thought it was ZERO. So Serena’s 14 doubles and two mixed doubles title count for nothing? (Many won the same year as the singles title) Hmmmm…something is not right about that it appears to me. What are your thoughts?
Bruce

• I think we need to make the GOAT akin to Orthodox Jewish synagogues. By that I mean: Keep genders separated. Different tours, different demands, different priorities. As far as doubles, it’s a lot easier to win Slams titles in doubles when your singles matches don’t require you to play best-of-five. (It’s also easier when your sister is your partner.) None of this is meant to diminish Serena. I am prepared to call her the female GOAT. (Though, if you introduce doubles into evidence as a GOAT factor, you do so at your peril, starting with Martina Navratilova.) But, as a general rule, let’s resist comparing men and women here.

Hi Jon,

In light of Djokovic officially being confirmed as the year-end No. 1, I wanted to ask you a Big Three-related in question. When you factor in Djokovic’s dismal first half of 2018, Nadal only playing nine tournaments (and retiring in two), and Federer skipping the entire clay court season—it’s pretty remarkable that they still finished ranked No. 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Do you think there is no greater evidence that the rest of the field (particular NextGen guys) are nowhere near good enough to break their stranglehold on the game? 
Kieran

• I feel like 2018 is defined by two distinct but related themes: 1. The continued awesomeness of the Big Three who, of course, divvied up all four Skans yet again, just as they did in 2008, a full decade ago. And 2. A creeping frustration that—for all their individual and collective awesomeness—the heft of the Big Three is being undercut slightly by the lack of challenge posed by other generations. As you point out, Nadal played an abbreviated schedule. Federer, at age 37, skipped all of clay and was not at his best from say mid-March on. Djokovic was decidedly mortal for this first half of the season. Where were the ambitious challengers to depose these guys.

Jon,

Love your column. I've been a tennis fan for a long time. For a while now I've been following the women's circuit more so than the men. As much as you can appreciate the greatness of the top three or four men, I find that I enjoy more all the surging that happens on the women's tour. Players are up and down, and many players are possible winners each week. My question on Camila Giorgi is a simple one: Have you ever seen her smile? I try to watch her matches whenever she is on because her all-or-nothing style is fun to watch, but it never seems like she is enjoying herself even when winning. Her talent level is way better than her ranking; I would love to see her be more consistent. 
—John Welcher

• I’m not sure this is any more complex than different players comport themselves in different ways. For some players, the court is a stage and their play is a performance. For others, the court is a workplace and their play constitutes a shift, a day of labor.

I have noticed, though, that Giorgi is a real contradiction Her game is full of attitude and whimsy. She’s one of the smallest players out there but hits one of the biggest balls. Her second serve is basically her first. (She’s reliably among the tour leaders in double faults). Yet she doesn’t project insouciant, devil-may-care joie de vivre when she plays.

Jon,

Jack Sock was a top-10 seed at the Australian Open last year. He might not even be a top-10 seed in the qualies in 2019. Has this ever happened before?
Colin, New York

• The story of Sock’s demise in singles (and reluctant ascent in doubles) seems to be of great interest to American fans—and zero interest to non-American fans. But this might be a moot point in terms of Australia. The USTA sends a weekly “Wild Card Challenge update” and here’s this week’s headline:

Jack Sock will play in the main draw of the Australian Open this January, either via direct or wild-card entry, as he clinched the Australian Open Wild Card Challenge on Sunday. Bjorn Fratangelo's loss to Reilly Opelka in the singles final of the USTA Pro Circuit $75,000 Challenger in Knoxville, Tenn., clinched the Challenge for Sock, who is ranked No. 106, which is on the cusp of the usual cut-off mark for direct entry into Melbourne. Should Sock receive direct entry, the wild card would go to the Challenge's second-place finisher, which will likely be decided with this week's results at the Oracle $150,000 Challenger in Houston and the USTA Pro Circuit $75,000 Challenger in Champaign, Ill. ….The women's Challenge will also be decided this week in Houston, as three of the top four players in the points standings -- Varvara Lepchenko (126), Whitney Osuigwe (125) and Nicole Gibbs (81) -- are all entered into the main draw of the WTA $125,000 Series event there. 

We can argue over whether this wild card is supposed to go to a guy already funded generously by the USTA, who’s made more than $10 million in his career, and was in the top-10 a year ago. But there’s no rule of law with respect to these corrupt and corrosive reciprocal wild cards to begin with. So why start now?

Jon,
There are 325 million people in the United States. More than half are female. The USTA’s starting lineup for the U.S. vs Czech Republic Federation Cup FINAL is Sofia Kenin and Alison Riske. Really? At least the USTA brass got to visit lovely Prague this weekend and fly business class.

Bryan, Brooklyn

• I take great exception to that mean-spirited question. As employees of a non-profit, the USTA brass would surely fly coach.

Seriously, I was surprised by how many of you wrote in with similar complaints. I don’t blame the top players who decided that, midway through November after a long season, they would rather stay home. I certainly would not disparage or blame the next players who made themselves available, showed up and competed honorably.(And Kenin is a future star, by the way.) The issue is with the competition itself. Here’s hoping the ITF folds Fed Cup into the revamped Davis Cup.

Shots, Miscellany

• Several of you—including Walter of Montreal—passed on this piece on Bjorn Borg’s son, Leo.

• IMG Academy announced the addition of former longtime ATP World Tour pro Jimmy Arias as the new director of player development. Arias will help manage technical instruction and program delivery for IMG Academy’s boarding school students and professional trainees.

• Austria’s Oliver Marach and Croatia’s Mate Pavic have clinched the year-end No. 1 ATP Doubles Team Ranking for the first time as a result of Friday's play at the Rolex Paris Masters, the final event of the regular ATP World Tour season.

• For a record-tying fifth consecutive year, the BNP Paribas Open—held each March at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden—has been voted the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year, as determined by player vote. The BNP Paribas Open, the largest WTA and ATP World Tour combined two-week event in the world, has swept the top tournament honors on both the men’s and women’s Tours each year since 2014. The Masters 1000 designation is the highest category on the ATP World Tour, outside of the Tour Finals, and includes the tournaments in Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Cincinnati, Canada, Shanghai, and Paris, in addition to Indian Wells. 

• The Fever-Tree Championships has been voted ATP World Tour Tournament of the Year in its category for a fifth time in six years in the ATP’s annual awards, which are voted for by the players.The annual ATP-500 grass court event has been staged for more than a century at The Queen’s Club in London and has increased its centre court capacity by more than 30% over the last two years. In 2018, the tournament welcomed Fever-Tree, the premium mixer drinks company, as its title-sponsor. 

• The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) is pleased to announce the appointment of Gerry Armstrong as Championships Referee Designate, to succeed current Referee Andrew Jarrett for The Championships 2020. Jarrett, who has held the position of Championships Referee since 2006, will retire following The Championships 2019, thereby enabling a suitable period of handover prior to the commencement of Armstrong’s three-year term in 2020.

• Albert Costa, a former Davis Cup champion with extensive experience as director of tennis tournaments and development projects, has joined Kosmos Tennis’s team as Competition Director and Davis Cup finals Tournament Director. Costa will oversee all sporting aspects of the competition and the implementation of the new Davis Cup format in 2019, following the agreement signed by Kosmos Tennis and the ITF on 16 August at the ITF AGM in Orlando.

Reader Riff

• Alvara of Madrid takes us home:

I thoroughly enjoyed the highly entertaining Next Gen ATP Finals (tight, short five-setters, De Minaur’s grit and hustle, Hurkacz, plus Tsisipas vs. the headset). And I mostly enjoyed listening to the occasional coaching conversations between sets when they went beyond, “Be aggressive,” “More intensity,” etc. I wished, however, that the broadcast had provided good translations for the non-English exchanges. In one of Munar’s matches, for example, when the conversations were in Spanish, the coach suggested that he serve into the body on the second serve. Munar then asked, “Body forehand or body backhand?” (ie, Which side of his body?), and the coach said, “Backhand.” But the translation given was, “On the second serve, aim for the backhand,” which was not just wrong, but also missed an opportunity for the spectators (and club players interested in strategy) to hear very specific tactical advice, and then see whether the player put it in practice. So I hope that the ATP and the WTA will get good translators who know the game, should these coach-player talks ever become a regular part of tennis broadcasts.

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