Mailbag: Tennis Players Take Strong Stands on Racial Injustice, Police Brutality

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Hope everyone is okay.

• On the podcast, James Blake is this week’s guest, talking police brutality.

• Before him, Madison Keys, reporting live from the intersection of kindness and competition.

• Speaking of podcasts, want a treat? Listen to David Law—who, along with Catherine and Matt, do such consistently strong work—going deep with Yannick Noah:

• It’s June 3 and the 2020 U.S. Open remains an ongoing concern. I know a lot of you share my ambivalence. We want tennis to return. But we want it to be maximally safe and under the right conditions—not because television wants to feed its maw with live sports programming. Here’s a good primer on some of the precautions.

• Speaking of, notice that it was Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security who issued last week’s order exempting foreign athletes from U.S. quarantines. Well, here’s Chad Wolf.

• On a lighter note…..We have been doing trivia on Tennis Channel and were asked that we include the questions here. So: Ash Barty of Australia won the women’s title last year. But who was the last non-European on the men’s side to take the men’s title?

Onward we go….

Mailbag

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

Good morning! Hope things are well with you and your family. Hopefully, everyone is healthy. Quick question: has there been any response from the tennis world concerning recent events in Minnesota? Have any players, coaches, or officials commented? (I meant outside of Coco, Serena, and Naomi.)
Vivek Gurudutt

• It’s been interesting to see what players have chosen to (and chosen not to) speak out about George Floyd and what Kareem calls “people pushed to the edge.” But, overall, I’ve been impressed—and proud—by tennis’ contribution to the conversation and its collective voice. The sport has a history of activism and outspokenness on matters beyond tennis; and it’s heartening to see that legacy continued. Vivek references Coco Gauff (born in 2004, we hasten to add), Serena, Naomi Osaka. I’ll name-check Frances Tiafoe for this.

In a sense, athletes in individual sports are better equipped and positioned to take stands than their colleagues in team sports. They are their own boss. They don’t have teammates. They can’t be traded. Or ostracized. But you could just as easily make the case that their activism requires more conviction and courage. Without a team or league providing cover, they bear the fallout. Without a guaranteed contract, they take stands at their financial peril. (Math exercise: how much money did Martina Navratilova cost herself by pointing out injustice and systemic wrongs?) All the more so at a time when there are no sports and earning opportunities.

More on this below….but I would caution against reading too much into tweets and IG posts. Virtually every NFL team—and the league itself—have, technically, weighed in over the past few days. Great. They also were the figures and institutions blackballing Colin Kaepernick on business grounds and retreating when Donald Trump blasted the players and threatened the NFL’s tax status.

I know of one athlete who has been silent on social media but has, quietly, been an extraordinary activist. We’re all for athletes using their platforms. But there are other ways to take stands and express a desire for change.

Jon, I am surprised by the silence of international players concerning the protests against police brutality in the U.S. Of course, American players have spoken out, albeit not in unison in support of black lives like one would hope. But the only two international players I have seen speak out in support multiple times are Kim Clijsters and Naomi Osaka. Sort of reflects a larger trend of players of this era not getting involved with these movements (e.g., 60+ year-olds McEnroe and Navratilova leading the only protests against Margaret Court this year). It’s a bummer.
Robert

• Someone (Ben Rothenberg?) made the point that for all we hear about these woke kids today, it was two O.G.’s—Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe—that had the guts to protest against Margaret Court.

Again, I think it’s revealing which players weighed in this week and which didn’t. And how they’ve done so. And for the record, there have been some international voices. Gael Monfils, Jo Tsonga and Heather Watson, for instance, were all in Frances Tiafoe’s video. But I’d be careful before condemning. Just as players express themselves differently when they compete—some more vocally than others; some more sincerely than others—I wouldn’t confuse “lack of a tweet” with indifference. Also, while systemic racism and police brutality are not unique to the U.S., the events of the past week were triggered by an event in Minnesota. If an “international player” is hesitant to weight in from afar, I think we need to at least be sensitive to that.

Andy Roddick's recent interviews that have been posted online have been fantastic. He has great insight into the modern tour and how players think. I've always wondered about the concept of the "intimidation aura" that the top players exude and how some people say lesser ranked players "lost before they stepped on the court" due to said aura. Do you think that is a very real thing? I wondered if Andy ever felt that about any of the Big 3 or if he felt he exerted it on lesser ranked players. Have you ever interviewed a player that described that concept before?
Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• From the horse’s mouth, here Andy’s (whom we thank for playing along with the studio audience):

“I’d place less importance on an aura. I didn’t really care how someone walked, talked, or acted. That didn’t dictate terms on my game. What is/was intimidating is the level of execution it would take for an extended period of time to deal w the best players. Also, many times you’d have to execute w a plan that was outside of your own personal comfort zone. I don’t know if that’s an aura or an example of super tough problem solving.”

Speaking of Roddick, re: last week’s question, a few of you quickly identified the podcasters that used their interview with him to characterize the tennis media as “almost entirely terrible.” It was shabby and lacking in collegiality and didn’t go unnoticed by a lot hard-working journalists who were, quite rightly, offended. But this week especially, we could probably use less conflict and in-fighting, not more. So we’re not going to call out the offending party.

My initial reaction to World Team Tennis' decision to hold its season at the Biltmore is that this is exactly what is wrong with tennis in America. Some will excuse this decision as due to the action of a part of tennis in our country. I think not. The decision says that tennis continues to be for the wealthy and for the wealthy white in our country. I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Brian Hirst, Harpswell, Maine

• That the event will be held in West Virginia, the poorest state in the U.S. by some metrics, undercuts this concern to some extent. Also, that World Team Tennis is populist and fan-friendly, in itself, is a rejoinder to elitism charges.

I don’t disagree with your larger point: tennis needs to think about perception and smashing the stereotype that it is a sport for the patrician class. (It’s one reason I am concerned about a 2020 U.S. Open—right or wrong, the appearance will be that tennis used its cozy relationships to jump the line, and that athletes in collared shirts are making millions and depleting tests, while the New York area remains mired in COVID-19.)

As for World Team Tennis specifically…. I like the idea of gathering everyone in one location. But for this, you need on-site lodging. And you need the requisite number of courts. And presumably colleges and universities are out of the equation. So, there are a finite number of locations that can accommodate the needs that are not hotels or resorts.

Forgive me if this has recently been covered, but as I'm going through some Cincinnati data for a media guide, I looked at some names and have this question for you and your readers: Who is best active women's player to not hold No. 1 ranking? Hope you are well. At least staying sane if nothing else!
Pete H.

• I assume this means ever. As in “the best women, currently playing never to have ascended to No. 1.” I’m thinking my vote might go to Madison Keys. Or maybe Svitolina (who’s never made a major final.)

a) Trivia question: how many active women have been ranked No. 1 ? (Hint: even with retirements of Wozniacki and Sharapova, it is considerable.)

b) How many active major winners to have won a major have NOT gotten to No. 1?

c) I’m sparing a thought for Mary Pierce who won multiple majors and never got to No. 1.

Here’s a query for you that has been circling my public courts in Los Angeles each morning:

“When tennis does return to its full glory (i.e. with cheering fans, sanitizer gels, and more overall vigilance) how will players like Nadal, et al cope? Nadal’s rituals rely on lots of unfortunate touching and endless streams of sweat on the tennis court and more. Surely, that will have to change. No one is going to want to touch balls that have been touched by, well, you know what I mean! Does this mean we will no longer have ball kids (or grown-ups, if it is the U.S. Open), and players will have to do their own fetching and wiping?”
AA

• Valid question. And it’s being considered. I’m hearing that there are unlikely to be ballkids at the 2020 U.S. Open. There are likely to be towel racks at the back of the court, each player assigned his own. And it’s possible that players may even bring their own balls. Player X will handle their own tennis balls (puerile humor alert) and Player Y will to pick up those balls using their racket and foot.

With so many events, seemingly easily, rejiggering their schedule, would now be a good time to set the tennis calendar more appropriately going forward? I’m thinking French Open and Wimbledon, and doing Davis and Fed Cup in a tournament similar to the Olympics.
Scott Hobson

• “Sit down, my son.” (I’m reminded of this scene with John Conyers.) I totally agree with you. And I think most people would look at tennis’s schedule and think likewise. But tennis is less a “circuit,” than an accumulating of individual business. Early on in my career, the ATP attempted to swap the dates of the (fairly low level) tournaments in Washington D.C. and Indianapolis. In the grand schemes of things, this was de minimis. It resulted in eight figures worth of legal fees.

Every tournament believes that its dates are sacred—and part of the sanctioning includes certainty. Every major tournament will tell you why it cannot be rescheduled. (Melbourne needs to be the culmination of the Australian summer, before everyone—including ball kids—goes back to school. The U.S. Open needs to be the culmination of the North American summer, before the NFL, the TV behemoth, awakens. The French needs Paris in the spring. You’re left with an intractable calendar. Or the likelihood of litigation if anything changes.

As you wanted to do here, it's time to play "Let's create the perfect female player!" (non-Serena edition). Using currently active players, I'll go with Andreescu forehand, Osaka backhand, Keys' serve, Muguruza return, Barty volley, Kerber movement, and either Halep or Kenin fight. Yours?
Name misplaced

• Right, we forgot about this. Great suggestions. Others? Pliskova first serve. Stosur second serve. Ons Jabeur’s hands. Madison Keys’s forehand.

But—and the reader gets this—when we do these sports Frankensteins, instead of going stroke-for-stroke, we ought also to be considering abstract qualities. Five on the women’s side:

Halep’s professionalism….Gauff’s freshness and lack of cynicism….Kvitovian popularity levels….Osaka’s defiance to conformity….Andreescu’s unwavering confidence….Barty’s level-headedness and ability to turn tennis into a team sport.

I liked your pick of the Williams sisters at the 2017 Australian Open for a tennis version of The Last Dance. In fact, the 2017 Australian Open stands out among Grand Slams of the last decade for being epic in scope. The Federer-Nadal and Venus-Serena vintage finals weekend, with history on the line. The start of the Trump era. It seems worthy of a follow-up book to Strokes of Genius. (Hint hint—and with an acknowledgement that Rowan Ricardo Phillips wrote The Circuit, a great book about the 2017 ATP tour.) Please consider it!
EB, Brooklyn

• Your question is a great opportunity to promote both RRP and this work in particular, which should be included in tennis book club lists.

Hi Jon, Idle, nerdy thoughts during a pandemic. Is someone collecting royalties for developing the yellow-tinged-with-lime green color of the tennis ball? Is a universal formula provided to ball manufacturers? What actually went into coming up with the color? Might be an interesting historical tale in the transition from white to yellow-etc. balls.
John, Florida

• Interesting. When the Tennis Channel feature team is back in action, we’ll pass this on. Can you get royalties on a color? Anyone has info, pass is on. Meanwhile, this reminds me of the Howard Head stories Pam Shriver tells.

Are tennis balls green or yellow?
—Paul R.

• Yellow. Next case. No wait. Maybe green….

Shots, Miscellany

• One of you sent me this. Interesting thoughts from Dasha Gavrilova on Nick Kyrgios.

• The International Tennis Federation has announced that ITF President David Haggerty and three ITF Board members have been appointed as members of International Olympic Committee (IOC) commissions. Haggerty will continue as a member of the IOC Athletes Entourage Commission, to which he was first appointed in 2016, and will also take up a role on the IOC Olympic Channel Commission. Haggerty was elected to the IOC earlier this year and was sworn in at the 135th IOC Session in Lausanne, Switzerland in January. Camilo Perez Lopez Moreira, who has been an IOC member since 2018 and was elected to the ITF Board in September 2019, will serve on two commissions: the IOC Olympic Programme Commission and the IOC Coordination for the Games of the XXXIV Olympiad Los Angeles 2028 Commission.

• Four Daughters, a development and production company dedicated to telling stories that celebrate inclusion, has launched with its first feature project, THE MATCH. Based on the book by Bruce Schoenfeld (HarperCollins), THE MATCH is inspired by the true story of two remarkable women, Althea Gibson and Angela Buxton. Francesca Gregorini (Killing Eve, The Truth About Emanuel, Tanner Hall) is attached to direct and Julie Snyder (Tanner Hall, Porto, Above Suspicion) will produce.