Mailbag: Spiking COVID-19 Rates, Player Behavior Prompt Speculation About 2020 U.S. Open

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Hope everything is well, healthy, and wearing a mask….

• Our most recent podcast guest, Donald Dell, talk about his views on the ATP/WTA merger. And he throws in some bonus Michael Jordan stories.

• Next up: Carlos Silva, CEO of World Team tennis, on holding play during COVID-19.

While pondering Vijay Amritraj’s strong candidacy in the contributor category for the Hall of Fame….

I’ll mix things up and start with an ode to you guys. For all the toxicity of the Internet—and social media in particular—there are some real pockets of civility, reason and even (and this is crazy) elevated discourse. Last week one of you asked me what I thought of John Isner and his use of the word “coronabro.” I thought I gave a fairly firm response:

“A) That was beneath John. He is decent. That dismissive language was not. b) a lot of players are damaging themselves in the present; and in the future will be consigned to the wrong side of history c) strange times: we await Nick Kyrgios’ sensible and mature return of serve.”

Over the next few hours I heard from more than 100 of you on Twitter and by DM. Friends, strangers, former players. Most of you were disapproving, focusing on my use of the word “decent.” A few of you had lost relatives to COVID-19 and were offended. Some of you noted other tweets from Isner that had offended you. A lot of you pushed back on privilege grounds. One well-known writer encouraged us to examine the difference between “nice” and “decent.”

I engaged with a number of you, essentially saying that I while I thought the tweet was pretty appalling, I had seen too many acts of kindness from Isner through the years to cancel him entirely. But we spoke about privilege and the fallacy of exceptionalism and the consequences of ignoring health advice. Of similarities and differences between this and Djokovic. Of being resolutely MAGA as an athlete on an international tour. I looked back on these exchanges last night and was struck by how reasonable it all was. An environmentally healthy island, perhaps, in the Superfund cleanup site that is social media.

On a lighter note, the following day—in a spasm of precisely the kind of mental meandering that gets people in trouble—I asked aloud whether Karen Khachanov feels confused that his first name has been co-opted. For the next few hours, every time I checked my phone, I got a laugh.

@brianconeil: And he will never be able to get mad at an umpire again without “Can I speak the manager?”

@duckdablackswan: he's calling the cops on you right now.

@pimmsfor: And is Wawrinka aware that his name is being used to describe fanatics? [Ed: that’s what you get for deserting Stanislas.]

@willowscourt: Speaking as a Becky (my real name), I had a similar moment a few years ago. I found it highly amusing. I also read up and learned something about black culture. Basically it felt like a win.

Ok, really. Onward….

Mailbag

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

So. What does this mean in the larger picture? Safe for U.S. Open or no?
—@siddantguru

• We noted that the USTA has cancelled all five ITF World Tennis Tour events taking place in the U.S. in August. “This decision was made to ensure the health and safety of all those involved with these events.” Naturally, this triggered a lot of speculation about the 2020 U.S. Open.

Since the announcement in mid-June that the show would go on in Queens at its appointed time, we’ve had the disastrous Adria Tour; we’ve had a player test positive at an event in spite of responsible behavior. We’ve seen athletes in all sports test positive, some in a bubble context, causing much reconsideration and scrambling. And, of course, we’ve seen COVID-19 rates in the U.S. spike.

The U.S. Open remains on the calendar as I write this. (It’s worth pointing out that rates in New York are falling—though that doesn’t change the fact that most American players will be coming from hot spots.) We are all trying to balance risk and find some personal sweet spot between fear and caution, mindless optimism and the paralyzing pessimism.

Me? I’m having an increasingly hard time imagining this event. In large part because of the science and the current data. In some because of the logistics and travel concerns. In part because of the liability risk. In part because there is another major—held in a less coronavirus-hostile part of the world—a few weeks later. I’d like to be wrong. Less for the sake of tennis than the sake of what it will mean for humanity. But right now, yeah…..

Have there been any high-profile women players spotted breaking social distancing protocols, or has it just been (white European) men? Almost as if they feel invincible, like there are structural forces built into society that usually allow wealthy men to escape any consequences of their actions. Would be a shame if the first ATP events to restart have to get canceled partway through due to a virus outbreak, or if that tournament gets sued by a someone who contracted it from a player. At this rate, WTA events could start before ATP...
Willie T., East Lansing, Mich.

• A friend asked a similar question, only they framed it in terms of the (so far hypothetical) ATP/WTA merger. That is, could the women use the recklessness of the men as some leverage at the bargaining table? Food for thought, if nothing else. (And note Andrea Petkovic’s tweets last week.)

For the gender studies portion of today’s show, the reader is correct. Pat McEnroe told Chris Clarey that it would be “hard to imagine” another top player, like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Serena Williams, holding a similar tour. I would go further: it is, to generalize, inconceivable that any female player would do something like this. The same way it’s inconceivable that a female would grab her crotch or hurl courtside furniture or lament that an official made calls because a dearth of sexual activity.

Every major posts their fine list. It’s fascinating to see the gender division, both in terms of quality and quantity. The men invariably—and by an order of magnitude—earn more fines. And their offenses are often based on the abuse of equipment. The women are often fined based on receiving illegal coaching (from men) and the occasional obscenity. Discuss.

Seeing Thiem fail to self-isolate (albeit he has repeatedly tested negative for COVID-19, his potential incubation period is still only halfway done) and Zverev out partying on the weekend, I have to ask how much of this behavior is due to white-privileged thinking? In other words: “I am a rich, straight, good-looking white man, I can do whatever I want.”
Devoted Gay Brown Skinned Fan, Toronto, Canada

• We can pick this apart a bit. (I’m not sure sexuality or race or wealth correlate with responsible or irresponsible behavior.) But the larger point “Devoted Gay Brown Skinned Fan” makes about optics is valid. It’s a terrible look when millionaire athletes in their 20s are basically thumbing their nose at the health and well-being of everyone else. And I would submit that, amid this cultural moment, when the athletes are white and from wealthy Western countries—partying in Monaco with models is almost too cliché—it’s an even worse look.

Can you foresee a scenario where anti-racist workshops and trainings become part of the tennis ecosystem? Like all things in tennis, implementation and logistics could be challenging with so many governing bodies, but it’s doable if the impetus is there. Perhaps these anti-racist workshops could be delivered at the junior and pro levels and extend to non-players. There is the challenge of contracting an organization to deliver these trainings in a global sport. It strikes me as something tangible that could be useful in many industries and will help keep the focus on ending systemic racism and white privilege long after the news cycle starts to shift.
Ian Scott, Winnipeg, Canada

• Sure. I don’t think anyone is going to voice opposition to anti-racist anything. (Aside: this is worth a listen. The opposite of racist is not, “not racist.” It is affirmatively anti-racist.) Anything that makes a workplace—or a sport, or a world—more inclusive and more hospitable to more people will, and should, find favor. Anything that helps me understand the player on the other side of the net, is, forgive the pun, a net positive.

If we are going to have an honest conversation...I do think we need to broaden and expand “anti-racist” and account for the fact that in a global tour, players come with different values, histories and perspectives. An example I remember vividly: Lleyton Hewitt’s run to the 2001 U.S. Open was marred by racially tinged remarks he made during a match against James Blake, noting the “similarity” between the opponent and black line judge.

I recall the Hewitt camp making the case at the time that the criticism was unfair. I’m paraphrasing but the rationale was basically: “He’s a 20-year-old kid from Adelaide, unversed in structural racism, campus-style political correctness or the history of slavery. If the opponent and linesman were both French, he might have said the same thing and no one would blink. It would be like asking the American player to understand the nuances of challenges confronting Aboriginal Australians.”

The argument wasn’t hard to pick apart. Ethnicity is not race. If Americans played against Aboriginal Australians, they might be more informed and sensitive. But the larger point is worth considering: tennis is an international sport; to what extent do we assume there are baseline norms? To what extent do we expand expectation?

Same song, different verse: I know a lot of you were disappointed in the tempered response of the Big Three to the George Floyd killing. But I know that there was also blowback to the blowback. As in, “Why must players from Basel and Belgrade and the Balearics wax eloquent about police brutality in Minneapolis? And, by extension, why are athletes not weighing in about, say, ethnic cleansing of the Uighurs or Viktor Orban’s assault on democracy?

My point: more empathy and knowledge is never bad. If tennis explores an anti-racism and pro-awareness curriculum, that’s great. But it ought to be broad.

Larger point about USO taken, but my answer to Nadal's agent would be: "Can I see the yacht photo again? God forbid someone leave $$ on the table when they have plenty. Our execs are well paid, but we also spend a lot on community tennis. Feel free not to play."
@meganfernandez7

• This question pertains to last week’s discussion about the majors depressing prize money on the grounds they are non-profits. And how strange it is that the majority of the players who bear the brunt of this wage depression not only fail to benefit from the non-profit, but in fact, suffer since these non-profit funds are invested in competing players.

As Megan notes, a rejoinder to this is: “feel free not to play.” That is, even with only 16% of revenues going to prize money, players are still making more than they do at any other tournament. Reason No. 4,401 why the players need a formal union. Speaking of….

Hey Jon. Great stuff on the Djoker. I really am tired of not seeing anything negative about the players on the ATP Tour website. There is just no credible journalism on that site and should not be trusted. 
Patrick Kramer, Norway

• Going to the ATP’s website for journalistic stories that reflect unfavorably on players is like going to Nick Kyrgios for mature, sage perspective. Oh, wait, what’s that? Never mind. Bad analogy. We need to update our playbook.

Going to the ATP’s website for journalistic stories that reflect unfavorably on players? It’s like going to Vladivostok for a suntan. It’s like going to an airport for discount retail shopping. It’s like going to a Barry White concert to hear a soprano hit the dulcet high notes. It’s like going to Taco Bell for some light, nuanced and modestly portioned fare. It’s like going to Germany for comedy. It’s like a frog going to a lawnmower for a relaxing afternoon. Can I stop?

Remember, the ATP is half owned by the players. I wouldn’t pick on tennis. It’s not as though, say, mlb.com would be the destination for your Houston Astros investigation.

But you highlight some of tennis’ underlying flaws. In the case of Djokovic, you have a player who acted unwisely and caused a lot of damage—some literal, some reputational. But where would there be any of sort of institutional condemnation? The bad acting came at an event that had nothing to do with the ATP. (And besides, it is a partnership between tournaments and players.) The majors have no jurisdiction. The ITF has no jurisdiction. There’s no collective bargaining agreement that might have been violated. There’s no union rules to violate.

At some level the market can weigh in. (Surely, neither Djokovic’s sponsor nor Adria was happy to be associated with such a catastrophic event.) At some level, a players’ instincts for PR or their desire for respect among their peers might be a deterrent. But these last few weeks have shown how little backstop there is in tennis—a sports of individual contractors—saving players from themselves, but also from denting the sport.

Thank you for sharing the “Facing Federer” documentary last week about the 2004 Tennis Masters Cup. When I heard Federer and Safin played a 20-18 tiebreak in the semifinal, I had to look for it and found a complete recording on YouTube. What an extraordinary half-hour of tennis! So much drama to go with the remarkable quality of play…. I wonder how much this long and intense tiebreak was on their minds when the two met again, just two months later, in the Australian Open semifinal and Safin handed Federer one of his (extremely!) rare non-clay major defeats of those days. Here's the link to the tiebreak if you want to share it with your readers:

Saif, Washington D.C.

• Thanks much. An antidote for cable news fatigue.

Shots, Miscellany

World Team Tennis starts Sunday.

• Note the Court of Dreams Comeback Classic Invitational at the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club with owner/operator Mark Kuhn, July 31-Aug 1.

Here’s a fine Monica Seles read.

• Thanks Puneet Manchanda for this link: The Modernisation Of Tennis

HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!