Hey, everyone. Happy 2019 and welcome back to another season. Why, it’s as if we never left.
• Here is a mailbag for this week, but be sure to check back soon for the 2019 Australian Open seed reports and your usual Sports Illustrated roundtable.
• Our most recent podcast guest was the estimable Chris Evert, who was terrifically engaging.
• A reminder that the Australian Open starts Sunday night in the U.S., and that Tennis Channel will kick off its coverage with a pregame show at 6 p.m. EST.
I can't believe the news that this is the last year of the Hopman Cup. This was the most spectacular edition of the Cup ever, with Serena and Federer facing each other for the first time ever and many exciting, close matches climaxed by the final, which went down to the final point of the final mixed doubles match. All the matches were very well attended, so it isn't ending due to lack of interest. I read it is being replaced by an ATP World Team Cup. Do we need another team event? We already have the Davis Cup and the Laver Cup for men.
—Russ, Los Angeles
• Here is tennis distilled to its essence. Or, as my kids would say, “the most tennis thing ever.” You have a thoroughly unique, mixed-gendered event that reflects the sport in the best light possible. It stresses the international appeal. It stresses two genders competing at once. It stresses sportsmanship and joy while competing—a tidy encapsulation of all that is virtuous (and fun) about tennis.
And then, enter tennis turf wars. Team Cups are all the rage. Financing allegedly lines up. Tennis Australia—a political animal if ever there were one—plays “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” And presto: the Hopman Cup becomes a likely casualty of some slapdash ATP World Team Cup event that no one really wants and no one really gets.
Lindsay Davenport raised this point on Tennis Channel, and I wholeheartedly agree: it’s time for the women’s tour to lead and not follow. Too often the WTA is reactive. The men get a new Davis Cup while the women wait for their fate. The men agitate for more prize money at majors while the women draft behind like Tour de France riders. The men get an ATP Cup in the Antipodes to start the year while the women are left to wonder what becomes of these tournaments held leading up to the Australian Open.
Time for the women to seize this moment of ascent, take advantage of this destabilized calendar, this silly ATP infighting, and use it to their advantage.
Does the WTA have a policy in place for a scenario in which a biological male tennis player declares that he is a woman and wants to join the tour?
• This is an interesting question that, given recent events, has resonance. After thanking the WTA for their fast response, I’m taking this right from the rule book:
I. Transgender Players
The following guidelines set forth the eligibility of entry into and participation of transgender players in WTA Tournaments:
A) A player who transitions from male to female (also known as a trans female (MTF)) is eligible to enter into and participate in WTA Tournaments under the following conditions:
i. The player has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for purposes of entry into any WTA Tournament, for a minimum of four (4) years.
ii. The player undergoes hormonal treatment for gender transition and demonstrates that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least twelve (12) months prior to her first WTA Tournament (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential, case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not twelve (12) months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage during competition).
iii. The player's total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to enter into and participate in any WTA Tournament.
iv. Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing, which testing shall be administered in WTA’s sole discretion based on standards of reasonableness and fairness and in consultation with physicians and medical experts. In the event of non-compliance, the player’s eligibility for competition in WTA Tournaments will be suspended for twelve (12) months.
B) A player who transitions from female to male (also known as a trans male (FTM)) is not eligible to enter into or participate in any WTA Tournaments if he is undergoing hormonal treatment for gender transition.
The entire policy can be found here.
Happy New Year! In last week's mailbag of 2019 predictions, you did not include Serena Williams as one of the five choices to finish 2019 as the WTA’s top-ranked player. Could this be an unforced error? Serena was a finalist at the two most recent Slams despite only playing eight tournaments over the past 24 months. While I'm sure she'll limit her schedule in 2019, a healthy and motivated Serena should play significantly more this year than last. Last year, Simona Halep finished No. 1 with less than 7,000 points. Two major titles in 2019 (far from unfathomable) would get Serena more than halfway to that total. Add in semifinalist/finalist points at other Slams and/or strong performances at a few premier events, and she's there. I would argue she's a top contender for year-end No.1 even if she plays half as many events as her competition.
—Matt Marolf, Long Island City, N.Y.
• Yes, in theory Serena could still finish No. 1. (Hell, look at how Federer and Nadal finished 2018.) But given her schedule—and that, quite reasonably, she tends to shut it down after the U.S. Open—it is, shall we say, a mathematical challenge. Serena can still achieve an awful lot in her career. But, unless she adjusts her schedule, it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be No. 1 again.
At the risk of being politically incorrect, Federer's praise of Serena and her "hard-to-read" serve seems a bit disingenuous. If they were to play in singles in a competitive match, Fed would wipe the court with Serena, breaking her serve over and over again. Surely he knows this and so does Serena. I wonder if the non-tennis fan reading about their recent doubles "showdown" realizes that?
—Dominic C., New York
• I don’t know. Why is it an either/or? Federer’s ability to return Serena’s serve does not mean its not hard to read. This goes beyond tennis, but shouldn’t a performer be able to praise someone else on stage without implying, “You’re better than I am”?
It’s funny, I had the opposite reaction to the Hopman Cup: “Man, these women really stand in there and both read and return the men’s serves awfully well.”
Long as we’re here, a few of you, motivated by the Hopman Cup, raised the age-old question of men versus women. Many of us roll our eyes (this again?) but I get that it’s a natural fallout from events like this. Here’s the cut-and-paste, and hopefully this means we don’t have to revisit the topic again in 2019. Yes, Federer would have little trouble beating Serena head-to-head. Let’s dispense with that now. And yet it matters not at all. He is an extraordinary male player; she is an extraordinary female player. Two players, two tours. And we, as tennis fans, are fortunate to enjoy them simultaneously.
As I write this, I am half-watching Clemson beat Alabama to win the National Championship. Clemson would not beat the worst NFL team and certainly not win the Super Bowl. In no way does this undermine their title. They are the best college team. Their opponents are other college teams, not NFL teams. As the 20 million viewers would attest, the entertainment value is still significant.
Here are some fun questions for you:
1. Who will prove to be more dominant, Novak or Serena?
2. Who wins a Slam first, Alexander Zverev or Elina Svitolina?
3. Who is more likely to win another Slam, Roger or Venus?
4. Who will have a better comeback, Andy Murray or Maria Sharapova?
2. Zverev and Svitolina are easily bracketed together. All the more after each won their respective year-end shebang. They both share a 2019 goal: “Prove yourself at a major.” I’ll take Svitolina because A. She doesn’t need to play a different number of sets to replicate her tour-level success and B. She doesn’t have to face Djokovic.
3. Roger. We all admire Venus but Federer—younger to begin with—won his last major less than a year ago. Venus won her last major more than a decade ago.
4. I’d say Maria, simply because she is healthier. (Note: they are less than a month apart in age.)
Happy new year. Thanks for the great work you do. This is a very unpleasant way to start the year, and I apologize to you and everyone else for what I’m about to say: Having just watched Nick Kyrgios inexplicably hit a between-the-legs, half-hearted, I-couldn’t-care-less-about-being-here shot mid-rally against Ryan Harrison in Brisbane, I’ve decided that I will no longer watch any match Kyrgios plays. He’s clearly the most talented player in the game under the age of 30—brilliant hands, amazing serve, shockingly good movement for someone of his size—and he’s just as clearly a massive moron with daddy issues who neither respects himself, the game, his opponents nor his audience. As a fan of Federer and Rafa, two men of impeccable character, talent and determination, I loathe him more than words can express. I genuinely hope that he retires or is injured enough to remove himself from the game that I love.
• You guys know my feelings here. Some of his behavior is simply indefensible. And the further we get from the “volatile teen” explanation—he turns 24 in April—the less excusable (never mind endearing) the antics become. But A. People are complex. I have seen too many acts of Kyrgios’s selflessness and coolness to write the guy off as a jerk. B. Speculate at your peril, but perhaps we ought to consider a mental health dimension to this. More than a few of you have speculated that the clown show is a way of coping with pressure, a mechanism for handling unfulfilled expectations. (The tennis equivalent of “I didn’t even study for the final.”)
RAPAPORT: The Nick Kyrgios Experience
Also note that Kyrgios is ranked No. 51 right now. There are 50 — fifty!— players who have superior results over the last 365 days. Let’s declare a moratorium on the guy until he’s back to ranking relevance. Deal?
I have NEVER heard Chris Evert as candid as you caught her on your last podcast. Congratulations. I've been reading articles and watching countless match commentaries; not once did I ever learn a fraction of the private Chris Evert that I learned today. It's fair to say that neither interviewer nor interviewee knew where it was headed? That was a full-on personality piece, sprinkled with tennis references. Outstanding.
• This owes entirely to Chrissy. There are star athletes who make spectacular messes out of their lives once they retire. There are athletes who struggle quietly as they try to find meaning and replicate/replace the highs and intensity of competition. Then there are those who reinvent themselves and find fulfillment in other places. Chrissy is the latter.
• Congrats Mardy Fish who, on Wednesday, will be named the new Davis Cup captain and assume a sweeping role similar to Kathy Rinaldi’s. Great choice. And if you know a bit about what he’s been through over the past decade or so, this must be especially gratifying.
• For those who missed it, here’s Federer on CNN.
And here’s my critique, since a few of you asked:
1. Totally fair question.
2. Federer, we learn again, is a sensitive and empathic soul.
3. Lesser celebrities might have demanded that the segment not air, so good on Federer.
4. Did we really need the piano tinkling? No, we did not.
• FILA announced that it has signed a sponsorship agreement with Kiki Bertens.
• The USTA announced that Jermaine Jenkins, former collegiate All-American and recent hitting coach for Venus Williams, has been hired by USTA Player Development as a National Coach for Women's Tennis. He begins today and will be coaching out of the USTA National Campus in Orlando, reporting to Head of Women's Tennis Kathy Rinaldi.
• The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), today announced that it has appointed 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and former world No. 1 Chris Evert as Chair of the USTA Foundation’s Board of Directors. In her new role, Evert will serve as the USTA Foundation’s spokesperson and ambassador to promote its mission, raise funds and increase the impact of its national outreach efforts to under-resourced youth. She succeeds former pro James Blake, who served as USTA Foundation Chair from 2015 to 2018.
• Patrice writes: A note about Sepsis Alliance's latest awareness campaign. The campaign features Ken Flach, an Olympic gold medalist and Grand Slam champion, as well as an America's Got Talent finalist, both of whom highlight the fact that sepsis can happen to anyone, no matter their age or health. You can learn more here, or contact me for more information.
• Trivia: Who is the oldest person to win an ATP point, a record likely to stand given the recent cuts in rankings?