Mailbag: Looking Back on the 2010s Decade in Tennis and Ahead to the Future

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Hey everyone, it’s our final Mailbag of 2019. A rare departure into sentimentality but here comes the cut and paste from years past: If you get half as much pleasure (guilty, to be sure) from reading this column as I get from writing it, we're all doing pretty well. Your questions and observations are, reliably, thoughtful and informed and passionate, and please know that every last one—even the ones wishing me incurable cold sores—are read. Think of this as a sincere invitation to belly up to the bar in 2020 and we can resume the conversations. Happy holidays, Happy New Year.

• I am flattered and humbled by how many of you have requested to receive the column via email each week, newsletter style. Offer still holds.

• A few of you asked about Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece. Here’s a link.

• If you’re interested in a holiday-time contribution, consider:

a) Andrea Jaeger Little Star Foundation
b) the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation
c) NYJTL

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Jon, I heard you mention on the podcast that this was the end of the decade, the 2010s. Maybe because we’ve all been distracted with so many world events, I hadn’t really thought of that. Overall, do you think it was a good decade for tennis?
Charles, London

• Imagine it’s December of 2009 and, after putting on your Carnac hat, you said, “Behold! I can see into the future. In ten years from now….

Serena Williams will be the women’s tennis center of gravity….Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer will be 1-2-3….The field will be getting increasingly older....More and more minorities, especially on the women’s side, will follow the lead of the Williams sisters and break through….Tennis will be subject to relentless global forces, a net positive, but it will mean power will not be concentrated in one place. The U.S., for instance, will go 0-40 on the men’s side….Rampant conflicts of interests and self-interested turf wars will stunt the sport’s growth.” Your audience would doubtlessly have heard these pronouncements and responded, “So, in other words, nothing changed.”

Now imagine another soothsayer. “Wait, I can see tennis in December 2019! Canada will be a superior tennis power to the U.S.! Top players will compete into their late 30s without an appreciable dropoff….Pete Sampras will be ranked fourth on the all-time Slam list. There will be a doping scandal involving a top player, and though more about sloppiness than ill-intent, it will still be damaging to the brand. And that player will be: Maria Sharapova….Spain will have won the Davis Cup in Madrid: and what a spirited weeklong, single-site competition it will have been.” All of which is to say: plenty changed in ten years.

Overall, I’d contend that it was a terrific decade for the sport. It took advantage of globalization, of the great virtue of both genders, and of star power. The four thoroughbreds—the Big Three and Serena, of course—were still high in the saddle as the decade drew to a close. And everyone benefitted from the longevity.

In many ways, tennis is so well-poised for the future. It’s already penetrated markets other industries aren’t even sniffing. (An Australian just beat a Ukrainian to earn $4.5 million by winning a tournament...in China.) The sport benefits from changes to media and technology and communications. The sport benefits from two genders playing simultaneously. But in this star-driven world, tennis also needs to consider a future without the four mainstays in the workforce. In a mobile world it needs to consider how to compete not just with other sports but with other entertainment. In a world where inefficiency gets punished, it will pay a bigger price than ever for conflicts and sloppy governance and dinosaurs in the executive offices.

All of which is to say….tennis breezed though the 2010s without much sweating. Now it needs to come back strong for the 2020s, prepared to get its serve broken a few times and take some setbacks but still prevail.

What’s your favorite Wozniacki memory?! Australian Open in 2018 comes to mind, but I’m also tempted to go with her 2014 U.S. Open win against Sharapova—a year in which Sharapova was playing very well (won French) and Wozniacki was back on the uptick. That win underscored Wozniacki’s grit and ability to run forever. Her performances in the 2017 (won) and 2014 (finals) year-end championships were also pretty epic. I really like her. She has a great vibe about her from a fansperspective—both on and off the court. Would love to hear your thoughts!
Damian, Melbourne, Australia

• Obviously the 2018 Australian Open, a career highlight that enabled her to shed dreaded the “Best player never to have won a Major” costume. But you know what story was underrated? Her running of the New York City Marathon. She was in the middle of her career—25 years old and ranked in the top ten—and trained to run a marathon that she completed in 3:26:33! A) what a strong message this sends about the athleticism and durability and conditioning of WTA players; B) what a strong message this sends about independence and autonomy. Sometimes we can do things because we want to; even if they fly in the face of conventional professional wisdom.

A personal story, that I fear is going to sound unseemly and humblebraggy, but here goes. Wozniacki and I are not friends, but friendly. I think I mentioned that her apartment in New York is a few blocks away from mine. We run into each other in the neighborhood and, of course, at events. Last year, she popped into my office at CBS and I showed her around. After she left, a colleague asked nervously, “Are we going to hire that woman?”

“What woman?”

“The woman you were interviewing.”

“Interviewing?”

“That blond woman.”

“Oh, no. She’s a tennis player. She already has a job.”

“Tennis player? She’s came across so professional and was so friendly, I figured she was gunning for a job here.”

“Nope, she’s a tennis player.”

“Is she any good?”

Jon: A few weeks ago, you wrote, "Sports are predicated on the idea that the competition is honest. If not, if the integrity is being undermined, the whole Jenga tower collapses. Mostly this means doping and paying college athletes and stealing signs and, generally, being the Houston Astros."

After I stopped cracking up at the Houston Astros, I noticed the college athlete comment. I guess this means you're against paying college athletes? Care to share your reasoning? I'm still trying to make up my mind about the issue.
Paul

• No, no, no—I am fully, squarely, unambiguously in favor of paying college athletes. College sports have become morally indefensible. You have assistant coaches in college football making seven-figure salaries. Yet the athletes—who are the ones generating the revenue, putting themselves at risk and often the least likely students on campus to graduate—are not being compensated? One day, we will be telling our grandkids about this economic injustice and shrugging when asked how this was allowed to persist.

My point was this: if one athlete is doping and the other is not, the tower collapses. If one team is paying its athletes and the other is not, the tower collapses. If the Patriots are secretly video-taping and the other teams aren’t, the tower collapses. We can debate which rules are fair and unfair and should be changed. But if one side complies with the rules and the other doesn’t, the integrity of fair competition is undermined.

I happened to run across a video on YouTube of Gabriella Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Looking back, it seemed like Sabatini came out of the gates faster and should have had the more successful career of the two—wasn’t she the only player to defeat Graf three times in 1988­–89? Sabatini didn’t have a slouch of a career—one Slam and some Slam finals. But no No. 1 ranking or multiple slams like ASV, who seemed to have a more limited game. What do you attribute to the difference in their careers? The power of hyphenated last names? Do you see any parallels to a couple of players today?
PN

• If it were about the power of the hyphenated name, a junior player named Rafael Nadal-Parera would have made a splash. As for your question, it’s an interesting comparison of contemporaries who came with very different skill sets and governing principles. As is the case in most contexts, “style versus substance” is too crass. But ASV played at an uncommon level of competitive resolve, which enabled her to have the superior career, both to Sabatini and to everyone else in her era, save Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.

I just read an extraordinary article on Federer. Extraordinary to me, because I had no idea of all these hidden machinations and power brokering by my favorite current player. So, my question is this: is this article being fair? Is it correct? Can Federer really not "even drink tea without a stratagem?"

Or, are the arguments just correlations leading to causation? "2 + 2 = 11" types?!! In other words, is Federer's goody-goody persona a mere smokescreen, or, is the article just smoke without a fire? Insider perspective needed!
Arun Narayanan, Lappeenranta, Finland

• Is “none of the above” an option?

Know that I’m in the tank for Simon Briggs—a journalist who does rigorous and unimpeachable work—and think the story is completely legitimate and fair. I also think Federer is well within his rights to take a stake in the sport. In fact, I would almost take the opposite angle: if Federer—age 38 and armed with moral authority—DID NOT wield his moral authority, it would be deeply disappointing.

Tennis is in desperate need of conflicts disclosure. It would be great if everyone in the sport revealed where their proverbial bread was buttered and simply spoke the truth. (In Federer’s case: “The Davis Cup and even, to some extent, this cockamamie ATP Cup are both trying to take my market share; so the idea that I would play either is as preposterous as my wearing jorts to the Met Gala.”)

But I don’t read that story and see anything inconsistent, much less unethical. Just a guy, nearing the end of his career, exerting some well-earned authority, and taking the equivalent of equity stakes in some ventures.

My first time writing to you. I am intrigued. There is a tennis lineswoman, she looks Asian and is short, whom I see at many big matches. She is the only tennis linesman or woman I recognize from year to year. I first noticed her when she called the footfault on Serena Williams in the semifinal of the U.S. Open in 2009, was threatened by Serena, and reported it to the chair umpire. Serena lost the match to Kim Clijsters as a result. I have seen this lineswoman on TV many times since, at big matches (I guess because those are televised), including matches in 2019.
Marika in Maryland

• Here comes Gayle Bradshaw of the ATP, one of tennis’ good guys, to explain:

Officials, including line umpires, are not allowed to speak to the press unless permission is granted by the governing authority for that event. This would rarely be authorized, but when it is the subject matter would be limited to how they got into officiating or a human interest angle. Nothing about players, matches, controversial calls, other officials is allowed even if an interview was authorized. They can have social media presence but the same prohibitions would apply to anything they post. Speaking about these prohibited subjects would place the official in violation of the “Code for Officials” and could face sanction ranging from a warning to a loss of their certification. They could also fall afoul of the Tennis Integrity Program if they were to post anything that could be interpreted as “inside information.”

Who hires them? It is the responsibility of the tournament organizers. They hire a chief of officials who in turn hires the line umpires and additional chair umpires needed for the event. In the US for ATP events, the tournaments contract for their officials through the ATP and we have a Chief we keep on retainer who manages this program. Line umpires are selected on a rating system where they are graded on their performance at every match and then are given an overall grade. Acceptance to events is based similar to the way players are accepted to events based upon their ranking. We also give the USTA a few spots (wild cards) to place up-and-coming officials who would not have an established rating yet.

Once retired from officiating, an official would be free to write a book and several officials have done so. Charlie Beck, former MTC Supervisor; Alan Mills, fmr Wimbledon Referee are some of the more well-known but there are others also. Both of these books were released after the officials retired from officiating.

Shots, Miscellany

• Robin Montgomery—a 15-year old from D.C.—and Argentina’s Thiago Tirante triumph at the Orange Bowl. Colette Lewis has you covered. Of course she does.

• Hold your nose, here comes a match-fixing scandal.

• Thanks,reader Cesar Torres….Here’s an interesting academic read on the WTA’s family leave policy.

Who double-bageled Roger Federer?

• From Chris Jordan: I noticed you posted about a book about pro tennis by Peter Underwood. A few months ago, I released a book on pro tennis, which contains the largest collection of pre-open era pro tennis results ever assembled (it contains over 420 pages of results, plus a narrative section of over 110 pages). It took me many months of detailed research. It is called The Professional Tennis Archive and is available from amazon worldwide. The Tennis Hall of Fame library and Wimbledon library have copies of it. I would be grateful if you could post a link to it.

• International Tennis Federation (ITF) President, David Haggerty, has been nominated as a candidate by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to become an IOC member as an International Federation representative. The elections are due to take place on 10 January 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland.