Mailbag: How Big of an Impact Will the French Open Postponement Have?

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Two months ago, we wrote about feeling… what? Sheepish? Self-conscious? Silly?… talking tennis while Australia was burning. Oh, for those quaint days. In the midst of a global pandemic, little feels less relevant than handwringing over Nick Kyrgios or tennis’s alchemy of dysfunction and virtue.

And yet who among us couldn’t use some diversion, some continuation of ritual. While acknowledging the absurdity at a time like this, the Mailbag continues on. Let’s start with the biggest headline of the week so far: On Tuesday, the French Open announced that it has rescheduled the tournament to Sept. 20–Oct. 4. This seems awfully optimistic. It also seems as though this was done without much input from the players, other majors, or from Laver Cup, which will be neutered.

You have to credit the FFT for seeing opportunity and taking it, working on the premise that its prestige and prize money will cause players to change their behavior and schedule. On the other hand, we are in a new universe when events can unilaterally change their dates.

Again assuming this happens…it means players will have to transition from hardcourts to clay. It means that we will have an autumn major. It means we have established a precedent for the events making land grabs in this uncertain time.

Lots of question here. Do players from Team8—which puts on Laver Cup—consider boycotting? Do the concurrent tour events—now rendered all obsolete—initiate legal action? Does this become the new norm? Whatever, it’s a bold step. And the fallout begins in 3,2,1….

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What about the other majors on the calendar? I am hearing from multiple sources that Wimbledon 2020 is looking like an iffy proposition and the club has little interest in a “closed doors” scenario, playing matches in front of no live audiences.

And let’s not forget about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics: As I write this, the Games are still on. But—as my colleague Michael Rosenberg laid out here—this is looking increasingly bleak. There are just way too many complications. In the off-chance the Olympics do continue as planned, look for most of the top players to withdraw. It’s too big a health risk. And too big a financial risk with two majors still pending.

In the rankings of “people most impacted by a global pandemic,” professional athletes don’t rank high. (Especially as youth, health and cardiovascular excellence are so critical.) But spare a thought for tennis players, who are individual contractors and don’t have the safety net of guaranteed contracts. The older players are watching time and opportunity slip by. (A penny for Venus Williams’s thoughts right now.) The younger players must be antsy and stressing the financial strain.

Oh, for the days when debates of on-court coaching and Hawk-Eye were our big concerns….

Some housekeeping:

• Our most recent podcast was with Dr. Celine Gounder, giving some overview—most still relevant; some sadly dated now—on COVID-19.

• A small tennis-themed upper. Again it’s readers Jennifer and Zachary Lerner for the win:

• And another: 

Here are some thoughts about sports in the time of the coronavirus.

Mailbag

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

Hey Jon, I see that for No Challenges Remaining, your friends Ben and Courtney are having a book club and reading Venus Envy. I love that! With so many of us at home and looking for new things to read, what tennis books would you recommend?
Mark, California

• I thought you were joking at first. You know these are grim times when there’s a “Venus Envy” book club. Five other options:

1) Levels of the Game, by John McPhee

2) Courts of Babylon, by Pete Bodo (The chapter on Borg’s comeback is one of my favorite pieces of tennis writing.)

3) Strong Theory, by David Foster Wallace

4) A Handful of Summer, by Gordon Forbes

5) Open, by Andre Agassi.

Side note: I am wrapping up my latest book; it’s about the summer of 1984. Crowd sourcing: if any of you have stories, especially sports-related, fire away….

What was that non-Hawk-Eye instant replay system they were using in Rio, on clay no less? It claimed to be a reflection of “true bounce” with no estimations. Are we getting closer to a consistent clay challenge system?
Ian, Winnipeg, Canada

• I’m down with more technology. And I’m down with replay review on clay. But we still have some work to do.

I see online that Li Na made a significant financial contribution in early February to fight the coronavirus in Wuhan. It would be interesting to know her take on how the virus affected her city, country, and family.
Marika in Maryland

• I asked and was told that she is lying low and does not want to be the focus of media right now. Fair enough. Let’s do stop to note that a recent popular player—and recent Hall of Fame inductee—is from what is Ground Zero in this global pandemic. Let’s also note that this announcement went without much mention—Li Na donates roughly $500,000 to coronavirus relief—when it was made a few days after the Australian Open wrapped. Now it can be read as something else entirely.

I agree with you that Rafael Nadal beats Bjorn Borg at the French every time, but you sold the latter’s qualities way short. Mentally tough, stellar under pressure, seldom gave away free points, very adaptable, supremely fit. You also need to adjust the intangibles: if Borg came up at a time when lollipop serves were punished, he’d have developed a much better serve, and so on. Borg is one of the best three or four clay courters of the modern era. I think, for example, he goes undefeated against Roger Federer at the French (and I say that as a Roger-guy). Also: Please throw Ivan Lendl’s name in there when considering the question. That man gets no Top 10 respect.
Alistair W. Toronto

• This is the problem with all these inter-era comparisons, which are fun, yet sort of pointless. If returners were more aggressive, surely servers wouldn’t have delivered lollipops to the middle of the box. Lendl, you’re right, deserves mention. The guy never got sufficient credit when he played and didn’t get it—partially by his own doing—in retirement. He must want to shout from the rooftops, “I won more majors than McEnroe! And as many as Agassi did!”

In light of the continued Sloane Stephens woes, which do you think is more likely: Coco Gauff (age 15) wins five Grand Slams…Sloane Stephens (age: 26) makes it to one more Grand Slam final?
Duane Wright

• Five Grand Slams? No pressure, kid. I don’t worry as much as many of you about Sloane Stephens—who turns 27 this week. She has neither the disposition nor the single-minded love of tennis to play with consistency. And she seems thoroughly OK with that. Some stocks you want for consistency. Others require a different kind of risk analysis.

Thinking out loud: While it’s hard to fathom right now, eventually tennis, like all of us, will get back to normal. I wonder which players will emerge having reassessed their careers, what it is they want out of the sport, and how best to maximize a career that—and this has been dramatized—can be so fragile.

Shots, Miscellany

• The Winston-Salem Open named Jeff Ryan its new tournament director. Ryan takes over the ATP 250-level event, while hanging on to his current job as USTA senior director of national team events.

• From a reader: What happened on that Friday afternoon back in 1922 during a change of ends of the women’s Wimbledon final when Molla Mallory and Suzane Lenglen exchanged words and were within a cucumber sandwich of exchanging blows?

Or the day Irena Spirlea bumped into Venus Williams not in the supermarket, but on the change of ends at the U.S. Open?

Or what about perhaps the most infamous day of all went John Newcombe crossed over to the other side" the day McEnroe belted a ball into Fred Stolle’s throat in a Grand Slam doubles semifinal?

Tennis is often compared to boxing. But what happens when the gloves come off and someone crosses the line? Buzz, Remo and Teddy Shingles lift the lid on it all in Episode 6 Off The Frame – Infamy.

STAY SAFE EVERYONE!