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It's Officially Carlos Alcaraz Season

In our latest mailbag, we look at the Spaniard's jarring rise and ask why there aren't very many good tennis movies.

Let's get right into it...

Mailbag

Quote from Nadal on Alcaraz: “When you're young, when you are very good, the process is faster than the normal people. So he is not a normal guy, like Novak was not a normal guy, like Roger was not a normal guy, probably like I was not a normal guy.” Now, I am sure you as are tired of current comparisons of Alcaraz with the Big 3 as I am, but when it comes from a one of them, I take notice. Bitcoin for your thoughts.
—Dan M, Atlanta

• This was Alcaraz Week in tennis. All the hype was justified, no superlative was overdone, even the cynics caved and…we were left with the feeling that we were not just witnessing a special week, but a major plot point in tennis. The week he turned 19 (19!) Alcaraz defeated Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in three sets. Then—in not only the most impressive showing, but one that added heft to his previous two wins—he absolutely destroyed Alexander Zverev in the final. Somewhere, you picture Nadal and Djokovic texting each other, “Shoot, we both got an entire set off that kid. We did good!”

I saw a headline about “Alcaraz summoning magic in Caja Magica,” the Magic Box, Madrid’s venue. Beyond the cheeseball factor, it struck me that this was the opposite of magic. There’s nothing whimsical or mysterious and ethereal about Alcaraz. His success feels well-earned. He has a game free of weakness and filled with variety, not least the drop-shot-as-weapon. He plays fearlessly. He is 19 and are both well-conditioned and lacking wear-and-tear. (Enabling him to play 11 hours of competitive tennis in a week—six of them against Nadal and Djokovic.) His is a professional operation, free of drama. It is entirely rational he wins matches.

Old man talk: in 2005—17 years ago this week—I was dispatched to go to Rome and write about this Spanish kid, about to turn 19. He was winning everything in sight. Even other players whispered “he’s different from other phenoms.” He had good people around him. He projected modesty but played with absolutely fearlessness. Here’s the story. (h/t editor for the headline)….Could he take the next step and win a major? Rafael Nadal could indeed. And 20 more. Let’s see where Alcaraz goes from here. But it feels like we’re just getting to cruising altitude.

• On Twitter I mentioned the USTA’s financials and noted the amount of debt the organization is carrying and asked how this might impact the cash flow for the non-profit aims. A number of you weighed in, some more apocalyptically than others. A tennis fan/CPA— requesting anonymity; approaching this neutrally as a financial statement—weighed in as follows:

In my opinion, the financial statements as a whole show a better picture than the debt note on its own – which is pretty alarming in isolation!

Obviously, 2020 was financially devastating to the USTA with no ticket sales for the US Open, but 2021 was financially positive as they posted profits, increased their cash reserves and exceeded their bank covenant requirements.

Looking at the immediate cash needs in 2022: the credit facility they received in 2020 to mitigate cash flow issues during the pandemic is due in full in July 2022, along with the other scheduled debt payments. The principal payment of $106M combined with the estimated interest of $29M will wipe out approx 60% of their cash holdings in this current fiscal year, which would need to be addressed and could create pressure to raise revenue and ticket sales, but I don’t know if they have to because it’s a one-off and those reserves can be built back up.

In the medium term—the debt position appears manageable. The principal repayments from 2023 - 2026 are relatively low compared to 2022, so I estimate annual principal and interest payments will be $50 - $60M per annum. Suppose the 2021 operating profit remains consistent for future years. In that case, the USTA should have sufficient funds to cover its debt needs [What I mean by this is: the 2021 EBITDA (Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) is $95M]. There’s no other big debt balloon payment until 2033, when the full $150M of Note Series D is due.

My overall assessment: The USTA can manage this current level of debt with their current level of operations. I would worry if they started taking on new infrastructure projects and additional financing for those projects. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if prices increased this year with the high levels of inflation we are seeing this year combined with high debt repayment in 2022.

Are you able to shed any light on how orders of play are constructed at these mixed 1000 events? Do TV sponsors basically say: We’ll give you x amount of money but we decide who plays when for the purposes of our viewership? What if the TV sponsor is not from the same country as the tournament?And most importantly, how can the WTA stand up for its players at these tournaments?
—Damian, NYC

• Ask Alexander Zverev and he’ll tell you it wasn’t just the women who were mistreated by the schedulers. Usually, we’re pretty lenient with the scheduling and assignments. There are all sorts of variables and “stakeholders” (to use one of my least favorite words) and TV demands and lobbying from agents. Inevitably, someone will be chapped.

But Madrid really does stand alone for its awfulness. And you thought this might improve once Ion Tiriac—he of this lawsuit—left the scene. In Madrid, the women start earlier and then get mistreated.

Saturday’s women’s final was sandwiched between the semis. In and of itself, this is offensive—imagine playing a Masters 1000 final and the call time is “when the men get done.” But when the preceding match is Djokovic/Alcaraz, you can imagine what happens. The energized crowd needs a drink and a smoke and a meal. They leave. And the stadium is empty and devoid of energy for the women.

Then, a final indignity, the winner has to hold up this trophy.

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Did you watch the 40-Love movie on Netflix? Awful movie. It does not seem they had any tennis consultants on set. Strokes were very poor, many empty seats. Royal Tenebaums, Wimbledon, Nobody’s Perfect, Balls Out: Gary The Tennis Coach, King Richard are much better movies. Do you have any recommendations for tennis movies?
—Sunny S., Philadelphia

• I supposed King Richard is the new, well, king. Even if it is more a biopic than a sports movie. (Aside: what a pity it is that the film has been tainted by Will Smith’s grotesquery. Venus and Serena deserved better.) There are some awful tennis films. There are a few fine films in which tennis makes an appearance. But given a) the theatricality of the sport; b) the symbolism—boundaries and nets and even terms like “love” and “break” and “hold”; c) the considerable Hollywood/tennis overlap…what a pity it is there hasn’t been a Hoosiers or Rocky or even Caddyshack.

Sometimes when I read your Mailbag, I forget that tennis players are just like all of us. We quit jobs when we are bored. Go to different careers to be more fulfilled. So why wouldn't tennis players do the same? My first thought goes to Ash Barty, who quit once before, came back and figured out the winning formula. Now she wants the next challenge.

So on to Stefanie Graf, love her so much. But the GOAT/Monica conversation bores me. The question we should ask is: would she have retired earlier without Monica? She had the winning chess game down, then a queen showed up that ruined her plans. Then Stefanie had a new challenge. I think Agassi, Sampras, Borg and even McEnroe wanted new challenges to test themselves. As all us non-professional-tennis-players do all the time.

I will not be surprised if, going forward, younger players retire early. Because they are human just like us.
—Kent A.

• Interesting counterfactual. It’s obviously deeply personal and I never covered Graf, so don’t have much basis for speculation. A few general thoughts:

1) The increase in prize money really cuts both ways, no? On the one hand, you amass great wealth at an early age and can make a decision based on happiness/fulfillment and not finances. I remember Justine Henin, in her 20s, retiring and saying words to the effect of, “I’ve already made more money than I can spend in this lifetime.” The flip side: for others, the money is a factor in prolonging a career. A player with a decent endorsement portfolio says, “I can make seven-figures simply hitting a yellow ball as I travel the world, and if I win half my matches, we’re good? Why would I ever give that up before I have to?”

2) The heightened focus on mental health is a factor. Instead of “players today are soft and coddled” I ask, “How many players of previous generations struggled in silence? How much doused potential and how many career twists that seemed inexplicable in retrospect—not to name names but you mention Borg and McEnroe—would have played out differently were there not this mental health stigma?”

3) This decision athletes face—especially in individual sports—over when to retire is BRUTAL. Imagine being burned out on your job and seeking a new challenge, as Kent suggests. And then having this competing instinct, “I have literally a one-in-a-billion talent. I enter this new phase aware (vaguely at least) that whatever it is I choose to do next, I won’t be nearly as good at it. My earning power likely will never be the same. And I will receive a fraction of the attention.”

This fixation in the tennis world with players’ nationalities being so integral to their identities is one of my tennis pet peeves, especially when TV networks place the flags of the country in which they are citizens next to their names on score lines and draws. These are independent contractors on international tours. They are playing strictly for their self-interest, not their country’s interest. Many of them don’t live and train in the countries which they represent. Many, in fact, reside in the U.S., taking advantage of our first-class facilities and training centers. How many times over the last 15 years did we hear about Kevin Anderson, the “South African?” He went to college in Illinois, and he has primarily lived in South Florida his entire adult and professional life. Naomi Osaka lived in Japan for about 3 years of her life. Her tennis development was in the U.S. with American coaching and facilities. Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, and Djokovic live in Monte Carlo, I’m sure for tax purposes, but they are always called the “Russian,” “German,” “Greek,” and the “Serb” in the media. I can’t even count how many players from the WTA live and train in Florida full time… 

Which brings me to the point of why this is relevant now. The ban of players from Russia and Belarus from Wimbledon is a step too far. This isn’t a situation where there is a team representing a Russian sports league that generates revenue or merchandise for Russian businesses or their government. It’s not the Davis Cup or a national team event either. These are people, many of which, who don’t live or pay taxes there, rarely visit, and who don’t generate any income for the Russian government. Putin may claim it to be a national victory if one of these players performs well at Wimbledon or other events, but he makes claims and issues statements all the time that are meaningless and without factual merit. So why should anyone care what he thinks about a tennis tournament or a specific player? There are bigger and much more important issues to be worried about with regard to him and the Russian government. This decision only hurts the targeted players’s ranking, income, and careers.
—Dave H.

• I have nothing against Maria Sharapova and realize I took a few digs at her last week as well. But I always remember her before a Russia/U.S. Fed Cup tie against the U.S. saying words to the effect that she couldn’t wait to kick American butt. I remember thinking, “Oh, yeah, this country that granted you asylum, opened its doors to your family, provided you with abundant opportunities including free education, enabled to you make millions and travel freely, where you’ve lived more than half your life…yeah, I can see why you would be filled with resentment and motivation for victory.”

I don’t disagree with your overall point. We probably make too much of nationality.

My one hitch: in some cases, nationality is an essential element of an athlete’s story, their source of power, their inspiration. Ons Jabeur is the first Northern African champ of this caliber. Li Na is a Chinese hero. Djokovic and Tsitsipas are national heroes. Naomi Osaka does not light the Olympic flame because is she is Naomi Osaka of Boynton Beach. You get the point. In some cases tennis, and, more critically, the player, benefits from stressing country of origin.

I hadn’t really heard of Holger Rune until his recent run at the BMW Open in Munich, so I decided to read up. Unfortunately, one story that consistently popped up was about him uttering homophobic slurs at a tournament last year, with some (in my humble opinion) ridiculous apology/explanation after he was caught/called out. Sure, he’s a kid, but still…yuck. It still boggles my mind that we’ve yet to see an out gay player on the ATP, but this whole thing got me wondering to what extent homophobia exists within the ATP. Do you have any insight in that regard? I’m hoping it’s minimal or completely non-existent, but stories like the aforementioned one don’t make me too optimistic. I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this.
— LT, Toronto

I’ve talked to players about this. In some ways tennis is the ultimate global village, with so much diversity, and I would argue, a general sense of tolerance. Obviously there is a considerable cohort of gay players on the WTA Tour, so this is about the ATP and not all of tennis. At a bare minimum, it is a statistical outlier (problem?), that there have been no prominent, out, active players. There have been—and assuredly are—openly gay players who have been ranked in triple figures.

There have been players like Brian Vahaly who have come out after they’re retired. But there hasn't been a Jason Collins or a Carl Nassib.

There are, of course, innumerable reasons a gay player might not want to reveal their sexuality. Family. Social media. Real or perceived commercial pressures. But if, say, five of 100 colleagues scanned homophobic, that could militate against a gay player coming out as well.

A former top ten player—whom I trust wholeheartedly—says that the vast majority of the players would have “no problems whatsoever” and would be supportive. But he adds, “Remember that it’s a global tour.” I’ll fill in the blanks….some countries are less tolerant than others. And players from those less tolerant tours play professional tennis and inhabit locker rooms.

I once broached this with another top player. I said, of the hypothetical high-profile, out player, “He’d be a hero, not least in the gay community. For every homophobic slur, he’d have 1,000 fans.” The player responded with words to the effect of, “Yes, but it would be a distraction. Why don’t top players like engaging in ATP politics? Why do they often put off marriage and fatherhood? Because they are devoted to their careers and don’t want to deal with anything not in service of that. If you’re trying to make it as a top player, and being “the first gay player” makes you a celebrity and gives you this added pressure, if it takes away from your tennis, is it worth it?”

Hey Jon, let your readers know that Graf had a great topspin backhand, but like Ash Barty who also has a great topspin backhand, preferred to use her slice backhand predominantly in the rallies. And a truly great slice it was too that was harder, stayed lower, and had more bite than Barty's. In fact, Graf won her first Wimbledon with a fantastic topspin backhand passing shot past a charging Navratilova on match point.
—Denny

Right you are…Go to 1:24:00. And if Graf relied on the slice more as her career progressed, so be it. It was effective—the numbers speak for themselves. And it’s easy to argue that it was not a standalone shot, but rather a means to setting up the forehand.

Shots

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