Mailbag: Tennis Exhibitions Offer Window into 'Closed Door' Sports Scenario

Publish date:

We need to come up with a less trite way to put it, but we hope everyone is hanging in there.

• Our most recent podcast guest: Max Eisenbud, head of IMG tennis, returns and tells us what he’s seeing out there.

• A reminder that our recent guest, Dr. Jonathan Katz, has generously offered pro bono mental health services to active players. Be in touch if you’re interested.

• Next up: Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA and USTA, on where sports go from here….

• From the self-promotion department, here’s some light during a dark time. It’s Isaiah Lamb.

• All hail Tennis Channel (and the UTR) for bringing live pro tennis. Here’s the next event on the docket.



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

If there’s one good thing to come out of this pandemic (relative to tennis) it is the all but certain death of ball kids being towel retriever slaves. Now that the serve clock takes on added suspense as players who abuse it (mostly everyone) have to choose between wiping off or rushing their serve ritual. Should be interesting.
Trish Smith, Atlanta, Ga.

• Let’s be clear: our gentle reader is referring to death of the concept of the ballkids handling detritus-soaked towels; not the demise of the actual ballkids.

But, yes, if we are looking for one anagrammatic sliver of silver (lining), maybe it’s here. COVID-19 will eliminate the horrible biohazard—and horrible visual—of (unpaid) kids handling the snot/sweat/blood soaked linens of (well-paid) athletes.

Tennis Channel, as many of you know, broadcast a four-man exhibition last weekend, featuring Tommy Paul, Hubie Hurkacz, Reilly Opelka and Misha Kecmanovic. Quite apart from the welcome blast of live sports, it offered a window into the “closed door” sports scenario discussed so often.

A few of you asked my opinion and, well….Quick story: a few months ago, I went for a ride in a driverless truck. For the first five minutes, my pulse had quickened and I marveled as this truck thundered down the interstate with no hands gripping its steering wheel. After a few minutes, the shock wore off and it seemed like a normal ride. I had the same emotions watching the Tennis Channel matches. No ballkids! No lines people on the court! No radar guns! Above all, no fans….

And then after a few games, the changes were scarcely perceptible. Two Top 50 pros playing a match. There were winners and errors; strategic flourishes and mistakes; offense and defense. In other words, tennis. There were even some plusses. I rather liked players calling their own lines. (Maybe it was the occasion, but everyone seemed to err on the side of generosity.) There was the aforementioned absence of ballkids-as-helots. Because toweling was at a minimum the pace of play went from Robert Caro to Joyce Carol Oates.

Would we all prefer to have been watching the Madrid Open—the scheduled event—last week? Absolutely. But just as I’d rather eat takeout from my favorite restaurant than not eat their food at all, this improved version of pro tennis was preferable to no tennis. This should be instructive to other events (in tennis, and beyond) considering creative solutions.

What is going to happen to handshake after the match in a period of social distancing?
Carole T., Rhode Island

• I should have added this above.

We overlook the handshake. It’s such a wonderful gesture. For hours players are locked in combat, this most demanding of one-on-one sports. Then the second the contest ends, the first person the combatants touch is the opponent. Such a poignant gesture of sportsmanship and honor.

I propose we come up with an alternative. The racket tap seems to take the early lead. But we’re open to other suggestions. Stop and make sincere eye contact at the service line. Say one nice thing to your opponent as you walk netward. Hold a brief Zoom call before gathering your gear and repairing to the locker room.

Whatever, we need to figure out a way to preserve a post-match gesture. Let’s agree to do that. Even if we can’t shake on it.

Jon, any update on the USTA holding the U.S. Open in some form in 2020? I can’t imagine what the loss of revenue would mean to U.S. tennis.
Name withheld by request

• On the podcast, Max Eisenbud was positive about the ATP leadership. (For the record, even in the divided world of tennis, Andrea Gaudenzi and Massimo Calvelli are drawing extraordinarily high marks.) But he was negative about tennis returning before a vaccine. I am far more optimistic. I hear the USTA has been holding weekly calls with sponsors essentially laying out the plan for a “closed door” Open at the appointed time. It’s complicated. The players would have to arrive two weeks before play, quarantine and get checked daily. There would be virtually no hospitality on site. There would be multiple locker rooms. But—prodded by ESPN—the USTA is now committed to making this happen, provided local and state governments bless it.

In our ongoing quest for silver linings….High marks to the USTA for their willingness to get creative. An organization that has been stodgy and slow to change in the past has shown some really creative thinking. Sure, it might be motivated by financials and a desire to appease ESPN. But I’ve heard everything from using the Cincinnati venue to giving players luxury suites as locker rooms. At least it’s been a fruitful exercise in bold thinking.

Expanding on your thoughts about some players benefiting from the quarantine time off, WTHIGOW Juan Martin del Potro? In past years you would have said he was nearing his expiration date, but these days players seem like a fine wine!
Jon B., Seattle, Wa.

• Point taken. But this implies Argentines will be allowed out of the country in the foreseeable future.

Last summer I attended the U.S. Open qualifiers (thanks to the Mailbag for the tip) and was blown away by the quality of play and the athleticism of the players; they’re beasts! I know it’s difficult to compare eras, but it did leave me wondering if present day top 50 players would be Grand Slam winners a few decades earlier. In other words, just how much better and more complete are today’s players? Thanks!

• One of the great ironies of tennis. It is ferociously resistant to change. Ask people to name the great “innovation” of the last 100 years and…the tiebreaker is usually the top answer. Yet the sport, passively, has allowed transformational technology to radically the sport. Don’t believe me? Watch clips, of, say, 1995 to matches of today. It looks like two different sports. It’s like comparing Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods. Would a qualifier today have competed for a major in, say, the 1990s? Sure. But I’d attribute it more to the racket and strings and training than to ballstriking or organic talent.

I was looking forward to reading your reply in the Mailbag to "THE" question, but that question wasn't asked. What's your take on, not so much "who will benefit" from the break, but which of the Big Three will be helped/hindered by this hiatus in terms of overall Grand Slam count? Has Fed won his last Grand Slam? Will Djokovic "wedge" the two older players out of contention, or will this break nullify the two to three Slams that Djokovic might have won this year?
Cheers, Don Rockwell

• Sure. It’s an interesting question. The obvious answer is Who Knows? The other obvious answer is that Federer, crowding age 39, suffers from this gap, especially since the tournament he’s most likely to win (Wimbledon) is a 2020 casualty. (Yet Federer had the knee injury and could recover without losing points or playing opportunities.) Serena, too, now has that many fewer opportunities to play majors and make a run at Margaret Court. (But she might benefit from the downtime and the easing of the mental strain that comes with being Serena Williams.) As the youngest of the Big Three, Novak Djokovic might benefit. He might also backslide from the regrettable PR that has come his way.

Thank you for keeping the Mailbag going during the pandemic. Any word on whether or not the French Open would consider bringing in portable lights to the show courts if the event is actually able to be held in October? At a high latitude and much shorter days, I would not think that they could play past 5:30 p.m. at that time of year.
Kyle Anderson, St. Paul, Minn.

• Good point. Americans think of Europe as due east. But we often forget just how far north Europe is. And how that affects daylight, both in the summer and winter. But A) It will take so much to make sure this event goes off in October, portable lights are the least of the concerns. B) Like Wimbledon, the French Open has to deal with neighbors. I suspect­ they would need to be consulted before night play could be instituted. C) I think we’ll be ok here: Sunrise and sunset times in Paris, September 2020.

Consider this a question composed during a long, isolation-driven walk. Who ends up with the most majors: Bibi, CiCi, Coco, or Kiki?
Jason Rainey, Austin

• For the speech therapy portion of today’s show….Notice we could add CoCo—Vandeweghe, a two-time major semifinalist. Bibi, Bianca Andreescu, is in the early lead. But I’ll go with Coco (second ”c” lower-case) Gauff. She’s not only so good and so young. She is also temperamentally so well-equipped to handle her success.

My husband wants to know about your framed sports cards we are seeing behind you on your Tennis Channel appearances. What are they?
Mary Ann Royse, Champaign, Ill.

• Hah, someone else asked that as well. They are bubble gum cards from the 1940s.

Shots, Miscellany

• The ATP today announced a partnership with the world’s leading online learning platform Coursera to provide ATP players around the world with access to over 4,000 courses. This will allow players to learn new skills during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has currently forced the suspension of play on the Tour, and even after the crisis when competitive play resumes. Players can choose from a variety of courses across business, technology, data science, personal development, and mental well-being, learning new skills that will serve them throughout their playing and non-playing careers. Courses are taught by the world’s top university and industry educators such as Imperial College London, the University of Pennsylvania, and IBM.

• Take us out, reader Brenda Hayes:

For me tennis is the greatest sport ever. Having said that, our sport has not always been kind or fair to those of color. We were blessed to have two of the greatest players to ever step on a court. Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, to their credit, handled the situation with class, not to mention two of the best backhands and volleys the tennis world had ever seen. Sadly we lost Althea and Arthur. They are celebrated and thought of in the highest regard, both hold a very special place at the U.S. Open. So who would come next? Would any man or woman of color reach the heights of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe? Well yes and no

This is the other side of the racket. It wouldn't be until the 1980's. Before we saw four players of color try and beat the likes of Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert. The best of the best. This was almost an impossible situation, but in tennis, never say never. That's just what Zina Garrison, Lori McNeal, Bryan Shelton and Malivai Washington did. Although these players didn't win multiple Grand slams or have big endorsements or million-dollar shoe deals, they had game, they were fun to watch, and indeed Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison did manage to snag a Whataburger commercial in 1988.

McNeil turned pro in 1983 and made her presence known with her fantastic serve and volley game. She had 10 singles titles and 32 doubles titles, her biggest moment was when an unseeded McNeil met Graf in what would become one of the biggest upsets in tennis history the 1994 Wimbledon championships in which Mcneil used her serve and volley game to a astonishing 7-5, 7-6 win over the defending champion. McNeil reached a career high of No. 9 in the world, and retired from tennis in 2002.

Garrison turned pro in 1982 has 20 doubles titles 14 singles titles, three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, a gold medal in doubles and a bronze in singles. Navratilova had beaten Garrison 21 times, but in 1988 she flipped the script after having six match points she beat Navratilova in the 1988 U.S Open. Picture it: 1989 the U.S Open quarterfinals, Evert vs. Garrison. Airplanes ever present flying over Flushing Meadow, the stage was set!! After being down 2-5 to Evert, Garrison came back to win the first set in a tie-break, and the second set did not disappoint. The shot making was glorious!! The thought process for every point was amazing. The U.S. open was on fire!! In the end, Garrison won the match 7-6, 6-2 and with that came the end of a 20-year career and 18 grand slam titles for the then-queen of American tennis and my favorite player, Chris Evert. Showing true class, Garrison waited for Evert as she waved to the New York crowd for the last time, they embraced and Chris spoke to the crowd. It's a moment in tennis history I will never forget, if you want to see something really special take a look at that ’89 quarterfinal, it will remind you of truly great tennis. Garrison followed that up with a win over the seemingly unbeatable Seles in the quarterfinals at the Wimbledon. Garrison retired from the tour in 1996.

Shelton came on the ATP tour in 1989 at only 6'1” and playing in an era of Jimmy Connors, he didn't have the fire power of some of his opponents, but what he did have was tremendous foot speed a big serve and a killer forehand. He reached a career high of 55 and won two grass court titles. In 1997 he left the tour and returned to Georgia where he was coach of the women's tennis team, the Yellow Jackets. They went on to win the 2007 NCAA tournament.

Washington tasted success when he reached the 1996 Wimbledon finals against the big Dutchman Richard Krajicek it would be the first time an African American man would reach a final of a Grand Slam since Arthur Ashe. Although Washington came up short it would have been very hard to beat Krajicek on that day he was serving one ace after another. It was a well fought final. Washington's best year on tour before reaching the finals at Wimbledon would be in 1992 where he reached 13 ATP finals, reached a career high of NO. 11 in the world and won four ATP titles. Due to a career ending injury during the 1997 Davis Cup, had surgery on the knee, but the movement was never the same and he retired from the tour in 1999. This was one of the hardest working guys in tennis. He truly loves the sport and gave it his all. He now is the founder of the Malivai Washington youth foundation teaching at-risk kids the fundamentals of tennis.

I picked these four players because they were something special, playing during a time that was very difficult to break through the onslaught of very talented European players. When people speak of tennis you never hear about, Garrision's Olympic medals, or any of the other accomplishments these players made. Tennis is dubbed a sport of a lifetime, and if that is so, we should acknowledge those who shared their lives with us on the tennis court and were very good at doing so. These four players paved the way for two African American sisters from California, who changed the way we look at the sport, just as Althea and Arthur paved the way for Garrison, McNeil, Washington and Shelton.

That is the third side of the racket!! In this time of COVID-19 we have no live tennis and are staying home much more than ever. Do yourself a favor and take a look at these amazing athletes of color who changed the look and feel of tennis and made it possible for others of color to want to play the sport of a lifetime. You can find a lot of these matches on YouTube. Believe me you'll be glad you did.