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Mailbag: Frances Tiafoe's Big Week

Plus discussion on the upcoming Australian Open, Nadal’s longevity and more.

A short Mailbag, while thinking of tennis lover Dick Vitale….

Jon, how excited should I allow myself to get about Frances Tiafoe?
Michael R.

• Here we are in what might be called the man-spread portion of the ATP calendar, the fall swing, held mostly indoors, many weeks after the previous major and many weeks before the next. And yet we have compelling results and storylines. Last week—at least here in the jingoistic, male-contender-starved U.S.—the star performer was Frances Tiafoe, who won six matches in Vienna to reach the final, beating Tsitsipas, Schwartzman and Sinner in succession. It was late October. It was a continent away from home. Tiafoe lost the final to Alexander Zverev. And still, it marked the week of his tennis life.

To Michael’s question: How good is Frances? Very. At his peak, he can beat anyone. At age 23, he is starting to enter his meaty prime. As an athlete, he takes a backseat to no one. His serve is solid and improving. For all the talk of his hitchy forehand, he can hang with anyone from the baseline. He had really taken pains to become an all-surface player and an all-court player.

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His backstory provides inspiration. His coach provides poise and wisdom. There’s also his popularity. Everyone likes Tiafoe—crowds, the media, the rest of the locker room. (Sinner perhaps notwithstanding.) We talk often about players being “good people.” But I have a hard time recalling a player whose popularity is so materially part of their game. Frances is a showman not in a Monfils-ian style-over-substance way; but in a way where he uses his popularity and entertainment in service of his tennis. His has a singular ability alchemize the energy and fondness from the crowd in a way that elevates his tennis.

If there’s a caveat here, it’s that Tiafoe can hit some real lows. He also can struggle to close. That he had to win six matches in Vienna means, of course, that he had to qualify. This year alone, Tiafoe has taken 13 (!) losses to players ranked outside the top 50 at the time. Some worse than others, but that’s a stat that needs improving. (Even after his stellar week, he’s still outside the top 40.) All of which is to say…. A lot of encouraging signs from a player it’s virtually impossible not to like. But a lot of work ahead. Onward.

On Djokovic's vaccination status, one can go the privacy route. It is nobody's business and requiring disclosure is a violation of a fundamental individual right. Could a Marxist approach be an alternative interpretation? Djokovic has amassed fame and fortune. He can dictate to others, such as Australia, including Tennis Australia, the agency that retreated. Djokovic may or may not intentionally want to oppress by imposing his will against "If you ask, I won't go." To put it politely, it seems the hosts wanted to avoid a Djokovic boycott. It is unfortunate that they didn't realize that many tennis fans, including myself, I have been watching tennis before Djokovic, during his "reign," and will certainly continue to follow the sports AFTER he retires. Will he regret his current stand and wished for a friendly shake-up? We don't have an accurate nor reliable crystal ball. All I know is that I would have watched the Australian Open without the Three Tennis Magi, had Australia stood its ground.
L. Pereira, British Columbia, Canada

• Right on. Let’s leave Marx aside and take the capitalist approach….if I own a tournament, I want to do everything in my power NOT to be star-dependent. I want to say, “People come to my event because it’s a destination. It’s a great day in the sun. It offers experiential value. People come to XYZ Open because they want to attend the XYZ Open. If they get Federer/Serena, great. If they get Cam Norrie and Paula Badosa, well, that’s fine, too.”

If I’m Tennis Australia, instead of pandering to players—and enraging fans and sponsors; especially in my own market where COVID protocols have been brutal for the common citizenry‑use this as an opportunity to build equity. Especially as we move into an era with Federer, Nadal and Serena, you would think tournament would want to hard-line players (“we call the shots here, no pun intended, no you”) and not pander.

I remember for much of the 2000s (are we still saying “aughts?”) , the conversation around Rafael Nadal was that he was a phenom whose physically demanding game would cause him to burn bright, burn fast and eventually burn out. As a fan, I lived with anxiety that each of his injuries would be his last. That either fatigue or injury would dramatically shorten his career. Flash forward, and Rafa has been in the top ten for 16.5 consecutive years without a single interruption, which is a record by some margin. For me, this is one of the most astonishing accomplishments in sports, especially considering the conventional wisdom on Rafa’s game as well as the quality of his competition. Yet, I feel like it’s not something people hype as much as they should. But it’s a pretty big deal, right? As someone who has covered Rafa his whole career, when did you realize that that earlier narrative wasn’t right and that Rafa was actually something of a marathon man. Or do you think there’s a different take on this? Thanks!
Michael Mungin, Seattle, Wa.

• No, you’re absolutely right on both points. Nadal’s longevity is one of tennis’ happier surprises. It’s easy to blame this on media skepticism but go back and read the Nadal camp’s own grim assessments in, say, 2009, and it’s clear he doesn’t see himself lasting long. Just too much wear-and-tear on the body. I vividly recall Toni Nadal saying words to the effect of, Rafa would play like Federer if he could. But he doesn’t have that lightness and we’ll have to deal with the consequences. That Nadal is still contending for Slams in his mid-30s is both a happy unexpected outcome and a credit to the adjustments (training, style, scheduling) he’s made.

And yes, 16.5 years inhabiting the top ten is absurd. I can hear the cynics now complaining that much of his gains are made on clay or that he’s missed double-digit majors in that time. No matter. That’s an underrated streak.

How much do tournaments try to accommodate the previous week's results when making schedules? For example, I noticed that Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Marin Cilic all got scheduled for Tuesday rather than Monday at Paris after making finals last week. Is this a coincidence, or did Paris give them a travel day so that they wouldn't have to play a final Sunday and then a first round match on Monday? Are there any other factors that get routinely figured into match scheduling (other than, I'm sure, big names getting some preferential treatment with respect to match time)?
Tom, Durham, N.C.

• It depends on the circumstance—and status of the player—but tournaments try to accommodate players who have had success the previous week. Sometimes nothing can be done. Sometimes the day off is a function of dumb luck. Sometimes when the player has sufficient leverage (and the tournament is small enough), a late start is a condition for entry. “If Susie is going to come to Chillicothe, it’s on the condition she doesn’t play Monday or Tuesday.”

Everyone wins when the tournaments make reasonable accommodations. The player appreciates the day off to rest and recover (and travel) and the tournament benefits from having the previous week’s winner in the draw and not playing on fumes. My issue: I wish there was more cooperation among the tournaments held the same week. If, say, Osaka is schedule to play at 3p, can we coordinate and make sure that Djokovic—even if he’s multiple time zones away—isn’t on court at the same time?

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What’s your take on players who seem to regularly celebrate winning points with a fist pump / fist in the air / finger point at the temple / gesticulating to the crowd for applause, etc.? I’m not suggesting that tennis go the way of the NFL, with its “celebration rules,” but the constant self-aggrandizing is off-putting.
Scott, Cumberland, Maine

• I agree it’s often self-aggrandizing. Sometimes, depending on context, it’s off-putting. And I am all for it. The more emoting and expressiveness, the better. Some of this owes simply to the fact that we will always side with more color over less. Second, it would be hell to legislate. (A fist-pump is okay, but a Wawrinkian finger to the temple is verboten?) Third, in a sport of individual contractors, I think it’s especially difficult to impose rules like this.

Sidebar: I’ve heard different rationales for the crackdown on NFL (and NBA) celebrations. Leaving aside the undercurrent of race, these rules are often put in place to avoid violence. Taunting leads to fighting. That’s not really an issue in tennis. You may not like it when your opponent bangs his heart or points to her head (the implication: she has superior mettle or mental toughness ). But you’re not likely to throw them an elbow the next time down the field.

Hey Jon. I know you said we should move past the vaccination rants.

But are you telling me that as a fan, I need to get two shots to go watch Djokovic in Australia, but Djokovic himself doesn’t need to? The privileged really have a different set of rules don’t they? This is preposterous.
Deepak, New York

• It’s a terrible look. It’s indefensible. Using Mailbag and Twitter comments as a barometer, it plays terribly with fans. And this idea that “it’s private,” is terribly misguided. There’s the great Warren Buffet line, “When the tide goes out, you see who is swimming naked.” Tennis corollary: “When the Victorian government puts in a vaccine mandate, it will reveal a lot.”

Just so you know, as I write, Djokovic will still not be welcome. In Australia the state premiers have the final authority in this matter and Victoria's premier, Daniel Andrews, has said he is standing firm; he will not apply for an exception for unvaccinated players. This contradicts what our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said about 14 days quarantine being sufficient. As a Victorian, my experience is that Daniel Andrews does not back down easily, and Djokovic will need the jab. But let's wait and see...
Mark Nolan

• Even at the most charitable: Imagine being a global athlete, standing accused of being a vaccine skeptic—so much so that politicians cite you by name—and not rushing to correct that perception. It’s just so profoundly disappointing.

Shots, Miscellany

Some Nadal news.

Sportradar and the ITF.

This week’s book recommendation: Drew Magary’s The Night the Light Went Out.

• The WTA has announced the results of the 2021 election of the WTA Board representatives and WTA Players’ and Tournament Council members.

As voted on by the WTA Players’ Council, two new Player Board Representatives have been elected to the 2021-2023 term. WTA player and former Players’ Council member Kristie Ahn was elected as the 21-100+ Representative and former officiating professional and tournament consultant Anja Vreg was elected as the Top 20 Representative.

WTA Player Board Representatives engage with Players’ Council and the players. They are responsible for assuring that the Board is fully informed of the players’ point of view.

Peter Michael Reichel was re-elected for a 3-year term by the European tournaments and Gavin Ziv was re-elected for a 2-year term by the Tournament Council.

Both David Haggerty and Kris Dent were re-appointed by the ITF for two additional years as members of the Board of Directors.

Two new members have been elected to the Players’ Council for the 2021-2023 term, with Victoria Azarenka returning to the Players’ Council (having served from 2017 - 2019) and representing Top 20 ranked players and Magda Linette joining the Players’ Council for the first time, representing players ranked 51-100. Sloane Stephens was re-elected as a Top 20 member and Gaby Dabrowski remains on the Players’ Council, now representing players ranked 21+.

Tournament Director, player agent and former professional player Dr. Aljoscha Thron will join the Tournament Council as the Europe 250 member. Bob Moran and Charles Hsiung were re-elected to their respective positions for three years.

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