While wondering about the confusion befalling the excellent NYT reporter, Alexandra Stevenson, when she checks her mentions during U.S. Open time….
Dan Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, is mandating that all players coming to Australia for the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In other words, double jabbed. Do you think many players like Novak Djokovic will refuse to come to Australia because of this?
—Richard Guthriel, Melbourne, Australia
• With a resigned sigh, we’ll start here. Richard’s question has been overtaken by Monday’s news that Australia will NOT require vaccinations for players but will, rather, have two protocol tracks—one for the vaccinated and one for the unvaccinated. If you’re sick of vaccine rants—and I’m sick of vaccine rants—just skip this question. But it’s newsworthy. It was by far the biggest topic this week. It implicates the No. 1 player. And it did not, predictably, go over well, especially in Australia which has faced some of the world’s harshest lockdowns.
A common Mailbag trope goes like this: Tennis needs to decide if it’s varsity or jayvee. There’s plenty of raw material for the former. Global appeal. Vital and vibrant stars. A range of ages, genders, personalities. History. Tradition. Aura. Tennis rocks.
And then the sport self-sabotages with, to mix sports metaphors, these maddening own goals. The governance structure makes the Electoral College look logical and efficient. The rot caused by conflicts of interests persists. Management companies own events and, trying to control costs, undermine the same players they purport to represent. Some broadcasters don’t disclose their moonlighting roles or their financial interests in players’ success, coloring commentary. There are no domestic violence policies so when players are accused of bad acts, the entire sport becomes paralyzed. We can go on.
Now there’s this: At a time when fans and media and volunteers can’t get through turnstiles without proof of vaccination, there’s no vaccine mandate for players. And rather than take an ethical stance, tennis has retreated, accommodating the embarrassingly large cohort of players who won’t roll up their sleeves. This was spun to me as a win: "Look at how much juice tennis has, at least in Australia!" I would argue the opposite: tennis looks small and socially irresponsible, more willing to spread a virus than stand up to players.
Tennis positions itself all the more dubiously given the stance of other sports. Athletes are supposed to set examples for the public. Right now, you have leagues leaping over themselves to boast about their high vaccination rates. (Even the ATP says it “strongly encouraged vaccination both on-site and through communication on over 20 separate occasions. … As per other major organizations, ATP considering additional incentives to encourage vaccination.”) So why capitulate?
Anyway, Djokovic is this varsity-vs-jayvee dilemma personified. Do you want to be a towering, credible global sportsman? Or do you want to be tossed in with Kyrie Irving, Evander Kane and Cole Beasley?
In so many ways, Djokovic is awesome. As a player, he will likely retire having shattered every record. He is charismatic. He is quirky. He is smart. He is multilingual. He also is, almost willfully, incapable of getting out of his own way, undermining his credibility (and earning potential) in the process. In 2020, he oversaw the Adria Tour, sport’s answer to the Fyre Fest. A year later, Djokovic recovers from this, wins three COVID-era majors and repairs some reputational damage….only to become the face of the vaccine-skeptic athlete—or, at a minimum, show a disinclination to correct that perception.
Djokovic is coy about his vaccine status and has come up with some false “very fine people on both sides” equivalencies. "Whatever you say—I have, I have not, maybe, I do not know or I am thinking about it—they will use it against you. There is excessive speculation, from the media as well, which bothers me a lot.”
First, who is “they”? In what universe is vaccination “used against” anyone, much less a celebrity? Somehow everyone from Britney Spears to Hugh Jackman to LeBron James has fended off the onslaught. And media speculation? This is not idle gossip. This is not pregnancy or near-sightedness or whether you have the chromosome for cilantro. This is a global public health crisis; and the vaccination status of players will determine whether and how events can be held. The premier of Victoria has called out Djokovic by name. For the media NOT to report on this—and even “speculate” given the absence of transparency? It would be an act of malpractice. The viability of the sport rides on this.
For a guy who prides himself on a certain ambassadorial carriage…for a guy who—and this is no knock—wants you to like him….for a guy who positions himself as a leader….too often, he acts at variance with those goals. This is not tennis Twitter. Or Nick Kyrgios. Or Federer fans. This is mainstream. It’s sad. It’s unnecessary.
There’s a Djokovic documentary in the works and it should be terrific. Who wouldn’t want an intimate glimpse of a once-in-a-generation athlete? But you also suspect that in a decade or two there will be another Djokovic documentary, 30 for 30 style. He will relive his on-court glories, which I suspect will include retiring with the most majors, even if the Australian Open 2022 isn’t among them. But, one suspects, there will also be the inevitable scene when he takes inventory of his off-court unforced errors, his negating of good will. And he will say sheepishly, “Damn, I wish someone had grabbed me by the lapels and set me straight and say, ‘Dude, you’re better than this!’ ” Same goes for tennis as a whole.
We’ve now seen Andy Murray beat Hubert Hurkacz, beat Frances Tiafoe, almost beat Zverev. At what point do we consider him a contender again?
• This has been one of the heartening stories of the fall. In the absence of so many other titans, Murray has filled a void, both with his personality and, more important, his play. “Yoo-hoo. Remember me? Over here? Former No. 1? Multiple major champ? Given up for dead? Setting off metal detectors with my hip? I still have some game in me.”
In addition to the wins, you have to like the close calls. Murray isn’t here for a retirement tour or an I-just-want-to-test-my-body exercise. He wants, desperately, to win. He exults when he does. He sulks when he doesn’t. His multiple-day trolling of Tsitsipas was revealing. His fury upon losing to Zverev was palpable. This looks an awful lot like the mentality of the guy when he was No. 1.
The Tennis Ogre returns with this….we need to account for the difference between best-of-three and best-of-five. Can Murray win Masters 1000 events? Absolutely. Can he win 21 sets in the span of 14 days? That’s a considerably different question.
Opelka had an “ambitious target” in his interview, one that I wish some journalist would delve into—are players at Indian Wells really required to spend many hours a day in photo shoots?
—Helen of DC
• Most players get to southern California a few days early, even a week early. Some of this owes simply to scheduling—in non-COVID years, there is a soft week for most players. Some of this is weather. Some of this is geography. Los Angeles is, save traffic, two hours away. You take care of your commercial obligations—shoot your photo or your commercial at Jimmy Goldstein’s court; visit Nike; visit the WME offices—and presto, you’ve fulfilled your obligations. At least until the U.S. Open.
Jon, thanks for your great coverage of tennis. Medvedev is obviously a great hard court player; so you think he’ll ever be able to win Wimbledon or the French Open, and which is more likely? I feel like he should be good on both surfaces
• I’ll say Wimbledon simply because Medvedev is, by his own admission—allowing for some sandbagging, no pun intended—a subpar claycourter. But I’m with you. He is a deceptive mover. Those slappy shots might be too flat for clay, but they still penetrate the court. This is intended as a compliment, but he ought to be better on grass AND clay. Right now, he’s dude-Osaka. A U.S. Open title; a run to the Aussie Open final; a 4-5 career record in Paris (though he’s coming off a quarterfinal run) and never been past Manic Monday at Wimbledon.
Why do tennis players apologize for net cords (which are always accidental) but never for drop shots (which are always intentional)?
• “In our little village of Anatevka, how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word... Tradition."
This has hardened into tennis code. It’s silly. It’s insincere. (If players were truly wracked with guilt over winning cheap points, they would concede bad calls that went against their opponents.) At the same time, there’s something charming. Not unlike you-didn’t-call-glass in basketball, there’s an acknowledgement that luck, not skill, won that particular point.
So…..Jannick Sinner, 41 tournaments played? Wait…what??? How many??? The kid just hit 20 years old. What could possibly explain 41 tournaments?
—Bob O, Milwaukee, Wis.
• Imagine if there had been a pandemic that had wiped out part of the schedule. Then that workload would be even more impressive. Oh, wait…A few thoughts: Sinner turned pro in 2018 and was already top 100 in 2019. (He’s now at a career-high No. 11.) So, he had both opportunity and motive. Also, we talk often about how many events have left the U.S. and the harmful effect on American players. Well, here’s the reverse. A young player sets up a base in Monte Carlo and is a 90-minute flight from roughly half the events on the calendar. That reduces wear-and-tear, jetlag, and above all expense. A lot easier for him to play 40 events than, say, Jenson Brooksby, much less a promising South African or South American.
Looking at some young(ish) American players, if you were to look at specific strokes that could use some tweaks or improvement, which of the following do you think would have the biggest upside?
a) Gauff's forehand
b) Tiafoe's forehand
c) Brooksby's serve
d) Fritz's volley
e) Another player/stroke
—Bob K., Brooklyn
• I’d say Gauff’s second serve before her forehand. Frances’s forehand has that hitch. But how often does it really get him in trouble? Fritz can—and often does—pin himself to the baseline. So sure, I’ll go with Brooksby’s serve, if only because it’s the most important shot and there’s no hiding it or running around it. Having said that, I cannot overstate my respect/appreciation for him and his game. Here was a guy who started the season playing in the tennis wilderness. Now, you have to roam the wilderness for someone who doesn’t see him as a future top 20 player.
HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!
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