Mailbag: Will There Be a 2020 U.S. Open? And Should There Be?

Weighing the likelihood of a Grand Slam in New York in August, plus thoughts on Dominic Thiem's comments, tennis personality traits and more.
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Hope everyone is well (or some approximation)… 

• On the most recent podcast we talk to Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA and USTA on what it will take for sports to reopen.

• Next up: college player on Chase Bartlett on the challenge buffeting college tennis (and one school’s shabby treatment of its tennis programs.)

The Record is a new podcast from Sports Illustrated. On the most recent episode Peter King joins to discuss Peyton Manning’s decamping from the Colts to the Broncos.

• Colette Lewis for the win: Roberta Alison Baumgardner played on the University of Alabama men’s tennis team in early 60s.

• Tennis Channel and the UTR have your next pro event.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Jon, I know you (and others) talk about the life lessons that tennis imparts. I wonder whether you see any negative lessons or personality traits that come from playing tennis?
Charles, New York

• Great question. I have some thoughts here but, first, know that:

a) This is strictly observational and not first-hand. We’re talking world class skill here; I have township-class skill.

b) Overall, I will argue until match point that tennis, overall, is a force of good and the virtues dominate the vices the way Stephen Hawking would dominate a curve in high school algebra. Like most athletes, tennis players are driven and goal-oriented. They seek incremental improvement. They know from hard work, from victory and defeat; from retreating from the moment and meeting the moment.

As far as character flaws, one leaps (net-rushes?) to mind. Tennis players are, necessarily, self-centered. This is a professional requirement, not a defect. You must prioritize your schedule, your rhythms, your nutrition, your sleep, your moods. A friend once marveled, disbelievingly, that a top player reserved two rooms on the floor; one so the player could sleep peacefully; the other for his wife and kids. My response: if top players slept alongside young kids, it would be an act of professional malpractice.

Anyway the problem is this skill set—this entire mode of being—so conducive to excellence in tennis, doesn’t always translate to “the real world.” In tennis, every thought and action refract through the prism of you. You are constantly wary of opponents. You are keenly aware of who is ranked above and beneath you. Those traits can be antithetical to other environments, including workplaces.

Often I’ve had this scouting report about former players: “He’s not a bad a person; he just can’t displace himself from the center of every situation.”

The counterargument, of course, goes like this: it takes a special kind of person to gravitat­e to tennis—indeed to any individual sport—in the first place. You’re willing to shoulder all the burden and the glory. You’ve chosen your sport for a reason. Tennis was a symptom, not a cause.

Dear Jon, I listened to your podcast with Dr. Brian Hainline and I learned a lot. He was great. But I’m still not sure what to think. Will there be a 2020 U.S. Open and should there be a 2020 U.S. Open?!? Where do you come down here?
Pam S., Chicago

• I’m glad you appreciated Dr. Hainline. As I said on the podcast, we’ve all turned into armchair virologists—who knew there was such a thing?—this spring. But it was a pleasure to speak with an expert. I’m glad you also differentiated between “will” and “should” there be a U.S. Open. There should, inasmuch as we care about tennis. About players getting the opportunities to compete; about fans getting the opportunity to watch; about the USTA generating some revenue it will disburse throughout the sport.

There should not, if there’s a significant health risk. I would also argue that there should not if there’s a significant PR risk. The last thing tennis needs is scorn for being out of touch or elitist or indifferent to society at large. You can envision the story now: “We have people dying and our resources are stressed; and one neighborhood away they’re playing tennis—tennis!—and making millions of dollars hitting a yellow ball in front of a Chase banner!”

For all the game planning and contingency plans and conference calls with the White House, it seems to me the status of the 2020 U.S. reduces to three questions:

1) Will local and state governments give the event their blessings. If not, we’re done here. Go home, everyone. Health and safety supersede all.

2) Will the top players come? Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena are all married and have seven kids among them. Are they coming? In some cases, for two weeks of quarantine before the tournament even starts? And then prepared to play seven matches? In front of no fans? Maybe the answer is “yes.” But I’d want a solid buy-in from the stars before going much further.

3) Does ESPN want this? Right now, the answer is yes. Breathlessly. In fact, I’ve heard over and over that ESPN is “driving the bus” here. We’re desperate for live sports. And 15 days of tennis is a lot of tonnage, as we say. But if the network changes its mind, again, it’s: See you in 2021.

Hi Jon. I had mixed feelings reading Dominic Thiem's comments regarding the proposal that players contribute to a fund that would support lower ranked players who are in dire financial situations because of the suspension of tournaments around the globe. On the one hand, I understand Thiem's feeling that he should be able to do with his hard-earned money what he wants, be it contributing support and help people back home or not contributing anything at all. On the other hand, his ranking and resulting financial good fortune has been made, in no small part, on the backs of less talented/lower ranked players. Whether the reporting of his comments was accurate is unknown, but I found their tone off-putting. Your thoughts?
Ken Green, Saint George, Maine

• A few of you have asked about Thiem and I have demurred. On its face, an athlete who’s made $25 million in prize money—and substantially more off-court—bristling at giving $30,000 to his lower-ranked peers? Yes, that’s not going to play well. And indeed, it hasn’t.

Without defending Thiem per se, here are four points in his favor:

1) Reputations matter and his reputation is generally impeccable. Honest competitor. Hard worker. Accessible and accountable. You’re inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt when they have accumulated good will.

2) The idea of top players helping out their peers is admirable. But should it really fall to them to run a relief fund? Isn’t this the job of the tours and governing bodies and mythical union? I can’t think of too many competitive industries where the top wage-earners are being called upon to subsidize what is, in effect, the competition.

3) Compensate players out of work? Absolutely. But how deep down the rankings do we go? Thiem has a point here. Players outside, say, the top 400, are largely dreamers and part-timers, losing money when they compete. If anything they are likely financially better off now. Harsh as this will sound, they lack either talent or commitment or opportunity. Should top players be supporting guys ranked 600 any more than, say, Brad Pitt should be supporting the guy at the Omaha dinner theater? The current No. 600 player is Nuno Borges of Portugal. Last year he made $6,527, gross. Should he get $10,000 for a year in which he has no expenses? Again, harsh and ungenerous, I know. But sometimes I worry we operate on the assumption: everyone who wants to become a professional tennis player ought to be entitled to do so. Maybe the economy can only accommodate X players.

4) I wonder if Thiem was responding less to the concept than the process. I know of one top 100 player who—and I paraphrase— says: They say it’s voluntary but everyone is going to know who contributes and who doesn’t. I don’t mind giving up some money to struggling players. But I want to do this on my own. Being told how much, when, and who gets it…that didn’t really sit right with me.

I have an answer for the poster who asked recently, “How much better and more complete are today’s players?” Go to YouTube and watch a bit of the 1991 U.S. Open semifinal between Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, both teens at the time. I think a few minutes viewing will result in a withdrawal of the question (after a few wows). In fact, the power and precision on display might even persuade you, Jon, that they were playing the same sport that we watched back in January and would have been a handful for any of the then current women competitors.
John Rossitter, Middletown, Conn.

• I have a theory that if every player were armed not with a racket but an iron-cast skillet, a lint-roller or a cricket bat, the top ten would look strikingly similar. Greatness is greatness. Likewise, I agree that Monica Seles, to use the name referenced, would be a world-beater in the 1920s or in the 2020s. Technique. Attitude. The marriage of precision and power. Those are fluid qualities.

But I stand by this theory: sports are meant to evolve. It would be weird—and counterintuitive and disturbing—if sprint times and swim times didn’t go down. (Note how many runners can turn in four-minute miles these days.) It would be unnatural if the UFC fighters from the 1990s could beat the best today. (They cannot.) If the basketball played in the Last Dance looked superior to the NBA played 30 years later.

A really good look back at Venus and Serena’s careers, thanks. I do think, however, that quite a few people were dismissive of Richard Williams’ forecasts for his daughters for a perfectly good reason: the sports world (not just tennis) is awash in failed predictions of who’s going to be an all-time great. Statistically it was far more reasonable to disbelieve père Williams’ claim than to sign on with a big, “Yeah!”

I’ll go further: it was an outrageous prediction, proven as such by how often the same thing has happened post Williams’ sisters: not once. There’s not one top-shelf pro who came from a disadvantaged background, skipped the junior circuit and college tennis entirely, and was taught at the outset by their non-tennis playing parent. If anything this only adds to the incredible nature of Venus and Serena’s story. No one else has come up the way they did, and no one is likely to ever do so again. Nice throwaway line about “if we’re still using postage stamps,” too, by the way.
Skip Schwarzman

• Skip, I believe, refers to this episode of The Record, on Venus and Serena Williams.

I’ll say it again: this might well be the GOAT Sports Narrative. Ambitious Father says—unabashedly—that he impregnates his wife for the express purpose of raising two champions in tennis. This, mind you, is no niche pursuit. This is a sport played globally by hundreds of millions. Two sisters learn the sport unconventionally and, at least initially, without the benefit of limitless funds. By their mid-teens, each has revealed herself to be a formidable pro player. By their late teens, each will have won a major. With plenty of rising and falling action along the way, they will combine to win more than 30 majors, Olympics gold medal and, paired together, 14 (!) major doubles titles. They will continue playing into their late 30s, by which point, many more players, having been inspired by their example, will look like them. Which is to say, there may never be concluding chapters to this narrative.

Hi Jon. I was talking with a friend about equal payments. He brought up the argument that men play more (3/5 compared to 2/3). I know this is argument is old, tired, and invalid. A big reason I know this is because of you! But I had trouble articulating it. So my question is: is there somewhere I can link to? Is there a place where you keep your most popular/useful answers/philosophies? Is it just a matter of searching the Mailbag?
Dave

• I used “red herring” as my search term and came here.

I don’t know about searching the Mailbag per se. (Candidly, Sports Illustrated has gone through several different owners—and thus, content management systems—in recent years, thereby complicating matters.) There’s always the Google machine, I suppose. For me, it distills to this: entertainers don’t get paid for duration. They get paid for entertainment value. If I were the WTA CEO I’d say, “You really want to correlate compensation to sets played? Fine. We’ll play best-of-seven. Now please pay us more than the guys.”

Hi there! For the vox populi if nothing else, I love the ballkids but I don't miss them. The players don't seem bothered by picking up their own balls, and it makes them seem more like us, the regular folks. Maybe on a big court, players would need a couple of extra hands so they aren't digging in the flower beds for a ball. I could see the end of line judges, too, and ramping up of Hawk-Eye. In the couple events so far, there haven’t been any issues with line calls. Is that because they are low-stakes events? One commentator said players are conscious of looking fair when the match is televised, so they aren’t likely to argue calls. Maybe in a Grand Slam, you don’t want that situation. What do you think?

Also, are people aware that you can hire Jo Konta to leave your friend birthday message for just $30 on Cameo? That’s a steal! There are several players on that platform.

—Megan, Indianapolis

• You buried the lead! Jo Konta is available for $30?? And better still, we should hasten to point out, proceeds of the fee go to a charity of her choice. (Have fun playing on this site.)

I’ve always like the idea of players calling their own lines. Especially when there’s replay available. It would reveal so much. And so long as Hawk-Eye is there, we need not worry that matches will turn based on bum calls.

I feel strongly about ballkids. It’s remarkable how top players—including Federer—were once ballkids at their local event and got an intoxicating whiff of pro tennis. Keep ballkids. Just exempt them from handling towels!

With very limited live tennis for the foreseeable future, I am wondering what is the best way to watch entire matches previously shown on network TV or cable in the USA. I have many times heard TV commentators talk about coaches and players watching past matches when they are about to face a new opponent to analyze their game. What sources do coaches and players have, and are those sources available online? Are they dependent on the home country of the player or the coach? Or does everyone just search on YouTube? This question came up because I subscribe to Tennis Channel and they regularly show replays of matches both recent and from the past, but I have never seen a rebroadcast of the 2009 French Open men’s final despite its significance (and the strange security breach by the man with the hat). A quick YouTube search showed grainy 30 minute highlights. Is there a way to watch the entire match somewhere? It would also be interesting to know if any of the seven governing bodies in tennis own rights to the matches played under their jurisdiction or if the ownership is always the broadcasters they contract with.
Marika in Maryland

• In episode 4,281 of “How Tennis’s Flawed Structure Hampers its Position in the Marketplace….” If there were the equivalent of NFL Films, this could be catalogued and curated and sold. As such, your best bet is the YouTube.

Oh Jon, will there be any pro tennis played at all this year? My guess is not (or not much) but I’m open to persuasion. Hope all’s well with you and your family.
Vivien

• Technically, we could argue there has already been pro tennis. The UTR events in Florida; the backyard round robin event in SoCal; the Mouratoglu Academy exo….elite players are being compensated for competitive matches.

As for tour and majors, it’s trickier. Tennis—to its great credit—had been getting uncharacteristically creative. Fans and no-fans. Moving dates. Moving locations if need be. My suspicion is that a few events will be staged this year. The circumstances might be unprecedented. There might be no doubles. There might be no ballkids, linespeople, or fans in the stands. But I suspect there will be tennis.

Part of the motivation here is, of course, financial. ESPN says jump and the USTA responds, “How high? When? Where? And under what circumstances?” I’ve been told that if the ATP’s and WTA’s year-end championships are held, the tour make a little money for 2020; if they are cancelled, the tours lose money. Simple as that. Players, too—many having earned no wages since February—are also eager to return.

But I think there’s something deeper here. We are realizing that sports—trivial in a vacuum—really serve a profound role. Community, tribalism, competition, spontaneity. They have never mattered less and never mattered more. May they return soon…

Can we read more about the driver-less truck?
—Jim Yrkoski

Here you go.

Shots, Miscellany

RIP Walter Bingham, a Sports Illustrated titan. And note Chris Evert for the win, yet again, with a small gesture of kindness and coolness.

Long as we are talking Chris Evert.

Happy birthday, Jim Kwak.

• Future tennis media star Gill Gross had me on his show the other day:

• Good to see members of the tennis tribe killing it. Here’s a NYT book review from Giri Nathan.

• If you missed the Andy Murray–Nick Kyrgios call, well….here you go.

• The International Tennis Hall of Fame has cancelled its 2020 Induction Ceremony and the 2020 inductees will be inducted next year, alongside the 2021 inductees. (Though if anyone could pull off an induction speech Zoom, it would be Goran Ivanisevic.) “Like so many other organizations at this time, this year will be a challenge for the Hall of Fame. As a non-profit organization, in addition to being fun annual traditions, the tournament and induction events are primary revenue streams for us to be able to do other things – operate the museum, create digital exhibits, run the youth tennis and education program, and care for the National Historic Landmark property, etc.”