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Mailbag: Thoughts on the Upcoming 'King Richard' Film

Plus the WTA's handling of the ongoing Peng Shuai case, a future outlook for rising star Carlos Alcaraz and more.

While wondering why how we, as a tennis community, didn’t make a bigger deal of this wild story… (H/T Helen)

Tons of questions about China and the disturbing case of Peng Shuai this week. I wrote a quick column on Monday on the considerable crisis, which marks a real moment of truth and reckoning for the WTA. We’ll start there for this week’s Mailbag.

Mailbag

Very interesting development in the Peng Shuai case. Say what you want about tennis’s leadership, but at least they put democracy and freedom ahead of financial gain. Quite the opposite of how the NBA handled supporting a people’s liberties (Hong Kong protests), WTA leadership were the ones to deliver the ultimatum to China.
Respectfully, Anthony, Brookline, Mass.

• Steve Simon has essentially said to China, your serve. But history suggests no return in coming. The same week China gave its leader a mandate to serve for life, one is skeptical that the West’s calls for a transparent #metoo investigation of a former party leader will be heeded. This is an autocratic country that, just last week, did away with term limits for its leaders. Tennis’ demands for a “full, fair and transparent” investigation of one its recent party bigwigs seems awfully, well, ambitious.

A refrain I keep hearing: “I wouldn’t want to be Steve Simon.” I would say the opposite. Without dismissing the tricky and weighty situation, what an unbelievable opportunity. Again, here’s a chance for the WTA to differentiate itself from so many other businesses in the West, including the NBA. Here’s a nimble, global business positioned to pivot to new markets. (Hell, this week, the seventh-largest city in Mexico is staging the WTA Finals, on eight weeks’ notice—and crushing it.) Here’s a way tell your players, your sponsors and the marketplace, “We protect our athletes; we protect our principles; and don’t tolerate the intolerable.”

Any thoughts on this Richard Williams movie? I obviously haven’t seen it but after seeing a few previews, it makes me wonder why the movie must focus on glorifying the dad? Let’s face it: Venus and Serena are the more important members of that trio. (And maybe Oracene is important too? I don’t know.) I mean, would you make a movie about the Beatles by centering it around Brian Epstein? (And yes, I was always THAT guy who thought Helen Keller was the miracle worker, not Annie Sullivan.) Anyway, would love it if you reviewed the film.
P.

• Casper Ruud, Paula Badosa, Carlos Alcaraz, Ons Jabeur…add King Richard to the lit of pleasant tennis surprises for the year. Tennis’ cinematic treatment has, historically, been rough. Richard Williams is a complicated figure.** Historical sports films in general seem to have fallen out of vogue. And yet…here comes this utterly charming film, exceeding expectation (certainly mine), well-produced, well-acted, a tight script, Will Smith at his Will Smith-iest. See it if you haven’t; and note that it is coming to HBO this month.

I do agree with your larger point. Especially in tennis, the athletes should come in for the overwhelming share of the credit. They’re the ones out there, exposed, bearing the risk and pressure, executing (or not). Bless the tennis coaches and parents (most of them, anyway) but let’s not lose sight of who’s doing the work. A Williams sisters movie about Richard is like an Elon Musk movie about his early VC backing. The offset here: King Richard bears the blessings of the Williams family. Isha Price is an executive producer, and while that is a fungible title, in this case, I understand she was hands-on and spent days on set. Venus and Serena, also EPs, obviously approve as well. If it works for them, it should work us.

**Pre-pandemic, during the making of the film, it became clear that this was not going to be a warts-and-all look at Richard, a complicated figure; and that gave me pause. I also had some reservations that Oracene—who always leavened Richard’s deflective outrageousness with an endearing there’s-more-to-life-than-hitting-a-yellow-ball calm—would get short shrift.

Two years later, I was thrilled a) that the film got made and b) that it was this credible. Now—maybe they need to finish their careers for some detachment—we can turn our attention to the Venus and Serena film. The backstory depicted in King Richard is remarkable. But so is everything that happened after they turned pro. Meanwhile, congrats to all involved in this.

SI Recommends

Hi Jon, I wrote the following last week, before most of the NG Finals, but I’d still like to ask it, even though he won so convincingly: Could you share some thoughts about Carlos Alcaraz? We watched him play at Indian Wells and were impressed with his quickness, deft hands and power. We love his attacking game. We see that he’s listed as 6’1” but he appears a lot smaller than other players who are listed at about the same height or a smidge taller (Brandan Nakashima, Pablo Carreno Busta and Holger Rune, to name a few). The sport seems to be moving in the direction of taller players. We think it will be interesting to see how he fares over time against them, but we can’t help thinking of other superb tennis players who didn’t have the weapons to win big tournaments, like David Ferrer or David Goffin. What do you think?
David and Sherrie, California

• As Ozzy Osbourne once put it, “All aboard.” The Alcaraz train has left the station and seats are filling quickly. He’s already broken through, having beaten a top five player at a major. He’s already won titles—on multiple surfaces. He’s already positioned to be seeded come Australia. And he doesn’t turn 19 until May.

I wouldn’t worry too much about height either. Someone mentioned that in the Turin team photo, Djokovic, at 6’2”, was the smallest of the octet. But, even if Alcaraz is done growing—no guarantee—at 6’1”, he’s a solid height—same as Nadal and Federer. (It’s not like Schwartzman, who, at 5’7”, will go multiple rounds without hitting an ace.) He also doesn’t “play small.” One cherry-picked example, but against 6’5” Korda, Alcaraz won more points on serve and had the same number of aces. Go big here. Go long here.

Hi Jon. Any injury status updates on Wawrinka and del Potro?
Eric Bukzin, Manorville, N.Y.

• God news on both counts. Here’s an update courtesy of the ATP Buenos Aires bureau: “He’s in Argentina continuing with the recovery of the knee but already training on court, and gradually increasing the intensity. I think he will try to return to the Tour in 2022; in fact there is a good chance that he will play on the Latin clay swing.” And from Camp Stanislas we get this dispatch: “He’s getting better day by day. He’s in Paris rehabilitating and it’s going well. He plans to be hitting in a few weeks and is going to competing very soon. So all good.”

If you had to bet money today, would you place it on Novak winning 2022 Wimbledon or Rafa winning 2022 French Open? Is it fair to say that your answer to that question would have been different eight months ago?
Kasib

• I think Nadal—the inevitable caveat: at full health—wins Roland Garros, the week he turns 36. I think Djokovic—again, assuming some approximation of full health—wins Wimbledon. This comes up all the time, but the great differentiator is best-of-five. It’s not simply that “more draws” means more regressing to the mean. It’s that the top players—flush with experience in these situations; swollen with self-belief; free of the pressure of knowing this could be a career-turning match—are at a huge advantage. They knew when the press. They know when to relax. They know how to ration energy. We see it again and again. The U.S. Open final notwithstanding.

Shots, Miscellany

• “The USTA Foundation, the charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association Incorporated (USTA), today announced a series of community activations to celebrate Warner Bros. Pictures’ “King Richard.” The powerful drama stars Will Smith as Richard Williams and follows the journey of him and his wife, Oracene (played by Aunjanue Ellis), as they guide Venus and Serena Williams on their path to changing the sport of tennis and the world forever. The activations will provide under-resourced youth from National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapters in 27 cities across the country with the opportunity to have a first look at the movie. Additionally, NJTL youth from XS Tennis in Chicago will participate in a tennis clinic and community event with actors from the movie. “King Richard” is slated for U.S. release on November 19, 2021, in theaters and on HBO Max via the Ad-Free plan; it will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.

• The Credit One Charleston Open, the largest women’s-only tennis tournament in North America, announced Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic and Leylah Fernandez will compete as part of its player field in 2022 as the tournament celebrates its 50th year, April 2 - 10, on Daniel Island in Charleston, South Carolina. Badosa captured her biggest career WTA title win in October at the BNP Paribas Open, Bencic earned an Olympic Gold Medal in singles and Olympic Silver Medal in doubles at this year’s Summer Olympics and Fernandez made a historic run in September at the US Open to compete in the first all-teen final since 1999.

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