Mailbag: Are Tennis Players Getting Vaccinated?

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Hey everyone. Answering some Mailbag questions before tennis at the Tokyo Olympics kicks off on Friday night ET.

Mailbag

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

Jon I just saw that Coco Gauff is out of the Olympics with COVID-19. (I know she is not the only one.) I feel awful for her, but I wonder whether tennis players are being made to get vaccinated. How is this working? Especially with players playing in front of full crowds, how can they not be vaccinated? Are players being given the information?
K.T., Brooklyn

• Lots of COVID chatter this week—it’s entered the bloodstream—especially as the delta variant rages and the Olympics begin amid a considerable cloud. For all the debates and discussion we can have, there’s not much to this one: Science is real. Data is real. Objective truth is real. The virus doesn’t care how you voted or how often you clap back on social media or whom you consider “sheep” or “Nazis” or “snowflakes.” Vaccines are effective. That “vaccines are effectives” is no more debatable than “Djokovic and Barty are your 2021 Wimbledon champs.” Here might be the to-line data point: 99% of new infections involve people who have not been vaccinated.

If athletes want to go vegan or lift more weights or scope their knees—or not—great. Their bodies, their choice. The issue here: There is a collective responsibility. If you don’t want to wear a seatbelt; statistically inadvisable, but your choice. Want to drive on the opposite side of the road? Now we have a problem. The idea that you would fly, and enter a locker room or interact with ballkids without being vaccinated is the height of selfishness. Even if you have convinced yourself that you’re not getting COVD-19—or getting a vaccination might cause dead-arm and impact your tennis for a few days— it would be nice to consider the other people you can impact.

coco-gauff-mailbag

The tours have pushed a message of vaccination; but are constricted by players who are independent contractors. Some events—including the Djokovic Open—have offered vaccinations on site. I talked to a coach over the weekend who put the number of vaccinated players at 30%. I heard from a summer tournament worker who claims that “few” players are vaccinated and the locker room staff should act accordingly.

You have events like Indian Wells, demanding—quite reasonably— that “all fans, volunteers, staff, sponsors, media, and vendors to show valid proof of full vaccination in order to enter the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the tournament. To keep all patrons on site as safe as possible, no exceptions to this policy will be allowed.”....except for the players everyone is coming to watch and tend to. (You also have postings like this: “We would like unvaccinated coach with open mind who knows what's going on and not what the mainstream media tell him or her!)

You’re tempted to say, “tennis, man.” But this goes to something much deeper and more distressing.

Jon, When Strokes of Genius was replayed as part of Tennis Channel’s preparation for Wimbledon, I returned to the book for the first time in a while and re-discovered this forgotten insight: “In his first tournament of 2008, Federer lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, a self-enchanted, bristle-haired Serb who, unlike many of his peers, is thoroughly unawed by Federer.”

Do you think this lack of reverence for Federer has played a significant role in Djokovic's head-to-head edge over Federer (and, by extension, Nadal)? Also, do you think this attitude at least in part accounts for his relative lack of popularity compared to Federer and Nadal—the fact that he set about the work of ultimately defeating his rivals without first paying respect in their direction? In my opinion, a lot of the tennis public picked up on this attitude and never forgave (and still hasn’t forgiven) Novak for it.

Appreciate your work. 
—LAG

• Thanks. I come to praise to Djokovic, not to bury him. At a time when players showed an abundance of deference to Federer—“Too good, Roger,” narrowly edged out “We’re not worthy, Roger,” as the unofficial slogan of the ATP—Djokovic was having not of it. He made clear early that he was here to win titles and challenge the best and not simply hover in the top 10, make his seven-figures, traipse around the world and win a few trophies. Good on him. Sometimes perhaps his camp could have been more delicate (hard to imagine the Nadal camp saying this). Sometimes surely this bold ambition undercut his popularity, especially among Fed fans. But good for Djokovic. It’s a competitive business and he came to win. No need to apologize. And, sure, I think his unapologetic ambition—"I want to take you down”—has played a role in his success, both against Federer and more generally.

What’s just as interesting to me: Federer’s response. We think of most athletes as competition junkies, drawn to battle, who elevate their play when confronting a rival. Federer, though, is not most athletes. Going back to early in his career, he did not play his best on the rare occasion he had a negative emotional reaction to his opponent. When we filmed the “Strokes” documentary in 2018—a full decade after the match—he was wonderfully open, explaining how rivalry didn’t come easily to him. “When I was No. 1 in the world for the first time in 2004, I didn't want to have a rival. I just wanted to be the best and there was the rest basically. That's how I saw it….And then when Rafa came onto the scene I guess at first I had to also appreciate the rival, you know.”

We can speculate the extent to which Federer has, similarly, had to adjust to a Djokovic and—without overstating the friction—a relationship not characterized by great mutual warmth.

When a trainer/coach leaves one player to work with another, is s/he free to divulge all the secrets of the first player to the second? What are the ethics? Or is all fair game?
—Irena, Brooklyn

• Thanks. Great question. We’ve talked before about coaching and how anything goes. If you worked for Player X, you are entitled to impart your observations on Player Y. (“When John Doe gets in tight situations, he runs around his backhand.”…. “Susie hates playing in wind.”) Training strikes me as manifestly different because it involved potentially confidential information. We threw this at Jez Green, a top trainer who has worked with a number of top players. Here’s his response:

I think it’s different for a coach or a trainer. I’m sure if a coach’s old player plays the new player then they will use all the information to try and win the match. That’s their new job now. You definitely wouldn’t divulge any personal details of any player. That’ wouldn’t be ethical and would be disrespectful but any tactical or mentality information would certainly be used. A trainer works specifically with the physique of each player so any information is not so relevant to any new player. You would use any more general information about physical capabilities and standards to build into your new programme. Each athlete is a completely different project. Anything tactical is fair game. Hope this helps.”

Two supremely talented Australians arrive at Wimbledon 2021. Neither of them played during the tours' 2020 COVID stoppage, and they likely didn't train much either, one because her coach was across state lines and the other because, well, he doesn't like to. One flamed out early with an injury, while the other won the whole shebang. When we assess Nick Kyrgios's Wimbledon, we see the problem with being a part-time player. But Ash Barty doesn't play a professional match for months, famously took significant time off to play cricket, and still is on top of the tennis world. What do you see as the difference with her version of "part time" play?
—EB, Brooklyn

• When Barty is a tennis player she is committed to the role. She trains, she travels, she eats right and sleeps right and generally comports herself like a pro. Wimbledon was her 11th tournament for 2021 and she has now won and played more than 40 matches in 2021. Kyrgios? He is 6–3 on the year and has played three events.

I’m really torn on Kyrgios. We are partial to athletes who do things unconventionally. We are sympathetic to mental health challenges; the displacement of tennis and its road to nowhere; the isolation of an individual sport (even not during Covid). At the same time, it’s painful to see an athlete so profligate with their gifts. And there’s something—this is perhaps too harsh a word—counterfeit about his not committing fully. I would have gotten an “A” if I had felt like studying was never a good look. Sports are binary. You win or lose. Cruise control seldom works. If you want to coast and, proudly, make a half-hearted commitment, you’re in the wrong line of work. (Pre-empting: Yes, we should probably also nod to best-of-three versus best-of-five. It’s harder to be a part-timer when the biggest events require you to win three sets, not two.)

But the real story here is Barty. She took her gap year; figured her stuff out; gauged not just whether she missed tennis but what she missed about it; and has been a consummate pro ever since.

barty-wimbledon-win

During Wimbledon, I was glad you and a few other journalists highlighted Venus Williams’s astonishing record of competing in 90 Grand Slam tournaments. In the spirit of the Olympics, here are the career gold, silver and bronze medal winners based on major tournaments contested in singles. (Source is Wikipedia.)

Women:
Venus Williams, 90
Serena Williams, 79
Amy Frazier/Svetlana Kuznetsova, 71

Men: Roger Federer, 81
Feliciano Lopez, 78
Fabrice Santoro, 70

—Teddy C., NYC

• Thanks, Teddy. Just to pause, 90 Majors is 22.5 years’ worth of Majors. Incredible. Literally incredible. As in, not to be believed. Staying on Venus here….she won her last Major in 2008, the weekend Nadal took down Federer to win Wimbledon. That was more than 13 years ago—a bar mitzvah ago. A former player recently noted—a little forlorn—that Venus is becoming known more for her longevity, her willingness to compete into her 40s and test herself than her seven Majors. My response: maybe. But so be it. It’s really an awesome statement about hope, competition and challenge. She may be a decade-plus from winning Majors. But she’s still found self-fulfillment, meaning, purpose in competing. So she does.

I would love to get your thoughts on the recent uproar over the names etched on the grounds of the All England Club for the women's champions. Married female champions receive the first name initial of their husband....so Chris Evert, who was married to John Lloyd at the time of her victory is etched forever as Mrs. J.M. Lloyd and not Ms. C. Evert. The same can be said for Evonne Goolagong Cawley, whose name is etched as Mrs. R. Cawley for her husband Roger.

Do you think that this custom is at least antiquated and at most sexist? Would you like to see those names be updated to go with the current times, as difficult as that might be?
—Mike

• Seems to me the easiest solution—cue: Jenny versus Jennifer—is simply to ask the subject their preference. We threw this to Chris Evert—who, as we like to point out, is as cool and collegial as you might suspect she is. Here is what she says: “I’ve always respected Wimbledon tradition, but at the same time, in my career, I’ve wanted to be Chris Evert, not my husbands’ names! Andy was always supportive of that, he encouraged my maiden name! …... But I would support my maiden name up there for sure!”

You heard the woman. Get out the paint.

Hi Jon, I wanted to respond to the question you posed in your recent mailbag regarding John McEnroe’s comments about Emma Raducanu. While I agree the comments may not have reached peak offensive levels (which in our current national discourse isn’t saying much) what I didn’t appreciate about the comment was the lack of understanding about anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that it showed. It perpetuated old stereotypes when we should be moving past them. Specifically, asking how much players can handle and saying that long-time players can handle things as it relates to mental health felt like it perpetuated the myth that people who experience anxiety and depression are weak and people who don’t are mentally strong. In reality it takes tremendous mental strength to cope with anxiety and depression. The comment also implied that it’s about someone’s ability to cope as opposed to the reality of it being a medical condition.

I hope that these continued conversations about mental health in sports will challenge these misconceptions and I hope the response to his comments encourages him to think more deeply about mental health in sports.
—Carrie

• Thank you. That was well said. Now about this Megyn Kelly…..

Shots, Miscellany:

• Here’s the IMG Future Stars events: “At 2pm every day the courts will be locked and mandatory workshops for players coaches and parent. Each player must come with a parent and coach. Carlos Ramos is our tournament referee.”

• Three book recs to share:

Geoff Rodkey, Lights Out in Lincolnwood
Mark Oppenheimer, Squirrel Hill
Jordan Salama, Every Day the River Changes

• Press releasing: The USTA Foundation, the charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association Incorporated (USTA), has awarded grants totaling more than $1,070,000 to 105 National Junior Tennis & Learning chapters (NJTL) in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The grants are designated to support under-resourced youth through tennis and education programs designed to improve health, build character and strive for academic excellence. This is an initial investment as the USTA Foundation will award approximately $4 million in grants in 2021.

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