Mailbag: Looking Ahead to the U.S. Open Under Unfamiliar Circumstances

Author:
Publish date:

Hey everyone, a short Bag this week as we prepare for the Big Show...

• Our most recent podcast guest: Stacey Allaster, tournament director, on the 2020 U.S. Open.

• Next up: Lindsay (Liliuokalani) Davenport will swing by to try to make some anticipatory sense of the second Major. 

• We’ll have seed reports once the draw comes out.

• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will have the U.S. Open pregame show again. Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, Brett Haber and I will be live, beginning with the first day of competition on Monday, Aug. 31, starting at 10 a.m. ET, followed by Day 1 encores beginning at 12 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1.

• All hail Scott Price, who is, sadly, moving on from Sports Illustrated, where he set the standard for more than a quarter-century with stories like this one.

• Speaking of colleagues….here’s a Tom Perrotta revisit.

• We had some questions last week about the “social justice exception” being made for players. Note the regulations at the end of the column.

• Your read of the week: Joel Drucker on the new Alice Marble book and her remarkable myth-making machinery.

• RIP Glenn Bassett

• The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), today announced that it has granted 32 high school students a variety of college scholarships totaling $310,000. Each year, the USTA Foundation awards scholarships to deserving youth who have participated in USTA and other organized youth tennis programs such as the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, have demonstrated high academic achievement and require financial assistance for college matriculation. This year, for the first time, all 32 scholarship recipients are from NJTL programs across the country.

Onward...

Mailbag

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

Hello, Jon.

Do you think the sparse, or absence of, crowds might provide a slight boost to the lower ranked players when they play against the top seeds in Ashe Stadium? Like jazz musicians, the lower ranked players are accustomed to playing in front of only a few people and hearing a smattering of applause for even their best effort. The top seeds, by contrast, are used to a huge roar when they walk out, the hustle and bustle of the crowd in between points, and loud, sustained applause after they hit a great shot. Could the cavernous silence change the atmosphere enough to produce one or two upsets?
Earl Strickler, Houston

• I wish there were data here, a way to support empirically what common sense tells us. But, yes, your supposition is totally reasonable. Who is unnerved by the absence of crowds? Folks who are accustomed to playing in front of fans. If you’re acclimated to playing smaller events—or are not far removed from the juniors—a sea of empty seats is no jarring sight. You are familiar with generating your own energy. With the acoustics of emptiness. With the sightlines devoid of people. If you are a star….it must be like Bono playing in someone’s basement.

Intuitively, you expect there to be upsets galore at the 2020 U.S. Open. Cincinnati-on-the-LIE has certainly suggested as much. Players are rusty. Players are unmoored, quite reasonably, from the chaos of the last six months. Their fitness is uncertain. They are still recovering from COVID-19, in some cases. We can’t isolate variables and attribute X percent of upsets to the lack of ambiance. But could it be a factor in creating some dissonance for the seeds? Sure. This isn’t just tennis. Here’s Tiger Woods: "Anyone who has played in front of thousands of people, it is very different. Usually between 20,000 and 40,000 people screaming and yelling. That's always been one of the things I've become accustomed to.”

Jon, how much of a factor will Coco Gauff be at the U.S. Open, especially if there are no fans, which would mean less pressure.
Doug, West Virginia

• The short answer: I wouldn’t want to see her in my pocket of the draw; I also wouldn’t feed the hype maw and predict her to win more than a few rounds. She’s a dazzlingly bright prospect. But let’s be patient, create some time and space, and resist designating her as a contender. 

This fits nicely with a discussion I had with a few of you on Twitter over the weekend v/v Coco Gauff and how to cover her. Only the ogres in our midst are incautious v/v burdening her with too much expectation and pressure. She’s only 16. She’s handled everything—from the tennis to the offcourt—with astonishing poise. Nobody wants this story to take an unpleasant turn.

But….I also think it’s a disservice not to assess Gauff with honesty. On Saturday, Gauff lost her first match in Cincinnati 6-1, 6-3 to Maria Sakkari. To be clear: Sakkari is a rock-solid player; not a bad loss, per se. Still, there is no top 50 player in the world—regardless of age—who wants to enter a Major having lost decisively in early rounds the week before. On the same surface. At the same venue. Having beaten the defending champ at the previous Major. I noted this was an “inauspicious” prelude to Gauff’s U.S. Open and a few of you took issue with that. “Leave her alone,” was the sentiment. 

I don’t necessarily disagree. And I don’t necessarily have the answer. But I think we need to ask ourselves: how do we assess young players and what’s the threshold for criticism here? Do we just waive all critique until a player reaches, say, 18? Maybe. (As the father of a 16-year-old, I'm thinking of how uncomfortable I would be reading anything remotely pejorative about her.) Or can we—while treading lightly—treat Gauff like the top-50 player she is?

I'm confused why there's so many players in tennis unwilling to play here and yet golf (also has players from all over the world) had all of its top players at the PGA Championship in San Francisco two weeks ago and they are all in Boston this week. The world safer for golfers?
@sjwolves

• Fair question that a number of you have asked. I have a few thoughts. The first is simply logistical. And too often we overlook this when comparing golf to tennis. There’s a world of difference–literally–between an international tour anchored largely in one country and an international tour that threads to the globe. You also have one gender only, lots of private air travel, and fewer credentialed officials on site. Also, it’s much easier to distance socially on a golf course than at a tennis facility.

Anyone know if players out of #CInCyTENNIS can get a lot of court time for practice, or is it limited for Covid reasons? Seems like that will make a huge difference before the Open.
@meganfernandez7

• Eliminated players can still practice at the tennis center between now and the U.S Open, yes. This “isolation life” isn’t ideal. But in some ways having back-to-back events at the same venue—without even having to check out of your hotel room—makes life more convenient.

The optics of the Alexander Sascha Zverev....Whatever he's going by these days don't look good for tennis. He commits a grossly negligent and egregious act and he seemingly doesn't have to answer for it. Instead the good foot soldiers of the ATP Tour stand up and defend this reprehensible behaviour. … The fact that he thinks an explanation or an apology for that matter is beneath him speaks volumes of his character.
Cori Toronto, Canada

• Actions have consequences. So do inactions. I agree that Zverev’s irresponsibility was compounded by the lack of a public apology. Even the most cursory “sorry-if-i-offended-anyone” tweet would have at least doused some outrage and conveyed a message of, “I screwed up and I hear you.” When you don’t deign to acknowledge what is, objectively, gross and dangerous behavior, you make a bad situation worse and fling open the door for all sorts of analysis. 

Long as you brought him up…. a more pedestrian Zverevian concern: that recalcitrant serve. (I write this within an hour of having watched him fall apart against a valiant Andy Murray.) We talk about the serve as the cornerstone of a player's games. That’s not just true in terms of initiating points—the only stroke you, and only you, control—but it’s a mental keystone as well. You can almost see the psychological scar build as Zverev double-faults and then continues thinking about his errant serve in the games that follow. Until he straightens that out, no amount of time spent with David Ferrer enables him to win Majors.

Jon, I may not be seeing what I think I'm seeing, but it appears that there are little tables or stands -- one for each player -- in each corner behind each baseline on which the players place their towels. Why are those little tables or stands so close to each other? It looks like it would be very easy for one player to accidentally toss or drape a towel in such a way that part of it touches the other player's towel space. Or for a player in one of those corners to cough or expel respiratory droplets on the other player's towel. It's driving me nuts. (I cannot believe this is a question I'm submitting for a tennis mailbag, but here we are.)
Srikanth

• Here we are indeed. I just saw Karolina Muchova refer to herself as “a bit phlegmatic.” Love the vocab. And love that a phlegmatic player won’t have someone else handling her towel.

Here’s the text I reference above. Let’s see how this plays out:

Dear Players,

The ATP has worked together with the USTA and WTA on a joint approach related to a Social Justice Cause Messaging allowance applicable to the 2020 Western & Southern Open and 2020 US Open, with both events set to take place at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The letter below provides further details related to this initiative including application rules related to patches during matches, and pre and post matches.

We remind players that the placement and content of any and all “Social Justice Cause Identifications” are subject to advance approval by the respective Grand Slam Referee, ATP or WTA Supervisor depending on the event.

# # #

To: Western & Southern Open and US Open Competitors

From: Western & Southern Open Tournament Director and Tournament Referee; US Open Tournament Director and Tournament Referee

Re: Special One-Time Allowance for Social Justice Cause Messaging

2020 has been witness to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States and throughout the world.

The USTA is committed to promoting racial equality. We believe that if tennis is to thrive the sport must become more inclusive and must support people of color. Moreover, the USTA’s diversity and inclusion policy is one that espouses that anyone, from anywhere, should be able to play, compete, and participate in the sport, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference or any other trait. This has led to our 2020 US Open campaign which we have branded “Be Open.” The concept of “Be Open” is that when the world keeps an open mind, great things can happen and change can be accomplished. We are using this as a platform to support frontline workers, diversity and inclusion, and other important charitable initiatives.

We further believe that in these unprecedented times, athletes be given the ability to express their beliefs while on court. And although Black Lives Matter is the spark for this premise, the USTA feels strongly that permitting free speech for only one particular social justice cause is not free speech at all. The USTA is therefore equally committed to permitting athletes at the 2020 US Open to express their position and support on social justice issues such as Gay pride, gender equality, etc.

Therefore, for the 2020 US Open only, there will be a one-time waiver of the Grand Slam Rule Book Code of Conduct, Article III.2 relating to permissible identification on a player or player’s clothing, products or equipment, on court, before, during and after a match or at any press conference or tournament ceremony. This one-time waiver is specific to the 2020 US Open Tennis Championships only.

For both the 2020 Western & Southern Open and 2020 US Open Tennis Championships, players also will be permitted to have the following:

For pre-match interviews and walk-ons:

·Emblems, logos, symbols or written identifications expressing support of a social justice cause (“Social Justice Cause Identification”)

·Such Social Justice Cause Identification may appear on a player’s shirt, jacket or hat

·Such Social Justice Cause identifications are without size limitations

·Players have to remove any of this clothing (unless it complies with the identification requirements for during the match mentioned below) or hat before walking to the pre-match meeting

And / or during the match:

·One emblem, logo, symbol or written identification expressing support of a social justice cause (“Social Justice Cause Identification”)

·Such Social Justice Cause Identification may appear on a player’s clothing (sleeve and for sleeveless shirts on the front)

·Such Social Justice Cause identification may only be 3 square inches

Emblems, logos, symbols or written identifications expressing support of a social justice cause (“Social Justice Cause Identification”) without size limitation on the player's shoes

The placement and content of any and all “Social Justice Cause Identifications” are subject to advance approval by the respective Grand Slam Referee, ATP or WTA Supervisor depending on the event.

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary stated above, a Social Justice Cause Identification that in the Grand Slam Tournament Referee’s or ATP or WTA Supervisor's opinion, as applicable, constitutes hate speech, support for or opposition to any government or political campaign, or support of any other cause not in the best interest of tennis is prohibited.