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  • In a meaty mailbag, Jon Wertheim examines why a player having so much success would choose to part ways with his/her coach.
By Jon Wertheim
February 13, 2019

Hello everyone…

HOUSKEEPING

• On the most recent podcast, Pam Shriver and I reveal our Big Idea (outside-the-service-box as it is) to bolster tennis in the United States.

• Our next guest is Rowan Ricardo Phillips, who talks tennis and his new book The Circuit.

• For the New York crowd— First, there was Tennis Night at Varsity Letters. Now, you still have New York Open matches to attend.

Onward…

MAILBAG

Huh? Is it just me, or is it incredibly weird that each of the women currently holding a Grand Slam moved on from their coach within a year of winning that Slam?  Naomi Osaka took it to a new level by ending the relationship less than a month after.  Any story on what went wrong?  
Kreits, New Jersey

• Lot of questions about Monday’s announcement that Naomi Osaka is no longer working with Sascha Bajin. It’s understandable. She’s won the past two majors. He was the 2018 WTA Coach of the Year. “Who breaks up while on this kind of run?” one of you asked.

Many of you expressed shock here; but I’d encourage you to plead that down to mild surprise. No doubt, the timing here is strange. But the contours of the player/coach relationship lend themselves to this kind of reassessment after success.  During the rough patches—provided the player can afford to make payments—the coach is critical. Coaches provide support and emotional succor and work out kinks in the player’s game. In times of success, the player often wonders, “What do I need him for? I achieved this. I did the hard work. Now I am paying him this fat bonus. And he is taking credit?”

So: “Who breaks up while on this kind of run?” In short, a tennis player does. Angelique Kerber won Wimbledon and announced a coaching change in the fall. Simona Halep was ranked No. 1 for most 2018 but came to Australia without coach. Sloane Stephens has won a major and resided in the top five for the better of the last 18 months, but came to Australia without her usual adjutant, Kamau Murray.

Sometimes these moves are made for financial reasons. These bonuses are considerable and a renegotiating coach may overplay his hand. Sometimes players feel coaches are taking too much credit, conflating the player’s success with their own. But sometimes these moves are simply about timing the market. “Where’s he going to take me from here? Time to sell.”

Hindsight being what it is, I went back and looked at some of Osaka’s remarks. Here she is after the Australian Open final. Read this and tell me if you think this sounds like someone convinced her coach is indispensable.

Q: For the second Grand Slam final of your career, what kind of things did you talk about with Sascha beforehand?
OSAKA: I didn't talk to him (smiling).
Q: Is that different?
OSAKA: I don't know. Yeah, no, like, we haven't really been talking, to be honest, like before any of my matches here. He would tell me, like, one thing, then I would be, like, okay. That was it.

Other quick points here:

1. The WTA is making an effort to bolster the profile of coaches. In Australia, coaches even held their own press conferences. As a fan and a media member, I say: great. The more insight and voices and perspective, the better. As a player, I’m not sure I’m thrilled that my coach is being put in this position, potentially revealing the equivalent of trade secrets.

2. Tennis coaching is always fraught, because the player is both the mentee and the employer. The coach is there for leadership; yet the player is paying the salary.

3. The good news for Bajin: tennis practices recycling. The turnover rate might be high, but so is the rehire rate. Bajin surely won’t be unemployed for long.

4. Meanwhile, to me, the real story is Osaka. In releasing Monday’s statement she made a more abstract statement as well. This was a decisive, unexpected move that perhaps suggests she’s more assertive and businesslike than one might have expected. It will be interesting to see how long she stays coachless. And who comes next. 

Although so much tennis remains to be played from now to the conclusion of Roland Garros, and nobody can foresee the future, which of the following scenarios seems more likely for Paris?

1. Djokovic winning his fourth consecutive major

2. Osaka winning her third consecutive major
Jeff Greenwell, Riverside, Calif.

• Good one. It’s true that this storyline didn’t get much play. Both U.S. Open champs backed up their titles in Australia. (Trivia: when was the last time both men and women won Slam X and then won Slam X+1 ?)  As for your question, I’d think Djokovic is far more likely. He has won the title before and reached the final on other occasions. Osaka’s career record at Roland Garros: 4-3.

Here is one fan who looks back with admiration and respect at the remarkable career of David Ferrer. No fanfare, No self-flattering, no self-promotion.  Daveed punched far above his weight with a legendary work ethic, resolve and fair play, always.  Hail Ferru!
Lauren, New Rochelle NY

• We’re always inclined to toast David Ferrer, who’s still out there:

WERTHEIM: Appreciating the Talent-Maximizing Career of David Ferrer

Do you think it’s reasonable to suggest that the three best men’s players of all time are playing right now? And that the best woman of all time is playing?

In other words, this is has been the greatest era in the history of tennis, period. Do you think this will be understood by all?
Dominic Ciafardini, NY

• Appreciate the present, folks. Appreciate the present.

Why do the pros carry their own gear out to the court for matches? Golfers have caddies. Hockey players never carry their own bags. And those racquet bags look heavy! Has a player ever thrown out their back carrying a bag?
@talk2night

• This is one of my favorite tennis quirks. Other athletes wouldn’t in a million years carry their own equipment. Yet even the most decorated players take the court schlepping their own bags, as if they’re off to a weekend convention in Omaha. Then when they’re finished, they hastily pack up their gear and, again—after spending hours at work— they sling a bag (sometimes multiple) over their shoulder and walk off. The unmistakable message: self-sufficiency. This is the ultimate individual sport. This is a solo journey. You’re going to battle responsible for yourself.

James in Portland missed one (and got one wrong). Since the 2002 U.S. Open, Agassi won only one and Safin won one. Everything else was correct.
Sean White, San Diego

• Good catch. Let’s do pause to note that since Wimbledon 2003, three players have won 51 majors.

I would love to see a women’s version of the Laver Cup. Let’s name it the Graf Cup. Of course, Federer would be the owner. Feasible? Sensible?
@Yessrao

• I love the idea of the a women’s Laver Cup. Better yet, I love the idea of adding women to the current Laver Cup. Want to even the scales between “Team Europe” and the “Team World” ? Add Serena, Sloane, Naomi Osaka, Ashy Barty and Madison Keys to the World side.

As for Steffi Graf, I always found this admirable in its way: when she retired, she swore off celebrity. The sponsor meet-and-greets, the interviews, the photo shoots—she was ready to shun it all to reclaim some measure of privacy. Here we are almost 20 years later and she has been steadfast. She’s left Lord-knows-how-many-millions on the table. And you could argue that tennis and the WTA have suffered for not having a more present and accessible former champion. But she’s been principled about her privacy and I don’t think you can begrudge her for that.

So, while, on merit—and as the last player to win the true Grand Slam, tennis’ answer to the 1972 Miami Dolphins—she is completely deserving of having her name placed on a cup, I suspect that her reluctance to take part in the associated publicity would make that problematic.

But props to you for the idea.

What’s your position on Doug Adler? Did you make it public?
@joebobdiggs

• For those who missed it, two years later, ESPN and Adler have reached some sort of agreement.

While details were vague—and ESPN did not formally apologize—the New York Post wrote: “Sources claim—without ESPN’s dispute—that Adler received a monetary settlement and has even been returned to ESPN’s payroll and could return to work tennis events for the network,”

To the reader’s question, I addressed this two years ago when the story broke, and my position hasn’t really wavered. In short strokes:

1. I don’t know Doug Adler; I don’t know what was on his mind or in his heart when he made that comment. But I am inclined to believe him and I am inclined to give people benefits of the doubt.

2. At the time, I didn’t recall hearing the phrase “guerilla tennis.” One of you mentioned that it was the theme of an Agassi-Sampras ad campaign for Nike. In context, while an unfortunate homonym, it made sense.

3. I think we’re often way too cavalier about demanding people be fired. Job loss is horrible and disruptive and destabilizing. (Especially in this media climate.) Depriving someone of their livelihood—and often with it, a core of their identity— is not something to undertake lightly.

4. I don’t know the terms of Doug’s contract with ESPN, but we sometimes forget that “employment at will” is a broad concept. Absent a contract and absent union protection, employers have great leeway and employees lack leverage.

5. People are still asking why Venus didn’t weigh in. I think that’s neither fair nor appropriate. The onus should not fall on her to mediate this.

6. Inasmuch as Doug Adler wanted his reputation back, he has succeeded.

I thought it was interesting to note that the Australian Open final equaled the record for combined numbers of Grand Slam titles in a matchup: Djokovic (14) vs Nadal (17). It tied the 2017 Australian Open final between Federer (17) vs Nadal (14). So, the next final containing any two of the Big Three will surpass this record of 31. 
Kieran

• Well played.

Listening to you and Pam… You’ve made a lot of mention of “infighting” over the last few weeks...on multiple podcasts and SI dispatches.  You guys are speaking pretty inside baseball.  You aren’t really enumerating the actual conflicts.  I believe you.  But I challenge you to listen to this podcast again from the POV of your listener.  We don’t know what you are talking about. 
RDS

PODCAST: Jon Wertheim, Pam Shriver Discuss Outside-the-Box Solution for USTA

• Fair criticism. We try to balance neither talking down to the audience nor talking up to them either. But easy to see how this bit about conflicts became too  “inside baseball,” as you put it.

The overarching point: tennis, and the USTA in particular, needs to think outside the proverbial box. Business as usual has not been working. Partnering with the NBA—a league with infrastructure, similar objectives, a track record, a history of running another league from within—makes a lot of sense. And even if it doesn’t come to pass, it’s a healthy exercise to displace decision-makers from their comfort zones.

As for the conflicts:

1.  The ITF, ATP, and Roger Federer Inc. each holding international Cup-style events within a 90-day window. This we know: there is an appetite for an international competition held over a one-week period. This we also know: three such Cups in a compressed time spoils that appetite. The market will be oversaturated, fans will be confused, and everyone will suffer. A commissioner—that is, a real executive—would have mediated this and ended the madness. But no such position exists in tennis.

2. Despite the ample evidence—both empirical and anecdotal—that tennis is at its best when men and women compete simultaneously, there is still resistance in some (sexist) quarters. The stupid ATP World Cup will stain the first two weeks of the season, effectively ending the Hopman Cup and putting the WTA in flux.

3. The ITF’s campaign to reinvent the Davis Cup was a successful bit of vote-whipping. But a lot of feelings were bruised. And while most observers agreed that the “old” Davis Cup needed reimagining, the ITF now has to make good on their promise. The “Pique Cup,” as it’s being called needs to be successful. (And the checks better not bounce.)

4. To combat match-fixing at lower level events—and consolidate power in the process—the ITF hastily instituted a “transition tour” which has lopped off thousands of players from the rankings and reduced playing opportunities. Especially hard-hit: American players , who get a gnarly ouble-whammy: Opportunities are reduced, and the worldwide swath of international players snapping up college scholarships at the expense of Americans just gets deeper…which leads us to:

5. The USTA, which can hardly order office supplies without a self-congratulatory reference to “inclusion” and “inclusivity.” Yet it allowed this this new structure— exclusionary in the extreme; a “dream killer,” as one Hall of Fame calls it—to pass through. The USTA claims this new tour was foisted upon them and they had no say. But didn’t the ITF need the USTA’s support for Davis Cup reforms? Doesn’t the USTA have a seat on the ITF Board of Directors? Something is rotten here—an act of either negligence or gross negligence—and as more and more players, parents, coaches, tournament directors and media members realize this seismic shift, someone is going to have to be held accountable.

6. A group of players, player council representatives and board members are actively seeking the removal of ATP CEO Chris Kermode.

Otherwise? Smooth sailing.

I always enjoy reading your 50 parting thoughts after a Grand Slam.  You included the following comment in this year’s Australian Open roundup:

How much does the USTA and other federations pay for the coaching and training of top pros who are already making millions, using funds that are diverted from players who truly need it? What are the travel budgets of high-ranking employees from tennis non-profits, who reliably show up in the first-class lounges but struggle to articulate what function they actually serve at events?

Do you have any more details on this, or were you just hoping to put some pressure on the USTA?  It would be nice to see what the USTA spends on travel and entertainment.  
Jim Block

• The USTA’s 990s are public documents. Here’s some light reading.

But only partial disclosures are required. As for something like, “How much does the USTA subsidize the coaching and training expenses of top players?” Well, that’s a question for the USTA. Honestly, I could argue either side on this. As a non-profit tasked with growing and promoting tennis, perhaps this kind of information should be readily available. On the other hand, is there a greater good served by this kind of disclosure?

Again, reasonable people can disagree here. What’s a better and more equitable use of funds? Getting a John Isner-type from the lip of the top 10 to inside the top 10? Or getting a Danielle Collins-type from outside the top 100 to inside the top 50?

I was playing doubles last night and went into a tiebreaker. In the service rotation, I was scheduled to serve first, which I did. It was then the other team’s turn to serve, but instead of the guy whose turn it was in the rotation to serve, they chose to go out of the rotation and have their better server serve again, much like you are permitted to do at the start of a new set.  I was not under the impression that was permitted. I hope that makes sense.
Rich G., Westchester, N.Y.

• You are correct. The opposing team was incorrect. Let’s go to the rule book:

Rule 5. Score in a Game

 b. Tie-break game

The player whose turn it is to serve shall serve the first point of the tie-break game.  The following two points shall be served by the opponent(s) (in doubles, the player of the opposing team due to serve next). After this, each player/team shall serve alternately for two consecutive points until the end of the tie-break game (in doubles, the rotation of service within each team shall continue in the same order as during the set).

The football networks often mention games coming up on other networks. It would be nice if the tennis networks behaved this way. Tennis coverage shouldn’t be a zero sum game.  
John Rossitter, Middletown, Conn.

• Really? I can’t recall hearing NBC touting Fox’s games. Or vice versa. But your point is well-taken. (I do think ESPN and Tennis Channel have gotten a lot better at this.) It’s hard enough being a tennis fan and following the sport. If the networks were more collegial in guiding fans, that would be appreciated by many.

SHOTS, MISCELLNARY

• Regarding last week’s discussion on Naomi Osaka’s rise, the good folks at the WTA came up with this.

• Marco Trungelliti versus match-fixers.

•  Virtual Tennis, a virtual reality athletic concept that marries VR technology with intense broad-spectrum physical competition, took the top prize in the fourth edition of the Tennis Industry Innovation Challenge—a “Shark Tank”-like competition to identify the most innovative and creative product or service in the tennis industry.

Presented by the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), the Innovation Challenge took place during the recent Racquet & Paddle Sports Conference at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. Three companies, which had been selected from more than 30 overall applicants for this fourth Innovation Challenge, each gave a five-minute presentation on what makes their tennis product or service special, unique and important to the growth of the sport.

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