Mailbag: How Will the Events of 2020 Impact Tennis in 2021?

From the conduct of ATP players, to schedule changes, injuries and more, last year's headlines are already influencing this season.
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Hey everyone, welcome back and Happy New Year.

• On our most recent podcast, Jamie and I wrapped up 2020 and spun forward.

• Sam Querrey gives his side of the story w/r/t his escape from Russia.

Your updated ATP Calendar.

• Same song, verse 5,329 of “an international sport ill-suited to a global pandemic…. “Legal dispute at quarantine hotel threatens Australian Open”

• Discuss: is global pandemic not redundant?

• Did a spot with Gill Gross, a Jannik Sinner-style rising star of the tennis media.

• Here’s a CNN piece on Sofia Kenin, who’s now represented by GSE Worldwide.

Farewell, Kevin Mitchell.

Tennis Channel has your Delray Beach Open coverage this week.

Some quick Q/A to get us going….

Mailbag

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

Jon, I noticed that in your 2021 predictions you left out a prediction I was hoping to see. How many majors will Novak Djokovic win??? All of them, I hope.
Emily B.

• Good question. I would say two. He is the overwhelming favorite in Melbourne. (Nadal-in-Paris is a joke. Remove that from the equation and Djokovic-in-Melbourne might be the next dominant reign in men’s tennis history, more so even than Roger-in-SW19.) You figure Nadal is the favorite at the French. And then, between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Djokovic snags one.

Speaking of Djoko-prognosticating, it will be interesting to see where he comes down when asked, inevitably, about vaccination. This will, increasingly, become a hot-button issue in 2021. His—charitably—ambiguous stance on vaccination in 2020 was among his off-court unforced errors. Let’s hope he cleans that up.

Long as we’re here, heard from multiple sources that the COVID conduct of the ATP players in 2020—presumably, the Adria Tour, the absence of social distancing, Zverev playing a match and then casually referencing COVID-like symptoms, the mask skepticism—were a complicating factor when events and governing bodies such as Tennis Australia have negotiated with governments. I did a radio show in Melbourne recently and had question after question thrown at me about whether ATP players would comply and whether they would take the vaccine if offered. Moral of the story: actions have consequences. And the irresponsibility of a few can really imperil the enterprise for all.

Given postponement of Indian Wells and dubious status of Miami, and the two-week quarantine required in Australia, would it not make sense to play one or, better yet, two Masters 1000 tournaments in the weeks after Australian Open? You could take a week off with just a 250 and then play two Masters 1000s in consecutive weeks. They can be non-mandatory like Monte Carlo. If miraculously the rest get played, we have 11 this year and make up for two of the six missed last year. More likely, it makes getting nine in plausible.
Terry Martin, Belmont, Mass.

• I agree with the larger point. Let’s try to play as many big events in 2021 as possible—safely, responsibly—and we can worry about make-goods and reparations later. Happily, I’m not sure your solution is called for. As it stands, Miami is on the books to be played at its usual time and place. (How many fans will be accommodated—in Ron DeSantis’s Florida—is an open question.) I’m thinking the European events go off as planned. So we’re pretty much left with finding a spot for Indian Wells, which, one hopes, comes before or after the China swing in October.

One point to bear in mind: Masters 1000 tournaments are differentiated from other events in part by the available prize money. The total financial commitment can be as much as $10 million. The winners can get in excess of $1 million. There are only a few events and sponsors and locations that can accommodate that. A few of you suggested turning other events into 1000s for this year. (“Why not make Rotterdam a 1000?”) It’s a reasonable idea, but I’m skeptical that many events could come up with the necessary funds, especially in pandemic time.

Your podcast on 2021 storylines mentioned the surge of interest in recreational tennis during the pandemic and that it’s on the USTA to take advantage of it. I’m glad you brought this up. Do you know if the USTA is doing anything in particular to seize this opportunity? I think they had layoffs last year—does this hurt their ability to capitalize? 

Also, consider this a public plea for the USTA to reconsider reducing league singles, which it planned to do for 40-plus divisions even before the pandemic. How about helping to develop more singles players instead? Some doubles players are interested in singles but don’t want to step up and play in a league format for the first time. (Props here to the Central Indiana Tennis Association for creating singles ladders to fill the gap—and guess what, participation was strong. The Tennis Rungs app deserves an endorsement.)
Megan F.

• We’re all for the Tennis Rungs app….The USTA gets some sort of Pfizer criticism-vaccination for a while. Staging the 2020 U.S. Open against those odds was an Iwo Jima moment. Mike Dowse—the USTA CEO and executive director who got more than he bargained for—earned his keep.

But, yes, it would be great if the USTA could continue overseeing—even accelerating— this uptick in participation and offset some of these lamentable cuts. I always go back to something a former USTA board member once told me. “Everyone wants to be part of the fun sporting event that spits off hundreds of millions in revenues. Sitting out in the sunshine and sipping champagne and eating lobster rolls Labor Day weekend and posing with celebrities? Who wouldn’t want that? That’s easy. What’s harder is finding people who want to roll up their sleeves and get participation up, especially among the kids. The USTA has too many execs in the suites and not enough in the grassroots.”

I would like to add a fifth possible answer to Roger Federer’s 2021 options:

e. Go all-out for Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the U.S. Open. And, at age 40, retire at the Swiss Indoors in his hometown of Basel, amid the great fanfare he deserves.
Shonn Moore

• Very good. For the record, the 2021 Laver Cup will be held in Boston. Federer’s retirement ceremony would feature tired references to “wicked,” Harvard, the Sawx and…who? The Wahlbergs? The Afflecks? Micky Ward? Matt Damon? Henry Louis Gates? Elizabeth Warren? You’re right, Basel is probably more on-brand.

Why do you think tennis morphed, and quite suddenly too, from a kind of democracy where leaders were replaced at regular intervals to the kind of absolute monarchy system that's been in place for about 15 years now? In the past, the champions of the day had their years in the sun but were inevitably eclipsed by a new broom. Navratilova into Graf into (briefly) Seles into Hingis into Williams x 2 / Bjorg/McEnroe into Lendl into Becker/Edberg into Sampras. The cycle ran along the time of a term of government. Now, there's promising players everywhere and they're winning Grand Slams, but they're not establishing mini eras for themselves as in the past. Even on the women's side, Serena remains as the Grande Dame and she hasn't won a major for several years. Dominic Thiem et al remain "the next generation" while the top three show no signs of being the past generation any time soon. Any theories?
Mark

• A few theories:

1. Let’s start by noting that this is more of reversal than a morphing. For years, some players had many years in the sun. Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina, the Aussies, Connors…they all played deep into their 30s (and beyond)

2. It wasn’t really until the ’90s that careers routinely dipped when players hit their late 20s.

3. When we talk about the Big Three plus Serena we are talking about towering, generational talents. Just extraordinary players and competitors.

4. It’s gauche and distasteful but I don’t see how you divorce this trend from money. No one is saying that players are buying longevity. But career-extension is easier when you can…employ an entire team, fly privately, jet around the world for the best-in-class doctors.

Add to the that advances in science, nutrition, health care, prevention, analytics….something would be grievously wrong if careers WEREN’T lasting longer.

Here’s one for you, Jon: For all the changes in 2020 in tennis, what are some you’d like to see stick? I’m guessing you are going to say “no ballkids fetching towels” (I agree!) but what else am I missing?
Peter T., Brooklyn

• “No ballkids fetching towels” does indeed rank high on the list. No pun intended but, yes, let’s hope that sticks. We are going to look back on this, equally a lapse in civility and hygiene and—irrespective of the pandemic—say, “Wait, what?” I sometimes envision a kid getting recruited for this position.

“So what does a ballkid do?”

“What do you mean? Ball. Kid. Self-explanatory. It’s awesome. There are six balls in circulation during a match. You’ll be on a team with other kids. You’ll be stationed either at the net or the backcourt. The server needs two balls. Your job is keep track of the balls and make sure they are not in sight during play.”

“Cool.”

“And when you’re not in the middle of a shift, you can watch other matches or watch the players practice.”

“Cool.”

“Oh, and if you get hungry, we have vouchers so you can eat for free at the food court and vendor stalls.”

“Cool.”

“And I didn’t mention this: Because you’ll be in front of crowds—and maybe even on TV—you’ll be outfitted by the tournament. A uniform. Cap. Swag. And after the tournament, you get to keep all this swag.”

“Cool. All that and all I need to do is fetch the balls and toss them to the server?”

“Oh, one other thing. Sometimes players keep these towels in the backcourt. Let me tell you, those guys better not commit any crimes because those towels are like DNA kits. We’re talking sweat, blood, loogies, they wipe their grips on the towel and then wipe their faces. Sometimes they blow snot-rockets in there. When they players ask for the towels, you gotta fetch them.”

“Yeah, I think I’m good playing Fortnite.”

As far as other COVID-holdovers…I’d like to see an overall nimbleness remain. The calendar dates aren’t sacred. Men and women CAN discuss a joint tour. We CAN move heaven and earth to improvise a U.S. Open. We CAN accommodate a player who chooses not to play one night because she is rattled by a police shooting…. Long may this spirit—innovation trumps tradition—persist. Doesn’t mean every idea is a good one. Doesn’t mean every proposed change must be accommodated. But tennis, owing to necessity, showed an uncommon open-mindedness in 2020.

Jon: Kabuki???? Question: Kabuki and tennis, compare and contrast.
Roger Jones, Waterbury Center, Vt.

• Roger’s question pertains to this piece, shot in Kyoto in the days before the pandemic. We’re obviously comparing a performing art to a competitive sport. So the usual overlap applies.You’re talking about skilled practitioners who work hard but also operate on muscle memory. There is nuance, apparent to connoisseurs but gets lost on the casual fans. Perfect is the enemy of good.

But I was struck by this from a fan perspective: affinity doesn’t trace raw talent. Costumes matter. Persona matters.

Also, kabuki is all male. It’s ripe for a Billie Jean King to come along and smash tradition.

HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!