Mailbag: Will the Top Stars Actually Play If the 2020 U.S. Open Is Held?

Even if the tournament is played as planned in late August in New York, there's no guarantee that the sport's top stars will actually compete.
Author:
Publish date:

Housekeeping:

• James Blake, talking police brutality, was our most recent Beyond the Baseline podcast guest.

• For those who missed it, here’s 16-year-old Coco Gauff and her BLM speech:

Your Olympic qualifications updated.

• For all the talk about whether athletes today would beat their predecessors, not so fast says our pal David Epstein:

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Jon, as we all are subject to the constant bombardment of negative news in these troubled times, let’s give a shout out to Rafael Nadal. The reigning French and U.S. Open Champion, who is but one major win away from Maestro Roger Federer’s iconic record of 20 career majors, has publicly stated that he does not want either Roland Garros or the U.S. Open to be played until health and safety of all can be assured. As Rafa has stated: “The Tour must respect all players.” A fierce competitor with proper perspective. The Humble Bull is a wonderful ambassador for our sport.
Fernando

• Amen to that. We’ve often joked, “What will it take to blunt Nadal’s motivation and persistence?” Well, we now know. A global pandemic. Think about this: he’s one major from tying the all-time mark, the precipice of tennis’ Holy Grail. And he’s essentially saying, “There are matters more important.”

The Big Three—and I’d include Serena here—are in a tight spot. This is anecdotal, but I’ve heard from assorted reliable sources that none is enthusiastic about playing the 2020 U.S. Open. Quite the opposite. Yet they can’t really say that without a) undermining tennis b) undermining the event c) undermining their colleagues who ARE interested in playing d) jeopardizing the event itself. (When, hypothetically, Daniil Medvedev—no offense to him—is your No. 1 seed, do you have the necessary heft to call yourself a major?) So no one is outright declining to play. At least not now. But they aren’t exactly gushing about the possibility of playing in a fan-less U.S. Open.

Other scattered thoughts:

1) I get the feeling a lot of you share my ambivalence on all of this. We all want tennis. We want it for the health and vitality of the sport. We want it for the tennis economy—the players, of course, and also the coaches, the stringers, the television compound, the journalists. We want it for the fans. We want it to avoid another round of the layoffs the USTA unleashed on Monday. (With no fans and corporate revenue, the USTA will lose more than half the 2019 revenue.) It’s also great that the USTA—not an organization often accused of being nimble and creative—is thinking so resourcefully and imaginatively. Long may it last.

And yet...there’s something at best distasteful and at worst downright dangerous about this stubborn insistence on staging the event. The risk of illness is high. The risk of controversy is high. (Imagine the lawsuit stemming from a player who gets broomed out of the tournament by a false positive.) The risk of bad optics is astronomically high. And we’re doing all this because...ESPN wants programming?

2) I wrote on Twitter Monday: “Game Theory exercise: Three top tennis players, each chasing history. Concerned about their health and the health of their families, none is inclined to play the next major. But there is a huge incentive to break the cartel if the other two stay home. What's the likely outcome?” You guys had terrific responses. But this is an interesting bit of behavioral psychology here. Do the Big Three make a pact among themselves? Do all three end up playing, grudgingly?

3) Spare a thought for doubles. Even when doubles is not under siege from Marion Bartoli—and pondering life post-Bryan Brothers—this subdiscipline often gets the raw end. It looks like the doubles draws at the 2020 U.S. Open are going to be pared down. I get the need to limit to bodies on site. I get the social distancing risks when there are two players on the same side of the court. I get the expense versus little incremental revenue. But it’s hard not to feel for these players.

Hi Jon. From a friend of mine in the neighborhood. His kid in the first frame and the local tennis community throughout.

Duane Wright

• Frances Tiafoe—and his girlfriend Ayan Broomfield—deserve a lot of credit here. I talked about this here, but a theory: unencumbered by coaches and owners and publicists and other social pressures, athletes have been more, not less outspoken, despite their furloughed status. Thanks to reader Karen Williams who points us to this podcast.

Besides players recovering from recent injuries, doesn't this extended break also mentally help players who had big breakthroughs in the past year? Vondrousova, Kenin, Medvedev, and Berrettini come to mind, as they won't have to deal with as much pressure defending their results and ranking points whenever the tours do fully resume. I'm also wondering Isner and Sock will play. Both have been injured in the past few years but if they're healthy now, Isner is getting time at home with his family and Sock gets to live his life and avoid people questioning his commitment and fitness every week. I could see both coming back the healthiest they've been in a while and mentally recharged, maybe both able to make some runs back into the top 10? Certainly a crapshoot to predict playing form at some unknown future point, but a fun thought exercise to fill the gap of real matches to discuss.
Willie T., East Lansing, MI

• I find these discussions about “who does and doesn’t get hurt by this cratered year?” quite interesting. As Willie notes, the players coming back from injuries obviously benefit at some level. But I think the players on hot streaks suffer. Sure there’s a pressure factor. But if I’m, say, Sofia Kenin, I want to keep building on my success, my aura, my bank account. It’s not the craps table where a “hot” player inevitably cools off. If I have had a breakthrough like that, I want to ride this momentum. It matters. As for Isner and Sock, I would expect every American to play.

1. I think the last non-European on the men's side to win the French was Agassi in 1999. I kind of am drawing an exact blank of what happened 2000-2002 (I think Moya and Guga won a few during that time), but I think there have not been any non-Europeans since Agassi.

2. Active women ranked No. 1. I am afraid that 2 or 3 of my answers to this one belong to the next question, but my answer would be 9 (Halep, Osaka, Pliskova, Barty, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Kerber, Azarenka, and Clijsters).

3. Active major winners to not be No. 1. 5 (Stephens, Andreescu, Muguruza, Kvitova, and Kuznetsova).

Thanks for posting those questions.
Shlomo

• 1) Gaston Gaudio….2) Nice check out Mugu’s career high. 3) Stosur, Kenin, Ostapenko….

Take a look at Tomas Muster’s results at Wimbledon. I apologize if you have discussed this before but I am wondering the following: How much of his woeful 0-4 record at Wimbledon is due to the surface being disadvantageous, disinterest and or a psychological aversion to grass? I realize grass was much faster back then but can a grand slam champion who has advanced to the semis in Australia and done OK at the U.S. open really be unable to win a single match at Wimbledon? I believe there are similar examples of clay courters with results like that. I didn’t really follow tennis back then and this intrigues me.
Ben Bittner

• “They did things different back then.” I don’t believe we’ve discussed Muster per se. To me, in the stat Ben provides, the “4” is as extraordinary a number as the “0.” As in: here is a Hall of Fame player whose career spanned more than a decade—he played the French Open 14 times….and he only entered Wimbledon four times? And declined playing the year after he won the French? Think about this for a moment.

“Think we’ll have a ‘Channel Double’ winner this year?”

“No.”

“You don’t give Muster even a small chance at Wimbledon?”

“None.”

“Why’s that?”

“He ain’t playing.”

I don’t want to pick on Muster. There were other players in the ’90s who pounded out titles on clay…and then did the grass-is-for-cows drill and didn’t deign to so much as enter Wimbledon. (And we should note that some of Muster’s absences owed to serious injuries.)

Flash forward to the present and, yes, it helps that the surfaces have bunched closer together. The longer Wimbledon grass, for instance, helps players—like Muster—who need a second to wind up their groundstrokes. But I give most of the credit to the current players, starting at the top. Nadal was still a teenager when he spoke of his dreams of winning Wimbledon as well as the French. Djokovic and Federer, too, have been masters of all surfaces and respectful of all surfaces. Players may prioritize majors. But the notion of top players, in the prime of their careers, saying, “Nah, not for me,” is unthinkable.

If Guillermo Vilas clearly was the No. 1 ranked player based upon his results, then why is the ATP unwilling to acknowledge that Connors time at the top is inaccurate (akin to what the WTA did with Evert/Goolagong)?
SMW

• For a moment, there I was going to ask the Boomer question: what’s SMW? Super Mario World? Single Malt Whiskey? Then I realized it was the questioner’s initials.

Anyway, yes, here’s Vilas’ year. (Aside: someone should write about the Tehran ATP stop.) And yes, the historical record ought to be amended.

Interested to hear your thoughts on how seedlings would be conducted at US Open or Roland Garros. Would the rolling 12-month system still be used given all the tournaments we've lost? And how do you deal with the Roland Garros points now that the schedule has been altered?
Leon Sojan

• From the ATP: “All we can say on this at this point is: the Rankings are currently frozen, effective March 16, and will continue to be frozen throughout the suspension period. As and when there is further clarity on a return date for the Tour, a decision will be made with respect to the resumption of the Rankings.

I think most of the "yellow or green" question arises in the context of playing on blue courts. As near as I can tell, tennis balls come out of the can yellow, but start to look green when played on a blue court surface—because yellow and blue make green. On TV, the balls may look more green against the background of a blue court—that's why they don't look green at the French Open for example, because the court surface isn't blue. They also start to look green after playing on outdoor, infrequently maintained courts, especially in wetter climates where they can pick up color from moss or mold staining on the court and, obviously, they can pick up green from grass on that surface. They also get greener—plus other colors—the longer a dog plays with them; so you could argue that it is the destiny of most tennis balls to end up green eventually. But straight out of the can against a black or white background, definitely yellow. Recognizing that this doesn't matter at all, that's a working theory!
John Campbell, Portland, Oregon

• It’s all about optics…..

I have a unique submission for your tennis Mailbag. I’ve produced a tennis themed song and it is now streaming everywhere (Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Apple, etc). It contains sounds unique to tennis (ball, grunts, umpire, crowd). Maybe a shout out at the end of an upcoming mailbag? FYI, I recorded the sounds myself at the U.S. Open. You will recognize the grunt... Here is a link where people can listen direct to the song using their music service.
Kev Masih

• I suspect most of us could use a little more music in our lives these days

Shots, Miscellany

Rafa for the win.

• Tennis Channel viewers are about to find out: Who wins a 32-man singles draw with all-time greats Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal? What about a ladies' field that includes American Hall of Famer Jennifer Capriati and defending Wimbledon-champion Simona Halep? Underway beginning June 8, the Tennis Channel All-Star Fantasy Showdown is a first-of-its kind simulated, virtual tournament with actual head-to-head classic matches determining the ultimate champion. The men's event takes place first with a match between career-Slam icon Andre Agassi and 1998 French Open-champion Carlos Moya Monday, June 8, at 1 p.m. ET. The women's tournament will start a week later with two Hall of Famers: Justine Henin facing Amelie Mauresmo Monday, June 15, at 1 p.m. ET.

• The USTA today announced a transformational plan that aligns the organization to both execute against the USTA mission to promote and develop the growth of tennis as well as combat the negative long-reaching financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan is designed to streamline costs and focus investments and people on supporting the grassroots of tennis, and bringing the tennis community through the relief, recovery, and rebuild phases of the pandemic. The plan also ensures that the USTA’s commitment to the US Open and all other USTA-produced events will remain at a world-class level. The USTA is pivoting from a program-based organization to a service-based organization with new technologies, structures, and services designed to boost the entire U.S. tennis ecosystem to help the sport thrive for the millions of existing, and the attraction of new, tennis players.

In April, the USTA announced a comprehensive industry relief and recovery package focused on supplying information and needed funds for tennis facilities and providers to alleviate the hardships caused by the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions included identifying more than $20 million in savings by instituting salary reductions of USTA management, furloughing approximately 100 employees, cancelations of the USTA annual and semi-annual meetings, eliminating programs in Marketing, Player Development and Operations, and deferring all non-essential capital projects. The comprehensive industry relief continues with regular updates at www.tennisindustyunited.com The next phase of the USTA’s plan will result in an additional $30MM in annual savings and align national staff and its volunteer committee members towards the strategic priorities of the USTA.