Mailbag: Are Any Players Benefitting from the Current Tennis Layoff?

Plus, a look at the options organizers are considering for the 2020 U.S. Open and more.
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• Our most recent podcast featured Dr. Jonathan Katz talking about the mental health challenges confronting athletes during this period of inactivity.

• Next up, another podcast session with Max Eisenbud, head of IMG’s tennis division.

• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel is live at noon ET with tennis chatter.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Jon, I’ve been noticing that a lot of the discussion about coronavirus is about which players are hurt most by it. Roger and Serena will be 39 this summer, blah, blah, blah. Nadal probably won’t be winning the French Open this year. But I wonder: do any players actually benefit? I’d be curious what you think.
Kelly Z. Maryland

• Interesting question. The short answer: being out of work is no blessing. Losing paychecks? No blessing. Watching many tournaments—your de facto employers—reassess their future? No blessing. Seeing your tours in financial distress as employees are furloughed and take pay cuts? No blessing.

But is this period of inactivity somehow less unfortunate for some players? The intuitive answer is “yes.” Surely the players to win the first majors back will attribute some of their success to the absence. “It gave me a chance to rethink my priorities….It made me realize how much I love the sport….It gave me a chance to improve my conditioning….It made me appreciate being out there.” You can almost script the talking points now.

As for specific players who lose less, a few come to mind. One is Amanda Anisimova, who is such a strong player—to wit: her dynamite first half of 2019 as a teenager—whose ascent was halted by the sudden death of her father last August. As is so often the case, time is the best balm. And she got a slab of time without the pressure of competing.

I wonder if this break might help Coco Gauff. She gets some extra time to mature physically; work on her fitness; and she can stop worrying about the age eligibility machinations. And she can adjust to the jarring, sometimes unnerving nature of sudden fame. Players who are injured (Bianca Andreescu and, yes, Federer) get to rehab without seeing their rankings go down the escalator. Players who are slumping can reassess. And then there’s Nicolas Jarry, who was recently found guilty of a doping offense, but his suspension is elapsing during this dark period.

Jon, I’m sure you saw the report that the U.S. Open is looking into moving to Indian Wells for 2020. What do you think of this and what else can you tell us?
Charles B. Bakersfield

• I’ll just pass on what I am hearing….The USTA is hellbent on doing everything possible to stage some version of a 2020 U.S. Open. Contrary to reports, virtually every option is being considered. Contrary to reports, the “closed door” scenario has NOT been rejected.

Ideally, COVID-19 recedes, New York reopens and, with the governor’s blessing, the event goes off as scheduled. As I wrote last month, that seems sensationally—almost irresponsibly—optimistic. It’s a little strange to be getting emails about U.S. Open tickets and credentials and ballkid tryouts while the grounds are being used as a hospital and Queens might well be the virus’ global epicenter.

Short of the best-case scenario….

The next option: hold the U.S. Open at the appointed time and place, but with no fans. This would carry many consequences, most obviously a loss of ticket and suite revenue. Not ideal. But there would still be media rights revenue and, likely, some sponsorship revenue. With no fans on the grounds, there would be a drastic reduction in costs: security, ushers, food and beverage. (One idea I heard: in the absence of fans, think of how easily the players could practice social distancing throughout the grounds. You could even use the unoccupied corporate suites as mini-locker rooms.)

It would be interesting to see if there might be a prize-money reduction. And, in the interest of limiting interactions, I suspect there might only be a 128-singles draw (no mixed doubles, juniors, wheelchair etc.—maybe even no doubles.) Again, not ideal. But if ESPN’s rights fees alone exceed $80 million and the prize money is, say, $50 million, the event would likely generate some profit.

The scenario discussed over the weekend: relocate the event to Indian Wells later in the season. This makes sense on its face. You still get tennis at a big-time venue where there’s not the COVID-19 concentration there is in New York. But there are challenges. Among them: does Larry Ellison want an event at his venue when there is no vaccine? (This is, after all, the same guy who—to his credit—cancelled the BNP Paribas Open based on one positive case in the region.) Does ESPN want to broadcast 14 days of tennis potentially concurrent with football? Does Indian Wells want this? Does California permit large gatherings?

One option that I heard mentioned, but I have also heard roundly rejected: Lake Nona. True, the USTA spent nine figures on a Florida tennis facility. It would make sense to at least contemplate holding an event there. But it’s not suited for a tournament like this and there are too many logistical hurdles.

So here’s where we are: the U.S. Open is the next event to face a decision. The organizers—and fans and players—desperately want to salvage this year’s incarnation. They are willing to get creative, including a “closed door scenario” after all. There are still significant questions, not least what to do when certain countries (see: Argentina) aren’t permitting citizens to leave and others are. But in this time of crisis, all norms are off. And—like the distillery now making hand sanitizer, or the restaurants open only for take-out—the USTA appears willing and eager to get creative. Because it sure as hell beats the alternative.

Now for some '80s movie pop culture. "Shall we play a game?" I've been seeing a lot of videos asking current players to choose specific shots from other players to create this perfect male tennis player. As one would guess, many of the shot categories are being taken up by the Big 3. I would say the more interesting game would be to design the perfect male player without using any of the Big 3. This would obviously not create the "perfect player,” as the Big 3 truly would make up significant portions of said player, but I feel it would open the conversation a bit more to allow other players signature shots be debated. Using currently active players, I'd go with Delpo's forehand, Wawrinka backhand, Karlovic serve (and Kyrgios second serve), Nishikori return, Monfils movement, Dimitrov volley, and Medvedev's fight. May I ask for your choices?
Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• I had to cheat and look that up. War Games. Good call. I like the game, though. Building the perfect beast (Don Henley solo album, as long as it’s ’80s Trivia Night) using non-Big Three players. We’ll do non-Serena women next week. A few to get us started:

DelPo forehand is a gimme, though there are plenty of others. Zverev backhand. Thiem: wheels. And work ethic. Isner: first serve. Kyrgios: second serve. Monfils: athleticism. Schwartzman: professional dedication….hitting those balls at the net that don’t bounce—if memory serves, they’re called volleys—I’d have to give that some thought.

Can you explain why the most successful doubles teams have a righty and a lefty? Thanks.
Bobby T., Connecticut

• Funny, I just heard Pam Shriver talk about this on the Tennis Podcast. (She, of course, teamed with lefty Martina Navratilova to form one of the great doubles teams of all time. Maybe the greatest.)

Obviously having a righty and lefty means that each can play to their respective strengths. That is, you can have both partners play to their forehand side. Both players have forehand volleys—notionally, an easier shot—for guarding the alleys. This configuration also gives you more options in terms of sun and wind and who serves first. The lefty serve kicks wide, which works to the advantage of the right-handed players at the net. And vice versa.

While we’re here. I can’t even recall the context but we discussed on Twitter that Steffi Graf has one major doubles titles to her credit: the 1988 Wimbledon title. She and Gabby Sabatini beat Shriver and Navratilova. Which means that Steffi’s Golden Slam year—four majors plus Olympic gold—also included a Wimbledon doubles title.

While Novak Djokovic distrusts vaccines, former World No. 1 Marat Safin, as you have probably seen, has gone the full Monty, so to speak, with his conspiracy theories, by peddling the Bill Gates/ 5G/ anti-Semitic tinged ("Rothschilds...and someone behind them") craziness.

There's no rule that athletes of great stature need either to be rational or to be role models, but I find it discouraging that someone who can get a hearing is spewing such potentially dangerous nonsense. When social trust is most needed, such beliefs corrode it.

This is the succinct Daily Express summary: Coronavirus conspiracy theory dropped by former world No 1 tennis star Marat Safin. A full English translation of Safin's interview might reveal further misconceptions.
Leif Wellington Haase

• Safin to Djokovic: “Hold my changeover beverage.” I hate to dignify this but, yeah….

I keep getting a lot of mail on the anti-vaccination front. I suspect it’s partially because of Djokovic and partially because this is such a resonant issue. I’d say it’s nine-to-one here on the side of science. But there are some truthers who feel validated by Djokovic. Again, on most issues, reasonable people can disagree. This is an exception.

A couple of weeks ago you shared a YouTube video of the winner of the backboard challenge, doubles player Cara Black. Based on the video alone, she should be in the hall of fame. Her career accomplishments stack up as well.
Ian Scott, Winnipeg, Canada

• a) Cara Black won five majors in doubles. So she has plenty credentials apart from her winning officially the Backboard Challenge. But, yes, this is Newport stuff right here:

b) The mention of Cara Black is a good excuse to link to this Chris Clarey piece.

Shots, Miscellany

• Here’s Ted Robinson talking with Charleston TD Bob Moran:

• If you missed it, Billie Jean King and Andy Murray: "WTA not an acquisition": Andy Murray, BJK talk tour merger proposal

• The TennisOne app is worth checking out.

• Some news from World TeamTennis.