Mailbag: Are There Unfair Competitive Advantages in Tennis?

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MELBOURNE – It’s Mailbag day here at the 2020 Australian Open, following Day 4 play, where No. 1-seed Rafael Nadal, No. 4-seed Simona Halep, Alexander Zverev and Americans John Isner, Cici Bellis and Taylor Fritz all advanced.


Wondering what your thoughts are about Djokovic's having a “strategy coach.” Awhile back I read that Craig O'Shaughnessy had joined Novak's team. I know, generally, that what he does is analyze player patterns. He's using software to look at stroke and serve patterns, especially during key points in the match. It's fairly obvious that this was an important component in Djokovic's winning the final of last year's AO against Nadal. Rafa went into that tournament with an amped up serve and new serving patterns. He blew through the field to the finals, which Novak won in straight sets pretty easily.

Novak has brushed aside questions about this, saying “everyone scouts opponents” and that's true, to a degree—99.9% of them have coaches watching matches on YouTube and coming up with a broad strategy. This is way beyond that. So my question is: Do you think this violates the “spirit of the sport”? It's obviously not illegal, but does it give the player (with the money to afford this in-depth analysis) an unfair advantage?
Betty Scott, San Francisco

• Fans of American baseball know this has been quite a week to discuss the smudgy line between seeking a competitive advantage and cheating; between gamesmanship and sportsmanship. Using information technology to predict tendencies? Cool. Using surreptitious technology to tip pitches and then convey that information to a hitter by banging on a trash can? Not cool.

Back to Novak…. a) Note that Craig is no longer with the enterprise. And b) Not only is this not unfair, but Djokovic is to be commended for embracing data. It’s crazy to me that more players (all players?) don’t do likewise. Wouldn’t you want to give yourself the best possible chance to be successful?

One player—now a former player—once expressed concern to me that this imbues those at the top of the pyramid with still another advantage. Without flinching, the stars can devote $250k of whatever the cost, to analytics. That might be more than the guy on the other side of the courts takes home in a year. True.

They can also fly privately, invest in medical technology and hire a battery of conventional coaches. So it goes in any competitive business. As long as there are not external barriers to entry—everyone, in theory, has access to the mega-millions, provided they win matches—some players are always going to have access to more resources than others.

Why are ball boys and ball girls required to handle the sweaty towels of players after every point? Imagine the bacteria and germs on those towels that these poor people have to sprint to fetch and retrieve for these players. Players don’t even have to ask for the towels, as they just wave their hands in front of their face like a mime, and the ball people have to immediately react, or they get a dirty look or a harsh comment from the player. Here’s a crazy thought: how about a towel rack on each side of the baseline, that the player can walk over and utilize whenever they feel the need to dry off? Give these ball people a break! It’s absolutely gross and demeaning!
Dave H.

• Another great tennis mystery. We will look back on this and ask, “Wait? They really asked kids not merely to fetch the ball, but then handle the effluvia-rich towels of players? Without gloves? Ew.” We let ballkids do this, but we draw the line at….peeling bananas?

Jon, thank you for the Mailbag and for the interview with Rafa Nadal. We really enjoyed it. With the match schedule for the Australian Open out, we are wondering two things: why does the AO persist in giving one male singles player an extra day of rest prior to the final? In our view, there are already so many vagaries built into sport; why not at least try to put the players on an equal footing in the last, and arguably most demanding, part of the tournament? We can all think of AO finals where this advantage may have had a real impact. And, secondly, how do the organizers decide which side of the draw gets that advantage?
Sherrie and David, Northern California

• A two-letter answer: TV. Me? Honestly, I don’t mind it much. Even the less lucky players get two days off. Long as no one plays back-to-back, I think it’s okay. And the half of the draw that begins on the first Monday is the half that plays its semifinal on the Thursday, not Friday.

At last year's U.S. Open, Matteo Berrettini and Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals, and, with Medvedev, seemed to usher in a new era of competitive tennis in the men's draws at Slams. A mere five months later, they exit the Australian before round three. Without taking away from the achievement of their opponents, do we take last year's results with a disclaimer, or is the men's draw taking on the (very welcome) any-given-day competitiveness of the women's tournament?
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.

• Obviously they’re very different players. Dimitrov is exquisitely talented—and is, universally, well-liked—but sometimes both work to his detriment. Berrettini is 23, but much younger in tennis terms. Still a work in progress. The real takeaway to me is not the “disclaimer” of the players who couldn’t back it up, but the outlier status of the Big Three. Time and again, we are reminded that it’s no given that success in Major X does not guarantee success in Major X+1. Somehow these Three Kings keep doing it. And, somehow, we keep expecting it.

Maria Sharapova out in the first round for the second Grand Slam in a row. She really hasn't gained any kind of traction since returning from her ban and her star power seems very dim with Serena chasing the big record and newcomers like Osaka, Andreescu and Barty sucking up airtime and endorsement deals. I can't see her suddenly playing herself back into the game—do you think a retirement announcement is imminent?
• I do. But I also feel like it’s entirely her decision.

I am watching Australian Open streaming of a match on court 13 and keep hearing some annoying chanting. It feels like I am watching a soccer match, not tennis. What is going on? How come officials are allowing so much nose at a tennis match?
Russ, Los Angeles

• I believe you were hearing the raucous French crowd going nuts for Benoit Paire when he was playing Cilic. (That was a joke: it was the Croatian crowd expressing their maximally vocal support of Cilic.)

"Fabio Fognini battles back from being two sets down against Jordan Thompson to reach the Australian Open third round."
—Ivan Himanen, RA

• Well done. For the record, Fognini has now won matches at all four majors after being down 0-2 sets. Conversely, Grigor Dimitrov has never won a match after losing the first two sets. (He came close against Tommy Paul, but fell 7-6 in the fifth.)

Shots, Miscellany

• Want to call your attention to a new podcast, Off the Frame.

• Lots of chatter about this questioning Federer’s supremacy. Here’s a response from Leif Wellington Haase:

What is truly remarkable about the current era of men's professional tennis (Roger Federer Will Always Be the Greatest (Even if He’s Not)) is that three dominant champions—Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic—are competing on roughly equal terms at the same time.

In the history of the sport, with few exceptions, successive four to five year periods of dominance have been the rule: think Lew Hoad and Rod Laver; Connors, Borg, and McEnroe, Lendl and Sampras. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic followed this pattern. Federer reigned supreme from 2003-2007, Nadal from 2007-2011, and Djokovic from 2011-2015.

Why does this pattern exist in tennis? Because the long three-of-five set matches used in Grand Slam championships feature enough repetitions (points) so that minute differences in individual talent yield predictable results.

However, after 2015 all three champions, so to speak, overstayed their welcome. Each has had most success on his best surface—Nadal on clay, Djokovic on hard courts, and Federer on grass (and indoors)—but all of them remain championship contenders everywhere. Nothing like this has ever happened in men's tennis or, for that matter, in individual sports of any kind. It is the longevity of this triumvirate, not Federer's unique greatness, that should go down in history.