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Mailbag: Here's Why Djokovic's Paris Masters Title Was So Significant

Plus thoughts about the Billie Jean King Cup, WTA Player of the Year contenders and more.

Hey everyone….

While thinking that Torben Beltz and Esteban Carril (once Carlos Moya’s junior rival) have come a long way since their NCAA tennis days….

Jon, I know you and Courier were discussing it on Tennis Channel, but please help me understand: when did Novak Djokovic turn into a serve-and-volley maestro?
Scott, New Jersey

• For those who missed it, Djokovic avenged his U.S. Open final defeat by beating Daniil Medvedev Sunday in Paris. And did so in part because he served-and-volleyed often and won 27 points (!), more than an entire set, while at the net.

I have two opposing instincts. The first is “calm down, people.” Djokovic was playing an opponent who can match him from the ground. But this foe stands to return in a different arrondissement from the baseline. He hits a flat ball. The indoor surface is playing slow. This is a perfect storm of circumstances, all but begging Djokovic to follow his nerve inward. It’s situational, and let’s not turn Djokovic into the second coming of Roscoe Tanner quite yet.

The flip side: THIS is precisely why Djokovic has won 20 majors and is on pace to retire as the Greatest Ever. Djokovic loses the first set on Sunday. That’s four sets in a row against the guy ranked one place beneath him. This could be a real tennis hinge-point. What does he do? He changes strategy and heads to a part of the court where he’s not always at his best. He commits. And he pulls it off. What a statement this makes about his—inhale—self-belief, problem-solving skills, conviction, self-sufficiency, tennis cortex, mental prowess, persistence, versatility. But also, what a statement about his skills. It’s one thing to conceive of this strategy and then stick with it. It’s something else to execute. Djokovic was brilliant. He knocked off first volleys. He knocked off second volleys. He used angles. He anticipated. He placed overheads. It was a winning piece of strategy; in part because he backed it up with effective placement and shotmaking.

This will go down as a win on Djokovic’s ledger. But you suspect it was worth so much more than that. In his first tournament after the bitter disappointment of New York, he didn’t just win the title. And he didn’t just beat the same guy, exacting a measure of revenge. He did it in come-from-behind fashion, leaning on a tactical aspect seldom deployed. That, friends, is a champion.

Barbora Krejčíková has to be the WTA Player of the Year, yes? Or at least top 2?

• Well….I usually go with the No. 1 player, out of a sort of fidelity to the rankings. Barring something indefensible, the No. 1 player is the MVP. And Ash Barty gets my vote. For one, she gets a special COVID-10 discount, a recognition that her travel and logistical challenges were (note hopeful use of past tense) extraordinary. She won Wimbledon, she won Cincy, she won Miami, she won Stuttgart, she played well on all surfaces, she played some doubles.

Krejčíková is my No. 2, though. Yes, she won the French Open, two magical, career-altering weeks in Paris. She also won more than 75 additional matches, including doubles. Just an extraordinary season. Before she could be discussed as a one-hit-wonder, she doused that with relentless winning. She’s currently ranked third in singles AND doubles, which says plenty.

Sidebar: long as we’re here, I was doing an interview last week and someone said, “It was yet another year that saw different women win the four majors.” This is a familiar refrain, often used to make the point that the WTA is a crapshoot, mired in parity. Factually this is true. But it’s a little misleading. Osaka at one point won four majors in the span of 30 months. We also have players like Halep, Barty and Muguruza who have won multiple majors at different events.

I know it may have only been because Monfils withdrew, but I LOVED seeing Tennis Channel airing the Herbert/Mahut vs. Behar/Escobar doubles match in Paris. It seems like doubles is so rarely aired and given the spotlight but there are so many knowledgeable commentators and interested fans, I'm sad doubles doesn't get more airtime. Please communicate to the powers that be that we want more doubles!
Willie T., East Lansing, Mich.

• I think a lot of us intuit this: fans want more doubles. Recreational players play doubles and relate. The matches go faster and tend to be tighter. There’s a lot to recommend. I’d just like to see some data confirming/refuting that this is actually the fans’ preference. Right now doubles is like print newspaper. We all say we are fans. But how many subscribers are there?

What are your thoughts about the Billie Jean King Cup coverage of the Tennis Channel? I realize your conflict but have always appreciated your fair thoughts. I’m not sure if the WTA didn’t do enough or if it was a timing conflict issue (related to COVID-19) but only having the matches on TC plus was frustrating.

I’m half Swiss so certainly not impartial but was disappointed/disgusted at the “machinations” of the Russians. Is it an overreaction by me and my fellow compatriots? Günthardt, who has seen a LOT and usually is pretty fair, was absolutely incensed. Thank you for your excellent tennis coverage and other endeavors,

• Thanks, David. Yeah, a lot of this is contractual. (The coverage, that is; not my ability to comment freely.) Tennis Channel pays both tours a significant rights fee for events including the Masters Series tournaments. When I saw the BJK Cup—not a WTA event—relocated and then moved to a time zone similar to Paris (site of the concurrent TMS event), I sensed coverage could be complicated. I don’t think it would be any different if roles were reversed. That is, if a men’s team event were held opposite say, the WTA Charleston stop. I attribute this to scheduling and rights and tennis’s calendar—the sport’s great Rubik’s Cube/Sphinxian riddle—and not rank sexism or coverage bias.

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As for your other question…first, to fill in any blanks: a few minutes before match time, Russia substituted Ludmilla Samsonova for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to play the decisive match against Belinda Bencic. This did not go over well with the Swiss team.

I have conflicting thoughts. My initial reaction was that, worst-case scenario, this was a misdemeanor, not a felony. Should a late lineup switcheroo—ironically, replacing a player ranked in the top 12 with a player barely in the top 50—even dubiously, really trigger this level of outrage? Yes, Bencic, the Swiss opponent, had a better record against Pavs than she did against Samsonova. Yes, this must have been an annoyance, preparing to play one opponent, only to get another. But anyone who’s played in a team competition knows that this a possibility. Bencic called it “ugly” and was very outspoken, and I sympathized to a point …..but then the point ended and I thought: You’re the reigning gold medalist. You’re a veteran. Just rise above it and beat the player you’re facing. Plus, Russia’s alibi went like this: Pavlyuchenkova was injured and was too compromised to play. We’re treading into some really sketchy terrain when we start questioning the legitimacy of athlete injuries.

And yet….reputations matter. Captain Heinz Günthardt is known as an honest broker, a measured and honorable guy. If he expressed doubts about Russia’s sporting ethics, well, that carries considerable weight. What’s more, note that the team in question was called RFT “Russian Tennis Federation” and not “Russia.” Why? It’s silly semantics and more symbolic than materially punitive; but this was in response to the systemic Russian doping that has put the country in the crosshairs of the IOC and various federations. If I am representing a country that can’t even be properly identified because of its past ethical breaches….perhaps I am being extra sensitive to potential ethical shortcuts or potential allegations of cheating.

I hope you are well. Starting with the past, I know you are more “on the inside” than any of us, what kind of sentiment did players have about playing in China? There are plenty of events there. Were any of the tournaments player favorites? Was there ever any political sentiments shared? Going into the future, what kind of responses may arise from the players might you speculate with seemingly more and more activist efforts being done? You have shared through your social media several of these events or efforts against the Chinese government (Enes Kanter and Peng Shuai). Could you hypothesize that tennis players might follow with activist efforts? Would they have reason to?
Anthony, Brookline, Mass.

• For those who missed it, here’s Peng Shuai. This takes immense courage and—especially since we are dealing an allegation against a CCP official—one would hope that tennis and the WTA are lending the full force of their support. Is there an Enes Kanter among tennis players? Perhaps not. But it would be nice if more activism and outrage came from current players, not past ones.

I have a lot of thoughts on China and the intersection with sports, most of which I’ll reserve for another time. There’s a huge economic opportunity; there’s a huge opportunity to use sports to liberalize and open a society. There’s also a fear that sports—like many industries—looks past human rights abuses and troubling surveillance and censorship and the absence of a free press…because the prospects of a market with 1.4 billion potential consumers is too good to pass up.

Specific to tennis, Li Na is one of the sport’s great heroines, a real source of pride. You’re likely sick of me trotting out this factoid but here we go: more people watched her win the French Open than watched the last Super Bowl. Tennis was able to capitalize on her popularity in many ways, not least the exposure she gave the sport in China. Though there are currently no Chinese players in the top 50, China hosts more events than any other country. At the pre-COVID WTA Finals in Shenzhen, Ash Barty won $4,420,000, more money than any other tennis player—male or female—has ever won at a single event. At some level this is global finance—Apple; Facebook; Nike; Blackstone; not Google which is banned—in miniature. You feel icky about everything from the human rights violations to Uyghur genocide. But not enough that you decline the commerce.

Curious on the similarities between Djokovic, Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers: they are all exceptional athletes….. are there other similarities? Asking for a friend.
Deepak, New York

• I was trying to think of a witty riposte here. This is what social media does to us. (They are all anti-Hamiltons and threw away their shots!) But I’m left with disappointment over Djokovic. Here’s a smart guy who positions himself as a pluralist, as someone with empathy and instincts to lift the collective. Now he’s bracketed with Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers? This will be part of his legacy and you wonder if he realizes the long-term reputation stain that comes with his stance. Djokovic does so, so much that is impossible not to admire. And he does a few things that are impossible to defend.

Shots, Miscellany

Paul Fein published an instructional tennis guide.

• Congrats to Peter Lattman, tennis man named to the board of directors of The Committee to Protect Journalists.

• “The ATP has this month become a signatory of UN Sports for Climate Action (UNSCA), setting ambitious sustainability targets for men’s professional tennis. The announcement comes in parallel with the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, and the rollout of a comprehensive new strategy developed under ATP Serves to accelerate and align sustainability efforts across the Tour.

The UNSCA, a major international framework that counts over 250 rights holders and governing bodies as signatories, aligns the sports industry in working towards the <2°C warming target set in the Paris Agreement. As a signatory, the ATP has adopted the framework’s two global targets: achieving a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, by 2030, and Net Zero emissions, by 2040. ATP will be responsible for tracking and reporting key sustainability data over the period and will take part in regular working group sessions with other members.”

“Wheelchair tennis legend Nick Taylor announced his retirement from the sport at the UNIQLO Wheelchair Masters Doubles event in Orlando, Fla. at the USTA National Campus. Taylor, a former world No. 1 in both quad singles and doubles, whose career has spanned three decades, played his last tournament fittingly with long-time doubles partner David Wagner. The two will go down as the greatest Team USA wheelchair doubles team, winning three consecutive Paralympic gold medals (2004, 2008 and 2012) as well as a silver (2016) over four Paralympic Games.”

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