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Mailbag: Will the 2021 U.S. Open Signify a Shift in Tennis?

Two weeks before the U.S. Open….lots to anticipate but let’s start on a low note.

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1) Roger Federer has pulled out of the U.S. Open. My prediction is Roger will call it a year...not a career...and pledge to come back in Australia and then play one more final year, having Rogergasms all year long at every tournament he plays. Roger likes the adulation.

2) Rafael Nadal is closer to being done than we might realize. His foot is not right—and we all know at some stage Rafa's body will break down. My prediction: Rafa plays at the U.S. Open and loses in the first week. Then seriously thinks about packing it in. But I believe he wants one more French Open and would retire on the spot if he wins No. 14 there....TBD.

3) Novak Dhokovic is perilously close to having another swoon. He was terrible in Tokyo, losing both his matches and his temper. He will play the U.S. Open, but my prediction is he doesn't win it, and thus does not win the Grand Slam.

One of the Next Gens will win the U.S. Open, marking the first time when at least two of the Big Three play that Rafa-Roger-Novak don't win it.

So all three end 2021 tied at 20 Grand Slams apiece. What do you think?
Dominic C.

• Oof. I feel like this retirement talk is like climate change. It was lurking for years. We all knew some basics about time and science and physics—and in this case, biophysics. We knew the happy status quo was unsustainable. But we brushed it aside. Now, the irrefutable evidence is confronting us.

Let’s preface this: encouraging athletes to retire—and this nonsense about “not tarnishing their legacy”—is unseemly and should be avoided at all costs. It’s their decision. It’s deeply personal. They don’t need our opinions. But speculating on retirement is fair game. Applies to athletes, actors, CEOs, etc. The vox populi is entitled to play futurist and divine, much as they would a mock draft or a trade or whether a coach survives. That said, I think this is too negative by multiple orders of magnitude:

1) I agree that Federer tries to give it a go and play one more season. I think it’s less because “he likes the adulation” than he is convinced that, if healthy, he can still play winning tennis. There is irony plenty here: for two decades, he stayed remarkably healthy. But, man, this knee injury is persistent. And, man, he really is 40.

2) If Nadal plays the U.S. Open, my name is Olga Barabanschikova; and, yeah, sadly I think the Nadal existential shot clock is ticking down to another year as well. One of you asked whether he sticks around until the 2024 Olympics, which will be played at Roland Garros. That sounds overly ambitious. His foot is in a state of insurrection and, at 35—married, with a plot of land ready for a family—you wonder how much more rehab and testing and “went to a specialist” he is willing to endure. Reader Betty Scott kindly has been translating articles from Borja Sanchez and…yeah. (The foot injury is essentially the same one that prevented him from playing the 2004 (!) French Open.)

3) I’m predicting a Grand Slam. In part because I believe in Djokovic. In part because of the depleted field. In part because tennis needs a karmic bump. Djokovic’s stock was higher pre-Tokyo, than post-Tokyo. No question. But don’t overlook the best-of-five format. He’s so good and so lacking in weakness, that, over five sets, he can play through fogs.

4) I worry about Serena. She basically only plays the majors. And here are her last four: R2 (withdrawal) / SF / 4R / 1R (RET). For years, we’ve faithfully abided the mantra, “Overlook her at your peril.” But it’s hard to imagine her swooping in, not having played a completed match since June, and winning seven hard-court matches. Short of winning the title, she will be disappointed. She could lose in the final 7-6 in the third to Osaka and there would be no moral victories. And where does this leave her at age 40?

To go back to the climate change analogy….you feel like there are some tectonic plates shifting, heading into the U.S. Open.

djokovic-mailbag-us-open-shift

With the focus on the mental health of Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka, is it worth looking back on how we treated other tennis stars who suffered mid-career mental setbacks? Djokovic, Serena, maybe you put Agassi in here too. How is the press and the wider tennis community reacting today compared to then? My memory says the press wasn’t so gentle (especially to Serena) but I wasn’t in the thick of it like you were.
Paul Haskins, Wilmington, N.C.

• It’s a really interesting question. This new, if overdue, focus and acknowledgement of mental health, has gotten me thinking a lot about sports history. How many other performances—and we’re not just talking tennis here—were impacted by an athlete’s mental health struggles? How many losses were mischaracterized? How many athletes’ careers would have been different if they had been properly diagnosed? Or if they themselves had the vocabulary to express their challenges?

This is imperfect, but here goes: imagine if there were an injury, say, plantar fasciitis, that was very real, but never diagnosed. For decades, athletes were reluctant to complain about plantar fasciitis because they knew it would not be taken seriously, or it would be casually dismissed as a pretext for lack of mettle. Eventually we reach a point where we say: “Plantar fasciitis is legitimate. It carries no shame. It can be addressed and treated and perhaps even prevented.” This is great. But how many athletes say, “Man, I wish that understanding existed when I was suffering. How different might my career have turned out?”

Having said all that, a broken spirit is not a broken bone. And it’s for athletes to set the parameters for discussing their mental health. Some—Simone Biles, Osaka, Rebecca Marino, Kevin Love, Dak Prescott, Kyrgios, Ron Artest—are quite open. Others less so. Djokovic? Serena? Agassi? Until and unless they speak specifically about their mental health challenges, I don’t think we can speculate much about the source of their mid-career setbacks. But hopefully there is at least a tacit acknowledgement—among fans, among media, even other athletes—that there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for performances lapses.

As we come up on the 20th anniversary, I can't help but look back at that U.S. Open before the world changed. Living in New York at the time, one of my thoughts of the day was: but Lleyton Hewitt was just down there with the trophy for a photo op. Has he ever discussed this? And where was he on that day? Assume he was flying home. Same question about Venus, assume she did the same photo op that Sunday.
Kent Anderson

• Hewitt was flying back home, trophy in hand, and I gather didn’t know anything until he landed in Sydney. He’s spoken about it a bit.

It’s easy to lapse into cliché when we talk about trauma—and 9/11 specifically. I’m sure that will be the case again as the 20th anniversary approaches. But I am still so struck by the sheer randomness of it all, who lived and who died. Ever hear the story of Seth McFarlane? He had left L.A. and returned to Rhode Island for some comedy shows. His travel agent (remember those?) mistyped the departure time on his itinerary. He showed up a few minutes too late to catch his flight….so he didn’t board one of the L.A.-bound planes that crashed. There are hundreds of these stories, with happy coincidences and tragic endings. If there’s a weekend U.S. Open rain delay in 2001 and final was played on Monday—which it often was before the roof—who knows how many tennis folks are on those flights?

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Hey Jon. As a diehard Federer fan, I’ve accepted that Djokovic will significantly surpass his many achievements (on paper, not in the zeitgeist… but that’s another conversation). I was rooting for him to capture the elusive Golden Slam, and I’m equally invested in him winning the calendar Slam. It’s so exciting to watch. However, I have a feeling though that we’re going to have Serena/Vinci 2.0 at the U.S. Open and see him fall in the semis to a credible player who’s at the tail end of his career. Depending on the draw, I’m envisioning someone like Fognini or Nishikori. Just wanted to put that out there for posterity and to get your thoughts. Do you predict he’ll go all the way?
Best regards, LT, Toronto

• I’m surprised how many people have expressed similar sentiment. It’s like PTSD from Serena’s run. There are some real material differences here. Djokovic will not have to play his brother en route—which takes a bigger emotional price than either Venus or Serena ever concede. Djokovic isn’t playing in his “home Slam.” Djokovic gets to play best-of-five tennis. I think he gets it. I really do.

I was looking at the Mailbag today and it occurred to me to ask this question: is your job as fun as it used to be?
James, Portland

• Oh, man, Where to begin on that? I’d say yes, it is as much fun, because my admiration for the players only increases, as I see how extraordinarily difficult the job is and how, as a workforce, they are collectively quite great. I’d say no, as I see tennis suits make the same unforced errors and fight the same stupid turf wars they were fighting when I started 20 years ago….I’d say yes, because the great virtue of the sport—diversity, its ability to span gender, border and physically differences—is more pronounced than ever. I’d say no because there have never been fewer relevant Americans, which has hurt the sport’s popularity and content demand in the country in which I’m based .…I’d say yes because of all the platforms—TV, podcasting, even social media—that weren’t there when I started. I’d say no, because sometimes you feel less like a journalist or writer than someone simply feeding the insatiable content furnace….I’d say yes, because there’s something really liberating about covering tennis because I want to; not because I have to. I’d say no, because I can’t cover tennis as often or deeply as I could if it were my only job….I’d say yes, because social media has been a great resource, enabled me to be in contract with fans and coaches and colleagues and players—receiving information with a few swipes. I’d say no because social media can be a sewer.

++ As long as we’re on the latter point, I can’t get over the blazing discourtesy/hostility. On Sunday, Federer pulled out of the U.S. Open. I’m thinking, It’s a pity Federer’s body is making these decisions for him, sentiment hardly original. I fire off the following: “We know time moves only in one direction. We all know Father Time's record in head-to-head....still, there's something deeply sad about watching an elite athlete lose agency like this.”

I stare down at my phone a bit later and get this from @mmsllms: “Any time of the day or night, you will never be in the same class as Roger Federer. Your agency should lose you.” I ask: in what universe is this an acceptable interaction? Imagine walking up to a stranger on the street and having this encounter. At some point social media will be a dying ember, replaced by another technology innovation. And we reveal a trove of social science data about the way we interact.

Hi Jon. Hope all is good with you! I really enjoyed watching Camila Giorgi play at the National Bank Open. Great on her feet, clean strokes, and surprising power. She really played within herself (maybe less distractions with her father absent) and got the biggest title of her career. Part of me is happy for her, but I can never forget the article you wrote about a long trail of investors in her career that she and her father left high and dry without repayment of loans or a share of her earnings. The non-repayment was bad enough, but their cold dismissal with no explanation of the people that helped them really bothered me. Is there a follow-up to this? Did they ever do right by those that helped get her career started? Thanks.
Scott Jacksonville, Fla.

• Thanks. Oy, I feel like a jerk here. This was the best week’s life Giorgi’s career. We’ve always marveled at how she punches up, slugging above her weight. She married it with control and poise; won the biggest title of her career; played herself into seeding for the U.S. Open…and crossed the $5 million mark in career prize money. I concede that, like you, I thought of her finances. At last check with my sources, they had not been repaid for their assorted largesse. But I’ll reach back out to them.

Hi Jon. WTFIGOW Aslan Karatsev? One time world beater…Is everyone just wise to his game? Thanks.
Kelly G., Louisville, Ky.

• Short answer: Jenson Brooksby—age 20— tapped Karatsev on the shoulder and said, “Hold my Sierra Nevada.” No, it’s a good question. For the first five months of the year, Karatsev was the hottest player this side of Djokovic. (Whom he beat. In Belgrade.) Since then, he struggled, winning only three of his last 10 matches. The reflexive answer: everyone caught on to his game, the way, say, batters catch on to rookie pitchers. I’m not sure that quite gets us there. I think the better explanation: the guy is hitting a wall in terms of…everything. Travel. Expectation. Quality of opponent each week. Here’s someone who spent a decade outside the top 100. Suddenly he’s not just getting into main draws; he's seeded at Masters 1000s.

Hope you are well. Shh, don’t tell anybody, but there is WTA tournament in Chicago starting this weekend? Apparently, it’s a secret, because (1) there is no website, (2) I can’t figure out how to buy tickets, and (3) I don’t even know where it is. This, after several Google searches since its announcement, most recently today. Any insights here? Is there something about this inter-webs thingy that I’m not doing right?
Parker, Chicago

Can I offer you this?

Shots, Miscellany

Davis Cup comes to Queens.

• Who wants to contribute to the health care of a Tennis Hall of Famer?

• Congrats, graduates:

• Top American juniors Zachary Svajda (18, San Diego) and Ashlyn Krueger (17, Highland Village, Texas) won the USTA Boys’ and Girls’ 18s National Championships today, each earning a wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open.

• Press releasing: “The ITF has today published the ITF Global Tennis Report 2021 which assesses the impact of the pandemic on worldwide tennis participation and other measurables and reveals that tennis participation continues to rise globally.

The new report is an important and timely update to the ITF Global Tennis Report 2019, which established for the first time a worldwide picture of tennis performance and participation. The data provides crucial insight that informs the ITF’s global development strategy which sees over $10 million invested each year to ensure the sustainability and long-term health of tennis.

Key findings of the report indicate that there are more than 87 million players within the 41 nations that contributed, an increase of 4.5% in these countries compared with the 2019 report which was based on data collected from 195 nations. Positive growth has also been reported in the total number of tennis courts, clubs and coaches. The findings paint a picture of a sport in good health despite the impact of the pandemic. The data points to tennis’s strong foundations as the ITF and its member nations continue to implement a global development strategy and digital innovation which includes the worldwide roll out the ITF World Tennis Number, aiming to accelerate growth in participation in line with ITF2024 strategic goals.”

• More press releasing: “The WTA and FanDuel today announced the designation of FanDuel as an Authorized Gaming Operator in North, South, and Central America. The new relationship brings America’s number one sportsbook and industry-leading daily fantasy sports products directly to WTA fans and marks the first time a women’s sport will have video highlights throughout FanDuel’s digital platforms and sportsbooks. WTA will grant FanDuel access to its trademarks and FanDuel will also use WTA Tour’s official scoring data from Stats Perform, the Official Data Supplier of the WTA throughout FanDuel’s platforms. This integration will allow tennis fans in the Americas to join the growing engagement opportunities surrounding fantasy sports and further professionalize the legalized gaming category for tennis.”

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