Mailbag: 2020 US Open questions, tennis's successful return - Sports Illustrated

Mailbag: Questions Remain on 2020 U.S. Open Despite the Success of Tennis's Return

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Hope everyone is safe, sane and masked.

• Our most recent podcast featured ATP ascending star Jannik Sinner, who was lovely talking about being a teenage prospect in the age of Corona.

• Next: Stacey Allaster, the tournament director, will go through FAQ about the 2020 U.S. Open.

• Speaking of, we were told that—pointedly as a one-time exception—the tours and USTA have agreed to permit players to issue messages of social justice on their attire and shoes. There are all sorts of sizing restrictions (as there always are with patches) and the messages must be pre-approved. But this is a good move and it will be interesting to see what players take advantage and how.

• Thanks go to reader (and excellent tech journalist) Ashlee Vance for this tip. Watch Serena beat male players. Watch Federer convert that inside-out forehand on match point to win 2019 Wimbledon.

• We will reveal all the secrets of narrative non-fiction this Friday:

• Your read-o’-the week: Louisa Thomas on the fractured world of tennis during a pandemic.

This president’s message for the USTA Florida section is worth a few moments.

• Here's a cool event. And the price is right: “Richmond–One of America’s Best Tennis Towns” Zoom Event Featuring a Discussion with Rosie Casals about the Early Days of the Virginia Slims Tour. August 20 8:00-9:00 pm...Free but registration is required.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

On a day when College Football conferences postpone play until the spring, there is something very calming and exciting about seeing the greatest tennis player of all time (note I did not say "female") play a professional match in front of empty stands while cars, SUVs, and trucks, probably oblivious to what is going on, go by in the background. It's a reminder that we are not owed the opportunity to have sports for entertainment; we are lucky. Basketball seems to have figured out a way to do it right. The verdict is still out on baseball, but I have my doubts. But tennis has, with the exception of you know what, seemed to have gotten it right so far. Fingers crossed for the U.S. Open and the clay court season.
Duane

• Obviously this was sent last week. But I agree wholeheartedly. There was something unmistakably comforting and pleasing about tennis’ return. The WTA really has really done itself proud so far. And, for me, any guilt and unease melted away when I saw how (generally) responsibly the sport was comporting itself. The players have been cautious, in some cases even driving to events to avoid air travel. Sloane Stephens gets a special call-out for coining what should be the battle cry of 2020: “My health shouldn’t depend on others being responsible.”

Starting with World TeamTennis, continuing through these WTA events, tennis has been closer to the NBA than it’s been to baseball. There are health safety protocols. There is empathic behavior. There is an overarching sense that this is delicate and tenuous and if we lapse, the whole enterprise is screwed. If the USTA is being accused of excessively strict protocols, we say, “Good.”

Forgive the pun but I still hold my breath about the U.S. Open. Importing hundreds of people from all over the world—by air travel—does not sound like best practices in the Age of Corona. I'm open to the possibility that this will be a howling UNC-style catastrophe, flush with clusters and lawsuits and finger-pointing. But my unease goes down a bit each day….

I see that Jennifer Brady won the tournament in Lexington. I was surprised to see that and don’t know much about her. What can you tell us?
Evan, Mass.

• Full candor: I don’t know her especially well. I interviewed her on camera at the Australian Open and we spoke briefly about her hailing from the unlikely fertile tennis basin of central Pennsylvania. She spent a lot of time in Florida, especially at the Evert Academy; she was recruited by Stella Sampras (Pete’s sister) at UCLA and won the Pac-12 singles title as a freshman and was on the team that won the NCAA title. I wrote a few weeks ago that I put a lot of stock in players’ assessments of their colleagues. They tend to be strong judges of character and it’s revealing who is liked (and not liked) in the locker room and lounge. For the record, Brady is uncommonly popular with her fellow players.

As for her game, there’s a lot to like. She hits a huge ball, especially on the forehand side. Her conditioning has improved, which, of course, is code. She competes well and it’s encouraging that she started the year strong—hell, she beat Ash Barty in January—and then continued this level after the COVID-19 hiatus. After winning that maiden WTA title in Lexington, she is now in the top 40. Which ought to be good enough for a seeding at the U.S. Open. And with it, an assurance she won’t play a higher-ranked opponent until the third round. By which point there will be, it is noted crassly, $163,000 in prize money.

Matt Fitzgerald over at Tennis.com did a fine job with this interview. Learn more about Brady here.

Jon, I just saw that NINE of the ten highest-paid female athletes are tennis players, starting with Naomi Osaka. This is great news for our sport. Why aren’t you and other making a bigger deal of this?
Joe, Brooklyn

• Joe is referring to this Forbes story from the other day.

I’m always skeptical of the math on these ratings. (Kids, if you put your thumb-type phones down, stop with the TikTok, and gather 'round grandpa, I’ll tell you about the time that Anna Kournikova’s estimated net worth included her Lycos stock options.) So many endorsement contracts are incentive-based. So many players, including Serena, have equity stakes in start-ups. There’s no accounting for expenses. (Between travel and coaching and agent fees, there are significant costs for tennis players that, say, a WNBA player would not incur.) On this list specifically, where’s Megan Rapinoe, whose book deal and development deal alone are well into seven-figures?

But Joe’s point is well-taken. I’m not sure why he’s pointing the finger at me. It’s not really incumbent on the media to trumpet this. But, yes, tennis marketing types ought to be screaming about this story from rooftops. (While masked or with a negative COVID-19 test in hand.) We are creatures motivated by incentives. One way to get people playing your sport and get parents steering their kids to your sport: stress the potential financial rewards. When nine of the top ten wealthiest female athletes come from tennis, that—crass as it sounds—is a significant selling/buying point.

Thanks for all the updates and the Mailbag, it has kept me in touch with tennis more than anything else. I have a cynical question/thought regarding the U.S. Open: If USTA had an insurance policy against pandemics, would they still have held this year's U.S. Open? We keep hearing (from you and others) about how they intend to do this with best possible precautions and blah blah. About how they are being innovative and courageous in finding a solution....But, really, isn't it the hard truth that it's the monetary loss that is dictating matters here and everything else is secondary? If there were no money to lose, would there be a tournament? Is there a Wimbledon? And, what price health, eh? What price a tournament in name only, with a moth-eaten draw? Are we looking at a repeat of the Chess Candidates 2020 in Russia?
Arun Narayanan, Finland

• Thanks. A few months ago, I would have agreed. Initially. Anyway, the decision to try to play the U.S. Open was clearly financial—an attempt to minimize loss. The USTA’s great cash cow would have stopped grazing. The pandemic revealed how intensely the USTA depends on the U.S. Open; and how intensely American tennis relies on the USTA. Television relies intensely on live programming and would have paid for live sports. Most players rely desperately on prize money and would have played. And let’s stop here to note that it’s not much different in France and Australia. If the other majors had been endowed with a pandemic insurance policy, they, too, would have said, “See you in 2021.”

But as the USTA went about trying to come up with a—and here we use a trendy 2020 phrase, born on Zoom—workaround, something else happened. New Yorkers behaved like empathic, responsible human beings and took precautions. (As such, the COVID-19 rates here have dropped like a slumping player’s ranking.) Again: with a few glaring exceptions, tennis players have behaved responsibly when they have competed at organized events. In locations like Prague, Lexington, and West Virginia, events created quasi-bubble conditions and resulted in no positive tests.

So, yes, if the USTA had pandemic insurance, the event would have been cancelled. (If we had anticipated Covid in advance, we would have bought stock in Zoom, stocked up on toilet paper in January and spent the year in New Zealand.) But that’s not the reality.

Since I watched the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Nadal and Verdasco, I’ve been of the belief that it was the best men’s tennis match ever. I’m a big fan of Strokes of Genius and since you know the 2008 Wimbledon final incredibly well (another GOAT match candidate) I was wondering how you’d compare the two matches strictly in terms of tennis quality (for buildup and history Wimbledon 2008 is probably unparalleled)? Personally, I think Nadal-Verdasco had slightly better sustained quality from both, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!
Owen

• The full disclosure: I am hopelessly biased in favor of the 2008 Wimbledon final. Know that in advance. Know, too, that there are no hard, fast criteria for determining a “best match.” I would argue, though that:

1) Occasion matters. A Wimbledon final rates higher than an Australia Open semifinal—never mind a Wednesday afternoon session in Tashkent.

2) The principals matter. Evert/Navratilova. Borg/McEnroe. Federer/Nadal. Nadal/Djokovic. No disrespect to Verdasco but….

3) Greater context matters. At Wimbledon in 2008, you had 1 versus 2. A rematch of the previous two Wimbledon finals. Two titans who had just played in the French Open final. A theme of supremacy and invasion and fending off a challenge. Verdasco had never before beaten Nadal.

I don’t want to disparage the match or imply that fans that day in Melbourne were seeking reimbursement at the ticket window. Far from it. Every set was 6-4 or closer. Statistically it was a gem. You had these gyrations of momentum and clutch shotmaking and lefty-and-lefty action. You are totally justified in your position.

Do you think the winners of the U.S. Open and French Open this year will have a virtual asterisk associated with their wins? When looking at Margaret Court and Roy Emerson's records tennis purists always note that a majority of their GS wins came at the Australian Open which all the top players declined to participate in. Now the same situation will occur with the U.S. Open and French Open. So yes, the winner will be a Grand Slam champion but how should one treat the win.
Anath

• Brad Gilbert take note. Every reference to the word “asterisk” —or even Asterix—and you must make a contribution to New York Junior Tennis & Learning | NYJTL

Again, I’m skeptical of the suggestion that this title lacks legitimacy. Yes, especially on the women’s side, the field will be lacking many stars. But for years we’ve been saying: “The field is so deep.” If we really believe that, the absence of top players shouldn’t much matter.

I know you said you don’t like or dislike specific players. But is there a certain KIND of player you like?
Bruce T.

• I’m not sure I quite said that. I think anyone who follows a sport—even if duty bound to some measure of impartiality in the coverage—finds some players more appealing than others. Their games, their personalities, the way they approach the sport, their mode of being. I don’t have any personal animus against any player—except multiple convicted doping cheats—if that’s what you meant.

But to your question, sure, some players speak to my sensibilities more than others. I like one-handed backhands and serve-and-volleyers and players who project creativity. I like the undersized and overaged. The same way I like, say, Toni Collette or Sam Rockwell over the A-listers, give me the players who are reliable and honorable and never mail it in. (Even when the script lets them down.)

• Dave H., take us out!

Thanks for the recommendation on Steve Flink’s new book on Pete Sampras, as I just completed it. He did a really nice job of explaining that the recency bias of the Big 3 as the greatest male tennis players of all time is short-changing some of the legends of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is no way that the competitive geniuses of Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, and most of all Sampras, would have not taken advantage of the improved racquet technology, advanced training, and nutritional supplements to give themselves every edge they could find. Also, their ability to adapt to different surface speeds and player styles may have given them an occasional edge over the Big 3, who only ever have to play with and against one style. All you have to do is take a look at the trouble Nick Kyrgios gives the Big 3 when he’s focused, and you can see what kind of trouble a prime-Sampras would give them. Nick is a great player when he’s on, but a prime-Pete, relentlessly attacking and booming serves (and handling pressure and big points as well as anyone has), is 10 times the player and athlete Nick ever will be.

If Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka can each win three Slams in this era, what could a prime-Connors, Lendl and Agassi do? All of them are at least double the talents of Andy and Big Stan. Also, back when prize money and endorsements were a fraction of what players earn now, a top player had to play a much fuller schedule to earn enough to support their lifestyle, which hurt their chances at the majors as there was a greater likelihood of them being tired or injured. The Big 3 can play 12-14 tournaments a year and enter a Slam well-rested and peaking physically, which of course increases their chances of winning.

Lastly, Flink’s point about Sampras losing steam and motivation once he reached his goal of breaking Emerson’s record and reaching 6 consecutive years at year-end number 1, is critical when evaluating Pete. There was nothing left for him to reach for at that point of his career, which led to his early retirement. A motivated Pete could have won a couple more slams in his early thirties if he was pushed by someone else. And of course, how many slams would he have won in the era of 3 of the 4 slams being played on grass?

So although the debate of who is the GOAT these days is fun, it’s not fair to the legends who came before. Everything is different: money, surfaces, the schedule, the goals to target, strings, racquets, training, and nutrition. So when the next person says one of the Big 3 is the GOAT because they’ve been at number one the longest or have the most Slams, please remind them that they are playing a different game. It just means that they will have the most accomplished career. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are better than every other tennis player in history.