Mailbag: 2020 Moments of the Year and a Lookahead to 2021

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We’ll start with uncharacteristic sentimentality… This is going to do it for the year, not the most pleasant revolution around the sun. At the risk of getting all John Oliver here, good riddance to 2020.

But as I write this, Tennis Australia is presenting its 2021 schedule to the tour boards. (A week of his and hers tournaments before the event; a major that pays $100,000 in round one prize money; a standalone WTA event during the second week.) Both tours are scrambling to add events to the calendar and boost playing opportunities. The Miami Open is working on a creative solution. Indian Wells is, I gather, negotiating a possible move to the fall. Coaches are proposing to work with players for reduced fees. Top players—namecheck Novak Djokovic—are willing to reallocate prize money to benefit their less fortunate colleagues.

All of which is to say…rough as this year was, I would submit that—on balance—tennis did itself proud. In the sport’s never-ending existential rivalry, the Global Village beat the Tower of Babel. There were unforced errors (See: Adria Tour), but there were more winners. Three of the four majors went off as planned; and the fourth—the one with the good sense to buy the kind of pandemic insurance unlikely ever again to be available—gave the players a generous stipend. The USTA, long perceived as the antithesis of agile, put together a game plan and then executed. (This was after the grounds were used as an emergency hospital.) The French Federation made a power play for a fall time slot….a maneuver that looked downright shrewd by the time Iga Swiatek and Rafa Nadal were winning titles in glorious fashion.

Want more highlights? Dominic Thiem broke through as a major champion. Naomi Osaka found her voice. The WTA’s maternity leave policy paid great dividends. The Bryan Brothers exited gracefully. Venus, Serena, and Federer—combined age approaching 120—did not exit at all. Promoters resourcefully put on matches. Many of which were broadcast by the Tennis Channel, the rare media entity to lay off no workers during the pandemic.

One only hopes this spirit of innovation, this resourcefulness, this long-range thinking, this current of cooperation continues. Here’s to a happier, healthier and tennis-er 2021. As always, it’s been a pleasure talking shop with you all throughout the year. We’ll be back in 2021—what we can only hope brings a collective uptick in health, happiness and, of course, tennis.

***

Some housekeeping:

Last week’s podcast featured former Stanford coach Dick Gould and rising ATP talent Brandon Nakashima.

• The only Daily Show correspondent with ATP points to his credit…..Mike Kosta’s comedy special is out/up and it is a clean winner.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

On [your piece] for Tennis Channel: I saw that Mary Carillo did not like elbowing, I don't like it either. Nobody mentioned bowing on Tennis Channel as a greeting alternative. . .you can bow in saying to hello to somebody. No physical contact. Feel free to pass it along. I bet all of you at Tennis Channel have had people bow to you, somewhere in your travels.
—(Regrettably) Name misplaced

• Thanks. Here’s the piece the reader references:

I truly mourn the handshake and what it represents in tennis. You’ve been doing battle for hours, locked in this intense warfare against an opponent. No coaching. No pampering between rounds a la boxing. No caddy. No teammates. This is intense individual combat. And then, when it finally ends, who’s the first person with whom you have physical contact? The opponent you’ve spent all afternoon trying to defeat.

How do we replace that? It’s passable, but I don’t know anyone who loves the racket tap. (“Be very careful, Kyle Edmund!”) I rather like the bow, especially since there’s already tradition and etiquette and meaning surrounding it. There’s a nod to internationalism, too. All for it.

I’ve been watching reruns of Laver Cup matches on Tennis Channel. Too bad it’s not being played this year, because we can all agree (I think) that it’s a lot of fun. It’s great to see really top players playing singles and doubles in the much looser environment that it provides, and the team format adds an extra dimension.

But, is it fair to “The World”? Europe has all the higher ranked players, by quite a wide margin these days. In the first year (2017) the average ranking of the Europe team players was 6.3, compared to 32.8 for The World. In 2018, 7.3 to 19.5, and in 2019, 6.0 to 57.3 (yikes!), and in terms of matches, Europe won 8 to 4 in year 1, 7 to 4 in year 2, and 7 to 5 (close, but no cigar) in year 3.

Of course, thanks to the “game show” style scoring (later rounds count for more) it’s not decided till the last day, and The World could win if they could manage to get all their victories in later matches. Still, to quote Damon Runyon (or Hugh Keough?): “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

They don’t seem to have much chance, do they?
Gavin, NYC

New rule: any question with a Damon Runyon reference automatically gets included. (Aside: Mary Carillo appreciates a Runyon reference, too.) Yes, the “Europe-versus-the-world” distinction is…well, I wouldn’t say “unfair.” It’s not like Europe is inequitably monopolizing tennis. But, yes, it is an artificial line. And yes, the competitive balance is out of whack. The current ATP Top Ten features a grand total of one non-European. (It’s Diego Schwartzman.)

Maybe in time, the young Canadians will ascend. Or Kyrgios will get his act together. Or we can limit “Europe” to the fully paid up EU countries—freeing Djokovic and the Brits and Casper Ruud—and the dividing lines will seem lees arbitrary. Or better yet…the Laver Cup could include—wait for it— women. Of the WTA’s top ten, four come from outside of Europe. And Serena is ranked No. 11. Suddenly, we have a fair fight.

Back to Runyon: New York sports writer and author Damon Runyon (1884-1946) is often credited with adding on “—but that’s the way to bet.” Runyon himself noted that newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (1881-1960) had been credited by Bartlett’s Quotations, but Runyon believed the phrase to be from Chicago Tribune sportswriter Hugh Keough (1864-1912). In 1916, “F.P.A” had written: “As Hughey Keough used to say, ‘The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that is where to look.’” A 1912 Chicago Tribune headline reads: “The Race Is Not Always with the Swift, But That’s Where to Look.”

I hope you are well. I was considerably shocked when I read "that" comment (if it could be called that) in your last Mailbag. Not so much that trolls or fanatics like that exist, but that you actually published it on your mailbag. I guess it's a good way to subdue such activity, by killing it with kindness and professionalism. I find it an interesting notion that sport can create such fanatical ideals.

Do you think it could stem from an individual's admiration of a player twisting into a notion that if "their" player doesn't win, then they lost as well? Almost as if their belief system lost? Do you know any sports psychologists that study sport fanaticism?
Respectfully, Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• Thanks. I appreciate that. Yes, there’s quite a bit of social psychology here. Ed Hirt at Indiana is one of my go-to’s. One of his studies reveals that when their choices lose, superfans report not only lower self-esteem but less confidence in their ability to complete tasks having nothing to do with sports.

In other words, all those jokes, “There won’t be much productivity in Pittsburgh offices today after the Steelers’ defeat” actually has some basis in fact. (If you are interested, I can also point you to this book from Justine Gubar.)

Fandom is fascinating to me. It’s obviously deeply tribal and plays to evolutionary instincts and impulses. We see the performance (and perception) of an athlete or team as a referendum on ourselves, our country, our values, our community. While it’s easy to dismiss this or poke fun at the irrationality—remember the old ESPN line, “It’s not crazy; it’s sports”— but it’s the secret sauce of the sports economy (that benefits so many of us). If fans didn’t see their favorite player as only an athlete—and didn’t curse you for choosing someone else as MVP—we’d really have problems.

Love your columns and generally agree with you most of the time. But I don’t think Djokovic should be given a black mark for supporting a friend. Accusations should not automatically result in shunning. If a friend of mine were accused of a serious crime/transgression, I would definitely defend and support them. If it came to light later that they were guilty, I might in fact desert them. But until that day, I’d be there and I think it says something positive about Djokovic that he stands by his friends.
Lucy M.

• That’s fair enough. Lord knows—and a number of us within tennis were here recently—it’s an unenviable position having a colleague or friend stand accused of a bad act, and then deciding how/when/whether to express support. Like buying and selling a stock, you don’t want to bail too early; you also can get burned placing yourself in the ride-or-die camp.

As far as the Zverev allegations, some might suggest that his colleagues look at the details and specificity and data surrounding the low incidence of false abuse claims…and perhaps withhold public support. But, inasmuch as Djokovic is confident in Zverev’s innocence, I suppose you could applaud him for his stand and loyalty toward a friend.

Jon, Kudos to Tennis Channel for showing the classic matches this month. I’ve been enjoying them immensely. While watching the 1982 Wimbledon final between McEnroe and Connors, I realized that one reason I was particularly enjoying this match was the vantage point. For a considerable fraction of the time, the camera was low and behind the returner. This is far superior to the classic, birds-eye view we get today. You can actually see what it’s like to return a serve from these guys. Can you use your considerable influence to get the tennis directors at Tennis Channel and elsewhere to change their ways and show this vantage point, for, say, at least 20% of the time?
Mark Averett

• Thanks. Your point is well-taken. But do note that it’s a tournament call, not a network call. Camera positions are generally not dictated by networks, but by what positions the tournaments make available. (Often based on seats the tournament feels comfortable sacrificing). Each venue is different. (And, in fact, that lower angle at the AELTC is no longer in that same location.)

Happy Holidays! Love the ’bag. Hey in this year when racial inequality has come to the fore, is it a moment where tennis should be reconsidering its fundamental structure?

The four (very profitable, prestigious) Grand Slam tournaments are sited in four majority white countries. This offers a clear advantage in investing in player development programs, promoting the game and perhaps most obviously wildcard opportunities In those four countries. Arguably, this perpetuates unfairness and stifles representation from a diversity of countries and races that would ultimately grow the game to new populations. Is there any discussion of this dynamic among the game’s leaders?
Josh L.

• Hey, thanks. For a variety of reasons—tradition, history, baked in commercial relations—the majors are unlikely to move. And while, yes, the four countries are “majority white,” we descend the slipperiest of slopes if we start assigning events based on the racial makeup of the citizenry. Do the countries have a moral obligation to spread the wealth to a diverse population and demographic, bringing tennis beyond a “majority white” audience? Yes. And I would submit that they generally do. (Exhibit A: note the representation among the top American women.)

But your larger point is well worth considering. The host nations of the four majors have huge built-in, structural advantages. There is money for development and travel and coaching. There are wild card spots. There is an infrastructure which leads to challenger-level events. We sometimes say, “Wow, look at Serbia, or Spain and consider their outsized impact on the sport.” I’d respond that it’s doubly so given that those countries don’t have the good fortune of hosting a major.

Any word on what the New York Open is planning on doing now that Aussie Open is starting on February 8, 2021, the New York Open's scheduled start date? I fear that if it is canceled this year it will not be able to come back in 2022. Thanks and keep up the good work.
Terry

• Sadly the New York Open is not on the calendar for 2021. As for the future, read between the lines here. The contracts assumed by the new tenant are for the Islanders lease and the Long Island Nets lease. No word about tennis.

Jon, I don’t know if you have mentioned this, but Ash Barty is the WTA’s No. 1 player [but] she hasn’t played a match since February? Sorry, I know, COVID. But that doesn’t sit right with me. Who do you see as being the top five WTA players a year from now?
Thomas, Cincy

• The same factors that have enabled Barty to hold onto her top ranking make this question hard to answer. Who knows what the COVID—or, optimistically, post-COVID future—will look like. What events will be held? What will the rankings qualifications look like? We all like Swiatek but that’s a lot of points she still needs. We all like Serena but she won’t play enough (and will, of course, be 40). In a vacuum, I don’t think it looks much different from now. Maybe:

  1. Osaka
  2. Halep
  3. Barty
  4. Kenin
  5. Sabalenka?

Jeff Sohikian makes a number of fair points in his comment about Djokovic in the Dec. 9 Mailbag. But this—"I still highly doubt Fed or Nadal would’ve been DQ'ed in New York had they committed the same offense"—is flat-out silly, and I wish you'd called him out on it.
Srikanth

• Good point. Just to be clear…if Federer or Nadal or Billie Jean King or Marcelo Rios or any carbon-based racket-wielding organism had done the same, they would have been DQ’ed as well. This was not a close call. Consider: the most cited precedent—a player defaulted for inadvertently pelting someone—was Tim Henman. At Wimbledon. Enough said.

Re: the David Dinkins [piece] by Kristina Dell, thank you so much for including this; a lovely, lovely tribute.
Erica W.

• Agree. And here it is again if you missed it (scroll to the bottom.)

Shots, Miscellany

• Colette Lewis, naturally, has your Orange Bowl coverage.

American Ashlyn Krueger (Highland Village, Texas) won the girls’ 18s singles title at the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships. Krueger, 16, defeated No. 7 seed Jana Kolodynska of Belarus, 6-4, 6-4. Krueger, who received a wild card into the main draw, also won the Orange Bowl 16s singles title a year ago.

France’s Arthur Fils, who was unseeded, shocked the tournament's No. 1 seed Peter Fajta of Hungary, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, to win the boys’ 18s singles title. On Saturday, Fajta partnered with fellow Hungarian Zsombor Velcz to win the boys’ 18s doubles title.

• Say this about Giles Simon, he doesn’t mince words.

• RIP Dennis Ralston. Here’s a fine piece from Joel Drucker.

RIP Gordon Forbes.

• Leif Wellington Haase take us out:

Jon: There are a legion of politicians who, like the late David Dinkins, are tennis enthusiasts. Beyond Marat Safin, who was elected to the Russian parliament, the list of former players who have become elected politicians is pretty short. Naturally, there are power brokers like Ion Tiriac who exercise considerable political power without holding office.

John Alexander, an Australian MP and a former top ten player, would be high on the list. Richard Legendre, a former Canadian Davis Cupper, served as a cabinet minister in the Quebec assembly, Former UCLA college star Helena Konanz (Manset) who played the U.S. Open and Wimbledon became a naturalized Canadian citizen and narrowly lost a high-profile Assembly race in British Columbia in 2019.

Paradorn Srichipan made a high-profile announcement stating his intentions of running for the Thai assembly back in 2011. But he ran aground on Thailand's compulsory voting law...having failed to vote in 2007, it turned out that he was ineligible to seek office.

Individual sports in general turn out fewer politicians than team sports, partly because they tend to be dominated, relatively speaking, by iconoclasts who are less temperamentally suited to the kind of consensus-building activities that politics, at least historically, has required.

But with greater media attention and with top players now more likely to be part of extensive teams, I suspect there will be a lot more public figures that come out of the current generation of players. Novak Djokovic is one example. So is a naturally talented "people person" like the American Grand Slam doubles champion Rajeev Ram.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!