Mailbag: A Tribute to the Late Tom Perrotta

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Let’s start with a tribute. By now many of you know the horrible news that Tom Perrotta—good friend, great colleague, better human being—has passed away. The tributes, rightly, have been flowing, including this lovely piece by Pete Bodo that incorporates recollections from a lot of us; this obituary by Jason Gay; and this essay from Steve Tignor.

I was thinking the other day that tennis usually soars above injustice. Prevail on match point and you win the match. Win the match and your ranking goes up. You don’t have to worry about impressing head bosses or winning over the general manager or getting your teammate to pass you the ball. None of the unfairness that comes with bake-offs and judges and polls and other sports subjectivity. Even line calls are now decided by cold and neutral technology. It’s hard to imagine a sport that does a better job approaching meritocracy.

Yet Tom’s death was profoundly unfair, a real injustice. A fundamentally good person, taken intolerably early. A husband to a brilliant wife, and father of two super-awesome boys….in the prime of his professional career….still able to hit a kick serve…..now out of the draw at age 44? Tom deserved better.

A lot has been made of Tom’s gentle nature. His kind soul. His ready—but often silent—laugh, accompanied with a jerk of the head. His backslaps. His love of candy and pizza and Chinese food. (He once read a draft of a long piece for me and demanded only to be paid in moo-shu.)

But indulge me if I devote a paragraph or two to Tom’s harsher side, which came out—and, far as I could tell, only came out—when he reported a story. Helped by a low threshold for outrage, Tom would chase stories with the ferocity of Nadal of clay, giving no quarter and spending whatever time and effort was necessary. It didn’t matter if it bruised relationships. It didn’t matter if caused others discomfort, inconvenience, or embarrassment. He wanted the truth out there and wasn’t going to distort objectivity.

One vivid example: Several years ago, Tom was deeply upset upon hearing the USTA threatened to withhold funding to a junior player unless she lost weight. To him, this was offensive and clueless and flat wrong. I remember him twitching, shaking his head furiously, and then gathering himself, before recounting what he had heard. As he so often did, he began his diatribe, “Get this…”

Rather than issuing a hot take tweet—or swallowing his outrage because it might put him on the outs with a powerful institution—he went into a sort of journalistic beast mode. He talked to all parties and gave them a chance to go on record. Here’s his story. It fair. It’s reported. It’s level-headed. And it’s brutal. Within hours, the USTA was scissor-kicking backwards, and policies were being reconsidered. We talk of journalistic malpractice; this was the opposite. A clinic on how to do the job right.

At this time when the tennis media is a shrinking organism—even before COVID—when conflicts of interest stunt the sport’s growth, when, cosmically, the media’s role in society is under both siege and debate, Tom pushed back against it all. Hard nose, soft heart. His work and approach to the job will continue to inspire.

A few weeks ago, Bodo and I visited Tom in Brooklyn and, despite his usual good cheer, it was clear he was struggling. He mentioned that the Wall Street Journal would be publishing a piece of his. I had assumed it was a tennis piece, perhaps about Federer or Serena, both of whom he admired, or the kooky schedule for 2021. Instead, the very next day, this came out and it was much more profound. It’s ringing-ly clear that he knew the end was near. But, man, did it capture his humanity. Take us out, TP.

Onward...

Some housekeeping:

• This week’s podcast guest Randy Fernando, co-founder and executive director at the Center for Humane Technology—you perhaps know him from The Social Dilemma—talks social media and society (and tennis.) And he gets the “like” button in perpetuity.

• Two upcoming Federer books. Preorder links included: Dave Seminara’s Footsteps of Federer and Chris Clarey’s The Master, The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer.

• Non-tennis division, but here’s a fun piece on vaccine distribution, a century ago... and the botched retelling.

• Lots of pre-Australian Open tennis and news and—good soldiering—a reminder that Tennis Channel is on it.

Mailbag

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

Lots of you wrote in and commented on Twitter about last week’s discussion with Sam Querrey. Opinions, predictably, were all over the map. There was vigorous defense. “I would have done the same thing in his shoes,” said a number of you, including some players. There was also fierce condemnation.

It was an interesting set of circumstances journalistically. Unlike so many controversies, in this case the facts weren’t really in dispute. It was simply a question of whether punishment applied, given the circumstances. Some of you said yes; others no. And the ATP found a squishy middle ground.

On a related note, there’s been a lot of chatter this week—on social media, by text, in email—about the intersection of tennis and politics, especially vis-à-vis the American men. As I see it, one of the virtues of tennis is its ability to accommodate diversity. Gender, age, body types, personality, nationality, ethnicity. If you’re comfortable supporting Trump and he reflects your values, hey, go ahead. You are free to go full MAGA. Fans are free to let those sensibilities color their impression of you. Fellow players are free to look at you sideways and express their disappointment. Former players are free to text journalists messages like, “I cannot believe some of these players with their insistence on being on the wrong side of history….it’s honestly pathetic.” 

We draw the line, though, at sentiment and behavior that imperils health. We draw the line at sentiment and behavior that flies in the face of science. We draw the line at behavior that imperils the sport. Anti-mask stances, super-spreader events, anti-vaxx stances…now you are messing with people’s livelihoods and their lives. Spare us the trope about freedom. Our freedom is also curtailed when we are told only to drive on one side of the road. You know why most civil human beings comply? Because others are imperiled if we did otherwise.

I may be a little late with this but, Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2021 is much better for all of us. As I see tennis experts making predictions for the 2021 season, Novak Djokovic winning a ninth title in Melbourne is a common prediction. It made me think of who has actually beaten him there (needless to say, a very short list) and Hyeon Chung came to mind. He was quite the budding player in 2018­­–19, but unfortunately, I think the injury bug has really taken hold of him. Have you heard anything about his progress lately?
Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• The final chapter isn’t written by any stretch. But this is scanning as a decidedly unhappy tennis story. As you note, at the 2018 Australian Open, Hyeon Chung beat Djokovic. What we forget: he also beat Daniil Medvedev AND Zverev before that. That, friends, is insane. That’s three top five wins in the span of four days. Chung then retired in the semis against Roger Federer (who would go on to win the title) but it was a breakout event for a 22-year-old.

Since then, it’s a flood of injuries and—not unrelatedly—a drought of confidence. Chung is now No. 163 and finished last year losing in the first round of three challenger events and then failing to qualify for the French Open.

The good news: he is still only 24. In a sport that now sees players compete for easily a decade longer. Including….

Jon I noticed you, Paul Annacone and Lindsay Davenport talking about Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro the other day on Tennis Channel. Do you think Stan can win a major this year? It sounded that way and I’m curious why.
Susan, Detroit

• Hmmmm, I’m not sure any of us said that. I think this is the segment to which you refer: 

Of the three players discussed—three former major winners in their 30s outside the top 10 but still active—I like Wawrinka’s odds the best. But nearly five years removed from his last major (and weeks from turning 36), you would have to be a real optimist to see a fourth major for Wawrinka.

Any reason to explain why the ATP deleted the audio files of players explaining how to properly pronounce their own names? Other than the WTA now does? And God forbid we have any consistency about what is available to fans. Oh, I'm sorry, my bad, I forgot we weren't tennis fans, but instead fans of men's tennis or (certainly not and) fans of women's tennis.
Rob, Miami Beach

• You say Gojowczyk. I say Majchrzak. Why would we ever need pronunciation guides? But when I log on, I see a speaker icon under most names. It might be a question of clearing cache, I’m told. (Cache me outside, howbow dat?)

As for other connection news, a few of you have noted in lieu of the ATP/WTA Live app (R.I.P.) the TNNS Live app will work.

Very, very sad to hear about Tom's passing. I know I've enjoyed his writing so much over the years. Just in December my partner and I celebrated the 17th anniversary of his glioblastoma being removed. We are so grateful. Over the past few years, we've gotten involved with fundraising for the National Brain Tumor Society, which provides critical medical research funding and support for families battling brain tumors. We do annual walks for awareness in most major U.S cities and I can't tell you how moving, inspiring and gut wrenching the stories we hear those days are. Unfortunately, despite our efforts, about 85,000 Americans will be diagnosed with brain tumors this year, and I can say it's an illness that cuts across all ages and demographics. So, I thought given your platform you might let your readers consider making a donation (as I just did) in Tom's memory here.
Take care, Matt

• Done. Thanks for the thought. And I’ll match the first $500.

Why isn’t Jack Sock playing in any main draws or qualifiers? Seems like he should be trying to pick up some ranking points right now. Is he hurt again?
Eileen

• He is no longer with IMG so no response there. But do note that he is recently married.

Just as saying world pandemic is like saying a "world disease over the whole world,” saying the le Brea tar pits is like saying "the the tar tar pits,” since “le Brea” means “the tar” in Spanish.
Lilas P.

• Thanks. What’s your favorite redundancy? I’ll take: Panera bread.

Shots, Miscellany

• Dayana Yastremska has been provisionally suspended under Article 8.3.1(c) of the 2020 Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (the "Programme"), pending determination of the charge against her at a full hearing pursuant to Article 8 of the Programme. ….Ms. Yastremska, a 20-year-old player from Ukraine, provided an Out-of-Competition urine sample on 24 November 2020. That sample was sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”) accredited laboratory in Montreal, Canada for analysis, and was found to contain mesterolone metabolite. Mesterolone is a Non-Specified substance, which is prohibited under category S1 of the 2020 WADA Prohibited List (Anabolic Agents), and therefore is also prohibited under the Programme. Positive tests for Non-Specified Substances carry a mandatory Provisional Suspension.

• Renowned women's coach Michael Joyce, who has coached multiple Grand Slam champions, including Maria Sharapova, and strength and conditioning coach Jenna Worswick have joined USTA Player Development in full-time roles. Joyce was hired as a National Coach, Women's Tennis, and Worswick as Strength and Conditioning Coach. Both will be headquartered at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.