Mailbag: Fires, Air Quality Issues Are Already the Headline of 2020 Australian Open

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Hey, everyone.

• We’re working on Australian Open Insider tips and seed reports. So a short Mailbag this week.

• On the most recent tennis podcast, Jamie and I talk Rafa Nadal.

Here’s a link to the piece on Nadal.

Good soldier-dom: Tennis Channel will return to the Australian Open for its 13th consecutive year Jan. 19 to Feb. 2 and, for the first time, veteran sportscaster Ted Robinson (@tedjrobinson) will be part of the network's on-air team. The trip to Melbourne will complete the cycle for Robinson, who has announced matches at tennis's three other majors in his Emmy Award-winning career. Tennis Channel's two-week Australian Open telecast begins Sunday, Jan. 19, at 6 p.m. ET.

• Before we move to the Australian Open, a quick nod to the ATP Cup, won, of course, by Serbia. It’s both a poor reflection on the sport that there are three team cups competing within a few months of each other at cross purposes; and a strong reflection of the sport that the market can, apparently and for now, accommodate them all. Though the fires, rightly, overshadowed all….

Onward, while acknowledging the deeply concerning conditions for play in Melbourne…..

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


Is there ever going to be a more compelling sports moment to show the world the ravages of climate change and it’s disproportionate impact on those suffering on the wrong end of income inequality than having the top seeds and corporate honchos enjoying a match indoors while the masses and lower ranked players literally try to breathe outside? It’s one thing to put players under a roof during a rain delay to appease TV, even if maybe it gives a relative advantage over a player who ends up finishing at night or the next day; but it’s unconscionable to proceed in that way when players are forced to be outside are doing so at serious risk to their health. And for those at home who don’t know what wildfire smoke is like, as a Bay Area resident who breathes it for weeks on an annual basis now that it is real, it is nasty, it is nauseating, and it is dangerous. I hope the tournament does the right thing and cancels all play if conditions are not suitable for everyone notwithstanding the three closed stadiums. Doing anything else will send a contradictory and wrong message to the world.
Matt G.

• You think the deck is stacked in favored of top players when they get to play night matches or have the certainty of knowing their court assignment? You ain’t seen nothing. Making sure that scheduling decisions—inherently inequitable to begin with—don’t disrupt the competitive balance more than they already do will be a challenge at the 2020 Australian Open.

But that’s a symptom of a larger issue. Tennis Australia is faced with an existential issue. Insofar as extreme weather is an annual event—and the science has cleared its throat and made its point forcefully—for how long can this tournament continue, at least in its current incarnation? The images of the tournament are usually what…players smack balls before fans with their faces painted. The montage of players who pose with koalas? An A-list sporting in an urban setting? In 2020, it’s far different.

It’s a fluid—or absence of fluid—situation. But as I write this, we’ve had players retire from the qualifying competition because of breathing difficulties. We’ve had players taking the social media to complain about the organizers putting commerce before health and safety. We’ve seen Melbourne’s air quality rank as the lowest in the world. At the start of play, we ritually check not the tournament app or even the weather app, but an air quality app.

Matt raises an excellent point: what a dramatic illustration of the ravages of climate change. Want to see how ignoring an obvious crisis can impact you? If you’re not moved by images of fires and earthquakes and tropical storms in far-flung outposts, consider that major international sporting events—previously as reliable as the sunning rising in the east and Toni Collette nailing her role—may be altered.

It will be an interesting, challenging two weeks, filled with decisions that will be say a lot of priorities. Regardless of who wins the title, in many ways the story of this tournament is already being written…..

• Last week—borrowing from Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen—we did the 10 most influential men in tennis of the 2010s. This week’s we’ll do the women….Again the beauty/frustration of the vague phrase “influential.” Is, say, Garbine Muguruza conventionally influential, though she won a pair of majors? (And I would expect big things from her in 2020 by the way.) Is Venus Williams influential, though she won zero majors in the 2010s? I would argue, emphatically, yes. Anyway….

1) Serena Williams: Not even close. Double-digit majors. Olympic golds. Longevity. Motherhood….

2) Li Na: She built tennis’s bridge to China.

3) Naomi Osaka: didn’t break through until late 2018, but what an impact she had. How heartening that a world-famous athlete can still keep up a singular personality.

4) Angie Kerber: Won the most majors of any player other than Serena Williams.

5) Caroline Wozniacki: A stalwart at the top of the sport for virtually the entire decade. And—I maintain—her running of the New York Marathon in the prime of her career remains one of the coolest achievements I’ve seen a tennis player pull off.

6) Billie Jean King: In her 70s—decades from her playing prime—her impact echoes; and she still, rightly, gets credit accordingly.

7) Venus Williams: She did not add to her haul of majors but persisted as a player, long on dignity and short on self-pity.

8) Mickey Lawler. Who? Just listen.

9) Maria Sharapova: Did most of her damage in the 2000s; but became a clay doyenne this decade. Also, her doping suspension doused the conspiracy theory that stars were immune.

10) Lindsay Davenport: She will kill me for writing this and I don’t care. The best commentator in the business. Coach of a top player. Mother of four. The exemplar of how to make a graceful transition from player to former player.

Hey, Jon: I would be quite curious to engage directly and hear your reaction: How aware were you that Djokovic was "left out" of your story on Rafael Nadal? Was it a deliberate decision (and, if so, on whose part)? Did you anticipate this reaction from certain quarters? Do you think its legit criticism?
Name withheld

• Inevitably, the Nadal segment drew some criticism. Most of it pertained the perceived (unforced) errors of omission. Why didn’t we reference his volleys and doubles play? Why no mention that he is, in fact, right-handed? But the biggest critique: why no reference to Djokovic?

Under oath, here’s my first response: “Really? Man, that’s ungenerous. You watch a 13-minute feature on Nadal for a mainstream audience and your first response is, ‘Why wasn’t my guy mentioned?’”

My other response: this isn’t the Internet or a book. It’s a TV segment with a hard time limit. You can’t squeeze in everything. Is Djokovic a rival of Nadal’s? No doubt. Does he have the same textured rivalry with Nadal that Federer does? No. Are they one behind each other in the all-time majors race? No. If there were more time, no doubt Djokovic would have been included. But time was finite.

How soon until the Australian Open, by necessity, becomes the first indoor major?
Mike O.

• A 128-draw tournament means there will be 127 matches. Times two genders. That’s 254 matches before we even get to doubles, juniors, mixed, wheelchair, legends etc. Hard to imagine there will ever be an indoor major. (Then again, before this year, it was hard to imagine that Melbourne would have the world’s poorest air quality.)

It was interesting to read that Serena's won titles during six presidential terms. If she managed one in the next term, she could equal Margaret Court's record of titles in seven terms (Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ 1, LBJ 2, Nixon 1, Nixon 2, Ford).

• There goes Margaret Court again, always one-upping Serena. Your point is a good one. But note that Serena hasn’t merely won titles in six presidential terms. She’s won MAJORS in six terms. (Her 2017 Aussie Open title came days after Donald Trump’s maximally attended inauguration.)

Good Day, Jon. I was hoping you would take a chance and ask Rafa about his [routine] both when serving and receiving. It is mega-disconcerting for me to watch his matches...Any insight?
S. Glick

Here you go.

In the latest Mailbag you wrote about the no-let service rule. You expected more service points ending on a let cord than conventional points ending on a point that drops over the net “because of the target is only roughly one-fourth the size of the full court.” I’m not sure your reasoning is right. I do not think that the reference to one-fourth is correct because with both server or rallying player, the issue is whether the ball strikes the net and trickles over. It does not matter that the server is aiming for half (not one-fourth) the net width (a little more when you consider side spin.) The more relevant issue is whether the ball hits the net and drops over which turns on how close to the net the ball is hit and how many opportunities the ball has to strike the net.

Since in a typical point, the ball travels over the point more times after the serve the likelihood of a collision with the net on a serve or rally needs to be adjusted for the larger number of opportunities for a collision with the net. But, it’s also true that the server aims closer to the net on a serve than the typical shot during a rally so that cuts the other way. My gut from watching tennis is that there are more let serves than let cord winners in rallies but not because of the target net width that the server will aim above.


• How I wish Howard Brody, an expert—the expert?—in tennis physics, were still with us. I would invite anyone with expertise to weigh in here. My, concededly layman, thinking: given a) the trajectory of the serve—ie. The ball must bounce within 21 feet of the net and b) the tighter target, roughly one-fourth the permissible surface area used during a point….the chances of the ball clipping the tape are far better on a serve than on a conventional stroke. If anyone—including our friends at Hawk-eye—want to weigh in, that would be great.

I know he’s only 21 but I’m a bit concerned with the development of Frances Tiafoe’s game.
James, Oregon

• I wouldn’t disagree that it’s been a rough patch for Frances. After a Week Two showing in Australia last year, he cracked the top 30. Today’s he’s No. 49. He started the year with a loss in Doha to Marton Fucsovics and then to Mikael Ymer in Auckland. Tiafoe is still a work in progress. The technical hitches and glitches, a work ethic that can be outstanding and can be less than outstanding. Some adjustments to the life of a professional athlete. But the operative phrase in the question: “only 21.” He’s still a baby in the new life span of the pro tennis player. Buy rating holds.

Thank you for sharing your interview with Rafa with your readers. Excellent work!! Now that you’ve had a chance to sit down with Nadal, would it be possible for you to approach the Federer and Djokovic teams for possible interviews? It would be great if you could chronicle all three, since they will surely be in future GOAT discussions for generations to come. And then, in the end, get your perspective on all three. It would be an incredible body of work, given how the three have dominated the sport for so long. I’ve never attended a tennis major, but it’s at the top of my bucket list, along with attending a golf major. Thank you again for your efforts.
Pete Hulsma, Petaluma, Calif.

• I’m all for it. For the record, Bob Simon did a fantastic piece on Novak Djokovic (with Draggan Mihailovich producing):

Shots, Miscellany

• The International Tennis Federation President, David Haggerty, has today been elected by the International Olympic Committee at the 135th IOC Session in Lausanne, Switzerland.

• The USTA today announced that Davis Cup tennis, the world’s largest annual international team competition in men’s sport, will return to Hawaii for the first time in 28 years, as the United States Davis Cup Team will take on Uzbekistan in a 2020 Davis Cup Qualifying competition at the Blaisdell Center March 6-7 in Honolulu.

• Take us out Pete Hulsman of Petaluma: Happy New Year Jon! Thank you again for an excellent Mailbag. As I’m sure all of your readers would agree, what’s happening in Australia right now is heartbreaking.

I live in Sonoma County, and we’ve had two summers of devastation. First the 2017 Santa Rosa fires and then the 2018 Mendocino/Paradise fires. The loss of life, including wildlife, miles upon miles of burned forest, is just terrible. Disasters suck, natural or otherwise. I hope that the AO powers that be will make the right choice when it comes to when/where/how to play the matches. I was also in the unique position to be at the 1989 World Series Game 1 at Candlestick. The earthquake was devastating, and of course the series had to be rescheduled, but it was good for everyone, after an appropriate time had passed, to play the games. As you said, sports can be a good diversion to life’s daily complications. I hope they play the AO, but maybe at a different time or somewhere else in Asia.