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  • In his weekly Mailbag, Jon Wertheim highlights the disparity between tennis' seedy politics and its delightful personalities.
By Jon Wertheim
February 06, 2019

Hey everyone.

Here are some things I’m wondering:

• How Petra Kvitova played a major final with so much poise days before issuing this harrowing testimony.

• What a tennis commissioner would make of this charge by Dirk Hordoff against the highly controversial, hastily-implemented ITF Tour. The ITF categorically denies this allegation. 

• When the ITF will explain how it can snuff out opportunities for young players in the name of preserving integrity and reducing match-fixing, while still accepting millions from a data company that is the essential conduit to match-fixing. 

• If, as a friend suggests, the IPTL was tennis’ version of Fyre Festival.

On to some Q&A…

MAILBAG

The Myth of Tsitsipas: a tennis headline waiting to be written.
@dmorriso16

• Well played. Though it begs the question: Is he the guy rolling the boulder?  Or is trying to beat him the exercise in futile labor? 

As long as we’re talking Tsitsipas... Jamie Lisanti and I discussed this on the podcast last week. But I feel like this is a point that doesn’t get made often enough so here it goes:

This is, of course, not quantifiable. There’s no Hawkeye data to confirm or graphic to be cooked up by the gang in the truck. But tennis is surely at a high water mark for character. I’m really struck by the overarching virtue/dignity/coolness of players these days. They’re different and sometimes weird and incredibly diverse. 

Maybe this starts at the top and trickles down? If the Big Four (and their WTA counterparts) are well-adjusted and honorable, the players ranked lower will fall in line. But go down the rankings, and you are hard-pressed to find a disagreeable figure. This, suffice to say, has not always been the case.

It’s such a strange moment for the sport. Tennis politics is at an all-time high. There are double-dealers and self-dealers, narcissists and freeloaders, the emptiest of suits (and empty pants suits), political survivalists and charlatans. The stupid ATP World Team Cup is six weeks after Davis Cup, which is six weeks after Laver Cup. People are waking up to the deep flaws of the ITF Transition Tour—already rebranded the ITF Pro Tour—which will victimize thousands of young players. The ATP is the site of a palace coup attempt.  We could go on…

And yet the athletes themselves are, collectively, terrific. Smart, weird, good-humored, human, humane, and a joy to be around. I don’t know how the gang in PR and marketing sells this point, but, for all the craziness and dysfunction and political clumsiness, it’s easy to have fidelity in tennis when the folks actually the hitting the balls are the kinds of people you’d relish having as neighbors and friends. 

It looks like Naomi Osaka is the real deal.  We’ve been looking for the new face of tennis for the last couple years and yet Naomi just came out of left field to grab the stage. It’s quite impressive, but I feel like I missed her rise to prominence. Question: Did you foresee Osaka's rise or were you caught as off-guard as I was? She really seemed to come out of nowhere. I just didn't know she was even a factor and have been very, very pleasantly surprised. I hope she stays and doesn't prove to be just a flash in the pan. 
Randy Mayes, Phoenix

• I am product of the Midwest, where self-promotion is a misdemeanor and bragging is a felony. As many of you guys remind me, I have made some dubious predictions through the years. (Most recently: it’s noted that Angie Kerber didn’t win the 2019 Australian Open.) 

JUNG: Naomi Osaka Is the New Queen of Tennis

But, I have to say: I did see Osaka coming. So much so that it earned me grief among colleagues.  I forwarded your email to Brett Haber, my Tennis Channel co-conspirator, who, for years, listened as I prattled about Osaka’s athleticism and power and introversion, which I thought might serve her well, indifferent as she was to the usual distractions of celebrity. Lest I stand accused of bragging, I’ll let him do it for me:

Brett Haber here, Jon’s co-desk jockey at Tennis Channel. I’m going to jump in and “guest-answer” this one, because if Jon did it himself, it would come off as self-aggrandizing and I don’t want to see him jeopardize his boyish humility and charm. Jon was WAY out in front of the Osaka bandwagon. In fact, as far back as 2016, Jon was so relentless in his touting of Naomi as a future star, that I took to calling him “Osaka Bureau Chief Jon Wertheim” on the air. He saw the power—and that it seemed to come with a situational governor (something many young power players lack). He saw the serve and the movement and the compelling personal story and told us all she was on the verge of doing something big. We would generally all respond to this by nodding and then asking some insipid question about the swimsuit issue. But he was right. He was the prescient one. He was the one who foresaw her greatness before it fully manifested on the court. If only he packed for trips with equal forethought, he wouldn’t have to resort to wearing business class airplane socks with his dress shoes during the second week of a major. 

It’s poignant to compare Federer and Brady this time of the year—more so as the Super Bowl coincides elegantly with the Australian Open. With Federer's loss and Brady's sub-par regular season statistically, I was wondering about it and would love your thoughts. 

The parallels are striking: Federer plays a relatively light schedule, and this summer was the first time in 17 years that Brady did not participate in summer training (to the dismay of his coach, nonetheless). I think while they both are still capable of moments of breathtaking brilliance on any given day, as they progress along towards the twilight of their careers, there are more bad days sprinkled in between than when they were in their prime. Father Time stops for no one, but the great ones find a way to slow it down, right?
Deepak, Seattle      

• We note that this was sent before the Super Bowl. “Father time stops for no one,” but both Federer and Brady make a convincing case that you can impede time’s crawl with speed bumps. Both are smart about their schedule and training (and invest accordingly). Both have figured out how to manage the family component. Both are prepared to make concessions in exchange for continued play at a high level. Brady might not win MVP. Federer may not be ranked No. 1. But they still are giving themselves every opportunity to be successful. Long may they continue.

I just wanted to say that I thought your mailbag from Jan. 30, 2019 was particularly substantive on all sorts of topics. I also wanted to send some support for what you said about civility on social media.  By all means!!
Gen, Taipei

• Thanks. A number of you wrote in with similar sentiment, which I appreciate. I realize A. I sound like an old man here B. I write this as a middle-aged guy, cosseted in privilege. C. My respect for Madison Keys and her cause only grows.

But I still find it such a jarringly strange experience to be going about your business, and have strangers drop f-bombs on you and call for you to be fired. I feel like I’ve made this example before, but I never understood the appeal of the show “Friends.” So I didn’t watch it. Never once did it cross my mind to write to Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry and tell them they were talent-deprived hacks who should contract incurable canker herpes and get hit by a bus. 

If nothing else, Twitter in particular will provide social psychologists with a fertile research basin for centuries. 

Super Bowl LIII or Djokovic v Nadal LIII—Which was the bigger anti-climax (or anti-cLIIImax)?
Joshua Kay, Melbourne

• Well played. Nadal and Djokovic played for…wait for it…the 53rd time the week prior to Super Bowl LIII. Neither quite lived up to the hype.

I’ve had a question bouncing around inside my head for a number of years, and I thought I might run it by you.  Why don’t right-handed tennis player serve left-handed into the ad court?  The wide-swinging lefty serve is a universally feared weapon.  Why shouldn’t a right-handed player co-opt it?  You can serve left-handed and then switch the racket back to your right hand for the rally.  It really seems like low-hanging fruit.  You don’t even have to do it all the time.  Just have it as another weapon in your arsenal.  Pro athletes work so hard to gain a 5% edge on their opponents.  Why not do this seemingly easy thing?  Have you come across this concept in your years of tennis coverage?
Matthew Wong, Houston

• Interesting. But what righties among us can serve comparably well with our non-dominant hand? 

Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open to give him 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Since then, 65 Grand Slam events have been played:

Federer won 20
Nadal 17
Djokovic 15
Murray 3
Wawrinka 3
Agassi 2
Del Potro 1
Cilic 1
Gaudio 1
Ferrero 1
Roddick 1

Is my math right? If so, that’s insane.
James, Portland

• Insane. Yes.

The final-set tiebreakers at the Australian Open this year were the story of the tournament for me. Now that we are tweaking with scoring at the Grand Slams, what match format do you think would be fair for both women and men to play so that their matches (along with their prize money!) are equal:

Best of three pro sets with 10 point tiebreakers at 8-8

OR

Best of five first-to-four sets with a tiebreaker at 4-4, and the tiebreaker is first to 12 points

Or...?
Will

• I’d contend that Djokovic (now a subatomic particle, even among the Big Three) and Osaka (two straight majors and the No. 1 ranking) were the stars of the tournament. But your point is well-taken.

WERTHEIM: 50 Parting Thoughts From the 2019 Australian Open

The final set tiebreaks were a success, albeit a rare one—only six of the 254 matches went the distance. I stand by my proposal. Women stay at best-of-three. Men play best-of-three in week one. In week two we invoke the heft of the Slams by going to best-of-five.

Naomi Osaka just entered the top 10 five months ago; has any other player ever climbed to No. 1 so quickly?
Chris Brown

Sharko! This time last year, Osaka was outside the top 50 and….oh, wait, here’s the Prophet of Ponte Vedra:

This is pretty interesting: Marat Safin needed only a little more than five months from breaking into the Top 10 to reach No. 1 in 2000.

Newcombe follows and the two JCs are close behind taking less than a year to accomplish the feat:

1. Marat Safin — Broke into top 10 on June 12, 2000, reached No. 1 on Nov. 20, 2000
2. John Newcombe — Broke into top 10 on Aug. 23, 1973, reached No. 1 on June 3, 1974
3. Jim Courier — Broke into top 10 on March 25, 1991, reached No. 1 on Feb. 10, 1992
4. Jimmy Connors — Broke into top 10 on Aug. 23, 1973, reached No. 1 on July 29, 1974 

Would you kindly number (general numeric or Roman numerals) or using Alpha.

Thanks for your outstanding reportages on the Open.
—AlT.

I. Yes.
II. Good idea
III. Thanks.

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• One of you reminded me of this. The lovely, the talented, Oracene Williams:

• Four players aged 23 and younger have committed to play the 2019 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship April 6-14 at River Oaks Country Club.

• A US Clay semifinalist last year, 21-year-old Taylor Fritz will be joined by a trio of 23-year-olds in the field–Yoshihito Nishioka, former TCU standout Cameron Norrie and 2016 NCAA champion Mackenzie McDonald.

• The USTA announced that it and Tennis Channel will partner to deliver the Tennis Channel/USTA College Tennis Top 25 Rankings across multiple digital and television platforms in 2019.

• The new Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre will open its doors in April in Chalkidiki, one of Greece’s premier tourist locations.

• Kevin Anderson and Simona Halep have been honored in the International Tennis Writers’ Association’s annual Ambassador of the Year awards. Both are first-time winners of the awards. The awards are given each year to one man and one woman after a vote by the 120-plus members of ITWA, which represents the world’s leading tennis journalists. The awards recognize a combination of achievements on the court, conduct that shows tennis in the best possible light and co-operation with the media.

•  The USTA and United States Fed Cup Captain Kathy Rinaldi today announced that No. 17 Madison Keys, No. 23 Danielle Collins, No. 36 Sofia Kenin and doubles No. 13 Nicole Melichar will represent the U.S. in the 2019 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group First Round vs. Australia Feb. 9-10 in Asheville, N.C.

• Tennis Canada announced on Wednesday that Bianca Andreescu (Mississauga, ON), Rebecca Marino (Vancouver, BC), Françoise Abanda (Montreal, QC) and Gabriela Dabrowski (Ottawa, ON) will represent Canada in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first-round tie against the Netherlands on Feb. 9 and 10. The tie will be played at Maaspoort Sports & Events, in 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.  

 • Fila has extended its Premier Sponsorship agreement with the BNP Paribas Open, the largest ATP Tour and WTA combined two-week event in the world, to be held March 4-17, 2019 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. With the multi-year agreement Fila will remain the Official Apparel and Footwear Supplier of the event, providing custom uniforms for event staff, volunteers, ball kids and officials. For the 2019 tournament, all ball kids will wear Fila’s new Axilus 2 Energized performance tennis shoes as part of their on-court uniform.

 • Lacoste, the official apparel and footwear sponsor of the Miami Open presented by Itaú, has renewed its partnership with the event and will continue to dress tournament staff, officials, linesmen, lineswomen and ball kids in its signature French elegance through the 2024 tournament.

•   The ITF and Kosmos Tennis announced an agreement with La Liga, the best football league in the world, to become an official sponsor of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Finals for the next four years.

• The international governing bodies of tennis (ATP, WTA, ITF and Grand Slam Board) have appointed Jennie Price as independent Chair of a new Supervisory Board to oversee the operation of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU). Jennie is a former Chief Executive Officer of Sport England, the leading public investor in grassroots sport, who was selected for the newly created position following an extensive international search carried out by external specialists. She is a highly experienced chief executive and non-executive director, having held prominent positions in both the public and private sectors.

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