Mailbag: What Does Nadal's Absence Mean for 2020 U.S. Open?

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Hey everyone, hope you are safe and sane.

Last week’s podcast guest: a two-fer. Sam Querrey and Eric Hutchinson, whose new album Class of 1998 is available here.

• Here’s light in a dark time. (And save your complaints that this was spon-con):

• Time stamp Tuesday night: Madrid is cancelled (with an additional card or two perhaps left to be played) and Cincy and the U.S. Open are on.

RIP Bob Ryland, a true tennis legend.

Get to know some tennis media all-stars.

Onward…

This is the Tennis is Back (whoever thought we’d all watch this much Palermo tennis?) Edition.

Mailbag

So Nadal drops out of the U.S. Open. Even if Djokovic follows suit, I'm sure the U.S. Open will try to march on. However, it seems unfair to whomever the winner would be. As much as you've said that you can only play who's in front of you, it would be hard not to mark the win with an asterisk. Not that the winner didn't deserve the win, but it would forever be mentioned in some way or another that the Big Three never played. And the unfortunate consequence is that even though the winner would be a Slam champion, they may never be considered a real contender for future Slams. I don't think the media would ever say the winner of the 2020 U.S. Open didn't really win. But when you talk about all of the Big Three's accolades and records, it will be mentioned that the only time one of them didn't win a slam was when they all chose not to play in 2020. So one way or another, the 2020 U.S. Open would have an asterisk by it. Your thoughts?
Kobi, Sacramento

• Here are five thoughts, trying to cover as many questions as possible:

1) Until further notice, no players’ decisions should be second-guessed. We all have different risk thresholds. Some—like Nadal—are more unnerved than others. Some have compromised family members. Respect choices.

2) A lot of you are—not wrongly—skeptical about how this works. Players are coming from all over the world. There is a tournament hotel on Long Island, but many are renting homes. It will be impossible to monitor everyone and create a bubble scenario. Asking 256 players—and their teams—to behave responsibly is, to borrow Brad Gilbert’s cliché, the biggest of asks.

3) Then again….the USTA has not made this decision unaware of the risks. The health risks. The economic risks. The optics risk. They have a full medical staff. They have consulted Homeland Security.

4) Keep an eye on Lexington and then “Cincinnati.” We have dress rehearsals, so to speak. If there are positive results or athletes behaving irresponsibly, it may yet lead to the cancellation of the U.S. Open.

5) Let’s hold off on the asterisk talk. It stands to reason that with a depleted field* in this cratered season, we might look askance at these results. But let’s reserve judgment until we’ve seen the level of play. And let’s also consider that players winning seven matches in these bat-guano-crazy conditions have shown considerable mettle, regardless of whom they face.

*Reminder: an entry list is not the same as a “list of players who will show up and play.”

**Think about Nadal for a moment. He is the defending champ. He has 19 majors. The guy ahead of him—who won’t be in the draw—has 20. Quite a statement he is making, not entering.

Jon, you said the other week that you try to make sure the questions you answer reflect what people are talking about. I noticed you haven’t addressed Novak Djokovic and the Adria Tour lately. Have people stopped asking about it?
Doug, Cincy

• No, the questions—and, more often, assertions—are still coming. I struggle a bit here. On the one hand, he has been through the gauntlet that is the Internet spanking machine. He took a huge PR hit that went well beyond tennis. I think I mentioned this a few weeks ago: not since the 2018 U.S. Open women’s final have I been asked to do more media about a tennis story. In the middle of a pandemic—and amid a reckoning about systematic injustice—you have Carillo talking about Djokovic on daytime MSNBC.

Full candor: I still really struggle with this. I know Djokovic to be a decent person and a thoughtful figure. As a default we should encourage unconventional thinking and approaches. Djokovic paid a hell of a price and has apologized.

Still, this wasn’t simply a gaffe. It was a potentially deadly gaffe. And it was the run-up that made it all especially galling and irresponsible. The shelter-in-place violations. The embrace of pseudoscience. Offering what is, at best, an ambiguous position on vaccinations. (And then something less than a repudiation when given a chance to clarify.) We are in the middle of a global pandemic. Athletes and celebrities have platforms.

It is not just disappointing but potentially catastrophic when they use them to undercut science, send contradictory messages and undermine social trust. Secondary point: Djokovic positions himself as a leader in tennis. But his irresponsibility created great difficulties for the sport—here’s the Palermo tournament director the other day—complicating the restart.

A few of you—including players—asked why Djokovic took such a PR beating. Why wasn’t there more vitriol directed at Alexander (I Saw Her Today At The Reception) Zverev? Where was the outrage when other players tested positive or breached bubble protocol or were photographed on social media mask-less and hugging kids?

I would suggest that, right or wrong, the No. 1 player in the world is always going to be held to a different standard than less prominent players. But I also cite the run-up. If Player X had spent April and May spewing nonsense about water molecules, dismissing vaccines and criticizing “strict” protocols, only to host a super-spreader event in June...they would have come in for a comparable amount of criticism.

Do you have special memories about Kim Clijsters and her U.S. Open victories (or other tournaments in America)? What made/makes her so popular in the USA (besides the fact that she married an American)?
Jonas Creteur

• I guess I have a variety of answers. Start with the supposition that fans and the tennis community WANT to like players. Clijsters—for two decades now—has given us no reason NOT to like her. Another supposition: players are generally good judges of character. When you hear that players—Kvitova, Davenport, Seles, Safarova, Suarez Navarro, Kuznetsova, Keys, etc.—are well regarded among their colleagues, it’s a good sign that everyone else ought to follow suit.

Initially, Clijsters was liked as a prospect. (Remember, Clijsters took a set off Serena Williams at the 1999 U.S. Open.) She then settled into a thoroughly agreeable top player, who competed honorably, brought a light disposition to bear and had a game—predicated on athleticism—that was appealing. Truth serum: she probably benefitted from the inevitable comparisons to Justine Henin, her countrywoman, who won the majority of their matches and scanned considerably more prickly.

She was well-liked as a mother who came out of retirement to win majors. She is well-liked as a player who came out of retirement (again) and, as a Hall of Famer and mother of three, is still trying to wring everything out of her considerable talent.

I suppose her American connections add to her appeal. (I’ll never forget the email I got from one of you asking whether it was possible they just saw Clijsters at a fish market on the Jersey Shore.) She, as you note, married an American. She has spent considerable time here. Her English is unflawed. She’s had great success at the U.S. Open and on American hardcourts in general.

But again, I think it comes down to this. People liked Clijsters when she was a 16-year-old prospect and she never gave anyone a reason to feel differently.

I agree that Sampras would be a peer to the Big 3 if he played today due to his serve, athleticism, anticipation, reflexes, and competitiveness. But to say that Sampras would have succeeded playing largely the same style is a bridge too far. Sampras would have adjusted his game, similar to how Federer had to adjust his game mid-career and attack the net less. I am sure Sampras would have found a way to win if he played in today's era, but the string technology and court conditions today are not a match to Sampras' style and he would have to develop a different approach.
Robert, Fairfax

• So much of this is about the technology, both strings and rackets. That makes these comparisons so difficult….

I love this question about underrated records. Chris Evert has two of the most under-rated records out there.

1. 13 straight years winning a Grand Slam. I think the closest any has gotten is 10 (Nadal) followed by Sampras (9) and Federer (8). What’s most incredible about Evert is she did this even though during some of her most dominant years 76-78 she only played two slams a year.

2. 125 straight wins on clay. Nadal’s best streak is 44 matches short. Another record that never gets talked about is Martina Navratilova winning six straight slams from Wimbledon 1983 through U.S. Open 1984. Because of the way the calendar worked back then she didn’t win a calendar slam. I think Margaret Court and Steffi Graf both won five in a row.
Earl Black

• Great ones. I might add that Evert and Martina playing 80 (!) times is underrated. (For comparison, Borg-McEnroe played 14 times). And the 43-37, head-to-head, favoring Martina ever so slightly, is remarkably, and underrated-ly, close to a coin flip.

Hope you and the family are well! Saw your mention of John Lucas as All-American in tennis and basketball. Althea Gibson stood out in tennis and golf. Tony Trabert might not have been All-American, but he, too, had great college basketball career alongside his tennis success. Mardy Fish and Scott Draper have golf success after their tennis career. What are some other tennis players who have had success in other sports?
Pat, Wauwatosa

• I’m kicking myself for not mentioning Althea Gibson and her golf career. Mardy Fish and his golf is a good one. Scott Draper, too. Steffi Graf’s time in the 400? Donald Dell played college basketball. In the age of specialization, sadly, we will see fewer and fewer kids play multiple sports. It leaves us to wonder: If someone had handed seven-year old Kobe Bryant a tennis racket, what would have happened? Conversely, had, say, Serena Williams (or Kim Clijsters) gravitated to soccer instead of tennis, what would have happened?

• Take us out Frank M.:

It’s been interesting to see some of the comments over the Mahut vs. Isner epic and the whole aspect of quantity vs. quality and what criteria should be used when examining match (or player) “greatness.”

But perhaps the forgotten one in the Mahut vs. Isner match is the wonderful Mohamed Lahyani–the umpire who was officiating for the whole 11 + hours of the match.

Here’s an alternative take on this match that some may appreciate: The match that wouldn't die.