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Mailbag: Dealing With Gamesmanship in Tennis

Plus more on the biggest headlines from the 2021 U.S. Open as the tournament approaches its final days.

Wednesday is Mailbag Day. A lot of good questions this weekend. Some, though, are obsolete and others will be by the time you read this. But here goes …


This may be the last time this question is up for debate with the Big Three all with 20 majors. If they all hung up the racquet today, who's the GOAT? Please don't be a politician, tell us what you think, we'll still follow you! My answer (I'm a huge Fed fan) is quarter of a body length in a photo finish. When Djokovic wins one more in a couple of weeks or at the Australian Open, the debate is over.
Vijay K

• Say this: If Djokovic pulls this off, making a statistical GOAT case for anyone other Djokovic goes from a herculean task to a Sisyphean task.

Novak Djokovic

Thank you for the Mailbag. We look forward to it every week. Here's our question.

While we're on the subject of legitimate vs. illegitimate breaks (see Tsitsipas and extended bathroom visits), was the line crossed by Barbora Krejčíková when she took a medical timeout at the end of the second set vs. Garbiñe Muguruza? And what can the tours do to ensure that players who are struggling with conditions don't simply get to take time out to cool down and gather their strength?
Sherrie and David, northern California

• Thanks. I think you go honor system here. I get Muguruza’s frustration. But is Krejčíková really bringing this level of gamesmanship to a major match? She teetered off the court and looked paler than the Wimbledon dress code. Trying to legislate here is a fool’s errand. I think you leave it to players to let the reputation market do its thing. For all the dubious injuries and unnecessarily prolonged breaks, I don’t think this was one of them.

Hi Jon…so many qualifiers and lower-ranked players making the second week of the Open is amazing! Makes me wonder though…is this a domino effect because so many big names are not at the tournament, or a changing of the guard?
Kelly G., Louisville, Ky.

• Yes, some of this is just math. With Federer/Nadal/Serena out—players with at least 20 majors apiece—you’ll have more competitive matches. But it’s some abstract. I love how Frances Tiafoe put it: “I definitely think guys are trying extra hard, because there is [no] Roger, Rafa. I truly believe that. ... I see, like, guys are foaming in the mouth, like it's pretty funny to watch. I'm in the locker room cracking up."

More women's seeds left in the singles draw than men's seeds at the U.S. open. Does this end the narrative that the women's event is wide open?

Funny, a few months ago the tennis salon decided that the women’s game was settling. We had a core of young and steady players—Barty, Osaka, Sabalenka, Halep, Andreescu, Swiatek the ascending Coco Gauff, Mugu when she came to play—who would separate themselves from the field and spark rivalries. Here, only Sabalenka made the quarterfinals. Krejčíková (losing as I write this) is the only player in the final eight ever to win a major. Yet this women’s event—wide open as ever—has been wonderful.

The men may have fewer seeds left. But I would say that four of the top five contenders before the tournament—starting with the guy going for the Grand Slam—remain.

Very thankful to see such a great U.S. Open as we continue to suffer this awful pandemic. I'm concerned about the growing volume of hatred expressed to players, as Shelby Rogers mentioned in her press conference and with reference to her social media feed following the loss to an inspired Emma Raducanu. Tournament security can reduce obvious threats to players, but with every player, and seemingly every person, having their own media channel today, and nearly unlimited access to players through their open media feeds, it seems that both fans and trolls have far too much access to players than we're entitled, and that there is an impact on the players and sport. This problem seems to be compounded by betting, where wagers won and lost go beyond the bookies, and random bettors lash out at players despite the reality of risk and reward in gambling. Thankfully Rogers is resilient. But the frequency and barrage of threats, however distant, is unnerving, and probably appear much more real to players than imagined. In light of this growing problem for players and the sport, is there a way forward for the tours?

Thanks for considering and apologies for the long question.
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.

• This is a real issue and it dovetails with our discussion about mental health. It’s really a question for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram more than tennis. We’re all in favor of free speech. But this is so vile—and anonymous—it calls for policing. Telling players not to look at their phones is not a realistic option. Neither is “concentrate on the positive messages.” There’s probably a discussion to be had about tennis’s relationship with gambling, as most of these nasty messages coming from losers who have made unsuccessful wagers. But I’m not sure ending, or reexamining, partnerships with DraftKings and FanDuel and data companies—which would reduce players’ income and ­solve nothing—is not the answer.

Hi Jon: We humans are really good at post-facto mythologizing. But let’s be level-headed for a moment. A match that ends after 2 a.m. in the morning local time isn’t cute, it’s a massive imposition on everyone (except maybe the broadcasting network). Instead of celebrating the matches I propose we rake over the coals any tournament organizers who start a match after, say, 9 pm. Or am I being too much of a killjoy?
Alistair W., Toronto

• Totally with you. These matches trigger giggles and one-liners about coffee and the “city that never sleeps.” But what does it do for players when they don’t return to their hotels until the sun is rising? Even with a day off, this messes with rhythms. (And would be much more of a competitive disadvantage than any extended bathroom break.)

A word of appreciation for Dan Evans (he fought like a lion tonight and richly deserves his place in the fourth round). Lovely one-handed backhand, great all-court style and a very nice backhand slice as well. Classic style. Fluid strokes. Suffers from being just 5’8”, especially on the drive backhand and serve, but very easy on the eye and got to his career high ranking the hard way (cochineal ban)
James W., London

• I’m thinking cochineal may be autocorrect at its finest. But, yes, all hail Evans. His fire. His one-handed backhand. His candor. He’s like a tennis dockworker. And he was on the court for the craziest tennis shot you’ll ever see.

Jon, Vika was one of my favorites. However, I have not been following tennis for the last few years. I watched her lose in the third round at the U.S. Open. She seemed much as I remembered with two exceptions.

1) A little less fire.

2) I think I remember when she was winning two Australian Opens and the Indian Wells and Miami double that she had a very good inside-out forehand. I know her regular forehand was weaker than her backhand. Do I disremember about the inside-Out forehand or has she really lost it?
Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.

• Hey, welcome back to the fold. Things probably look a little different than they did a few years ago. Azarenka is a tough nut. Sometimes she looks like a world beater capable of winning majors. Other times, her shots don’t penetrate the court and one side is prone to breaking down. She supports what we often say about aging players. It’s not that they forget how to play. Assuming they are professional—and she is—it’s not like fitness slips. It’s simply the list of variables spoiling/complicating a match/tournament gets bigger and bigger. More and more has to go right for them to win majors.

Jon, I can’t help feeling that by focusing on the “gamesmanship” and the vague wording of the rule, all the debate is missing the bigger (to me) issue that Tsitsipas (and all the other guys as well) aren’t actually using the bathroom at all but furiously texting their coaches from the bathroom. Even imposing a time limit on the breaks wouldn’t solve that problem. How do we fix that?

• a) If they bring a clear bag, we would ascertain they were not taking their phone with them; b) if they were caught it would be an automatic default. This would be flagrant cheating and shouldn’t be tolerated. Not sure he wants to be named but a friend wrote: “Players can leave court for kit change, but cannot take their tennis bag. Clothes can be easily carried by hand or in small plastic bag. This isn’t football gear. That step would eliminate the texting suspicion. Several players did that last night on Armstrong…Just carried their clothes in their hand to change off court.”

Another “A” grade should go Alexandra Stevenson’s commentary on ESPN.

• This pertains to the Midterm Grades. I include this as evidence re: the opinions about the television commentariat being completely subjective. Thinking the (excellent) New York Times journalist Alexandra Stevenson has a wild go of it when she checks her mentions during the U.S. Open weeks.

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