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Mailbag: Don't Discount the Importance of Olympic Tennis

Hey, everyone.

Let’s start with Olympic tennis. We got a fair amount of mail about Tokyo and—even before Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek went out—a surprising amount of it negative.

“Why are we doing this?”

“The Olympics needs tennis more than tennis needs the Olympics.”

“I can’t find television for the matches I want to see.”

Tennis wouldn’t be tennis, of course, without hard-to-find coverage that challenges and frustrates fans. But for the other issues, here are some scattered thoughts.

1) We are all creatures of incentives. In tennis, you can tell a lot about an event based on the field. For the majority of the players, the Olympics are clearly important. Not as important as a major. But the field suggests that, to most of the players, this matters a great deal. (So much so they would fly across an ocean in the middle of summer, braving COVID-19 and empty stands, etc.++) And the discussion should probably end there. Players often guide us regarding how much to care. In this case, it’s a lot.

2) An Olympics with tennis sure beats an Olympics without tennis. Whatever the issues with the calendar … or with millionaire athletes competing alongside amateurs … or inconveniences arriving … they are outstripped by tennis’s presence. Here is a global sport; valuing men and women equally; offering a singles and pairs competition; accommodating a range of ages, styles and body types. It would be a glaring omission, were it not included. There’s a thought that a sport doesn’t belong in the Olympics if the Games don’t represent the pinnacle. I don’t buy that—here or more generally.

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3) For certain players from certain countries, the Olympics comes freighted with so much meaning. We had a player this year skip Wimbledon in order to focus on her Olympic training. For some players, marching in the opening ceremony—never mind carrying a flag—marks a career highlight. For some players from smaller, underrepresented countries, a medal marks a career highlight. Especially as Davis Cup wanes in relevance, this is a wonderful, meaningful opportunity to represent.

4) COVID-19 taints everything. The 2020 Tokyo Games of 2021—as the confusing semantics suggests dysfunction—will forever be the COVID Games. There’s something demoralizing and off-putting about watching the Games in empty stands, hearing daily positive tests from athletes, knowing these Games have been rationalized as “healing” and “unity” when it’s only commercial interests that have prevented cancellation. Don’t let this color a broader discussion about whether tennis belongs.

5) It is, of course, hard to gauge news judgment and value these days, since we all live in our own silos. But in my feed, two of the biggest stories from Tokyo have been Naomi Osaka lighting the torch and Novak Djokovic as this BMOC, this selfie king, this divining rod among athletes. If the sport of tennis emerges from Tokyo with this kind of enhanced regard—the sport of torch-lighters; heightened in the sports community—we all win.

6) The next Olympics, only three years away, will be hosted, of course, by Paris. The tennis will be held in the familiar confines of Roland Garros. With any luck, COVID-19 will have gone the way of wooden rackets. Which is to say, in 2024 the tennis competition at the Olympics ought to be a considerably happier occasion.

++ Aga Radwanska retires the trophy. Her trip to Rio entailed her departing from Montreal and—after assorted delays—flying through Lisbon, I think it was, to get to Brazil.

Mailbag

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

Jon, I didn’t see you weighing in on the Tsitsipas/Kyrgios debate about on-court coaching. Where do you stand here? Good or bad for the sport?
—Mark, Los Angeles

• For those who missed it, the age-old “coaching debate” flared up last week when two of tennis’s more prominent players weighed in.

I’m anti here. Problem-solving is such a fundamental part of tennis. Something existential changes when we plant coaches on the court. I believe in democracy. If tennis players, uniformly, truly wanted this and believed it would lead to a better product, I would respect that decision. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. (What should enrage all of us: The U.S. Open, eager to appease a television partner, trying to sneak in coaching as an “enhancement” without citing any evidence that anyone other than television finds this enhancing.)

Anyway, as I see it, here are points against:

• One of tennis’s virtues: the demands for self-sufficiency and problem-solving it places on the players. Something really fundamental and organic to tennis changes when players can turn to others during a match for counsel.

• “It’s the only sport that does X” is not a point in favor. Uniqueness is, more often than not, a virtue—a point of differentiation—and not a shortcoming.

• In a sport that already has a serious wealth gap, this will benefit the “haves”—who can afford the best coaches—and disadvantage the have-nots.

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• From a fan/media perspective, this can be fun and even voyeuristic. But it doesn’t highlight players at their best. Who demands coaching? Players who are lost and losing.

Points in favor:

• This will lead to an enhanced product. More characters, more tension, more content, more agitation. And, in theory, wise advice will improve the quality of the tennis.

• Why wouldn’t we want players to avail themselves to every element—including strategic advice—that would maximize their chances at winning?

• As it stands, there is something counterintuitive (and to some players, maddening) about players hiring coaching … only to see them sit in silence, still as gargoyles during the actual competition.

• Why wouldn’t tennis want to create jobs and mint more public figures? Coaches mean more story lines/cast members.

• It’s good for TV

Hello, Roger Federer has 1,251 match wins, Jimmy Connors has 1,274 (the record). While this is a minor point in the all-timer stats, do you think Fed will surpass Connors' total? 24 may seem like a trivial number, but Federer is keeping healthy by playing an incredibly light schedule and skipping smaller events. He's 14–5 over the past year and a half. Additionally, I appreciate your response to my previous question. Thank you for the open dialogue with readers!
—Best, Thomas

• Thanks. This isn’t Federer’s biggest priority. But I do think that, if he so choses, he has 24 match wins left in him. I’m less optimistic about his odds of overtaking Connors for titles. JC is listed as having won 108, Federer 103. But note: Eight of Connors’s titles were on the breakaway WCT Lamar Hunt circuit. Should those count?

As long as we are here … I wish tennis would create a metric whereby matches—and therefore titles—were weighted for quality of opponent/field. What would you rather: win a 250 or reach the quarters of a Masters 1000? Win a Masters 1000 or four 250s? I suspect that (Basel notwithstanding ++) Federer would trade about 50 regular titles for one additional Major.

++ Has no one thought to nickname Federer, “Art Basel?” Shame on us all.

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I want to get your professional tennis pundit opinion on something. My wife and I are starting to plan our COVID-delayed honeymoon for next spring/summer. We're going to Italy, but we were thinking of scheduling our trip so we could make a pit stop on the way back for a couple days at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon. Is there one you'd recommend over the other? Is it significantly easier to get tickets for one of those events? I'd appreciate any advice you have—I've never been to either.
—Anon

• Congrats. Minor upset, perhaps, but I'm saying the French. First of all, it's a much easier ticket—especially in the middle rounds, you can usually find a seat fairly easily. No queuing in lines. (Discussion for another time: How awesome is the queue for those willing to endure?) Second, the weather favors the French. But the big factor for me is location. You are on your honeymoon. The French Open is IN Paris. Roland Garros is literally two miles from the Eiffel Tower. You can jump on a Velib and be there in 15 minutes. Wimbledon is like a gorgeous tennis tournament in ... Greenwich, Conn.

I’m sure your wife will appreciate your thoughtfulness. And you can't go wrong either way, but—especially on a honeymoon—wouldn’t you rather pair the tennis with the Paris experience?

Remember that Steffi [Graf] already completed the grand slam before heading to the Olympics in 1988. The gold medal was “gravy” at this point. With Novak, he would have to put the cart before the horse in trying for Olympic gold before attaining the calendar year grand slam. Apologies for all the cliches!
—Rod, Toronto, Canada

• Leave it to a Canadian to apologize for a cliché. No apologies necessary. And you’re right. We don’t make this point often enough. The Seoul Games in 1988 started in September (and bled into October), after the U.S. Open. This doesn’t diminish her achievement in any way. But it’s worth pointing out that she didn’t have to make the tough decision Djokovic did. Rather, she won the four majors, and went to the Games knowing that she had a chance to burnish them with a gold medal. Which she did.

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• This week’s book plug: Seeing Serena by Gerald Marzorati.

• Mailbag communitarian (and one of our all-time favorite comics) Franklyn has a new essay in a British lit mag worth your read. 

• As excitement grows surrounding 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal's headline appearance at the 2021 Citi Open, so do ticket prices. TickPick, a no-fee secondary ticket marketplace, reports that the average purchase price for the finals (Session 11) is $507—a 515% increase from 2019’s finals—with fans anticipating Nadal playing for the championship. TickPick also reports that the current “get-in” price is $125, the highest get-in price of all sessions this year.

• Charleston Tennis, LLC announced an exciting new partnership with Credit One Financial, the parent company of Credit One Bank. Credit One Bank will become the new title sponsor of the WTA 500 tennis tournament and world-class stadium in Charleston, S.C. 

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