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The ATP’s Failure to Discipline Alexander Zverev is a Disgrace

In this week’s mailbag, we also look at the floundering Davis Cup and ask why Nadal hasn’t gotten a solo Sports Illustrated cover.

So, let’s start out by acknowledging that there’s a war going on right now. One that impacts us all. And echoes throughout tennis. A player who was in the Australian Open field to start the year, is now on the front lines. (Listen to Sergiy Stakhovsky in a few days on the SI Weekly Podcast.) Ukrainian players are competing—and competing well— despite enormous pressure and concerns. Russian players are in the brutal position of choosing between disparaging their own country or defending the indefensible. And though we're heading into tennis’s March Madness, Indian Wells followed by Miami, hitting a ball over a net seems like an extravagance. So, even, does expressing outrage over a sham discipline. But here we are.

Take a look at this Ukrainian tennis player….Then onto the Q&A.


So if ATP ran NATO, would they tell Putin “OK one MORE murderous invasion and THEN you’re in trouble mister”?!

• Here we were, prepared to have a calm, measured discussion about pickleball—friend or threat? Then comes news of Zverev’s “punishment.” Which is no punishment at all. Five thoughts, incorporating your questions, i.e. justified outrage.

1) Biren’s analogy is, of course, over the top. But the other misplaced analogy: “If this were the NFL or NBA or Premier League, he would be docked for months.” True as that may be, the ATP is not a league that employs players. It is a 50/50 partnership between players and events. The players don’t want to sanction one of their own. The tournaments—at a time when Federer is hurt, Djokovic is missing-in-unvaccination, Serena is out, Barty is out, Thiem is out, Nadal is likely to miss Miami etc—are reluctant to dilute still further by suspending the ATP's No. 3 player.

2) The players’ loyalty, I get. But I can’t fathom why the tournaments are coddling Zverev. It’s the same message we had for Craig Tiley in Australia. Believe in your product. Show some confidence that the event trumps all. (Hint: it does.) It is unnecessary to capitulate to stars, and caving will always blow up in your face. People go to Indian Wells and Miami and the Majors because they are awesome. Splendid events. Men and women. Grounds passes. One ticket that can be amortized over hours. No one is or is not buying a ticket—or tuning in to watch—based on whether Sasha Zverev is in the draw.

3) Allegations are not facts. That Zverev is already under investigation for alleged violence might not have direct relevance to the Acapulco sanction. But what a glimpse into…something…an indifference to norms? Cluelessness about the strain under which he’s already put his tour? A swollen sense of entitlement?

4) The ATP’s lack of will/courage to suspend a player for an act so outrageous? It sets a hell of a precedent. Every bad act south of this—which is to say, every bad act I’ve ever seen on a court—no longer merits punishment. Surely you’re not sanctioning me for tanking, when Zverev takes full whack at the chair of an umpire—with said umpire inches away—and nothing happens?

5) Ash V. suggested that the umpires could—and perhaps even should—collectively refuse to work Zverev’s matches. Maybe. But it really it shouldn’t fall on them to force action. The ATP should have the conviction to act here. It's not even a close call. The disrespect shown to officials is already out of control. This takes it to another level. A suspended sentence—"Brian, Daddy’s getting really mad. Now, I’m going to count to three”—takes it to another level still.

Weak stuff from the ATP. Not sure how else to put it.

Jon, is it time to update our “Best Player Never to Have Won a Slam” discussion?

• I’m not sure where we left off. There’s obviously a lot going in the troubled nation-state of Zverevistan (as opposed to Wawrinkastan. Sorry.) Still, for all the friction, I think he has to top the list. He’s the highest ranked non-Slam winner on the men's side. Barely 18 months ago, he came within a (service) game of winning. Time is on his side. He may not be our finest citizen, but if we were coming up with morally-blind odds, how is he not the BPNTHWAS? Tsitsipas next, then Rublev, then Felix?

As for the women…based solely on rankings, you would have to say Sabalenka. But….her record in the majors is subpar. Neither her game nor her temperament lends itself to winning seven straight matches. 

Other candidates? Karolina Pliskova is a former No.1 who has been in two major finals. But she turns 30 later this month. Anett Kontaveit is up to No.5. Good for her. The tennis ogre will note that her best major showing is a quarterfinal. Once. I confess that there’s some halo effect here, but I still would put Madison Keys in this conversation. It’s too early for Coco Gauff. What about Emma Raducanu? Oh, wait, never mind.

How do we feel this new-fangled Davis Cup format is going? Anything implemented in 2019 will be hard to judge but overall I find it slightly more confusing and hard to follow. There's so many groups, and the finals will get most of the best matches - France, Spain, and USA romping against understaffed foes is the only chance for local ties in the biggest markets, and the worldwide appeal of Slovenia vs Chile and Lithuania vs Pakistan doesn't quite bring it the way regional groups used to. I'll still follow it, because it's tennis and great matches and players will deliver - but by this point, it sadly feels like all that money could have been much better spent elsewhere.
—Willie T., East Lansing, MI

• I really fear for the Davis Cup, which continues to slink further into irrelevance. The first year of the new format was an experiment—some pros, some cons. Then came Covid, which killed any momentum it had. This past weekend’s ties were lost amid war coverage. If the whole shebang moves to the Gulf States, it might infuse the event with some needed capital. But I fear that could also be a death blow to the event.

There’s a larger discussion here, but the jig/gig is up on sportswashing. Thanks to Putin, thanks to Xi, thanks to Saudi Arabia holding races and golf tournaments while leaders advocate using bone saws on journalists….fans are much more aware that authoritarian regimes can (and do) use sports to launder their image.

Hola, Jon, big fan. I always enjoy your knowledge and objectivity (it's difficult to notice that your favorite of the Big 3 is Roger). Btw, I learn a lot of English thanks to your weekly mailbag!!

Wikipedia says that, by 2009, tennis had been on the cover of the Sports Illustrated 78 times, most notably, after "the Greatest Match Ever." So, after Rafa won the US back in 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2019, I dreamed about seeing him in the cover... but that never happened. Then, with SI going just once a month, we got the Winter Olympics and Coach K in the front pages of the Feb and Mar issues. The thing is, in the meantime, Down Under don Rafael Nadal Parera got the most unlikely slam of all, making him the first male tennis player to reach no. 21. Yet, once again, Rafa doesn't make the final cut, which means that the GOAT Michael Jordan has got over 50 covers but the contender for GOAT Rafa Nadal got just half of one. When will your magazine feature Nadal for a full cover of his own?
—Thanks, Manuel Cordero, Badajoz, Spain

Nadal? Doesn’t he have to make a name for himself and win something big first? But seriously, here’s the dirty secret about tennis and Sports Illustrated: the calendar is terrible. The Australian Open wraps the week before the Super Bowl issue. The French usually coincides with the NBA Finals. The U.S. Open final usually falls on the first Sunday of the NFL. Wimbledon is better which is why most of the covers—Sampras, Federer, “Greatest Match,” Sharapova, Serena etc. have come that week. But be assured, I lobby for tennis every chance I get.

One tangential point: I wonder how many sports fans globally grasp the dominance of the NFL. It is king. There are no “big four” sports. There is the NFL and the rest. I just heard a presentation about this: In 2021 the most Internet traffic centered around Covid. Biden and the aftermath of the 2020 election was third. Second? The NFL. We can—and do—argue about priorities and the role of media; about how bigger isn’t always better; about setting the agenda and not being a slave to data. But when a story on the Kansas City Chiefs long snapper generates more attention than a feature on Mike Trout or a hockey star (or a tennis champion), that is going to be a consideration.

Jon, I notice you haven’t mentioned Kyrgios lately. Care to update us on your thoughts? Or should we just move?
—Charles, LA

• Funny, I just came across this bit of advice the late Shane Warne gave Kyrgios. Strange times for Kyrgios, which, at once, sounds like a movie title, the name of a debut album and a redundant tennis statement. But consider this: he is coming off perhaps THE great achievement of his career, winning of course, the Australian Open doubles title. (Partnered with his pal and fellow Aussie, no less.) And at the same time, his singles game is really in the Toto. As I write this, he is down No. 132, which is easily 100 full spots below his normal place. He turns 27 next month and, even assuming he goes to the all-you-can-eat wild card buffet, he will face seeds early in draws.

Does Kyrgios have the right to control his career? Absolutely. (Sidebar discussion: supportive as we are of players’ rights and the need for a PTPA-type organization, what happens to players like Kyrgios in a conventional employee-employer relationship? When you are an independent contractor and can decide not to play because the Celtics are on, or your girlfriend is coming, or you just don’t feel it…it stands to reason that you should give up something in return.) Do we admire Kyrgios for his candor about his mental health challenges? We do.

Even in the vise grip of middle age, I’m conscious not to sound like an old man. But I can’t get over the squandered talent here. And the regrets Kyrgios will have later in life:

“Dad, did you ever beat Federer?”


“No way! Nadal?”


“Whoa! Djokovic?”


“Kuh-razy! How many Majors did you win in singles?”


“Okay, how many Masters Series things?”


“What about, how many weeks in the top 10?”


“Really? Sounds like you were good.”

“Oh, I had mad talent.”

“How come you didn’t win more?”

“Didn’t wanna try that hard.”

Okay, I’ll bite: why is this thing at Indian Wells called the Eisenhower Cup? The internet isn’t telling me anything. If I recall, Ike was more into golf, and Milton was more into…well…probably not tennis. Can you help?
—P. R.

• Bless the Internet:

And note that Eisenhower Medical in the Coachella Valley, is a major player at the BNP Open.


Congrats to Dr. Renee Richards, who will be inducted into the Jewish Sports Heritage Association on May 1, 2022

Reader—and Hall of Fame comedian—Franklyn Ajaye passes on this non-tennis link:

The 2022 Miami Open presented by Itaú will bring collegiate tennis to Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, April 1, when it hosts the University of Miami women's team dual match versus Ivy League standout Columbia. The 14th-ranked Hurricanes and the Lions will take to the courts at 5 pm. The matches will take place on Grandstand and Courts 2-6. "As a former college player, I am excited we are able to bring collegiate tennis matches to the Miami Open," said tournament director James Blake. "Our goal is to make this an annual event here in Miami."

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