Mailbag: What Will the Tennis Calendar Look Like in 2021?

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Hey guys, hope everyone is well, safe and sane….

• On the most recent podcast Max Eisenbud, head of IMG tennis, talks shop and looks into 2021.

• This week, we’ll speak with longtime Stanford coach, Dick Gould, and a recent college player and now ascending ATP player, Brandon Nakashima.

• Since a few of you asked about it, here’s the Viola Davis piece.

• Hang around till the end, a lovely piece from Kristina Dell, a tribute to David Dinkins.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Jon: When is the 2021 ATP schedule due to be released? Will we be getting tournaments before the Aussie Open?
@sportsnutt1136

• What is this word you use, “schedule”? We’ll see how this all shakes out. So many variables. So much cost-benefit analysis. The tennis mantra of 2020 (and beyond): “Tennis’s­ great virtue—its international nature—is a liability during a time of global pandemic.” Another mantra (one that, to his credit, has been a central plank of Andrea Gaudenzi): tennis needs to become less reliant on ticket sales and more reliant on media, sponsorship and other sources of revenue (that are scalable and immune to social distancing).

Anyway, this is the encapsulation of a moving target. Every hour, the news changes. But per my sources, here’s where we seem to be at the moment:

  1. The first week of the year is up for grabs. There probably will be some events. (I’d heard that Delray, for instance, was interested in at least investigating a move to this slot.)
  2. Australian Open qualifying will likely take place outside Australia, with the winners potentially chartered to Melbourne.
  3. Two weeks of quarantine during the second half of January.
  4. Multiple events in Melbourne the first week of Feb. including—potentially—a streamlined ATP Cup. The ATP wants the licensing money from Tennis Australia. Tennis Australia wants to stage a credible tune-up, generate some buzz for the AO, and appease its partners. The players want the prize money.
  5. The Australian Open starts Feb. 8.
  6. A potential second event in Melbourne Feb. 15, for players no longer in the AO draw.
  7. A grab bag of events for the second two weeks of February
  8. A “postponement” of Indian Wells. Both tours would like to fill these weeks, whether it’s a clay event in South America or moving Delray here. Here’s hoping Indian Wells finds another date on the calendar.
  9. Conflicting reports on Miami. But for now, it’s on. On the one hand, it’s held at a football facility and it’s not cheap to retrofit the stadium, lay down courts, etc. On the other hand, big opportunity with no Indian Wells.
  10. Q2 should be better as the vaccination period is underway, travel restrictions should start to lift, and there are no indoor events.

Two more thoughts:

  1. Here’s an unsolicited suggestion that sounds fanciful—and to some extent, is—but the tours might seriously consider: Contact Dana White and the UFC and consider staging an event like Indian Wells on Fight Island, the spit of land near Abu Dhabi. There is already a testing protocol in place, a bubble blueprint and a government policy. There is already a broadcast infrastructure. There have been enough events staged there that we know it works. It’s convenient for most players and appealing for sponsors. As a stopgap goes, you won’t do much better.
  2. If I am a small event, do I consider offering to sell my week to Indian Wells this year? There’s not much availability until post-Wimbledon. But by then it’s too hot in the desert. But if I’m a struggling tournament after the U.S. Open in September of October, maybe you offer your week this year?

Hatred is illness you know? As years go by people will love and appreciate Djokovic more and more but your Utah type of cult will be both forgotten and forbidden. So, oblivion is your destiny cuz nobody will always be nobody. And be envious. Suck it tennis gay lobby. Puppets….. Go f--- yourself
Aleksandar Valevski

• We say it once and we’ll say it again: You can take shots at Utah cults. Sling your arrows at the “tennis gay lobby,” if you must. But we draw the lines at disparaging puppets. What, you ask, triggered this bilious correspondence? After some well-deserved flowery praise, we suggested that a player who was defaulted from one major for pelting an official, presided over a COVID superspreader event, was at best ambivalent about anti-Vax stance, and supported a colleague accused of domestic violence…was perhaps not a choice candidate for a Player-of-the-Year-Award.

  1. At some point, we have to get social media under control. We all know the psychology and neurochemistry. We’ve all seen Social Dilemma. We all understand the defects. But how did we get to a point where, unironically, writing to a stranger “oblivion is your destiny”—over a tennis award, no less—is somehow acceptable?
  2. As we’ve said before, Djokovic remains this fascinating contradiction. If he were simply a bad guy, it would be easy. If he were indifferent to criticism, Lleyton Hewitt style, it would be easy. But he is neither. As one top coach put it recently to me, “Novak thrives on conflict; and yet he wants desperately for everyone to like him.” That, friends, is a tough needle to thread. But it makes for fascinating theater.
  3. Last week, we got another glimpse into Djokovic’s complexities. There were a series of calls between Tennis Australia, the ATP, and ATP players. I’m getting this from a single source, so know that in advance. But I was told Djokovic was incredible. Alone among the top players, he came prepared with data and logical arguments. His overriding point: it’s great that there will be a 2021 Australian Open. But now that the tournament was effectively colonizing the first SEVEN weeks of the calendar, what was Tennis Australia going to do to make the players whole? What opportunities was TA providing to lower ranked players?
  4. This was the opposite of self-serving. Djokovic has no vested interest in the postponement of the New York Open or the challenges now confronting, say, the Santiago event. But—whether it’s because he’s seen his brother struggle or other Serbian players struggle or he simply feels an obligation as the world No. 1—he was, to his utter credit, lobbying for the rank-and-file.
  5. What a pity that these genuinely good acts are so often undercut by unforced errors. Last month, he agreed that the ATP ought to have a domestic violence policy; days later, he fired off a tweet supporting a colleague accused of domestic violence. Last week, at least in my social silo, I heard far more about respected veteran calling out Djokovic for playing politics than about Djokovic advocating, selflessly, for the rank-and-file.

With regard to Pete’s record of finishing No. 1, I think it’s worth noting Andre had all but locked up the No. 1 ranking in 1995 but decided not to play the rest of year after losing the U.S. Open final. One point I would really love to hear your opinion on which no one brings up: hasn’t the Big 3 had a big advantage in winning Grand Slams due to the top 32 players being seeded? Early round upsets were much more common in the era of Edberg, Becker, Sampras, Agassi etc. The Big Three typically don’t have a tough match until the semifinals, if that. It has to play a role.
George McCabe, New York, N.Y.

• Interesting. We often talk about the advantages conferred on the Big Three. They have entire teams surrounding them, a function of the vast wealth they have earned. They don’t fly commercial. They have superior equipment. They have a pressure valve of knowing that their careers will not decline in their 20s.

George is right. Another generational advantage: there are 32 seeds, not 16, at the majors. In other words, there’s no chance of playing a top 30 opponent until the third round. And no chance of playing a top 16 player until, naturally, the round of 16. (Aside: I was once told the impetus for the move to 32 seeds came when Venus Williams, seeded No. 2, fell to Barbara Schett, ranked 17, in the first round of the 2001 French Open.)

I’m not sure it’s a huge advantage. But it’s not nothing. Not only does it mean the quality of opponent was, potentially, higher in the early rounds for generations past. It means the players of Sampras/Agassi and earlier didn’t have the psychic assurances that they would be halfway home before facing a top 16 opponent. On that subject, here’s Bill in N.J.:

I just watched one of my all time favorite matches, Federer vs. Sampras, 2001 Wimbledon, Rd of 16. Top 10 observations that stood out:

  1. Federer was lousy on break points, no different than today, yet still managed to win.
  2. Serve and volley on virtually every point on grass is so entertaining, especially with two great shot makers.
  3. Much like golf, the technology advancements in equipment has resulted in a complete change in how the game is played at the professional level.
  4. Each guy had a towel that they used when walking while changing ends. Almost never used during the games. Fed used wristbands and Sampras used edge of his shirt to whisk away moisture.
  5. Peter Fleming was the Tennis Channel announcer. John McEnroe was visible in the bunker—I guess it’s true that Fleming followed him around the world.
  6. How did Federer lose to Tim Henman in the quarters?
  7. Sampras was only 29, but looked like an “old” 29. Even with saying that, his game was built to play on grass.
  8. Two of the best “effortless” serves in the game. Neither guy would ever be described as “workmanlike.”
  9. My personal pet peeve: “pace of play.” These guys are two of my all-time favorites in this category. Both guys play like they’re double-parked. A 37-minute, 7-5, fifth set. When points ended, each guy got ready immediately. Sampras one bounce and Federer one or two, and then a serve. Even then, Federer tapped balls that were out of play, to the ballboys, to keep things moving.
  1. Neither guy had a “team” or high visibility coach, that became part of the match. Neither guy was wandering the court, looking at a player’s box for a signal, nor asking for a courtside delivery of a pink shake. It was as it’s supposed to be, one-on-one, and you figure things out by yourself during the match.

• Thanks. I love that. INCLUDING a 37-minute, 12-game fifth set. Keep it moving, boys…

I’ll admit it was a close call between Djokovic and Thiem but I believe the Djoker’s two Masters 1000 titles should give him the edge. I still highly doubt Fed or Nadal would’ve been DQ’ed in New York had they committed the same offense. In a way the Djoker is a breath of fresh air playing with and showing emotions even though his game is more robotic than certainly Feds. His efficiency and coolness in pressure situations is only approached by Rafa, Bjorn, and Mr. Sampras. His ability to beat Fed on Fed’s favorite surface-grass and to beat Rafa at times on clay-certainly more than anyone else is what makes him so great when in form. His lows are possibly lower than the other 2 in the Goat debate, but his highs when at the top of his game is paramount. Your tennis articles are much appreciated.

P.S. It sure is and has been great in watching these three all-time greats battling it out while pushing the envelope of long-term greatness to an unprecedented level.
Jeff Sohikian

• Let’s start with Jeff’s second point. Periodically we should just pause and reflect that we have three active supernovas—three different players from three different countries with three different styles—who have 20, 20, and 17 majors. This combines excellence with rivalry, which is sports distilled to its essence.

With the news that Tennis Channel now has exclusive coverage of the ATP tour, can you tell us whether the ATP’s TennisTV will still be an option for people who don’t have a cable service that includes Tennis Channel? Or has TennisTV been nixed? (P.S. You television folks really make it difficult to be a tennis fan.)
Thanks, Jen, Seattle, Wa.

• Over to you, Tennis Channel spokesman, Eric Abner: “Our new agreement gives us linear (i.e. television) exclusivity in the U.S., but not digital. We’ll have digital coverage, but so will TennisTV. I don’t know what the ATP’s plans are schedule-wise and I don’t want to comment on their behalf. As for TC, we’ll continue to make as much ATP/WTA matches available on television and via streaming next year as we can. We feel Jen in Seattle’s pain and appreciate her fandom. The TV business can be confusing sometimes. But we think we’ve been trying to make it easier for tennis fans to watch the sport they love since we came on the air in 2003. Think back to televised tennis in 2002: weeks-long breaks between coverage; tennis bounced among various channels; delayed matches instead of live; the very end of tournaments vs. their entirety on TV – it was hodge-podge. (It’s not those other channels’ fault; tennis needed a fully dedicated television network without other commitments to bring the sport to its fans the way it exists in real life.) Starting in 2021, for the most part, everything will be in the same place throughout the year, live with same-day encores and streamed on-demand matches day after day. We hope Jen and everyone else who loves this sport are along for the ride with us. They’ll be able to leave it on Tennis Channel and never miss a beat.

Your Mailbag readers may be interested in reading about “The Sarah Fuller of Tennis” from the University of Georgia tennis team back in the day or perhaps we should call Sarah “The Becky Birchmore of Football”
Randy Walker

• Thanks. Reminds me of this Colette Lewis piece. The SEC always is on the cultural vanguard.

I read with interest the question that was asked about politicians who were tennis players. In Australia one of our current members of federal parliament is John Alexander. He was a former Grand Slam doubles winner and top 10 singles player. He was also a long-time commentator and Fed cup captain. This is not uncommon in Australia as we have had a few sports people turn to politics in retirement.
Ryan, Rockhampton, Australia

• Thanks. Speaking of Australia and politics, 1) anyone else catch Malcolm Turnbull on the tail end of last week’s Political Gabfest? 2) This No Challenges Remaining podcast v/v Australia and COVID is worth a listen.

Shots, Miscellany

Here’s a lovely piece from Raj Tawney.

• Javier Palenque is a fierce USTA critic. You can agree with him. You can disagree with him. But he deserves to be heard.

• The United States Tennis Association (USTA) today announced the appointment of Marisa Grimes as the company’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Grimes, who will begin her new role in January 2021, will report to USTA CEO and Executive Director, Michael Dowse.

• The USTA today announced that recent data and information surrounding racquet sales and participation have shown that the tennis industry has shown strength amid the pandemic. According to the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) Quarterly USA Wholesale Equipment Census, racquet sales in the entry-level category have seen significant growth in Q3 ’20 v Q3 ’19. This coincides with the timing that much of the country began to open for business following the initial wave of COVID-19. The increase is seen in both the youth and adult demographics, with shipments for youth racquets having seen an increase of 40.9% and shipments of adult racquets under $50 (entry-level) seeing an increase of 43.3%. For all price points, racquet shipments are up 37.7% in that same time period. In addition, the Physical Activity Council has reported that participation has increased to 10.08% of the U.S. population playing tennis in Q3 ’20 v 6.75% in Q3 ’19, an increase of 49.33%. This number falls in line with the increases in racquet unit shipments.

• This week’s unsolicited book rec, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.

• Take us out, Kristina Dell…..

David Dinkins' Tennis Clan
THE ACE MAYOR

One early Saturday morning almost 20 years ago, I showed up to Roosevelt Island Racquet Club with my twin sister, Alexandra, and across the net was New York’s 106 Mayor, David Dinkins. He introduced us to his partner, but really, no introduction was needed. “Meet Virginia Wade,” he said. “I think you all know each other.” Wade and my father had played together on the tour some sixty years ago. The winner of seven Grand Slam singles and doubles titles extended us a hug as a bead of sweat ran down my side. David usually took me as his partner, but the Wimbledon winner was a better bet. “I didn’t realize you were bringing a ringer,” I joked. David responded: “What? You two can’t beat two old people?”

We couldn’t. We split sets. I was laughing so much I forgot all about my sweaty palms and shaky forehand. Sure, I didn’t play great, but if the two celebrities on the court didn’t care what they looked like in front of the small crowd watching through the glass window why did I? During one point, Alexandra hit David with an errant overhead and almost knocked him down. He drop-shotted her on the next point, raising his hands in the air when the ball bounced twice. “That’s for not letting the two old people win,” he said.

I came along well after David’s time as New York’s mayor, but I came to see that he approached tennis the way he approached politics: Not as a game to be won, but as a way of connecting with people. David was ultra-competitive, and enjoyed winning as much as anyone, but his purpose was joyful. I’m biased, to be sure, but I’m distressed to see that this joy, this sheer delight in people that David had, is nowhere to be found in the many obituaries that ran about him. The stories they tell, all about Crown Heights or crime, don’t capture the whole man, or what inner strength he possessed that propelled him from a three-time loser in the Manhattan borough President race (for years, when people asked him what he did for a living, David would respond “I run for Manhattan borough president”) to finally winning that job and then serving as mayor during four critical years in the city of New York. I used to tell him, “You’re way too nice to be a politician,” and he’d laugh and say, “Nahhh,” but he totally was.

My tennis adventures with David began when I ran into him at a memorial service commemorating Arthur Ashe’s death and he asked if I was playing tennis lately. He had seen me play a college match against Columbia and I often ran into him at tennis parties. When I said, “no, not much,” he looked physically pained. He invited me to join him for doubles the following weekend. That kicked off a decades-long friendship that found me covering the backhand side—and often the whole court—with the mayor as my partner many weekend mornings. “Yours!” he’d yell, as I’d scramble to chase down another drop shot meant for him. When I would complain if I missed it, he’d tell me I was being ridiculous: “You could play tennis with a broomstick.”

If you were at all involved in tennis in New York, you knew about Mayor Dinkins’ undying love for the sport. If you have ever played at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club, you may have noticed the 1982 French Open draw pasted on the wall that had David losing in the finals to Bjorn Borg in a fifth set tiebreaker (a gag gift from the club owner.) David was known to wake up at 3am to watch Roger Federer play an obscure European tournament on the Tennis Channel. He would light up when his good friend, Monica Seles, called him “coach.”

On the tennis court, David learned as much from Mark Clemente, the Columbia University tennis standout, as he did from elder statesmen like “The Judges,” as he called them: George Daniels, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York and O. Peter Sherwood, the Court of Claims judge, made a formidable team. David might study Mark’s cross-court forehand, but he would also talk to Mark about what he did over the weekend or what classes he liked. Connecting with young people helped David stay young; it helped him relate to the students he taught in his Columbia University seminar. I, like many of David’s tennis regulars, gained a mentor and a good friend. David officiated my wedding, would rarely miss my kids’ baptisms or birthday parties and when my then three-year-old was obsessing over learning to play the drums, David had his friend deliver a large African bongo drum to our doorstep Christmas morning. He even hopped a train to D.C. for my grandmother’s 100th birthday party. “We old people have to stick together,” he used to tell her.

David’s love for people was impenetrable. His small acts of kindness were legendary. I remember one morning walking to Court #1 with David, and the janitor of Roosevelt Island Racquet Club ran up and hugged him, thanking David for visiting him in the hospital when he had been gravely ill. They had become friends simply because David was a club regular. Through David, I acquired tennis partners of all ages and all backgrounds, and it turned out we had a lot more to talk about then just tennis.

I played with David well into his 80s, until he finally hung up his racquets a few years ago. I met everyone in David’s tennis circle, many who are now my best friends. It’s a close-knit group, complete with aging pros and 23-year-olds, bound together by a passion for tennis and the Rolodex of one famous, lovable guy. In the early days, I didn’t understand why everyone rushed onto the court for weekends with David, many playing far worse than they did in their prime. Now it’s hard to imagine my life without the Mayor, as one of “his children,” as he loved to call us. I’d be sitting on the bench during a changeover when he would ask if I’d called my grandmother lately and then take out his cell phone so I could dial the number. It’s not quite unlike the feeling I got from playing on a college team. It’s the friendships and everything in between the points that I miss most: the chats during changeovers, the diner brunches, the pit stops at Gristedes where David would emerge carrying two rotisserie chickens, insisting it would be the best one I ever ate.

I know I’m not alone in saying that all of David’s tennis friends are feeling the loss of one of New York’s treasures. I’ve never met someone who loved people, kids and tennis more and it showed in everything he did. He taught us all to lose gracefully, to dress impeccably, to tease lovingly, to work hard, but always help others along the way. So while this loss hurts, I’m grateful that I had so many wonderful years with David and his amazing family and friends. I know he’s looking down from above, cheering us all on, and encouraging me to run down one more drop shot. I can hear his voice saying, “Yours!”