Mailbag: Will the 2020 U.S. Open Have an Asterisk?

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Hope everyone is well, safe and masked.

• On our most recent podcast, Patrick Mouratoglou talked about tennis-during-COVID and Serena Williams’ return. Andrea Leand talked about World TeamTennis.

• Next up: Up-and-comer Jannik Sinner on his 2020.

• If you had Lexington on your tennis bingo card, you win! The first U.S. event since the U.S. Open has commenced….

• Trust me. This is worth six minutes of your day: 

• I tweeted this yesterday but let me reiterate: the WTA communications team is doing an exceptional job wrangling players, sending around audio files and generally making the sport relevant and accessible. We—fans, players, media—owe them a shot of Kentucky bourbon and/or Czech beer. And a deep measure of gratitude.


The Shift 8 edition….

Assuming the U.S. Open takes place (nothing’s a given at this point) and if Serena finally gets to the Golden 24th Slam, do you think there would be an asterisk, given the circumstances?

• Let’s do the asterisk question and then put a strikethrough in it. In fact, I would declare that from here on out, anyone who types or says the word “asterisk” in a tennis context must make a donation here or to a similar charity.

I’m not a * absolutist. I am open to the possibility that the U.S. Open draw will appear to be moth-eaten. That players will advance when opponents are forced to withdraw. That without fans and the usual circus, the atmosphere will be flatter than a Czech player’s forehand. That somehow the title will feel hollow.

I am also open to the opposite: that the player who wins will have shown all manner of resolve and mettle and compartmentalization and persistence and focus. That winning seven matches in this cratered season, in this bat-guano-crazy context, should be adorned with an exclamation point.

I think we need to see how this unfolds. We need to see the quality of the draw and quality of tennis. We also need to see context. (Specific to Serena, I struggle to see how any major won by a 38-year-old is diminished.) It strikes me as ungenerous to tell players in advance that, even if they win, it’s a tainted title. It also strikes me as inconsistent with reality. Plenty of players have won majors under extraordinary circumstances. Wafer-thin draws. Medical flukes. Boycotts. Opponents having panic attacks and injuries and menstrual issues in finals. Especially with some time, we tend only to remember the winners, not the circumstances.

On Twitter, I saw a discussion about Jordan Spieth and whether there was a tennis equivalent. Care to weigh in?
Dennis D.

• I assume the context is a guy who won multiple majors in one year and is now struggling to make cuts? If Spieth comes back and mounts a comeback, there are obvious parallels, starting with Agassi. (Note: Spieth is 27, Agassi’s pivot year as well.) Otherwise…Maybe Ana Ivanovic, who reached three majors in one year, won the 2008 French Open and then—get this—made only three quarters in her next 34 majors. Marat Safin, who won two majors but never became the transformative player imagined. I guess you could suggest Roddick, though he didn’t self-destruct or go through a real crisis; he simply had the misfortune of coinciding with Federer and Nadal.

Italy seem reluctant to waive quarantine so Rome tournament should be moved to France so players can be in bubble like Cincy and U.S.

• Funny, a week ago, there was speculation that Madrid would move to Rome. It’s an intriguing idea you raise. (Hey, if Cincinnati—city of seven hills—can move to New York, why can’t the original City of Seven Hills move to Paris.) Let’s, however, be clear about this: the term “bubble” has become voguish but it’s also become misused. World TeamTennis was not truly a bubble, not with players walking the grounds and eating in the restaurant alongside other guests. The U.S. Open is a gallant attempt, but isn’t a true bubble, especially as players will have come from “hot zones” and flown commercial. The French Open certainly is not planned as a bubble, not with fans in the stands and players staying at Paris’ finest hostelries.

On the latest Craig Shapiro Podcast (right up there with Beyond the Baseline in tennis gold), Tim Mayotte made a great point that I'd never heard—in his era, he got zero support from his countrymen. McEnroe and Connors were no one's mentors. Compare that to the way Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray (apparently) support the players from their country. We're starting to see this more on the WTA side among American women and across tours in Canada. There are probably other examples that I'm not aware of. Do you think this owes more to the character of the individuals or to the increase in prize money that makes it easier to earn a great living at the top?

• Interesting question. I think there are a number of factors here.

1) Some of this is our evolved thinking about mentorship in general and its value.

2) Some of this is the example set by so many players…. and then paid forward. Andy Roddick, for instance, hosted player after young player at his home in Austin. Anyone benefitting from that would be inclined to do likewise. (Same for Agassi and Federer and the Czech women and so many others.)

3) I wonder if this isn’t yet another virtuous outgrowth of the extended careers. If McEnroe, to pick a name, did some mental accounting and said, “I have a few years to make my bones,” you can see why he wouldn’t spend it helping to cultivate a potential opponent. When you play deep into your 30s, it’s easy to see how you are more giving of your time, feel less threatened and have more maturity in general.

4) Yes, there’s probably some noblesse oblige, but there’s also a financial factor. Federer, for instance, can afford to fly players to his base and work with them, much as a champion boxer would sparring partners.

5) Overall, the culture of both tours has become so much more collegial.

Here are a couple of underrated tennis records I like: The doubles team of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver went two years (109 matches) without losing. The streak started in 1983 and ended in 1985. Remember Rainer Schüttler, who lost to Andre Agassi in the final of the 2003 Australian Open? He went 9 consecutive years (1995 to 2003) with a year-end ranking better than the one he had the year before. That shows a commitment to hard work and improvement over a long period of time. I wonder how many other players have done that.
Earl Strickler, Houston

• Those are great. I always like this trivia question: how many Hall of Fame players did Serena beat en route to winning her first major, the 1999 U.S. Open? Also, Chris Evert and Martina won every women’s major held, save one, from 1982-86.

Interestingly, [the USTA liability waiver] would arguably have precluded Genie Bouchard’s lawsuit as well. I am surprised they are only now coming around to the idea.

• Yes and no. Not all waivers are valid and enforceable. We’ve seen this in all kinds of contexts including sports. Waivers are certainly a hurdle a plaintiff would have to clear in order to win a liability judgment. But there are instances of gross negligence that would supersede a waiver. Here’s my occasional collaborator and former (it hurts to write that word) colleague Mike McCann weighing in v/v a COVID-19 context. Note this as well v.v COVID-19 waivers and Hollywood.

I heard you and Chanda on Tennis Channel talking about Camila Giorgi. Can you think of a player who has a wider gap between their physical size and their power?
Charles T.

• In a word, no. Giorgi is listed at 5’6”, 119 lbs. And she absolutely pounds the ball. Not only that: she has no other gear. She reminds me of the MMA fighter who simply throws bombs and has no interest in winning by any means other than knockout.

There are other fighters who are under-sized and overpowering. Alex Dolgopolov is 5’11” and 157 lbs. and plays heavyweight tennis. Philipp Kohlschreiber is 5’10” and often among the ATP ace leaders. But Giorgi is really in another La Liga here.

I am SO confused. Why is Nadal traveling to New York for this tournament and not playing the U.S. Open? Why go to New York at all if the primary reason not to play is the pandemic?
Lucy M.

• I’ve said this before, but this COVID-19 period has doubled as a great Tennis X-ray, everything covered with barium and laid bare. One of the many lessons: an entry list is not a “playing” list.

Jon, thank you for helping us stay connected to the sport we love during a time when we miss both the professional tours and our community of tennis mates. Because of its Q&A format, the Mailbag also functions as a sort of tennis community ("we" are not just happy to be reading an article someone has written, but participating in the writing), and we really appreciate that now.

Our question/comment this week has to do with the possible irony that players who were infected with COVID-19 through the Adria exhibitions might in some cases have a unique advantage. As players all over the world consider whether or not to travel, players who were infected might have reason to feel less vulnerable or invulnerable to infection. I realize they still have team members to think of, and also that being sick could have hurt their preparation and could even hurt their performance. (Grigor Dimitrov seems to have struggled to get well.)

Kudos to Frank M. for reminding us about "the wonderful Mohamed Lahyani" and his role in the longest match.
Sherrie and David, Ukiah, Calif.

• I appreciate that. And, yes, all hail Mo Lahyani—and that best-in-class bladder. And, yes as well, to your question. Some of the players impacted by the debacle that was * the Adria Tour are, of course, compromised and have no doubt done harm to their prospects. But others might have a perverse advantage. For one: there is the invulnerability to infection and comfort that comes with that. (At least in New York, people who have tested positive and recovered can go three months without another test.) I wonder if this doesn’t translate to a mental edge as well. I don’t need to devote as much psychic energy to COVID-19 when I know the odds of my getting it again are minuscule.

Anyone else wonder how Adria—which looks to be a mobile home brand—feels about this unfortunate association? Virtually every reference is preceded by a modifier on the order of: “irresponsible” or “ill-fated” or “catastrophic” or “super-spreading.”

• Andrew Miller, take us out:

Dear Mr. Wertheim,

Andrew Miller here (Maryland), a reader of your column. Thank you for continuing to plow through the Mailbag as we all become the equivalent of supply chain logisticians and corporate risk managers in our everyday lives.

I hope as a reader to continue to hear more about the material on the cutting room floor that rarely gets enough press. I have a sense of some of what we're all missing in this year of limited sports and everything, but it helps when sportswriters point it out to us. So much in this sport gets short shrift when the focus is the final box score of every tennis tournament—there are actual tournaments and players! I am reminded of this in re-runs of tournaments such as the Australian, where huge birds circle the courts and wildlife, rather than wildfire, sometimes takes center stage.

Thanks for your take on the U.S. Open and the asterisk. My sense is years from now few will pay attention to this, but players will have stories and hopefully less harrowing ones than what has stormed everyone's social media feed over the last half year. It shouldn't take away from the winners should the matches take place. It should also prove a test to play without crowds, which players are capable of doing but not necessarily at this kind of highest profile event! It will be memorable.

As to the players themselves and especially the big guys, I think you rescued a point earlier this year that given their legendary preparation this kind of surreal context of the pandemic and so much time on their own may help them—these players need no motivation if their names are Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer—they play for other reasons and rely on their legendary competitiveness to keep their desire red-hot. I don't think one of them will ever have settled for less than another shot at a big title if their bodies are willing. They often speak of tennis titles as if winning the slams are always within reach and it's always a pity only that they didn't make it further in one tournament or another. Their losses keep pushing them. I am sure they still have some big matches in them when given the opportunity. Given we're all in overtime in their careers as it is, all this talk of their slam chances strikes me as gravy as a tennis fan, even if to them it's another milestone that they somehow want more than their last trophy! Another testament to their legendary careers and competitiveness.