Mailbag: 2020 U.S. Open Remains On Track After Adria Tour Fallout

Despite the cautionary tale of the Adria Tour, the 2020 U.S. Open is still scheduled for later this summer—without fans, but with nearly the same prize money as last year.
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Let’s start here….

• Three years ago my colleague and friend S.L. Price wrote this exceptional piece on Jim Kiick, the former Miami Dolphins star struck with dementia. Kiick’s daughter, Allie, is a WTA player, then tasked with balancing a tennis career with helping care for her father. Jim Kiick passed away last week at age 73. Allie is now honoring him with a fundraising effort to benefit research on concussions and CTE.

• Last week’s podcast, Jamie and I spoke about Novak Djokovic and the inconvenient truth that communicable diseases are communicable.

• This week: longtime agent Donald Dell joins to discuss his views about a merged ATP/WTA Tour, where tennis goes from here, etc.

• The 60 Minutes piece on Rafael Nadal is re-airing this Sunday.

Onward…..

Mailbag

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

Let’s zig instead of zag and start NOT with Novak Djokovic. Though, let the record reflect, he garnered most of the mail this week….

Jon, I saw that the U.S. Open will be paying players almost the same prize money offered in 2019. How can this be, when there will be no tickets, no concessions, no parking etc.? What am I missing?
Steve, Brooklyn

• Even without tickets and suites and concessions—net operating income potentially down 80%, per CEO Mike Dowse. Yet prize money will be virtually unchanged year-over-year. Reflexively, you say, “Wow, that’s generous. Not too many businesses would pay labor full wages when business had fallen off so dramatically.” Then you pause and say: “Wait, what? Wow, the players must have been criminally underpaid in years past.”

In every sport, players and ownership debate and negotiate how to divide the pie. But imagine representing a top player from outside the U.S.—I’ll say Nadal here—and asking why the ratio is so low at tennis’ majors. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“Help me figure this out. I’m seeing other sports paying their labor around 50% of gross revenue. I’m looking at your financials and we’re not even close to that. We’re at, like, 16 or 17%.”

“That’s apples and oranges.”

“Que¿”

“Oh, that’s a saying we have. It means an invalid comparison.”

“But I can compare an apple to an orange quite easily. They are both round. Both fruits. Priced about the same. In fact, they’re directly next to each other in the grocery, as if goading me to make a comparison. Should the expression be, like, comparing pantaloons with hubcaps? But anyway, your point?”

“Right. It is not relevant to compare the U.S. Open with a sports league. See, we are a non-profit.”

“With those executive salaries?”

“Again, we are a non-profit.”

“Who benefits from this non-profit?”

“Oh, where to begin? We basically finance tennis in the U.S. We’re talking everything from grants to player development to the coaches and physios of top pros. See, we have all these sections and they—”

“Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but how does that benefit Rafa?”

“Well, um, indirectly, er—”

“So forgive me but I’m just trying to understand: You’re asking my client—who has always lived an ocean away— to work for dimes on the dollar…. so you can fund a nonprofit. That benefits American tennis?”

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way…..”

“And you mention that the USTA is funding the coaching and training of players—already millionaires—at the top of the sport?”

“Well, um, we don’t talk about that much; and a lot of national federations have similar allocations of—”

“So, again, let me get this straight: my client working below market rate for a sake of a non-profit. A non-profit that not only doesn’t benefit him. But in fact, this non-profit actively works against him, by subsidizing is direct competitors. It would be like Nike paying a tax to benefit Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour. How does that make sense?”

“Can I get you a drink?”

At the very least, Novak Djokovic’s social distancing-free Adria Tour was reckless. Some, from Danielle Collins to Bruno Soares to the suddenly sensible Nick Kyrgios, have gone further to excoriate his failures as a leader and role model. I would go still further to suggest that Djokovic should be removed from his position as ATP Player Council president for abdicating his responsibilities as an ambassador for the sport and as a public figure. What are the provisions in the ATP bylaws for doing so, and do you think there would be support for dismissing him?
Christopher Michaelson

• Ultimately, it’s up to the players, of course. The ATP bylaws contain no provision about what to do about a board member facing a felony charge. So it’s hard to imagine there’s specific language here. If the recklessness of the head of the players jeopardize the restart of tennis—that is, job and opportunities for his colleagues—it would be a striking bit of irony even by tennis standards.

I do feel like this is spot where Djokovic can be defended. Question his wisdom and judgment for organizing that catastrophic event. But I don t think you can question his commitment to the ATP position, to improving wages and standards for players.

I read your tweet concerning Novak Djokovic and his tournament. I thought your response wishing the players a speedy recovery was too kind. I want them to suffer during their recovery because I want them to truly understand how reckless their activities were. I know this doesn't sound merciful, but their acts were very irresponsible. They got the virus because of their bad behavior. Now they are declaring how sorry they are for their behavior. The statement falls on my deaf ear. They are only sorry because they are infected and put people who may not have attended the event at risk. These people may be in a more vulnerable group, get infected and die from just crossing their path.

I live in the same town as my 90-year-old father and I don't see him because I know I could be an asymptomatic carrier and don't wish to give my father the virus. What they did demonstrated the wanton hubris of an elite group.
Ricardo McCrimmon

• I want no one to suffer. But you are making the point I made a few months ago about being anti-vaxx. I have heard several analogies, but I like this one from Ross Tucker: You want to juggle knives in your in own home? Hey, go with Yahweh. Power to you. But you want to throw knives into a crowd? We have a problem. I’m not sure why this is hard to grasp: when your behavior is endangering the health and lives of others, it ceases to become “personal choice.”

Hi Jon. What a gigantic blow to the possibility of having pro tennis return in any measurable way this summer and fall. Ouch.
Jon B., Seattle

• For what it’s worth, I’ve spoken to the folks at the USTA and they are adamant that the circumstances and protocols will be the antithesis of the Adria Tour.

Your readers might enjoy a recent New Yorker short story: Futures by Han Ong. It has a little bit of everything: the Challenger tournament grind, match fixing, Federer vs Nadal, the multi-nationality of the game we all love. Enjoy.
Steve from Sausalito, Calif.

• Thanks. We linked this a few months ago. Happy to do so again.

Reinforcing what you wrote about how much near-exponential growth there has been in prize money when Alex Zverev has earned as much as Stefanie Graf: Simona Halep is an exceptionally consistent champion and a certain first-ballot red carpet Hall of Famer, no questions asked. But no one thinks she is one of the most accomplished players in recent memory, much less history. Yet probably this year, Halep will boat race past Maria Sharapova to become her sport’s No. 3 all-time money earner. And then sometime late next spring or early summer in all likelihood, Halep will pass Venus Williams to become the second-highest earning woman player in history. What makes it even more remarkable is that Halep will very likely—possibly inevitably at her current pace—do all this while still in her 20s.
Chris Bennett, Springfield, Va.

• Good catch. We can keep going with this. I remember that when I first started covering tennis, I marveled that Wayne Ferreira had earned more in his career than Rod Laver. Now, Roger Federer will tell you that one reason he started the Laver Cup was his realization that he could earn more money playing a few exhibitions than Laver made in his career.

In 2000—two decades ago—Mart Safin made $800,000 for winning the U.S. Open. This year’s champion will earn more than four times that. (For what it’s worth—pun intended—$800,000 is about $1.2 milion in present dollars.)

There are a few things going on here. One, of course, we need to account for PVM. Second, we WANT wages to increase. Past champions sometimes lament that they were born in the wrong era. It’s easy to empathize. But something would be profoundly wrong if Serena Williams DIDN’T earn dramatically more than Steffi Graf, much less Chris Evert and Martina.

Some of the credit here goes the players’ advocates. From Venus Williams to the tours to (credit where it’s due) Justin Gimelstob, players have made real gains in prize money, especially at the majors. But you also wonder: in the absence of a real union, how much money did players leave on the table all these years?

I've heard a lot of players say they're unsure about playing at the U.S. Open, but I haven't heard many similar sentiments about the French Open, which is only two weeks later. Can we assume that players are also uncomfortable about playing at the French? Are players more comfortable with the French Open because it's based in Europe meaning a shorter flight for most players? Is it because New York is more of a virus hotspot than Paris? Any context would be helpful, thanks.
Robert, Fairfax, Va.

• Sure, some of this is travel-based. Europe is, of course, the sport’s nerve center and—rightly or wrongly—there is a different perception about flying within a continent versus crossing an ocean. What’s more, the French Open does not sure appear to be as restrictive; it’s even discussed a limited fan presence. There is no talk I’ve heard of players clustering in a single hotel or being locked down when they’re not playing matches. Also, it stands to reason that more attention would be devoted to the event that comes first on the calendar.

Hi Jon, I hope you and everyone on your end are well and keeping healthy. Quick thought, for what it is worth, on the upcoming spectator-less U.S. Open (and other tourneys): Wouldn't it be awesome if other players around the grounds would attend some matches during their downtime/while eating/resting, and help clap/cheer on? This could extend to their teams, presumably. Not sure if there could be incentive to doing so (beyond just being a bro/sis). Plenty more players than matches going on most times.

To add: I heard the precautions and installations/logistics the Open/USTA are adopting, together with player facilities and convenience are going to be off the chart. That said, I have also heard great criticism (from players e.g. recent @GabyDabrowski tweet) on lack of qualies, reduced doubles and no mixed. Bitcoin for your thoughts.
Dan M.

• Bitcoin, eh? Rings a faint bell. I LOVE the idea of players attending their peers’ matches. (And given the social options at the airport LaQuinta, I wouldn’t be in a rush to get back to the hotel.)

Martina Navratilova said in a Tennis.com Zoom chat the other day that tennis had always been open and inclusive to all. That may be true in theory, but I'm not sure it plays out too well in practice. I mean, not one single top 10 male player ever has been gay? Certainly as far as I can remember none have been openly so. And apart from Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong and the Williams sisters, all major champions for many decades now have all been Caucasian (there are emerging Asian players following Michael Chang and Li Na). Is tennis really as inclusive as all that?
Mark

• Let’s focus this. Go down the rankings and look at the players—the range of economic backgrounds, ages, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.—and I would argue it speaks to inclusion. As we’ve said before, tennis is as close to sports meritocracy as it gets. Win and you advance. Lose and you don’t. There are coaches that play favorites, or players on big contracts hogging minutes, or teammates denying you the ball.

I would say—during the last days of Pride month—that the absence of an openly gay active player on the men’s side is, at best peculiar. (I don’t buy the argument—one that gets made often within tennis that sports are self-selecting and none exist.)

If Nick Kyrgios doesn't stop being the voice of reason, my head is going to explode.
Roger Long

• These, Roger, are unprecedented times. Nick Kyrgios has become the Jose Canseco of tennis, the most unlikely voice of reason.

Shots, Miscellany

• A really strong take on Djokovic from longtime reader Ian Katz. 

The Tennis Hall of Fame is open.

Last week’s podcast: Talking about the wonderful new tennis novel “Members Only” with author Sameer Pandya. Speaking of tennis books, we get Lottie Dodd

AND Robert Weintraub in one day….

• Cam Bennet of Canberra, take us out:

It’s been incredibly interesting to hear all of the differences of opinion regarding the playing of the U.S. Open in these COVID times, and even more interesting to think about the relative nature of our global experiences of this pandemic.

You said in your Mailbag that you’ll reserve judgement “v/v the COVID-19 status updates over the next 60 days” and that you think the tournament is good to go provided no second wave, “or change in the New York trendlines.” Meanwhile, Nick Kyrgios is commenting on the need for him to wear a hazmat suit in NYC. In many ways, I think both of these comments—while miles apart—are completely understandable.

When you wrote your comment, NYC’s trendlines were absolutely moving in the right direction. But that said, according to the stats published by Google, there were still 600+ new cases in NYC the previous day and there have been over 600 new cases on every day since 16 March.

In Australia, the absolute peak of the pandemic was on 28 March, when we had 460 new cases around the country. We haven’t seen 100 new cases in a day for more than two months now, but yesterday, there were 23 new cases—the highest number we’ve seen in weeks. This number caused great concern in some quarters, especially as it appeared that six of the cases were caused by community transmission in Victoria. That number caused the Chief Health Officer to be “nervous” about how the state is travelling.

Throughout the pandemic, Australian politicians have pleaded with the community to follow all of the stringent rules in place regarding isolation/lockdown, and they have done so partly by pointing at the less-flat-curves of other countries and reminding Aussies that we don’t want to be suffering in the same way that they are.

This isn’t me wanting to gloat about how well Australia has done during the pandemic, but more me wanting to point out that while people from, say, Florida could easily be considering New York City’s improved trendline to be sublime, people from, say, Australia can see the numbers as still being incredibly scary.

In Canberra, where both Kyrgios and I live, our government’s health advice still says: “Canberrans should carefully consider the need to travel outside the Canberra region. Someone bringing the virus into the region from interstate remains one of the biggest risks to the re-emergence of COVID-19 in Canberra.” It also says “There is a ban on Australians traveling overseas. It is safer for Australians to stay home.”

As such, if Aussie players head to NYC, they will have to overcome some serious cognitive dissonance to do so. And they’d also have to put points, prize money, and their trust in the ATP/WTA tours ahead of the health advice of both their state and their country—assuming the federal government provides them with an exemption from the travel ban.

This isn’t me saying they shouldn’t go, of course—best of luck to them in the tournament if they play! I just think it’s really important that we all accept that people will interpret COVID-related statistics and dangers quite differently from each other, in part depending on where they have spent the past few months.