Mailbag: How Will the Bushfires Impact the 2020 Australian Open?

As the devastating wildfires ravage southeast Australia, there are concerns that first Grand Slam tournament of the year could be disrupted.
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Happy New Year, everyone. Welcome back.

• First, let’s address the kangaroo in the room, as it were. As I write this, a chunk of Australia the size of West Virginia is on fire. It’s a bit strange to be talking about tennis when, miles away from the matches, a half billion animals are dead, thousands of homes have burned, and more than 20 people have died. More on this below. But consider this a blanket disclaimer for the next few weeks: we all recognize the incongruity of tennis amid disaster, of getting worked up about upsets and scheduling fits of pique, while a country burns. And for now here’s a place to contribute to bushfire relief.

• On this week’ podcast, I’ll talk with Jamie about Rafael Nadal and what I learned spending a few days with him in Mallorca last month.

• The fruits of this trip will air on 60 Minutes this Sunday on CBS. If you can’t watch live, it will be on 60minutes.com.

• At the suggestion of several of you, we’ll try and do an “Insiders Tips” for all four majors, not just the U.S. Open. I’m compiling the Australian Open list and will publish next week. But if you have thoughts, let me know….

Onward…

Mailbag

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

What are we going to do when the Australian Open gets cancelled because of climate change?

P.S. I sent this bushfire query last week (see below) but it looks like I missed your deadline, so I’m resending because it appears more urgent than even before. Those dying koala bears were the last thing I thought of when I went to bed and the first thing I thought of when I woke up.
Jay, Cherry Hill, N.J.

• Let’s start on this uncomfortable note.

If you still need convincing that climate change is real and the effects are (and will be) catastrophic, these climate activists aren’t tinfoil hat crackpots, science and facts have value….well, a chunk of Australia is burning to a crisp right now. While it’s hardly the chief concern, there is a valid question: in the face of this reality—death and destruction and heat that would shame Chernobyl—how, in good conscience, do we go about holding a tennis tournament?

As I see it, this question exists on two planes, one valid and one not. I don’t buy the optics argument. Yes, it might appear distasteful, even obscene, to some to hold a tennis tournament while, nearby, homes burn. And there is some precedent here in terms of cancelling events after natural disasters. But you could just as easily turn this argument on its head: It would compound matters if Australia cancelled this global sporting event that brings good will, international attention, positive associations (and incalculable tourism dollars) to the country, and to Victoria in particular. This is the equivalent of a USO Tour. The country needs this morale boost more than ever. Sports is a distraction from life’s vicissitudes, and we need diversion more than ever.

On the other hand, cancelling/postponing/amending the Australian Open on health and safety grounds is valid and real. If the air quality—or the heat—presents any sort of danger, organizers must act. This pertains to the competitors; but also officials and fans. Air quality is the chief concern. But if compromised visibility or heat present a danger, that, too must be considered.

Tennis Australia has, reasonably, talked about setting up objective indexes and implementing a policy, much as there’s an extreme heat policy. But this only solves a few of the problems. Do you put some athletes in indoor conditions while allowing others to compete in ash-filled air? Do you move the scheduling into the night? Do you consider moving matches to best-of-three sets, so long as the air quality is Shanghai-level?

With any luck—and, really it is luck—the fires will diminish and in the next 10+ days, conditions will return to some semblance of normal. Already we know: the year’s first major will be played under a cloud. It’s just a question of how thick.

Meanwhile tennis, as is often the case, has come together to raise awareness and funds. Nick Kyrgios—who, of course is from Canberra, ground zero for this disaster—pledged to donate $200 per ace and other players (and not just the stars) have followed suit.

Your friends Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen listed their 10 “most influential players of the 2010s” on their podcast. Not sure if you heard it, but I would be curious to hear your list
Johnson, Texas

• Is it me, or did anyone else feel like the end of the 2010s—like Hemingway’s penury—came gradually; and then suddenly? In the fall, no one was talking about the end of the decade. (We hadn’t even agreed on a term. The aughts? No, wait, that was 2000-2010. The teens? Not really.) Same in tennis. At the U.S. Open no one really mentioned this was the final major of the decade. Then, the last two weeks of the year, we were blizzarded by lists and summations.

Anyway, my 10 Most Influential Players of the decade? I’m not sure how to define “influential.” But here are 10 for the men. Maybe we’ll do men this week and women next.

1. Novak Djokovic: Majors are the coin of the tennis realm. Djokovic won more than anyone. Case closed.

2. Nadal: Again, hard to argue otherwise. Statistically he was the second-best player. He won more French Opens (of course) and U.S. Opens than anyone.

3. Federer: Because Federer. His production may have fallen off since the 2000s—you know, the aughts—but he remains a top three player. And he remains both a cultural and economic force.

4. Andy Murray: In the decade, he broke the Brits-at-Wimbledon curse (twice), won an additional major, became No. 1, won Olympic gold (in London), and received knighthood. Otherwise it was a slow 10 years.

5. Larry Ellison: He kept the fifth major in the U.S. and has set the standard for how to run a tournament.

6. Stan Wawrinka: Not only won three Slams—beating Nadal and Djokovic twice in the finals—but has been one of the rare players who had embraced the challenge. Could very easily have said: “Life as a guy ranked No. 8-12 is very pleasant and cozy. I’m good.” He aspired for more. You wish his cohort were bigger.

7. The Bryans: The Federer/Nadal/Djokovic of doubles. And—from their teens into their 40s—they never ceased being engaging, accessible and decent.

8. Juan Martin del Potro: Tennis’s great “What if?” Did not win a major in the 2010s, but always loomed as one of the sport’s greats. Reminded us of how fleeting success and health can be.

9. Nick Kyrgios: The pirate in the navy. You wish the commitment and conviction kept pace with the talent. But he mattered, he drew in fans, and people had opinions—like or loathe.

10. Dave Haggerty: The Davis Cup today looks a lot different from the Davis Cup in 2010. The jury may still be sequestered as to whether this was advisable. But the man who spearheaded remains undeniably influential.

This year for Christmas I asked for Levels of the Game and just finished reading it. Last Christmas I read your Strokes of Genius. I was wondering, if there were a women’s match you would like to see covered the same way, what would it be? Or, do you know of any books that cover a single women’s match in this style? Thanks!!
Stephen K.

• Interesting question. I know of no other book that takes a similar approach to a women’s match. The match is really a conceit—architecture for telling a broader story. So it would depend on the overarching point I wanted to make. But maybe a Williams-Williams encounter, really limning both Serena and Venus, what they overcame, what they represent(ed), and their impact in obvious and non-obvious ways.* Maybe a match involving Li Na, using her as an entrée into China and tapping this market. Maybe Serena and Victoria Azarenka and something on the working mother in sports. Maybe even a Genie Bouchard match, making a point about the perils and plusses of social media.

*Longer discussion for another time: both Venus and Serena have written memoirs. But they are, understandably, cautious about what they reveal. Imagine a true journalistic biographer—David Maraniss or Ron Chernow or Stacy Schiff—parachuting into tennis, having access to the source material, really digging, and doing so without worrying about consequence. I’m not talking about writing anything tawdry. I’m not even talking about anything that would diminish the sisters in any way. But there are so many storylines and moments complexities that could really be unpacked.

I would really love to get your take on Alex Zverev. I'm writing the morning after his three-set loss to Alex De Minaur in the ATP Cup. I cannot imagine a worse possible start to the season for Zverev. What is your take on the guy? He really looked like he was turning a leaf at the end of 2019 and now he implodes on Day 1 of the 2020 season! I don't want to get into anything gossipy, but it really makes no sense at all. He hasn't even had the chance to work himself into a slump this season—those usually take at least one month of bad play. And by social media accounts (which are often misleading), he seemed to have a great offseason! How does he show up on Day 1 looking tight, angry and a shadow of himself?
Damian, Melbourne, Australia

• Someone texted me from his meltdown the other day. To traffic in understatement: this does not suggest a player ready to win his first major.

It’s early in the season and I’m not sure how much value I’d place on ATP Cup results. But the Zverev concern levels should be on, say, yellow, right now. His coaching situation is uncertain. His contretemps with his previous agent still weighs on him, I’m told. His confidence is at bath-mat level. His serve—often the barometer of a player’s confidence—is a mess.

Part of me hates these fits of frustration. They suggest he learned nothing from spending the off-season on the Federer goodwill tour. They are a “tell” to the opponent, who are clearly galvanized watching him implode. The tantrums do not help his tennis.

On the other hand: at least he cares. He could say, “He’s I’m young, good-looking and recently crossed $20 million in prize money. If I am not fulfilling my potential, if I am sinking the occasion, so be it.” This clearly is not his attitude.

We’ll know more after the Australian Open and we see how Zverev fares in a best-of-five format. Let’s regroup then.

Jon, when will the tennis world finally embrace the no-let service rule? And I don’t mean only at the pro level; I mean from the ATP/WTA all the way down to rewriting the tennis rules handbook for 10-and-under leagues. A full swipe and delete of this archaic rule. Here’s what I’m really confounded about though—who’s holding it up and why? To me, this seems a super-simple no-brainer and I’m confounded it hasn’t happened yet. Is there anyone against this change? Is anyone saying, “No, we can’t change this rule. It’s integral to the very essence of the sport.”? It seems like it would be one of the simplest changes/adaptations in history… “Hey guys. Remember that let rule on serves? Yeah, we’re not doing it anymore. Pass it on.” It would speed up the game just a hair; it would eliminate the need for that little sensor hooked up to the net at pro matches; and most importantly, I wouldn’t have to endure another “Let” call in my 3.5 doubles league from some guy who had no chance at returning an ace.
Shayne Hull, Louisville

• I’m with you. We play lets during points; why not on serves? This would a) speed up matches b) eliminate controversy over phantom calls c) add an element of luck, but one that bent both ways—sometimes towards the returner and sometimes toward the server.

Full disclosure: The one complaint I’ve heard is that no-let serving can be maddeningly fluky. You’re at a critical juncture of a match and a serve clips the tape and dribbles over for the cheapest ace imaginable. (And because of the target is only roughly one-fourth the size of the full court, you’ll have these lets more often than in conventional rallies.) Still, I’d think most players—and fans—would not object to this change.

I'm no fan of Margaret Court for a bunch of obvious reasons. I'm happy to call her out for being bigoted and even to advocate to change the arena in Melbourne named after her. But saying her record is "heavily distorted with Australian Open" is a bit facile. She won 13 slams outside of Australia, six of which were during the Open era. Do Rod Laver's three AO slams not count to his 11? What about Nadal's 12 RGs? Granted, Court's competition perhaps wasn't as fierce in Australia as it was elsewhere, but as you have often pointed out, players can only do battle against the opponents they get on the other side of the net. And each era has its own peculiarities, so let's let the records stand as they are, and not diminish the incredible achievements of those who break them. Here's to Serena getting to 24 and beyond.
Yves, Montreal

• I stand by this one.

Really, it’s in support of Serena more than anything else. Her majors came in an age of a) 128-player fields and b) when tennis was a global sport. By contrast, check out some of Margaret Court’s draws. Here’s one but pick any. This was basically a national championship. (And a nation of 12 million people or so.) The top players didn’t make the trip. The draw size was often 32.

This isn’t to detract from Margaret Court and her achievements. (All together now: you can only beat the players put before you.) But comparing Serena’s majors to Court’s majors is like comparing a California senate win to a Wyoming senate win. The titles may be the same; but two very different scales and sweeps of election.

On Laver Cup, Davis Cup, and ATP Cup: Should there be only one tournament for team tennis? We have more than one Grand Slam, ATP 1000, or WTA Premier and it’s fine. The players seem to like team competitions. Team events have a way of introducing new players to fans. It could also lengthen the careers of the players.
Nestor Cotiyam

• These team competitions remind me of the farmers who pray for rain during the drought; then a typhoon comes and washes away the crops. Retool a deflating Davis Cup? Sure. Roger Federer wants to christen a Laver Cup? Okay. By the time we have inaugurated a third team competition and squeezed between two majors, we have entered the Land of Overkill. And, as is so often the case in tennis, the women get the raw deal. The charm-heavy Hopman Cup is no more. And the Fed Cup remains neglected.

We can debate solutions. Hold the Fed Cup and Davis Cup in alternating years on the same week on the calendar? Hold the Fed Cup and Davis Cup simultaneously? Squeeze the ATP to add women so it essentially replicates Hopman Cup?

Shots, Miscellany

• Offered without comment, here’s the latest USTA filing.

• Neil writes: Happy New Year to you. I am sure many of your fans have pointed it out to you but Tatiana Golovin is already back, playing Luxembourg Q and Poitier ITF last year.

• This didn’t get nearly enough play:

Your 2020 New York Open player field.

• Top juniors Emma Shelton (18, Gainesville, Fla.) and Logan Zapp (18, Fleming Island, Fla.) won the USTA National Winter Championships Girls’ and Boys’ 18s singles titles last Friday, headlining the American juniors to win singles or doubles titles at the USTA National Winter Championships over the past week.

The National Winter Championships were played at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Or-lando, Fla., (18s and 16s divisions) and the Reffkin Tennis Center in Tucson, Ariz., (14s and 12s divi-sions) consisting of 128 singles players and 64 doubles teams across all age groups.

• This was a question posed by Shlomo Kreitman. My answer is short and sweet: yes, DelPo is a Hall of Famer. But the question should double as reader riff. Take us out, Shlomo:

Happy New Year Jon. I miss Juan Martin del Potro, and I am not sure when we will next see him, especially since there is a report that he is out of the Australian Open. I just watched a video of some of his best forehands. While the forehands themselves were breathtaking, it also reminded me of how difficult he was as a match-up for the top players. If he were not to play again, and I think we all have to face that as an unfortunate possibility, do you think he is a Hall of Famer?

His resume, at first glance, is similar to Marin Cilic. Both won a Grand Slam, both won a Masters 1000; total other titles del Potro has 20 and Cilic has 16, and both have been in at least one other Slam final (del Potro one vs. two for Cilic.) Del Potro does have silver and bronze Olympic medals too, and was a finalist at the year-end tournament in 2009. The reasons I put del Potro on a higher pedestal (besides for loving the forehand) are the havoc he created when healthy, especially on the Big 4, and the gut-wrenching losses he endured to them. Cilic has eight total wins against the Big 4. Most of his 45 losses to them were not what you would call crushing defeats (exceptions would be Federer 2016 Wimbledon and Federer 2018 Australian Open.)

Del Potro has 20 wins against the Big 4, and his 52 losses include so many crushing defeats (Murray 2016 Olympics, Federer, two French Open five-setter semis and the 2012 Olympics semi, Nadal the Wimbledon semi in 2018, and Djokovic the Wimbledon semi in 2013.) He wins a few of those matches, and his career trajectory might be closer to Stan Wawrinka. I wonder when the Hall of Fame looks at a player, do they first look what could have been if not for his injuries, and second, do they take into consideration not just the victories, but even some of the defeats?