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Mailbag: The Case for More Mixed Doubles Events

A short vacation Mailbag …

RIP, Mike De Palmer.

• Been asked to pop this so I will. … The great Roger Bennett and I had a swell time yakking about sports, politics, culture and the 1980s on John Heilemann’s podcast.

Onward …

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

I was struck by how much fun it was to watch the Olympic mixed doubles and how great to have it be a high stakes event. As a fan, I always get a kick out of watching the way mixed doubles players interact with each other. But I also think it is also easier to try to understand the mechanics of doubles when you have two players with such obviously different physical and technical strengths pitted against another mismatched pair. In unmixed doubles, I have to depend on the commentator to keep reminding me who has the better serve, who has the better return and what the implications are. World Team Tennis gets it, and there was the (possibly-to-be-resurrected) Hopman Cup. Is there a sponsor lurking who understands the untapped potential of mixed who could promote/fund it better at tour and Slam events?
Barbara Katzenberg, Lexington, Mass.

• I was reading this article on Rachel Uchitel and smiled at this line: “Mr. Woods is currently tied for 12th with Naomi Osaka on the Forbes list of highest paid athletes; the magazine reported that he earned $60 million from May 2020 to May 2021.” (Naomi Osaka has the earning power of Tiger Woods?!) A few days earlier, I was talking with a basketball agent about his interest in recruiting more female players, as women’s sports are poised to surge. He said offhandedly, “It’s not like tennis, where everyone is basically equal.”

That was a windup to say: I’m with you on mixed doubles. It’s fun to watch. It reveals a great deal about players—who seem to enjoy it immensely. Yes, there’s no confusing the players on the same side of the net. We all cheered the rumored resurrection of the Hopman Cup. (And wondered whether the silly ATP Cup could survive a two-year absence.) From Venus Williams/Nick Kyrgios to Serena Williams/Andy Murray to Roger Federer/Belinda Bencic, it has served up memorable fan-friendly moments.

Beyond any of that, there’s the symbolic value. Other sports would kill for tennis’s level of equality. Not just equal wages—note: the average WNBA salary is literally 1/100 of the average NBA salary—but commensurate fan engagement. Novak Djokovic and Roger pull out of Cincinnati? That’s a blow to the event and the fans. But it’s cushioned by the appearance of Naomi Osaka (Did you hear? She makes as much as Tiger?) and Coco Gauff and Venus, et al. Ash Barty’s Roland Garros match ended in retirement? A pity, but here comes Rafael Nadal. This is tennis’s weapon hiding in plain sight.

So, sure, mixed doubles is a fun value add. Events like Indian Wells might want to consider adding it as a draw. Is it going to manifestly have an impact on the sport? No. But the real value—a value other sports lack; and desperately wish they didn’t lack—comes from what mixed doubles represents. And, from media right deals to marketing to selling youth participation to reaching a mixed fan base … tennis should by milking this for all it’s worth. Which is a lot.

Horrible journalism! Such a pathetic article from u @jon_wertheim. Not surprised though! The way you have written it speaks volumes of you as a person.
@7_curious

• So, as predicted, that was a fool’s crusade. Last week we tried to have a measured, intellectually honest discussion about Novak Djokovic—a wonderful, maddening, polarizing player—and turn down the temperature on a hot-button figure, whose antics in Tokyo had transcended sports, much less tennis. This was like attempting to play tennis with a butter knife. These—and you may have heard this—are polarized and polarizing times. Social media—again, maybe not a news flash—can be a toxic cesspool that amplifies the most extreme views.

Honestly, I thought the column was fairly straightforward. Great player. Good guy. Well-intentioned. Struggles to get out of his own way, which undermines his popularity. The response from the hyperpartisans came fast and furious. “Enough is enough with this guy. How many more chances are you prepared you give him?” asked a former player. Another reader implored, “Stop being a Djokovic [lapdog].” And inevitably, “Are you on his payroll?”

Which would come as amusing news to the crocodile-festooned Twitter brigade out in full force, demanding that the western media, woke culture, Federer fans, Nadal fans, Earth, the rest of the planets, perform anatomically impossible sex acts.

Implying that our discussion of Djokovic was too soft, multiple people sent assorted columns and clips that were brutally critical of Djokovic. Why wasn’t he defaulted? What if Serena had done that? “What if Simone Biles had acted like this?” asked The Boston Globe. ... Not to be outdone, the Whatabout Army compiled a gallery of other players throwing their rackets, maintaining Djokovic is held to an unfair standard by media hypocrites.

To which we should all say … good. Ultimately, sports are tribal. Especially individual sports. In athletes we see ourselves. (I’m convinced that the majority of, say, Serena Williams fans have never seen her hit a tennis ball. It’s what she represents, what she overcame, how she presents herself that drives the affection and loyalty of so many.) That two fans can watch a player—or witness a fit of pique—and reach totally different conclusions? It’s a sign of health. If no one cared, if no one had opinions or attachments or engagements to a sport’s stars, we’d be in trouble. If half the gallery can’t stand Player X and the other half identify themselves through their fandom, well, it would be nice if those folks moved in from the margins … but we’re going to be O.K. here, folks.

Tennis administrators and executives might be wringing their hands about the sport’s health in the post-Federer/Serena/Nadal era. But they are missing this critical point. There will always be players who arouse interest. There will always be favorites and underdogs. There will always be No. 1–ranked players, trying to hold their supremacy while others challenge it. There will always be four majors a year and dozens of other tournaments. There will always be men and women competing simultaneously. There will always be the specter and echoes of history. Long as the raw material remains, the sport will prevail.

Are you out of your mind when you tweet? Wake up, there was a milestone on line and which is why he participated at first place!! You don’t deserve to be a journalist if you tweet like a diehard fan of any X player!!
@rwamit

• This pertains to a tweet I issued last week, suggesting that, despite the disappointing results, Djokovic showed real guts going to Tokyo. Why, it’s almost enough to think that Twitter is corrosive and fails the most basic risk/reward position. The notion of writing to a stranger that they don’t deserve employment strikes me as a smidge extreme and antisocial.

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That aside, I stand by this one, too. Djokovic would have been well within his rights to take a pass on Tokyo. He is preparing for this historic achievement., something that hasn’t been achieved since 1988—and almost double as long on the men’s side. If he’d chosen not to fly across an ocean, endure a COVID-19 event, risk injury on hard court (and emotional tumult), receive no money or ranking points, spend time away from his family … it would have been understandable. He chose to risk it. Did he have ambitions of winning? Sure. Were there selfish motivations? Perhaps. That doesn’t invalidate the guts it took to lay it out there. He didn’t have to go to Tokyo and represent his country; yet he did.

Long as this cheery, good-natured reader brought up the issue of “diehard fan,” here’s the secret: There is absolutely cheering in the press box, directive be damned. You root for stories. You root for results to comport with your best material. You root for matches to go fast when your kids need homework help or your spouse isn’t feeling well. You root for results that will ennoble tennis. Reach a certain age and you root for players who are older than you. Overcome a serious impediment or health scare (see: Carla Suárez Navarro) and it induces rooting. When a player stands on the precipice of history (Djokovic/Serena going for a Grand Slam) it might challenge impartiality. That’s about it. Traditional fandom—along with peak nutrition—is an early casualty of this job. The idea that journalists (broadcast, print, internet, whatever) are fist-pumping when player X hits a winner, or grimacing when player X double-faults? It just doesn’t capture reality.

I know there has been a question or two regarding Sabalenka and not discussing the events in Belarus. At first, I was with others in thinking that she should say something. With the events surrounding the sprinter from Belarus, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, I’m wondering if Aryna possibly feels for her safety in speaking out. What are your thoughts on all of this?

Thanks for your time.
—Chris from Colorado

• You would like for the two players from Belarus to weigh in. And, at the same time, you understand that they—and, critically, their families—may be in considerable danger if they did so. Note, too, that Viktor Lukashenko’s son is the head of Belarus sports. This is not unique to Belarus.

This is not restricted to sports. It’s easy for us to say, “Use your platform and speak out against the injustice/autocrat in your homeland.” It’s harder to know the full context and the potential threats in doing so. The same acts that strike us as so appalling can chill an athlete’s willingness to speak.

I noticed the draw size for both Toronto and Cincinnati is 48 rather than 56, meaning all 16 seeds get byes in the first round rather than just the top 8, which had been the case in past years. Is this a COVID change or a permanent change? I noticed Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid kept a draw of 56. Also, should prices for ticket packages for those early sessions be cheaper as a result if this becomes a permanent change? That is an average of four less matches each day for round 1 (typically Monday and Tuesday of an event).
Rohit Sudarshan, Washington, D.C.

• Draw sizes have been impacted by COVID-19, but not in this case. Here’s the ATP: “A change of draw size was approved for this year with player participation in mind due to the impact of the Olympic Games on the calendar. The same has occurred in previous Olympic years.” Speaking of: Note that Indian Wells swelled to a full draw (96 singles, 32 doubles) with the cancellation of the Asia swing.

Hi Jon, you know what is so strange? That Novak is absolutely trashed for things which by Fedal pass unnoticed. Like when Rafa quit mixed doubles in Rio as a precaution just to play another three long single matches.
BR, Tomas

• But Federer cursed! But Daniil Medvedev threw his racket. But Serena threatened a line judge (more than a decade ago). But Kyrgios is a one-man tennis etiquette crime wave. But her emails. … Still, this Nadal false equivalence seemed to get the most traction. Here’s the deal:

In 2016, Nadal was sufficiently injured (wrist) that he did not play Wimbledon. In no small part because he missed the '12 Olympics, a few weeks later he entered Rio. He entered three events but announced publicly that he would need to gauge his health. His mixed partner, Garbiñe Muguruza—the reigning French Open champ; the third seed in singles in Rio; not exactly someone plucked from obscurity, potentially facing a career-defining moment—knew this in advance. Before the team played their first match, they pulled out, so Nadal could ration his energy for singles. Hardly equivalent to Djokovic losing two singles matches—chucking one racket into the stands; smashing another on the net post—and opting out of the medal match in the mixed citing exhaustion.

As I wrote last week, we should avoid weighing in on athlete injuries. Only they know how they feel. By the same token, this didn’t just deprive the partner of a potential medal; it hollowed out the experience of the bronze team. We can all decide if and how much to condemn Djokovic for this withdrawal. But let’s be honest about the context—and how manifestly different it is from Nadal's 2016 withdrawal.

Jon, you won’t remember me, but a bunch of years ago, you talked to a journalism class I was taking and told an awesome Ricky Williams story about tennis. Now I am more into tennis, I will appreciate if you could tell it again in your column.
Bart, Indy

• Man, am I getting old. Between “bunch of years ago” and grandpa, tell me the story (I’m envisioning Kevin Arnold beseeching Peter Falk in The Princess Bride) you have aged me. But in the spirit of fertilizing your tennis fandom, this is the cut and paste from a Mailbag (gulp) a decade ago:

So in the summer of 2004, I was working on a piece for Sports Illustrated and spent some time with Ricky Williams, the NFL player (and excellent 30 for 30 subject) who retired Tuesday after 11 seasons. This was before his sabbatical from football, his "tent phase" and most of his marijuana-related suspensions. In what was less an interview than a conversation, we spoke about all sorts of topics. He went on about his passion for photography. When he found out I wrote about tennis, he asked what I thought of Venus and Serena. At one point he told me he had recently gotten interested in Australia and wanted to travel there, perhaps after the NFL season.

I recall telling him to marry the two, and time his vacation to the Australian Open. Fast-forward six or so months. In January, I get a call from someone in the Australian Open media credential center. They had been contacted by an American photographer requesting a credential. They were unfamiliar with his work, but apparently he had used my name as a reference. Could I vouch for a photographer, Ricky Williams? I didn't attend the Australian Open that year, but from what I gather, Ricky Williams worked the photo pit—the other snappers unaware that the large Black man alongside them was a starting NFL running back and former Heisman Trophy winner.

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