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Was the 2022 Australian Open a Disaster or a Triumph?

In our latest mailbag, we look at Rafael Nadal's legacy, examine how the Novak Djokovic saga will proceed from here and ask why Danielle Collins doesn't have a clothing sponsor.

A catchall Mailbag after the 2022 Australian Open, and spinning forward.

The dreaded ICYMI: Here’s the 50 thoughts column. ... Congratulations, Greg Harvey, on this cool tennis infographic. ... Note the excellent counterintuitive reader rant to take us out …

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Hi, Jon, as a longtime Federerite (Federerphile?), I am sending an outstanding ovation to Rafa, who might win GS 22 soon. I had my doubts about his chances in Australia. I went to bed at the start of the 4th set. I thought: "Last time I did that, I woke up with the news that Roger did beat Rafa in five sets." Well, may Rafa have gotten some inspiration from Roger's victory.

Anyway, after reading your column for about a couple of decades, I believe it is the first time I have gone beyond reading your line related to the juniors and Colette Lewis' coverage. I actually wanted to see the finals, but the big channels didn't carry them. Based on what you know about the media context related to Grand Slam tournaments, what are the chances of tennis fans having a peek at the future generation of tennis players? In the meantime, in the spirit of thinking globally by acting locally, should I demand for my sports package to include Tennis Channel? 
—Regards, L. Pereira (British Columbia, Canada)

• Let’s start with Rafa. I don’t think we dwelled on this enough. Ten years ago, he was in a position to beat Djokovic in what—in retrospect—was a match of gigantic historic significance. He faltered. Djokovic prevailed. Five years ago, on the same court, Nadal is up a break in the fifth set against Federer. What happens? He faltered. And loses another match of huge historic significance. Sunday night, same court, he’s serving for the title at 5–4 in the fifth. The historic significance barely merits mention. What happens? He goes up 30–0 and then, candidly, chokes, playing loosely including a double fault.

What happens? He breaks back and then —cliché—slays the demons with a serve-out at love? That, friends, is a distillation of his career.

As for your other point, as we move to streaming and networks see the value of all the matches (including wheelchairs) it should be easier to see junior matches. Then again: tennis.

I'm not saying there should be an asterisk but for historical significance it should be noted that the best player in the world and three-time defending champion was not allowed to compete. If a 25 year-old Medvedev can't beat a 35 year-old Nadal up 2 sets to love, tennis is beyond ridiculous. I get the drama aspect and ultimate reality show but come on….
—James, PDX

• No asterisk. End of story. Plus, Djokovic lost to Medvedev in straight sets in the U.S. Open final. In the next major final, Nadal wins against the same opponent. Case closed. (That Djokovic wasn’t playing by choice, because of his disregard for science and public health regulations, remains a wild plot twist, even by tennis standards.)

I hate to say it, but I had similar thoughts on your other point, uncharitable as this will sound. Medvedev wins, say, six majors. Is he still susceptible to the undercut of: “Yeah, but look what happened against the Big Three. Remember, even when he was a decade younger and spotted two sets, he couldn’t put Nadal away.”

What the heck is up with the championship speeches at the Aussie Open? I am old enough to remember that interminable 2012 filibuster while Djokovic and Nadal were too exhausted to stand. This year's was almost as bad. Do those self-indulgent speakers really think that, after such a titanic and historic battle, anybody in the world will remember one syllable of their blather? I have to think that even the commercial sponsors were bristling.
—James Stuchell, Savannah, GA

• Kia Man! Kia Man! Kia Man!
There is a lot going on here. The “blather” and name-dropping at these ceremonies—happy brand association!—is part of the sponsorship deal. That’s why we have the deputy regional district vice president of hand sanitizer at Chase at the U.S. Open. (Replete with some gauche reference to money. “Sonny, you competed with honor and came up a little short, but here’s one point: eight million reasons to smile!”) And this year in Melbourne, the awkwardness was compounded by the glaring absence of Craig Tiley, who was sure to be booed if he spoke. Only Wimbledon gets this right. Damn it, when does Wimbledon just run the entire sport?

Jon, here's a question for you: Why doesn't Danielle Collins have a clothing deal? I'm assuming that she doesn't because every item in her kit appears to be from a different maker. She is now the #1 American female ... and no clothing deal? Thoughts on that? P.S. Loving the Tennis Channel Live at 5pm each day.
—Lilas Pratt

• Yes, can someone get this top-10 player a clothing contract? Come AWWWWWWNNNNNN! LETTTTTTTS GOOOOO! RIGHT HEEEEEEERE.

The endorsement game, of course, is the futures market. You want to sign Maria Sharapova or Coco Gauff as a teenager; not invest in a 28-year-old. But, yes, Collins deserves not to buy her clothes off the rack. And if I were a brand looking for a no-bulls---, outspoken, supremely confident woman who competes valiantly (and if she curses or pumps her fists, so friggin' what?) I’d sign D.C. tomorrow.

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Just say it Jon: Craig Tiley has to go. Doesn’t he?
—Jeff, B-town

• I’m not a Tiley apologist. This mess stinks. Anyone who knows the measures the Australian Open goes to accommodate players has a sense of how this went down. At a bare minimum, it was a terrible misread of the room/landscape/country/world. And for a guy usually quick to communicate, his various interviews haven’t helped matters.

But I’m not so sure he has to go. I’m reflexively opposed to demanding people lose their livelihood simply because the mob asks for it. And in this case, there is a significant body of offsetting evidence. The guy has done so much well, it would be a shame to run him off over one unforced error.

(Here’s one knock on Tiley that I’m surprised didn’t get more attention: Remember the Australian Open 2021, when the top-drawing stars quarantined in a luxe Adelaide resort, while the rank-and-file were consigned to eating bologna sandwiches in locked-down hotel rooms? That was a huge tell. This event already had a track record for going to extreme and dubious lengths to ensure the participation of stars. And—then and there—he and Tennis Australia forfeited the right to state that all players are treated equally.)

Hey Jon - for Paris, can we get a camera throughout the match on Stefanos’ dad ? We need a dad-cam.
—Deepak, New York

• Or we need Dad to stop cheating. I don’t get it. You see the way players who compete with honor are treated. You see the way the public—and your peers—respond to the perception that you bend/break rules. Your last major, you star in a controversy about the duration of your bathroom break. Week in, week out, your dad is cited for illegal coaching. At some point, don’t you say: “Pops, I cannot exaggerate the depth of my appreciation for you. But I can’t be known as a bad sport. It’s damaging my reputation and cutting against my popularity. All the quotes I post about self-improvement and honorable living, they ring a little tinny when I am known as a rulebreaker, someone who requires an official to go undercover to mete out justice and ensure fair play. Put a bouzouki in it, or stay home.”

[NB: I heard from a number of you about my harsh treatment of Stefanos Tsitsipas last week. It was probably an exaggeration to claim he has “plateaued,” especially given the elbow injury. Yes, he’s young. Yes, he lacks the baggage of Alexander Zverev. We all like Tsitsipas. We all admire the different drum he beats. But the persistent cheating is not a good look. Darren Cahill got it right here.]

In 2016, Federer gets injured and takes 6 months off only to return in 2017 and win the Australian Open. In 2021, Nadal gets injured and takes 6 months off only to return in 2022 and win the Australian Open. What do you think?
—Rohit Sudarshan, Washington D.C.

• Note that Djokovic hasn’t played since November …

It was great seeing Evonne Goolagong present the trophies—it made everyone so happy. Do you think she would’ve presented if Ash had lost? Or would they have left her backstage? Or am I overthinking it?This also reminds me, is there still a Margaret Court Arena? Or did they un-name that?
—Cheers, P.

• Amen. And yes, I do think that was a calculated risk, but Evonne would have presented the trophy either way. Regrettably there is still a court named for Margaret Court, who has never walked back her remarks likening the LGBTQ community to Hitler. It just dropped so far down the “Australian Open unforced error” list, that it scarcely merited mention in 2022.

This is utter—baseless—speculation. But watch Barty here. Is it possible that she feared the trophy was being presented by Margaret Court and was relieved and delighted and irradiated with joy when she learned it was, in fact, Evonne?

Hello Jon, I hope you are well. I was very sad to hear Medvedev’s comments regarding not getting fan support. Sad in that he is such a talent, but I feel he’s misunderstanding the culture of sports fandom. Did he really think he was going to get much support against a legend with 20 slams, especially when he mocks their cheers/boos with applause and thumbs up? Did Nadal think he was going to get much support when he played/lost to Lleyton Hewitt in ‘04/‘05? In my opinion there seems to be a disconnect with a lack of understanding that sometimes you gotta earn the respect and love of the fans, and it might take some time. Or just understand that some matches, due to the opponent or the location (home tourney for the opponent), you’re just not gonna get the support you want. I really like Daniil, I just think he needs a different mindset on certain things. Any thoughts?
—Respectfully, Anthony, Brookline, MA

• This goes with a theme we often hit there: hot states versus cold states. In the hot, aroused state of competition, athletes can go a little off the rails. They accuse chair umpires of being corrupt (when said chair umpire has a regrettable history with the opponent, no less). They slap balls and throw rackets and yell at their supporters and act wholly out of character. In the matches, they get a little more latitude.

Medvedev is among those who can—technical term we use in the heartland—“lose his mess” during competition. The crowd was pro-Nadal. It was not cool when Medvedev was booed as he took the court. It’s no fun hitting winners to silence and committing errors to applause. But like you, I was muttering: “Read the room. Dude a decade older than you, with a tragic history on this court, going for an all-time record, an underdog in this match is on the other side of the net. Who do you think the crowd is pulling for?” Forgive him, though, for the on-court outburst and even mouthing “boring” during the ceremony.

That Medvedev continued this grievance in the postmatch interview? Long after the hot state of competition? That was bizarre. Your childhood dream is thwarted because a few drunken Aussie fans, who were cooped up for months during COVID-19, cheered your double fault? Huh?

Look, Medvedev is great. He’s been in four major finals in the last 30 months. He’s wickedly funny. He’s fun to watch. He’s multilingual. He’s pushing for No. 1 with room to improve. But this prolonged rant about the crowds was wacky.

Hi Jon, am I the only one who predicted Nick Kyrgios would walk away from the Australian Open with his first major title? But seriously, what do you think about the prospect of Kyrgios refocusing his career to prioritize doubles? For a guy whose commitment to the sport has been doubted, his joy on court with partner Thanasi Kokkinakis was palpable. And it’s a team with fan appeal that would draw big crowds well beyond Australia.
—Teddy C., NYC

• This would be the ideal scenario: Kyrgios plays doubles. He wouldn’t be a “specialist” per se, but he becomes a committed doubles player week in, week out. Showman that he is, he tries all the trick shots he pleases. Talented as he is, he can let it all rip and rely on his gifts, without worrying about tactics or conserving energy. Bloke that he is, the team format has always fit him better. Emotionally needy as he is, he can rely on a teammate to support him—and share blame for defeats. He covers only half the court and plays best-of-three, so his shaky conditioning—which, stubbornly, prevents him from being a serious singles threat—is masked. Doubles gets him a boost. Everyone wins … which means it’s unlikely ever to happen.

Jon, have you seen this?
—Keegan

• Yeah. Sadly, this has become polarized to the point that some will see this as more damning evidence supporting their positions; and others will see this as more damning evidence of a witch hunt and a trial by media, etc.

Here’s my not-unrelated question about Djokovic: We live, of course, in a world of algorithms. (Aside: If you haven’t seen Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special filmed at the Comedy Cellar, do so immediately.) We live in a world of deep polarization. Yet, the polling on this Djokovic issue suggests that the vast majority of people are offended by his vaccination status, his attempts to finagle an exemption, his stubborn fight after it was clear he was not welcome in Australia. We’re not talking about Federer and Nadal fanboys and -girls. Or tennis Twitter instigators. We’re talking about mainstream commentariat. Here’s The New York Times. Here’s The Times (London), hardly known for radical cant. Here are the ladies on The View. Here’s a Saturday Night Live spoof. When I did mainstream interviews (i.e., not for sports), after Djokovic’s name was mispronounced, I was essentially asked, “Tell me about this anti-science knucklehead, and what is he thinking?” A nontennis agent sent me a morals clause from an athlete endorsement contract, convinced that Djokovic’s sponsors could (and should) seek cancellation. It’s bad. And, again, it’s not tennis Twitter or fans invested in the GOAT debate.

Yet … when Rod Laver noted, innocuously, that no player is bigger than the sport, he receives the most vitriolic comments imaginable. Andy Roddick’s sensible analysis was fodder for trolls and bots who saw this as a dig at Djokovic. When Nadal won the title, a chunk of the comments referenced an “asterisk” and the “Nazi Australian government” fixing results. When Djokovic returned home—still unvaccinated and still unmasked—he got a welcome befitting a conquering hero. This is now amplified by the anti-vax crowd that may care nothing of tennis but has seized on Djokovic as a righteous truth-teller.

That as the backdrop, my question: Does Djokovic have any grasp of how poorly this is playing? Or is he so insulated from reality, so surrounded by toadies, so cut off from common opinion, so siloed on social media, so buffered by the messianic pronouncement of his parents … that he is oblivious? If it’s the former, maybe he capitulates, gets the vaccination and gets back to winning majors. If the latter, he keeps doubling down, convinced that his adherence to his convictions is more important than titles.

The shirt with the koala holding a tennis racquet is a Nike product. Nadal was wearing one earlier in the tournament in one of his pressers.
—Lilas Pratt

• Still say it was a rip-off of the Tennis Channel crew shirts circa 2015!

Bill Trub, take us out!

Dear Mr. Wertheim,

(Disclosure, as you like to say: I was a former journalism student of Jack McCallum at Moravian College. He wouldn’t recall me, but he was a very fine teacher.)

Now that Rafa is the Major leader for the first time, he’s getting a lot of well-deserved positive attention. (It was just 4-5 years ago that the Chrises-- Mcendry, Evert, Fowler--and the ESPN crew were straight-up calling Federer the “GOAT" on-air. And then for the last two years, it was all about Novak surging and overtaking the more beloved R&R.)

But for the longest time when Rafa trailed Fed in the tally and Novak became the quickly accelerating force, the big knock on Rafa was “too many majors on clay” in tandem with “not an equal spread across surfaces.” I read all tennis media and have never seen this refuted or challenged very well. Please consider my rebuttal of the too many majors on clay argument that I’ve never heard anyone make.

When Sampras and Davenport won every major except the French, every year Roland Garros rolled around, all the US tennis media outlets lamented how it was the hardest major to win because the points were longer, more grueling, more physical which required more mental energy, etc. The French universally was the hardest major to win. Chrissie was hailed for her accomplishments there, as were Henin and Guga. I heard this every year from Carillo to the McEnroes to Drysdale (Pre-Tennis Channel days, your employer). If you win the FRENCH, you are AWESOME. Yes, Wimbledon has the prestige, but shorter points, soft grass on the joints, etc. = “easier."

The fact that Nadal has won the physically and mentally (tennis journalists’ words, not mine) hardest major 13 times — yes, everyone gives him immense credit for that accomplishment. But then they undercut it by calling him the greatest clay courter of all time; this is a back-handed compliment to him now, I posit. We must remember the days when Pete and Lindsay couldn’t win it and apply that same logic in reverse to Rafa. The fact that he has won the HARDEST major, according to US media for a decade, more than any other man or woman has won any major only amplifies his GOAT status. The “clay is a niche, specialist surface” is a non-starter fallacy. All courts must be treated as equal in tennis. And, I’ll throw a little controversy in here, I think the argument that his majors aren’t spread equally across all surfaces was, frankly, an invention to keep Federer atop the GOAT hill despite his losing record H2H with Rafa. You once wrote, I paraphrase, before your TC days, “How can you be the greatest of all time when you’re not even the greatest of your generation?” Re: Rafa and Roger’s H2H.

So I conclude by saying that Rafa deserves even MORE praise than he is currently getting. He’s won the double career slam now, giving him 6 hardcourt Majors, plus hardcourt Olympic golds, and two Wimbledons. 13 clay majors and 8 non-clay majors. Enough with the uneven distribution, I beg!

Thanks for entertaining a reader rant.

Best,

Bill

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