Mailbag: Handing Out the 2020 ATP Year-End Awards

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Hey everyone. Let’s start with the ATP awards for 2020, the strangest of years….

MVP: Dominic Thiem

A breakthrough season for the Austrian who won plenty—and lost the distinction of being best player never to have won a major. In 2020, Thiem won a Biggie (the U.S. Open), reached the final of another (Australia, beating Nadal en route) and made it to the ATP Finals final, taking down Djokovic in the process in the best match of 2020.

MVP runner-up: Novak Djokovic

It was another typically excellent year for Djokovic, the world No. 1. Like Thiem, he won a major (Australia) and reached the finals of another (Paris). He also banked two more TMS titles. But we can’t bring ourselves to give the MVP vote for a leading light who was defaulted from a major for “hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences,” and for committing so many regrettable off-court unforced errors.

Breakthrough Player of the Year

One of those awards that applies differently to different players. Do you confer it on a player like Diego Schwartzman, who started at No. 14 and crept into the top? Or, say, Casper Ruud, who liposuctioned his ranking, starting the year outside the top 50, and finishing (or Norwegian-ing) at No. 27?

Rookie of the Year

To the surprise of many, the guns, male and female—Felix Auger Aliassime, Coco Gauff, Amanda Anisimova—didn’t benefit appreciably from the pandemic. One star who shone in the reset: Jannik Sinner of Italy, who is already embedded in the top 40 and doesn’t turn 20 until the week before the 2021 U.S. Open.

Match of the Year: Thiem d. Djokovic, ATP Finals

Two top players, significant stakes, oscillating momentum, offense/defense, shotmaking, strategy. This match had it all. Except a live audience, which made the level of play and palpable drama all the more impressive.

Coach of the Year

First, a philosophical question: can this award go to anyone other than the top player? While we debate, how about Nicolas Massu, who rode shotgun for Thiem’s breakthrough and gets bonus points for convincing his man not to bail on the next Olympics.

Shot of the Year

We’ll take this one while noting the irony that Gael Monfils was on the other side of the net.

Comeback Player of the Year

Kevin Anderson and Stan Wawrinka come in for credit. Same for Yoshi Nishioka. But how about Andy Murray, whose struggles to return are vividly chronicled here. While there’s still work left, he played himself back to the point that he was beating Alexander Zverev—at the same site where Zverev would serve for the U.S. Open title three weeks later.

Doubles team of the Year

We’ll follow the rankings and name-check the Colombians, Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal. But let’s take this opportunity to acknowledge the retirement of the Bryans, Bob and Mike, who set the standard for nearly two decades.

Call of the Year

On the eve of the tournament, Larry Ellison, Ray Moore and the rest of the Indian Wells brain trust called off the 2020 BNP Paribas Open on account of COVID-19 concerns. Imagine the chaos had they tried to play through a growing pandemic.

Some housekeeping:

• It changes by the hour, but as of Wednesday morning, it looks like the Australian Open is going to start on Feb. 8. Here’s some details from Craig Tiley:

Players will have to quarantine for two weeks from January 15, but the Victorian Government has agreed to special conditions for AO participants—agreeing that they need to be able to prepare for a Grand Slam. There will be strict conditions, but after quarantine, players are free to stay where they want, go where they want, play lead-in matches and then compete in an AO in front of significant crowds in a great Melbourne atmosphere for the first time in many months.

We know it hasn’t been easy for anyone in tennis. We will also pay for charter flights, player and entourage quarantine costs, meals and accommodation. Player accommodation will be covered for their entire stay until they are finished at the AO. We will pay the full $71M AO prizemoney and are working with the tours on a redistribution with large increases to the early rounds and a likely first round purse of $100K.

Obviously Tennis Australia can’t do that without considerable financial pain. It won’t be easy. COVID-19 has hurt us financially this year similar to everyone else’s experience. As mentioned, to remain solvent we are going to have to take a large loan and line of credit. But we think it is critical for global tennis, the player group and the fans that the AO proceeds to help stave off any potential atrophy in our sport.

Amid so much ongoing global uncertainty, we think the clean bill of health in Melbourne is a unique opportunity for our sport, players and fans to show the world tennis is alive and full of hope and promise regardless of the pandemic.

Some additional details:


Australian Government Quarantine Conditions

– Players must undertake a COVID test within 48 hours of departure to Australia
– Players will arrive in Australia from 15 January (players should arrive by 17 January)
– Players will remain in quarantine for 14 days from the day of which the last member of the ‘player group’ arrives
– COVID testing will take place in the hotel room on days 1, 3, 7, 10 and 14
– From Day 2, following a Day 1 negative test result, players will be able to access practice and gym facilities
– Players will take transport from their hotel for scheduled training for a total of 5 hours per day (2 hours on court, 2 hours in gym, 1 hour on site nutrition/dining)
– All training, gym and nutrition/dining will take place at Melbourne Park and Albert Reserve Tennis Centres
– Following the 5 hour training block, players will return to the hotel. When not training at the courts, players must remain in their room
– Players will be able to take one coach with them to the tennis centre each day for training
– Players will be in cohorts of 2 players and only be able to practice with one other player from Day 2 (after one negative test) to Day 7, from Day 8 (after three negative tests) to Day 14 a maximum of four players in a cohort meaning they can practice with up to three other players and their support people. This is a Government directive to limit transmission within the bubble
– Once the 14 day quarantine period is complete, players will be able to move freely around Melbourne in a COVID free environment

We are still negotiating with the Government to improve the following conditions:

– ­Taking only 1 coach to the courts for practice, we are hopeful of increasing this to 2
– Increasing the size of player cohorts to 4 from Day 2
– Increasing the daily training block time from 5 hours.

Player Benefits for AO 2021

– Playing lead-in events and AO in “normal” conditions (ie no bubble) with crowds
– Freedom of movement and interaction post-Quarantine
– AO 2021 prizemoney of $71m
– 1st round prizemoney of $100k (15% increase)
– Increases to Qualifying prizemoney
– Flight costs to Australia covered (through charter) for player and entourage
– Quarantine accommodation covered for player and entourage
– Player accommodation covered for player (until exit from AO)
– Food during Quarantine (up to $100 per day per person) covered for player and entourage.

• I’m also told Indian Wells is seeking assurances that at least 25% capacity will be permitted.

• A few of you wrote about the divorce between Tennis Channel and YouTube TV. Here’s Tennis Channel spokesman Eric Abner: “We’re all disappointed that YouTube TV has chosen to drop Tennis Channel, which they’ve offered to their viewers since 2017. We encourage subscribers who want to continue to watch Tennis Channel to switch to AT&T TV Now or to other local television providers, especially as the new season begins and Tennis Channel becomes the exclusive home of both the ATP and WTA tours.”

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Hi Jon. Hope you are well. I've written to you before that Grand Slams should retain their best-of-five format. IMO, the best of five format makes the Slams "Grand"—the pinnacle to reach four times every year. But I think you've mentioned some room for compromise on this—best of three during the first week and then best-of-five. Regardless of whether it is a compromise or full on best of three, I do think we are going in that direction. When/If it does, do you think it'll be done after the Big Three retire as opposed to when one is still playing and trying to break or set the Slam record?
Duane W.

• And Andy Murray climbs on the turnbuckle, brandishing a folding chair, and enters the ring….I stand by my compromise solution. Best-of-three Week One of a major, so we preserve bodies and keep the schedule moving. Best-of-five in Week Two, so the majors retain their heft and the most physically fit players are rewarded. Let’s save the debate, such as it is, for another time.

For today, I offer this simply as an observation: as long as we have best-of-five, it really dilutes best-of-three wins, especially over superior players. Diego Schwartzman might beat Nadal in Rome; but can he do it over best-of-five? (He could not.) Zverev (or Dimitrov or Tsitsipas or now Medvedev) might be able to win London; but can they turn in a result like this at a major when the matches can be 40% longer? (So far, no.) Conventional tour matches become like pop quizzes, not full-blown tests. And on cue….

The ATP Finals, the so-called “fifth Slam.” I am sure Daniil Medvedev must be thinking this is definitely going to be leading to bigger and better things. Then I checked the last four winners of this tournament, and how they did after their wins. Andy Murray, 2016, no Grand Slam or Masters wins after he won. Grigor Dimitrov, 2017, no Grand Slam or Masters wins after he won. Sascha Zverev, 2018, no Grand Slam or Masters wins after he won (although he has at least appeared in a Grand Slam final.) Stefanos Tsitsipas, 2019, no Grand Slam or Masters wins after he won. Obviously, Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev are going to hopefully be part of the next generation of great tennis players, so I expect them to do well. Do you have any theories on why winning the ATP Finals means nothing for career breakthroughs?
Shlomo

• It’s not a knock on ATP Finals. I just question whether there is much predictive value. This event is played indoors, on a surface common to none of the majors—rain notwithstanding. It’s round robin; all other events of significance are, of course, single elimination. It’s best-of-three. The majors are best-of-five. Add in the fact that, in most years, it’s held as the coda when players arrive beaten up physically and spiritually, one foot already in the pool and...it’s easy to see how a win here doesn’t sling-shot the champion to Grand Slam greatness.

I am truly saddened by the complete silence of the ATP tour in the wake of the domestic abuse allegations against Zverev. Considering that half the viewing audience is female, perhaps it is time for the broadcast partners to put some pressure on the ATP. I, for one, will no longer watch any Zverev matches on TV or streaming. I'm curious if you have any inside information on anything that is being done about the allegations.
Lilas Pratt

• First, I will point out that the ATP has issued a statement. I am not aware of any sort of coordinated boycott—though your messages certainly suggest that Zverev has lost many fans and there is overall dissatisfaction with the ATP’s response.

A lot has been revealed here, starting with the need for some sort of firm policy. The ATP’s response—essentially: “Until/unless the cops get involved, don’t trouble us with this”—is less a moral shortcoming than it reveals another flaw of tennis’s structure. Too often we think of the ATP as a league. It is not. It is a 50/50 partnership between players and tournaments. It’s easy to see how an organization half-owned by players would be reluctant to push for an investigation here. But instead we’re left with this non-response to an allegation that would trigger alarm bells in most other sports.

Simple question: you are asked to buy and hold this stock for the next 12 years—careers of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Medvedev—what will it be? Btw, I am asking this question as I am watching Tsitsipas destroy Rublev in the round robin first set. You will have the advantage of knowing the results of this event by the time you may answer, so you will have a slight advantage. But it should not matter when we discuss a lifetime career.
Kasihbotia

• Tsitsipas won that match 7-6 in the third set….6-1, 4-6, 7-6! Curious why “Rublev” isn’t on your stock list? I’d load up on those shares, in part because I suspect they are still undervalued. I would buy or hold all of the aforementioned. But—if we are going to keep beating the analogy; and we are!—I would want some sort of index fund. My strong suspicion is that we need to prepare for a new kind of market. The Big Three have distorted “greatness.” Be prepared to return to a world where, say, five or six majors makes you a soaring-ly accomplished player. Three guys divvying up 58 majors (and counting) is a statistical fluke, the likes of which we will never see again in our lifetimes.

It will be interesting to see if another player comes up with a strategy to neutralize and capitalize on this trend of returning serve from the back wall of the court. Perhaps Kyrgios will average 50% underhand serves in a match with Nadal. What is the answer to your recent trivia question on the longest possible game streak that is not the longest of a standard three-set match? You said the answer is not 12. Seems that a 5-7, 7-5, 6-0 match could result in a 12-game streak from losing player in sets one and two, and then a 13-game streak for winner in sets two and three. I can’t see how either number could be greater.
Bill in NJ

• I got 13 as well. If you are down 0-5, you could win 13 games and take the match 7-5, 6-0. As for your other point, you frame it correctly. We come with a strategy to counter and neutralize and capitalize. If the opponent hugs the net, you lob. If the opponent leans left, you go right. If the opponent is pinned to the backcourt, you bring her up to the net. Why, when the opponents return standing so far back they lose wifi, is it somehow inappropriate to try an underhand serve?

Djokovic has tied Pete Sampras by ending the year with the No. 1 ranking six times, the only notable Sampras record that hadn’t already been usurped by the Greatest Generation. But one distinction remains firmly in Sampras’s grip, even after the Big Three have carved up all the spoils of men’s tennis for the better part of two decades: Sampras ended the year ranked number one six years in a row, besting Connors’s mark of five consecutive number one finishes. I recall reading back in the late 1990s that there was some locker room grumbling about Sampras’s focus on the year-end ranking. He played a heavier fall schedule than most top 10 players to maintain his point lead. I guess the thinking was that he had won more majors than any other active player, spent more time at No. 1 in the rankings, and there’s nobody on the horizon (little did we know) likely to exceed his accomplishments anytime soon. Why is Pistol Pete going to such lengths to end the year No. 1 again? Ironic that the one Sampras record that might endure after the Big Three have hung up their racket bags is that six consecutive number one finishes.
Teddy C., NYC

• Good one. All hail, Pete Sampras.

Lot of interesting storylines for this Mailbag which you might get many questions: Alexander Zverev allegations; Sam Querrey controversy; eight doubles teams had a chance for No. 1 spot at ATP Finals, Daniil Medvedev 5-0 at ATP finals with beating top-three seeds, Australian Open and warmup tournaments scheduling issue. I was wondering since elections season is still going on with the Georgia Senator runoffs do you know sports stars (especially tennis players) who hold or held prominent positions in their country's government? Three come to mind with Marat Safin, Manny Pacquiao, and Jesse Body Ventura.
Sunny S, Philadelphia

• Interesting. There are some politicians who played tennis. Former Louisiana Senator John Breaux for one.

But beyond the names you suggested, I am struggling to name tennis players who turned to politics. If there’s a Bill Bradley type, it’s eluding me.

If you will indulge this lapse into politics, I have been thinking about Donald Trump in a tennis context. You picture him losing a match point and then walking to the chair, arms aloft. His opponent looks on, perplexed, as they meet at the net.

Biden: Nice match. Well played.

Trump: I won.

Biden: Um, what do you mean? I got to six games in both sets. You only have four.

Trump: Yeah, but it was rigged.

Biden: Really? You’re supposed to say, nice match. Then I move on. That’s the norm.

Trump: It was rigged. My fans say so, too.

Biden: Rigged how?

Trump: There was that point in the third game. I expected to hit that backhand on the line. This time I did it, and it was called out. Pretty suspicious.

Biden: So…you’re challenging this whole outcome because you think you got a bad line call early in the set?

Trump: Oh, that wasn’t the only one.

Biden: So you’re not conceding?

Trump: Never. Hawk-Eye is going to overturn for us. Hear that? My fans are yelling, “Stop the steal.”

Biden: Actually, we don’t usually do this. But we have the Hawk-Eye data here. The ball was out. The system worked. Go home, everyone.

Trump: Not so fast. Hawk-Eye technology was rigged, too.

Biden: Who exactly rigged Hawk-eye?

Trump: The Venezuelans or the Cubans….

Shots, Miscellany

Read this piece by Tom Perrotta if you have not already.

• Thanks, Helen of D.C., for this primer on Roland Garros.

RIP David Dinkins, a true fan of the sport.

• Here’s a piece on John McEnroe’s wife, Patty Smyth.

• What’s Mats Wilander up to? Funny you should ask. He’s entered the wearable technology game.

• Big tip of the cap to Eric Schuster, a pros’ pro, to whom the sport owes a big debt of thanks.