- In his weekly Mailbag, Jon Wertheim explains why sticking to sports isn't just naive, it's a form of malpractice.
As always, we start with some transactional stuff.
• World No. 5/environmentalist Kevin Anderson is our most recent podcast guest.
• For our next pod, I’ll check in with Jamie Lisanti from Indian Wells in a few days.
• I received lots of mail about the ITF Tour, which has already aroused so much discussion and antipathy. Skip to the bottom for a reader rant in the form of an open letter to the USTA from Geoff Grant, a past podcast guest.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @Jon_Wertheim.
I’ve followed your columns and reporting for years. I love tennis and reading about it because it is a way for me to escape the pressures of every day life and have fun. I’m sure it’s this way for many millions. But following it through your reporting has become increasingly difficult, Jon. Why? Because you’ve decided to stop being a tennis journalist. You’ve become obsessed with being a social justice tennis reporter. Enough already please! I was already sick of politics being inserted into everything outside of tennis. And now I have to be reminded of it not only when I watch you on Tennis Channel but in your Mailbag too. Greenhouse houses gasses & tennis? And you’re still “educating yourself” whether Martina, an avowed lesbian, is wrong to note there is a biological difference between men and women in the field of play? And don’t get me started on being constantly reminded about Tennys (I, Jon, must mention his Twitter views again) Sandgren. A lot of your readers NOT in California and NY want to be entertained via tennis, not lectured on how we should be thinking politically while we hit the damn ball. Please tone it down. I beg you.
• Shut up and scribble, so to speak.
I think this is a (mostly) fair criticism and a healthy discussion/examination overall. So many of us—journalists, athletes, millions on social media—are wrestling with this balance, constantly assessing and reassessing where “lane markers” are drawn. Ours is a crazy political/cultural moment, but one undeniable truth to emerge: as a social force, sports intersect with politics. It’s not simply naïve to pretend otherwise; it’s dishonest. “Stick to sports” is almost a form of malpractice. And yet I do sympathize with this idea that people want to escape the pressures of every day life and have fun via sport.
I’m happy to continue this discussion moving forward, but let me just make a few points here:
1. I try and take my cues from you folks, the readership. And, clearly and consistently, I get feedback that larger issues and broader discussions are fundamental to the appeal/experience of being a tennis fan. We get a lot of questions and discussions about the GOAT, the Hall of Fame, social issues, equal prize money, cheating, economics, coaching changes, politics. We get comparatively few questions about what other sports would call X’s and O’s. If we did, we would happily address those. But as long as so much discussion is about issues, my leanings (and bleeding-heart libertarian sensibilities) will, almost necessarily, become apparent.
2. One of the beauties of tennis resides in its explanatory powers. Maybe because it’s an individual sport, maybe because it’s so international, maybe because it’s dual-gendered, maybe because it’s so awesomely meritocratic….whatever the reason, it lends itself to broader themes and discovery. When someone says: “I am a Serena fan,” or “I support Federer/Nadal/Djokovic,” it often it has nothing to do with forehands and backhands.—it’s what they represent and what your alignment says about you. When we talk about Billie Jean King or Arthur Ashe or Martina, it’s as much for their trailblazing as their tennis. Even note that when his colleagues toasted Andy Murray, it was more about what he stood than his Wimbledon titles. Without discounting the richness of actual match play and the athleticism of the players and weekly results, I would contend that most fans gravitate to tennis for reasons that go far beyond “hitting the damn ball.”
3. I apologize for none of the specific examples you cite. Kevin Anderson—a top-five player in the world— is committed (apolitically, by the way) to environmentalism and sustainability and, yes, reducing greenhouse gases. That is a story worthy of coverag…I admit that I’m hopelessly in the tank for my friend Martina; but before I weigh in on an issue that has clearly aroused a lot of controversy, I’d like to learn more about why this was deemed so offensive. You’ll forgive me for seeking to educate myself before offering a hot take….I did indeed take issue with Tennys Sandgren’s apparent sympathy for the alt right; we have also spoken at length since then and, while I don’t profess to speak for him, I think we both take pride in the level and depth of discussion we have had.
4. There is an element of damned-if-you-do here. If Tennis Channel or Sports Illustrated or ESPN or any other outlet doesn’t weigh in on the kind of topics that the reader decries, there is often a vocal group that, not wrongly, demands answers. Where is the Justin Gimselstob coverage? Where was the vigorous defense of Doug Adler? Why are we not talking about tennis’ migration to China? Again, we are all trying to figure out where to allocate resources, both literal resources (time, space, expense) and intellectual resources.
5. By design and definition, the Mailbag is supposed to be a place for opinion and discussion and analysis (and even pontificating lectures). It is not really a place for match results or even-handed match coverage. (In newspaper terms: in this role, I am a columnist, not a beat writer.) You may not agree with those opinions and judgments. It sounds like you dislike them intensely. And that’s fine. Encouraged even. But coming to this space for neutral, sober sports coverage is like going to Taco Bell for clean eating. You’re in the wrong place.
Jon Wertheim on Kyrgios: Part of me asks if this is even worth discussion right now.
Nick Kyrgios: Hold my beer.
• Well played. Yes, we had declared a moratorium on Kyrgios until his play merited discussion. And then—as quick and unexpected as his underhand serve—Kyrgios runs the table in Acapulco, beating Nadal, Wawrinka and Zverev to win his first title of 2019. He also does so with his singular style, blasting winners from every conceivable position on the court.
Does this help us process and metabolize Kyrgios? Well, here’s what we already knew: He has a deep fund of talent; he is capable of beating the best players (Scroll down to “shots, miscellany” for a great breakdown of Nadal’s big wins); like an NBA player on a shooting streak, he can catch fire quickly; he can be jaw-droppingly good and head-smashingly bad; he relishes the role of tennis’ antihero.
Even Kyrgios detractors have to concede: that was an awesome display, a reminder of why so many care about him and why the notion of him winning majors isn’t fanciful. A week ago, he was outside the top 70. He comes to Indian Wells as the talk of the sport. It doesn’t take much. It seldom does.
One of you—I want to say Louisa Thomas—noted that the challenge for Kyrgios is now beating lesser players. And this is precisely correct. Contrarian in every way, this is a central Kyrgios contradiction. With most athletes you say, “Great job beating the folks you’re supposed to beat, can you elevate and do it against the highest level competition?” With Kyrgios it’s, “Great job elevating against the highest level of competition, but can you do it day-in, day-out against the player you’re supposed to beat?”
This link contains the tour-level titles won by Jimmy Connors, 109 in all.
As you can see, nine such titles were on a competing tour (not ATP sanctioned) started by Lamar Hunt, called the WTC. As I recall, many of the WTC events were invitational and not based on a ranking protocol. Query whether these nine WTC titles should be counted towards Jimmy’s “tour level” titles. If not, Jimmy and Roger are tied at 100.
—Bryan G., Brooklyn
• Very interesting. This is Exhibit 641,931 of Why Inter-Generational Comparisons are Fun Yet Problematic. You raise a very interesting point. But is this not the equivalent of “you can only beat the players put before you?”
ATP information guru Greg Sharko notes: WCT tournaments were part of the calendar in the 70s and 80s, and they didn't award ATP points. But as you mention, were their own circuit of events. And there were a number of other players, such as Lendl, who won several of his titles at WCT tournaments. It would be very hard to change history, and WCT were not exhibitions—they also had a WCT Finals for the top 16 players (or 12, will check) based on WCT points accumulated.
Who is hurt if low-level tennis players fix a match (or a set, game or point)? I know it sounds unlawful—"match-fixing" is a breach of integrity, or whatever term you want to use, but I can't seem to find an aggrieved party other than a casino that is on the wrong side of a wager. And you know what? If the casinos were losing money in aggregate on (fixed) tennis matches, they would stop taking wagers on tennis matches. Would that be a big deal?
What am I missing here?
• One of the core values of sports: they are real. Nothing is scripted or choreographed or written in advance. If this is undermined—if the authenticity is in doubt—the whole Jenga tower collapses.
Part of the fear: the perception that players are not competing honorably sullies the entire sport. Another part of the fear: today’s challenger players are tomorrow’s ATP players. If they bring their corrupt ways (and nefarious character) to the next level, we’re all cooked. Another part of the fear: some match-fixing is about ill-gotten gains. But it can also be about threats and duress. People might ask, “What’s the harm if someone dumps a set for a few bucks at some rinky-dink event?” But that line of thinking brings us to the edge of a really dark place.
In discussing Naomi Osaka's split with her coach in a recent Mailbag, you wrote: "Players don’t owe a debt to their coach; they owe it to their talent and feeling of comfort." While the latter clause is undoubtedly true, I'm not sure I agree with the former. Coaching in tennis is different than coaching in other sports, but it is still coaching. Players wouldn't pay good money to hire coaches if they didn't derive some benefit from the instruction. Tom Brady owes Bill Belichick tons, even though Brady's talent is largely responsible for what he has achieved during his career. That begs another question: why do tennis coaches receive so much less credit for their "team's" success than coaches in other sports?
—James, Washington, N.C.
• “Tennis coach” begets one of the stranger dynamics in sports. You’re an authority figure, but also the employee of the player. You work your butt off, but then sit still during competition, lest you be cited for...coaching. You are as much a psychologist as an instructor, but then you often work with opposing players. The workforce includes everyone from former Grand Slam champs to parents who have never played a competitive match.
My point is this: tennis players are beholden only to themselves and to maximizing their gift and their time. Athletes in team sports don’t hire the coaches. Teams might feel obligated to honor contracts and give coaches a few extra months (or seasons) to “right the ship,” as the cliché-prone would say. In tennis, if the relationship doesn’t feel right to the player, they should feel full autonomy to make change.
Really happy for Belinda Bencic, who beat four top-10 players to win Dubai. She has had a rough go because of injuries, but she played unreal in those four matches (saving six match points vs. Aryna Sabalenka was truly amazing). Some people might think of her as the double's partner for Federer at the Hopman Cup, but she definitely reminded us all of how good she can be when she is healthy. With the ever-changing WTA landscape, do you think she can rise to the top?
• Absolutely. This year already, Bencic has beaten Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina. She is up to No. 23 and defending very little. She is a terrific player whose career was stalled by injuries. She is also turning 22 on Sunday.
How does Hsieh Su-wei not have a clothing sponsor? She can’t be bothered? No one has made a good enough offer? Mixing and matching to create her own look seems like a better option than dressing exactly like a third of her opponents?
—Kevin, New Mexico
• A year ago, the top player in the world didn’t have a sponsor. There are players in the top 20 who have sponsors but only get free gear, not cash. Sadly, it’s not uncommon.
Marin Cilic, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev are currently tied for 48th place in the Race to London rankings. Any predictions on which, if any, of them will be playing at the O2 come November?
—Helen, Washington, D.C.
• That was last week. Now we’re in a much different place. (Thanks in no small part to Federer’s title number 100). But a fun factoid nonetheless. Bottom line: it’s early in the season.
• Thanks to Rohit Sudarshan of Washington, D.C. for this:
Kyrgios’s epic win over Rafa in Acapulco put his record against the Big 3 at 6-6, meaning he’s won half his matches against arguably the three greatest players of all time.
Twelve matches isn't a huge sample size. But it's not insignificant, either. I looked at how many other players have registered more wins against the Big 3. As you can guess, it's a small list, especially if you remove those that went winless against one of the trio members. For example, while Mikhail Youzhny has seven wins against Novak and Rafa combined, he never registered a win against Roger (in 17 tries)…so I felt it was not fair to include him in the list.
Here's the list of players and their combined win total vs. the Big 3:
Andy Murray — 29
Juan Martin del Potro — 17
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — 16
Lleyton Hewitt — 14
Tomas Berdych — 13
Andy Roddick — 11
David Nalbandian — 11
Nikolay Davydenko — 10
Stan Wawrinka — 9
Drawing conclusions from this is difficult. Many of Hewitt's wins against Roger came before Roger hit his stride. Ditto for Roddick's wins over Novak. However, here are some trends based on the nine players that have won more matches than Kyrgios against the Big 3:
• Five of the nine players won at least one major
• Three of the nine players won multiple majors
• Eight of the nine players reached at least 1 slam final
• Each of the nine players won at least one Masters 1000 title
• Eight of the nine players won multiple Masters 1000 titles
This is very long winded way to say that Kyrgios' career falls well short of these other players so far, but if he can maintain the ability to keep beating the top guys, I see no way he doesn't eventually have a big week in a major. The talent is simply too much and I believe it will propel him to move past his challenges. On another note, could you give us an estimate as to how many people emailed you this past week with Nick Kyrgios questions, commentaries, and rants? 100 readers? 500?
• Ten Americans will head to River Oaks Country Club in six weeks for the 2019 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. They are among the 21 ATP stars included on the initial entry list for the 28-player ATP 250 tournament that will be contested April 8-14.
• The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association, announced today that it has surpassed $40 million in total giving to tennis and education programs and under-resourced youth since its inception, with over $40.2 million distributed.
• The Volvo Car Open has added three top 15 players to its 2019 field – Aryna Sabalenka, Anastasija Sevastova and Ashleigh Barty. They join a strong international player field featuring Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Kiki Bertens, Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, Elise Mertens, Danielle Collins and Jelena Ostapenko. The 2019 tournament is scheduled for March 30-April 7 on Daniel Island in Charleston, South Carolina.
• The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has today announced that qualifying draws at ITF World Tennis Tour events will be increased from 24 players to 32, following an analysis of data gathered during the first eight weeks of the new Tour and feedback from players, coaches and national associations.
The ITF’s mission is to support the entry of the best male and female players into professional tennis and deliver them to the top of the game. Changes which led to the introduction of the ITF World Tennis Tour in 2019 were supported by ATP and WTA and incorporated the 2018 Independent Review Panel’s recommendations on structural change that identified the need for a set number of professional players.
• Here’s a letter Geoff Grant send over the weekend to the USTA Board of Directors:
I write to you as a former NJCC member (2015-18) and Vice Chair (2017-18), a parent of 5 tennis players, a life-long fan of the game, and an American who for over 20 years has been immersed in various levels of competitive tennis. I may not have had a front row seat to all of the events leading up to this, but I was certainly sitting in the orchestra section.
Two months ago, in January of this year, the ITF launched the new World Tennis Tour with the dual goals of improving player economics and strengthening the integrity of the game at the lower levels - both worthy goals. The architecture of the new tour was developed over the past several years and unveiled in stages beginning in early 2017. The proposed changes were far-reaching and I was asked to chair a sub-committee to evaluate and report back on these changes’ potential impact on US junior tennis. Around the same time in early 2017, the USTA formed a working group comprising PD, junior competition, collegiate, and pro-circuit stakeholders.
Our sub-committee performed some basic statistical modeling to predict what the new cutoffs might be, evaluated the adequacy of the US ITF circuit, and tried holistically to predict the potential impact of all these changes on collegiate tennis.
We concluded the following:
1. Tens of thousands of playing opportunities would be lost.
2. Domestic USTA competition would be severely degraded, and college preparatory competition would only be available via the ITF junior circuit.
3. With only 17 US-based ITF tournaments compared to over 200 in Europe, US players would find themselves at a distinct disadvantage to European players; any US player would find it statistically impossible to achieve a top 100 ITF ranking without significant, expensive and time-consuming foreign travel.
4. Division 1 college teams would be hit by a tsunami of foreign players seeking playing opportunities now denied them on the new tour.
In short, the US would be left with no viable domestic pathway to either college or pro-tennis, accelerating the significant decline in participation we have witnessed over the past decade.
We presented our findings to the full committee. Separately, I spoke to senior USTA staff as well as two board members, urging the USTA to advocate for a pause in implementation until the downstream impacts on the game could be better understood. I received the same response in each case: the changes were part of a broad restructuring of the professional tennis pathway and were mandated under an agreement between the governing bodies of tennis and the Independent Review Panel. It had been agreed in advance that any recommendations would be implemented in full and immediately, and that there would be no delays. Martin Blackman confirmed this during his Sports Illustrated podcast at the Australian Open.
The IRP final report was released in December 2018 with 93 pages of recommendations. The conclusion was clear: the sale of live scoring data was the driver of almost all integrity-related issues facing the game. There was reference to strengthening the pathway, improving access for juniors, and eliminating overlapping events. The extreme changes mandated by the ITF went much farther than anything indicated in the final report.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the ITF had recently signed a $70mm data deal with Sportsradar to supply live scoring data all the way though to 2021. The most important recommendation of the panel was simply ignored. There would not even be a reduction in the amount of live data supplied to the gambling industry. The fiction that the circuit changes could not be paused or amended was now clear for all to see. The whole situation reeked of hypocrisy. I felt deceived and I assume the USTA did, too.
Shelby Talcott is a young aspiring professional tennis player. She publishes a blog about her tennis journey and she has kindly agreed to share the link as part of this letter. Sadly, what Shelby describes is not unique; her experience is horrifying and something no young player should be exposed to. This is exactly what the ITF, and by extension the USTA, is buying with their gambling association. It is a stain on the game.
The facts now are:
1. Tens of thousands of tennis matches will not be played this year, and thousands of players will have to abandon a game they have spent a lifetime supporting.
2. Player economics have deteriorated. Players unable to get into the new tournaments are being forced to arrive at resort venues 3 or 4 days ahead of time to play in an expensive pre-qualifying event, entry to which often requires to the player be resident at the host hotel. Some of the resort venues are refusing to take advantage of the ITF’s decision to increase the draw sized to 32 because “they are making too much money on the pre-qualifying events.” The ITF has its back against the wall on this as it is now faced with either accepting this reality or seeing even more tournaments disappear from the calendar. This situation was entirely predictable.
3. The integrity of the game will be further compromised. Junior players have only the time they are ranked in the junior top 100 to gain access to the 15k events. A junior will have, on average, a year to attain the points he or she needs to become self-sufficient on the new tour. The temptation for a junior, close to the threshold, to “buy matches” will be enormous. Finally, Juniors who need to maintain their top 100 status to be eligible will be forced to overplay causing increased injury.
4. The new tour has been overwhelmingly rejected by the very players it is intended to help. A petition to overturn the changes has received almost 15,000 signatures. Facebook pages opposed to the changes have thousands of members (links attached below). Many ATP players and coaches including Toni Nadal and Patrick Mouratoglou have spoken out in opposition. There is virtually no support for what the ITF has done.
There is only one rational explanation for the ITF’s actions here: Faced with the prospect that the IRP report would put their gambling-related revenue at risk, the ITF felt compelled to do something “big” to demonstrate they were taking the recommendations seriously. In other words, the ITF decided to prioritize money over the rights and welfare of tennis players like Shelby Talcott. Intentionally or not, the USTA endorsed this approach.
The USTA can no longer sit on the sidelines. The jury may be out on the changes to the Davis Cup, but it is most certainly not out on the World Tennis Tour. In addition, the ITF showed remarkably poor judgment by recently entering into a data-sharing arrangement with a private academy and thereby possibly violating European privacy laws. It is clear new leadership is needed, something the USTA should support. The USTA is the most powerful tennis federation in the world. The fact that both the current President and Vice President of the ITF Board are former USTA Presidents appears as a conflict of interest. The USTA must both act and appear to act in the best interests of the game and its players.
THE USTA IS A PROGRESSIVE AND DIVERSE NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANIZATION WHOSE VOLUNTEERS, PROFESSIONAL STAFF AND FINANCIAL RESOURCES SUPPORT A SINGLE MISSION: TO PROMOTE AND DEVELOP THE GROWTH OF TENNIS. Today there are no metrics by which the organization is succeeding. Participation and membership have been declining for many years. The ITF and USTA’s indifference will simply accelerate that negative trend.